Commonwealth Aircraft Corporation
The Commonwealth Aircraft Corporation (CAC) of Australia was incorporated on October 17th, 1936 under the direction of the Australian government and managed by Lawrence Wackett (1896-1982), the “father of the Australian aircraft industry“. By September 1937 a factory had been constructed at Fishermen’s Bend in Port Melbourne, Victoria to produce military aircraft and engines. Aircraft such as the CAC Wirraway and CAC Boomerang rolled off their production lines to help win the fight during World War Two and with numerous successful aircraft production models during and towards the end of World War Two and into the early 1950’s, plus experimental designs and prototypes, CAC were also well placed to then develop future projects post war, including jet technology.
In 1951 the RAAF selected the CAC CA-27 Sabre as their new jet fighter to replace older de Havilland Vampire and Gloster Meteor jets. The CA-27 was a modified North American F-86 Sabre fitted with a more powerful but differently sized licence-built 7,500lb thrust Rolls Royce Avon turbojet engine producing a top speed of 1,167km/h (700mph) rather than the original 6,100 lb thrust General Electric J-47 engine which had a top speed of 1,106 km/h (687 mph), increased fuel capacity, lightened airframe, revised cockpit layout, a Plessey isopropyl nitrate liquid fuel combustion starter (to start the engine without an external power source), 2 x 30mm ADEN cannons (replacing 6 x 0.50 caliber machine guns to bring it more in line with Soviet jets that only carried cannons) and by 1960, AIM-9 Sidewinder air-to-air missiles (it could also carry rockets and bombs if required). Initially dubbed the Avon Sabre by CAC it was said to be one of the finest variants of the Sabre jet.
The modifications to the original F-86 design meant that CAC had to redesign 60% of the original Sabre airframe and increase the air intake by 25% (it was sometimes called the CAC Avon Sabre). 1 prototype (first flew on August 3rd, 1953) and 111 production models CA-27 Sabres were built from 1953 to 1961, with the first entering RAAF service 1954.
RAAF CAC Sabre jet fighters were used in a number of conflicts during the 1950’s and 1960’s. During the Malaya Emergency (communist insurgency 1948-1960) in February 1959 Sabre jets of No. 3 and 77 Squadron joined RAAF Canberra bombers at the RAAF Butterworth Air Base in Malaysia. The air war was almost over by 1959 though and the Sabre was only used for occasional air strikes on communist targets in the Malayan jungle until the end of the conflict in 1960. Even with the end of that conflict there was so much political tension in South East Asia that Number 77 Squadron were retained at Butterworth until 1969 (Number 3 Squadron returned to Australia in 1967).
By 1962 a communist insurgency had flared up in Thailand (1962-1968). On June 1st, 1962 eight CAC Sabres were deployed from RAAF Butterworth to Ubon Air Base, Thailand to help the Thai government counter communist activity that was feared may overspill their border from neighbouring Laos (along with forces from the United States, United Kingdom and New Zealand). This was part of Australia’s commitment to the Southeast Asia Treaty Organization (SEATO) and Number 79 Squadron was reformed using aircraft, pilots and ground crew from Number 77 Squadron for this purpose (the squadron had originally been disbanded at the end of World War Two).
Number 79 Squadron acted as part of an integrated air defence system to protect Thai air space and from 1965 to also protect Thailand based USAF bombers and strike aircraft returning from sorties over Vietnam (ultimately no air attacks ever occurred against Thailand though). The Sabre jets were also used in training exercises with the USAF to simulate attacks by the similar North Vietnamese MiG-17 Fresco aircraft. The jets were withdrawn and the squadron was disbanded at the end of July 1968.
