Olympic Terminal, Essendon - 1956


At the time of preparation for the 1956 Melbourne Olympic Games, Melbourne's Essendon Airport had a modest international terminal which comprised the original 1926 Aero Club building with a Nissan hut attached at the rear. Click here for a view of these buildings. It was certainly not a suitable international gateway, even in those days.

In order to provide suitable facilities for the expected influx of competitors and visitors to the Olympics, DCA decided to speed up construction of a spacious new igloo hangar, which was being built at Essendon for Ansett-ANA, and make that into a temporary International Terminal. The hangar was fitted out with temporary partitions and - of course - a set of plywood Olympic Rings! Customs, Immigration and Health clearance desks were capable of handling 270 passengers at a time. Telephones and teleprinters were installed for the world's press, while such luxuries as postal facilities and a snack bar finished off the appointments. Roads, taxiways, road signs and gardens were all added to cope with the traffic and improve the appearance of the airport.

The Olympic Terminal was officially opened on 31 October at 6.10 am with the arrival of 72 Romanian athletes and one official. The national teams arriving at the airport were greeted by thousands of Melburnians. Most teams arrived in their national dress, with the more regimented contingents marching from their aircraft to the Terminal.

Between 1 November and 21 November 1956 there were 262 extra aircraft movements to Melbourne and Sydney airports involving international traffic. This included a total of 10,729 passengers, 4,276 athletes and officials and 600 international journalists, photographers and broadcasters. At Melbourne (Essendon) Airport, 72 international flights carrying 4,308 passengers were cleared. The remainder were processed in Sydney and then travelled to Melbourne by domestic transport. Swollen by the number of international passengers disembarking in Sydney, the domestic airlines doubled the number of passengers carried from Sydney to Melbourne in the same period to the previous year, raising the number from 10,000 to 20,000.

Twenty world airline operators contributed to the movement of passengers. The ten different types of aircraft used were: Super Constellation; Constellation; Stratocruiser; DC-7C; Armagnac; DC-6B; DC-6; DC-4; DC-3; and Convair 340.

The immensity of the task of Air Traffic Control is illustrated by the movement statistics for November 21: Melbourne handled 247 aircraft; Sydney 230 aircraft. Melbourne controlled one movement (take-off or landing) every 3.8 minutes, and for one hour within that period handled one movement every 2.2 minutes.

The new (present) Control Tower had just been completed in time for the Games, but had no radar. Furthermore, Essendon did not have a full Instrument Landing System (ILS). It had a wartime Localizer and two marker beacons, but no Glide Path (to provide descent path guidance). In order to provide the Tower with some radar assistance, the RAAF agreed to locate a portable Ground Controlled Approach (GCA) radar unit at Essendon. The GCA was rarely used 'in anger', but it certainly made it possible for the New Zealand contingent to march at the Opening Ceremony of the Games.

By the evening before Opening Day all international contingents had arrived, with one exception - New Zealand. Because of aircraft serviceability problems our closest international competitor was running very late, but eventually advised their ETA of 4am on Opening Day. However, nature intervened. MET issued a fog warning for Melbourne (Essendon) and the alternate airport was Sydney. With the aircraft just 15 minutes from touchdown the fog was getting thicker and the Approach Controller in the Tower was about to close the airport. The pilot of the TEAL aircraft, a DC-4, was asked if he would like GCA assistance to land.

The rest is history. The team just had time to spruce up and make their way to the Melbourne Cricket Ground (MCG) for the Opening Ceremony. It was 22 November and the Duke of Edinburgh, who had arrived in the Royal Convair 440 that morning, officially opened the Games.

Retired Air Traffic Controller Jack Russell recalled that of the various aircraft types to visit Australia for the Games, the most distinctive was the French Sud-Est SE2010 Armagnac, "...an 80-ton aircraft which resembled two shipping containers welded together lengthways with a wing and two under-powered engines prortuding on each side. The aircraft's performance matched its appearance. It carried up to 107 passengers, and had and amazing internal cabin height of 3.6 metres." One of the two Armagnacs to visit Melbourne, and other international aircraft remaining until the Games were over, were ferried to Mangalore. An arriving TAA pilot, when asked to report sighting and passing a Mangalore-bound Armagnac replied "If it's that block of flats below us, we're passing it now!"

The Minister for Civil Aviation, Senator Paltridge, said that it was clear that without air transport the 16th Olympiad would not have been held in Australia. He went on to say that Air Traffic Controllers had borne the greatest 'heat of the day'. "In their highly responsible task these officers have performed magnificently."

Click here to see some rare colour photos inside the Olympic Terminal

Click here to see a rare colour photo outside the Olympic Terminal

(Photo: CAHS collection)


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