Commonwealth Aircraft Corporation
Under the direction of the Australian government the Commonwealth Aircraft Corporation (CAC) of Australia was incorporated on October 17th, 1936 and by September 1937 a factory had been constructed at Fishermen’s Bend in Port Melbourne, Victoria to produce military aircraft and engines. Lawrence Wackett (1896-1982), the “father of the Australian aircraft industry” was appointed General Manager of CAC and was integral to the design and development of the early aircraft produced by the company.
The Australian aviation industry was born in the 1930’s but the wartime conditions that began with the start of World War Two in Europe in September 1939 and totally erupted with the Japanese entry into the Pacific theatre in December 1941 enabled it to establish more quickly than otherwise would have occurred. The experience of building aircraft such as the Wirraway trainer and general purpose aircraft, and Boomerang fighter early in the war enabled CAC to later licence build new, more complex aircraft and design their own.
By 1945 CAC production switched to a proven combat aircraft with the construction of CAC CA-17/18 Mustang fighter aircraft, a licence-built North American P-51D Mustang. Approximately 200 CAC Mustangs were produced but were too late for combat in World War Two (they were supplemented with 298 lend-lease P-51D & K’s from the United States). They would soon enough become a valuable asset to the RAAF.
From 1946 to 1950 RAAF Mustangs were used in the occupation of Japan with RAAF No. 76, 77 and 82 Squadrons (No. 76 and 82 Squadrons returned to Australia in 1949) as part of the British Commonwealth Occupation Force. RAAF No. 77 Squadron Mustangs were deployed from Japan to fight in the Korean War from June 1950 to April 1951 until replaced by Gloster Meteor jets.
Just 7 days after the Korean conflict began the RAAF provided some of the first UN aircraft to participate in that war and were soon in action escorting bombers, conducting armed reconnaissance flights and attacking ground targets. The first mission by the RAAF over North Korea occurred on July 2nd, 1950 with Mustangs escorting USAF Boeing B-29 Superfortress bombers. Number 77 Squadron operated American built Mustangs that were from the 299 imported during World War Two in 1945 rather than from the 200 Commonwealth Air Corporation (CAC) versions built in Australia from mid 1945 (only 4 of the CAC examples saw service in Korea, but not until late March 1951).
Number 77 Squadron was withdrawn from combat and re-equipped in Japan with the British built Gloster Meteor Mk.8 jet fighters in April 1951 and the Mustangs were returned to Australia. The last RAAF Mustang flying with Citizen Air Force Squadrons was retired from service in 1959. CAC Mustangs remain a prolific warbird on the Australian flying scene today.
CAC took piston engine aircraft design to the next level during World War Two with the development of the CAC CA-15 unofficially dubbed the “Kangaroo” (apparently this nickname came from an issue with over-pressurized landing gear struts that caused the aircraft to bounce about whilst taxiing during test runs!). The CA-15 began on the drawing board in 1943 to provide Australia with a long-range high performance fighter aircraft that would ultimately outclass available British and American fighters. Although the CA-15 looked similar to a P-51D Mustang it was not based off this aircraft and featured a larger fuselage and wings.
Discussion continued with the RAAF into 1944 and the CA-15 project was considered cancelled but then by 1945 the design had been approved to validate the aerodynamic testing already completed. Development was delayed though, when Lawrence Wackett recommended licence building a proven fighter in the Mustang, so Australia did not have to bear the cost of developing a new aircraft.
Further delays were experienced when the planned 2,300 hp radial Pratt and Whitney R-2800 engine with a turbo-charger became unavailable and then with the end of the war, such an aircraft was no longer a priority but CAC continued with the design with the intention the fighter could replace the Mustang in RAAF service. A prototype aircraft was constructed with a completely different inline 2,035hp Rolls Royce Griffon Mk.61 V-12 engine with two-stage, two-speed supercharger and armed with 6 x o.50 caliber machine guns rather than a combination of the 0.50 caliber guns and 20mm cannons (or 4 x 20mm cannons only), which had been considered (the guns were not fitted until after the initial test flights. Bombs and rockets could also be carried underwing). It became only the second fighter aircraft after the CAC Boomerang to be designed and manufactured in Australia.
The prototype and only CA-15 first flew on March 4th, 1946. Flight tests continued at CAC until the aircraft was handed over to RAAF No 1 Aircraft Performance Unit (renamed to the Aircraft Research and Development Unit or ARDU in 1947) at RAAF Laverton, as A62-1001 on June 27th, 1946.
The RAAF continued to test fly the CA-15 until a hydraulic failure caused a forced landing on December 1oth, 1946 which heavily damaged the aircraft. The prototype was returned to CAC for repair but this did not happen until June 1947, almost one year after the RAAF had first received the fighter. CAC then did not get the repaired aircraft back to the RAAF until May 19th, 1948.
