Monday, June 14, 2010

Last post on this for a while - gliding out of Camden - a potted history of that airport

Camden Airport is roughly 50km (by air) south and west of Sydney. Originally a private airfield, or perhaps paddock, it was seconded for RAAF use as No 13 Operational Base, Camden, early in WWII.

Camden airfield was constructed circa 1935 on what had become the  Macarthur-Onslow family property. The actual original settlers in this area were indigenous, of course. Likely there were populations of Gandangara to the south, Darug to the north and Tharawal people to the east. Some evidence probably remains on the site.

Post-invasion and before the Macarthur-Onslow family moved in, circa 1812 around 400 acres of land beside the Nepean River was granted to Rowland Hassall. The property was named “Macquarie Grove” in honour of Governor Macquarie (who had of course granted Hassall the land). In 1877 however the land passed on, into the hands of the Hon. H.C. Dangar MLC (the Dangars were prominent players in the Colony). Dangar may have introduced a rifle range into the southern end of the property and may - possibly, by at least one account - also have established a racecourse (isn't there always a racecourse involved somewhere?) which remained on the site until the flying school began operations c.1938.

After Dangar the property passed through several hands until purchased by F.A. Macarthur-Onslow in 1916 - in his wife Lucy’s name - or was it Sylvia? (2 sources, 2 wives - hmmm.) So we should say Lucy/Sylvia bought it, but that's not how these things worked, is it?

Anyway, circa 1921 a remarkable Australian aviator of aircraft design fame, Edgar Percival returned home after service with the Royal Flying Corps and opened a small commercial aircraft business. Percival landed on the Macarthur-Onslow property in 1924, and proceeded to inspire the three Macarthur-Onslow sons, Denzil, Edward and Andrew to pursue aviation careers. A film was also shot on the property, involving horse racing and an AVRO 504 (piloted by Percival, apparently!)

With the help of H.E. Broadsmith they designed and built their own aircraft, the B4. Broadsmith was one of the partners (with Nigel Love) in an A.V. Roe (Avro) agency under the name of the Australian Aircraft and Engineering Company Ltd, based at Mascot.

Edward Macarthur-Onslow, a member of the Camden troop of the 1st Light Horse which used the pastures of Macquarie Grove as a parade ground bought his first plane, a Hornet Moth, in 1935 and this and the Comper Swift owned by brother Denzil were housed in a garage on the property. The family also established the Macquarie Grove Flying School in 1938.

Of cousre we all can guess what happened next. In 1939 the newly-christened Macquarie Grove Aerodrome (and hangars) were seconded - happily handed over, really, although the family expected it back - by the Commonwealth for war purposes. Work began on the airfield to clear approaches and install about 50 prefabricated huts. The 1st Light Horse Garrison moved in to patrol the aerodrome. Camden became home to perhaps seven squadrons that undertook training, anti-submarine, convoy escort, reconnaissance, general air and meteorological tasks. The squadrons included No 457 Spitfire Squadron which arrived in November 1942 and No 15 General Reconaissance Bomber Squadron (equipped with Beauforts), formed at Camden in January 1944. A substantial US Army Air Corp contingent was based at the airport as well.
RAAF Station, Camden was handed to the Department of Civil Aviation (note - not the Macarthur-Onslow family, who remain a bit taken aback at this move) on 15 September 1946. Ownership subsequently transferred to the new, more commercially-driven Federal Airports Corporation in 1988. That's when the "user pays" principle really kicked in and pressure was put on existing users to make the most of their presence on the airport. Or move.
Further paper-based 'ownership' changes occurred in 1998 to Sydney Airports Corporation Ltd and then division of that body into a separate Camden Airport Ltd in 2001, pending privatisation (by long-term commercial lease) in 2003.

Here's a useful location map which may be found in the 2010 Camden Airport Master Plan (see link at end, if you must).
My first experience of Camden was as an aircraft-mad Marrickville kid growing up in the mid 1960s - and my recollection is much as the 1953 description below. Very much a "WWII RAAF airfield" feel with the gate house and raised gate, the house on the hill and the buildings on the hillside, the twisting road down to the hangars and so on.

Of course there was also the Camden Museum of Aviation, an absolute must-see at the time. Sadly the museum, like other hangar-based museums at the time, was "moved on" in recent years to make way for "real" aviation activity. I guess it was cheaper than building another hangar but the museum really hasn't re-opened since.

That's probably a Camden Aero Club DH Tiger Moth, circa 1969, right there.

My next recollection would be around 1976 or so, flying into Camden in a Cessna 150 and a Cherokee, practising touch-and-goes. I did taxi there, too, and the WWII-era RAAF Kittyhawk-width grooves were certainly for real.

And then again in the very late '70s or possibly early '80s (I really can't remember!) I took off and landed a German-built sailplane there, on a grass strip. As a powered-flying pilot I found a long, shallow and quite fast approach somewhat harrowing, especially given a successful go-around was unlikely!
Finally the airport had a complete revamp, new tower, the museum was booted out and eventually new private owners took charge. I haven't been there since.

Here's an historical gliding snippet. Click on the link to read it in full.
Southern Cross Gliding Club, Sydney
The aerodrome area was originally a race track owned by Arthur Macarthur-Onslow. In 1919 a film called "Silks and Saddles" was being made which required a race between a horse and an Avro 504K, and the Camden track was ideal for shooting this sequence... ...Camden became Australia's first private aerodrome. Edward Macarthur-Onslow became a great personality in aviation and formed the Macquarie Grove Flying School which by 1939 employed more than thirty people in the workshops at Camden Aerodrome servicing about a dozen aircraft at all levels, including engine overhauls and propeller manufacture.

When World War 2 came, Edward Macarthur-Onslow made the aerodrome available to the Commonwealth Government "for the training of Australian war pilots". Then the RAAF moved in, and then the Americans, the elegant Macquarie Grove House on the aerodrome was turned into an officer's mess and the sergeants made even more of a "mess" of Hassell Cottage at the top of the hill... ...What the gliding people saw in 1953 was an almost intact example of a WW2 Air Force training base. Near the top of the hill at the bend in the road was a sentry box with boom gate and khaki painted wooden huts stretched in rows right down the hill to the hangers which were full of unwanted aircraft, mainly Avro Ansons... ...That so much should have remained in 1953 was remarkable. But no one else visited the place and it was like an old movie set of WW2. The gliding people were even given the use of a few wooden huts.
Camden still looked much like that in the late '60s and early '70s, sentry box, boom gate - the lot.  However things changed as a new control tower was built and the old museum was (im)politelty moved on.

Currently there are 17 hangar buildings and 100-150 movements per day, peaking at about 200 (2010 figures).  There are 2 main runways, 06/24 (main, lit, 1464m) and 10/28 (grass, unlit, 723m) plus 2 grass gliding strips in parallel (or almost!) to the main runways. Most aircraft movements are single-engined but the glider movements are not counted so who knows for sure?

I have some more Camden pics on Flickr (account: gtveloce).

An extra note here is the training status of Camden:
Camden, NSW is recorded as being the only Central Flying School (CFS) in the
country as at December 1941.34 This seems to be the case as sources claim the
CFS moved to Tamworth RAAF Base.35 Table 1 therefore lists the CFS as the
principal function at Tamworth.

There's even a master plan with more maps and a wealth of detail.

or checkout my list of Sydney and surrounding airstrips and airports

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