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A 'Pig' of a show!

Neil Jones reports from the Southern Hemisphere's premier air event, the biennial Australian International Airshow, held this year between 20 - 25 March at its usual location at Avalon airport on the South coast of Victoria. Pictures by the author and Norman Long

Avalon airport is a prime location, being situated on the Princes Freeway only fifty-five kilometres from Melbourne and eighteen kilometres from Geelong. Transport to the airshow is very well organised, with bus services running from Melbourne, and train services running from Melbourne and Geelong. Although some traffic problems did occur whilst travelling by car, the route was well signposted and the show day admittance ran a lot smoother compared to some British airshows.

Aussie action
American metal
 

The first four days were industry only trade days, however at 14:00 on the 23rd the airshow opened for public admittance, the flying displays commencing at 16:00, running through until 21:00 where the 'Boeing night alive' finale brought the first day of the airshow to a close.

The theme for this year's airshow was 'Breaking the barriers', celebrating the sixtieth anniversary of the breaking of the sound barrier. The guest of honour was none other than General Chuck Yeager, the first pilot to break the sound barrier in the Bell X-1, a replica of which was on hand for the legendary pilot to sign.

Most people would assume that an airshow held in Australia would have beautiful blue skies and hot sunny weather - after all, this is the land of sun, sea, sand and surf! Unfortunately this wasn't the case for your scribe's two-day visit - Friday, the 23rd, was a very hot sunny day but with ferocious winds picking up dust from the surrounding area, which changed to rain and very cold temperatures (cold enough for the emergency purchase of a jumper!) on the Saturday. In fact the high winds on the Friday prevented a number of displays from flying, in particular the rotary element.

After clearing the security check upon entry into the showground, the first display to catch one's attention was the Australian Defence Force (ADF) careers stalls, which included the static display of the Australian Army's military vehicles including the Abrahams main tank. From viewing just these it was apparent that the ADF heavily rely on American hardware for the defence of its country, typified by the ADF's latest American-built purchase - the Boeing C-17A Globemaster III.

The newly acquired C-17 was from 36 Squadron, based at RAAF Amberley near Brisbane in Queensland, and was the star attraction in the large aircraft static display area, where the jet was open for the public to have a closer look at what their tax money had just bought. When Air-Scene UK spoke to ground crew personnel from 36 Squadron they were full of praise for the C-17, and were just amazed at how easy it was to work on the jet compared to the types they were used to working on, such as the Caribou and Hercules. Even though the RAAF C-17s are the state-of-the-art Block 17 production models, on comparison with the RAF C-17s from 99 Squadron, it was clear to see that some of the defensive aids suite, like the LAIRCM (Large Aircraft Infra Red Counter Measures), was yet to be fitted.

First impressions of the static display were good. The show organisers had put a lot of thought into how best to lay out the larger aircraft in order to allow for enough room for decent photographs to be taken. However, when it came to the smaller aircraft such as the fighters and helicopters, things were different - from a photographer's point of view, the barriers were set up very close to the aircraft, making it very difficult to photograph the static. It did enable the general public to get very close to each aircraft, where friendly pilots and ground crew were always more than happy to talk.

Apart from the odd civilian aircraft, the line up was mostly ADF, which is what I had come to see, with nearly one of every example. Foreign visitors were slightly lacking with only a couple of Singaporean Cougars and a sole RAF E-3D Sentry attending the show. Thankfully the American presence was fairly substantial, with an E-3 AWACS in the static plus three F-16 Fighting Falcons and two F-15C Eagles located on the active ramp, which were available to photograph.

