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The Scrap Metal Squadron: A History of the Moorabbin Air Museum

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The scene that confronted Museum members often in the early 1960ís. This is all that remains of a DeHavilland Moth Minor that had been left to rot in the open. The location is unknown.

In the early 1960ís a small band of aviation enthusiasts belonging to the Aviation Historical Society of Australia became concerned that almost nothing was being done to preserve Australiaís aviation heritage. As they toured various airfields around the country the decay and destruction was evident for all to see; from the remaining military scrap yards to country airfields where old aircraft were left to rot through sheer neglect. At first they were rather sad at the sight, then they got angry and then they became ambitious!. If no-one else would save these aircraft, then they would.

In March 1962 the Australian Aircraft Restoration Group (AARG) was formed and itís unambiguously expressed aim was to "Preserve Australiaís Aviation Heritage". That aim has not changed in the last 40 years. How a group of ordinary people built one of the finest aeronautical collections in the world is a story worth telling. Much of what has become the finest collection of Australian designed or built aircraft on Earth was collected from the scrap yards of the nation. From castoffs and rubbish has emerged a national treasure and it has all been achieved using volunteer labour.

The birth of the Moorabbin Air Museum was hardly an easy one and nor was it planned. When the AARG was formed the somewhat vague idea was to merely save aircraft and eventually hand them on to some other organisation to restore and display them. Very quickly those early AARG members found that acquiring aircraft was no real problem; in the 1960ís there were plenty of derelict aircraft to be had, virtually for the taking. In very short order a CAC Wirraway and Boomerang; DeHavilland Tiger Moth and Gipsy Moth together with a CAC Mustang, CAC Wackett Trainer and Percival Proctor were collected. The real problem became what to do with the aircraft once they were acquired and for several years the group led a rather nomadic existence, occupying property at Wandin and Lilydale : anywhere where airframes could be stored. The other problem to very quickly emerge was money; or more accurately the lack of it.

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In early May 1965 the Moorabbin Air Museum story began when the museum site was established at Moorabbin Airport.

Because the AARG had no source of income, the operation of the Group was underwritten by the members. This was a situation that could not continue and with no saviour in sight a very bold decision was taken : if the aircraft were to survive they would have to earn their keep. In 1964 the Department of Civil Aviation was approached by the AARG with the view to leasing an area of land at Moorabbin Airport, in the South Eastern Suburbs of Melbourne, for the purpose of setting up a museum of Australian aviation. Just how radical an idea this was has been overlooked by many historians. In 1964 the number of privately administered aviation museums in the world could be easily counted on the fingers of one hand!. Those run on a volunteer basis were considerably rarer.

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This is how the Museum looked circa 1968. The aircraft collection had grown enormously in only a few years but the lack of undercover space was soon to seriously impact on the Museum.

On May 20th 1965 the leased compound was fenced ; the first aircraft moved on site and the Moorabbin Air Museum was open for business. For the next 20 years the museum grew as more and more aircraft came into the collection and the theme of the Museum was quickly established. An aircraft or artefact acquired by the Museum had to be relevant to Australian aviation history. Without realising it the Museum was establishing, what would be labelled by museum professionals years later; a collection policy. This theme is what held the museum collection together and provided a sense of purpose to the collection. Other aviation museums would form in Australia but none would acquire the vast range of aircraft types; all of which related directly to Australian history. This collection ranges from gliders and homebuilts to World War 2 combat aircraft; jet fighters; crop dusters and four engine airliners.

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The single most significant event in the Museumís history was the erection of the display hangar to protect the aircraft from the elements. See above during construction in 1991 is the second stage of the current museum hangar.

By the early 1980ís the aircraft collection had grown to a very impressive 30 machines but another very hard lesson had been learned. Collecting aircraft, restoring them and displaying them was not enough. At this time the Museum was still an open air display and the ravages of the weather were beginning to play havoc with the aircraft. No matter how robustly constructed an aircraft may be, if it is left exposed to the elements it will eventually succumb.

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Itís a long way from outdoor exhibition; the Museumís Percival Proctor is framed by the nose of our Mirage jet fighter. The magnificently restored Proctor is made entirely from wood and it would be utterly destroyed if it was displayed in the open.

During the 1970ís and Ď80ís there had been various proposals put forward by government and private groups to fund a National Aviation Museum in Victoria. The Moorabbin Air Museum was involved in many of these deliberations, but by the late 1980ís it had become apparent that none of these schemes would reach fruition. Again the Museum Directors realised that the only way to ensure the long term survival of the aircraft was to take action themselves and in 1988 all surplus assets of the museum were liquidated in order to provide funds to erect an 8,000 sq ft hangar on the Museum site. In April 1989 that hangar was completed and three years later it was extended to 12,000 sq ft. In the intervening years a library, workshop and store had also been erected together with an entry building and shop.

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One of the finest restorations ever to emerge from the Museumís workshop is our CAC Ceres crop duster. When this aircraft was acquired in 1985 it was a shattered hulk that took eight years to rebuild. It is often described as 2 tons of resurrected junk!

Over the years the Moorabbin Air Museum has been recognised by a number of awards, the most prestigious of which was a Certificate of Merit in the 1985 Museum of the Years Awards. Apart from the preservation of aircraft the museumís other great accomplishment has been the number of young members who have gone on to careers in aviation or museology; the experience gained while at the museum standing them in good stead in their working lives.

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Acquiring an aircraft is not always easy: moving it never is! Seen above is the move of the Museumís Vickers Viscount airliner from Wobbies World in Springvale in 1996. The fuselage alone weighed 8.5 tons and is 92 feet long. This is the only survivor of the Viscount left in Australia; representing the 30 odd aircraft that served with TAA and Ansett. Early in itís career this machine flew with the Cuban airline CUBANA and was, for a time, the personal aircraft of Cuban dictator Fidel Castro.

To many it would seem that the museum has accomplished its goals; but in truth we have barely started. Between 1980 and 2000 the aircraft collection increased by an average of one airframe per year. The collection now totals 52 machines and that makes the museum the largest aircraft owner on Moorabbin Airport. It is an aeronautical collection larger than half the worldís airlines and a third of the worldís air forces and only one third of it is displayed under cover. The rest is in storage, on loan, under restoration or, at worst, on display in the open air.

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The acquisition program never ceases. Seen here is the Museumís latest aircraft on arrival in March 2000. It is an Australian designed and built GAF Jindivik target drone and is Australiaís most successful aircraft design. Jindivik is an Aboriginal word meaning "the hunted one".

The museum hangar must be expanded from its present 12,000 sq ft to 42,000 sq ft and even that will not be enough. It will however buy sufficient time to ensure those aircraft most at risk and those in the restoration shops are displayed under cover. In 2000 the museum is steadily working towards that goal. The City of Kingston has provided $25,000 towards that building program in recognition of the Museumís contribution to Australiaís heritage.

Today the Moorabbin Air Museum attracts visitors from all over the world. Each year thousands of wide eyed school children come to learn about the magic of flight and Australiaís part in the development of aviation. All of this started with a vague idea; a determination largely born in ignorance of the enormous difficulties that would present themselves and the museum members, past and present, who could not bear to stand and watch the great planes die.

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The museumís next great challenge is to build the hangar extensions to increase the under cover display space to 42,000 sq ft. The artist impression above shows the museum as we hope it will appear by the end of 2002.

Author

Keith Gaff

Footnotes

  • Keith Gaff is the President of the Australian Aircraft Restoration Group.

Article Cat. Events in the Past
Article Ref. 38

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