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Sir Lawrence James Wackett (2 January 1896 – 18 March 1982) is widely regarded as "father of the Australian aircraft industry".
He has been described as "one of the towering figures in the history of Australian aviation covering, as he did, virtually all aspects of activities: pilot, designer of airframes and engines, entrepreneur and manager".
He was knighted for his services to aviation and was a winner of the Oswald Watt Gold Medal.
He was also a keen angler and wrote two books on the subject.
Early years, war service and education
Wackett was born in Townsville, Queensland, on 2 January 1896. He joined the Australian Army and graduated from the Royal Military College, Duntroon, then with the rank of lieutenant joined No. 1 Squadron of the Australian Flying Corps (AFC) which had formed at Point Cook the day before his 20th birthday. He was one of twelve pilots that went to Egypt with the Squadron to operate in support of the Sinai and Palestine Campaign, embarking on 16 March 1916 and arriving at Suez four weeks later.
In Egypt he designed a mounting to attach a Lewis Gun to the upper wing of his BE2c; considerably improving the fighting ability of a type that was described by Hudson Fysh (who served with Wackett in No. 1 Squadron.) as the "poorest of all offensive, or defensive aircraft". The BE2c was normally armed with a machine gun at the observer's position, but the observer sat in front of the pilot and behind the engine, and between the upper and lower wings. This meant that the machine gun could only be fired in fairly narrow arcs if the Observer was to avoid hitting his own aircraft. Wackett's modification meant that all he had to do was point the whole aircraft at his adversary and that he had a measure of protection when on a bombing mission (because the BE2c could carry bombs or an Observer, but not both).
Wackett used his modified BE2c to good effect on several occasions. He once gave the enemy pause when while on a reconnaissance mission he was attacked by two Rumpler C.Is. Wackett flew towards them firing the gun and the Rumplers broke off the fight. On 11 November 1916 he was in his BE2c on a 7-hour bombing mission to Beersheba with four other BE2s and a Martinsyde G.100 when the formation came under attack by two much superior German aircraft. Wackett was able to use his aircraft to assist the Martinsyde in defending their comrades and fighting off the attack. On the night of the 14/15 January 1917, 16 Jewish workers (mostly masons, carpenters and plumbers) who had been working in Beer Sheba under the Turkish Military Authority, were sleeping in a railway carriage at Beer Sheba Railway Station when a RAF BC2c dropped a 45 kg bomb very near the carriage killing all of them. Later investigations by British and Australian air-force historians confirmed that the pilot was an Australian. Further investigation and in-depth study of British, Australian and Turkish records by researcher Dr. Ilan Gal Peer, confirmed that the most likely pilot was Wackett of Number 1 Squadron attached to EEF, who believed a non-existent ammunitions shed was located in the immediate vicinity.
Wackett later transferred to No. 3 Squadron AFC in France and played a significant role in the Battle of Hamel fought on 4 July 1918. Captured German documents revealed that they had been experimenting with dropping ammunition from aircraft and No. 3 Squadron was asked to investigate doing the same. Wackett was asked to do the work as his reputation had spread; 'he had a gift for mechanical inventions' according to his superiors. Now a captain, he devised a small parachute that could be used to drop supplies to troops, designed a modified bomb rack to hold the supplies and then trained No. 3 Squadron personnel in the required technique. General Monash's battle plan for Hamel involved resupplying the engaged machine-gunners with ammunition dropped by aircraft. In the event No. 3 Squadron was assigned other tasks during the battle and the ammunition dropping was performed by No. 9 Squadron RAF. Monash later wrote, "at least 100,000 rounds of ammunition were [dropped] during the battle with obvious economy in lives and wounds. The method thus initiated became general in later months". Later that year, on 25 September, Wackett undertook a daring reconnaissance mission in 3 Squadron's first Bristol F.2 Fighter, when he penetrated six miles (10 km) behind enemy lines to take aerial photographs of the German Joncourt-Villers Outreaux line, that were needed for a forthcoming attack. Two days later he carried out an ammunition resupply flight to some isolated troops using the equipment he had designed. As a result of these two actions he was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross. By the end of the war two months later he had been promoted to the rank of major. On 6 January 1919 he was appointed the Commanding Officer of No. 7 Squadron AFC based at Leighterton in England. 7 Sqn. had acted as the training unit for No. 3 Squadron during the recent conflict and Wackett remained the CO until the Squadron was disbanded in March that year, at which time he returned to Australia.
Post-war, Wackett was one of just 21 officers who formed the nucleus of the new Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) in 1921. He had a strong belief in the need to develop an indigenous aircraft industry and completed a Bachelor of Science degree at the University of Melbourne, then had two years of advanced training in aircraft design under Frank Barnwell, designer of the F.2 Fighter aircraft that he had flown while serving with No. 3 Squadron AFC. He entered and won second prize in the 1924 Low-Powered Aeroplane Competition (held at Richmond in December that year) with his first design, the Warbler. This was a parasol wing monoplane powered by an engine also of his own design, the Wizard, a two-cylinder horizontally-opposed monosoupape-type pusher engine developing 25 hp (19 kW).
Awards and honours
- Knight Commander of the Order of the British Empire.
- Distinguished Flying Cross.
- Air Force Cross
- 1974 Royal Federation of Aero Clubs of Australia Oswald Watt Gold Medal.
- 1978 Royal Society of New South Wales James Cook Medal.
- Fellow of the Royal Aeronautical Society.
- 2015 Queensland Business Leaders Hall of Fame