THE WIRRAWAY WARBIRD

How Jack Archer and his
little plane 
beat the odds
to make history

Pilot Officer John S. (Jack) Archer, 4 Squadron RAAF, holds a unique place in Australian warplane history.

PO Jack Archer

His Australian-made Wirraway recorded the only known air-to-air kill of a Japanese plane by a Wirraway in World War 2.

The plane (A20-103) was the last combat aircraft from World War 2 in service, used for flight training for cadet officers at Point Cook until retirement. The plane has been preserved and is displayed at the Australian War Memorial in Canberra.

PO Archer, with observer Sergeant J L (Les) Coulston, both from Melbourne, were flying a tactical reconnaissance mission out of Berry airfield , Bomono, over a Japanese ship wrecked off Gona on 26 December 1942 when they spotted an enemy plane – thought to be a Zero – 1000 ft (304 m) below them.

 Coulston and Archer

Taking advantage of his position Archer dived on the Japanese plane, firing a long burst with his two Browning .303-inch guns. As they pulled away, the Australians saw their victim crash into the sea.

They returned to Popondetta airstrip in Papua and an excited 24-year-old Archer reported to a disbelieving Control Officer that he had shot down a Japanese Zero.

Archer described the incident and soon telephone calls from observers from the Gona area confirmed his story.

 Official confirmation

The November 1958 edition of Flight Magazine recorded Archer’s account:

“I was at 1000 feet when I first saw the Zero. It was angling towards shore below me and about half a mile away. I knew that if he ever saw me I was a dead pigeon. By the law of self-preservation I had one shot for my alley. It was a deflection shot but it was the only one in the bag. I dove 103, closed in, gave the Zero a five seconds burst with my two 303 calibre machine guns and went into a vertical turn for the shoreline at full throttle. If I hadn’t hit him I might have a last chance dodging at ground level even though the Zeke had double the speed of my Wirraway. However coming out of the turn, I saw him hit the deck about 100 yards from the shore.”

Archer had told colleagues: “I think there must have been something wrong with the Japanese pilot. He probably made a mistake or something. I can’t believe I shot him down.”

An Australian ground patrol officer found the crashed Japanese plane, noting that the pilot had been killed by the Wirraway’s gunfire.

According to the Australian War Memorial, a post- war investigation revealed that the aircraft shot down was actually a Nakajima Ki-43-II Hayabusa or Oscar of the Imperial Japanese Army Air Force 11th Sentai, rather than an Imperial Japanese Navy Mitsubishi A6M2 Zero.

Mervyn Weston, war correspondent for the Argus newspaper reported the news. He was talking to the Commanding Officer of the Wirraway unit in New Guinea when this message arrived: “One Zero shot down by Archer; send 6 bottles of beer.”

Weston’s report continued:

“Strike me dead, How did he do it?” exclaimed the C-O. Then, after a few minutes of wonderment and conjecture, he turned to his signals officer and sent the following message: ‘All here highly delighted; beer coming earliest if obtainable island’.”

 103 at base after the kill

For his actions, Pilot Officer John Archer received the United States Silver Star from Brigadier General Ennis C Whitehead, the Commanding General of Allied Air Forces in New Guinea, in a ceremony at Buna in 1943.

John Sims Archer was born in Flemington, Victoria, on 28 September 1920. He worked as a public servant before enlisting on 15 August 1941. He was first posted to 4 Squadron.

On 25 August 1943 while serving with 5 Squadron, he collided with another Wirraway during air combat practice. His plane was sent into a spin but Archer recovered, only to find he had no elevator control and he was forced to bail out, landing safely.

Archer was later posted to 75 Squadron flying P-40s and served in New Guinea. He was promoted to Flight Lieutenant in 1944. He was posted to BC Air Headquarters, Japan, in 1947, before his discharge on 5 March 1948.

He died on 3 April 2009.

Meeting the challenge

Primarily intended for training and surveillance operations, the Australian-made Wirraway was given armed capability when it entered service.

