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Fly Navy, Down Under!

Leonard van den Broek, Four Aces Aviation Photography looks at the rotary wings of the Royal Australian Navy as news breaks of cancellation of one of its expected assets for the 21st Century. Pictures by the author unless stated otherwise

For almost sixty years, the Fleet Air Arm has provided air power at sea for the Royal Australian Navy, its naval aviation forces serving in wars in South East Asia and the Middle East, but also on many peacekeeping operations and humanitarian missions around the world.

Soon after 1982, when the aircraft carrier HMAS Melbourne was decommissioned, many of the RAN fixed wing aircraft were withdrawn from service. The A-4 Skyhawks were sold to the Royal New Zealand Air Force, the MB326H 'Macchis' were transferred to the Royal Australian Air Force and the S-2 Trackers were retired. In 2000, the RAN retired its last fixed-wing aircraft, two HS748s used in the electronic warfare (EW) training role. Since then, Australia's Fleet Air Arm has operated four helicopter types; AS 350BA Squirrel, Sea King Mk50A/B, S-70B-2 Sea Hawk and SH-2G(A) Super Seasprite, each flown with a different squadron.

International operations

Recent international operations of the Fleet Air Arm have taken place in a number of countries and regions. This is illustrated best by Lt Samuel Dale, Sea Hawk pilot with 816 Squadron - when asked which regions he has been operating in, he replied: "My most recent embarkation was for Operation 'Astute' in East Timor in May 2006. I have operated throughout Australia, in South-East Asia - Singapore, Malaysia, Cambodia, and in the Persian Gulf - Iraq, Kuwait, and Bahrain. My most memorable experience was operating in the Gulf. The whole ship, over two hundred people, were all focussed on the task, and worked so well together that it was a really positive environment to work in."

Rescue and relief operations

Fleet Air Arm helicopter crews also saved many lives during a number of relief and rescue missions, a very well-known occasion being the 1998 Sydney-Hobart yacht race. More recently, 816 Squadron took part in the relief operations after Cyclone 'Larry' in March 2006. Lt Samuel Dale, Sea Hawk pilot with 816 Squadron, commented: "One squadron is nominated on duty for operational response at all times - this means it is ready to respond in an emergency such as a search and rescue. As far as 'large' rescue and relief operations go, we would average about one per year. The type of activities may be search and rescue such as the Sydney to Hobart, or humanitarian aid operations such as for Cyclone 'Larry', or fire bombing, such as with the Canberra bushfires in 2003."

Lt Mick Brown, Sea Hawk pilot with 816 Squadron, described the relief operations after Cyclone 'Larry': "The 816 detachment was based out of RAAF Townsville and worked in tandem with Army Aviation. Initially our onboard systems (RADAR and Automatic Flight Control System) were used to the relief effort's advantage, as we could fly low level over water on the transit to Innisfail, which was the worst affected area." The Sea Hawks and their crews provided valuable assistance: "Our first two days on task were our busiest. We conducted personnel and provision deployment into the Atherton Tablelands and aided relief teams in their assessment of damage to outlying communities. The Sea Hawk's ability to conduct operations in poor weather made it a significant asset to the operation."

Battle Budgies

RAN Fleet Air Arm's active squadrons

HC 723 'Wings of the Albatross'

The main task of HC 723 is pilot and aircrew training. Since 2001 the squadron has operated only one helicopter type, the Eurocopter AS350BA Squirrel. In 2001, the last seven Bell 206 Kiowas were transferred from HC 723 to the Australian Army, in exchange for seven AS350s from the ADFHS (Australian Defence Force Helicopter School). The ex-ADFHS Squirrels can still be easily distinguished by their white-and-blue colour scheme, which was 'inherited' from their previous operator.

In 1995 the initial six Squirrel helicopters have been upgraded to AS350BA standard, improving their performance. In the past, the Squirrels have been embarked aboard ships for operational duties, but the S-70B Sea Hawk has now completely taken over this role.

In December 2006, the RAN signed a four-year lease contract for three AgustaWestland A109E helicopters to be operated as 'skill retention' aircraft. After graduating from the AS350 Squirrel, junior qualified aircrew can thus maintain their flying skills before their transition to operational conversion to Sea Hawk, Seasprite or Sea King helicopters. In August 2007, the first of three helicopters was handed over to the Navy's 'Power Flight', which operates as part of HC 723.

HS 816 'The Fighting Tigers'

In 1988, 816 Squadron received the task of 'Sea Hawk Introduction and Transition Unit' (SITU). Between 1989 and 1992, sixteen Sea Hawks were delivered to the RAN. In the first years after delivery, four aircraft were held in rotational storage to act as attrition replacement. In 1996, these four airframes were reactivated and added to HS 816's operational fleet.

Solo Sea Hawk

Operating the Sea Hawk, 816 Squadron has anti-submarine warfare (ASW) and anti-surface surveillance (ASS) as its primary task, mostly performed when embarked aboard RAN ships. Secondary tasks are Search and Rescue (SAR) and transport. 816 Squadron currently supplies three permanent ship-based Flights to Adelaide and Anzac Class frigates. Lt Samuel Dale, Sea Hawk pilot with 816 Squadron: "There are many factors that make shipboard operations different. Flying from a ship in the middle of nowhere or in the Persian Gulf means that just about everything comes from 'in-house' - all the meteorological briefings, medical support, maintenance support and so on. The other differences are obviously the physical ones - from storing the aircraft in a small hangar, to moving it onto the flight deck, and flying to and from a moving platform. It is challenging, and particularly so at night, in rough seas."

