Friday, November 28, 2014

Sydney Airport - Kingsford-Smith, Mascot and Ascot racecourse

Well we call it Sydney Airport but really it's just one of many in the Sydney region. It's not the largest either but it is the "international" one, of course. And the one we first think of, unless you think of Bankstown or Richmond or Camden or whatever first.

It isn't - or wasn't - this Sydney international airport for example...


That one was at Rose Bay on Sydney Harbour. 

No, we are looking a a land-based "airfield". Like Rose Bay it's historically important - not because it was Sydney's first aviation location or even "landing ground" but because it's relatively old and significant on several different levels. It has layers of history, with indigenous use, environmental importance, recreational use and major engineering works to commend it to our attention. We've even moved a river just to accommodate it.



In short, Sydney "Kingsford-Smith" Airport at Mascot is one of the oldest continually operating airports in the world. In 1919, Nigel Love's Australian Aircraft and Engineering Company leased land from the Kensington Racing Club (adjacent to Ascot racecourse) and established an aerodrome. It was, basically, a swampy paddock. A flat, swampy paddock. With Cooks River to the west, some recreational grounds and Botany Bay to the south and Eastlakes swamp to the east.


As an aside, it was H. E. Broadsmith and Nigel Love who in 1919 established Australia's aircraft manufacturing industry, forming the Australian Aircraft and Engineering Company (AAEC) to  produce 6 AVRO 504K training biplanes for the R.A.A.F. and 7 for other customers. Broadsmith determined that Mountain Ash was the best local timber for manufacture to British Aeronautical specifications.

A canvas hangar was built and the first aircraft was assembled on site; the first flight taking place in November 1919 with the aforementioned Nigel Love in command. By the mid-1920s, regular air services between Sydney, Melbourne and Adelaide were underway and the Australian Federal Government had taken control of the airport. In the 1940s a passenger terminal was opened and the Cooks River diverted to allow for the construction of two new runways, including 07/25 as the "main" runway aligned east to west.


Both the suburb of "Lauriston Park" and the Ascot Racecourse, immediately to the east, were subsumed into the growing aerodrome. As shown in the map above, the main road south originally  split the racecourse and the aerodrome, with a tramline and a balloon loop to the north of the racecourse itself. As the airport grew the road south - and its bridge over the Cooks River - was diverted to the east. The Cooks River itself being diverted to the west.    

During WWII Sydney hosted No 4 EFTS at Mascot, part of the Elementary Flying Training Schools (EFTS) scheme, later to be re-dedicated to Communications.
 
In 1963 work commenced on the construction of the 34/16 runway extension southwards into Botany Bay, in preparation for larger, heavier international aircraft carrying greater fuel loads (and needing a longer runway). In 1965 work commenced on the construction of the "new" International Terminal, again in readiness for newer, larger aircraft (not that they actually expected the Boeing 747 to be quite that big.).



In 1989 a fairly close-spaced and slightly staggered parallel runway 34/16 was approved, being  completed in 1994 (making 3 operational runways).

After all of that investment the Australian Government then privatised - for better or for worse - Sydney Airport in 2002.

Not to be confused with Western Sydney Airport, not built but "planned". 

The full list of Sydney's airfields

Thursday, November 27, 2014

Lost but not forgotten: RAAF Rathmines on Lake Macquarie

RAAF Rathmines on Lake Macquarie, south and west of Newcastle and north of Sydney and the Central Coast. A WWII "air base" with a difference!
The traditional inhabitants of this land were known as the Awabakal people. Awaba is the Aboriginal name for the region and Ninkinbah was the Aboriginal name for Lake Macquarie. There are several sites within Rathmines Park that demonstrate Aboriginal use of the area.

Early European settlement around Rathmines took place in the 1840's with the name of Rathmines derived from the Hely family (extensive landholders on the Central Coast) that came from a town named Rathmines, located near Dublin in Ireland. The Hely family built a homestead and farmed a significant portion of the land that now makes up Rathmines Park.

