Category Archives: Wirraway book

Gems from the Archives 1: Wackett to Parkhill 29/9/37

In my research for my coming Wirraway book, I’ve spent many hours digging through a number of archives, both online and physical. Much of this archival research is fairly mundane and dull, but of course it is all made worthwhile when you come across a previously unseen document or photograph which confirms a hunch or adds to the story line. These are the “gems from the archives”…

Today’s gem is a letter from Lawrence Wackett to Defence Minister Archdale Parkhill on 29 September 1937, in which he proposed that the RAAF should purchase a more advanced (and more costly) version of the NA-16 aircraft. Wackett had just returned from a trip to the United States and the United Kingdom to negotiate manufacturing rights for aircraft and engines, and while he was at North American Aviation, he discovered they had developed an improved version of the NA-16. Of course Wackett wanted the RAAF to have the latest model.

But Parkhill was coming up to an election the following month, and he was already under heavy fire from the Sydney Morning Herald and from Empire-friendly groups in his party and the wider community for agreeing to purchase an American designed aircraft in the first place. How would Parkhill respond to Wackett’s proposal? How would he react to the suggestion of a more costly aircraft?

Unfortunately Parkhill lost his seat of Warringah in the October 1937 election, so he was never able to reply to Wackett’s letter…

The Hon. The Minister for Defence,
Department of Defence,
Victoria Barracks,

Dear Sir,


We refer you to your letter of 1st January last and our reply of 12th January, when the matter of the initial order for aircraft was set out in the most advanced form which was possible at that time. Immediately afterwards, Wing-Commander Wackett left for U.S.A. and investigated the matter of licences.

Wing-Commander Wackett has now returned with the necessary information to enable the technical details in connection with the matter to be discussed further.


On the occasion of the visit abroad of the Aviation Commission in 1936, the product of the North American Aviation Co., known as the NA-16, was considered the most advanced development of this particular type, and the proposals made to the Air Board were primarily based on this type. It was known that certain developments of the type were in hand and the conversion to a retractable undercarriage is sufficiently advanced to enable us to offer it as an improvement, and the Air Board expressed itself as anxious to have this improvement incorporated.

The primary intention which was borne in mind when seeking the licences on the occasion of Wing-Commander Wackett’s second visit to North American Aviation in February last was to cover the NA-16 type with the retractable undercarriage as a development.


It was discovered that in the period from July, 1936, to February, 1937, the U.S. Army had become sufficiently interested in the type to desire a more advanced development altogether, to be known as a “Basic Combat” type and a competition was scheduled to be held at Dayton in May, 1937, to decide which was the best of several types submitted by various manufacturers. An improvement of the NA-16, known as the NA-33 [actually the NA-26], won this competition and the firm received a large order for 150, delivery of which to the U.S. Army Air Corps was scheduled for March 1938.

The opportunity to take up a very much more advanced version was taken, and the licence finally negotiated covered both the original NA-16 type and the advanced NA-33 type. Sample aircraft of both types were ordered and the Corporation will give the Air Board the opportunity of examining both versions. A sample of the NA-16 type has already been supplied and has been flown. The sample of the NA-33 type has been shipped and will shortly be available.


It is now possible to propose that the Air Board consider that the order for the initial 40 be confirmed for the most up-to-date version of this type, viz. the NA-33, which has been specially designed as a military type as distinct from the advanced trainer type of the original NA-16.

The new type contains all the most modern developments found on the most advanced military aircraft in any part of the world, such as:-

Retractable Undercarriage.

Geared and supercharged engine of increased output.

Hydraulic operation of flaps and undercarriage.

Constant speed three-bladed propeller.

Internally built in bomb gear.

Rotating seat for the gunner.

Prone bombing facilities.

Electrical installation for radio.

Blind flying practice hood.

In addition to the improvements which are now offered in regard to the aircraft itself, it has also been possible to obtain an improved version of the engine. The engine can be offered rated at 700 h.p. maximum for take off and 600 h.p. continuous output at 7000 feet.


Some of the features now available in the NA-33 version were incorporated in the proposal to include some improvements in the NA-16 so that the additional cost necessary to provide the NA-33 type with all its extras is relatively small in comparison with the advantages to be gained.

Extra provision for a 3-bladed constant speed Propeller with governor & exhaust gas analyser £450

Extra provision for a blind flying hood £18

Extra provision for a swivelling gunner’s seat £35

Extra provision for a internally built bomb rack £45

The extra cost of the NA-33 version now offered is, therefore £548

The original price tendered for the NA-16 was £7200 and £7550 for the version with the retractable undercarriage.

It is now possible to cover the NA-33 advanced type at £8098.

