Cloncurry Airfield and QANTAS hangar
Sir Hudson Fysh Drive, Cloncurry 4824
At the request of the Department of Civil Aviation, surveys were conducted by the Main Roads Commission early in 1941 with a view to extending the Cloncurry aerodrome to meet RAAF requirements. Contracts for the strengthening and extending of existing gravel runways and taxiways to accommodate heavy bomber and freight aircraft, and for hospitals, workshops and camps, were let to private contractors by the Allied Works Council on instructions from the Department of Interior. On 5 May 1941 a truck convoy of machinery and plant belonging to the north Queensland road construction firm, T & K Constructions, arrived in Cloncurry from Cairns by way of Townsville to commence work on the airfield. All the heavy machinery was railed to Cloncurry.
In 1919 Hudson Fysh and Paul McGinness recognised the potential for an aerial mail service that would link the Queensland and Northern Territory railhead towns of Charleville, Longreach, Winton, Cloncurry and Birdum, and established Queensland and Northern Territory Aerial Services Limited (QANTAS) to meet this need. After securing the first outback airmail contract, in February 1922 Qantas contracted the Sydney engineers Stewart and Lloyd, to supply and erect steel-framed hangars at Cloncurry, Longreach and Charleville. The Cloncurry hangar became a symbol of the town’s importance as an early copper mining centre, although mineral fortunes were declining by the time it was erected. During the inter-war years Cloncurry became a key landing ground and refueling point on the Sydney to Darwin air route. The former Qantas hangar is still used by local commercial aviation operators. Little evidence of the wartime development of the airfield remains, apart from the base and tie down points of a high frequency direction finding mast. Only two of the four early strips remain. Some of the wartime bitumen seal can still be seen on the runway aprons.
Four weeks after Japan’s attack on the US base at Pearl Harbour and the commencement of war in the Pacific, the RAAF took control of Cloncurry aerodrome. T & K Constructions were again contracted to immediately begin work on extending the facilities at the airfield to accommodate heavy bomber squadrons. The work included the upgrading and extension of runways and water supplies and the construction of temporary hutted camps. The first train load of bombs arrived at Cloncurry from Townsville on 13 February 1942.
Tangible evidence of American aid in the defence of north Queensland and Port Moresby came on 19 February 1942 with the arrival in Townsville of twelve B-17 Flying Fortress bombers of the USAAF 22nd Bombardment Squadron and 88th Reconnaissance Squadron. On the day of their arrival the Japanese carried out two heavy air raids on Darwin township and RAAF base. Two days later nine of the newly-arrived B-17s and five DC-3 transport aircraft were dispersed away from Townsville to the safety of Cloncurry.
Arrivals of USAAF aircraft in north Queensland increased during March 1942 with three squadrons of B-17s from the 19th Bombardment Group landing in Townsville and Cloncurry. By mid April 1942 all four runway extensions at Cloncurry had been gravelled and the temporary US camp at the airfield housed 3000 personnel. The USAAF 93rd Bombardment Squadron began arriving in Cloncurry during the first weeks of April 1942. The entire eight hotels in the town were occupied by the Americans, while the local dance hall and shire hall were transformed into makeshift hospitals and the RSL hall was converted into an operating theatre.
Although the outback aerodromes at Cloncurry and Longreach were effective dispersal fields for the US heavy bomber squadrons arriving in north Queensland, the aircraft were being worn out by the additional flying hours required for staging back and forth between missions. By May 1942 the USAAF had decided to establish its major far north Queensland base at Mareeba on the Atherton Tableland. Three weeks after the Battle of the Coral Sea, all works at Cloncurry aerodrome were stopped. The only work left unfinished was the sealing of the gravel runways and this was given low priority. Mareeba would become the main operational airfield in far north Queensland. Between May and July the aircraft of the 19th Bombardment Group began moving from the outback bases at Cloncurry and Longreach to their new quarters at Mareeba airfield.
Cloncurry ceased to be an active operational base and only basic services were maintained including meteorological observations by US forecasters, aircraft refuelling services and RAAF signals operations including the operation of high frequency direction finding equipment. RAAF 29 Operational Base Unit was established at Cloncurry in June 1942. However by September, plans for the establishment of a large RAAF station at Cloncurry had been formally cancelled.
At war’s end the aerodrome reverted to civilian use and continues to operate as Cloncurry Airfield.
Pearce, Howard (contributing author).
Peter Nielsen. Diary of WWII North Queensland, Nielsen Publishing, Gordonvale, 1993.
Howard Pearce (Ed.). Heritage Trails of the Tropical North: A heritage tour guide to far north Queensland, Environmental Protection Agency, Brisbane, 2001.