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Sir Valston Eldridge (Val) Hancock (1907–1998)

by Chris Clark

Air Marshal Hancock, a former Chief of the Air Staff of the Royal Australian Air Force who died in Perth on September 29 aged 91, had an association with Canberra going back more than 70 years.

It was in February 1925 that he arrived in the national capital, not then even the home of federal Parliament, to begin training for an army career at the Royal Military College, Duntroon.

His record as a cadet was outstanding, both on and off the sportsfield. An exceptionally good athlete, he was college champion three years in a row and in 1928 won four colours for his sporting prowess. But he was just as able in his studies and usually was found among the annual list of those judged most distinguished academically.

In his final year he was Battalion Sergeant-Major of the Corps of Staff Cadets, a post which earned him the Sword of Honour at his passing out in 1928.

It was during his cadet days, too, that Val Hancock met and courted Jean, the daughter of the college doctor, Colonel Graham Butler, who in his spare time was then writing the official history of the Australian Army Medical Services during World War I. In 1932 he married Jean.

Hancock's ambition was to make his way as an officer in the permanent engineers, but it was only a matter of months before graduation that he learnt there were no vacancies in his chosen corps that year. He opted to apply for one of the positions on annual offer in the RAAF.

He completed flying training in mid-1930 and proved to be an extremely keen pilot who flew at every opportunity. What the RAAF valued most in him, however, was his grounding in staff work, and by the end of 1931 he began a 10-year period at RAAF headquarters in Melbourne, relieved only by time spent in England during 1937 while attending the Royal Air Force's staff college.

Following the start of World War II, he was made commanding officer of No 1 Bombing and Gunnery School at Evans Head, NSW. In January 1942 he returned to filling appointments on planning staffs in Melbourne, and at Allied Air Forces Headquarters in Brisbane, followed by an administrative posting on the area staff in his home state of WA.

Not until January 1945 did he receive the chance of gaining operational experience, when he was sent to New Guinea to command first one squadron and then a wing of three squadrons of Beaufort bombers. For the leadership and high ability he demonstrated during the last six months of the war he was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross.

Back in Melbourne once more, he was among a clutch of outstanding middle-level officers who were earmarked for accelerated post-war promotion. As part of his grooming he filled staff appointments of greater importance and responsibility – first on the personnel and postings side, then air plans and policy.

During this period he became an exponent of improving officer education in the RAAF, and when a cadet college at Point Cook was approved in 1947 he was appointed its founding commandant as an air commodore. Hancock personally drafted the RAAF College's charter and consciously modeled its syllabus on his own experience of Duntroon. After three years at the helm at Point Cook, he was sent to London to attend the 1950 course at the Imperial Defence College.

Upon his return, he received acting rank of air vice-marshal and became Deputy Chief of the Air Staff. The senior posts which followed were clearly preparing him for top command – Air Member for Personnel on the Air Board in 1953, Head of the Australian Joint Services Staff in London in 1955. In 1957 he was loaned to the RAF in Malaya for two years as Air Officer Commanding No 224 Group, the powerful operational element of Britain's Far East Air Force.

Displaying characteristic vigour and meticulous attention to his duties, he made a point of getting out to visit units and the RAAF Historian records that it was not uncommon for him to spend a day in the office at Kuala Lumpur, fly himself to Singapore for a function, land back at Kuala Lumpur at 2.30am, thank his staff, and tell them he would see them in the office at 8am154.

In July 1959 he took charge of the RAAF's Operational Command and remained there until May 1961, when he was promoted air marshal and took over as Chief of the Air Staff. By this stage the transfer of the Department of Air from Melbourne to Canberra had just been completed, and Hancock's office was in the newly completed defence complex at Russell.

He took charge of the program already under way to re-equip the RAAF with modern aircraft, taking particular interest in plans to acquire an effective strategic bomber to replace the obsolescent Canberra. In 1963 he led a procurement team overseas to investigate suitable replacement types, resulting in the politically contentious decision to acquire the radically new US F-111 design which is still the RAAF's main strike aircraft.

When Hancock stepped down in May 1965 he had amassed 3500 hours of flying in about 40 different aircraft types during 36 years of service. He retired to a grazing property near Tamworth, NSW, which he had acquired in partnership with his younger son. Within 18 months, however, he was asked to become Commissioner-General for Australia's participation at Expo 67 in Montreal, Canada.

He returned to his home state to live, joining his mining magnate cousin Lang Hancock in flying prospective clients around the Pilbara to promote the region's potential. In addition to his business activities he took an active public role, writing on defence issues and guiding the activities of community bodies such as the WA chapter of the Royal Commonwealth Society (of which he was president 1975-80) and the Australian Defence Association WA (chairman 1975-81, then life patron).

In 1990 he published his memoirs, Challenge, convinced that aviation still offered the same challenge to Australian youth that lured him in his younger days. He was a thorough gentleman and remained respected and liked by all who came in contact with him. He is survived by his widow, sons John and Richard, daughter Rosemary, and six grandchildren.

Original publication

Additional Resources

Citation details

Chris Clark, 'Hancock, Sir Valston Eldridge (Val) (1907–1998)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 24 April 2024.

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