July 25, 2021

Old Places

Where we study the past to define our future

Wallan Airfield

Wallan Airfield

Wallan Airfield

In 1968, Ivo and Alison Righetti, originally from Greta purchased Mac’sfield at Wallan so that they could be closer to their children attending their secondary education at  boarding schools in Melbourne. Ivo was a Catalina pilot in the RAAF in World War II so flying was in his blood. Shortly after buying Mac’sfield he renewed his flying license and created a basic landing strip for his own plane in the paddocks of his farm.

In the mid-1980’s the Whittlesea airstrip was discontinued due to numerous noise complaints from neighbouring houses.1

In late 1985, Ivo Righetti organised a meeting with interested parties including the instructors and private pilots from Whittlesea. The meeting took place in the woolshed at Mac’sfield where it was agreed that weekend working bees would take place on weekends to develop Ivo’s airstrip further for use. In return for use of his land, the private pilots would pay Ivo to lease hangar space and the flying instructors paid rent for use of their office buildings.

Car tires were painted white to mark out a new airstrip and sheds for aircraft storage and a portable office was constructed. A permit was subsequently issued to extend Ivo’s short landing strip for commercial purposes.

The pilots and flying instructors from Whittlesea relocated to Wallan and the Wallan Airfield took off! In some newspaper articles and local newsletters the airfield is referred to as Righetti Airfield. The runway was also known as runway 18-36 which relates to the magnetic heading the runway was aligned with; 18 was north-south direction and 36 was south-north direction.


Flying Schools

The first flying school at Wallan was aptly named Wallan Flying School and was run by John Archibald as Chief Flying Instructor, assisted by Frank Giovannetti. Both John and Frank were formerly from Whittlesea Flying School. A small caravan was used as the flying school’s office.

Flight Log Book of former student - John Archibald and Frank Giovannetti listed as pilots in command
Flight Log Book of former student – John Archibald and Frank Giovannetti listed as pilots in command
Flight Log Book of former student - showing the change from Whittlesea Flying School to Wallan Flying School
Flight Log Book of former student – showing the change from Whittlesea Flying School to Wallan Flying School

Following on from John and Frank was Maurice Moloney of Moloney Aviation Pty Ltd who came from Essendon with the Discover Flying School. He had “online” (available for hire) 2 Grumman Cheetahs and a Cessna 172. Maurice employed Steve Woodcock as Chief Flying Instructor and whom also flew twin-engine Doves out of Essendon on the Penguin run to Phillip Island carrying tourists to see the nightly Penguin Parade of baby penguins. When the Doves became unserviceable they were stored at Wallan.

Steve eventually took over the flying school from Maurice and in mid 2002 began Pegasus Flying School.2 Online was a Cessna 150, a Piper Archer, a Piper Arrow and a Piper Warrior. The Piper Arrow was destroyed in an aircraft accident in 2004 (refer to ‘Mishaps and Accidents’ section). Planes hangered at Wallan at the time amongst others were 2 Cessna 172’s, a Piper Saratoga, a Tigermoth and Grumman Lynx owned by Steve Wright who was a private pilot.

A social club was started and events and activities including fly-in days, group flyaways, demos with model aircraft, closest to the spot landings and land the flour bomb on the square were arranged. A biplane was also available which provided acrobatic flights. Instructors at the time were Steve Woodcock as Chief Flying Instructor, Greg Rim and Nathan Muller.

Later on, Steve Woodcock sold Pegasus Flying School along with the lease on the land containing the runway and hanger area to Graeme Samuels. Each hanger was owned by the aircraft owners and for which they paid rent to the Flying School for the space the hanger occupied.

Steve stayed for some time after the sale as the Chief Flying Instructor but eventually decided to move on to other endeavours. So in October 2007 “Secure Air”3 was formed which was made up of Graeme Samuels, Nathan Muller, Susan (Sue) Caroll and Mark Robinson. Nathan acted as Chief Flying Instructor.

Both Nathan and Sue are highly spoken of in an internet aviation forum4:

“Nathan Muller is an instructor at Wallan – he is absolutely brilliant and you would be so lucky to get him to teach you to fly – I have many great stories about him.”

