During World War II, the Wirraway saw action, in a makeshift light bomber/ground attack capacity, against Japanese forces. It was also the starting point for the design of an "emergency fighter", the CAC Boomerang.
World War Two serviceAs its American "cousin" (both types having been derived from the NA-16) the T-6 did for many Allied Air Forces during WWII, the Wirraway served as one of the RAAF's main trainer types from 1939. The type made its last operational flight in 1959 after being gradually replaced by the new Winjeel trainer. Beside serving as a trainer aircraft they were also operated in combat roles, including as an emergency fighter. At the outbreak of the Pacific War in December 1941 Wirraways equipped seven RAAF squadrons: Nos 4, 5, 12, 22, 23, 24 and 25.
A group of five Wirraways based at Kluang in Malaya for training purposes was pressed into combat against Japanese ground invasion forces; these were generally flown by New Zealanders with Australian observers, and had some successes.
On 6 January 1942, Wirraways of No. 24 Squadron attempted to intercept Japanese seaplanes flying over New Britain; only one managed to engage an enemy aircraft, marking the first air-to-air combat between RAAF and Japanese forces. Two weeks later, eight 24 Squadron Wirraways defended the city of Rabaul from over 100 Japanese attacking bombers and fighters, resulting in the destruction or severe damage of all but two of the Australian aircraft. On 12 December that year, Pilot Officer J. S. Archer shot down a Japanese A6M Zero aircraft after he spotted it 1000 feet (about 300 metres) below him and dived on it, opening fire and sending the Zero hurtling into the sea. This was the only occasion that a Wirraway shot down another aircraft (and is one more than the total of aircraft shot down by its fighter offspring, the Boomerang). Fighter versions of the Wirraway operated over New Guinea for some time on ground attack and other Army co-operation tasks until other RAAF aircraft such as the Boomerang and American Curtiss P-40s were delivered to replace them.
Many front-line squadrons of the RAAF had at least one Wirraway attached to serve as a squadron 'hack', that is, an aircraft employed on errands such as visits to headquarters or other bases. At least one aircraft (formerly A20-527) flew as part of Headquarters Flight 5th Air Force in full United States Army Air Forces markings.
Post-war and civil servicePost-war the Wirraway continued in RAAF service as a trainer at Uranquinty and Point Cook and was taken on strength by the newly formed RAN Fleet Air Arm in 1948. Wirraways also served with the squadrons of the Citizen Air Force (a flying reserve force of the RAAF established in 1948) alongside CAC Mustangs, partially equipping No. 22 (City of Sydney), No. 23 (City of Brisbane), No. 24 (City of Adelaide) and No. 25 (City of Perth) Squadrons. Duties were not limited to training flights: a Wirraway patrolling for sharks crashed on a beach at Maroochydore on 30 December 1950, killing three children and injuring 14 other people.
The RAN retired its Wirraways in 1957, replacing them with de Havilland Vampires. After CAC Winjeels started to enter service, the RAAF commenced phasing out its Wirraways on 4 December 1958 with a farewell flypast held at Point Cook to mark its retirement from that base. The last military flight was on 27 April 1959 when CA-16 A20-686 was flown to Tocumwal for disposal.
In 1954, Super Spread Aviation, based at Moorabbin Airport, bought two CA-16 Wirraways and modified them to perform aerial application operations. Both were almost brand-new, one having flown 9 hours and the other 12 hours; the modifications included the fitment of a hopper and spraying equipment. In a reflection of much of what was asked of the type during wartime, the two aircraft proved to be inadequate for the task and both were de-registered on 10 April 1956 and later scrapped. Despite the scrapping of these two aircraft and hundreds of others, a healthy number of Wirraways survive today, in aviation museums in Australia, Papua New Guinea and in the United States; and with 10 on the Australian civil aircraft register in 2011; either flying or under restoration to fly as warbirds. A Wirraway being operated as a warbird crashed during an airshow at Nowra in 1999, killing the two occupants.
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