A little over twenty kilometres south west of Melbourne city, on the shores of Port Philip Bay, lies the birthplace of military aviation in Australia. RAAF Williams Base Point Cook is where land was purchased in 1912 for the newly-formed Australian Flying Corps, and where nine years later that fledgling organisation became the Royal Australian Air Force. In fact, until Richmond and Laverton were built in 1925 Point Cook remained the only military air base in Australia. Point Cook played an important role in training of pilots and officers and many other Air Force trades and disciplines over the next seventy or so years, and while military flight training ceased in 1992 the airfield remains operational with the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology operating a flying school from it (though little military traffic uses it these days and the control tower has been empty for many years).
It is, therefore, a fitting location for the RAAF Museum. Housed in four Bellman hangars, the museum follows the story of Australia’s military aviation history – from the very first days of the Australian Flying Corps right through to current operations in the Middle East. There is a large collection of significant aircraft and artefacts and some intensive restoration work underway, including of a Mosquito which is the only known surviving airframe of that type with a WWII combat record.
Three times a week, on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Sundays at 1pm, one of the collection of airworthy aircraft will be parked in front of a purpose-built grandstand. An MC delivers a short introduction, then the pilot adds a few words and climbs in, fires up whatever old machine it is and takes off for a short 10-15 minute flying display. During the flight the radio calls from the aircraft are patched over the PA system. After landing, with the aircraft once again shut down in front of the grandstand, the floor is opened up for questions. The whole thing is carried out without fuss in about half an hour. It’s a great opportunity to see some flying action at close range and then have a chat with those responsible for flying and maintaining the aircraft. When I visited in May, the star of the show was a Harvard:
Other days it might be a Tiger Moth, or a CT-4, or perhaps a Mustang. And it’s all done free of charge. The Museum reckons it’s the only place in the world where these sorts of aircraft are displayed regularly like this.
Point Cook was the site of No. 1 Service Flying Training School during the Second World War. As such an entire hangar is dedicated to training – with displays of some of the aircraft and devices used for training a very wide variety of Air Force personnel throughout the 20th Century and beyond. Most relevant to my interests (apart from a brief look at air traffic control) was a Tiger Moth, in the ubiquitous bright yellow colours typical of Elementary Flying Training Schools:
There was also an intriguing item on exhibition in the WWII Heritage Gallery:
It’s a map of Europe, with the operations carried out by a 460 Squadron crew member marked on it. I couldn’t find a name to go along with it but in the bottom right corner is a list of all 43 operations along with dates. They span two tours, the first between 12 March – 03 November 1943 and the second from 24 October 1944 – 22 April 1945. Whoever the unknown crew member was, he was extraordinarily lucky. The particularly deadly Battle of Berlin period fell in the time that he was (presumably) instructing between his tours of operations.
Point Cook is steeped in history. Suburbia is fast encroaching (its sister base, just up the road at Laverton, has already been sold off for housing) but for the moment it is still an active airfield. The Government has announced a planned redevelopment with an “ongoing commitment to maintain the base” as an operating military airfield and continuing to “recognise the significant heritage of the site” which is very encouraging. Much work appears to have been carried out already – there is an excellent (but very large – around 75mb) presentation of ‘before and after’ photos from the end of 2012 available here on the Defence website – but I found many buildings that still look unloved as I wandered around the Museum precinct.
The difficulty is the trade-off between maintaining the base as an active RAAF station and retaining the heritage fabric of the physical environment. Remaining an active military base gives Point Cook an economic reason for continued existence and makes it more likely that future governments will continue to consider it a useful part of the Air Force’s infrastructure. But with that comes the security and access restrictions that the modern military demands, which seriously reduces easy access for the public. Opening the base to the public as a heritage site will necessarily reduce its utility as a pure military facility, and Defence will naturally be reluctant to take the required funding from its already stretched budget.
At the very least, though, the recent work will see the most significant physical parts of Point Cook’s heritage survive for some decades to come.
© 2013 Adam Purcell