RAAF operates Heron unmanned aircraft from Amberley

An A45 Heron Remotely Piloted Aircraft takes off at RAAF Base Amberley.
A Heron takes off from RAAF Base Amberley with KC-30 tankers in the background. (Defence)

The Royal Australian Air Force has begun flying the Heron surveillance UAV out of RAAF Base Amberley, the first time the RAAF has operated the remotely-piloted aircraft from a major Australian airbase.

The RAAF’s 5 Flight has been flying the Heron from Amberley for an initial 10 day period April 13 and 22, where it has operated alongside C-17 transports, F/A-18F Super Hornets and the KC-30A tanker transport. 5 Flight is based at Amberley but until now has primarily conducted Heron flying operations from RAAF Base Woomera over the remote Woomera Test Range in South Australia.

Flying the Heron from Amberley is a “significant” achievement, 5 Flight commanding officer WGCDR Matt Bowers told media at Amberley on Thursday.

“What it enables us to do is operate from our home base so we can operate more regularly and conduct the training that we need to do to further progress this capability into the future,” WGCDR Bowers said.

Two Herons are currently on strength with 5 Flight operating under a six-year, $120 million lease extension intended to see them remain in RAAF service until the introduction of future unmanned systems such as the MQ-4C Triton to ensure unmanned aircraft skills and corporate knowledge are maintained.

Between 2010 and 2014 the RAAF operated three leased Herons operationally from Kandahar, Afghanistan, during which time they flew a total of more than 27,000 intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance mission hours in support of Australian and coalition ground forces.

“The main focus with Heron [now] is to sustain and maintain the capacity to operate remotely piloted aircraft,” WGCDR Bowers said.

“Our focus at 5 Flight is to ensure that Heron can be operated safely throughout Australia and integrated with other aircraft in the airspace around Amberley and other airfields across Australia.”

Some of the training outcomes from operating from Amberley include improving interoperability with the Army, 5 Flight sensor operator instructor FLTLT Nelle Sheridan explained.

“We’re still developing some of our training missions and profiles,” FLTLT Sheridan said.

“We’re looking to update what we do to maintain relevance, looking at more urban operations as well as peacekeeping type operations, search and survival assistance as well as looking to more conventional mission profiles with the Army.”

The Heron will now operate more regularly from Amberley, and it will deploy in support of military exercises such as to Tindal for Pitch Black mid this year and to Rockhampton for Talisman Sabre in 2017.

Previously in 2015 a Heron operated from Rockhampton Airport during Talisman Sabre, when it was cleared to operate through civilian airspace by Airservices controllers for the first time.

“What we’re trying to do with normalisation is show that remotely piloted aircraft are exactly the same as normal aircraft, the only difference is the pilot is sitting on the ground, but we have the same controls, [with] the same safety mechanisms at play, to ensure that we can co-exist happily,” WGCDR Bowers said.

Heron Remotely-Piloted Aircraft operating for the first time at RAAF Base Amberley.
Two Heron ground control stations have been set up on the eastern side of Amberley’s main runway. (Defence)
Heron Remotely-Piloted Aircraft operating for the first time at RAAF Base Amberley.
5 Flight aims to ‘normalise’ unmanned aircraft operations. (Defence)

An earlier version of this story was first published on April 18.

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