This price has been arrived at on a similar basis to our original quotation, namely, without inclusion of Customs duty or primage, which it is understood would be taken care of by the Government.

It is possible that some of the NA-16 type with fixed undercarriage will be desired for training in accordance with the original suggestion, but it is now submitted for consideration that the main order for 40 should be extended to cover the advanced military version, which can be considered as an effective weapon for air defence.


Some consideration has already been given to the military suitability of the type, and, while maintaining all the excellent flying qualities of the training version, it is possible to increase the gross weight to 5500 lbs. with safety factors of 8.5, and to arrange to carry both front and rear guns, ammunition, and 500 lbs. of bombs while maintaining the full range capacity.


Our technical officers are available to discuss the technical details with the Air Board and the facilities now available at Fishermen’s Bend can now be utilised. All the necessary technical studies, drawings, and a special office for the use of Air Board officers, is now available.

It is requested that consideration be given to the proposals in this letter as it is advisable to arrive at a decision as soon as possible so as to enable production to be planned.

Yours faithfully,

(Signed) L.J. Wackett

M a n a g er

Which design for the Wirraway?

Before deciding which design to build locally as the Wirraway, CAC were asked by the Air Board to import two different prototypes from North American Aviation (NAA) for evaluation in a “fly-off”.

Here’s a quick summary:

The first aircraft imported was the NA-16-1A (also known by its NAA accounting code, NA-32), a fixed-gear trainer with a direct-drive Pratt & Whitney Wasp R-1340 driving a two-bladed propeller. The newspapers of the day commonly referred to it as the “NA-16” (however this was a little misleading, since the NA-16 was actually a different aircraft, but they didn’t really understand that, and the name stuck in popular usage).

The second aircraft imported was the NA-16-2K (NAA accounting code NA-33), a retractable-gear trainer with a geared Pratt & Whitney Wasp R-1340 driving a 3-bladed prop. It was commonly known as the “NA-33”.

The drawing below shows these two aircraft compared with the Mk I Wirraway.

The RAAF held a “fly-off” between the two aircraft and decided that the NA-16-2K was a more capable aircraft.

Therefore the Wirraway was based on the NA-16-2K, but with numerous modifications added to meet RAAF requirements.

Famous pilots at 2SFTS

A recent discussion on the “Friends of the Wirraway” group on Facebook required some  sleuthing to identify where and when a photo of 3 Wirraways (shown below) was taken.

The photo appears on page 23 of Stuart Wilson’s book ‘Wirraway, Boomerang & CA-15 In Australian Service’ but his caption merely reads “A flight of three Wirraways (A20-78, 82 and 101) from an Operational Training Unit. All are Mark II aircraft, ordered under the CA-3 contract, sixty of which were delivered to the RAAF between February and September 1940”. He doesn’t identify the unit or the date, so that didn’t help.

The photo is also in the collection of the Australian War Memorial, but I have found that AWM photo descriptions are sometimes incorrect, so I wanted to check if their description was accurate. AWM states  that the picture was taken in September 1943 at No. 5 Service Flying Training School (based in Uranquinty, NSW). They list the pilot of A20-82 as Flight Lieutenant Dick Cresswell and the pilot of A20-78 as Flight Lieutenant Blake Pelly.

But on checking, the date of September 1943 can’t be right, since Dick Cresswell was a Squadron Leader by this time, and he was sitting in Port Pirie awaiting a court martial at around this time. So I needed to go back to the basics to solve the “when and where” mystery of this photo.

The service histories of the three aircraft in the photo reveal that they all served at No. 2 SFTS at Forest Hill (Wagga) between September 1940 and April 1942. Cresswell and Pelly were both at 2SFTS during this period (according to ‘Mr Double Seven’, the biography of Dick Cresswell – which can be downloaded from the Air Power Development Centre website). So now we know the unit where the aircraft were serving (No. 2 SFTS) and the period during which the photo was taken.

James Kightly suggested looking into the details of the markings on the aircraft, and this indeed sheds more light on the timing. The yellow cowlings on the aircraft were ordered to be added in December 1941 and the red circles in the national markings (roundels) were ordered to be removed in July 1942, so this narrows the date of the photo to between December 1941 and April 1942.

So now we can confirm that this photo of two famous pilots (Cresswell rose to Wing Commander and Pelly rose to Group Captain) flying Wirraways was taken when they were at No. 2 SFTS, some time between December 1941 and April 1942.

Several other photos were taken during this sortie, here is another:

A dramatic view of Wirraways A20-78, 82 and 101 from No. 2 Service Flying Training School. Note that A20-78 (far right in this photo) is wearing a camouflaged lower cowl and yellow upper cowl.