For the last month, Australian Aviation has been opening our archive to show you our best pictures of RAAF aircraft during the organisation’s 100-year history. But then we thought, what’s the best?
We want to know your favourite by voting on our poll. We’ll reveal the winner in our special RAAF 100 digital edition, going live on the centenary day itself, 31 March.
To help you choose, you can remind yourself of the best below, too.
The General Dynamics F-111 was renowned as a highly capable strike aircraft, and considered the best of its type in the region. Chief of Air Force, Air Marshal Mel Hupfeld, is a fan.
“The F-111 presented the Air Force with a rare opportunity to acquire an aircraft which was ideally suited to Australia’s geostrategic circumstances and the Air Force’s operational intent,” he tells Australian Aviation. “For Air Force, the range, payload and mission profiles of the F-111 matched the likely operation tasks to be expected of Australia strike aircraft. At the time, the Air Force’s main strike platform was the venerable Canberra bomber. The step-change capability the F-111 offered over the Canberra was revolutionary.”
Revolutionary, maybe, but its insertion into the RAAF’s fleet wasn’t straightforward. Australia decided to introduce the F-111s in the ’60s, but problems with its wing led to delays in its delivery. After utilising the faster F-4E Phantoms as an interim step, the first six F-111s landed at RAAF base Amberley in June 1973. Air Marshal Hupfeld notes it was also not necessarily Australia’s first choice. “Instead it was the North American Vigilante,” he says, “an already in-service aircraft with the United States Navy. In retrospect, the government’s preference to delay the acquisition of a Canberra replacement to obtain the F-111 meant that we were getting a far more technologically advanced platform that was destined to be produced in far greater numbers than the Vigilante.”
The F-111 proved its worth and flew with the RAAF until 2010. “Over the service life of the aircraft, the Air Force invested in upgrades to the engines, avionics and weapon systems to keep the platform relevant in the modern battlespace,” Air Marshal Hupfeld says. “The modifications to the F-111 to enable it to deliver precision-guided munitions and the AGM-84 Harpoon anti-ship missiles are two examples of how the F-111 was able to be adapted to operate increasingly sophisticated systems.”
The F-111 also unwittingly found itself at the centre of two other significant events. The 1980s saw the first RAAF female pilots take to the sky, with Flight Lieutenant Robyn Williams and Officer Cadet Deborah Hicks receiving their wings at RAAF Base Pearce in June 1988. This was followed by the December 1992 policy change allowing women to participate in combat roles. Announced by then-Minister for Defence Science and Personnel, Gordon Bilney, the decision opened up opportunities for female pilots to fly the F-111. A decade later, Australia picked the F-111 to perform the unforgettable ‘dump and burn’ as it overflew the Sydney Harbour Bridge during the Olympics’ opening ceremony.
Despite Australia’s early reservations of the model, Australia became the F-111’s last operator before they were replaced with a new fleet of F/A 18 Super Hornets in 2010.
If you’d like to see one for yourself, The HARS Aviation Museum has its own, A8-109, which served in Vietnam where it notably flew “Linebacker” missions towards the end of the war. “When the F-111 was retired in December 2010, this particular aircraft was not scheduled to fly on that final day, but was the ‘reserve’ display aircraft,” explains HARS. When its rival inevitably “broke”, A8-109 took its place to became the very last F-111 to take off. “To add to the special nature of this particular aircraft, it was revealed during the presentation ceremony that A8-109 is the ‘highest time’ F-111 in the former RAAF fleet, and quite possibly the entire fleet. A truly special aircraft.”
F/A-18 A/B Classic Hornet
In November 1981, the Australian government placed an order for 75 Classic Hornets, consisting of 57 single-seat F/A-18As and 18 two-seat F/A-18Bs. It was, at the time, one of the biggest leaps in technology RAAF had seen. The fleet went on to become a backbone of our Air Force for close to 30 years, and is only now being progressively retired as Australia’s 72 Joint Strike Fighters begin to be introduced into service.
“The F/A-18A/B Hornet entered RAAF service in 1986 having been chosen as the multirole strike fighter to replace its ageing fleet of Mirage fighters,” says Chief of Air Force, Air Marshal Mel Hupfeld, speaking to Australian Aviation.
“Early on the Hornet proved both lethal and survivable in all-weather by day and by night, enabling a generational leap forward in air combat capability. Over the years the Australian government approved several significant upgrades to the Hornet to ensure that it remained credible against the pacing threat.”
The Hornet was initially developed for the US Navy and Marine Corps, and has been a very successful aircraft globally, used by countries as diverse as Canada, Finland, Kuwait, Malaysia, Spain and Switzerland. The remarkably versatile aircraft can undertake air interception, air combat, close air support of ground troops and interception of enemy supply lines, including shipping. Significantly, it’s also capable of air-to-air refuelling from the KC-30A Multi-Role Tanker Transport.