However the story of Rathmines as an air base starts when the site on the shores of Lake Macquarie was identified as a possible place for a flying boat base in 1936, after the Director of Duties, RAAF HQ Victoria Barracks, Melbourne gave instructions to investigate and recommend a site for a flying boat base in the Newcastle region. A ground and water survey of the bay and inlet was undertaken, and while the Rathmines site was the second recommendation, it was considered as the most likely site, and was chosen.

During July 1938, No 5 Squadron from RAAF Base Richmond was sent to investigate landing areas and sites around the Lake Macquarie area for the establishment of the Rathmines Base and the eventual move of the squadron. On January 1 1939, the No 5 squadron was renamed No 9 (Fleet Cooperation) Squadron. Further surveys of the area were made in August 1939, and in September camp was set up, with arrangements made to rent local cottages as living quarters. The Base became operational when the No 9 Squadron transferred from RAAF Base Point Cook to the selected 31 hectare site. 9 Squadron was initially equipped with Supermarine Seagull flying boats.

PBY-5 Catalina flying boats were next to arrive in February 1941, and by September 1943 the base comprised 14 Catalinas, two Seagulls, a Dornier Do24 and a Douglas Dolphin.

Rathmines also housed Walrus, Martin Mariner, Kingfisher and Short Sunderland and Empire flying boats. With 230 buildings and other marine facilities there were 40 aircraft and almost 3,000 RAAF personnel at the base c.1944-45. As well as being a repair, servicing and new aircraft conversion centre, it was also a base for air crew training.  A total of 168 Catalinas were flown with the RAAF, the Catalina flying boats being the only aircraft to see continuous service with the RAAF during wartime operations against Japan. Nevertheless, and somewhat sadly, in January 1952 the Catalina was declared surplus to requirements and the aircraft taken out of service.

Post-WWII Rathmines continued as a ground training base with an Officers' Training School and training facilities for senior NCOs, PT instructors and national servicemen. The operational focus shifted to "search and recovery" operations. An airstrip was also roughly built on the promontory for the sole use of the C.O.'s Auster aircaft. Seaplane operations were progressively disbanded during the 1950s.

Circa 1962 the site was sold to Lake Macquarie Council, following which many smaller buildings were purchased and removed from the base or re-purposed by the Council as, for example, local community halls. Of 230 buildings just 10 remained intact in 1998. A large seaplane/flying boat servicing hangar was also disassembled and shipped to RAAF Base Richmond to house the RAAF's initial fleet of  Lockheed C-130 Hercules aircraft.

The Rathmines base has since been heritage listed by the NSW State Government.

See also:
See also the Woy Woy/Ettalong airstrip and nearby Tuggerah airstrip (where Catalinas were reputed to do "touch and goes").

And Rose Bay Flying Boat base - Sydney's forgotten International Airport

Want even more? Here is an updated list of Sydney's airports.  

Lost airfields of the Central Coast - Woy Woy (AKA Ettalong)

Woy Woy Aerodrome was constructed in 1942 as a 'dispersal' airstrip for the Fleet Air Arm of the Royal Navy. The airfield was built as a satellite of Schofields.


The airstrip ran north to south next to what is now Trafalgar Avenue, Woy Woy. It was constructed from compacted red gravel. The red gravel may still be seen (if you look hard enough) along the edge of the road surface in some places. As Trafalgar Avenue has a slight bend at the northern end it's unclear to me exactly what the alignment was, however it was of a substantial length roughly parallel with current day Trafalgar Ave. 

The hangars and service area were located in what is now Alma Avenue. Some hangars or support may still be in existence, perhaps much modified, used as warehouses or other industrial buildings.
I have looked at these building but without looking inside and out the back it's hard to be certain of their vintage.

The airfield was last used in 1946 and officially closed by 1950; the land subsequently developed for residences. A last-ditch stand was made to preserve both this strip and Tuggerah to the north as emergency landing fields between Sydney and Brisbane but as the reliability of commercial aircraft improved the need for such airfields declined. An anti-aircraft battery protected the airfield, located in Blackwall Mountain Reserve to the north and east of the strip.