 The Wirraway

Wirraway is an Australian Aboriginal word meaning “challenge” or “to challenge”.

Wirraways were among the first planes mass-produced at the new Australian Commonwealth Aircraft Corporation.

In 1936, encouraged by the Australian Government, several private manufacturing companies combined to form the Commonwealth Aircraft Corporation (CAC) to build Australia’s first local warplanes. By 1937 a factory was completed at Fishermens Bend in Port Melbourne.

Two NA prototype models brought out from the US for study by Australian engineers who were going to build Australia’s plane were displayed at an RAAF display at Flemington racecourse in April 1938. One of the prototypes had a minor crash in 1939 and was repaired by CAC.

The British Supermarine Spitfire and Hawker Hurricane fighters were beyond the capability of Australian firms at that time. The design chosen was the North American Aircraft (NAA) NA-16 model (sometimes called the NA-33), a purpose-built trainer with in-line seating for pilot and instructor.

It was cheap and relatively easy to produce. The original contract was for 132 but more were ordered when war broke out.

It was reported that Minister for Defense Archdale Parkhill justified choosing the NA-16 “on the grounds of urgency and the lack of a suitable British design.”

CAC obtained a licence to build a version of the NA-16-2k with changes including some detail and structural alterations. The most obvious alteration was the two forward firing machine guns and the addition of a rear firing machine gun.

CAC sought to build as much of their plane as possible in Australia with Australian-made components.

The company took out a contract to build the Pratt and Whitney R-1340 Wasp 600-hp engine which gave the Wirraway a maximum speed of 220 mph ( 355 km/h). It also took out a contract to build a Hamilton Standard constant speed forged aluminum propeller.

The first Wirraways were made mostly from imported components until the Australian foundries and manufacturers could tool up.

The maiden flight of an Australian-built Wirraway was on 27 March 1939.

By July 1939, the first production planes were delivered to the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF). Their roles were to be pilot training, reconnaissance, anti-submarine patrols, bombing, and ground support.

 CAC’s Wirraway factory

By December 1940, seven aircraft were being delivered each week and by September 1941 45 were being rolled out each month.

The first five Wirraways were assigned to No. 12 Squadron, RAAF and sent to Darwin. Nine more followed when war started in the Pacific.

Despite their known deficiencies for aerial combat, the Wirraways saw active service during WWII in places such as Malaya, where a small training unit was based. The makeshift bombers, crewed with New Zealand pilots and Australian observers flew against Japanese barges.

To defend Rabaul, New Guinea, the Wirraways served as a fighter, suffering high losses. In early 1942 eight Wirraways provided Rabaul’s main air defence against a raid of 100 Japanese planes. Three Australian planes were shot down, and two others crash-landed as a result of enemy fire.

The Wirraway was also fitted to carry bombs and some variants had dive brakes fitted for use as a dive bomber. They had vital roles in identifying enemy positions with dangerous dives over gun placements, covered by fighter planes above.

War correspondent Charles Buttrrose reported in January 1943:

“No one had to tell the Wirraway crews that came to New Guinea about the disadvantages of their aircraft. They knew more about them than anyone, and they knew that there was a job for them to do in New Guinea, and they would do it even if they had to be ‘intrepid’ for weeks. Now they have been over Buna every day keeping tag on enemy movements on the ground, spying out his dumps, seeking out targets for Australian artillery, tricking the Japanese into giving away their gun positions by skimming low over the cocoanut (sic) trees where the Japanese were supposed to be hiding, dive-bombing Japanese troops and ships and spotting for the artillery during shoots. The Wirraways have been shot at frequently and holed by Japanese small arms from the ground. Even Japanese snipers in the tops of cocoanut trees have taken shots at the Australians.”

A conversation between a Wirraway pilot and a gun battery was noted: “No, that’s no blinkin’ good. You’ll have to do better. More to the left. Hang on. I’ll go down and have a look. That last one seemed good.” The Wirraway dropped down on top of a Japanese machine-gun nest and rose up again. The pilot reported in: “Nice work. Nice work. You’ve rolled the gun over. The pit is on fire and there are three little bees all in a heap.”

