WIRRAWAY AVIATION MUSEUM

Pokolbin has a new, high-flying tourist attraction. It’s early days, but potentially the sky’s the limit for the unusual Wirraway Aviation Museum, tucked in opposite Cessnock Airport, in Pokolbin’s wine country.

Opened quietly in October 2018, the Wirraway museum is a bit of a misnomer as it showcases a variety of fascinating warbirds, including even some with metal patches denoting old bullet holes. Entry is free.

The lone CAC Wirraway, a World War II training aircraft which is the real star of the show here for site owner and famous Hunter Valley airshow operator Paul Bennet. And it’s a very rare relic, said to be one of only three still flying in Australia out of more than 700 built.

In its drab green livery, the legendary Wirraway (an Aboriginal word meaning ‘challenge’) is unobtrusive within the museum’s hangar, hidden between three other aircraft while two other magnificent warbirds stand outside.

And yet, looks are deceiving. The WWII trainer (1939-1946) is credited with being the foundation of Australian aircraft manufacturing. It was the first aeroplane made by the Commonwealth Aircraft Corporation (CAC). Later it was modified into a wartime ’emergency fighter’ known as the Boomerang.

Yet, as painted up here to resemble Wirraway A20-176, it instantly recalls its fame as Australia’s unlikeliest fighter, for “doing the impossible”: a humble pilot trainer which, despite the odds, surprised and shot down a vastly superior Japanese ‘Zero’ enemy aircraft near Buna, New Guinea, in 1942. It was an amazing feat as the Wirraway was used only for reconnaissance missions. It was never intended as a frontline combat aircraft even in those desperate early war days.

The enemy aircraft shot down was actually a Nakajima aircraft of the Imperial Japanese Army/Air Force, but an impressed US General Douglas MacArthur awarded Aussie pilot Jack Archer with a Silver Star for combat valour (and surviving).

Better still, Archer and his observer were then also given 12 bottles of beer by the Australian High Command as a reward. Six they drank and the others they sold.  

Some 755 Wirraways were built as pilot trainers and general-purpose aircraft. Of these, only 15 are now registered. Only five are airworthy, with three being worked on and the rest are static, including one in storage in Florida. But only three are flying at present and the Museum has one.

Nearby, with its unique folded wings, as it would travel on a US aircraft carrier, is the yellow-tipped, black Grumman Avenger dating from 1942. It was created initially for the US Navy. One WWII Avenger pilot rescued in 1944 later became US President George H.W.Bush.

The Avenger was the biggest single-engine torpedo bomber the Allies had. It was developed in the wake of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour in December 1941. That’s why it was called the Avenger.

Six Avengers took part in WWII’s Battle of Midway. Five were shot down and one came back, badly damaged.

The Avenger and Wirraway both call the Museum their full-time home, although depending on when you visit, you could catch even more. A whole roster of other warbirds regularly rotates in and out of being on display. At the time of writing, a Curtiss P-40E Kittyhawk and a red-nosed North American T-28 Trojan trainer are sitting amongst the regular occupants. Recently, the Museum has housed a Hawker Hurricane and North American Mustang, just to name a couple more.

Parked outside the hangar is another strange beast. It’s the graceful, if gaudy (painted bright yellow), Yak-52 Soviet aircraft whose design dates from 1976. It was used to train Russian pilots for MIG jets and is capable of some impressive aerobatics. 

Despite housing such an intriguing collection of historic aircraft, the Wirraway museum isn’t just about static exhibits.  In fact, it’s quite hands-on at the hangar. 

Hoping to excite, inspire and educate the regions next generation of pilots and aviation enthusiasts, visitors can also find Aerohunter Flight Training and Aerohunter Adventure Flights located at the museum.

Aerohunter Flight Training is for those curious about taking their first steps toward learning to fly. Visitors can get started with a Trial Introductory Flight over the beautiful Hunter Valley Wine Country and can keep learning with Aerohunter all the way through to a recreational pilot’s certificate.

Meanwhile, Aerohunter Adventure Flights is just for the thrill-seekers. Remember that Yak-52 trainer mentioned before? Those looking for some instant adrenaline can get strapped in and taken on a range of adventure flights full of turns, loops, rolls and more.  

And yes, even the extremely rare Wirraway and Avenger can be booked for an adventure flight, for the serious enthusiast after a special and surreal chance to relive aviation history.

This means all of the aircraft on display at the museum are in airworthy condition. What’s more, they regularly fly in airshows across the country, providing a rare chance for people to experience the sights and sounds of these old-school machines in action.

One such event is the bi-annual Hunter Valley Airshow, which calls the Wirraway Museum and Cessnock Airport home and attracts 15,000 visitors over two days. The event sees an incredible variety of aircraft and attractions flock to the region for a huge aviation festival.

With plenty to offer, the unique Wirraway Museum, launched nine months ago from humble beginnings, has its sights set on becoming the heart and hub of the Hunter Valley’s burgeoning aviation industry.

The Wirraway Museum is located at 40 Grady Rd, Pokolbin and is open 7 days. To reach the aviation museum from Cessnock Aerodrome, tourists must drive in a virtual U-shape: up Broke Road, then down De Beyers Road, then turn left to the very end of Grady Road.