Between 1963 to 1966 an undeclared state of war existed between Malaysia and Indonesia with small-scale fighting going on this became known as the Indonesian Confrontation. This was due to a border dispute over North Borneo following Malaysia’s 1957 independence from Great Britain. By 1964 more significant cross border incursions were occurring between Indonesian and Commonwealth forces, including the Australian Army. Fighting with Indonesian troops continued throughout 1965 and 1966 including a number of larger engagements. RAAF CAC Sabre fighters of Numbers 3 and 77 Squadron armed with Sidewinder air to air missiles were kept on ready alert at RAAF Butterworth for air defence if required and fighters were scrambled from time to time to intercept Indonesian aircraft but these were uneventful sorties. The Indonesian Confrontation ended when a peace treaty was finally signed by Malaysia and Indonesia in August 1966.
The CAC Sabre started to be replaced by new Dassault Mirage IIIO supersonic fighters in 1964 and the last was retired from RAAF service in 1971. In 1969 Australia donated 18 refurbished CAC Sabre jets to the Royal Malaysian Air Force, who retired them in 1976. Interestingly despite the previous conflict, in 1973 Australia presented 18 aircraft to the Indonesian Air Force who also received 5 more from Malaysia in 1976. They were all retired by the early 1980’s.
The CAC Sabre would prove to be the end of operational combat aircraft development in Australia. In 1964 CAC had one more crack at developing a military jet, the CAC CA-31 lead-in fighter jet trainer (see below) and there was also a proposal in 1969 for a co-production between the British Aircraft Corporation (BAC) and CAC to develop the AA-107 trainer/light strike aircraft (see below) but neither got beyond the wooden mock-up stage. All other fighter and trainer aircraft manufactured in Australia from then on were licence-built productions without major airframe modifications (but contained Australian manufactured components).
Only two CAC Sabre jets are still flight capable in Australia. One is CAC Sabre A94-983 (delivered to the RAAF in 1957), which is operated by the Temora Aviation Museum on behalf of the RAAF. It and was returned to flight following a comprehensive return to service restoration program between 2006 and 2009 (it was originally flown at airshows by the RAAF from 1981 to 1992 before being grounded).
Unfortunately since the Avalon Airshow in 2015, CAC Sabre A94-983 has not been able to fly, as the current historic Martin-Baker ejection seat with which it is fitted has run out of manufacturer support and the RAAF will not allow it to fly until a suitable resolution to the problem arises (current policy is to only operate the aircraft with a serviceable ejection seat). Luckily as of early April 2016 the Temora Aviation Museum and Martin-Baker Australia have been trialling 4 different ejection seats (CH16C, AU10LH, AU8LD and Mk5 models) to replace the unsupported one currently in the Sabre. Hopefully the trials will be successful and the old girl will return to the skies.
The other flying example in Australia is CAC Sabre A94-352 (delivered to the RAAF in 1960). This aircraft was sold by the RAAF to Indonesia in 1973 but crashed on its delivery flight take-off in Bali and was returned to Australia. The engine was removed and it became an RAAF instructional airframe until 1982. It was purchased by former Squadron Leader Jeff Trappett, who undertook a long restoration of the aircraft (using Sabre A94-907 for spares) and returned it to flight in September 2013. I am yet to see this aircraft in person but how great would it be to see both CAC Sabre jets fly in formation some day?
Numerous other CAC Sabre examples are displayed in museums or in storage around Australia, Malaysia, Indonesia and the United States (10 of the surviving Indonesian examples were sold in 1989 to Kermit Weeks in the United States, most are in storage for sale). There is apparently one example on display in a museum in the Czech Republic (A94-923) and another airframe is being restored to flight in Ardmore, New Zealand (A94-922).
The CAC CA-28 Ceres was an agricultural aircraft (crop duster) developed from the Wirraway design. The Ceres was a new aircraft though that used some Wirraway components rather than being a direct conversion. The Wirraway wing was significantly modified to be suitable for low-level agricultural use, the engine and propeller was modified but the tail and landing gear legs were the same in both aircraft (the undercarriage on the Ceres was fixed though rather than retractable). Just 21 were produced between 1959 and 1963 (production was limited as other companies were introducing more modern agricultural designs). A number survive today in Australia and New Zealand (6 were exported to New Zealand).
Following on from their 1949 CA-23 concept design (see my previous post), CAC had a number of other supersonic combat aircraft proposals to meet RAAF and international allies Cold War requirements during the 1950’s and 1960’s but once again they unfortunately never left the drawing board. These included some very radical designs!
