The Role of Coastal Radio Stations in the Early Days of Communications With Aircraft
by Roger Meyer

The Coastal Radio Service, established for communications with ships, had nothing to do with aviation... Or did it? Please read on.

The Wireless Telegraphy Act 1905 gave control of all wireless communications to the Commonwealth Government. In 1909 the House of Representatives resolved that wireless telegraphic stations should be established around the coasts of Australia, and that merchant ships should be equipped with wireless installations to:
a) gain intelligence of the appearance in Australian waters of hostile forces, and
b) assist in saving life and property imperilled by accidents upon the sea.

The Australasian Wireless Co. of Sydney won the tender to install, on behalf of the Postmaster General, wireless stations at Perth and Sydney.

This company virtually established Australia’s radio industry by taking the initiative of installing radio equipment in merchant ships and operating experimental shore stations. In 1910 they were granted a licence to operate a wireless station and conduct telegraphy tests with ships at sea. Their station was located in the Hotel Australia, Sydney. The aerial mast was attached to the hotel’s chimney. Thus in 1911 the first coastal radio station was established. The transmitter had a range of 520 kilometres.

The permanent network of stations initially involved the two high powered (25 kW) stations at Sydney (Pennant Hills) and Perth (Applecross), and a network of 17 low powered stations. These were installed between 1912 and 1914.

A consequence of the loss of the British liner Titanic was the Navigation Act 1912 which required any ship carrying more than 50 persons in Australian waters to fitted with wireless communications apparatus. It also required a suitably qualified operator to work the equipment.

At that time, the Marconi and Telefunken companies were in strong competition for the world telecommunications market. Marconi sued the Australasian Wireless Company for infringement of its patents. The dispute was settled when, in 1912, the companies agreed to exchange patents, and the Australian Wireless Co. merged with the Australian branch of Marconi to form Amalgamated Wireless (Australasia) Ltd. (AWA).

The aim of the original network was to ensure that all ships in Australian waters would be in contact with at least one station at all times. The range of the transmitters was soon increased to 700 km by day and up to 3,500 km at night. The operating frequency was 500 kHz.

In 1922 AWA was granted exclusive rights to operate an expanded network of 27 stations which comprised the Coastal Radio Service (CRS), which they continued to do for the next 25 years. These included stations in New Guinea, which had been hurriedly installed when Japan entered Word War II. The Overseas Telecommunications Act 1946 resulted in the creation of the Overseas Telecommunications Commission and ownership of the CRS was transferred to this new organisation on 1 October 1946.

The first passenger aircraft to be fitted with wireless communications was the Tasmanian Aerial Services DH84 Dragon VH-URD Miss Launceston, in 1934. By the end of 1937, about 24 Australian aircraft had been fitted with radio equipment. Prior to the creation of the Aeradio service in 1938-39, the Civil Aviation Board arranged for AWA to provide an interim ground-to-air communications service. This was achieved through a combination of Coastal Radio Stations and temporary stations at aerodromes. Frequencies of 333 kHz and 325 kHz were allocated for the service. The Coastal Radio Stations provided a ready-made network for communication with aircraft in flight.

The first flight across the Pacific in 1928 was by Charles Kingsford Smith, Charles Ulm, Harry Lyon and wireless operator Jim Warner. It was the first overseas flight to be equipped with radio communications equipment. Sydney Radio kept contact throughout the flight.

The mobile communications and direction finding facility which had been used at Charleville during the 1934 Centenary air race from England to Australia was later moved to Western Junction (Launceston) to aid aircraft crossing Bass Strait from the mainland.

A temporary station was also established at Darwin airport for the 1934 air race, and this continued to operate until 1940. Darwin also provided radio communications with aircraft on the Australia to England airmail service. Communications could be maintained as far as Kupang in Timor.

The first permanent aeronautical communications facility provided by AWA was at Essendon Airport in 1935. It was sited near the reservoir on the eastern side of the field, and was connected via a PMG landline to the CRS transmitter station at Ballan. The operators were Mr A.S. (Gus) Hart and Mr Lou Fontaine. Other interim stations were set up at Canberra, Forrest and Groote Eylandt. In conjunction with some rural broadcast stations, the coastal service also collected and conveyed meteorological information for aircraft pilots planning their flights.

AWA was contracted by DCA to design, install and staff a network of permanent Aeradio stations along the major air routes in Australia and New Guinea. As the Aeradio stations progressively came into operation from late 1938, CRS operators were invited to resign from AWA and join DCA as Aeradio Operators. Many of the Department's early Aeradio Operators were also lured away from the unsociable life at sea to the relative comforts of being land-based. Thus began the progressive separation of Aeradio from the CRS, although the CRS continued to provide a service at Townsville until 1942 and Thursday Island until 1977.

Acknowledgment: The source of this article is The Seawatchers by Lawrence Durrant (Angus and Robertson Publishers, 1986).


Back to the main Communications & Navigation index

If this page appears without a menu bar at top and left, click here