Lawrence Wackett

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Sir Lawrence Wackett
Born 2 January 1896
Townsville, Queensland
Died 18 March 1982
Allegiance Australia Commonwealth of Australia
Service/branch Royal Australian Air Force
Australian Flying Corps
Rank Wing Commander
Commands held No. 7 Squadron

World War I

World War II
Awards Knight Commander of the Order of the British Empire
Distinguished Flying Cross
Air Force Cross
Mentioned in Despatches
Relations Air Vice Marshal Ellis Wackett (brother)

Sir Lawrence James Wackett KBE, DFC, AFC (2 January 1896 – 18 March 1982) is widely regarded as "father of the Australian aircraft industry". He has been described as "one of the towering figures in the history of Australian aviation covering, as he did, virtually all aspects of activities: pilot, designer of airframes and engines, entrepreneur and manager".[1] He was knighted for his services to aviation and was a winner of the Oswald Watt Gold Medal. He was also a keen angler and wrote two books on the subject.

Early years, war service and education[edit]

Wackett was born in Townsville, Queensland, on 2 January 1896.[2] He joined the Australian Army and graduated from the Royal Military College, Duntroon,[3] then with the rank of Lieutenant joined No. 1 Squadron of the Australian Flying Corps (AFC) which had formed at Point Cook the day before his 20th birthday. He was one of twelve pilots that went to Egypt with the Squadron to operate in support of the Sinai and Palestine Campaign, embarking on 16 March 1916 and arriving at Suez four weeks later.[4][5]

At Kantara, Egypt, circa. May 1917 (far right)

In Egypt he designed a mounting to attach a Lewis Gun to the upper wing of his BE2c; this seems a small thing but it represented a vast improvement to a type that was described by Hudson Fysh (who served with Wackett in 1 Sqn.) as the 'poorest of all offensive, or defensive aircraft'.[5] The BE2c was normally armed with a machine gun at the observer's position, but the observer sat in front of the pilot and behind the engine, and between the upper and lower wings. This meant that the machine gun could only be fired in fairly narrow arcs if the Observer was to avoid hitting his own aircraft. Wackett's modification meant that all he had to do was point the whole aircraft at his adversary (no mean feat, as it was so stable as to be almost unmanouvreable) and that he had a measure of protection when on a bombing mission (because the BE2c could carry bombs or an Observer, but not both).

Wackett used his modified BE2c to good effect on several occasions. He once gave the enemy pause when while on a reconnaissance mission he was attacked by two Rumpler C.Is. Wackett flew towards them firing the gun and the Rumplers broke off the fight.[6] On 11 November 1916 he was in his BE2c on a 7-hour bombing mission to Beersheba with four other BE2s and a Martinsyde G.100 when the formation came under attack by two much superior German aircraft. Wackett was able to use his aircraft to assist the Martinsyde in defending their comrades and fighting off the attack.[5]

Wackett later transferred to No. 3 Squadron AFC in France and played a significant role in the Battle of Hamel fought on 4 July 1918. Captured German documents revealed that they had been experimenting with dropping ammunition from aircraft and 3 Sqn. was asked to investigate doing the same. Wackett was asked to do the work as his reputation had spread; 'he had a gift for mechanical inventions' according to his superiors.[5] Now a Captain, he devised a small parachute that could be used to drop supplies to troops, designed a modified bomb rack to hold the supplies and then trained 3 Sqn. personnel in the required technique. General Monash's battle plan for Hamel involved resupplying the engaged machine-gunners with ammunition dropped by aircraft. In the event 3 Sqn was assigned other tasks during the battle and the ammunition dropping was performed by No. 9 Squadron RAF. Monash later wrote, 'at least 100,000 rounds of ammunition were [dropped] during the battle with obvious economy in lives and wounds. The method thus initiated became general in later months'.[3][7] Later that year, on 25 September, Wackett undertook a daring reconnaissance mission in 3 Squadron's first Bristol F.2 Fighter, when he penetrated six miles (10 km) behind enemy lines to take aerial photographs of the German Joncourt-Villers Outreaux line, that were needed for a forthcoming attack.[5] Two days later he carried out an ammunition resupply flight to some isolated troops using the equipment he had designed. As a result of these two actions he was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross.[8] By the end of the war two months later he had been promoted to the rank of Major. On 6 January 1919 he was appointed the Commanding Officer of No. 7 Squadron AFC based at Leighterton in England. 7 Sqn. had acted as the training unit for No. 3 Sqn during the recent conflict and Wackett remained the CO until the Squadron was disbanded in March that year, at which time he returned to Australia.

The Warbler at the Australian Aerial Derby, 1924.

