Sydney Airport

The first buzz of an aircraft engine in the skies over Sydney occurred on 9th December 1909 when a Mr Colin Defries flew a British made flying machine to a height of 150m at Victoria Park, Camperdown. The first cross country flight in Australia took place two years later when William Hart flew from Sydney Showgrounds, near Centennial Park, to Penrith.

Little aeronautical activity was recorded in Australia before and during the First World War, but the aeroplane and the techniques of flying were developed considerably during the war when both sides used them to their advantage. By the end of the war, it was clear to many Governments of the world that the aeroplane would play an important part in military and commercial travel in the 20th Century. A gradual stream of land aircraft (as opposed to flying boats) began arriving from Europe and a number of Australian motor mechanics began copying designs of overseas built flying machines to made their own. The first completely Australian made aircraft (airframe and engine) was constructed at the RAAF experimental station at Randwick in Sydney's Eastern Suburbs in 1924.

When Nigel Love brought an ex-war flying machine to Australia in 1918, he sought a suitable place to land and garage it. A friend recommended he look in the Botany area as it was close to Sydney yet far enough away so as to be fairly isolated from nosy sightseers. He ended up leasing 400 acres of open paddocks between the Botany Railway line and the Cooks River from the Kensington Race Club which were adjacent to the club's Ascot Racecourse. News of Love's acquisition spread and his grass airstrip at Mascot soon became widely used by a growing number of enthusiasts. It was here that Ross and Keith Smith, two pilots from South Australia, landed their Vickers Vimy after making the historic first flight between England and Australia.

Mascot was the obvious choice for the home base of the Australian Aircraft and Engineering Company when it commenced operations in 1919. This company was established in 1919 to service planes flying Australia's first commercial air route (Melbourne - Cootamundra - Sydney - Longreach - Darwin), which used the Mascot airstrip for the Sydney leg of the journey. The Commonwealth Government purchased 161 acres alongside Love's property, establishing Mascot once and for all as the official site of Sydney's airport. The hangars, domestic terminals and associated buildings of today are located on an additional strip of land purchased as an accessway to the runway area to its east. This land, which extended east to Botany Road, was a market garden when it was acquired in 1921. Love's lease, located to the south of today's domestic terminals, was taken over and incorporated into the airport's property when his lease expired.


Mascot aerodrome, 1930s. The line of what would become the loop road into the Domestic Terminals can be seen in the foreground.

By 1923, the first hangar had been built and by then daily flights to other towns and cities were a common occurrence. When the Dept. of Civil Aviation was formed in November 1938 and control of the airways was transferred to it from the Department of Defence, two new runways were in use. There were 120 flights a week serviced by a staff of eleven.

Before World War II, flying boats had handled most of the world's air passenger traffic. They were expected to continue their growth, development and dominance of air passenger transport after the war, however this did not happen as the military on both sides made major advancements in the design and performance of land-based military aircraft during the war years. This new technology was incorporated into commercial aircraft design when peace came, resulting in a new breed of land-based aircraft being purchased by the world's airlines which were larger, faster and more economical than the flying boats.

Within a decade, flying boat production had ground to a halt and land-based aircraft began bringing air travel within the reach of everyday people. To prepare for the larger aircraft heading their way and the increased number of air travellers they would bring, the Dept. of Civil Aviation persuaded the Federal Government to upgrade all of Australia's major airports. In 1947 more land at Mascot was purchased to allow for the extension of the east-west runway to a length of 1,480m. Up until that time, Cooks River ran around the airport on its northern and eastern sides, entering Botany Bay in the vicinity of where the General Holmes Drive tunnel would be built in 1963.



Swampy ground alongside Cooks River had been a hazard for aircraft using the north-south runway for some time, with numerous planes becoming bogged after overshooting the runway. Levies had been built to avoid flooding of this area, particularly during high tides. Part of the upgrading works commenced in 1943 included the reclamation of the swamps and the diversion of Cooks River to its present course. When the airport was expanded in 1947, the Botany goods railway line ran through newly acquired land. To save money, the line was not originally diverted around the airport, and trains were allowed to run across the end of one of the airport's new taxiing runways where the Qantas Jet Base is located today.

On the evening of 18th June 1950 a Douglas DC3 collided with a coal train crossing the runway. The plane's 16 passengers escaped injury but one of its engines caught fire and numerous coal trucks were damaged beyond repair. As a result of the accident, the railway line was re-routed around the airport's northern perimeter. Funds were allocated for the construction of a flying boat base as part of the airport upgrade. The site of the old water works near Lord's Mill Pond was set aside for this purpose, but the plan was put permanently on hold as it became evident that the days of international travel by flying boat were over.


Qantas Constellation "Connie" on display at Sydney Airport for the Qantas 75th Anniversary Celebrations Open Day in November 2010

Air travel between Australia and Europe entered a new phase with the introduction of the Lockheed Constellation on the Kangaroo Run. Constellations were much faster, bigger and more economical than any flying boat, and paved the way for the jet age. The first Constellation, which had been introduced by both Qantas and B.O.A.C. onto the London-Sydney route, landed at Mascot in December 1947. To make way for the increasing amount of international air traffic, all light traffic had been transferred from Mascot to Bankstown Airport in Sydney's west by 1949. Established during the war and used as by the US Air Force as its wartime in the Southern Pacific, Bankstown Airport was relinquished by the RAAF in 1948 in preparation for its new role, the Royal Australian Air Force transferred all its Bankstown operations to Windsor.

