Air Power in Action was the theme of the 13th biennial Australian International Air Show and Aerospace & Defence Exposition held at Avalon Airport, Geelong, Victoria. Held as two concurrent events comprising an airshow and exposition, the air show is quite rightly marketed as the premier event of such ‘South of the Equator’. For the uninitiated, the show follows the feel of both Farnborough in the UK and Langkawi in Malaysia given the mix of civilian and military companies and aircraft that are represented. This year the show ran from February 28 through March 5 and, as the title suggests, packed a lot into this full week of aviation especially considering the usually quiet traffic seen at the small regional airport found some 45 minutes south of Melbourne.
Avalon airport was founded back in 1952 and came to life to support the construction and testing of the new English Electric Canberra which had then been recently purchased by the Royal Australian Airforce (RAAF) as the nearby Government Aircraft Factory at Fisherman’s Bend did not have the runway to support the types introduction. That said, it should be noted that the first aircraft to land at Avalon was in fact an Avro Lincoln that had departed from Fisherman’s Bend! Subsequent notable events in the history of Avalon included the production of 110 Dassault Mirage IIIs, CAC Sabres, Jindivik target drones, GAF Nomads and the initial buy of 75 McDonnell Douglas F/A-18 Hornets. Today, it services seven daily Jetstar Airways services as well as providing freight services (including support for Formula 1 in March), limited flying training and fire bomber support in the form of an ex-US Navy C-130 Hercules and a modified BAe 146 aircraft. Managed by the logistics company Linfox, the group has invested substantially into the site for many years and continue to do so.
This is an aerospace exposition that morphs into a full public air show spread over three days at the end of the week – the first day of which sees a day into night affair culminating in ‘some fireworks’ that were quite simply breathtaking. During the exposition days, the flying displays are limited to small windows of activity that are designed to allow minimal disruption to the daily commercial operations. This works well, providing just enough variety in the day to keep things interesting over the three periods. Being a commercial airport, the revenue still has to come from somewhere and throughout the week, the Jetstar Airways A320 services come and go – including the public display days. Some holding is inevitable, but this seems to be tolerated by the carrier given what is going on in the skies.
There is a mantra in the military aviation world that goes along the lines of ‘SPEED is life and more is better’. This statement might have been true up to the advent of the cross over from ‘legacy’ to fifth-generation types for those nations that do (or aspire to) operate such platforms. However, there is a new mantra in town, ‘INFORMATION is life and more is better’ and that seems to be the key to Plan JERICHO – the road map the RAAF will use to harness the introduction of all the new fifth-generation platforms that support the vision of the 2016 Defence white paper.
The RAAF’s Chief of Air Forces 2016 message is clear, stating that simply operating fifth-generation aircraft does not make its contribution to the Australian Defence Forces a fifth-generation force. Plan JERICHO, from the perspective of the RAAF, will provide a step change in the way its people think and apply their business to better harness the current and future technology enablers that will provide for those charged with the defence of Australia. In simple terms Plan JERICHO, could be seen to be a ‘Combat Cloud’ entity. In fact, on the ground, those aircraft that can currently converse through the ‘Combat Cloud’ were parked in close proximity to each other thus creating a JERICHO road that the public could follow by gaining access to those assigned platforms while talking to experts as they went.
Avalon 2017 saw no less than five public debuts of RAAF aircraft recently added to the force. These were the Pilatus PC-21, of which the first two production examples were present albeit wearing both Swiss and RAAF serials, the Leonardo C-27J Light Footprint Tactical Airlifter, the Boeing P-8A Poseidon multi–mission maritime information and reconnaissance aircraft, two Boeing E/A-18G Growlers and the first two Lockheed Martin F-35A Lightning II’s for the country.
The Australian Defence Force (ADF) takes its support to the airshow very seriously, with all three military arms taking part both in the air and on the ground. The event is seen as a real opportunity for the ADF to combine its deployable skills in making Avalon a real life, Forward Operating Base (FOB) from where it can display what it does to the public. The military provides for such things as its own catering, providing temporary matting for aircraft parking as well as military personnel for security tasks. All of these complement the professional and volunteer staff that are put in place by Aerospace Australia Limited – the organisers of the event.
So, what of the public show days themselves?
