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Taking flight


On 27 March 1939, the first Wirraway took flight in Fishermans Bend.

Australian War Memorial – not the first Wirraway but conveys the sense of the place

Wirraway was the name given to the most westerly precinct of Fishermans Bend when Matthew Guy rezoned 240 hectares to Capital City Zone in 2012. The Employment Precinct was added later.

Wirraway – on the Port Melbourne side of the Westgate Freeway

A brief history of the Wirraway

In 1934, BHP’s Essington Lewis came back from a tour of steelworks overseas convinced that a second war was imminent. He was troubled by Australia’s lack of aircraft manufacturing capability and the vulnerability that represented.

The following year BHP formed a syndicate with Broken Hill Associated Smelters to build aircraft. It was subsequently joined by General Motors-Holden, I.C.I and other partners to form the Commonwealth Aircraft Corporation Рto become widely known as CAC.  Contrary to what the name suggests, CAC was made up of entirely of private business interests.

Lawrence Wackett, air force officer, aircraft designer, and aeronautical engineer, was asked to lead a small team on a three month overseas technical tour in 1936 to determine which aircraft was most suitable for Australia’s purpose. The criteria set were were carefully chosen to suit an infant industry but also to be adaptable as the industry evolved. Their trip included visits to Germany and Italy as well as to Britain and America.

On his return, Wackett recommended an American plane with an American engine: the NAA 16 with a Pratt & Whitney Wasp engine. The American plane was more suited to Australian conditions and to flying longer distances. His preference for an American, rather than a British aircraft, was extremely controversial. Even the British Prime Minister weighed in.

Wackett was taken on to deliver the ambitious project. 31 hectares of land at Fishermans Bend was purchased from the government. Engineers fresh from working on the GMH headquarters just up the road in Salmon St were taken on to construct the buildings and workshops.

The first 40 planes were ordered by the Commonwealth Government on 7 January 1937 and the first plane flew from Fishermans Bend on 27 March 1939 – two years and nine months after work began.

copyright unknown via DB Design Bureau

The choice of the name Wirraway is attributed to the Woi Wurrung language group of the Wurundjeri Nation, meaning ‘to challenge’. The new aircraft was officially announced to the public by the Air Board on April 7th 1938.1

By the time war was declared on 3 September 1939, seven Wirraways had been delivered to the RAAF.

By the end of the war, 755 Wirraways had been manufactured and the foundation of Australia’s aircraft manufacturing capability had been laid. A second aircraft factory, the Government Aircraft Factory, was built next door.

It can be confusing to know where these places were in relation to each other, and I have found this map helpful. It also shows the other airfields in Port Melbourne and Fishermans Bend – noting that Port Melbourne’s boundary extended to the outer bank of the course of the River until the restructuring of local government in 1994.

The Wirraway was not manufactured in the Wirraway precinct

Fishermans Bend unfolding

In September 2016, the Victorian Government made the strategic purchase of the former General Motors Holden site with the intention of it becoming a leading design, engineering and technology precinct. The University of Melbourne bought part of the site in March 2018 to expand its engineering campus.

This is a continuation, rather than a departure, from Fishermans Bend’s history of innovation and engineering. As the Fishermans Bend website puts it – ‘a precinct that draws on the past while signposting the future’.

Sources and further information

1This post has drawn extensively but in drastic summary from Derek Buckmaster’s DB Design Bureau which is an encyclopedia of the Wirraway. This incredible website includes technical drawings, production history, repair manuals and pilot flying instructions.

Ian Fleming The Sir Ross and Sir Keith Smith Memorial Lecture to the Royal Aeronautical Society, Adelaide 31 October 1985, reprinted in Aviation Heritage June 2018

The earliest Wirraway still surviving (the eighth production aircraft) is held in the collection of the Australian National Aviation Museum in Moorabbin.

Watch this 46 second Australian War Memorial film of a Wirraway taking a test flight over Fishermans Bend.

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