Birthplace of military aviation in Australia
The Federal Government acquired Point Cook in 1913 to establish the nation's first military flying school, using two BE-2a biplanes and two Deperdussin monoplanes together with a Bristol Box-kite bought in 1912.
The newly formed 'Central Flying School' started with two officer instructors and a few mechanics. The first military flight in Australia took place on 1 March 1914, and the first training course began in August with four student pilots.
During World War I the Australian Flying Corps (AFC) was established at Point Cook as a new element of the army and many of its pilots saw active duty overseas. Australian military airmen went to New Guinea in November 1914 and to Mesopotamia (Iraq) in 1915. Later, squadrons served in Palestine and on the Western Front. The first Australian airman to die in action was Lieutenant George Merz - one of the first pilot graduates from Point Cook - who was killed by Arabs in Mesopotamia. During the war 65 Australians became 'aces' by shooting down at least five planes, and Lieutenant Frank McNamara, who trained at Point Cook, won Australia's sole air Victoria Cross while serving with No 1 Squadron, AFC.
Throughout this period Point Cook remained the focal point of military aviation in Australia, serving as a flying training unit as well as the assembly point for most AFC units going overseas.
The Royal Australian Air Force
Although the AFC was disbanded after World War I ended in 1918, Australia was committed to retaining a military air service. Britain had gifted 128 surplus aircraft to Australia to establish an air force, and some of these planes - along with training machines already at Point Cook - were operated by an interim army unit, the Australian Air Corps, during 1920-21. The Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) was formed as a permanent and separate air service on 31 March 1921, initially with Point Cook as its sole base. The RAAF was the second independent air force in the world, established three years after the Royal Air Force in Britain.
The RAAF developed slowly as funds were in short supply, but the threat of another war lead to significant expansion from 1936. At the outbreak of World War II in 1939, there were six air bases across the nation. Point Cook retained its status as the core training complex for air force pilots and a new Service Flying Training School was established there during the war. By the war's end more than 2700 pilots had graduated.
At the end of 1945 the RAAF had 317 mainland and regional airfields, of which twelve were considered as being of critical importance, including Point Cook. The air base continued in its role as the key pilot training centre until 1992, when basic training was moved to Tamworth, New South Wales, and advanced training to Pearce, Western Australia.
Point Cook is associated with many important people in Australia's military aviation history. Richard Williams and Thomas White graduated from the first AFC training course in 1914 and served with distinction during World War I. For his role as Chief of Air Staff from 1922 until 1939, Sir Richard Williams became known as the 'father' of the RAAF. White, who in 1915 was captured by the Turks and later escaped via Russia, became the Minister for Air and Civil Aviation in 1949-51 and was also later knighted.
In the 1920s and 30s the base was the setting for many epic aviation events involving the RAAF. In 1919, 1924 and 1926 it served as start-point for the first north-south crossing of the continent, first air circumnavigation of the Australian coastline and first long-distance flight from Australia into the Pacific region, respectively.
Refresher training for civil aviation pilots was also conducted at Point Cook from 1919 until 1926, and aircraft belonging to the Civil Aviation Branch operated from there throughout the 1920s. Connections with civilian aviation were reinforced in 1929 when Charles Kingsford-Smith took off from Point Cook in the Southern Cross for the first non-stop, east-west crossing of the continent.
The military complex
The Point Cook air base occupies an area of about 250 hectares southwest of Melbourne on the shores of Port Phillip Bay. It is the only World War I military airfield in Australia and features the country's oldest, most extensive and intact complex of military aviation buildings.
When the base was established, the proximity of Port Phillip Bay made Point Cook a choice location for seaplanes as well as conventional land planes. As flying was in its infancy and still experimental, the area's sea-level altitude and absence of hills made it ideal for training and development purposes.
The design of the air base influenced the planning and development of later military aviation bases in Australia. The base includes rare examples of buildings specific to the pre World War I, World War II and Inter War periods. These include the oldest hangars and workshops in Australia, built in 1914 1917; the AFC complex, including the seaplane jetty, dating from 1916 and operating until 1937; the water-plane hangar, built in 1914; and the seaplane complex dating from the late 1920s.
The parade ground at Point Cook, completed in 1930, became a prominent feature of RAAF bases elsewhere in Australia. The Air Force Memorial, unveiled on the edge of the parade ground in November 1938, was the first and principal monument to Australian airmen killed in World War I.
After World War II, the base also became home to a range of significant units and facilities, including the RAAF Staff College (1949-60), the RAAF College (later Academy) for training officer cadets from 1947, and the RAAF School of Languages (1950-2000).
The Point Cook Air Base today
Today Point Cook is home to the RAAF Museum. Initiated in 1952 by Air Marshall Sir George Jones, the Museum has provided for the restoration and display of historic aircraft.
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