When the RAAF got its wings a century ago, it had more aircraft than pilots.
There were just 149 personnel, including pilots and mechanics, but 170 aircraft.
Due to celebrate 100 years on March 31, the RAAF is considered to be among the world’s most capable.
Aviation author Andrew McLaughlin, editor of Australian Defence Business Review magazine, said the RAAF has realised significant technological advancement.
“In the past two decades it has replaced every platform – except the F/A-18A/B classic Hornet, the last of which will be retired at the end of 2021 – with advanced and, in some cases, world-leading capabilities,” he told AAP.
The RAAF has also introduced technology such as the E-7A Wedgetail airborne command and control platform, the EA-18G Growler electronic attack aircraft, and soon, the MQ-4C Triton uncrewed maritime surveillance aircraft, McLaughlin said.
“Arguably more importantly, the RAAF has introduced new skills in electronic warfare, command and control, systems integration, and research and development that will ensure the RAAF and wider ADF can operate effectively alone or as part of a larger coalition to protect Australia’s interests,” he said.
Until the RAAF’s foundation, in March 1921, Australia’s fighting aircraft had formed part of the Army, founded along with the Navy on March 1, 1901, shortly after federation. Both services celebrate 120 years this year.
Australian air power emerged from the Imperial Conference in London in 1911 which determined that nations of the British empire needed to develop an aviation branch.
This was still the dawn of aviation – the Wright brothers had achieved the world’s first powered flight barely seven years earlier.
Australia chose a site at Point Cook, west of Melbourne for the flying training school in 1914 and Point Cook remains the spiritual home of the RAAF.
During WWI, Australian airmen served with distinction in the Middle East and Western Front but with the end of the war, military aviation virtually ceased until 1920 when the Australian Flying Corps was formed.
The interwar years were not kind to the new RAAF – there was little money for defence – though aviators, many who had gained their skills during the war, achieved great things.
In 1920, three of them founded Qantas. In 1928 Charles Kingsford Smith made the first trans-Pacific flight.
By the start of WWII, the RAAF was small – just 246 aircraft – but grew rapidly. Initially, Australian aircraft and aircrew served in Europe and continued to do so until 1945.
When Japan entered the war, the RAAF was mauled in initial encounters but then grew in skill and numbers. With supplies of aircraft from traditional sources not assured, Australia stood up local design and manufacturing.
Since WWII, the RAAF has served in conflicts in Korea, Malaya, Vietnam and the Middle East as well as supporting numerous peacekeeping and disaster relief missions in Australia and around the world.
* Australian aircraft first flew operationally over Iraq, then called Mesopotamia, in 1915. RAAF aircraft last flew combat missions over Iraq and also Syria in the campaign against Islamic State.
* The first Victoria Cross to an Australian airman went to Lieutenant Frank McNamara who in 1917 in Palestine landed his aircraft to rescue a fellow pilot from charging Turkish cavalry. Only three other Australian airmen have been awarded the VC.
* At the end of WWII, the RAAF was the fourth-largest air force in the world, with more than 150,000 personnel operating almost 6000 aircraft. Only the air forces of the US, UK and Russia were bigger.
* In 1975, a RAAF Caribou transport aircraft delivering Red Cross supplies during East Timor’s civil war was hijacked at gunpoint by Timorese soldiers who demanded to be flown to Darwin. It was going there anyway. No one was hurt but the 54 on board was near double normal capacity.