The XP-46 jet fighter was intended to feature a nose air intake for the planned afterburning Rolls Royce RA-7R Avon engine (planned top speed of 1,390 km/h). It would also have been fitted with a search radar and armed with 2 x 30mm cannon. The XP-46 was a fairly traditional looking design for the period but the rocket powered XP-47 interceptor was right out there!
The XP-47 would have potentially been armed with up to 6 cannons or air to air rockets such as the US Mighty Mouse system. It looks straight out of a sci-fi comic book! This type of aircraft would have been solely aimed at rapidly gaining altitude to shoot down potential enemy bombers, rather than being a fighter aircraft.
A more radical design was the XP-62 interceptor which was proposed to be armed with air to air rockets and fitted with four Rolls Royce RB93 soar jet engines that were originally designed in the 1950’s to be expendable axial-flow turbojets with 1,810 lb of thrust for British cruise missiles. The problem with such Mach 1.0+ engines was that they had a very short life time (less than 10 hours), so the XP-62 would have had to have had frequent engine changes (an expensive exercise every few missions). I can see why this one did not get off the drawing board!
The stainless steel CAC airframe designs were quite sharp-looking aircraft concepts (literally!). The XP-65 Warrior was to be powered by a Rolls Royce RA24R Avon engine and possibly armed with cannons and air to air rockets (or missiles?). The proposed Mach 2.0 capable XP-68 was a more sophisticated design powered by a Rolls Royce RA19R Avon engine which would have featured a search radar, 2 x 30mm cannons and air to air missiles. The XP-68 was intended to compete in the international market against the Lockheed F-104 Starfighter but alas never got that opportunity.
In 1964 with the imminent replacement of RAAF CAC Sabre jets with the supersonic Dassault Mirage IIIO fighter (and a 1963 order for the supersonic General Dynamics F-111 strike bomber – this advanced aircraft ultimately didn’t enter service until 1973), CAC proposed the CA-31 as an inexpensive, light weight supersonic lead-in fighter jet trainer (flying and weapons training) to provide suitable training for RAAF pilots who were going to go on to fly these new delta winged fast jets. The CA-31 was a sleek, sporty looking design which also had delta wings and a proposed top speed of Mach 1.5 (the final proposal featured a Rolls Royce RB172 Adour engine). At this period of aviation history no other aircraft was really available to meet this specific dual lead-in trainer role and there was a huge leap from the then standard RAAF two-seat jet trainer like the de Havilland Vampire to a Mirage III (not only speed but the delta wing design created vastly different flight characteristics)!
The CA-31 would have been fitted with Martin Baker ejection seats and included 4 underwing and 2 under fuselage hardpoints for gun pods, missiles, bombs, rockets and drop tanks. Unfortunately the project never got beyond the wooden mock-up stage and by 1967 the role was conducted by the Aermacchi MB-326 jet trainer and Dassault Mirage IIID two-seat trainer (see below). Another potential advanced aviation project missed out on by Australia! A CA-31 wooden mock-up is part of the collection of the Australian National Aviation Museum at the Moorabbin Airport in Victoria (as of my April 2016 visit to the museum the mock-up was not on public display).
As a follow on to the CA-31 in 1969 the British Aircraft Corporation (BAC) and CAC worked on a proposal for the co-development and production of the BAC/CAC AA-107 variable-geometry (swing-wing) trainer/light strike aircraft for RAF and RAAF consideration (AA = Anglo Australian). Flight International magazine reported on October 9th, 1969 that there was a potential market for up to 1,000 of these small (expected weight 12,000lb to 15,000lb / 5,400kg to 6,800kg) and relatively inexpensive aircraft (around £500,000 per aircraft).
Despite this optimism there was apparently no market for the AA-107 in the RAF and the potential production run for the RAAF was considered too small to proceed with further development. Once again this aircraft did not go into production and only went as far as a full-scale wooden mock-up which can be seen today on display at the Ballarat Aviation Museum in Victoria. Interestingly the mock-up seems to have only been completed on one side (in the museum the other side has no wing and is exposed with no covering panels).