From time to time artifacts, including aero engines and drop tanks have been found discarded and buried alongside the strip. More details may be found on Steve's All things Woy blog and a reworded version with slight differences here and a crash landing in 1950.

Another post by me on this strip.

Want even more? Here is an updated list of Sydney's airports.   

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

The Oaks aerodrome, a WWII satellite nestled against the mountains

The Oaks 'dispersal' airstrip, another WWII runway, as per Menangle and several others.
The image above shows what I presume to be the WWII runway alignments, as shown on a recent Google Map. The green alignment is "certain" based on what is visible and recorded elsewhere, however the shorter yellow alignment is probably only a recent development post-WWII. 

The Oaks airfield was constructed circa 1942 as a satellite aerodrome to RAAF Camden. There was a 5000 foot x 150 foot sealed runway aligned 36/18 and split by Burragorang Road (complete with gates to stop stray cars!). Operations probably included Hudsons, B24 Liberator bombers and Kittyhawks.

Not required post-war by the RAAF, it was offered for sale in 1946. The current strip is a private field, roughly the southern half of the wartime area. The original runway was removed but a 950m 18/36 main grass strip (perhaps a wartime taxiway) was left and a new grass strip of just 400m added (aligned 09/27).

One description states that the graded and grassed strip was 5000x 400ft and confirms the "centrally located" sealed runway measured 5000x 150ft.

There were 8 fighter hideouts, similar to the hides at Hoxton Park.
  • 2 were 'concealment only' hideouts with hardstanding and natural tree coverage
  • 1 other hide included additional disruptive colouring
  • 1 included partly excavated hardstandings
  • 2 were partly palisaded and partly excavated with sealed harstandings
  • 2 more were palisaded with sealed hardstandings
  • plus 1 included most of that plus netting and garnished camouflage.
The taxiways were all 30ft wide, 2 of which were gravelled, 2 wire meshed. There were also 5 hardstanding gravelled areas and 3 hardstanding gravelled areas with wire mesh.

Wikipedia has a detailed and fairly well kept description of history and current operations. Worth noting that Badgery's Creek has been selected to be Sydney's 2nd "major" airport site, if you discount Bankstown, rather than the Wilton option.   

Hoxton Park aerodrome - WWII dispersal strip with aircraft "hides"

Gone but not forgotten.

Hoxton Park airstrip, Cowpastures Road, 1098m long, oriented 16/34. Closed, redeveloped.

A WWII 'dispersal strip' runway (in case of Japanese attack) Hoxton closed circa 2008. It did retain features from the war, including gravelled aircraft hide-outs and wartime drainage, taxiways and markings. At the northern end of the runway could be seen 2 earlier forms of surface, one bitumen and the other gravel, and wartime drainage works were found under the runway. There was also a wartime taxiway leading off to the north-west, beyond what was the airport perimeter and evidence of aircraft 'hideouts' in the neighbouring eucalyptus forest.

There were 2 surviving taxiway bridges across gullies or drainage lines prior to redevelopment. There was further evidence of taxiways and hideouts to the east of the current runway. The original airstrip was 5000ft (1524m) long and 172ft (52m) wide. The runway had been shortened since World War II and the former runway extension is noticeable at the northern end of the runway. The aircraft revetments or hideaways to the west of the aerodrome may have been removed or destroyed during the construction of the M7 motorway and building of a large suupermarket distribution centre. Progress?

As a personal note I used to practise "touch and goes" at Hoxton, circa 1974 to 1977. I never actually progressed to a full licence - I got distracted by cars and cameras and ran out of cash! - but it was an excellent site for flying training, close to Bankstown airport but not too close, plenty of emergency landing options and quiet. I also parachuted from Hoxton in or around 1979.

