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Harrison, Eric (1886–1945)

by John McCarthy

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 9, (MUP), 1983

Eric Harrison (1886-1945), aviator and regular air force officer, was born on 10 August 1886 at Clinkers Hill, near Castlemaine, Victoria, fourth son of Victorian-born Joseph Wilkinson Harrison, printer and stationer, and his wife Ann Eliza, née Ingamels, from Yorkshire, England. Educated at Castlemaine Grammar School, he became a motor mechanic. After witnessing a flight by a representative of the Bristol Aircraft Co., he left for England in March 1911 to learn to fly. Accompanying him were three friends who were also to make their mark in Australian aviation: H. A. Kauper, H. G. Hawker and H. Busteed. Harrison trained on the Bristol Box-kite at the company's flying school at Salisbury Plain and in August qualified as a pilot after, he later said, some thirty minutes tuition; he was awarded the Royal Aero Club's pilot certificate no.131 on the world register. He was employed by Bristol as a flying instructor, taught for them at the Spanish Army School and then in Italy, and was chief instructor at the Bristol flying school at Halberstadt, Germany, where he also acted as examiner of German military pilots.

In 1912 the Australian government advertised in the British press for two 'mechanists and aviators'. H. A. Petre, who was at that time employed by the British Deperdussin School, and Harrison were appointed. On 16 December he was made an honorary lieutenant on the Aviation Instructional Staff, Australian Military Forces, and after overseeing the construction of the training aircraft purchased by the government, joined Petre at the newly formed flying instructional centre at Point Cook, Victoria, in January 1914; the two were to establish the Central Flying School there and on 1 March Harrison made the first flight from Point Cook in a Bristol Box-kite. On 29 June, at St Mary's Catholic Church, West Melbourne, he married Kathleen, daughter of George Michael Prendergast.

After the outbreak of war he was commissioned lieutenant on the permanent staff, A.M.F., and by 17 August was training Australia's first military pilots who comprised the half-flight sent to Mesopotamia under Petre's command in 1915. In September 1914 Harrison was placed in charge of the flying unit sent to German New Guinea with the Australian Naval and Military Expeditionary Force but enemy resistance was slight and the aircraft were not uncrated. On returning to Australia he remained at Point Cook and was responsible for training the first three Australian squadrons to be sent overseas. In 1916 he pioneered the building of aircraft engines in Australia and was promoted temporary major in June 1917 and officer-in-charge, Central Flying School; he was appointed major in the Australian Imperial Force on 9 September 1918. When Point Cook was closed at the end of the war he was sent to the United Kingdom on attachment to the Aeronautical Inspection Directorate. He was transferred to the Royal Australian Air Force on its formation in 1921 and, with the rank of squadron leader, was its liaison officer with the Air Ministry in London until 1925.

In 1927 Harrison returned to Australia as assistant director, technical services, R.A.A.F., and in May became a foundation member of the Air Accident Investigation Committee. He was also appointed director of aeronautical inspection and on 1 July 1928 was promoted wing commander. He travelled extensively in Australia probing into aircraft crashes and inspecting air force equipment. On 1 January 1935 he was promoted group captain and in 1937 visited the United Kingdom to study air accident investigating procedures and aircraft production methods. He was retired from the R.A.A.F. on 12 March 1938 but retained his appointment as director of aeronautical inspection in a civilian capacity. During World War II the development of the local aircraft industry led to an expansion of his highly technical work and by 1945 he was directing a staff of over 1200.

Survived by his wife and daughter, Harrison died on 5 September 1945 from hypertensive cerebro-vascular disease at his home in Brighton, Melbourne, and was cremated. He has been called the 'Father of the R.A.A.F.', a title which he should share with Petre. A Deperdussin monoplane which was part of the original equipment at Point Cook and which Harrison helped to erect is on display at the Australian War Memorial.

Select Bibliography

  • M. Hawker, H. G. Hawker, Airman (Lond, 1922)
  • F. M. Cutlack, The Australian Flying Corps in the Western and Eastern Theatres of War, 1914-1918 (Syd, 1923)
  • Dept of Air, The Golden Years
  • the Royal Australian Air Force 1921-71 (Canb, 1971)
  • R. Williams, These are Facts (Canb, 1977)
  • Aircraft (Melbourne), Oct 1945
  • Punch (Melbourne), 9 July 1914
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 10 Jan, 17 May 1927, 7 Sept 1945
  • Herald (Melbourne), 23 Feb 1927, 9, 13 Jan, 17 July 1936, 24 Sept, 4 Oct 1937
  • Argus (Melbourne), 7 Sept 1945.

Citation details

John McCarthy, 'Harrison, Eric (1886–1945)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/harrison-eric-6583/text11329, published in hardcopy 1983, accessed online 21 October 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 9, (MUP), 1983

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