Most of the 40 or so locations around Australia that hosted aircrew training units during WWII are still in use today as aerodromes, both civil and military. Some are better-known than others. Mascot, for example, where the current Sydney International Airport is located, was No. 4 Elementary Flying Training School. Essendon – No. 3 EFTS – was, for a time, Melbourne’s main airport and remains in use by corporate aircraft, emergency services, freighters and trainers. Amberley and Pearce are still RAAF bases. While some were abandoned post-war (Cressy in Victoria, for example, or Uranquinty in NSW), a large number of the others are in use in regional and metro areas of Australia. Forest Hill – No. 2 Service Flying Training School – became Wagga Wagga Airport, now a reasonably busy training, maintenance and RPT hub for regional airline Rex. Many navigators trained at No. 1 Air Navigation School in Parkes, NSW, which remains active as a regional airport. And about five years ago I landed my last aeroplane, appropriately enough a Tiger Moth, on the grass runway at Camden, outside Sydney, which hosted for a time the RAAF’s Central Flying School where flying instructors were taught their trade.
Jack Purcell trained at four airfields in Australia, and all remain active. After he was scrubbed from pilot training at 8 EFTS, Narranderra (which today receives multiple scheduled air services each day to and from Sydney), he re-mustered and began his navigator training at No. 2 Air Observers’ School, Mount Gambier (hosting air services to Adelaide and Melbourne). Then he was posted to 2 Bombing and Air Gunnery School at Port Pirie, South Australia (a regional town on the eastern side of the Spencer Gulf). And finally, before being awarded the half-wing that denoted a qualified navigator in July 1942, he spent almost a month at No. 2 Air Navigation School, just outside the western Victorian wheatbelt town of Nhill, on the highway half-way between Adelaide and Melbourne.
Rachel and I happened to spend a night camped in the caravan park at Nhill on the way home from a holiday to Kangaroo Island late last year. Knowing that the name crops up in Jack’s logbook, I thought we might be able to have a quick look at the airfield to see if we could find interesting remnants of its wartime history. I was completely unprepared for what we actually found.
The first sign that something good is going on at Nhill was, quite literally, just that: a new-looking brown road sign. It was pointing, it said, to the “Historic RAAF Base”. Excellent, I thought, we’ll follow that in the morning. We arrived at the caravan park where a westerly wind was howling as we set up the tent. The roar of trucks passing on the highway was almost drowned out by the squawking and screaming of hundreds of white and pink corellas as they wheeled and soared and swung overhead.
Walking around the town looking for somewhere to have breakfast the next morning, we found a display in an otherwise empty shop window for the Nhill Aviation Heritage Centre. I rang the telephone number and was put on to a lady named Joan Bennett, who is the Secretary of the group. She readily agreed to open up the hangar at the aerodrome for us to visit.
And so an hour later after breakfast in a local café, that’s exactly where we headed. Unexpectedly, and despite the almost constant truck traffic, Nhill is a rather pretty little town. Heritage buildings line the main street and a long park, with bandstand and war memorials, sits between the two carriageways as the highway passes through the town itself.
The smaller of the two memorials looked, to me, to be quite new. And so it proved, being a memorial set up by the Nhill Aviation Heritage Centre in 2011: The northern end of the town is dominated by the concrete silos of the former Noske Flour Mills. When it was built in 1919 this was apparently the largest concrete silo in Australia. No doubt it was a significant landmark for trainee navigators during wartime. About two kilometres northwest of the town is the airfield.
In 1938 an Aeradio station began operating at Nhill. This was part of a national network of air/ground communications stations set up to give comms and navigation support to civil aircraft flying around Australia. It was, in effect, the forerunner of the Flight Service network which eventually developed into the enroute air traffic control system we now use. The first building we passed, right next to the road along the western boundary of the aerodrome, is the former Aeradio site. It looks to be in some disrepair but out of the seventeen original sites around the country this is, it seems, the most original and the best preserved, and so moves are afoot, in cooperation with the Civil Aviation Heritage Society based at Essendon Airport here in Melbourne, to restore it and turn it into part of the Nhill Aviation Heritage Centre.
There are two hangars at Nhill Airport. One is the last of five Bellman hangars built at Nhill during the war. It currently hosts the Wimmera Aero Club: The other is virtually brand new. It was built in 2013 and officially opened in May 2014. Designed and built at cost by Ahrens, a steel and industrial supply company based in Adelaide but which owns a local Nhill business, the hangar now houses the beginnings of an air museum.
Joan was already there when we pulled up in front of the hangar. We paid our $5 each for admission (genuine 1972 prices!) and Joan showed us around. Pride of place in the middle is this: It’s the bones of an Avro Anson, serial W2364 to be specific. While this particular airframe was not itself based at Nhill during the war, most of the flying that took place from the airfield would have been in aircraft very much like it. Jack Purcell’s logbook records a total of 25 hours of flying from Nhill by both day and night, over seven flights in July and August 1942. All of it was in Ansons. In recognition of Nhill’s association with Ansons, then, this one is undergoing a slow but steady and beautifully detailed restoration. Joan says the aim is to get it to taxying status and they have already got one of the engines running, evidenced by the drip trays catching oil from said engine. Over along one side of the hangar is the workshop area, where members of the group have been cleaning, repairing or fabricating components as they go. It’s taken five years and over 2,000 man-hours of work to get it to this stage and while there’s undoubtedly a very long way to go, the day in February 2014 when the work-in-progress was towed from Anson Restoration Project Manager Mick Kingwell’s shed to the new hangar was a significant one for the group and for Nhill – the first time an Anson had been on the airfield in some sixty years.
While none of the original wooden parts have been suitable for re-use on the restoration, they have been used as templates for copies to be made and the level of detail already in place inside the fuselage is quite stunning: Joan emphasised the spirit of cooperation and assistance that has come out of the aviation heritage community around Australia. A good illustration of this is the pair of Link Trainers which sit in a corner of the hangar. They both come from the same South Australian-based family. One is more complete than the other. This has been loaned to the Nhill group to restore to operating status and then to use as a template while they work on restoring the second one. Once restoration is complete the first trainer is to go back to its owners – but the second is to be retained in Nhill.
Also around the airfield itself is a Heritage Trail, with sealed pathways and signage, that takes the visitor around and explains the significance of the remains of the airfield’s time as a RAAF base. While we didn’t have time to walk around it ourselves it’s another sign that good things are afoot at Nhill. There are even plans to hold a fundraising airshow at the airfield on October 10 this year (stay tuned for details – I intend to be there if I can).
It’s wonderful to see such a passionate group at work in Nhill. Their plans are ambitious but the work to date is, really, most impressive. They appear to have the support of the local council and the town itself and they are breathing new life into what would otherwise be just another quiet, dying little country airfield in a quiet, dying little country town. We certainly need more of that sort of enthusiasm, and that there is a direct connection to Jack Purcell’s wartime story is, for me, an added bonus. You can find the Nhill Aviation Heritage Centre’s website at http://nhillaviationheritagecentre.com.au/. Visits to the Ahrens Hangar can be arranged by phoning Joan Bennett on 0438 265 579. Tell her I sent you! © 2015 Adam Purcell