Post 54: The Cooranbong Airport and Adventist Aviation

On 17 April 2012 I had occasion to drive up Avondale Road to the administrative office of the Adventist Schools, and noted the earthworks that were underway at the new subdivision being developed west of Avondale Road. That experience recalled for me the intriguing history of the “back paddock” of what is now Avondale College of Higher Education. Hence this post.

The first Seventh-day Adventist missionaries arrived in Australia during 1885; after only nine years a group rowed up Dora Creek to Cooranbong and chose 585 hectares as the location for a multi-disciplinary, co-educational college. At that time the land on which we stand this morning had known centuries of sustainable use by Aborigines; during the last 112 years it has been used variously for grazing; as a source for firewood and pit props (that’s coal miner’s language); and as a location for recreational aviation, evangelistic aviation and flying instruction.

Innovation and Danger: Enter Adventurers

The early years of aviation in Australia abound in stories of people rather larger than life, especially men with imaginations fired by such events as Charles Lindberg’s 1927 flight across the Atlantic. We salute the Cooranbong residents who determined to defy gravity, sometimes in vulnerable-looking, homemade flying machines. When Albert Harris built Sky Baby Too, its wings were covered in calico, varnished to make the calico taut. The early saga of adventure, skill, risk-taking and crashes also had some successes.

There were dangers aplenty. How to get enough space to fly was one of them; room to land was the rather literal flip side of that issue. The present airstrip’s history begins on 26 June 1946 when an undated letter was received from three persons (identified in the College Board minutes as “Brethren Harris, Davis and Lantzke”) requested “permission to clear and prepare ground for an airstrip in the 600 acre back paddock.” The Board voted to grant the requested permission, specifying “that the sponsors be willing to vacate at call and that the airstrip be formed in such a way as not to destroy valuable timber.” A letter signed by the College Principal conveyed the Board’s decision to “Mr. A. Harris of Avondale Road, Cooranbong.” At the Board meeting on 18 September 1946, “a letter from Allen Allen and Hemsley, regarding the legal aspect of matters pertaining to the use of the airstrip in the back section of the College property” was noted before the Board voted: “That we allow the air strip to be used only in accordance with the advice of the Solicitors, namely, that no charge be made and that Messrs. Lantzke, Harris and Davis be required to sign a contract that the field will not be used in any commercial way.”

Construction of the airport began with hand tools (no wonder Albert Harris was tired when he arrived for his afternoon shift in the press at the Sanitarium Health Food Company!) but implements later included a “forest devil” and eventually bulldozers and graders sometimes driven by volunteer owners like John Strong. Long-time resident Herb Pocock recalls (2004) that his father, Herbert George (Bert) Pocock, loaned his “forest devil” to the group clearing the airstrip and later disced and harrowed the surface with his team of horses. In recognition of this assistance, Frank Wainman promised Bert the first ride in a plane taking off from the airstrip, a promise that Herb says was fulfilled.

At first the airstrip was too short for Australia’s aviation standards, even though it was (apparently) used in unofficial landings. A more official opening and landing (it is claimed) took place in 1949 (but that particular event may have been as late as 1952); the airstrip was from time to time extended and upgraded over many years. Meanwhile the number of aviation enthusiasts grew steadily. When in the 1950s I played in the Avondale Advent Band with Frank Wainman, I could never work out whether he was a garage proprietor whose real passion was flying or an aviator who ran the garage at the corner of Maitland Road and Alton Road to pay for his real career: flying.

Enthusiasm and Vision: the Adventist Aviation Association and Instruction

One of the side effects of World War II was a heightened awareness of the possibilities of aviation. Adventists began to dream that the Good News might be shared more effectively with the help of aeroplanes; Dick Hall pioneered the concept in Borneo; a South American initiative was taking shape in 1960, followed by Inter-America and Africa. Len Barnard, a young medic who served in New Guinea during the horrors of war had gained his pilot licence in 1946. Beginning as superintendent of a leper colony in 1948, Len served as an Adventist missionary in Papua New Guinea until 1972. For years that pilot licence seemed to be burning a hole in Barnard’s pocket: “Lord,” he thought, “you have three angels flying in the midst of heaven while I’m ploughing through mud on earth.” Fund-raising and logistics converged on July 1, 1964, when Barnard landed a plane at Goroka and Colin Winch teamed up with him. The success of mission aviation, frequently using handmade airstrips, highlighted two things: a need for flight training and the promise of evangelistic aviation here in the brown land of distance.

So, back in Australia, Len was a catalyst for developing the Adventist Aviation Association as a way to transport people quickly from the coastal fringe to inland towns of New South Wales. There are filing cabinets with fat files telling of that sterling endeavour, so well narrated by Mary Stellmaker as publicity officer and even supported by a Womens Auxiliary. The success of Adventist aviation in Papua New Guinea demonstrated a need for better airport facilities that would enable flying instruction. In the Magnusson decade it also seemed logical for Avondale College to do what Andrews University and other institutions had done: develop a Flying School.  That program brought minister/pilot Colin Winch to Cooranbong, 1979-1982, to be followed by such others as Glynn Lock, Garry Fraser and their teams.

Facilities for a School of Aviation

Drawings by architects and engineers from the 1970s record the airport’s most significant developments with two runways, lights for night landings and improved buildings. The Board on 16 March 1977 received a seven-point report from the Aviation Sub-Committee and before the year was over granted “approval in principle to plans as submitted for building and landscaping of the flying school facility on the airstrip section of the Cooranbong estate.”  The same year, the Board accepted the quotation from W.G. Guidox Pty. Ltd. of $22,000 for the construction of the proposed east-west runway” and approved “the purchase of a Cessna 152 aircraft for the Avondale [College] Flying School.” The next year, at an estimated additional cost of $4,000, it adjusted the location of the east-west runway, and planned the dedication of the Cessna 152. On 22 June 1978, it decided to fence the new east-west runway “at an estimated cost of $3,000 to be financed from the special appropriation for the development of the flying program”; later it appointed B.B. Houliston as supervisor of the projected building of “Stage I of the Flying School facility at the College airstrip.” In 1979, the Board authorised the Airport Control Committee to “extend flying training operations” and to “extend the use of airstrip and tie-down facilities to other selected private operators.”

Transition

The story of the Cooranbong airstrip is part of a narrative about people whose dreams of human flight for recreation, for sharing the Good News and for training pilots involved hard work, ingenuity and energetic fundraising. It was a venture involving cooperation from many different people. Today we are seeing an initiative towards wise stewardship of land that Avondale’s pioneers sacrificed to buy in the 1890s. Times have changed, vastly, in many ways. The new location of the Flying School takes about as long to reach from Cooranbong as it used to take me to walk from Haskell Hall to the airstrip, when I was cutting pit props here in the 1950s. I trust this new generation will confront its obstacles with the energy and the spirit shown by Avondale’s original founders and later those magnificent men in their primitive flying machines, plus the others who developed the Adventist Aviation Association and the School of Aviation, transforming bushland into an airstrip and the facility cherished in this community until the end of 2005.

Arthur Patrick, 31 August 2004; revised 23 September  2004 and 5 February 2006, posted 18 April 2012

 

About adventiststudies

Arthur Nelson Patrick, DMin, PhD, is an Honorary Senior Research Fellow, Avondale College of Higher Education, New South Wales, Australia
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