“Nathan and Sue (originally from Shep) and two other guys have done a fantastic job at setting up a ftf. They have built a great clubhouse and the brand new Tecnam arrived last week. Sue is my instructor and I think she is brilliant, I have not flown with Nathan yet but am told you would be hard pressed to find a better instructor”

“Wallan has basically scored itself the services of two of the most competent and safe instructors there is. Nathan and Sue are just bloody brilliant. Time spent with them is money seriously invested in training. They are passionate about what they do, and manage to impart the maximum knowledge in the minimal time.”


Airplane Mode

Access to the Wallan Airfield was obtained from Watson Street, over a bridge crossing Merri Creek and then via a laneway which led to a former dairy farm purchased by Ivo Righetti in 1977.

Dairy farm amidst airfield buildingss
Satellite image from 2005 showing access to the Wallan Airfield and leading to the former dairy farm

The farm house of the dairy was used by Pegasus Flying school as their office and the milking shed was converted into rooms for the social club.

This is corroborated by the article Airborne: gasping for air:

“…where a small flying club operated in an old milking shed. A Grumman AA5A was sitting there”

When Secure Air began, a new portable building was purchased and moved to the airfield.

An aircraft maintenance business named “Valley Air” commenced in 2000 and was run by Douglas Fuss.5 It was located in one of the large hangars opposite the aviation fuel bowser.

An enterprising young man of the district converted his car to run on avgas and regularly used the bowser to fill up. His account is as follows:

“I built the car in ‘84 & I always ran it on avgas . It wasn’t built to run on pump fuel! At one stage it ran on methanol, but I changed the fuel system back to avgas as it was too risky for a high power muscle car on the street.”

You may notice the water in the above picture at the aviation fuel bowser. The Wallan Airfield was notorious for being unusable during wet conditions and private pilots and students faced many weekends of disappointment due to the airstrip being under water. Max Perry who was responsible for the paddock maintenance at the airfield in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s recalls driving the length of the airfield in a tractor with the water level up to the gearbox.

A comment from an internet aviation forum6 provides the following summary:

“The whole area is a flood plain and I know its been a while since it flooded due drought, but have a look at how much higher the freeway is to the level of the runway. They would have to move mountains of dirt to bring it up to scratch. I can remember driving for a lesson along the Hume after a fairly heavy week of rain to find the hume all dry but about a foot of water running down the runways.”

In 2005, after purchasing Pegasus Flying School from Steve Woodcock, Graeme Samuels organised the creation of a second runway. This runway was built next to the original one as a replacement and constructed higher and with drainage on either side to prevent flooding. After its construction it wasn’t used until grass was established on it. The newer runway is the one on the left of the feature (top) photo of this article whilst the original runway is to the right.

Wallan Airfield was a challenging place to both fly out of and land due to its location and the angle of the airstrip to the Hume Highyway. Landing was performed from either north or south depending on the wind direction. The article Airborne: gasping for air provides context:

“Wallan Airfield had a single short north/south grass runway. It had a bit of a hump mid-way along and a reduced length of only 500 metres because of soggy ground at the southern end. To make approaches to runway 18 even more interesting, the left-hand circuit had a short base leg, followed by a dog leg to avoid flying over a large horse stud part way up Pretty Sally Hill. Basically, a very short final landing into the strip.”


Mishaps and Accidents

Wallan was a safe airfield and there were no fatal accidents at the airfield over its lifetime. There are 2 mishaps on record due to misjudgement by pilots and one fatal accident where the aircraft departed from Wallan:

Runway excursion involving a Piper Aircraft Corp PA-28-180, VH-MFL, Wallan, VIC on 9 October 19937

During the takeoff run the wind veered to the west and the pilot lost directional control. The aircraft ran off the airstrip to the left and collided with a ditch, breaking off the nosewheel and damaging the propeller.

Collision with terrain involving a Cessna Aircraft Company 172L, VH-EKM, Wallan, VIC on 19 February 19958

The pilot took off in strong gusty downwind conditions. By two thirds to three quarters of the 1000 metre length of the airstrip, the aircraft was still not airborne. The pilot applied back pressure on the control column and lifted off. The airspeed then decreased so the pilot lowered the nose. The left wing dropped and the aircraft descended, striking the ground nose down and overturning.

