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For many, if not most people in Australia, their first experience of an aircraft would have been a sonic one. The gradual spread of civil aviation across parts of the continent from the 1920s introduced a new sensory experience into people’s everyday lives. Some would have marvelled at the whirring, modern flying machines. Some became expert in identifying particular planes by the sound that they made. Others would have resented the noise produced by this newfangled invention. But these sounds, some of which today are kept in archives,[i] can extend our ability to understand past experience.[ii]

Sounds coming from aircraft changed over time as they became faster, more numerous and flew higher. On 14 August 1953 at the Commonwealth Aircraft Corporation’s Avalon airfield near Geelong, the sound barrier was broken for the first time in Australia in a Sabra swept-wing jet fighter. The pilot was Flight Lieutenant William Scott. A few years later the Newcastle Morning Herald and Miners’ Advocate predicted that sonic booms caused by these planes would ‘soon become a familiar sound’ in regions where they were based.[iii]

The first sonic boom in Australian civil aviation was made in June 1972 during the visit of the Concorde. Landing in Darwin on 15 June, it travelled to Sydney via a route planned by the Department of Civil Aviation which avoided Aboriginal reserves and regional towns. It did, however, pass by Alice Springs where tests were carried out on the impacts of the sonic boom. And it did two demonstration flights from Sydney.[iv]

Concorde arriving in Darwin Airport, 1972 (Photograph Michael Jensen, National Library of Australia)

By this time, sound created by civil aviation had become little more than unwanted noise. But the Concorde was special, albeit ultimately unsustainable. It was the embodiment of the ideology of Progress. And a substantial crowd of people gathered at Kingsford Smith Airport in 1972 to welcome it. Another, smaller crowd, met as part of the Anti-Concorde Project to protest about environmental noise and air pollution.[v] That evening the Telegraph newspaper reported: ‘for many people, stopping the Concorde has become a tiresome obsession. It would be a pity if the strident protests of a minority succeed in denying Australians the benefits of a new era in travel. Australia needs supersonic aircraft more than anyone else, to bring us closer to a world of power and ideas. So let’s give the Concorde a fair trial’.

‘If I may coin a phrase, sir, we are under a cloud.’ George Molnar, pen and ink on paper, 1959 (National Library of Australia)

Noise caused by civil aviation had been controlled by the federal Air Navigation Act of 1921. But it was not until 1984 that the Air Navigation (Aircraft Noise) Regulations came into being.[vi] This reflected the general rise from the mid 1970s of legislation aimed at protecting an environment that was under severe pressure on all fronts.

On the ground, aircraft were to have immense and complex impacts, mostly of a negative kind. These related, among others, to biodiversity, heritage, risk and public safety zones, costs to local communities, vehicular traffic, water pollution and water use. The provision of aviation infrastructure and technology often demands large urban redevelopment. And this can have major ramifications for communities and cause disputes and planning conflicts.

In March 1989, for example – after two decades of arguments about Sydney airport’s future – the Hawke Labor Government announced its decision to construct a third runway at Kingsford Smith Airport. Three years earlier, that Government had indicated that a second airport would be built at Badgery’s Creek in south-western Sydney.[vii] Heated debates erupted and a protest rally attracting around 15,000 inner-city residents was held on 3 December 1994, just before the runway opened.[viii] In the following year the NSW No Airport Noise Party was formed.

The mid 1990s saw the beginning of the ‘privatisation, deregulation and marketisation’ of Australia’s major airports in a neo-liberal climate where the Commonwealth Government had the ultimate development authority.[ix] This was done through the Federal Airports Corporation which had been established in 1988. Melbourne and Brisbane International airports were privatised in 1997. In the following year, several others were privatised including Adelaide, Canberra, Hobart and Perth. Kingsford Smith airport was privatised in 2002.[x]

Geoff Pryor, pen and ink on board, 1966 (National Library of Australia)

Some observers called for interventions into the ‘business-political nexus’.[xi] This was in part addressed in the Airports Act of 1996 which made it mandatory for all privatised airports to have a community consultation group. This period also saw, as never before, the ‘confluence of aviation policy and urban planning’ in an era where airports are ‘critical infrastructure in the economy’.[xii]

Today, global warming is a key issue for the industry. As the Australian Division of the Royal Aeronautical Society wrote in 2013:

The impact of aviation on the environment is a topical issue and a critical one for the aviation industry. Much has been done to improve fuel efficiencies, but major technological breakthroughs are necessary if aviation is to continue to grow at 5% without increasing its impact on the environment through greenhouse gas emissions.[xiii]

Airservices Australia introduced the Indian Ocean Strategic Partnership to Reduce Emissions (INSPIRE) program. In September 2013 a demonstration was conducted with Emirates – flight EK434 from Dubai to Brisbane – on how better air traffic management can lessen civil aviation’s impact on the environment.[xiv]

Aviation has also greatly influenced the Australian understanding of the environment. For example, the progressive and comprehensive use of aerial photography has had a profound influence in areas ranging from road and transport construction to the broader understanding of the landscape and coastal waters. The National Archives of Australia, Geosciences Australia[xv], the National Library of Australia (NLA) and various state level archives hold extensive collections of survey images from the very earliest days of aviation in Australia. 

