The Creation of the Civil Aviation Branch and its Early Years - Part 2
by Roger Meyer

Even before the passing of the Air Navigation Act, planning for its implementation was under way with an advertisement in the Commonwealth Gazette in September 1920 for applications for appointment to the position of Controller of Civil Aviation (CCA), as Administrative Head of the CAB. The salary was 750 pounds (about A$34,500 in 1996 figures), rising to 1000 pounds ($46,000) per annum. There were 38 applicants for the position, and following a period of lobbying by the Australian Aero Club and the Society of Australian Aircraft Owners, Lieutenant Colonel Horace Clowes Brinsmead OBE, MC was appointed to the position on 16 December 1920.

Lt. Col. Brinsmead was born at Hampstead, England, on 2 February 1883. He enlisted as a private in the A.I.F. in 1914 and won a commission prior to service at Gallipoli and in France. After being wounded in France, he was declared unfit for service, and became senior staff officer with the Australian Flying Corps in London. In 1919 he was attached to the British Delegation at the Paris Peace Conference. While he lacked flying experience, his business experience, initiative and resourcefulness were considered by the selection committee to be superior to that of the other applicants. In the light of subsequent events, his appointment proved to be fully justified. Click here to read more about Brinsmead.

The Civil Aviation Branch had three main functions: to ensure aviation safety by enforcing the Air Navigation Regulations (as embodied in ICAN); to advise the government on civil aviation policy; and to supervise expenditure on civil aviation. The first task of the Controller was to create an organisation to administer the Act. In January 1921, applications were invited for the three key positions of Superintendents of Flying Operations, Aircraft and Aerodromes. The first member of staff, however, was the typist, Miss Marjorie Perkins who commenced duty on 7 February 1921. Other appointments were soon made: Captain E.C. Johnston, DFC, as Superintendent of Aerodromes; Captain E.J. Jones as Superintendent of Flying Operations; Captain F.W. Follett as Superintendent of Aircraft; Captain S.H. Crawford as Chief Clerk, assisted by Mr L.G. Cooney, Mr D.F. Dimsey and Mr S. Durston.

The staff were initially based in the Military Board Room at Victoria Barracks (Melbourne). The Controller had a screen around his own table in one corner, while the others sat at the big Board table, which they had to vacate once a fortnight when the Board met. They would sit on chairs in the corridor and attend to their paperwork until the meeting was over. They were frequently relocated within the Barracks over the next 18 years, and finally moved to Almora House in Little Collins Street in June 1939.

Other early members of staff were Robert Buchannan and Stanley Harper (engineering and airworthiness), and Majors H. Mann, A.R. McComb and J. O’Neill (inspectors of aerodromes). It is worth noting that most of these officers of the fledgling Civil Aviation Branch were youthful ex-World War I pilots. Captain Edgar Johnston, for example, was just 25 years old and was responsible for the selection and development of government aerodromes in the capital cities.

Prior to flying becoming a Commonwealth responsibility, licences for pilots and engineers had been issued, since 1915, by the Australian Aero Club under the authority of the Department of Defence. In 1922 pilot licences were reassessed, resulting in many being cancelled. The first of the famous "C.A." forms, which finally numbered many hundreds, was CA1 - Application for Pilot’s Licence. The Aircraft Section issued Certificates of Airworthiness (CA12) to approved aircraft and renewed these every 12 months unless a major repair became necessary, in which case the certificate was withdrawn until the aircraft had been re-certified as being airworthy.

It was recognised very early that, for the major cities at least, satisfactory aerodromes for large scale and permanent operations would be needed very soon, but this would only be possible if the Commonwealth Government accepted the financial burden. The Superintendent of Aerodromes selected suitable sites in the capital cities for acquisition by the Commonwealth. During 1921 sites in all capital cities (except Hobart) were selected. Emergency Landing Grounds (ELGs) were provided along the major air routes. They were located at about 20 mile intervals (depending on the topography), and were for use by single engined aircraft in the event of an engine failure. On the basis of flight at 8,000 feet, it was possible for the aircraft to glide about 15 miles to the nearest ELG. With the introduction of multi-engined aircraft capable of continuing flight with one or more engines out of action, these ELGs ceased to be required.

