John Cyril Corby is an aircraft designer and aeronautical engineer who developed an aircraft that has brought much pleasure to hundreds of home builders and pilots across Australia and the world over the past five decades.
Born in Sydney on 10 September 1932 to Harry Daniel Corby and Winifred (née Adams) Corby, John spent his early years in Mascot where he would see aircraft landing at and taking off from Sydney Airport. He became fascinated with flight and flying in his very early teen years and started building and flying model aircraft. After finishing his Leaving Certificate at the then Marist Brothers at Kogarah, he joined Qantas as an apprentice Ground Engineer in December 1949.
John spent three years moving through a number of engine and airframe areas at Qantas and then on to the Technical Services/Drawing section for the last two years of apprenticeship. During that time he attended the Qantas in-house apprentice training school and completed a Sydney Technical College Aeronautical Engineering Diploma course.
In the 1950s enthusiasts in Australia were increasingly aware of overseas amateur aircraft building activities, particularly in England and France and in the United States (US) experimental aircraft scene. A lot of contact was made with the Department of Civil Aviation (DCA) requesting approval for similar building activity here in Australia.
Towards the end of the 1950’s, Air Navigation Order 101.28 was introduced allowing Australians to build amateur built aircraft of accepted design. It resulted in an immediate creation of the ULAA -Ultralight Aircraft Association of Australia groups in Melbourne and Sydney. John is presently the second oldest member of the now Sport Aircraft Association of Australian (SAAA), having joined on the first meeting in Sydney.
In response to a call for a simple to build Australian design, John and his good friend Eric Morris produced their first design, but soon went back to the drawing board with a few other enthusiasts in the Qantas Technical Services Section. They worked on another single seat design which was quite comparable to anything available from overseas – the ‘Star Baby.’
This design, however, did not generate interest to build a prototype and became the team’s second paper exercise. At this point, John remained keen to develop an Australian design and to gain a broader understanding of the aircraft design process.
Starlet design work commenced in 1959 and was progressing steadily when a small number of specialists, including John, were selected by Qantas in 1962 to provide assistance to the then Malayan Airways (now Malaysian Airlines) in Singapore.
John returned to Sydney in 1964 and continued to develop the Starlet prototype, assisted by his friend and fellow Qantas engineer, Barry Bishton. Most weekends, John, Barrie and their young families could be found at Camden working on the Starlet.
Design and building progressed to first flight by well-known test pilot and aircraft builder Peter Hodgens on 24 August 1966 and after further flight testing, the design achieved Type Approval 74-1 on 30 June 1972.
Due to its quality, the Starlet quickly gained a strong following amongst the burgeoning home-built aircraft community. In 1973, the third Starlet built, VH-WDJ, flown by Peter Furlong, won the A Grade Australian Aerobatic Championship held at Latrobe Valley Airport. It was a wonderful achievement by an Australian designed and built aircraft given it was competing against well-established overseas designs flown by experienced aerobatic pilots.
The Corby Starlet has now been flying for more than 50 years and remains one of the world’s most brilliant home designs. More than 900 Starlet plan sets have been sent to 31 countries and Starlets are known to have flown in 10 countries, Australia, New Zealand, USA, UK, France, Italy, Finland, Brazil and Canada. The story continues with several aluminium Starlets, known as the Kestrel, now flying.
In an interview with the Riverine Herald in 2016, John said he built the plane for two reasons: ‘‘One, as a learning exercise and the second was that we have a lot of French, British and American designed planes and I thought we ought to have an Australian-designed one”.
After 22 years with Qantas, John retired to work as a consultant in the general aviation industry, including several years as General Manager, Chief Designer of Transavia Division of Transfield. The last five years of his professional career were with the Civil Aviation Safety Authority head office in Canberra working primarily on Australian and FAA aircraft certifications.
Earlier this year, John was announced as the winner of the prestigious biennial Lawrence Hargrave Award of the Royal Aeronautical Society Australian Division for an Australian who has made a significant contribution to Australian aviation.
John was married to June Dorothy Clancy for 58 years until her death from leukaemia in 2013 and has four children – John, David, Susan and Anne and nine grandchildren.
The Australian Aviation Hall of Fame proud inducts aeronautical engineer and aircraft designer, John Cyril Corby.