The Creation of the Civil Aviation Branch and its Early Years - Part 1
by Roger Meyer

The first attempt at the international regulation of air navigation was made in 1910 when representatives of 19 European countries held an International Air Conference in Paris. A draft Convention was discussed but unanimous agreement on a definitive text could not be reached and the meeting was abandoned.

The idea was again discussed at the Peace Conference held after the Great War of 1914-18. This time there was complete agreement among the ex-allied States as the respective Governments realised that aviation, which had made great advances during the war, would develop rapidly as a means of international transport. It was therefore agreed to hold an International Conference to lay down the principles of rules for air traffic which would serve as the basis for uniform international regulations.

This Convention (the Paris Convention) was signed by the representative of each participating country on 13 October 1919. Article 34 of the Convention made provision for the creation of a permanent International Commission for Air Navigation (ICAN) under the direction of the League of Nations. Thirty six states, including Australia, became parties to the Paris Convention.

Australian pilots had distinguished themselves during World War I in the Australian Flying Corps, and in the immediate post-war era, aviation quickly captured the imagination of Australians. Inevitably, there were many unfortunate accidents and sections of the press began to campaign against reckless flying and the lack of regulation by Government, alleging that neither the Commonwealth nor the States seemed anxious to take responsibility.

However, the Prime Minister (Rt. Hon. W.M. Hughes) had faith in the future of aviation, and was largely responsible for the Government’s decision to offer a prize of £10,000 for a flight from Britain to Australia by an aeroplane crewed by Australians. The successful flight by Ross and Keith Smith did much to improve the public image of flying as a valid form of transport.

While there was no Government control over aviation, the need for action in this regard was foreseen, and an Air Traffic Committee was set up under the Council of Defence, and first met on 25 February 1919. The Committee was strongly supported by the Minister for Defence, Sir George Pearce, who shared the Prime Minister’s enthusiasm for aviation in Australia. The Chairman of the Committee, Major General Legge, noted that there should be only one regulatory air authority for Australia, working under a single legislature.

In May 1920 a Premiers’ Conference was convened, and on the motion of the Prime Minister a resolution was carried recommending that each State should refer to the Commonwealth the control of air navigation, but in a way as to reserve to the States the right to own and use aircraft for the purpose of government departments and the police powers of the State. The Commonwealth accordingly passed the Air Navigation Act in the widest possible terms in anticipation of complementary State legislation, but this was only passed in its entirety by one State, and in degrees by some others.

The first Australian aviation statute, the Air Navigation Act 1920, was granted assent on 2 December 1920, gazetted on 11 February 1921 and came into force on 28 March 1921. Regulations were drawn up under the Act to provide for the registration and periodical examination of aircraft, licensing of aerodromes, examination and licensing of personnel engaged in flying and in the maintenance of aircraft, and rules of the air. Application of these Regulations was deferred "as no penalties would be sought or extracted for three months after gazettal", and they became law on 28 June 1921.

The Air Navigation Act 1920 was deceptively simple in appearance and did nothing more than establish the authority to provide for the control of air navigation in the Commonwealth and Territories. It also gave effect to the Paris Convention: in particular, the International Convention for Air Navigation (ICAN). The passing of the Act marked a turning point in the history of Australian civil aviation. The powers believed to be conferred on the Commonwealth Government by agreement with the States were now to be administered by a newly-created Branch of the Defence Department, the Civil Aviation Branch (CAB).

Read The Creation of the CAB and its Early Years Part 2


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