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Communication systems in Australian civil aviation range in scope and complexity from small operations to large international airports and cover a variety of modes.

Control tower, Essendon Airport, 1957 (National Library of Australia)

Aviation communication, for example – that is, communicating with aircraft – can involve wireless radio, flags, flares, aircraft marking schemes and signals among other things. Radio was first used in aviation in 1917 and in 1930 the International Commission for Aerial Navigation mandated the carrying of a wireless on any aircraft with ten or more people aboard.[i] Radio began to be used in civil aviation after World War I. Ultra high frequency began to be used in navigation in the early 1940s. This was followed by a very high frequency (VHF) omni-directional radio range (VOR) system.

The world’s first control tower was opened in 1921 at Croydon Airport in London.[ii] Australia’s first control towers were built by the Department of Civil Aviation between 1938 and 1940 at Archerfield, Mascot and Parafield using British designs which were also being emulated in Commonwealth and other countries. Communications in control towers were to grow to cover several functions including ground control, airport control, local or ‘Tower’ control (which deals with operational runways) approach and terminal control and the issue of flight data.

Public spaces in larger terminals have evolved from modern to postmodern places filled with a myriad of communication modes and devices: flight directory boards, intercoms, mobile technologies, signage, visual communication and industrial and interior design. Private working places have undergone similar transformations.

Post September 11 2001 has seen heightened concern in the civil aviation industry over surveillance and inflight communication. In a 2007 edition of the magazine Flight Safety Australia, it was noted that: ‘In these days of locked cockpit doors, communication between flight and cabin crew has never been so important. With most contact between the flight deck and cabin via the interphone, CASA [Civil Aviation Safety Authority] cabin safety inspector Susan Rice says pilots and cabin crew should consider the effectiveness of how they are communicating’.[iii]

Plessey instrument, Essendon Airport, 1970 (Photograph Wolfgang Sievers

Heritage Sources

This story is well represented in various locations, museums and collections that are distributed throughout the country.

Several of Australia’s early air traffic control towers, at Archerfield, Essendon and Parafield, survive today and are nominated in the Australian Heritage Database as places with potential Commonwealth Heritage values. Llandilo International Transmitting Station, in Shanes Park in NSW, is listed in the Commonwealth Heritage List for its role in the operation of international air routes in Australia[iv]. These and other communications infrastructure, such as the Nhill Aeradio Station in Victoria and the Hobart/Cambridge Aeradio Station in Tasmania, are a small part of the remaining historical infrastructure that has shaped Australian aviation and illustrates this central theme.

Collections, museums and archives also hold significant collections relating to aviation communication. The Powerhouse Museum holds important examples of communication systems and radios that were used in aircraft and ground stations. One such object is the pedal-powered generator, which was invented by Alfred Traeger. The generator provided reliable power for wireless radios in areas far from domestic electricity supplies or sources of batteries. Reliable radio communication changed the lives of people living in the rural areas, and was instrumental in the development of the Royal Flying Doctor Service[v]. The Airways Museum holds a significant collection of objects and archival material relating to communication systems used in aviation, such as the Marconi S.W.B.8 HF transmitter, flight service consoles and various HF radio transmitters. Other museums that contain communication materials are the South Australian Aviation Museum (SAAM) and the Australian Aviation Museum (AAM) in Bankstown, NSW.

Museums, Collections & Archives

CSIRO Black Mountain, ACT

Involved in the development of new navigation and communication systems with the Department of Civil Aviation in the 1950s.

National Archives Australia , ACT

Documents and papers relating to communication in aviation including the Department of Civil Aviation.

National Library of Australia, ACT

Photographs of Alfred Traeger, control towers and communication systems in action at air traffic control towers and Flight Information Centres. Documents, manuscripts, handbooks and archival material relating to communication in aviation.

National Museum of Australia , ACT

The Frank Proust and John Boddington Collections, remains of the Southern Cloud, air disaster which resulted in the introduction of radio in all aircraft in Australia.

Australian Aviation Museum, Bankstown, NSW

Communication related items include a Lancaster radio set and a Boeing cock pit section.

Powerhouse Museum, NSW

Alfred Traeger's pedal powered radio. Several examples of communication systems such as radio transmitters.

State Library NSW

Documents, handbooks and other ephemera such as a collection of maps, communication and navigational aids from the Department of Aviation. Flight radio operator's manual.