Post-war, Wackett was one of just 21 officers who formed the nucleus of the new Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) in 1921. He had a strong belief in the need to develop an indigenous aircraft industry and completed a Bachelor of Science degree at the University of Melbourne, then had two years of advanced training in aircraft design under Frank Barnwell, designer of the F.2 Fighter aircraft that he had flown while serving with 3 Sqn. AFC. He entered and won second prize in the 1924 Low-Powered Aeroplane Competition (held at Richmond in December that year) with his first design, the Warbler. This was a parasol wing monoplane powered by an engine also of his own design, the Wizard, a two-cylinder horizontally-opposed monosoupape-type pusher engine developing 25 hp (19 kW).[9]

Wackett and the RAAF Experimental Section[edit]

Wackett learned of war surplus machine tools slated for disposal from a workshop in Randwick, Sydney, and prevailed upon his superiors to acquire the workshop. The RAAF Experimental Aircraft Section was thus established in January 1924 and Wackett, by then a Squadron Leader, was placed in charge. He tried to obtain permission to design and build an entirely Australian aircraft, but the RAAF had no money in its budget for this and would not give the go-ahead unless Wackett could obtain funds from some other source. Wackett then approached the Controller of Civil Aviation Colonel H. C. Brinsmead and managed to persuade the Civil Aviation Branch (of the Department of Defence, there not being a separate Department of Civil Aviation at this time) to fund the construction of a small flying boat.

The result was the Widgeon, a wooden hull biplane flying boat powered by an Armstrong Siddeley Puma of 230 hp (170 kW) located below and forward of the upper wing. This aircraft, the first flying boat to be wholly designed and constructed in Australia, was registered to the Civil Aviation Branch out of the Australian sequence (i.e. G-AUxx) as G-AEKB, after E. K. Bowden, Minister for Defence. The aircraft was launched on 7 July 1925 into Botany Bay. The following day it hit a sandbank during taxi tests and later overturned whilst attempting a takeoff. Wackett was on board with Brinsmead and two mechanics; all were unhurt. The aircraft was repaired and made its first flight on 3 December that year. Wackett subsequently installed a more powerful 300 hp (220 kW) ADC Nimbus engine and an undercarriage, converting it into an amphibian. Following the modifications the Widgeon I was transferred to the RAAF and used at Point Cook for flying boat training from 1927. The aircraft operated with the RAAF until 1929, when it was scrapped. A larger amphibian, the Widgeon II, powered by a 440 hp (330 kW) Armstrong Siddeley Jaguar engine, was the next aircraft to emerge from the Experimental Section workshop. Wackett himself flew the Widgeon II extensively, later saying, "I proved its capability by flying it on a 9,000-mile (14,000 km) journey across and around part of the Australian continent in 1928".[10] The next aircraft developed at Randwick was the two-seat Warrigal I of 1929, a biplane trainer of conventional design, powered by a 180 hp (130 kW) Armstrong Siddeley Lynx radial engine. This was followed in 1930 by the improved Warrigal II, powered by a 450 hp (340 kW) Armstrong Siddeley Jaguar radial engine.[11]

On 21 March 1927, Wackett was elected the inaugural Chairman of the NSW Division of the Institution of Aeronautical Engineers (IoAE) in Sydney. The following year, after the amalgamation of the Royal Aeronautical Society (RAeS) and the IoAE parent body in Britain, he was appointed the inaugural Deputy Chairman of the Australasian Branch of the RAeS.[12] He also found time to act as the New South Wales RAAF Aide de Camp to the Governor General, although the duties were not onerous.[13]

Wackett in the 1930s[edit]

As a result of a government-sponsored report and pressure from British manufacturers, who saw Wackett as a threat to their monopoly on Australian orders, the Randwick Station was closed in 1931.[1][4] Wackett resigned from the RAAF with the rank of Wing Commander and transferred (with some personnel and equipment) to the Cockatoo Island Naval Dockyard. Here he was involved in the design of watercraft as well as aircraft.[14] He continued working for the RAAF - a single de Havilland D.H.60G Gipsy Moth was built at the Dockyard under his supervision and entered RAAF service in 1933.[15][16] He also undertook civilian aviation projects including repair and modification projects, and built the Cockatoo Docks & Engineering LJW.6 Codock, a six passenger airliner powered by two Napier Javelin engines of 160 hp (120 kW), for Sir Charles Kingsford Smith. A later design for a larger aircraft, the 4-engined Corella, did not leave the drawing board, nor did his other aircraft concepts; VH-URP, the solitary Codock, was the only Wackett aircraft design built at the Dockyard. His marine designs at the Dockyard included small motorboats such as the Cettien (which won the Griffith Cup in 1934 and 1935)[17] and the racing hydroplane Century Tire II, and larger commercial passenger-carrying vessels as well.[14]