As is usual at such large events there is a little bit of everything for everybody both in the static and flying displays. I would suggest that, although contrasting in performance spectrums, three highlights stood out for me. Firstly, the Lockheed Hudson, just an iconic aircraft that in the hands of the Temora Aviation Museum aircrew put on a superb flying display and was in many ways reminiscent of the displays once enjoyed in the UK by the Mosquito so far as maneuverability goes. Secondly, in the static there was a strong contingent from the Republic of Singapore Air Force in the shape of two F-15SG’s from 149 Sqn, two Lockheed C-130’s belonging to 122 ‘Condor’ Sqn and a single KC-135 from 112 Sqn. The aircraft were immaculately turned out and crews – both air and ground – clearly loved the extended deployment away from home having been at the RNZAF 80th anniversary show at Ohakea the previous weekend. Incidentally, that was a mere 10-hour transit from their home base to New Zealand! Thirdly, I was impressed by the four-ship display put on daily by the F/A-18 legacy aircraft. The aircraft arrived from behind and to the right of the crowd line in a very tight echelon starboard formation providing that familiar USAF style dedication topside pass that is suitably matched by the crescendo of cameras shutters erupting. The formation then proceeded to stay as a ‘four’ throughout with various high and low speed passes including the ‘dirty box’, with full flap, gear and hook extended. A ‘battle’ spread run across the airfield at 200 feet, pulling up into the downwind to land was notable; obviously, they concluded the display by folding the wings as they backtracked the runway – Classy.
Daily, the show started with parachutists jumping into the airfield from an Airvan GA-8, suspending super-sized national, RAAF and state flags beneath them. The usual attention getter for those on site by mid-morning was the commencement of the F/A-18F Rhino display flown by XX Sqn. Crewed by ‘Snake Eye’ and ‘Beefcake’, the jet was one of the standout performers over the week. A combination of raw power, flares and low-level tight turns accompanied by some useful commentary culminated in what is becoming a bit of a favourite for it; the missed approach followed by a show centre max rate, climbing turn rolling out on to the downwind leg prior to the full stop. Stomach churning stuff if you were at show centre – something both the attending USAF F-16 and F-22 displays also demonstrated.
As the Rhino retired stage right (this is where the RAAF fighters were parked – away from the public eye), the airfield was made available for a two-ship display by Royal Australian Navy (RAN) H125 Squirrels. A very polished and similar display to that of the Royal Navy’s Black Cats, the amount of time they stayed ‘close-in’ probably just gave them a little bit more appeal. Stepping back into an era that predominantly predated the airfield itself, the RAN were replaced with the first of two Temora segues, this first one being the Hudson, Wirraway and Boomerang. A classic stream take-off, followed by a short three-ship sequence, this was then followed by individual performances. It was the Hudson that surprised me as far as what it must have been capable of during the war, agile and fast, its overbanking manoeuvre was a treat to behold. Upon landing, I thought it was novel, but obviously practical that the Hudson and Wirraway just pulled off the runway onto the grass to allow the Boomerang to roll out.
Into a short training aircraft piece, a RAAF Hawk from 76 Squadron flew a very typical ‘hawk profile’ display, the application of the two-tone grey paint scheme making these aircraft particularly attractive to photograph. Whilst this display was in full swing, off to the north a small group of piston trainers could be seen patiently holding, waiting to take to the stage. This was a mixed formation of CT-4s and Winjeels that had launched from Point Cook some 10 miles or so to the north of Avalon. With the Hawk about done, the black dots began to take shape, and it was impressive. A large formation of mixed types, of mixed performance all gunning their engines to stay in place. A couple of formation passes lead to singleton performances by type before they departed as a formation back from whence they came, the home of the RAAF Museum.
