The Auster’s antique power plant is not so different from many aircraft engines in use today.
The Auster’s antique power plant is not so different from many aircraft engines in use today.

The flying tractors of war

THE aircraft with the world's least exciting name played an almost forgotten but crucial role in the Second World War, according to the former owner of one, Gympie aviation buff Chris de Vere.

War planes are popularly associated in the public mind with decisive weapons, like the Spitfire or Flying Fortress. Aggressively styled with imposingly sleek lines, they are generally imagined with huge supercharged engines and big machine cannons.

They may sometimes also have sharks' teeth painted on the cowl, right above the little swastikas for all the Germans they have shot down.

They are not normally unarmed, canvas covered "kites", like Chris de Vere's immaculately restored Auster Autocar.

Never a decisive weapon like the Spitfire and the Flying Fortress, the Austers were more the decisive workhorses, tractors of the sky that performed crucially important work, usually under heavy gunfire from both sides.

A work horse and observation platform aircraft, the Austers would routinely brave the cannon and gun fire from both sides as they laid vital battlefront phone lines, mapped and plotted the allied advance, carried out the wounded and photographed enemy movements.

"They lost a lot with friendly fire," Mr de Vere said at Gympie's Kybong aerodrome, where he wheeled the old war horse out for a bit of a rev.

"Sometimes they would be under the arc of the cannon shells and not far above the bullets.

"They would fly over the enemy and spot their position".

They had an amazing capacity for short landings, with the pilot able to cut power and drift almost vertically down into the smallest fields in the event of emergency. "They could land in fields you couldn't take off from," Mr de Vere said.

The plane's departure with a new owner ends what Mr de Vere calls "a love-hate relationship" with the veteran aeroplane and its heroic wartime role.

Despite a name that evokes more the picture of a rattling old narrow-tyred English car, these were the first allied planes to land in occupied Europe and helped spearhead the allied invasion at Normandy.

They delivered battlefront infrastructure and guided the troops, all the time flying between the front lines.

"They made about 500 to 600 of them," he said.

"There are about 11 still running. All of them were at Normandy with the British Army Aviation Corps.

"They would fly the contours, rising to clear trees and then dropping back to ground level to evade detection".

The Auster's registration - VH-ABA - is itself a piece of history.

It was previously held by a huge Sunderland flying boat, sold to Qantas in 1938 and later scrapped.

Now, liveried in bright red and white Qantas colours, to commemorate the Sunderland's history, the Auster was painted in the 1990s for a Qantas promotion, which never happened.

But in the war, "they were used for anything and everything".

A brilliantly flexible aircraft, the Auster is, despite all the loving care imaginable, perhaps beginning to feel its age.

So are the people who know how to fix it and keep it certified for flight.

An easy aircraft to love for its war record, keeping it airworthy has become a never-ending task.

And that is where the hate comes in, according to Mr de Vere.

"A problem is that getting parts has become damned near impossible.

"It is love at first sight, but hate when you realise all the blokes who know how to work on it are retired or dead.

"The last person to work on it was in his 80s".

The British Army's Air Observation Squadrons were formed in 1941, initially with the sole purpose of spotting the enemy and directing allied artillery fire.

But as the war progressed, they took on other roles, such as photographic reconnaissance, patrols, liaison efforts and radio relay duties.

One pilot recalled from that time a conversation with some tank crews, grateful for the assistance of the Austers, with one tank commander saying he thought the pilots had a much more dangerous job than his.

"We were full of admiration for the bravery displayed by them against some very strongly held positions," he wrote at the time.

"We explained to him that our job had compensations. Whereas the tanks could only manage 10mph, "we were the only units in the Army that could retreat at 100mph".

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