International stars
Ancient Avalon

The highlight of the static had to be the three US Navy Super Hornets from Carrier Air Wing 5, based at NAS Atsugi, Japan, usually deployed onboard the USS Kittyhawk. The 'Diamondbacks' of VFA-102 brought over both its CAG bird and CO bird F/A-18Fs while the 'Royal Maces' of VFA-27 brought over its CAG bird F/A-18E. It's fair to say that the reasoning for such a large contingent of Super Hornets at the show was the fact that Boeing were pushing the Australian government to purchase the F/A-18F as an interim replacement for the F-111C before the F-35 JSF comes online. Lo and behold, on the first day of the trade show period of the airshow, the Australian government announced the purchase of twenty-four Boeing F/A-18F Super Hornets to replace the F-111C by around 2010.

The flying display on Friday afternoon was hampered by strong winds, sandblasting everybody and everything. A number of displays had to cancel, including the Royal Australian Navy's Squirrel pair display, SH-60 Seahawk and the Australian Army's rotary role demonstration. However, the winds didn't stop the fast jets, with the RAAF doing its displays in the Hawk 127, F/A-18A Hornet and thankfully, the F-111C that included the famous 'dump and burn'. The USAF displayed its Kadena-based F-15C, the Misawa-based F-16C and Hawaiian-based C-17. The chances of seeing these tail codes in the UK must be nearly zero so it was a huge disappointment when the F-15 used on both days didn't have any markings on its tail, whilst the air spare sported that famous 'ZZ'.

As the sun was beginning to set, the Boeing 'night alive' finale began with a C-27J Spartan demonstrator from Alenia dropping numerous Army parachutists onto the runway. Alenia was present as it was trying to tempt the Australian government into purchasing the C-27J as a replacement for the ageing Caribou, but no agreement was announced during the airshow. Both the RAAF Hornet and F-111C did displays, with the Hornet dumping flares like they were going out of fashion, whilst the F-111C did its spectacular 'dump and burn' much to the crowd's delight. The finale to the evening was an enormous 'wall of fire' that certainly warmed the crowd up.

Saturday was the first full day for the public to attend and thankfully the wind had dropped a few knots, but unfortunately blustery showers were on the cards. The flying display began at 10:00 and ran through until 16:00, interrupted from time to time by Jetstar airlines operating from the airport. The reduction in wind speed meant that the rotary elements of the flying display were able to perform and the Royal Australian Navy's Squirrel pair display certainly produced an excellent routine.

The most notable rotary display was the Australian Army's role demonstration, where a S-70 Blackhawk did a mock insertion of ground troops with a Commonwealth Kiowa flying reconnaissance over the area whilst a Eurocopter Tigre circled the scene, providing cover for the insertion. This was the debut of the Tigre at Avalon and it didn't disappoint, especially with the sun making a rare appearance during the display.

Throughout the day there was a sense of anticipation and you could feel the crowd waiting for something to appear. Then with cheers emanating from the crowd, the mighty F-111C was seen taxiing towards the runway. Even though the F-111C is an American-made jet, it has become near legendary in Australia where it is affectionately called the 'Pig'. This year's display was flown by an all-female crew from 6 Squadron and, from the moment the jet lined up on the runway, the crowd were on their feet to get a glimpse of their favourite jet.

For a thirty-four year old aircraft, the display was nothing but outstanding with the crew really putting the 'Pig' through its paces from the moment the wheels left the ground. For such a large jet it is surprisingly agile, with a very impressive roll rate. The two Pratt and Whitney TF-30 turbofans were really pushing the 'Pig' hard, and it wasn't long before the crew ignited the fuel needed to do the famous 'dump and burn'. The crowd loved it and so the 'Pig' made two passes, each with a hundred-foot flame being created. This for me was what I'd come to see and I wasn't disappointed - I'd travelled nearly half way around the world to see this iconic jet and couldn't get enough of it!

Overall, the Australian International Airshow was an excellent and successful event with huge crowds on all show days. With only one more Avalon taking place in 2009 before the probable retirement of the F-111C I would definitely recommend visiting the show just to see the 'Pig' do its thing, but it was a joy just to see the variety that the ADF had on offer.

Many thanks to Kamila Lucas, the entire media team and the airshow organisers for a superb event.

 

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