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Whalan Reserve (Mt Druitt) - another of Sydney's WWII airstrips - and post-war race tracks

Whalan Reserve, a recreation area beside and east of Ropes Creek and close to the main western railway line, has an interesting story to tell. It's within the Blacktown City Council local government area, in close proximity to Mt Druitt (close to the east) and Penrith (further west). Of course it has a long indigenous history with some archaeological evidence found of camping by Darug people in several locations in the area, but sadly - to my knowledge - there has been little investigation into that aspect of the landuse. It also housed an airstrip during WWII, after which time it was recycled to become Mt Druitt's once famous - but sadly almost forgotten - motor sport track with meetings regularly organised by the still extant Australian Racing Drivers Club.

The site itself was used by the RAAF during World War II as a "dispersal field", one of many in the Sydney area. It was also used for training, repair and salvage units. The first RAAF guard dog unit also used the site during this period. During this time it was known as "Mt Druitt" rather than the later locality name of Whalan.

I wasn't able to find a 1943 aerial image in the NSW SIX database but there was a 1961 image available via Blacktown City Council. I have marked the runway/"strip straight" alignment plus the future Debrincat Ave (which severs the runway at the northern end) and the race track extension to the south:
The airstrip was positioned roughly (ie very approximately!) where I have placed the red bar (based on every image I could find - fair use claimed for historical research by the way - from Blacktown City Council, Google Maps, Wikipedia and various Robinson's street directories):  
 
I am currently unsure what other features may be "leftovers" from the RAAF use. Other dispersal fields included hangars, admin buildings and aircraft "hides" but whilst presumed to have existed, at least to some degree and in some form, size and location are not specifically mentioned at Whalan/Mt Druitt in any documentation I have found.

Like the other satellite or dispersal strips around Sydney the land was gradually re-purposed post-war. Between 1948 and 1958 the old (roughly north-south) airstrip was incorporated into what became the main straight of the Mount Druitt race track. Initially it was a 1.5 mile (2.4km or possibly 2.9km by one source) out-and-back or "hot dog" style with tight 180 degree turn-arounds at each end but the full course, using a privately-owned paddock, was measured variously at 2.4miles (3.8km) or perhaps 3.6 kilometres long; it was situated on what is believed to be Whalan Reserve, possibly Tregear Reserve, part of the current Mount Druitt Industrial area and Madang Avenue Primary School. (Whilst the airstrip itself certainly extended into what is now Tregear Reserve I am uncertain that the race track used the full length of the airstrip.) The longer course was in use by 1952.

The track was in any event closed in 1958 when a trench was cut roughly east-west by an excavator as a result of heated land ownership and management disputes, rendering the full length circuit unusable for racing. That trench is apparently still visible as a drainage ditch in parts.

Now - and this could be a scaling issue - the maps I have seen so far offer up a question or 2: did the Mt Druitt race track use the full length of the airstrip, or just the southern section? Or did the track get shortened to the north before the digger went through to the south? The 1961 aerial shows the runway quite clearly and appears to show the race track looping back before the end of the strip (to my eyes, anyway). OTOH there was no need to allow for Debrincat Ave as it clearly didn't exist before the track ceased operation in 1958. Hopefully someone can fill me in on the answers here!

So take your pick. Here's option (a) with the race track using the full length of the airstrip (ie crossing what is now Debrincat Ave into what became Tregear Reserve):
The map and aerial photograph above has been sourced from Blacktown City Council. Not only does it show a longer circuit using the full length of the airstrip to the north (crossing Debrincat Ave) and the later extension into the private (and higher) land to the east, it also shows the full length of the "hot dog" circuit, including a larger turning loop at the far southern end of the airstrip that extends well beyond both the width and length of the strip. This may be the definitive version, until someone who actually knows can confirm or deny.

Option (b) is a race track cut short at the northern end, no longer crossing into Tregear Reserve. Maybe this actually happened? The shorter "full" track is shown on a number of images to be found on the Internet and it's unclear which is the original source. Perhaps there were 2 versions of the "full" circuit, or perhaps it's that scaling issue I mentioned! 