Extensions to cope with the increased volume of larger aircraft like the Constellation were completed by the end of 1953 when Mascot Airport was renamed Kingsford Smith Airport after the famed Australian aviator. In 1963 at a time when the Boeing 707 and Douglas DC 8 jet airliners began to replace the Constellation as the most used aircraft on the Kangaroo Run, more extensions commenced as part of a five year improvement plan which saw the north-south runway extended from 1,700m to 2,500m to accommodate jet aircraft. The extension of the runway necessitated the construction of a 1 km peninsula into Botany Bay, a tunnel to take General Holmes Drive under the runway as well as the reconstruction of the main outfall sewer line on the airport's eastern boundary. These extensions occurred simultaneously with the construction of a new airport for Melbourne at Tullamarine.


Qantas Boeing 707 'City of Canberra' (VH-XBA)

The Jet Age: 1959 onwards

The first jet aircraft on the Australian register - a Qantas Boeing 707 (it was the 29th 707 built) - was registered VH-XBA and named City of Canberra. The first jet service operated by Qantas left Mascot Airport on 29th July 1959 for San Francisco via Nadi and Honolulu. Six weeks later, Qantas became the third airline to fly jets across the Atlantic - after BOAC and Pan Am - operating between London and New York as part of the service from Sydney.

Qantas had been the first non-US airline to order the 707, the American four-engine commercial passenger jet airliner developed by Boeing that first took to the skies in 1956. The 707 went on to dominate passenger air transport in the 1960s and was largely responsible for the shift from sea travel to air travel for passengers travelling between Australia and the rest of the world. The 707 became Qantas' mainstay on the Kangaroo Route (England to Australia), bringing many migrants to Australia and holidaymakers between the two counties. All of the 707 turbojet aircraft in the Qantas fleet were converted to upgraded turbofan engines in 1961 and were rebranded as V-Jets from the Latin 'vannus' meaning fan. City of Canberra returned to Australia as VH-XBA in December 2006 where it is on permanent display in the Qantas Founders Outback Museum at Longreach, Queensland.



By 1970, the even larger Boeing 747 Jumbo Jets and DC10 aircraft were being brought into service, necessitating further extensions to the runways and terminal facilities. A new international terminal at Mascot was opened by Queen Elizabeth II on 3rd May 1970; two months earlier, the Australian Prime Minister opened Melbourne's new Tullamarine Airport. In August 1971, Qantas Airways' first Boeing 747 Jumbo jet arrived at its Sydney Jet Base. A year later, extensions to the north-south runway were completed.

In 1989, approval was given for the construction of a second parallel north-south runway to be located to the east of the original runway. Work commenced in 1992 as extensions to the International Terminal, which effectively doubled its capacity, were opened in that year. The new runway was brought into service in 1994, six months ahead of schedule. Before the end of the century had arrived, a new control tower and rail link to the city were also brought into service.

Plans for a second international airport for Sydney have been on the drawing boards for over a decade, but due to strong opposition by residents around all the suggested sites, no decision as its its location or a timetable for its construction have been finalised.

Sydney Airport Offshore

A floating airport off Long Bay, which would have doubled the traffic capacity of Sydney's Kingsford Smith Airport at Mascot and aircraft and see aircraft noise of suburban areas drastically reduced, was proposed by team of leading consulting engineers in the 1990s. Called Sydney Offshore, it was designed to create a pleasing environment complete with coastal views and ocean panoramas at the two terminals - one for domestic, the other for international travellers. An internal rail shuttle would take passengers to and from 72 boarding gates in the satellite building.

Sydney Offshore would also provide a hotel, retail and leisure developments, parking for about 20,000 vehicles, cargo terminals, aircraft maintenance buildings, control tower, fire and emergency facilities, all housed on the 3.5 square kilometre platform. Planes would use twin parallel runways,with potential for more runways as necessary. The proposed terminals and gates are proportioned to handle up to 35 million passengers per year entering or leaving Sydney and up to 44 million including transit passengers. This is more than double the current usage of Kingsford Smith Airport. Depending on aircraft mix, the twin runways could handle 50 to 60 million passengers after expansion of the terminals and other support facilities,

Sydney Offshore would be constructed on piers inserted into the sandstone rock of the continental shelf. Foundations would be placed from a fixed platform that cantilevers from an already built structure. The design team said the cost and logistics of construction had been carefully considered to create a robust and highly durable platform above the ocean. The ambitious plan was never adopted.




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  • Mascot aerodrome, 1923

    General Holmes Drive passes under the main runway, Sydney Airport

    Sydney Airport today

    Ansett ANA hostesses showing their new uniforms, 1969

    Boarding a TAA Boeing 727 T-Jet through its droop-down rear door

    Grounded Ansett Airlines aircraft after the airline's collapse in 2001



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