Northern Territory Library , NT

Photographs of Alfred Traeger.

South Australian Aviation Museum, SA

An example of an air traffic control console.

Airways Museum, VIC

Important collection of communication systems and navigational aids such as the Marconi S.W.B.8 HF transmitter, flight service consoles and various HF radio transmitters.

Museums Victoria, VIC

Items in the collection include transmitters, compasses and trade manuals.

Nhill Aviation Heritage Centre, VIC

Part of the Nhill Aviation Heritage Centre is the Nhill Aeradio Station which is one of the remaining Aeradio stations that were crucial to civil aviation in the early 20th century.


Microwave Landing System Antennas, Tullamarine Fwy, Melbourne Airport, VIC

Collaborative effort between CSIRO, AWA and the Department of Civil Aviation to develop a new landing system. Located at the Melbourne Airport, the site is nominated for the Commonwealth Heritage List.

Bankstown Airport Air Traffic Control Tower, Tower Rd, Bankstown, NSW

One of early examples of air traffic control towers in Australia.

Llandilo International Transmitting Station Stoney Creek Rd , Shanes Park, NSW                                   

The Llandilo International Transmitting Station is played an important part in Australia’s aviation and international air routes coming into Australia.

Sydney Airport Air Traffic Control Tower General Holmes Dr, Sydney Airport, NSW                 

Nominated on the Commonwealth Heritage List as a unique example of innovative design and aesthetics.

Archerfield Airport, Beatty Rd, Archerfield, QLD

Site of one of Australia’s first air control towers.

Parafield Airport Air Traffic Control Tower Kittyhawk Ln, Parafield, SA      

The site of the pioneering air traffic control towers built in Australia.

Hobart Airport Air Traffic Control Tower, Tower Rd , Cambridge, TAS

Surviving example of post WW2 air control tower still remaining.

Launceston Airport Air Traffic Control Tower Evandale Rd, Western Junction, TAS

Surviving example of post WW2 air control tower still remaining.

Essendon Airport Air Traffic Control Tower, Wirraway Rd, Strathmore, VIC

Surviving example of post WW2 air control tower still remaining that service one of the busiest airport in Australia during post war period.

Strathbogie Aerial Navaid, Polly McQuinns Road, Strathbogie, Strathbogie Shire, VIC

A unique example of community initiative. It comprises of stones embedded in the ground to spell out “STRAHBOGIE” as a visual navigation aid.

DCA Air Navigation Beacon, Narembeen, WA

Historic site that was one of the main points on the east west line jet routes.

Roy Hill Directional Beacon, Marble Bar Rd Nullagine, WA

A directional beacon used after WW2 by regional airlines that service the area around Roy Hill.

People & Organisations

Alfred Traeger


Inventor of the pedal powered radio that influenced the lives of regional Australians and is closely associated with the Royal Flying Doctors Services. Material associated with him can be found in various collections such in the Powerhouse, RFDS Visitor Centres, NAA, NLA and other institutions.

Amalgamated Wireless (Australasia) Ltd 

Designed and manufactured equipment used in almost all aspects of Australian aviation operation including communications equipment. Relevant collection materials distributed throughout aviation heritage collections in Australia such as Powerhouse and Airways Museum, VIC.

[i] Air Navigation (General) Regulations, 1930, <bailii.auslii.edu.au/ie/legis/num_reg/1930/0026.html> accessed 17 March 2014.

[ii] ‘Air Traffic Control’, New World Encyclopedia, http://www.newworldencyclopedia.org/entry//Air_traffic_control accessed 17 March 2014.

[iii] Staff writers, ‘Better safe than sorry’, Flight Safety Australia, March-April 2007, p44.

[iv] Department of the Environment, 2011, Australian Heritage Database: Llandilo International Transmitting Station, accessed 15th July 2014 < http://www.environment.gov.au/cgi-bin/ahdb/search.pl?mode=place_detail;search=state%3DNSW%3Blist_code%3DCHL%3Blegal_status%3D35%3Bkeyword_PD%3D0%3Bkeyword_SS%3D0%3Bkeyword_PH%3D0;place_id=106101>

[v] Brasch, N., 2001, Royal Flying Doctor Service of Australia, Heinemann, Port Melbourne.