Tocumwal’s sleeping giant wide awake

By Liam Nash

Tocumwal, a town whose resplendent aviation roots saw it hum throughout the post war era, is again making use of its wooden colossus Sportavia.

Recently resurrected by Tocumwal Soaring Centre owners Sharon Dennis and Mark ‘Lumpy’ Paterson, the structure is recognised as the largest clear-span timber building in the Southern Hemisphere.

Known as the "beating heart of old Tocumwal'’, the area's gliding veins were severed several years ago when the former owners shut up shop and left the future of the hangar undetermined.

The pair has restarted operations this year after buying the business in 2016 and the astounding hardwood edifice has been shocked back into life.

Now housing a vast array of aircrafts and gliders, including what Ms Dennis believes to be the largest Callair fleet in the world, the hangar bustles with life daily and is again beaming with an aura of intrepidity.

The fixers: John Buchanan from Noosa holding the engine while Bendigo's Phil Organ offer his assistance while working on a JS3 glider cockpit.

The building has withstood more than seven decades of existence and although slightly weathered, has quite the story to tell.

It was built in 1942 during an invasion from the Japanese in World War II and, due to Tocumwal sitting directly on the Melbourne-Brisbane Line, was purpose-built to be a part of a heavy bomber base for the United States Army Air Corps to occupy.

With residents given just 24 hours to vacate their homes, the erection of what was then called McIntyre Field took somewhere between six and 12 weeks, and at its in peak in 1944-45, housed 5000 Royal Australian Air Force personnel on the base.

Tocumwal reaped the benefits during that period, with local businesses flourishing from the swathes of people touching down in the Berrigan Shire until 1960, where the departure of the RAAF after its 18-year stint left a crater in the town’s economy.

However, pioneering the aeronautical renaissance the following decade was Bill Riley, who reinstated the wartime relic with a host of features to entertain, according to Ms Dennis.

“It used to have a restaurant and bar, which was called the Bomber Bar and Grill, as well as a motel,” she said.

“A lot of the town’s people have fond memories of the hangar when it was operational.”

Dwarfing everything within a mile radius of it, the 100 m by 50 m Sportavia hangar has since been stripped of its more engaging amenities but has been reborn as the home of Tocumwal Soaring Centre, with its sole purpose to serve as the hub of gliding in the area in a bid to rekindle the towns love affair with the sport.

Belly of the beast: The Sportavia building contains a number of glider crafts, 'tug' planes and busy service people.

But its dormancy since near the start of the decade left the structure requiring plenty of tender loving care from the current owners to get it back in presentable order.

Boasting greased elbows and a humoured grin, Ms Dennis laughed when asked about the upkeep of the hangar.

“There were 15 years of cobwebs – I have been working on it solid every day ever since April bar a few months,” she said.

However, seeing it back in action has made all the hard word worthwhile for the owners, who look forward to hosting the National Gliding Multi-Class Championships out of Sportavia next month.

“We get a lot of comments from people who love seeing more people come here and supporting the local scene,” she said.