Despite the heroic actions around New Guinea, the Wirraway remains best known as a pilot trainer for the RAAF. Seventeen Wirraways also served that role in the Royal Australian Navy Fleet Air Arm.

In 1942 the CAC used Wirraway parts to manufacture Australia’s first locally produced purpose-built fighter, the Boomerang. Besides its service in the Second World War, it served in the Korean War. It was employed by the RAN Air Arm in 1948.

The RAAF continued to use the Wirraway as a trainer until 1959.

The RAAF’s last Wirraway flight was in December 1958 at Point Cook, Victoria. The Wirraways were replaced by Winjeels.

Sources: warfarehistorynetwork.com, Australian War Museum, various newspaper reports from Trove.com.au.

Homecoming: The town of Nhill in western Victoria welcomed home one of the best preserved Wirraways in April 2018.

Pilots trained on Wirraways based at Nhill during World War II.

The Nhill community raised $300,000 to bring the restored Wirraway “home”.

On April 28, Wirraway 722 (above) that was restored using parts from many abandoned and discarded planes flew into Nhill from Tyabb, just east of Melbourne.

Wirraway 722 will be displayed at the Nhill Aviation Heritage Centre beside an Avro Anson, Link Trainer and Tiger Moth. The foursome were main planes stationed at the Nhill RAAF training base during WWII.

Down on the farm

The Commonwealth Aircraft Factory produced a crop-duster version of the Wirraway known as the Ceres in 1958 and 21 were built using converted Wirraway airframes.

 Ceres cropduster

The Ceres was in production until 1963.

CAC’s Wirraway and Wackett planes were converted for use as crop dusters but were not ideal, the Wackett because it was under-powered and the Wirraway because it wasn’t suited to low-level slow-speed flight.

But the Wirraway was destined to play a major role in the development of an Australian built crop-duster.

A study by CAC of industry needs led to the company buying some surplus Wirraways from the RAAF to use the airframes for construction of the new plane that was to become known as the Ceres.

The new design, while looking similar to the Wirraway, was really a new type that used some Wirraway components rather than a conversion.

The Wirraway tail and landing gear legs were unchanged in the Ceres. The fuselage was new, with a 41-cubic-foot (1.16 m3) hopper installed between the engine and the high-mounted single-seat cockpit.

The Wirraway wing was altered considerably for use in the Ceres. The increased wingspan and wing area of the Ceres compared to the Wirraway was also incorporated in the centre-section, and the end result was an aircraft with much more docile stalling characteristics than those of the Wirraway.

The engine was the same type, a Pratt & Whitney R-1340, but modified so that it was direct-drive instead of geared as on the Wirraway. The three-bladed variable-pitch propeller was also different, being of wider chord and smaller diameter to suit the Ceres’ different operating conditions and the direct-drive engine.

The Ceres prototype first flew in February 1958 and the first production version was delivered the next year.

 Ready to drop super

After the first five planes were built provision was made for a rear-facing seat behind the pilot, housed under an extended canopy. This enabled farmers to accompany pilots on runs to identify boundaries and for the drivers of the loaders to leave their equipment on-site and travel to and from the job with the plane.

Six Ceres planes were exported to New Zealand.

The Ceres had a cruise speed of 121 mph (194 km/h) and an operating speed of 111.1 mph (178.7 km/h) with the maximum payload.

Production of the Ceres ended in July 1963, yielding to the popularity of more modern and economical designs such as the Piper Pawnee and PAC Fletcher. It is thought on is still registered for flight while others can be found preserved in museums in Australia an d New Zealand.

Australian users of the Ceres included Airfarm Associates of Tamworth, Airland of Cootamundra NSW, Proctors’ Rural Services of Victoria and New England Aerial Topdressing service in Armidale NSW.

