Flight has long played a pivotal role in the history of the Northern Territory, from the impact of 60 Japanese air raids on Darwin beginning on February 19, 1942, during World War II to the role played by the airborne efforts of the Salvation Army and the Royal Flying Doctor Service.
Mastery of the air has been paramount to many creatures’ survival in the Top End, from wedge-tailed eagles, owls and osprey to United States B-52 bombers, World War II Spitfires and Royal Australian Air Force F111 fighter aircraft.
It may seem a little incongruous to lump bird-life and military aircraft together, but you can do it within an hours’ drive of Darwin and it really does highlight both the beautiful diversity of avian nature and the extraordinary achievements of human engineering in the pursuit of flight.
The majestic beauty and tangible threat of military aircraft is on display at the Australian Aviation Heritage Centre, 8km south of Darwin on the Stuart Highway.
To be struck by the awesome manner in which flight has evolved in nature, you have to travel a little further, to the Territory Wildlife Park near Berry Springs, another 40-minute drive south down the Stuart Highway.
The park is an impressive example of how wildlife can be effectively displayed to tourists and how, through imaginative displays, visitors can take away life-long memories of the versatility and beauty of nature.
To set the scene, it is well worth a visit to the aviation heritage centre to absorb the massive engineering feat which is the B-52 G Stratofortress “Darwin’s Pride”, one of only two B-52s on display in the world outside the United States.
With a wingspan of 56m, powered by eight Pratt and Whitney jet engines and with a maximum operational range without mid-air refueling of 32 hours covering 13,200km, the massive grey spectre of the B-52 is inspiring, humbling, and just a little bit scary.
The B-52 is the jewel in the crown of an impressive display of aircraft which also includes an F-111, one of the air fleet retired by the Royal Australian Air Force in December, 2010, after 37 years of service.
There is also an RAAF Mirage, a Westland Wessex Royal Australian Navy helicopter, a World War II B-25 Mitchell Bomber and the replica of a MkVIII Spitfire from No 1 Fighter Wing, which took over the defence of Darwin from the RAAF Kittyhawk Squadrons in January, 1943.
As an early colonial outpost in a vast continent, Darwin has a long history in aviation. On December 10, 1919, the Vickers Vimy aircraft flown by Captain Ross Smith and his crew landed at Fannie Bay on Darwin’s outskirts, winning the £10,000 prize offered by the Australian Government for the first flight from England to Australia in less than 30 days.
In the 1920s and 30s, famous fliers including Bert Hinkler, Amy Johnson, Amelia Erhardt and Kingsford Smith all passed through Darwin in their bid to pioneer air routes.
But while the human legends of aviation were finding their place in our skies, Australia’s birds had already conquered it in a myriad of ingenious ways. A visit to the Birds of Prey Display at the Territory Wildlife Park provides insight into the skill and versatility of our airborne hunters.
With brief hand signals, the wildlife handlers introduce to the crowd a variety of birds, some trained to fly low over the heads of the audience seated in the Flight Deck amphitheatre.
A buzzard swoops in when an emu egg is placed on the grass, deftly cracking the shell open with a rock in a clever display of the natural ingenuity of the species.
A broad-winged jabiru lumbers in to land, an osprey soars high over the tree-tops to establish its territory before diving into the water and a wedge-tailed eagle lumbers in like a small B-52 bomber, pulling back on its wing beats to drop and pick up a morsel of food held by a handler.
The barn owl displays how beautifully adapted it is to hunting silently and swiftly at night.
A signal from the handler prompts it to fly low over the amphitheater, skimming silently less than a metre above the heads of the audience, demonstrating its ability to swoop soundlessly upon its prey.
Forget the F-111 fighter aircraft and the B-52 bomber, the barn owl is the epitome of the stealthy airborne hunter.
The Australian Aviation Heritage Centre is open seven days, 9am to 5pm, closed Christmas Day and Boxing Day. Entry is adults $14, seniors/pensioners $10, children (under 12) $7, students $7.50, family $30.
The 400 hectare Territory Wildlife Park has three main walking tracks – the Woodland Walk is 600m, the Wetlands Walk is 550m and the Monsoon Forest Walk is 1100m. A free shuttle train runs continuously around the park’s 4km loop road. The train can accommodate wheelchairs and strollers.
The Park is open daily from 8.30am to 6pm (including public holidays) except Christmas Day. Last entry 4pm. Adults $26, children (5-16 years) $13, children under 5 years free, seniors $20.80, concession/student $18.20, economy family (1 adult, 2 children) $45.50, super economy family (2 adults, 4 children) $45.50. Daily tours from Darwin with Darwin Day Tours.
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All photos are © Vincent Ross – All Rights Reserved