In 1934, Wackett and some of his staff joined Tugan Aircraft at Mascot aerodrome. The following year, following a series of accidents involving Australian-operated de Havilland D.H.86s, he and his brother Ellis (who was then the Director of RAAF Technical Services) were asked to provide their views and recommendations to a special conference convened by the Civil Aviation Branch, held to examine the type and its shortcomings.[18] In 1936 he was seconded to the RAAF to lead a technical mission to Europe (including future enemy nations Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy) and the USA to evaluate modern aircraft types and select a type suitable to Australia's defence needs and within Australia's capabilities to build. The three-man mission lasted five months and on its return advised that the North American NA-16 was the most suitable type. On completion of the mission Wackett returned to Tugan Aircraft, where the Codock design was developed into the LJW7 Gannet six/seven passenger airliner powered by two de Havilland Gipsy Six engines. This was the first of Wackett's designs to enter series production. The first aircraft was delivered in late 1935 and a total of eight Gannets were built for civilian customers and the RAAF. The RAAF took delivery of one new Gannet and subsequently operated another five second-hand examples. One RAAF aircraft was temporarily modified with Menasco engines as the LJW7A during World War II.

Shortly after the establishment of the Commonwealth Aircraft Corporation (CAC), Tugan Aircraft was purchased to give CAC a nucleus of experienced personnel. Upon joining CAC Wackett immediately became the General Manager and he oversaw the entry into production of the first aircraft mass-produced in Australia, the CAC Wirraway development of the NA-16 he had earlier recommended. The second type to emerge from CAC under Wackett's stewardship was the eponymous Wackett Trainer, the first prototype flying for the first time just after the outbreak of World War II.

Wackett, CAC and the RAAF in WWII and beyond[edit]

In many ways the story of Lawrence Wackett was inextricably linked with the history of the RAAF and CAC for over twenty years. He was hugely influential within the Australian aircraft industry as a whole and also within the RAAF, which often chose its combat aircraft types based on his recommendations. As already mentioned, this relationship began with the Wirraway.

During the Second World War, Wackett presided over a company - that hadn't even existed a mere three years before the outbreak - employing thousands of people, that was now delivering hundreds of aircraft as well as engines and propellers for those aircraft. Aircraft types emerging from CAC during the war period included the innovative and advanced Woomera and CA-15, however like many of his pre-war designs these were built as prototypes only, being the victims of circumstance and changing requirements. He also suffered personal tragedy during the war when his son, Squadron Leader Wilbur Lawrence Wackett, was killed in 1944 while serving as a Beaufighter pilot with No. 31 Squadron RAAF.[19]

Following World War II his influence was again exerted over the RAAF when it became necessary to replace the de Havilland Vampire first-generation jet fighters then in service. CAC initially offered the advanced CA-23 design to the RAAF but this lost out to the Hawker P.1081 then in development in the UK. When the P.1081 was cancelled, Gloster Meteors were ordered in the interim, but the combat experiences of No. 77 Squadron RAAF during the Korean War showed that a more modern type was urgently needed. The anglophile government of the day wanted to wait for the Hawker Hunter to become available, but Wackett decided otherwise. He negotiated with North American Aviation and Rolls-Royce to manufacture the Sabre jet fighter and Avon engine of those companies under licence. The use of the Avon and other features such as using 30mm Aden cannon armament instead of .50in Browning machine guns necessitated a 60% redesign of the Sabre fuselage and resulted in perhaps the best variant of that aircraft.[citation needed] The RAAF Chief of Air Staff at the time, Air Marshal George Jones (who had known Wackett since the time both served in 1 Sqn. AFC), was suitably impressed by the Avon-Sabre as it became known, and threw his weight behind the project. The Sabre was ordered for the RAAF to both its and CAC's benefit.

When the time came to replace the Sabre, Wackett once again was largely responsible for deciding which aircraft was selected, albeit with less desirable results from CAC's point of view. The selection race was even more wide open than that which saw the Sabre selected, with six types in the running. The Lockheed Starfighter was considered (by almost everyone except Wackett it seems) to be the best aircraft for the RAAF; the process had got to the stage where the Starfighter had been selected and the decision was about to be made public when Wackett declared to George Jones (by this time a member of the Board of directors of CAC), "I think that I should decide what aircraft the RAAF should buy![20]" and once more set to work to do just that. Wackett together with some members of the RAAF, had the decision for the Starfighter overturned in favour of the Dassault Mirage and CAC staff commenced working with Dassault (in the expectation that CAC would build the Mirage under licence as it had the Sabre and P-51 Mustang fighters). However in a serious reverse to CAC the Government Aircraft Factory was selected to build the Mirage instead, this being a move by the government of the day to rationalise the Australian aircraft industry. Wackett and the CAC Board undertook extensive lobbying to reverse the decision but the best that could be achieved was a subcontract to build the Mirage's wings, tails and engines. The Mirage itself was a sound choice on Wackett's part that proved well suited to the RAAF's needs[citation needed] and the production programme was the last that Wackett oversaw; he retired in 1966 with the delivery of Mirage components in full swing.