Aerial agriculture has had a notable influence on the way that crops are cultivated in Australia, and the yields that can be expected. The Walcha Pioneer Cottage features a Tiger Moth biplane, one of the pioneering aerial agriculture machines. Aircraft now play an everyday role in the control of widely dispersed livestock and feral animal populations, including the increasing utilisation of helicopters to carry out these tasks.

Aerial spraying of Banana plantation at Coffs Harbour, 1970 (National Archives of Australia)

Heritage Sources

Aviation’s deep reliance on accurate weather information has led to the development of comprehensive forecasting and weather measurement systems across Australia. The Airways Museum at Essendon in Victoria holds material relating to the collection and dissemination of weather information. Many other organisations have examples of weather balloons, wind-speed measurement devices and related instrumentation. These systems have a major influence on the lives of regional and rural Australians. Aviation is also a powerful instrument for the control of environmental hazards such as fires, and in society’s response to disasters such as floods.

Museums, Collections & Archives

Geosciences Australia, ACT

A large repository of aerial photographs taken from the mid-20th century.

Museum of Australian Democracy, ACT

Records of parliamentary speeches concerning aviation’s role in the environment and resulting legislature.

National Archives of Australia, ACT

Documents, reports and other archival material regarding aerial agriculture and environment such as reports prepared by the Department of Civil Aviation.

National Library of Australia, ACT

Documents by the Department of Transport and Department of Civil Aviation pertaining to aerial agriculture and environment.

State Library of New South Wales, NSW

Books, reports documents relating to aerial agriculture, mustering and pasture management.

Walcha Pioneer Cottage, NSW

 The first Tiger Moth Plane used in spraying superphosphate in Australia.

State Library of Queensland, QLD

Documents, reports and other archival material regarding aerial agriculture and environment such as reports prepared by the Department of Civil Aviation.

Museum of South Australia, SA

Material regarding Sir Hubert Wilkins who was a pioneer aviator in the aerial explorations of the Antarctic.

Airways Museum, VIC

Documents and archival material regarding environmental management by civil aviation.



Wilkins Aerodrome, Australian Antarctic Territory, Antarctica

An aerodrome in Antarctica named after Sir Hubert Wilkins, a polar aviation pioneer.


[i] See, for example, www.field-recording.org.uk accessed 3 March 2014.

[ii] Paula Hamilton, ‘Remembering the Suburban Sensory Landscape in Balmain’, in Paula Hamilton and Paul Ashton (eds), Locating Suburbia: Memory, Place, Identity, UTS ePress, Sydney 2013, p21.

[iii] 2 September 1954, p2.

[iv] Department of Aviation, Visit to Australia, Concerde 002: measurements of noise and sonic boom, Government Printer, Canberra, 1972.

[v] ‘Air Transport’, Flight International, 6 July 1972, p10.

[vi] Ian Douglas, Cities: An Environmental History, I.B. Tauris Co Ltd, London and New York, 2013, p190. The Airport Act of 1993 also had provisions relating to aircraft noise.

[vii] Will Sanders, ‘Policy-Making for Sydney’s Airport Needs: A Comparative and Historical Perspective’, Urban Policy Research, vol 8, no 1, 1990, p30.

[viii] Dick Nichols, ‘’ALP struggling to contain third runway anger’, Green Left Weekly, 7 December 1994 https://www.greenleft.org.au/node/7594 accessed 28 January 2014. Today, Badgery’s Creek is back on the public agenda: see James Glenday, ‘Second Sydney airport: Government promise resolution to saga, hints site will be Badgery’s Creek’, ABC News, 3 December 2013.

[ix] Robert Freestone, Peter Williams and Aaron Bowden, ‘Fly Buy Cities: Some Planning Aspects of Airport Privatisation in Australia’, Urban Policy and Research, vol 24, no 4, 2006, p491.

[x] Paul Hooper, Robert Cain and Sandy White, ‘The privatization of Australia’s airports’, Transport Research, pt E, no 36, 2000, pp181-204.

[xi] Murray May and Stuart B. Hill, ‘Questioning airport expansion: A case study of Canberra International Airport’, Journal of Transport Geography, vol 14, 2006, pp437.

[xii] Nicholas Stevens and Douglas Baker, ‘Land Use Conflict Across the Airport Fence: Competing Urban Policy, Planning and Priority in Australia’, Urban Policy and Research, vol 31, no 3, 2013, p322.

[xiii] Royal Aeronautical Society (Australian Division) http://www.raes.org.au/industry-participation accessed 28 February 2014. See also the Society’s ‘Aviation Emissions and Climate Change Position Paper’ on this site.