Townsville’s first aerodrome

Nothing remains in suburban Annandale to suggest that this quite suburb on the southern banks of the Ross River was once the City of Townsville ‘s only public aerodrome.

In  November 1938 City Council announced it would be constructing a new aerodrome costing £7,226. Two thousand pounds of this was to be contributed by the Civil Aviation Board, £2,500 by the Slate Government, and the balance of £2,725 is to be met by the City Council. The announcement was criticized by residents and Councillors alike, Alderman Aiken’s chief reason being ‘that the revenue from ‘planes landing In Townsville was negligible.’

(Tom Lockley collection)

Reports dating back to 1930 show that the city’s first Ross River aerodrome would routinely become boggy and unserviceable following heavy downpours, resulting in the cancellation of scheduled air services from the south. This vulnerability, combined with a lack of sanitation, drinking water and shelter eventually forced one of the site’s two commercial tenants, North Queensland Airways, to permanently relocate – in April 1938 – to the privately owned  Mount St John Robinson aerodrome five miles west of the city.

…the state of the Townsville Aerodrome in wet weather, and the condition in which the ground was left due to cars running over the wet ground at the time that the ‘Douglas’ plane [Kyilla] was bogged, caused considerable damage to the undercarriages of North Queensland Airways’ planes and great expense was incurred in the repairing of same, so much so that when the St. John Robinson Aerodrome was licensed, the company decided to make this ground their headquarters. A further reason for this decision is the fact that at the Townsville Aerodrome there is no public water supply or sanitary arrangements. At the St. John Robinson Aerodrome there are pleasant surroundings in which to await the arrival or departure of the planes, the ground being in very good order and with all conveniences. There will be no further delays in the handling or Air Mails as at the old aerodrome, due to the flood waters in the Ross River, and it is with pleasure that North Queensland Airways wish lo state that in future their total services will operate from the St. John Robinson Aerodrome. — Yours etc.. North Q’land Airways Pty. Lid., T. McDONALD, Man. Director.  (Townsville Daily Bulletin, 25 April 1938, page 10)

Airlines of Australia’s DC-2 VH-UYB, Ross River Plains aerodrome, 1938 (Townsville City Libraries).

Previously administered by a Trust, City Council only assumed full responsibility for the Ross River aerodrome in 1937 after a readjustment of the City and Thuringowa Shire boundaries. This coincided with advice from the Civil Aviation Board that aerodrome improvements (i.e. tree clearing) would be necessary if Townsville wanted to be included as a regular stopover on the Board’s proposed Sydney to New Guinea air mail service.

Model A Stinson VH-UKK, appropriately renamed ‘Townsville’, was the first aircraft to land at the City’s new Garbutt airfield on 1st February 1939.

Strong opposition from a most unlikely quarter, in August 1938, would eventually help seal the fate of the City’s first public aerodrome, at least as a site for civil operations…’The members of the Charters Towers Branch of the Central and  Northern Graziers’ Association, who  are all cattle owners, are seriously  concerned by the damage caused to  their fat cattle by the proximity of  the aerodrome at Ross River, Townsville, to the meatworks. During the year, there are about 60,000 head of fat cattle disturbed, and in many cases badly bruised by the arrival and departure or aeroplanes at such close quarters, which is definitely injurious to our chilled beef.’

Council subsequently reserved 5,661 acres for the current Garbutt aerodrome which was officially opened on 1st February 1939, coinciding with a rapid expansion there of RAAF (Royal Australian Air Force) facilities.

RAAF Ross River, c.1942 (National Archives of Australia: A705, 171/19/261 Page 31 of 8).

Several satellite airfields were hastily constructed around Townsville during the early years of the Second World War, Council’s Ross River aerodrome having also been requisitioned for military purposes in March 1942. Although the Royal Australian Air Force eventually vacated the site on 11th February 1946, it took the Commonwealth another two-and-a-half years to dispose of its assets at Ross River and fully relinquish its interests there (NAA: A705, 171/106/381).

James Carey’s homebuilt Flying Flea was test flown on the Town Common in 1938, near to the present-day Garbutt airfield site. It was first flown by Carey’s friend Bill Stewart of West End who was killed just a few years later while serving with the Royal Air Force, being posthumously awarded the Distinguished Flying Medal (W J Laurie collection, Townsville Library).