Helicopter crews sometimes spend long times away from home. Lt Samuel Dale: "A normal posting for the aircrew and maintenance personnel is between eighteen months and two years. During that time the person is posted to the ship, and generally goes wherever the ship goes. When posted to a flight, aircrew may spend up to six months deployed at a time, or a series of shorter deployments with longer periods at home."

The Sea Hawk helicopters even spend a longer time away from home: "The aircraft itself will remain assigned to a 'flight' until it requires depot-level maintenance, generally when the airframe reaches 900 flying hours. Most aircraft are assigned to a flight for approximately eighteen months and then exchanged for an aircraft that has just completed depot-level maintenance."

Sharks' Sea Kings

HS 817 'Sharks'

In 1976 817 Squadron received ten Westland Sea King Mk50 helicopters as a replacement for the older Wessex. In the early years, the Sea Kings performed ASW duties stationed aboard the aircraft carrier HMAS Melbourne. After the decommissioning of HMAS Melbourne in 1982, HS 817 continued its antisubmarine task from its shore base at Nowra. In the early '90s, the antisubmarine task was transferred to the Sea Hawk helicopters of 816 Squadron. Since then the Sea Kings serve in the maritime utility role. In this role, HS 817 can operate from the supply ship HMAS Success, the landing ship HMAS Tobruk and the amphibious transport ships HMAS Manoora and Kanimbla.

Currently, HS 817 has six Sea King Mk50A/B helicopters on strength. In 1995-1996, the Sea King underwent a 'Life of Type Extension' (LOTE) programme, upgrading it to Mk50A standard. In 1996, one Sea King Mk50B (N16-918) was acquired from the Royal Navy as an attrition replacement. Retirement of the Sea Kings is expected around 2010, when the MRH-90 helicopter enters service.

On 2 April 2005, 817 Squadron suffered its most recent loss. One of two Sea Kings embarked in HMAS Kanimbla, 'Shark 02' (N16-100), crashed on the Indonesian island of Nias while providing humanitarian support after the tsunami of 26 December 2004. Nine Australian Defence Force (ADF) personnel died in the crash; six members of the Royal Australian Navy and three members of the Royal Australian Air Force. A Board of Inquiry concluded in June 2007 that the primary cause of the accident was a failure of mechanical linkages within the flight control system.

HS 805

From 1967 until 1982 the squadron (then VF-805) flew eight A-4G Skyhawks, embarked on the carrier HMAS Melbourne. In 2001, the squadron was recommissioned as HS 805, designated to operate the newly-ordered Super Seasprite helicopter.

Eleven Kaman SH-2G(A) Super Seasprite helicopters had been ordered for embarked operations aboard the RAN ANZAC-class (Meko 200) frigates. Currently, HS 805 has received nine of the eleven ordered airframes, the Super Seasprites for the RAN are based on ex-US Navy airframes, rebuilt to SH-2G standard. The major change to the aircraft is the electronics and armament package. The most important external change is the fitting of composite main rotor blades.

Unfortunately the programme has encountered severe problems - the Australian SH-2G(A) is unique, because of its advanced electronic equipment. It is fitted with an Integrated Tactical Avionics System (ITAS), which again is integrated in the Integrated Weapons System (IWS). Problems encountered with the electronic equipment have delayed the operational availability of the Super Seasprite. Negative stories in Australian papers created a lot of discomfort for the Royal Australian Navy and its personnel.

The delays and problems made the Australian Defence Minister decide in April 2006 to ground the Seasprite helicopters. A full examination of the project followed, paying particular attention to three issues: the reliability of the Flight Control System and its associated safety implications; the ramifications to Naval aviation of the project being six years late; and the performance of the integrated sensor system. In May 2007 the decision was announced to continue, but the $1.3 billion Australian dollar contract was formally cancelled on Wednesday 5 March 2008. Cancellation came amid a review of defence contracts ordered since Prime Minister Kevin Rudd's new government came to power in elections last November.

Defence Minister Joel Fitzgibbon announced the cancellation, citing the helicopter is unsafe. "The project had to be cancelled on safety grounds alone," he said. "The airworthiness and crash worthiness of the aircraft is not up to 21st Century standards and it was pretty clear the capability was not likely to be delivered in full." The Navy had already provisionally accepted nine of the eleven helicopters. Neil James, executive director of the Australian Defence Association independent think-tank, said Navy air crews were "Not comfortable flying it in all conditions" and would be "relieved" the helicopter was being scrapped. One of its flaws was the difficulty in integrating modern technology with its 1960s-era airframe, he added.

The Navy will continue to use its sixteen Seahawk helicopters as a stop-gap until a review of the fleet air wing is completed as part of this year's defence white paper. Andrew Davies, of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, says the Navy is likely to opt for a single off-the-shelf helicopter to replace its existing Seahawks and Sea Kings, as well as the Seasprites.

The author would like to thank the following persons for their assistance in creating this article: Mrs Carol Quilter, Lt Kate Matthews and Lt Chloe Wilson of Royal Australian Navy Public Affairs; LCDR Karl Knoll, Lt Mick Brown and Lt Samuel Dale of 816 Squadron, RAN and LCDR Paul Moggach of 817 Squadron, RAN.


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