Sir Lawrence James Wackett was an air force officer, aircraft designer, aeronautical engineer and aircraft-industry pioneer and has been described “one of the towering figures in the history of Australian aviation…”. He was born at Townsville, Queensland on 2 January 1896, to English-born general merchant James Wackett and his Victorian-born wife Alice, née Lawrence. Wackett was educated at Mundingburra State and Townsville Grammar schools.
In 1913, Wackett entered the Royal Military College, Duntroon. Due to the outbreak of World War I, his class graduated early in June 1915. With the rank of Lieutenant, Wackett transferred to the Australian Flying Corps and qualified as a pilot at Point Cook, Victoria, in October of that year. He was posted to No. 1 Squadron and arrived in Egypt in April 1916 where he flew on reconnaissance, bombing, photography and air-to-air combat missions in support of the Sinai and Palestine Campaign. 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.
Wackett later transferred to No. 3 Squadron in France. He devised a small parachute which could be used to drop supplies to troops, designed a modified bomb rack to hold the supplies and then trained No. 3 Squadron personnel in the required technique. It was used in the Battle of Hamel in July 1914 and subsequently. On 25 September, he carried out a hazardous reconnaissance of German trenches, obtaining important photographs. Eighty bullet holes were counted in his aircraft after the mission. He won the Distinguished Flying Cross in 1918 for his ‘conspicuous gallantry’ and was also awarded the Air Force Cross (1919) for his service.
On 16 September 1919 he married Letitia Emily Florence Wood in England.
Two years later, Wackett was one of 21 officers who formed the nucleus of the new Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF). He completed a Bachelor of Science degree at the University of Melbourne then undertook two years of advanced training in aircraft design. In December 1924, he entered and won second prize in the Low-Powered Aeroplane Competition held at Richmond with his first design, the Warbler. That same year, he took command of the newly established RAAF Experimental Section at Randwick, Sydney, where he began to design and construct aircraft. He built four experimental aircraft designed to meet military needs: the Widgeon I and II and the Warrigal I and II. The Widgeon was the first flying boat to be wholly designed and constructed in Australia. The facility closed in 1931 and Wackett resigned with the rank of Wing Commander.
From 1930-34, Wackett headed the aircraft section of the Cockatoo Island naval dockyard and then invested in and managed Tugan Aircraft Limited at Mascot. In 1936, he was nominated to set up and manage the operation of the newly formed Commonwealth Aircraft Corporation Pty Ltd at Fishermen’s Bend, Melbourne. Wackett oversaw the entry into production of the first aircraft mass-produced in Australia, the CAC Wirraway.
During 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. Between 1939 and 1946, it built 755 Wirraways, 200 Wackett trainers, 248 Boomerang fighters and 59 Mustang fighters.
The war brought personal tragedy to the Wackett family when their only son, Squadron Leader Wilbur Lawrence Wackett, was killed in 1944 while serving as a Beaufighter pilot with No. 31 Squadron RAAF.
From 1942 Wackett was 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 to replace the RAAF’s Meteor fighter. The Australian variant, called the Avon Sabre, was built by CAC and gave excellent service.
Sir Lawrence Wackett was knighted in 1954 ‘in recognition of his outstanding pioneering services to the Australian aircraft industry in peace and war’. He was hugely influential within the Australian aircraft industry as a whole and also within the RAAF, which often chose its combat aircraft types based on his recommendations. He retired as CAC’s general manager in 1966. Sir Lawrence Wackett died on 18 March 1982 at St Leonards, Sydney.