In December 2020, after a distinguished career, the first F/A-18A was officially handed over to the Australian War Memorial. A21-022, which was deployed on three Middle East operations, was partially disassembled and then put back together in order to make the trip to Canberra from RAAF Base Williamtown. Minister for Defence Industry Melissa Price called its placing there a “fitting tribute” to the aircraft. A second F/A-18, A21-040, will also make the trip to the memorial in mid-2022.
“Despite the Hornet fielding capabilities from several nations, the Hornet of 2021 strongly reflects the technology transfer associated with the strong strategic alliance shared between the USN and the RAAF,” says Air Marshal Mel Hupfeld. “Through a capable suite of weapons, sensors and communications, the F/A-18 Hornet has been a remarkable and agile fighter aircraft that retires proudly as one of most capable all-round fourth generation platforms globally.”
The Boeing C-17A Globemaster III is a four-engine heavy transport aircraft that can accommodate huge payloads and land on runways just 1km long. That flexibility comes from its savvy design, which mixes both high-lift wings and light-touch controls requiring just three onboard (pilot, co-pilot and loadmaster). Cargo is loaded onto the C-17 through a ramp system at the back, while its floor has nifty rollers that flip from flat to handle wheeled vehicles or pallets. All of which means it can transport just about anything, from Blue Hawk helicopters to Abrams tanks and more than 100 paratroopers with equipment. No wonder the US Air Force has a fleet of 223 of them.
Closer to home, RAAF owns eight, all operated by No. 36 Squadron and based at RAAF Base Amberley. The first arrived in 2006 and the last in 2015, complementing its CH-47F Chinooks and C-130J Hercules. If the name sounds familiar, you’ll likely have heard of the Globemaster from its humanitarian work: Australia dispatched its fleet when MH17 was shot down in Ukraine, to deliver disaster relief to citizens caught up in the Queensland floods, and carry help and supplies in the wake of 2011’s Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami.
The P-51 Mustang was developed by North American Aviation for the British Royal Air Force after it requested a single-seat fighter to replace the Curtiss P-40. Yet its original incarnation, fitted with an Allison engine, was something of a damp squib, performing poorly at high altitude. The eureka moment came when the British swapped in a new Rolls-Royce Merlin engine, which drastically improved its performance. So much so that it began to dominate Germany’s top fighters, the Me 109 and Fw109.
You could go as far as to argue that its upgrade was a turning point in the war. In October 1943, as many as 9 per cent of the US’ Eighth Air Force bomber sorties credited with attacking their targets failed to return home, while 45 per cent limped back damaged. In 1944, those numbers fell to 3.5 per cent and 29.9 per cent. Suddenly, the Germans lost the fight for aerial supremacy: the P-51 could go deeper into their airspace than any previous aircraft and consistently won dogfights. The RAF alone deployed 1,500 Merlin-powered Mustangs for daylight duties over Europe, while the US fleet ballooned to 13,300.
In truth, the Mustang arrived a touch too late for the RAAF, which built its variant from imported, semi-finished parts. The first production model, A68-1, flew on 29 April 1945 and was used for trials by No 1 Aircraft Performance Unit until October 1946, before being placed in storage. Despite missing WWII, the Mustangs of No 77 Squadron took part in the Korean War from June 1950 until April 1951, before being replaced by Meteors.
On the surface, the Dassault Mirage III was an unqualified success, and one of the most significant military jets ever. It was RAAF’s first fighter capable of flying at twice the speed of sound, and its longest-serving, too, operating from 1965 until 1988. Worldwide, 1,401 were built, which served in 21 countries, clocking a combined 3 million flying hours.
You don’t, though, hear much about how it got there. The lesser remembered Mirage I was designed in 1953 to be a light interceptor, with its raised pilot’s seat, retracted air intakes and slender nose built to provide pilots with unobstructed views. But it lost favour when it became clear it was limited by its lack of engine power, making it ill-suited to its purpose. An updated Mirage II design was considered but later discarded, in favour of a more ambitious overhaul towards Mach 2.
The Mirage III was a bomber fighter aircraft with a delta wing designed two years later. After several incarnations and improvements, it finally hit twice the speed of sound for the first time in western Europe by legendary pilot Roland Glavany in a Mirage III A 01. France made an order for 100.
In RAAF service, the Mirage operated with Nos. 3, 75, 76, 77 and 79 Squadrons, as well as No. 2 Operational Conversion Unit and the Aircraft Research and Development Unit, replacing the existing fleet of Sabres. After more than two decades of service, it was eventually phased out to be replaced by the F/A-18 Hornet. The last of No. 75 Squadron were ferried to Woomera for eventual disposal.
Yet, the story didn’t entirely end there, with a number of Mirages retained by RAAF as training aids. A3-92 was used at the RAAF School of Technical Training at Wagga Wagga before it was moved to the RAAF Museum for preservation, where it remains.
For all our aviation’s technical achievements over the years, sometimes the best aircraft succeed through minimalist design that triumphs in complicated situations. Take the Caribou. It was built in Canada by Hawker de Havilland but squarely focused on being able to land on rough dirt runways right near the battlefield. It may not be glamorous, but it was often a vital tool to resupply troops and evacuate the injured when help was required at breakneck speed.