A big part of the air show experience for the organisers is the ability to provide the public with excellent professional airshow performers from around the world. This year saw some outstanding acts take part throughout the display. Sky Aces performed a very dynamic and captivating display with three variants of aircraft based around the classic Pitts design. The team is led by Australian Paul Bennet who, as a seasoned aerobatic pilot, won the Australian Unlimited Aerobatic Championship in 2009 and is unique in Australian airshow performer circles for holding a display authorization cleared down to ground level. In his spare time he owns and flies a Grumman Avenger, T-28 Trojan, Wirraway, Cessna O-2, Tiger Moth and Stinson L-5 – yes spare time! – an is a veteran of more than 800 public displays. For Avalon, he chose to fly his 400hp Wolf Pitts Pro while in the lead slot, flying as close as 2ft apart at times. One of the most impressive parts of the display was see how the team choreographed the routine given that three of the aircraft had varying degrees of engine performance! ORIS watches are a big sponsor of a display team known as Tin Stix, comprising of a two-ship team that operated both a formation and as singletons. Jurgis Kairys a former Federation Aeronautic Internationale (FAI) World Grand Prix winner brought a 400hp Sukhoi Su-26 to the show. This was a major undertaking to get the aircraft into Australia, with the airframe being in one country and the engine in another on overhaul when the call came from Airshow Aviation Services Coordination executive manager Mick Jennings to place the act under contract. Needless to say, hoops were jumped through and the aircraft like others, was shipped by sea to Melbourne. The other side of the act is provided by Skip Stewart with his hybrid aircraft that is part Pitts and partly his own design – one of only two in existence! This is another 400hp ‘homesick angel’ carrying the name of Prometheus on its fiery red and black fuselage. The crowd were also treated to a different type professional performer at the show in Johan Gustafsson, making his show debut with his Polish designed SZD-59 ACRO glider. This glider was aero towed to its starting height and then proceeded to display all the way down to ground level, accompanied by music and pyrotechnics before pulling into one final wing over prior to landing and rolling out in to the professional performers ramp. Johan also flew a dusk into night display on the Friday, and I am sure will be high on the list to be brought back at the next edition of the show. The final performer in this group was Bob Carlton in what can only be described as a pocket rocket. Bob flew the SubSonex JSX-2 microjet, a 300mph aircraft powered by an engine weighing about 46lbs. One question he loves to answer is the question of ‘is this rocket science?’ to which he replies ‘maybe, I used to be a rocket scientist’!
The ADF ‘Hour of Power’ or, as some prefer, the ‘Capability Showcase’ is a star-studded performance based around the occupancy of Avalon by the bad guys, and the ADF coming over the hill to sort them out! Red Air launches one of its Hawk aircraft to go look for Blue Air in the form of two F/A-18As (using the callsign Hunter), thereafter ensues a short but well-presented air battle in front of the crowd whereby the Hawk gets its comeuppance ‘splashed’. The RAAF bring in the Boeing E-7A Wedgetail for a fly through to assess the ground picture for the army and, with the airspace being dominated, the army fly in a tactical recce element of two MRH-90 Taipan helicopters with supporting cover from two Airbus Helicopters Tiger attack choppers. Whilst the recce team establish themselves, the scenario moves out to sea (still the airfield!) as one of the RAN’s new MH-60R helicopters flies in to crowd centre to dip for the enemy. The ‘Romeo’ gets positive ID on the target and gives off an electronic ‘handshake’ to the loitering maritime patrol combo in the shape of a P-8A and an AP-3C. Both aircraft tip into the fight, and the submarine is ‘toast’. Back to the taking control of Avalon airfield and things are getting too hot for the recce team, time for some air support! Rolling in, accompanied by some nicely timed pyrotechnics, two swing role Hornets supported by the Tigers commence a coordinated attack to eliminate the enemy ground forces – it’s all over too quickly and the airfield is safe. The recce team call in a C-17 loaded with two Bushmaster armoured personnel carriers to bolster the ground element. Performing a quick stop landing, the Globemaster reversed back up the runway to allow enough room for its departure. With the offload in process, the crowd’s eyes are drawn to the airfield overhead as ‘Hunter’ formation appeared plugged into a KC-30A tanker for a fly through – an impressive sight to see two fighters ‘hooked up’. No sooner do they disappear to crowd rear, does the Globemaster spool up its four engines and start its tactical take-off profile. With more confidence on the developing ground situation the RAAF element is to re-enforce the recce team – cue two C-130J’s in trail at low-level for a formation Tactical Air Landed Operation (TALO) arrival involving an almost simultaneous touch down followed by an engine running offload of troops and quad bikes. The final act of the showcase is the reappearance of the Army helicopters providing aeromedical evacuation for those injured. What was impressive was the volume of platform types involved and an appreciation of what a rounded military capability that ADF now possesses. No doubt, hard lessons were learnt during operations in the Middle East, Afghanistan and humanitarian responses within the Pacific Rim area. The procurement planning and might has been impressive over recent times and the ADF has to be proud of where it now finds itself in relation to other global players.
