13 May 2022

Ten key moments from 95 years of the Canberra Airport

| James Coleman
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Planes at airport

Singapore Airlines and Qatar Airways previously operated out of Canberra Airport before the pandemic. Photo: Canberra Airport.

It began life as a windswept sheep paddock in the Majura Valley, but today, it’s a gateway to the nation and … well, some parts of the world. In fact, you could almost call it our most popular tourist attraction.

The Canberra Airport celebrated its 95th birthday this week. The day might have gone by without fanfare, but it’s time to look back on the key moments in its long, varied and, at times, disastrous history.

Biplanes over crowds

The opening of Parliament House in May 1927. Photo: National Library of Australia.

1. 350 RAAF planes take off to celebrate the opening of Parliament House, 1927

The story actually begins at the Dickson playing fields. In 1924, this was Canberra’s ‘designated’ airfield and known as Northbourne Aviation Ground, but it was more for emergency landings than anything else.

It was also the site of Canberra’s first aviation fatality on 11 February 1926.

The Federal Capital Commission had ordered an aerial reconnaissance of the Murrumbidgee Valley, but as the biplane came in for landing, the engine stalled. The plane crashed, killing the pilot instantly. The photographer later died in hospital of burns, shock and internal injuries.

A plaque next to the return slot at the Dickson Library is the only tangible reminder of this disaster.

By 1926, the grand opening of Parliament House was fast approaching. A new site was needed to accommodate a flying display by the Royal Australia Airforce (RAAF) and all the incoming guests.

Airforce Captain Henri Petre deemed a paddock in the Majura Valley owned by the Campbell family to be “absolutely ideal for flying”, with landing distances of “not less than 1000 yards in all directions”.

The site was leased to the Department of Defence along with the nearby Royal Military College on the Duntroon estate, and on 9 May, 350 RAAF plans took off for a flypast of Parliament House.

Four years later, the ‘Duntroon Aerodrome’ was handed over to the Commonwealth’s civil aviation control, and domestic operations began.

The first buildings at the Duntroon Aerodrome (later Canberra Aerodrome). Photo: Canberra Airport.

2. The first buildings are constructed, 1936

The first building formally documented at the Aerodrome was a large hangar on the site where the northern end of the terminal now stands. The wooden hut to the left of the hangar was the first terminal.

3. Ten killed in plane crash, 1940

Ten people were killed on 26 August 1940 when their plane stalled and crashed while approaching the airport, including three Commonwealth Ministers and the Chief of the General staff, who were to meet with Prime Minister RG Menzies. With World War II underway, there was no shortage of conspiracy theories.

The disaster is now marked by a plaque and memorial in the Fairbairn Pine Plantation off Pialligo Avenue.

Air Disaster Memorial

The Air Disaster Memorial in the Fairbairn Pine Plantation. Photo: James Coleman.

4. The Queen flies in, 1956.

Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II and the late HRH Prince Philip had visited Canberra before, but 1956 marked the first time they graced the tarmac at Canberra Airport.

Queen and Prine Phillip

The Queen and Prince Phillip at Canberra Airport in 1956. Photo: Canberra Airport.

5. Bought by private hands, 1998

As part of Prime Minister John Howard’s mission to privatise government-run operations, the Canberra Aerodrome was sold to Canberra businessman Terry Snow and his family in 1998 and became the Canberra Airport.

At the time, each end of the terminal was owned by existing airlines who had control over capital works. It wasn’t until Terry could purchase the ex-Ansett end from administrators that he could begin bringing the infrastructure up to scratch.

6. Billboards are allowed, 2000

Billboards had been barred in Canberra since the 1930s, but an amendment of the National Capital Plan in 2000 allowed them to be displayed at Canberra Airport. Since then, they’ve advertised everything from defence weapons to marriage equality before the more versatile digital billboards arrived in 2017.

7. Investigations begin on a second airport, 2003

Local pilot and light aircraft owner Chris Price identified a possible site for a second airfield at Williamsdale in 2003, managing to pique the interest of the ACT Government. Over the next decade, there were various feasibility studies, all of them largely positive, at least until Andrew Barr put the kibosh on it.

Airport

The ‘AirVolution’ was completed in 2013. Photo: Canberra Airport.

8. Completely overhauled, 2009

With passenger numbers pushing existing facilities to the brink, Project ‘AirVolution’ began in 2009. The existing terminal was demolished to make way for a new 55,000 square metre terminal, with three times the number of check-in counters, four times the number of baggage collection points, 10 new aerobridges, new retail and food outlets, car parks and more of pretty much everything else.

Plane at Canberra Airport

Singapore Airlines plane docked at Canberra Airport. Photo: Canberra Airport.

9. International flights begin, 2016

On 16 September 2016, Singapore Airlines flight SQ 291 touched down at Canberra Airport, ushering in a new era of international flights for the nation’s capital. Dubbed ‘Capital Express’, the four-weekly service operated between Singapore, Canberra and Wellington until COVID-19 threw a spanner in the works.

10. Home to Australia’s biggest Woolworths, present

The Canberra Airport today comprises four separate precincts, the terminal itself, the Fairbairn RAAF base, the Brindabella Business Park and the Majura Park. The latter is home to Australia’s largest Woolworths. That’s hard to beat when it comes to bragging rights.

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And who can forget the famous takeoff (and near crash) of that Russian transport plane.

https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=UZGXwbPfwQs

Nice to see the history, however I think the statement that there was 350 planes in the flypast at the opening of Parliament on 9 May 1927 is an overestimate by a factor of 10. “In addition, the largest number of aeroplanes to ever gather at Canberra -21 in all- will arrive during Saturday, from Richmond (Sydney) and Point Cook (Melbourne)” AIR FORCE PREPARATIONS (1927, April 29). The Canberra Times (ACT : 1926 – 1995), p. 1. http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article1212744. Three navy amphibian machines joined on 9 May and four or so civil aircraft took part as well, making a total of 28.

Karl Chamberlain2:49 pm 14 May 22

There is a problem with the photo of the Queen and Prince Phillip – 1956.
She came in 1954 and 1963, nothing in between – it has to be one of those years.

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