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Wackett, Sir Lawrence James (1896–1982)

by Alex Post

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

Sir Lawrence James Wackett (1896-1982), air force officer, aircraft designer, aeronautical engineer and aircraft-industry pioneer, was born on 2 January 1896 at Townsville, Queensland, eldest of two sons and one daughter of English-born James Wackett, general merchant, and his Victorian-born wife Alice, née Lawrence. Ellis Charles Wackett was his brother. Educated at Mundingburra State and Townsville Grammar schools, Lawrence entered the Royal Military College, Duntroon, Federal Capital Territory, in 1913. While a cadet he displayed his technical aptitude by designing and building a model of an automatic fuse-setting mechanism. With the outbreak of World War I and the consequent need for officers for the Australian Imperial Force, Wackett’s class was graduated early, in June 1915.

Transferring to the newly established Australian Flying Corps, AIF, Wackett qualified as a pilot at Point Cook, Victoria, in October 1915 and was posted to No.1 Squadron, which arrived in Egypt in April 1916. He flew on operations that included reconnaissance, bombing, strafing, photography and air-to-air combat. In January 1917 he was put in charge of repairing and overhauling the Royal Flying Corps’ damaged and unserviceable aircraft to increase the number available for the anticipated Gaza offensive. His success in this role resulted in his being mentioned in despatches (1917) and posted in April to the Orfordness Experimental Station in Britain.

In June 1918 Captain Wackett returned to operations with No.3 Squadron, AFC, in France. He perfected a method of dropping ammunition to ground forces by parachute that was used in the battle of Hamel (July) and subsequently. On 25 September he carried out a hazardous reconnaissance of German trenches, obtaining important photographs. After the mission eighty bullet holes were counted in his aircraft. For his ‘conspicuous gallantry’, he won the Distinguished Flying Cross (1918). He was also awarded the Air Force Cross (1919) for his service. On 16 September 1919 at Christ Church, Broadway, Westminster, Middlesex, he married, with Church of England rites, Letitia Emily Florence Wood.

Returning to Australia, Wackett was one of twenty-one officers appointed to the Royal Australian Air Force when it was formed on 31 March 1921. The RAAF permitted him to qualify as an aeronautical engineer by means of a special one-year course at the University of Melbourne (B.Sc., 1923), followed by two years of advanced instruction from Frank Barnwell, a distinguished British engineer and aircraft designer. In 1924 the RAAF Experimental Section was established at Randwick, Sydney, with Wackett in command. Having obtained funds from the controller of civil aviation, H. C. Brinsmead, he began to design and construct aircraft. His private entry in a competition, the Warbler, flew poorly but won a prize for its engine, which he also designed. He built four experimental aircraft intended to meet military needs: the Widgeon I and II and the Warrigal I and II. None went into production. In 1930 the facility closed and Wackett resigned with the rank of wing commander.

Wackett headed the aircraft section of the Cockatoo Island naval dockyard in 1930-34 then invested in and managed Tugan Aircraft Ltd at Mascot. In both ventures the main activity was aircraft servicing and repair, though two of Wackett’s designs, the Codock and Gannet, were built; the RAAF bought five Gannets. When in 1936 Essington Lewis and his syndicate formed the Commonwealth Aircraft Corporation Pty Ltd to establish an aircraft industry in Australia, the chief of the Air Staff, (Sir) Richard Williams, nominated his friend Wackett to set up and manage the operation at Fishermens Bend, Melbourne. Despite strong objections from the British, a team led by Wackett selected an American aircraft with which to begin production. The Australian version was named the Wirraway and the first deliveries to the RAAF took place in July 1939.

Throughout World War II the production and maintenance capabilities provided by CAC were essential to the operations of the Australian and American air forces in the Pacific as well as the Empire Air Training Scheme. In 1939-46 CAC built 755 Wirraways, 200 Wackett trainers, 248 Boomerang fighters and 59 Mustang fighters. The successful trainer named after Wackett was largely his conception and he was involved in the design of the equally effective Boomerang, of which the development and assembly of a prototype took only three months. Production of his Woomera bomber proved impractical. From 1942 he had been chief technical adviser to the Commonwealth government’s Aircraft Advisory Committee. In the early 1950s his influence was crucial in the selection of the American Sabre, over less suitable alternatives, to replace the RAAF’s Meteor fighter. The Australian variant, called the Avon Sabre, was built by CAC and gave excellent service.

In December 1960 Wackett retired as CAC’s general manager. He had joined the board in 1950 and he continued as a director until 1965. Chris Coulthard-Clark has recorded the view of Wackett’s contemporaries in the 1920s that his ‘driving personality’ had forced through designs of little value. Alan Stephens has argued, however, that over his whole career he ‘provided the technical innovation without which an air force cannot prosper’. While lauding his immense achievements as chief executive of CAC, Brian Hill has noted that he ran the firm in a ‘dictatorial manner’ and involved himself unnecessarily in detailed design work.

Wackett had been knighted in 1954. He received the (W. C.) Kernot memorial medal (1959) from the University of Melbourne; the Jack Finlay national award (1967) from the Institute of Production Engineers, Australia; the Oswald Watt gold medal (1974) from the Royal Federation of Aero Clubs of Australia; and the James Cook medal (1978) from the Royal Society of New South Wales. Sir Lawrence published an autobiography, Aircraft Pioneer (1972). Earlier, he had written My Hobby is Trout Fishing (1946) and Studies of an Angler (1950). A fall in 1970 left him an incomplete quadriplegic; he used his skills to design improved equipment for himself and others similarly afflicted. Survived by his wife and their daughter, he died on 18 March 1982 at St Leonards, Sydney, and was cremated. The Wacketts had lost their only son, Wilbur Lawrence, in 1944 while he was serving as a fighter pilot in the RAAF.

Select Bibliography

  • D. P. Mellor, The Role of Science and Industry (1958)
  • C. D. Coulthard-Clark, The Third Brother (1991)
  • A. Stephens, Going Solo (1995)
  • B. L. Hill, Wirraway to Hornet (1998)
  • Age (Melbourne), 19 March 1982, p 16
  • Canberra Times, 20 March 1982, p 14
  • B2455, item WACKETT LAWRENCE JAMES (National Archives of Australia).

Citation details

Alex Post, 'Wackett, Sir Lawrence James (1896–1982)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/wackett-sir-lawrence-james-15887/text27088, published first in hardcopy 2012, accessed online 22 August 2017.

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

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