Piper Aircraft Corp PA-28R-200, VH-TRZ9

On February 7, 2004 pilot Jason Lind and his friends, Paul and Theresa Faccin and their daughter Bree took off from Wallan. Their destination was Myrtleford, Mr Faccin’s birthplace, and then Yarrawonga, where the family regularly camped at Christmas. Around 11:30am, the plane flew over lake Eildon. The lake was never part of their course yet it is speculated they altered their route for a sightseeing tour over the lake. The plane was flying low and at about 11:35am witnesses observed the aircraft clip a power cable over the lake. The left wing of the aircraft was dislodged and the aircraft descended out of control and impacted the water about 165 m beyond and to the southeast of the cable that was struck. The aircraft was substantially destroyed with the impact of hitting the lake. The crash was witnessed by dozens of people on the lake yet they were unable to render any assistance as the plane sank quickly. All occupants of the aircraft were lost. The last person at Wallan to speak to the pilot said that Mr Lind had never mentioned going anywhere near Lake Eildon. And perhaps the most chilling thing of all:

“As he walked out, he said ‘We should be back by one. If we’re not, you know what to do.’ And we said ‘Yeah, we’ll send out a search party’ – the standard joke.”

Please standby for departure

Alison and Ivo Righetti passed away in 1994 and 1995 respectively. After their passing, the Mac’sfield property came under the ownership of their children. The once small township of Wallan had grown significantly over the years and such a vast area of land was keenly looked upon by land developers. It wasn’t too long before an offer was submitted that was too good to refuse and the Mac’sfield property – inclusive of the land the Wallan Airfield lay on was sold. Soon afterwards, rumours began to spread that the airfield would be closed. On February 11th, 2008 Mark Robinson, partner in Secure Air addressed some of the rumours doing the rounds on the internet:7

“Regarding the Wallan airfield, yes we were given a letter before Christmas telling us to vacate by the end of January however this was a legal requirement of the seller to do this to offer the new owner vacant possession of the property. We are in talks with the new owner and things are looking positive for the continued operation of the field for the medium term.”

But on March 14th, 2008 a further update shows that the Wallan Airfield is to be no more:

“Extensive talks with the owner of the land involved have concluded and unfortunately there is no place in his plans for an airfield. The flying school and private hangers all must be removed from the property by the end of June 2008 to make way for an extensive housing development.”

A comment from a separate user on 25th July, 2008 is a follows:

“Well the sign is up ………… Wallara Waters
…..
Lots of the hangers are down……”

A comment on an internet aviation forum8 on 11th June, 2008 best sums up the situation:

“Aircraft and building are being removed now and that’s it, it’s all over.”

And indeed, just like that it was all over.

Secure Air moved their entire operation including the portable building to Locksley airfield. Due to the more isolated location business was quieter than it had been at Wallan. When an opportunity opened up to move to Shepparton (where Nathan Muller and Susan Carroll had been operating from prior to forming secure Air at Wallan) they took it. The portable building was not required at Shepparton and to this day remains at Locksley. One could say that this is the only intact piece of Wallan Airfield that remains today.

After the relocation, Mark Robinson continued to live in Wallan and travel to and from the flying school site. But alongside with running his own business the travel became too much and he was unable to dedicate the time required to Secure Air. Consequently, after 12 months he sold his share of Secure Air to Graeme Samuels, Nathan Muller and Susan Carroll, along with his aircraft. Today, Secure Air run by Graeme, Nathan and Susan operates from the buildings at Shepparton occupied by the Goulburn Valley Aero Club.

The Wallara Waters housing estate continues to grow with new houses and it is doubtful that new residents would be aware that part of the estate is built upon a former airfield. But where some hangars and buildings used to be located, the land is untouched due to the swampy and wet conditions and should you know where to look, remnants of the airfield still remain.

The airfield is not entirely forgotten and fond memories live in the hearts of many:

“My son had a plane ride over Wallan & District for a birthday.”