Chief of Air Force Air Marshal Mel Hupfeld tells Australian Aviation he’s a fan.
“From 1958 to 1973 the Air Force acquired new maritime patrol aircraft, fighters, heavy airlift capability, battlefield helicopters and new strike platforms,” he explains. “In contrast to these new aircraft with their modern avionics and sensor systems, the Caribou with its 1930s era engine design, basic avionics and unpowered flight controls seemed something of an anachronism. Yet for all of its simplicity, the rugged design and STOL capability of the Caribou meant it was ideal for operations in remote regions within Australia and across the Asia-Pacific region.”
RAAF ordered its first Caribou in 1963 to replace the existing Dakotas, with a total of 29 acquired over the years. The aircraft could carry 32 armed troops, 22 stretcher cases or two Land Rovers or up to 4 tonnes of supplies. Its handy large rear access ramp made it easy to be opened in flight to allow paratroopers to jump out or cargo to be dropped. It saw service in Vietnam when three landed at Vūng Tàu on Vietnam’s east coast in 1964.
HARS founder Bob De La Hunty explains how the Caribou was often used in tandem with the C-47s. “It was found that there were things that the Dakota could do better, and other things the Caribou could do better,” he tells Australian Aviation.
If you want to see one yourself, HARS, incidentally, has two. A4-210 and A4-234 both served in Vietnam but the latter was the very last RAAF aircraft out of the country, flying home to Australia in February 1972. It’s a testament to that clarity of design that both HARS aircraft only retired in 2009, having clocked an eye-popping 19,000 flight hours – and also a testament to that design that both remain airworthy and in excellent condition.
F-35A Lightning II
As the longest continuously produced military aircraft at more than 60 years, the Lockheed Martin C-130 Hercules deserves to be considered one of the greatest of all time. In total, 48 have supported ADF operations in Afghanistan, Iraq, East Timor and Vietnam, and humanitarian disaster relief missions in Pakistan, Indonesia, Papua New Guinea and the South Pacific.
Australia obtained its initial batch in December 1958, becoming the first nation to operate the aircraft outside of the US Air Force. The four-engine turboprop, medium-lift aircraft increased transport capability, and reduced reliance on piston driven aircraft such as the C-47. As the years progressed, RAAF kept faith in the Hercules. Three C-130Es were delivered to the re-formed No 37 Squadron from 1967 before No 36 Squadron’s original C-130As were replaced by C-130H aircraft in 1978.
The H was a significant improvement, most notably due to its short, dirt runway capability. Aside from being able to parachute soldiers into battle, it could airdrop equipment such as 4WD vehicles, inflatable boats and artillery pieces.
“A number of C-130H aircraft are fitted with self-protection systems to improve survivability in hostile areas,” according to the RAAF Museum, Point Cook. “The self-protection system consists of a radar warning receiver, along with chaff and flare dispensers. The radar identifies and locates the radar emissions of anti-aircraft artillery, surface-to-air missiles and fighter aircraft. If an aircraft is engaged by one of these threats, chaff and flares can be ejected to defeat them.”
The J Super Hercules, though, is now the definitive incarnation, supporting 128 passengers, or eight pallets of cargo. It can work alongside other airlifters, too, such as the C-27J Spartan and C-17A Globemaster III. In September 1999, it helped evacuate 2,500 people from Dili, as conflict in East Timor raged.
The RAAF marked 800,000 flying hours by its fleet over five decades with a formation flight of three over Sydney Harbour in 2014. “Behind this milestone is the contribution of many talented men and women who have made these 800,000 flying hours possible,” said then Commander of Air Mobility Group Air Commodore, Warren McDonald. “Several generations of Australians have contributed to this achievement, regardless of which Hercules they worked on.”
Forget the quintessentially Australian name, the Boomerang story more sums up the Australian can-do attitude that guided the nation through WWII. Dreamt up in response to an urgent need for a fighter aircraft, the type moved from approval to first flight in a little over 16 weeks, debuting in 1942. It’s a feat RAAF today rightly calls a “remarkable achievement”.
The breakneck turnaround – sans even a prototype – was achieved because the guts of the aircraft shared the same design DNA as the Wirraway trainer, already in production by the Commonwealth Aircraft Corporation. In total, 249 Boomerangs were built between 1942 and 1945 and flown by Nos. 4, 5, 83, 84 and 85 Squadrons in a home defence role. That meant escorting shipping convoys and dangerous operations against the Japanese. It was also known for its low-level army co-operation work over the New Guinea jungles, which included marking targets for P-40 Kittyhawks and Corsairs and helping to provide protection for soldiers on the ground.
If you want to see this piece of Australian history for yourself, the RAAF Museum in Point Cook has its own. A46-30 was initially allocated to No. 2 Operational Training Unit at Mildura, Victoria before moving to No. 83 Squadron in April 1943. Aside from its proud service, it was also used in the film biography of Sir Charles Kingsford Smith, Smithy.