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Special Interest Matter - War time history of Launceston Airport/Western Junction site

Tuesday 21 May 2024

[11.59 a.m.]

Ms ARMITAGE (Launceston) - Mr President, it is the first opportunity we have had and I would like to welcome the new members to the Chamber. Welcome Ms O'Connor, Mr Vincent and Mr Thomas.  I am sure you will enjoy your time here. You are very welcome.


Launceston Airport and the history of the airport: Sometimes there is a double life we are really not aware of. Launceston Airport has had a double life as an RAAF base.


In recent years, Launceston Airport has advanced ahead in leaps and bounds, with exceptional redevelopment, becoming an amazing gateway to our state's north. While we look to the airport's future, I am conscious we should also look to its past and how we can best honour its history and legacy. I was therefore very enlightened reading in The Examiner newspaper on 25 April an article by Joe Colbrook about the historical significance of the airport, particularly during wartime.


According to Wayne Dearing of the Tasmanian Aviation Historical Society, in 1926 plans to establish an aerodrome at Western Junction commenced, but it was not until 1929 that land was purchased for this purpose. During 1930 significant works to clear the site occurred and, on 23 November 1930, the first plane took off - the Aero Club Gypsy Moth registered as VH-ULM.


The site officially opened on 28 February 1931 by Colonel Brimsmead, Controller of Civil Aviation, with almost 20,000 people assembling on Evandale Road for the occasion.


During the Second World War, Launceston Airport, or Western Junction Aerodrome as it was then known, itself became conscripted into the war and became known as Number 7 Elementary Flying Training School. Between September 1940 and December 1944, 1801 young Australians from the southern states of the country came through the Flying Training School as trainee pilots, who were subsequently tasked with fighting for our country.


According to George Ashwood of the RAAF Association Museum; the youthful vigour and exuberance of trainees resulted in some quite daring flight displays, even during the formative stages of training.  Mr Ashwood has said they considered themselves bulletproof and that one Flight Lieutenant Howard Roberts, flew his plane alongside a train - obviously far below regulation altitude - waving at the train passengers who I am quite sure would have been amused by the display. The fate of Lieutenant Roberts was he was posted to the Middle East and shot down, surviving to become a prisoner of war in Germany.


According to Mr Ashwood, while these displays of daring were officially frowned upon by senior officers, they also indicated that trainees had the temperament needed to survive in such high stakes environment like aerial combat, describing it as a type of spunk.


Mr Ashwood's research has also yielded the fates of those trained at Number 7 Elementary Flying Training School, sadly nearly one third of them died after leaving the school. These included training accidents, combat fatalities and 12 men who were taken as prisoners of war.


The number of pilots who were trained at Number 7 Elementary Flying Training School also received awards and honours for their service. Three pilots were awarded Distinguished Service Orders, 32 were awarded Distinguished Flying Crosses, two received Air Force Crosses, four received Distinguished Flying Medals, two received Air Force Medals; one was awarded the Military Medal; eight were mentioned in dispatches, and three were given King's Commendations. The base was disbanded on 31 August 1945, but the mark it left on the Western Junction site and the significance it played in the Australian war effort was undeniable.


The Evandale Historical Society, in conjunction with the RAAF Association, Launceston branch, constructed a memorial to honour all those who trained and served at Number 7 Elementary Flying Training School, which was unveiled on 21 August 2010. It still stands as a reminder of the sacrifices that so many made for our country during times of war.


When we think of the future for places we all know, like Launceston Airport, it is important to be mindful of the past and to observe and honour it appropriately.


We thank those who served then and who serve today. We note the historical significance of the Western Junction site.


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