Lawrence Wackett died on 18 March 1982. Four years after his death the company with which he was bound for so long, CAC, had ceased to exist. His name lives on - the RMIT University established the Sir Lawrence Wackett Centre for Aerospace Design Technology in 1991 at the former CAC factory.[21]

Awards and honours[edit]


  • My Hobby is Trout Fishing J.T. Picken & Sons, 1946.
  • Studies of an Angler J.T. Picken & Sons, 1950.
  • Aircraft Pioneer: an Autobiography Angus and Robertson, 1972.


  1. ^ a b Technology in Australia 1788-1988 p498.
  2. ^ University of Melbourne Bright Sparcs biographical website retrieved 2007-08-16.
  3. ^ a b The Royal Australian Air Force: An Illustrated History p41.
  4. ^ a b Randwick City Council Social History web page about Wackett, retrieved 2007-08-16.
  5. ^ a b c d e Military Aircraft of Australia 1909-1918.
  6. ^ 1 Sqn AFC History retrieved 2007-08-17.
  7. ^ The A.I.F. In France p270.
  8. ^ AWM honours records search retrieved 2007-08-22.
  9. ^ Wackett engine retrieved 2007-08-16.
  10. ^ Quoted on Flying Boats of the World page retrieved on 2007-08-17.
  11. ^ Meggs, p294-301
  12. ^ RAeS Australian Division History retrieved 2077-08-24.
  13. ^ Helson, Peter (2006). Ten Years at the Top; an online version of a biography of RAAF Chief of Air Staff George Jones. Australian Defence Force Academy campus of the University of New South Wales, submitted as a postgraduate thesis. There is a footnote on p24 referring to Wackett's own autobiography Aircraft Pioneer and mentioning his serving as NSW RAAF ADC. Retrieved on 2007-08-17.
  14. ^ a b National Archives of Australia list of Wackett Cockatoo Island papers. Retrieved 2007-08-16.
  15. ^ Tiger Moth, CT-4, Wackett & Winjeel in Australian Service p38.
  16. ^ ADF serials D.H.60 list retrieved 2007-08-16.
  17. ^ E. C. Griffith Cup History retrieved 2007-08-17.
  18. ^ Air Crash Vol. I pp79-80 & Air Crash Vol. II p110.
  19. ^ Record of Wilbur Wackett's death retrieved 2007-08-23.
  20. ^ Quoted in Meteor, Sabre and Mirage in Australian Service, p150.
  21. ^ RMIT Wackett Centre page retrieved 2007-08-24.
  22. ^ James Cook Medal recipients retrieved 2007-08-24.


  • Isaacs, Wing Commander Keith. Military Aircraft of Australia 1909-1918. Australian War Memorial. ISBN 0-642-99374-2
  • Odgers, George. The Royal Australian Air Force: An Illustrated History. Child & Henry Publishing Pty. Ltd. ISBN 0-86777-368-5
  • Wilson, Stewart. Meteor, Sabre and Mirage in Australian Service. Aerospace Publications Pty. Ltd. ISBN 0-9587978-2-X
  • Wilson, Stewart. Wirraway, Boomerang & CA-15 in Australian Service. Aerospace Publications Pty. Ltd. ISBN 0-9587978-8-9
  • Bean, Charles Edwin Woodrow. The Official History of Australia in the War of 1914-1918 Volume VI, The A.I.F. in France, May 1918-the Armistice. University of Queensland Press. ISBN 0-7022-1753-0
  • Wilson, Stewart. Tiger Moth, CT-4, Wackett & Winjeel in Australian Service. Aerospace Publications Pty. Ltd. ISBN 1-875671-16-1
  • Cookson, Bert. The Historic Civil Aircraft Register of Australia G-AUAA to VH-UZZ. Privately published by AustAirData, no ISBN.
  • Job, Macarthur. Air Crash Volume One, 1921-1939. Aerospace Publications Pty. Ltd. ISBN 0-9587978-9-7
  • Job, Macarthur. Air Crash Volume Two. Aerospace Publications Pty. Ltd. ISBN 1-875671-01-3
  • Technology in Australia 1788-1988. Australian Academy of Technological Sciences and Engineering. ISBN 0-908029-49-7
  • Civil Aviation Historical Society website Widgeon I page. Retrieved 2007-08-16.
  • List of Australian-designed aircraft retrieved 2007-08-16.
  • Meggs, Keith Raymond (2009). Australian-built Aircraft and the Industry Volume 1. Seymour, Victoria: Finger-Four Publishing. ISBN 978-1-920892-77-7.

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