The USAF superbly supports the Avalon airshow every edition and 2017 was no different with three F-22s from the 90th FS deploying down from the North of Australia (RAAF Base Tindal) as part of a training package from Joint Base Elmendorf, Alaska. Maj Dan ‘Rock’ Dickenson, team leader of the USAF F-22 demonstration team based at Joint Base Langley-Eustis AFB, VA., displayed the ever spectacular jet. The second flying element was the Pacific Air Forces (PACAF) F-16C display team from the 35th FW at Misawa Air Base, Japan. Flown by Capt. Richard ‘Punch’ Speeding, the Falcon driver took full advantage of the unlimited display conditions coupled with a ‘clean’ aircraft. A stunning display, something different from the tight turning demonstrations we normally see in Europe. Non-flying aircraft flown into the show included a B-1B Lancer from the 36th Wing currently at Anderson AFB, Guam, a KC-135 from the 18th Wing at Kadena Air Base and finally a P-8A Poseidon from VP-16 currently detached to Misawa Air Base, Japan. Talking of Japan, the JASDF deployed one of its KC-767 aircraft to Avalon for the trade days only. The RAF were also in town with an A400M from RAF Brize Norton’s 70 Sqn. The aircraft was on a West-about global training flight, and also attended the RNZAF event in Ohakea the previous week, but was only present for the trade show and departed for Perth on the Friday morning.
The late afternoon section of the show was filled with another element from the Temora museum this time comprising the ex-RAAF Mk-VIII Spitfire painted in the colours of Wg Cdr Bobby Gibbes, Doug Hamilton’s newly restored Curtiss P-40N Warhawk and finally a certain ‘Winston’ – Gloster Meteor F8 VZ467 – with this display mirroring that of the Hudson formation in the morning. Two four-ship displays graced the skies in the late afternoon with the four Harvard’s of the Southern Knights putting on a noisy show, that only Harvard’s can do while at the the other end of the spectrum were the four Hornets!
Other daily performers included a very graceful display by a Lear 45 from nearby Essendon airport flown by Capt Peter Phillips, The Roulettes aerobatic team of the RAAF with their PC-9’s, and a four ship B300 King Air display again from the RAAF.
With five aircraft types on debut, it’s hard not to identify the arrival of the two F35s as being the stars of the show – although the Growlers looked pretty impressive! Assigned to Luke AFB, Arizona, the aircraft, although painted up in RAAF colours, are still operationally managed by the USAF. The two jets and their RAAF pilots were given special authority to fly to Australia from the US, routing through Hawaii, RAAF Base Amberly and then down to Avalon. Their arrival on the Friday was witnessed by no less than the Prime Minister of Australia and his Minister of Defence who had flown in specifically for it on a RAAF BBJ callsign ‘Regent’ earlier in the day. The aircraft – flying as Bolt formation – were met by a Hawk photo ship prior to arrival, and accompanied by a Hornet wearing special marks. On arrival, the two-aircraft carried out a series of low go arounds prior to bringing the aircraft to a halt in front the assembled dignitaries and press. The aircraft were received by Lockheed civilian ground engineers, who went about preparing one aircraft for static and the other into the ‘fighter pen’ ready for its limited flying capability flight the following day. With both aircraft penned in to depart back to Amberley on Sunday ahead of their trail back to Luke, the proposed attraction of having a flying F-35 on all three public days seemed too good to be true. A build-up of thunderstorms in the Amberley area had been forecasted, and this was a showstopper – not the one expected! The current limitation for Lightning IIs to operate in thunderstorms is well documented, and with the USAF flying clearances clearly defined for the whole rotation it was physically impossible to get a revised itinerary including another Saturday style show in place.
A previous author had talked about Aviation Nation at Nellis AFB, Nevada as being one of the ‘bucket list’ type shows to attend at least once. I would strongly advocate the Australian International Air Show at Avalon too. What could possibly be the down sides to such a rounded airshow? Well, nothing the organisers can fix and that is the north/south runway, the infuriating heat haze after midday and the harsh light of the southern hemisphere – all challenges to good photography, but given the guile of most airshow goers not without its rewards if you were to think outside of the box. In four years’ time, the RAAF sees its centenary and the plans for that show are already being looked at and the potential for the show is unbounded if you talk to the air show planners. The one problem they will face is the lack of ramp space to park visitors, static and performers and this years air show highlighted even more the limitations that have to be skilfully negotiated to bring the show to the public. The Aviation Services team do an outstanding job throughout the week weaving their magic to optimize the real estate, but at the same time be cognoscente of the demands of the airport and the air show flying director (Ringmaster) – this year again it was Gp Capt (Retd) Geoff Brindle, late RIAT for those who remember the name. The aircraft mix is eclectic, the show is as varied as one could want and the hospitality of the locals (military, volunteers et al) was nothing short of enriching – let’s say I learnt some new slang!