“So many memories flying to and from Coldstream”

“Ahhh the memories, flew in/out of that field quite a few times.”

“Had a plane ride over Wallan with my husband ,for one of his birthdays.”

“Many times we ventured out to the Wallan Airfield to watch an elderly man in his 80’s fly his homemade Gyrocopter. The man was a German experimental pilot for the Luftwaffe during the war. A very proud man who would sit at the end of the runway, take a few deep breaths then launch himself into the air. He would fly around for 15 minutes and land with a smile on his face like a kid.”

“We lived on a property at Wallan East not far from the airfield, and can recall someone in a Gyrocopter regularly flying over our property. Not sure if it was this gentleman, but whoever it was took great pleasure dropping small bags of soil whenever my kids were outside. They had great fun dodging them!”


Summary

The Wallan Airfield was used and enjoyed by pilots, students and aircraft enthusiasts for over 20 years until its eventual closure to make way for the housing estate known as Wallara Waters today. “Airfield” Park within the estate pays homage to the former use of the land as an airfield. Twenty years is by no means a short period of time and one may say that for an airfield covered in water for parts of the year that its time was due. But would this statement be correct, or even justified?

Small airfields provide many benefits and the Wallan Airfield was no exception. During fire season the airfield was used to refuel firefighting aircraft and refill them with fire retardant. The airfield was also a safety net for pilots with the knowledge they could land safely at Wallan should the weather turn bad, and continue their flight when the weather conditions were more favourable.

The Wallan Airfield created economic vitality, employment opportunities, social interaction and attracted business to the township of Wallan. But despite attempted negotiations to keep the airfield running, it wasn’t regarded as a viable option by the new land owners and the council was unwilling to assist and step in to ensure its continued operation.

If there was less importance placed on land developer profit and new housing estates bringing additional rates to fill council coffers and instead there was greater focus on sustaining the existing economic and social benefits within a community – would the Wallan Airfield continue to exist today? A impossible pipedream given we cannot return to the past – but one that we shouldn’t so hastily give up on so as to ensure the protection and longevity of those things most important to us. I have no doubt that the former instructors, pilots, students and all those who were associated with the Wallan Airfield would agree.


References

1https://www.facebook.com/Thomastown3074/posts/did-you-know-whittlesea-once-had-an-airstrip-at-its-peak-it-had-2000-flights-a-m/10155420679111317/

https://www.pprune.org/pacific-general-aviation-questions/233977-what-happened-whittlesea-airstrip.htm

2Australian Business Register

3 Australian Business Register

4https://www.recreationalflying.com/topic/3290-wallan-news-ywan-victoria/

5Australian Business Register

6https://www.pprune.org/pacific-general-aviation-questions/330743-wallan-airfield.html

7https://www.atsb.gov.au/publications/investigation_reports/1993/aair/199303274/

8https://www.atsb.gov.au/publications/investigation_reports/1995/aair/199500431/

9https://www.atsb.gov.au/publications/investigation_reports/2004/aair/aair200400437/

https://www.theage.com.au/national/four-lost-as-plane-hits-lake-eildon-20040208-gdx9ln.html

https://www.theage.com.au/national/three-bodies-missing-as-mystery-deepens-20040209-gdx9qf.html

https://www.theage.com.au/national/family-mourns-loved-ones-lost-in-freak-accident-20040210-gdx9z6.html

10https://www.recreationalflying.com/topic/3290-wallan-news-ywan-victoria/

11https://www.pprune.org/pacific-general-aviation-questions/330743-wallan-airfield-2.html


Acknowledgements

I would like to express my appreciation to the following people for providing information on the Wallan Airfield, and without their help this article would not have been possible.

Mark Robinson – former partner of Secure Air

Carol Wright – private Pilot

Sharon Martin – former student of Whittlesea and Wallan Flying School

Max Perry – Maintenance staff member of Wallan Airfield

All of the above are members of, or have family associated with the Wallan Wallan Historical Group


If you have further information about Wallan Airfield we would love to hear from you. Please add a comment below or alternatively email team@oldplaces.com.au or click here.


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