The Final Years of CAC
In the 1960’s as a subcontractor for the Government Aircraft Factory (see below), the Commonwealth Aircraft Corporation produced components for RAAF Dassault Mirage IIIO/D fighters (wings, tail and the licence-built SNECMA Atar 9C jet engine – Mirage III fighters were produced in Australia between 1963 and 1974) and from 1967 licence-built in conjunction with Hawker de Havilland, the Aermacchi MB-326H trainer (known as the Macchi in Australia the original order was placed in 1965), of which 97 were operated by the RAAF (87) and RAN (10).
Of the 97 MB-326H aircraft, the first 20 were assembled in Australia from Italian components production with the remainder produced in Australia (by A7-031 the aircraft produced contained 85% locally produced components). CAC licence built the Rolls Royce (Armstrong Siddeley) Viper turbojet engine fitted in the MB-326H. The last aircraft was delivered by September 1972. The RAAF operated the MB-326H in the advanced pilot training role until 1989 (replaced by the Pilatus PC-9 turboprop) and then in the lead-in fighter training role until they were retired in 2000 (replaced by the BAE Hawk 100).
In the 1970’s CAC licence-built 56 Bell 206B-1 Kiowa helicopters for the Australian Army (the first 12 were manufactured in the United States) and 3 for the RAN (1971-1977) and conducted life extension airframe maintenance for the MB-326H trainers until 1984. CAC became part of Hawker de Havilland in 1985 (now part of Boeing) and ended an amazing part of Australia aviation design and development history.
Department of Aircraft Production
It is interesting to note that the Australian government established another aviation company at Fishermen’s Bend, Port Melbourne (and also Mascot, NSW) to ensure aircraft production met RAAF requirements during World War Two. The Department of Aircraft Production (DAP) was formed on July 1st, 1939 (later to be renamed the Government Aircraft Factory or GAF after the war) and during World War Two primarily produced licence-built DAP (Bristol) Beaufort torpedo/reconnaissance bombers. 700 Beauforts were produced by DAP from 1941 to 1944 (CAC licence built the Pratt & Whitney R-1830 engine for the Beaufort). Most were retired by the end of the war with a few flying on until 1947 in governmental scientific and agricultural roles.
The Department of Aircraft Production (DAP) also produced the DAP (Bristol) Beaufighter heavy fighter. British built aircraft entered RAAF service in 1942 but by 1944 production of 364 Beafighters started in Australia. The last Beaufighter was retired by the RAAF in 1957.
GAF went on to produce numerous combat aircraft for the RAAF. These included the GAF (English Electric) Canberra Mk.20 bomber under licence with modifications including a reduction in crew from three to two (pilot and navigator/bombardier) and increased fuel capacity. The first of 48 came off the production line in 1953 and the last in 1958 (CAC licence-built the Rolls Royce Avon engines used in the Canberra bomber).
Combat jets continued off the GAF production line with the licence-built Dassault Mirage IIIO/D fighter. Apart from the first 2 Mirage IIIO aircraft produced in France, the rest of the eventual 100 Mirage IIIO fighters and 16 Mirage IIID two-seat trainers were manufactured in Australia between 1963 and 1974. GAF also licence-built the RAAF McDonnell Douglas F/A-18 Hornet fighter. The first 2 of 57 F/A-18A single seaters and 18 F/A-18B two-seat trainers were manufactured in the United States with the rest produced in Australia between 1984 and 1990 (CAC licence-built the General Electric F404 jet engine used in the F/A-18).
GAF operations ended in 1987 when the company was reorganized and renamed as Aerospace Technologies of Australia (ASTA) which was privatised in 1995 and is now part of Boeing. That was the end of the line for the Australian Government in regards to direct involvement in aviation design and development.
RAAF Museum: CAC Sabre
Wirraway to Hornet: A history of the Commonwealth Aircraft Corporation Pty Ltd, 1936 to 1985 by Brian L. Hill