The selection of aerodromes, ELGs and other landing facilities (not along the routes of contract air services) involved extensive travel by the staff of the Aerodromes Branch. Click here to see a photo of early landing ground selection. One such trip was made by Lt. Col. Brinsmead with E.J. Jones as pilot, and involved a 7,500 mile flight around Australia in 22 days in August/September 1924 - the first flight of its kind ever made. Click here to read more about this flight.

Another important function of the CAB was to implement the Commonwealth Government’s decision to assist the development of regular air transport services, particularly in areas poorly served by other means of transport. The north-west coast of Western Australia was selected for the first service and a contract was made with Norman Brearley’s West Australian Airways to operate such a service between the railhead at Geraldton and the small seaport of Derby some 1,200 miles up the coast. The story of subsidised aerial services is well documented, and is beyond the scope of this brief history of the CAB, except to observe that the growth of aviation, through subsidised air routes, was taken by some as a measure of the success of the Civil Aviation Branch.

The slow growth of the aviation industry in the first five years of control was not a failure of the CAB to encourage civil flying, and should be seen against a background of economic facts. Aircraft powerplants were underpowered and unreliable and so payloads were below safe margins of profit. Also, the widespread economic depression of the 1930s was developing and hence investors were less inclined to gamble on the somewhat chancy venture of aviation.

Another function of the Branch was to promote interest in flying training, and they assisted the various Aero Clubs by constructing, and then leasing at modest rental, buildings and hangar space. They also purchased 16 DH-60 Moths which were then loaned these to the clubs. The CAB was always in an uncertain, difficult and, at times, farcical situation. There was always the uncertainty of the Air Navigation Act, particularly in relation to States’ rights, and this was finally tested in the Goya Henry case of 1936.

By the mid-1920s the barnstorming era had passed and pilots were looking for new means of making a living from flying. It was difficult to impose necessary regulation and yet not stifle genuine attempts to establish airlines. Pilots had to be trained, while reckless flying had to be curtailed. It was a delicate balance. Later, contracts were let for the carriage of airmails. It was Commonwealth policy at the time that air mail services should not operate over routes served by railways. An absurd consequence, as late as 1934, was the England-Australia route which started in London and terminated at Cootamundra, NSW, where the mail was transferred to the railway for the last leg to Sydney.

The late 1920s and early 1930s saw many successful long distance record breaking flights by such famous names as Kingsford Smith, Ulm, P.G. Taylor and Hinkler. There were also many poorly-planned flights, and the Branch was in the delicate position between public enthusiasm for these flights (often to promote a new model of aircraft), and the safety of the pilot and their observance of safety regulations. In 1931, Kingsford Smith’s company, the first Australian National Airways, planned a special return flight from Australia to London. On board the Avro X trimotor, which departed Melbourne on 20 November, were the pilot G.U. Allan and the CCA Lt. Col. Brinsmead as the only passenger. He was travelling to London to negotiate a regular air mail service. The aircraft crashed at Alor Star in Malaya on 26 November, but no one was injured. Brinsmead elected to join a K.L.M. flight to London but this aircraft crashed in Thailand, killing five of the passengers and severely injuring Brinsmead. He returned to Australia but was incapacitated until his death on 11 March 1934.

Captain Johnston acted as Controller until being appointed permanently on 4 May 1933. Mr A.R. McComb became Superintendent of Aerodromes in place of Johnston. Captain E.J. Jones resigned in 1929, and his successor Captain H. Murray Jones resigned in 1931. His place as Superintendent of Flying Operations was taken by Flt. Lt. David Ross. F.W. Follett had resigned as superintendent of Aircraft, his successor J.H. Ekins was killed flying a Branch aircraft in June 1931, and his place was ultimately taken by A. Gordon Berg in 1933.

On 8 April 1936 the Civil Aviation Branch became the Civil Aviation Board, still under the Department of Defence. The only real change was that aviation now had equal status with the other armed Services and additional funding to carry out its functions which, by now, included the radio organisation. Much more could be said about the functions of the Branch, its achievements and vicissitudes. It grew apace with the rapid developments of civil aviation in Australia, and with the growing acceptance of flying as a safe and responsibly regulated industry. Competing with the armed services for adequate finance was at the core of its failures to provide necessary aerodromes and facilities. Above all, though, the enthusiasm and passionate belief in the future of aviation displayed by staff of the Civil Aviation Branch did much to shape its future and to set the high standards which would, in time, earn this country an enviable record of safety and a place of high regard within the international aviation community.

Read The Creation of the CAB and its Early Years Part 1


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