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Wackett, Ellis Charles ('Wack') (1901–1984)

by Alan Stephens

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 18, (MUP), 2012

Ellis Charles Wackett (1901-1984), air force officer and engineer, was born on 13 August 1901 at Townsville, Queensland, youngest of three children of English-born James Wackett, storekeeper, and his Victorian-born wife Alice, née Lawrence. After early schooling in Townsville, in 1914 Wackett entered the Royal Australian Naval College, Jervis Bay, Federal Capital Territory, as a cadet midshipman. Following graduation in 1919, he spent two years at sea before sailing for Britain to attend the Royal Naval College, Greenwich, and the Royal Naval Engineering College, Keyham. In 1923 he transferred to the Royal Australian Air Force with the rank of flying officer and underwent pilot training on Salisbury Plain. As well as gaining his pilot wings, he graduated in 1925 with distinction in aeronautics from the Imperial College of Science and Technology, London, and became an associate fellow of the Royal Aeronautical Society.

Having qualified as the RAAF’s first trained parachute instructor, Wackett, on 26 May 1926, became the first person in Australia to make a free-fall jump from a service aircraft. Between official duties he found time to play rugby. On 14 April 1928 he married Doreen Ivy Dove at All Saints Church of England, St Kilda, Melbourne. Wackett returned to Britain in 1933 to attend the RAF Staff College, Andover, and the following year toured the United States of America to study the aircraft industry.

A member of the General Duties (Technical) Branch, Wackett became the RAAF’s senior engineer in May 1935 when he assumed the office of director of technical services at Air Force Headquarters, Melbourne. He was able to draw on the support of his elder brother, Australia’s best-known aircraft designer, the mercurial L. J. Wackett. A former RAAF officer himself, in 1922 ‘L.J.’ had established the RAAF’s technical department that ‘E.C.’ now headed.

A large, shambling man, 6 ft 1 in (185 cm) tall, with brown-grey hair and brown eyes, and deceptively sleepy looking, Wackett tended to disguise his quiet determination and fine intellect with an unassuming modesty. Regarded as a wise leader, he was often described as ‘very intelligent’ and ‘sharp as a tack’. His staff served him with affection and loyalty, referring to him either as ‘Wack’ or ‘Punch’, the latter because his distinctive nose and chin reminded some humorist of the puppet in the Punch and Judy show.

Wackett was a squadron leader when appointed director of technical services. He was to remain the RAAF’s senior engineer for twenty-four continuous years and through five ranks. For the final seventeen of those years he was a member of the Air Board, a record tenure that allowed him to add unrivalled corporate knowledge and committee skills to his considerable intellectual talents.

Promoted to temporary group captain in 1940, Wackett was responsible for managing the technical aspects of the RAAF’s remarkable wartime expansion from some 3500 personnel and 250 obsolescent aircraft in 1939 to about 170,000 personnel and 5600 aircraft by 1945. He was appointed OBE in 1941 and promoted to acting air commodore in 1942—partial testimony to his admirable leadership.

Notwithstanding his exceptional wartime service, Wackett’s greatest contribution to the RAAF came after World War II when, largely through his efforts, a specialist Technical Branch was formed on 23 September 1948. Wackett, who had been promoted to air vice-marshal in 1947, was appointed the first air member for technical services. He argued that air forces were becoming increasingly dependent on technical skill and imagination, qualities that could only be achieved by the professional management of technical, scientific and engineering resources.

Under Wackett’s leadership the new branch promoted ‘airworthiness’ as a philosophy that defined professional standards. That philosophy was complemented by the formalisation of comprehensive maintenance policies, thus establishing the foundation of the RAAF’s technical excellence. Through his commitment to the notion of ‘airworthiness’, Wackett became the most influential engineer in the history of the RAAF.

Wackett retired from the RAAF in December 1959, having been appointed CBE in 1951 and CB in 1957. He served on the board of the Australian National Airlines Commission (1960-68) and was also prominent in the Regular Defence Force Welfare Association, becoming foundation vice-president in 1959 and life governor in 1979.

Retirement in 1969 gave ‘Wack’ more time for his hobbies of orchid growing, farming and trout fishing, which he pursued on his 20-acre (8-ha) property at Panton Hills, Victoria. Predeceased by his wife but survived by a daughter and two sons, he died at Warracknabeal on 3 August 1984 and was cremated with military honours.

Select Bibliography

  • C. D. Coulthard-Clark, The Third Brother (1991)
  • A. Stephens, Going Solo (1995)
  • RAAF service record (Office of Air Force History, Canberra).

Citation details

Alan Stephens, 'Wackett, Ellis Charles ('Wack') (1901–1984)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/wackett-ellis-charles-wack-15886/text27087, published first in hardcopy 2012, accessed online 21 September 2017.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 18, (MUP), 2012

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