By the Seat of Their Pants: Australian Airmen and Their Machines 1915 -1918

The Great War saw the emergence of an Australian Flying Corps (AFC), which by 1918 was making a tangible contribution to Allied air operations in the Middle East and on the Western Front. Over the operational phases of the war, the airmen and ground crews adapted to new aircraft types while facing a determined enemy with first-class machines of their own. Some Australian airmen became ‘aces’, others were shot down and captured; many were killed or disabled. But the war in the air had its own character and culture, and chivalry remained despite the ferocity of the combat.  Almost 100 years on, this symposium aims to explore growing interest both by academic and professional historians in the Australian Flying Corps during these years, especially with regard to the many human factors involved as well as the evolving aircraft technology and tactics.

Where did the Australians fit in to Allied air operations? How did they rate as pilots and units? How did they adapt to new aircraft types and tactics? How did they fare against a skilful and well-led enemy? What was their POW experience? Who were our ‘aces?’ How were airmen and the air war represented in an emerging media? These are some of the questions this symposium sought to address.

This one-day conference presented papers from a range of historians, authors and other subject matter specialists in and around the setting of the aircraft and displays of the RAAF Museum at the historic Point Cook base. A Panel session concluded the day’s proceedings before attendees were invited to further explore the Museum and its facilities.

2012 marked 100 years since the Federal Government purchased the land at Point Cook which became the home of the first AFC flying school. The facility trained many Australian airmen before and during WWI; a role it continues to play today. Through the generous co-operation and good will of the staff concerned, the conference took place in the heart of the RAAF Museum surrounded by the aeroplanes, artefacts and displays that represents the rich history and the very essence of AFC/RAAF aviation.

The RAAF Museum at Point Cook gave MHHV exclusive use for Monday 12 November 2012 to hold this important and engaging one day conference, which was held right in the Museum itself among its heritage collection of WWI aircraft and artefacts. Delegates were able to purchase items from the Museum shop.

Point Cook is the cradle of Australian military aviation, and as a special event during the conference for our delegates, a live flight of the Museum’s heritage Sopwith Pup was planned during the lunch break however the weather on the day prevented the flight.

This special MHHV Event provided a discounted entry for Concession holders and MHHV Organisation Members and MHHV Individual Members. Seating was limited to 80, on a first in, first served basis, regardless of MHHV membership.

Morning and afternoon tea and lunch were included in the ticket.

Conference Program

Notes on Contributors


Session One – Australia’s Air War 1914 – 1918

Welcome and Introduction of Guest Speaker – Major-General Jim Barry, AM, MBE, RFD, ED (Rtd) MHHV Inc. Patron

Opening Address – Wing Commander Nick Leray-Meyer AM (Rtd) Vice-President RAAF Association Victoria

Conference Opening and introduction of keynote speaker – Colonel Marcus Fielding Conference Chair and MHHV Inc. President

Keynote Address: The AFC experience and the Development of the RAAF – Dr Chris Clark RAAF Historian and Head of the Office of Air Force History

Session Two – The Airmen

Session Chair: Mr David Gardner, OAM Director, RAAF Museum Point Cook

Paper: ‘Quite the right type’: Recruiting and reinforcing Australia’s effort in the air, 1914 – 1918 Mr Michael Molkentin Writer, battlefield guide and author of ‘Fire in the Sky’ and ‘Flying the Southern Cross.’

Paper: The AFC in Hotter Climes; The Air War Over the Desert Dr Mark Lax OAM (Air Commodore RAAF Rtd) Former Director General of Strategic Policy

Paper: ‘Caged Birds’: The capture and imprisonment of AFC airmen during the Great War, 1915 – 1918 Mr Aaron Pegram Historian at the Australian War Memorial and Managing Editor of Wartime magazine


Session Three – Air Combat

Session Chair: Mr Andrew Kilsby Executive Officer, MHHV Inc. and historian, Cooee History and Heritage

Paper: The Fighter Aces from Australia Mr Gareth Morgan President, Australian Society of WWI Aero Historians

Paper: The Machines: A Pilot’s View FLT LT Mark ‘Darcy’ O’Connor, RAAF RAAF Museum Pilot

Session Four – Commemoration and Research

Session Chair: Dr Daryl Moran Conference Convenor and MA (Military History) candidate Monash University

Paper: Remembering Lt Merz: Australia’s military aviation medical pioneer Air Commodore Dr Tracy Smart, AM RAAF

Panel Discussion: What research remains to be done? Panel Chair Dr Chris Clark Wing Commander Nick Leray-Meyer, AM Air Commodore Dr Tracy Smart AM Mr David Gardner, OAM

Close of Day – Conference Chair

Click here to see the Conference Pictures

Military History and Heritage Victoria Inc. president Colonel Marcus Fielding declared that MHHV Inc.’s one day Conference held on 12 November, 2012 – By the Seat of Their Pants: Australian Airmen and Their Machines 1915-1918 – in partnership with MHHV member the RAAF Museum, Point Cook, as a success on several levels.

Colonel Fielding said: “This, our second conference this year, was a highly successful collaboration with our member partner, the RAAF Museum, home of Australia’s first military aviation flying school.

Our conference convenor, Dr Daryl Moran and other MHHV volunteers combined with the RAAF Museum Director, David Gardner, and his team of Volunteers, to prepare a well-run conference enjoyed by all the delegates present.
The range of excellent speakers, led by Air Force Historian Dr Chris Clark, author Michael Molkentin, and other prominent AFC historians, provided a wonderful balance of engaging, interesting and original presentations.

Although due to the gusty weather the Sopwith Pup was unable to get aloft, the opportunity to examine the 1914 restorations underway at the Museum was a highlight.  And the setting itself was superb.

The conference was a sell-out, which augurs well for future MHHV events planned for 2013-2014.  MHHV will continue to offer premium events to its growing audience of members, and to the general public interested in our military history and heritage.”

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