The early history of Australian Army aviation has traditional links with the Australian Flying Corps (AFC), Royal Australian Artillery (RAA), and the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF). From the formation of modern Army aviation in the late 1950s and early 1960s aircrew were drawn from arms and services across the Army, supplemented by the RAAF in key positions. Throughout the sixties Army personnel gradually replaced the Air Force members until all operational positions were filled by Army. In 1968, the Australian Army Aviation Corps was formed which provided a coherent career path for aircrew and, eventually, ground support personnel who sought a career in Army aviation.
This history traces the early activities of the Australian Flying Corps and then the growth of Army aviation from the re-commencement of Army flying in the late 1940s. It has been sourced from existing official and non-official documents, internet sources and personal recollections. It is not a definitive history and will always be subject to correction, change and update. Readers are welcome to provide input and commentary via the link to the website editor.
Flight training of Army personnel ceased at the end of WW1, although an association with aircraft was maintained during WW2 when RAA officers flew as observers with RAAF pilots directing artillery fire, mostly from Auster light aircraft. In 1943 Army developed a proposal to acquire helicopters to assist with engineer reconnaissance. The proposal got to an advanced stage before the Defence Committee of the day decided that the RAAF should take charge. Air Force pilots were trained and six Sikorsky R-5 helicopters were ordered, but the war ended before they were delivered and the order was cancelled.
In 1946, the Director of Royal Artillery (DRA) discovered that he had authority for Air Observation Pilots on the RAA establishment and arranged for an RAA Captain (Ken J. Oram) to be trained as an Air OP pilot in the UK.
CAPT Oram returned to Australia having completed his pilot and instructor courses in succession and although he was never posted to a flying position, his influence on future Army aviation development was very significant. Between 1946 and 1951 three Army officers underwent basic and advanced flight training in Britain. This renewed Army’s involvement as an operator of military aircraft, and became the catalyst for the future development of Army Aviation.
Army required aircraft for reconnaissance, surveillance, fire control and liaison purposes. In 1950 the Chief of the General Staff (CGS) and the Chief of the Air Staff (CAS) agreed that RAA pilots should fly light aircraft on Air Observation Post (AOP) duties. This allowed one of the UK trained pilots, MAJ Benjamin, to become an Army flying instructor with the AOP Flight. This organisation had been located at RAAF Fairbairn in Canberra since 16 AOP Flight had been formally disbanded in 1947. With an establishment of 6-8 Auster Mk III aircraft the flight was commanded by the RAAF who retained ultimate responsibility for the Flight and its operations. Army pilots trained primarily in the UK during the period 1947-1951, and were in turn posted as instructors on the staff of 16 AOP Flight to conduct courses.
On graduation at Fairbairn the newly badged pilots remained for a further six months as the operational element of the flight before being posted elsewhere. Until the Flight’s disbandment on 30 November 1960, this pattern continued, with all pilot training being conducted in Australia, except for instructor training which continued to be done in the UK. About one in six of the graduate pilots were selected for this latter role.
In 1951 Australian Army Air OP pilots were allocated to the British Commonwealth Forces in Korea. They carried out the tasks of artillery observation and reconnaissance for the Allied Forces using Auster aircraft. From 1951 to 1953 five Australians served in the Korean War with 1903 AOP Flight in the British Commonwealth Division. It was in Korea that the first Army pilot since WW1 was killed in action. Captain Bryan (‘Joe’) Taylor Luscombe, RAA, died whilst posted for duty with 1903 AOP Flight (RAF) on the 5th June 1952. The practice of allocating Australian Army pilots to British Commonwealth Forces in Korea ceased in 1953.
Later in 1953 Army pilots once again deployed overseas, this time to Malaya, to conduct security operations along the Malay – Thai border. The Malayan Emergency highlighted the effectiveness and versatility of light aircraft flown by soldiers familiar with the terrain and the operational requirements of troops on the ground.
Throughout this time other Army pilots continued to fly, some with the AOP Flight and others in civilian aircraft chartered by Army. Although the support provided to the Army by the AOP Flight was limited, it did introduce the Army to the potential benefits of such a resource by undertaking AOP duties for a variety of units, and played a significant role in major formation exercises that were mounted from 1958. Valuable experience had also been gained by those RAA pilots that had served in Korea.
A further source of light aircraft support for the Army, and experience for pilots, came from the raising of 1 Army Aviation Company (1 Army Avn Coy) at Bankstown, NSW in 1957. The unit consisted of a small group of Army officers and senior NCO pilots who operated civil aircraft on charter to the Army. The role of the unit was to provide operational support to Army units across Australia flying a wide variety of civil light single and twin engine aircraft. The unit was particularly useful in providing aerial support to the Royal Australian Survey Corps in their mapping efforts in northern and western Australia.
Unfortunately the AOP Flight and 1 Army Avn Coy were unable to meet more than a fraction of the Army’s need for light aircraft support, and the capacity and age of the Auster Mk III exacerbated the deficiency. In 1958 the Austers were replaced by Cessna 180A models slightly modified for Army service. By this time agreement had been reached by the Defence Committee for the Army to have its organic light aircraft but firm plans to implement that decision were not developed until 1960.
First Army helicopter pilot
Major Rotary Ross Harding
In 1955 the Director of Army Supply and Transport believed that transport helicopters would be the vehicle of choice on the future battlefields to provide rapid and flexible transportation and logistic support. He commenced the process to acquire helicopters for the Army and at the same time dispatched a Captain R. R. Harding off to the UK and the US to undertake pilot and instructor training on fixed and rotary wing aircraft.
‘Rotary Ross’, as Harding became known, returned to Australia fully qualified as a helicopter instructor but, alas, the procurement of the helicopters for Army had stalled. He was detached to the Royal Australian Navy to retain his skills and flew Sycamore helicopters for two years. When 16 ALA Squadron was raised, Rotary Ross was the first Australian Army instructor on the new Sioux helicopters.