RAAF ARDU continued limited flight testing of the CA-15 until 1950 but by then the fate of the aircraft had pretty much been sealed, as this was now the jet age and despite the CA-15 having good flight characteristics, a long-range, good climb rate and fast performance above many of its contemporary fighters (top speed 721 km/h / 448 mph), in the not too distant future the CAC/P-51 Mustangs would be replaced by a fighter jet and not the CA-15. Ultimately these jets would be the de Havilland Vampire which were operated by the RAAF from 1949 to 1970 (80 fighters and 110 trainers were produced by de Havilland Australia. CAC licence-built the Rolls Royce Nene jet engine used in the Vampire. The single seat fighters were retired by 1954 but the last of the trainers soldiered on until 1970) and the Gloster Meteor which were operated by the RAAF from 1951-1958 and Citizen Air Force squadrons until 1963 (93 Meteor F.8 fighters and 6 T.7 two seat trainers were allocated for the Korean War in 1951 of which 41 F.8’s and 3 T.7’s returned to Australia in 1953).
For what ever reason it was decided to send the prototype CA-15 to RAAF No. 1 Aircraft Depot for scrapping. A sad end for the CA-15 and a great loss of another historic moment in Australian aircraft design.
CAC would have liked to have replaced the RAAF Mustang fighters in the early 1950’s with their own jet design and in 1949 had started to develop plans for RAAF consideration of an advanced large two-seat all-weather interceptor. This aircraft proposal was the CA-23, which would have been powered by twin Rolls Royce Avon jet engines.
Unfortunately by 1951 from an RAAF perspective, a flying CA-23 prototype was some 3.5 years away, production priorities lay elsewhere (by 1951 the Gloster Meteor had entered service and a locally modified version of the North American F-86 Sabre jet had been selected for service with the RAAF – more on the CAC Sabre jet in my next post), no suitable radar was planned (as you can see in the image there is no nose radar but I could imagine one with a nose cone similar to the English Electric Lightning interceptor) and overseas aircraft development was well advanced. As a result further development of the CA-23 was cancelled in 1951.
Australia really missed an opportunity to pursue advanced fast jet design and development with the demise of the CA-23. Although CAC did continue to tinker with ideas and supersonic concepts into the 1950’s and 1960’s none ever left the drawing board (more on some of these in my next post).
CAC worked on a civilian twin-engine regional airliner project in the 1950’s known as the CAC Wallaby which also never left the drawing board. The concept for the Wallaby started in 1950 with a unique engine set up proposal. It was to be powered by two seven cylinder CAC developed Cicada 450 hp radial engines which were based on half of a Pratt & Whitney R-1830 Twin Wasp engine as used in aircraft such as the Douglas DC-3/C-47. These engines were to be accompanied by a rear fuselage mounted Turbomeca Palas turbojet engine to provide an auxiliary 350 lb of thrust for take-off.
By 1956 CAC were spruiking for business with the Australian government to put the aircraft into production (CAC needed their funding to get the project off the ground). Sadly for CAC the cost of the Cicada engines was significantly more expensive than the glut of war-surplus engines available on the market and competition was stiff with more economical and proven designs already flying such as the DC-3 and De Havilland Dove. Little interest was shown in the Wallaby airliner. In 1958 CAC tried again with a revised design utilising cheaper war surplus Pratt & Whitney R-1340 Wasp engines but it was too late for this project and an apparent lack of government interest ended the proposed project.
Despite numerous designs not getting off the drawing board CAC continued to produce successful aircraft throughout the 1950’s for the RAAF and civilian market. The CAC CA-25 Winjeel was an Australian built and designed basic trainer which entered service in 1955. Although designed to a 1948 RAAF specification and first flying in 1951 it took a number of years of testing and modifications of the first 2 prototypes until the trainer was ready to go into production.
62 Winjeel trainers were produced and delivered between 1955 and 1958. They entered service with No. 1 Flying Training School at Point Cook (relocated there in 1958), which replaced the units de Havilland Tiger Moth trainers. At first student pilots would complete 50 hours of training flying in the Winjeel before moving on to the Wirraway. After the Wirraway retired in 1959 the Winjeel assumed the role for all initial pilot training before they moved on to the de Havilland Vampire jet trainer.
The Winjeel was also operated by the RAAF Central Flying School (CFS) at East Sale for the training of RAAF flying instructors and a number of other squadrons had a Winjeel on strength as a communications and liaison aircraft (i.e. unit hack). Retired as a basic trainer in 1975, a small number were operated by the RAAF from 1970 until 1995 as Forward Air Control (FAC) aircraft to support military operations by the RAAF and Australian Army (fitted with Army band UHF radios and smoke grenade launchers to mark target sites). The Winjeel has become a popular warbird with numerous examples still flying in Australia today.
CAC had previously unsuccessfully attempted to develop and produce a home-grown combat jet but the 1951 RAAF selection of the CAC modified North American F-86 Sabre jet would soon change their luck and bring the company into the jet age. More on CAC CA-27 Sabre production and Cold War era supersonic jet designs proposed by CAC will feature in my next post.