Bushfire aerial reconnaissance.

Another Australian first.

The first fire spotting aircraft in Australia was deployed on 18 February 1930 when a RAAF Westland Wapiti from No.1 Squadron operating out of Point Cook near Melbourne flew over the nearby Dandenong Ranges.

The first Chairman of the Forests Commission, Owen Jones, had been one of Britain’s pioneering aviators in the Royal Flying Corp during WW1.

He fully understood that aircraft had three main advantages: speed, access and observation.

Experience has consistently shown that early detection and aggressive first attack are the keys to keeping bushfires small and gives the best chance for control.

In the early part of last century, there was limited road access to the extensive mountain forests, particularly in the remote and uninhabited eastern ranges so there was strong enthusiasm amongst Victorian foresters for aerial reconnaissance.

Discussions took place with the Air Board as early as 1926, and then over a period of years prior to 1929-30, with the view to commencing regular fire patrols using RAAF aircraft but a lack of safe landing areas proved the main obstacle.

Communications from the aircraft were sent in Morse code to the Air Board at RAAF Laverton who then passed the information on to Forests Commission fire controllers.

But poor communication systems with the ground hampered their effectiveness. It was not until the summer of 1939-40 that an aircraft was able to directly communicate by radio with the FCV District Office at Powelltown.

The use of RAAF aircraft was expanded after the Stretton Royal Commission into the 1939 bushfires.

By the summer of 1945-46, 114 flights were made with up to eight RAAF aircraft in the air on bad fire days. They operated from bases at Point Cook, Ballarat, East Sale and Bairnsdale and reported 438 outbreaks.

The following year, RAAF Consolidated B-24 Liberators and Avro Lincoln Bombers were made available, supplemented by Avro Anson’s and DC-3 Dakotas.

A major risk to all air fire operations is reduced visibility due to dust, smoke, fog and even low cloud. It was reported on 22 March 1945 that visibility was reduced to zero and all RAAF reconnaissance aircraft were grounded with the result that a fire near Toolangi reached a considerable size before being detected.

However, by 1959-60 the use of chartered cheaper flights from private operators in light aircraft became more common and the last RAAF patrol took place in 1963-64.


RAAF A5 Westland Wapitis flying over Albert Park Lake Melbourne circa 1930. Source: Australian & New Zealand Military Aircraft Serials & History
Newspaper reporting on RAAF Wapiti reconnaissance flights for the Forests Commission. Sun, Thursday 7 January 1932.
Forests Commission aerial fire patrol map of the Otways – 1939. Produced for Stretton Royal Commission. Source: State Library

One thought on “Bushfire aerial reconnaissance.

  1. I’ve been waiting for this report, aerial reco is one thing I’ve always been interested in. Great story, great history preserved! My interest was sparked when we had a bell helicopter land at our primary school in the late 50’s ( heyfield)

    Liked by 1 person

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