But in terms of the story of aviation in Sydney, well Richmond has a lot to tell us. The first aviation activity here happened way back in 1912, or would have barring an accident (see William Ewart Hart, the flying dentist!). In fact it finally kicked off in 1914 with Maurice Guillaux and has been going ever since, right here in this north eastern/western portion of what was once a very much larger Ham Common.
Richmond the town is due west, Clarendon is on the railway line and Windsor is to the east. RAAF Richmond is effectively the most north-westerly slice of what was Ham Common.
These days RAAF Richmond looks like this (via Google Maps):
William Hart was Australia's Aviator number 1 and his exploits were many. He puchased land at Ham Common with intention to build a flying school (1912) but an accident at Richmond early that year grounded him. He flew also at several other Sydney locations, including Penrith (in 1911), Moore Park and Centennial Park. It was Ernest "Maurice" Guillaux who took up the flying school idea at Richmond in 1914 and pressed on, successfully.
And whilst we are in the area, tiny - and unrelated - Benson's airfield to the north west looks like this:
Why select Richmond? Flat, open land, elevated and out of the flood zone with few major obstacles to aviation (although the mountains to the west are closer than ideal). Good flying weather as well with the exception of summer storms and winter fogs. Close also to a rail line. Later it became important militarily to be out of naval bombardment range as well.
Reference has also been made to "Clarendon airfield" - possibly the original civilian airfield name for Richmond. One record states that in 1915, the NSW Government set up the NSW Training School at Clarendon to provide pilots for the Australian Flying Corps. In 1916, the government reclaimed a huge tract of land at Ham Common for aviation purposes and named it Clarendon Airfield. A large hangar and repair shop were constructed on the site, and two experienced aviators became the first instructors: 'Billy' Stutt and Andrew Lang. the aerodrome was officially opened in 1916, although students arrived prior to this. Training at Clarendon proceeded until the conclusion of World War I, and in 1920 the site was offered to the Commonwealth of Australia. On 31st March, 1921 the RAAF was established and in 1923 the Clarendon airfield was purchased as the second RAAF base in Australia. In July 1925, Flight Lieutenant F. W. F. Lukis arrived as Commanding Officer with seven other officers and forty-nine airmen, forming No. 3 squadron.
During the 20's and 30's the Richmond Aerodrome was used as a supplementary civilian airport to Sydney's Mascot. Many famous aviators set down at Richmond during this period. Charles Kingsford-Smith (1897-1935) and Charles Ulm (1898-1934) along with their Fokker monoplane, were a familiar sight at Richmond as the hangar at Richmond could accommodate the unusually large wing span (24 m) of the Southern Cross. Amy Johnson (1903-1941) English aviator, was the first woman to fly solo from England to Australia, arriving at Richmond in her plane Jason in June 1930. Thus becoming the first woman aviator to land at Richmond. New Zealand-born Jean Batten, the first woman to fly from England to Australian and back, also stopped at Richmond in 1935-36. The following year Batten set a new record from Australia to England, departing from Richmond.
Civil operations continued until 1936. With the outbreak of WWII Richmond was upgraded to operational status and a series of dispersal airfields were built throughout the greater Sydney region.
These dispersal strips included:
- Badgerys Creek, AKA Kemps Creek or Fleurs
- Hoxton Park (west of Liverpool)
- Berkshire Park, AKA Marsden Park
- Pitt Town (Hawkesbury region)
- Schofields (later a Naval air base)
- Mt Druitt
- and perhaps Llandilo.
Nearby "Clydesdale" at Marsden Park (within Blacktown municipality) was requisitioned in 1942 for a RAAF convalescent home, and RAAF repair and salvage units were established near the Mt.
Druitt dispersal strip. Marsden Park was also a RAAF dispersal strip.
The RAAF’s Glenbrook communications base staff were accommodated in the town area of Penrith (site of the present municipal library and civic centre), while No. 5 WAAF training depot was also located there between 1944 and 1945. To provide air traffic control at the RAAF’s Richmond base, a high frequency transmitter was established at Londonderry in the 1940s, which was upgraded in the 1950s with the onset of the Korean War and fighter jet aircraft, simultaneously pushing the civil HF transmitters to a new site at Llandilo.
In 1944 the Royal Navy (RN) took over operations of the neighbouring Schofields airfield (to the south east) in preparation for the planned assault on Japan; Schofields thus became the support base for the
RN Fleet Air Arm; by April 1945 some 1,600 personnel were stationed at the base. Presumably associated with this was the establishment of an ordnance storage facility at Orchard Hills in 1945 for RN and Royal Australian Navy (RAN) (later No. 1 Central Ammunition Depot for RAAF and RAN and now Defence Establishment Orchard Hills).
Thornton Hall at Penrith was also requisitioned for Army uses. That site includes the oldest dedicated airfield land in Australia.
A brief note on Australian Aviation History.
What happened before Richmond? Quite a lot. Richmond was early (1914) but there was also Penrith (1910 and possibly earlier). And Parramatta Park. And Centennial Park. And several more, mostly parks or racecourses rather than dedicated aviation locations.
It's worth noting that the first Australian to make a 'heavier than air' flight was probably George A. Taylor who made a series of glider flights at Narrabeen on 5 December 1909. It depends on how you define such things. On the same day Taylor's wife Florence also flew to become the first woman to fly in Australia. However these were glider flights.
Taylor was a pupil of Lawrence Hargrave, who also was "airborne" in a sense way back in 1894 - but "uncontrolled" under a kite. Nit picking? It matters. Later in December 1909 Colin Defries made several attempts to become airborne under power at Victoria Park Racecourse, apparently using an imported Wright Model A biplane (and possibly a Blériot?) although how successful and "controlled" he was is debatable. Another claimant is Houdini, of course, in 1910. He was demonstrably more "in control" - but was he the first?
Sources for this article include:
- Guillaux, Bleriot and Australia's first air mail
- AHSA, NSW airmail and more
- A pic via ABC and another!
- Houdini and the Aerial League
- Western Sydney Libraries document.