Interviews In Memory of Sir Lawrence James Wackett (1896-1982) - ANZAC Day Photo: Australian War Memorial

In Memory of Sir Lawrence James Wackett (1896-1982) - ANZAC Day

The life of ‘Wing Commander Wackett’

by Tuesday, 25 April 2017

Sir Lawrence James Wackett was born on 2nd January 1896 in Townsville, Queensland.

Nicknamed ‘Linky’ by his mates at school, Wackett loved to invent things and would spend hours on the school oval designing bigger and better balloons. Wackett is infamously known to have told his Headmaster that leaving school was the “best decision I’ve ever made”. In 1913 Wackett joined the Royal Military College at Duntroon and then in 1915 joined the Australian Flying Corps and was sent to Egypt. In 1919 he was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross and the Air Force Cross for his war efforts. He also celebrated his marriage to Letitia (Letty) Emily Wood in England. He and Letty moved to Melbourne where, despite not having enjoyed academia at school, Lawrence graduated from the University of Melbourne with a Bachelor of Science (Honours). Lawrence then began designing planes, and was one of 21 officers appointed to the RAAF formed in 1921.

Wackett designed many planes. His first was the Warbler, followed by the Widgeon, which was a flying boat. Distressed by Australian casualties of WWII, and concerned about the small supply of war aircraft to Australia, Wackett began to petition the government to begin manufacturing aircraft in Australia. In 1937, the Federal government agreed to build a £100,000 factory at Fisherman’s Bend in Melbourne. The government asked Wackett to manage the mass production plant. That same year Wackett designed the Wirraway which he gave to the RAAF as a training plane. This was then followed by the Wackett Trainer and Boomerang in 1941. Impressively, the ‘Boomer’ took only fourteen weeks from its design to be manufactured and airborne, and played a vital role in holding back the Japanese in Papua New Guinea.

Wirraway aircraft | National Library of Australia
Return voyage to Australia 1919 Wackett middle row second from right

“Australia has Wings” - Duration 10:09, Wackett at 8:28. https://www.awm.gov.au/collection/F01248/
Video shows the mass manufacture of Wirraway Aircraft from start to finish at the Commonwealth’s factory at Fisherman’s Bend, Melbourne in 1938. The mass manufacturing of this scale was the first in Australia (although car manufacturing had begun in Australia in the early 1900s it was not until 1948 that Holden began the first mass production of cars in Australia). So the manufacture of aircrafts by Australia in WWII is significant.

A keen fly fisherman, ‘Wing Commander Wackett’ (as he was fondly known by flyfishers) wrote his first fly fishing book, My Hobby is Trout Fishing. There were only 500 copies printed and Wackett dedicated it to his son Wilbur who sadly died in 1944. Wilbur, a fighter pilot in the RAAF, went missing flying a Beaufighter whilst based in Darwin. Lawrence then wrote Studies of an Angler (1950) as well as an autobiography, he originally named ‘Not without adversity’, however the book was finally published as the Aircraft Pioneer.

Not surprisingly, considering his love of innovation and design, Wackett dabbled in designing flies and (somewhat controversially) advocated moulded plastic-bodied flies. He had a mould made and wrote in Studies of an Angler, “I have supplied a number to two [leading] anglers in Australasia. They assure me they have tried them out thoroughly, in competition with conventional flies, and are convinced that they are superior to all other types which they have used.” Indeed, Richard Wigram went on to write in his The Uncertain Trout (1951),“I have used these flies. If they were obtainable commercially there would be no need to use any others.” Wackett also developed his theory on the impact of atmospheric (barometric) pressure on trout. Even The Age newspaper at the time referred to Wackett’s theory that the fish did not bite after a sudden and sustained fall in pressure.

Wacketts's mould | Photo: Australian Fly Fishing Museum

Lawrence was knighted four years later in 1954, and received a number of prestigious awards including the Kernot memorial medal from the University of Melbourne.

Upon his retirement in 1960, Lawrence enjoyed spending his spare time in the garden, as well as reading and writing, and of course fly fishing. Tragically, however, in 1970 while packing gear away in his garage, he fell three metres onto concrete. His injuries resulted in incomplete quadriplegia. In true Wackett-style, however, Sir Lawrence overcame his adversity and spent his final years and energy designing equipment for paraplegics, before his death in 1982.

 

Wackett explaining the flight controls to PM William Morris (Billy) hughes 1918
Wackett's Aviator's Certificate | National Library of Australia

 

References:

Australian Aviation Hall of Fame (2017). Sir Lawrence James Wackett. Available at:  http://www.aahof.com.au/sir-lawrence-james-wackett [Accessed 23 Apr. 2017].

Australian Fly Fishing Museum (2017). L.J. Wackett’s Moulding Die. Available at: http://www.affm.net.au/index.php/l-j-wacketts-moulding-die/ [Accessed 23 Apr. 2017].

Australian War Memorial (2017). Collections Various. Available at: https://www.awm.gov.au/ [Accessed 23 Apr. 2017].

En.wikipedia.org. (2017). Automotive industry in Australia. [online] Available at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Automotive_industry_in_Australia [Accessed 23 Apr. 2017].

Malcolm, G. (1940). Australia has wings. [online] Australian War Memorial. Available at: https://www.awm.gov.au/collection/F01248/ [Accessed 23 Apr. 2017].

Mattingly, C. (2007). Not without adversity. National Library of Australia News, 8-11. Available at: http://www.lockoweb.com/wackettpdf.pdf [Accessed 23 Apr. 2017].

Muller, B. (2014). From the archives: The school and the RAAF. The Principal’s Newsletter. Townsville Grammar School. Available at: http://archives.tgs.qld.edu.au/uploads/2014/From%20the%20Archives,%20May%202014.pdf  [Accessed 23 Apr.2017].

The Age Newspaper (1957). Anglers can check weather. The Age, Friday December 6, p14. Available at https://www.newspapers.com/newspage/123111401/. [Accessed 24 Apr. 2017].