The balloon went up in New Zealand

Aerial topdressing – the aerial application of fertilisers using agricultural aircraft – was developed in New Zealand in the 1940s and rapidly adopted elsewhere, and particularly in Australia in the 1950s and 60s.

Previously, aircraft had been used to deliver insecticides to crops.

According to Wikipedia, the first known aerial application of agricultural materials was by John Chaytor, who spread seed over a swamped valley floor in Wairoa, New Zealand, in 1906 using a hot air balloon with mobile tethers.

The first noted use of heavier-than-air machines to spread agricultural products has been attributed to a joint effort by the US department of Agriculture and the US Army Signal Corps research station at McCook Field in Dayton, Ohio, in 1921.

The idea was to spread lead arsenate to kill catalpa sphinx caterpillars near Troy, Ohio. The first commercial operations were begun in 1924, in Macon, Georgia, by Huff-Daland Crop Dusting, which was co-founded by McCook Field test pilot Lt. Harold R. Harris. Use of  insecticide and fungicide for crop dusting grew in the Americas and some  other nations in the 1930s. The term ‘crop dusting’ originated there, as actual dust was spread across the crops.

In Australia and New Zealand’ early use of planes for seed spreading involved the use of Gypsy Moths and Tiger Moths. But generally, they were too light to operate in all weather conditions and airstrips.

 Tiger Moth for top-dressing

By 1952, 38 firms were operating in the aerial top-dressing industry  (spreading fertiliser and seed) in New Zealand, with 149 planes, of which 138 were Tiger Moths. Some higher powered de Havilland Canada DHC-2 Beavers were the only modern types.

By 1958 there were 73 aerial topdressing firms in New Zealand, flying 279 planes.

By 1956 there were 182 aerial topdressing Tiger Moths but it was obvious the lightweight Tiger Moths would need to be replaced.

The Fletcher Aviation Corporation in the US was persuaded by a delegation of New Zealanders to develop a plane for the New Zealand market and a design for the FD-25 Defender light attack aircraft was adapted into the Fletcher Fu24, a stressed skin monoplane with a high lift wing.

It had more than three times the load capacity of the Tiger Moth. Locating the cockpit well forward, ahead of the hopper, gave the pilot all-round view from an enclosed cockpit.

 

The Fletchers (shown above) which first saw service in 1954 went on to become one of the most successful of the aerial crop-dusters and was responsible for starting New Zealand’s small aircraft building industry.

Pacific Aerospace took over manufacture of the PAC Fletcher and the larger turboprop powered PAC Cresco in New Zealand.

Fletchers and Crescos were exported to Australia, Africa, the Middle East and South America.

The first experimental topdressing in Australia was carried out by a de Haviland Tiger Moth in 1948-49.

Western Australian born engineer Tom Watson became chief engineer at a small NSW firm attempting to use Tiger Moths for pest control and to improve crop yields by spreading fertiliser.

He took that small firm into Australia’s biggest aerial agriculture organisation, Aerial Agriculture, that would spread over most of Australia to include Super Spread Aviation in Victoria and Robby’s Aerial Services in South Australia.

Watson used Tiger Moths initially because they were cheap and there were plenty around; he moved on to the de Haviland Beaver because its supercharged engine meant it could climb with a full load.

Mr Watson’s greatest achievement is seen as his modifications to the Beaver. The single-engine high-wing propeller-driven short takeoff and landing Beaver was ideal for operating out of small grassed airstrips.

 An Air Ag Beaver

At one stage companies under his control operated 56 aircraft, believed to be the world’s biggest fleet of the type. The Beaver was so successful it was still spreading superphosphate in Australia until October 2009, the last one operating from Walcha in NSW.

By 1967 when production ceased more than 1,600 Beavers had been constructed. Several have been remanufactured and upgraded with some in use as float planes.

As well as superphosphate and seed spreading agricultural planes have been used for aerial spraying of insecticides in industries such as cotton and other crops. Helicopters are also used for such applications.

Aerial top-dressing has been used around the world, including in Great Britain and the United States.

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