I did attempt to reconcile the scale by matching landmarks but am not convinced either way. In this image I have superimposed the shorter "full" circuit on the airfield site. Again credit to Blacktown City Council, Google Maps and Wikipedia for information and images that helped locate the track.


Here's an image I have compiled from several Internet sources into one complete image showing all known (to me) corner names and other labels:
Belfred Jones was by one account the first lessee, and by another account the man who dug a trench across the track to end the use of the full circuit; in any case, hence "Belf's Bend", I presume!

This map becomes your option (c), if you like! It shows a shorter "full circuit" in the thickest black line with a dotted alternative route to the east (that shows in all versions of course) and thinner lines suggesting an extension to the north (though perhaps not long enough to cross current day Debrincat Ave?) and south plus a smaller loop added again to the south, all within bounds of the airstrip width. Confused? You should be...

Interestingly there's also bitumen "bike track" at the southern end of the site that was (according to Blacktown City Council records) "originally utilised as a small race circuit". It looks substantial, if dilapidated now, apparently with banked corners! So, was it for pushbikes or motor bikes? The oldest sections are wider than strictly "necessary" for push bike racing (ie criteriums) and several people have mistakenly assumed that the cycle track is remnant motor race track; however there is considerable doubt over that. Whilst some sections do indeed seem to coincide others are clearly "new" and unrelated to previous use. The narrowest sections of this cycling track do appear to follow the course of the previous motor race track but lie on top of previous use and in parts are offset to one side. In any case I have found no evidence (yet) of racing on that "new" circuit. It has been used for recreational cycling and is cut at 2 points by a newer shared pedestrian/cyclepath. Had it been used by pushbikes then it would have made a rather nice criterium track indeed... curious that it seemingly was not used or maintained.

Bicycle track location (blue text) with runway/strip straight (red text):

Lastly, wheeled racing continues on the site with a BMX track (official or not!) to the north-east and an "on road" RC model car racing group coincidentally and slightly ironically using one of the tennis courts (on the runway/strip straight alignment) as a purpose-built race circuit.

Selected sources:

Further related reading on this site:

Maroubra's Olympia Speedway - now housing (and a park)

I've raced both cars and bicycles and part of the interest - if not the actual thrill - is, for me at least,  the race tracks or circuits themselves. Maybe it's the design, or the history, or the cultural associations; I don't know. Maybe humans just have an affinity with tracks. Perhaps it's all of that. I even like old horse/pony tracks yet I've never been to "the races".

Anyway, I'm not that into oval speedway racing but I do like the famous old race tracks. And Sydney's Maroubra "Olympia" Speedway is a fine example of a banked concrete bowl or oval, modelled as it were along the lines of an overgrown bicycle velodrome. Which is pretty much exactly what it is, or was.

Here's a map I found several times in several places, presumably all scanned out of a Wilson's street directory (or similar) circa 1928... BTW it's not shown in my 1926 Wilson's and is just a blank space in later Robinson's directories, but there you go... and here it is:
If you race pushbikes at Heffron Park (as I used to do) you'll know the area - it's just a hop, skip and a wheelie across Anzac Parade. And in the 1920s that equated to a long way out of town. When competition reopened at the much more convenient Sydney Showground patronage at Maroubra fell sharply. Coupled with the free viewing offered from local sandhills and a possibly undeserved reputation as a "killer" track (although it was indeed the scene of several deaths) revenues failed to match costs.. and thus it closed.

If you look at today's maps you'll see housing with a park in the middle. No sandhills! It's been that way for as long as I can recall. Actually there is a remnant sandhill in Heffron Park, less than a kilometre to the west, if you want to check it out. Heffron itself was a military base, then migrant housing before re-dedication as a park with public pool, cycling (criterium) circuit and other sports fields. It's likely that the original indigenous people camped there as well with some evidence of fire and middens in the area, although sadly much of that evidence has been lost.    

Further related reading on this site: