The RAN Fleet Air Arm

This article has photo gallery Published on Sea Power Centre - Australia (author)

A Wessex helicopter lands aboard HMAS Sydney. (photo: Unknown)
A Wessex helicopter lands aboard HMAS Sydney.

The Australian International Airshow 2015 pays tribute to Anzac and the heroes of military aviation.  It is the major theme of the event and as such will be the first significant observance of the Gallipoli campaign in its centenary year.  The airshow features an emotional and moving tribute to our aviators from Gallipoli to the present day. During the Australian International Airshow, Navy Daily will highlight the significant contribution of naval aviators from the First World War to the present day.

The rapid development of military and naval aviation during World War I saw the three Royal Australian Navy cruisers, HMA Ships Australia (I), Sydney (I) and Melbourne (I), all experiment with operating naval reconnaissance and fighter aircraft in the latter part of the war. Once airborne, these aircraft had to land ashore or 'ditch' near a friendly ship. However, these early experiments proved the utility of embarked aerial operations.

In 1929, the Royal Australian Navy commissioned HMAS Albatross (I); a 6,000 ton seaplane carrier built at Cockatoo Island in Sydney and designed to carry 9 Royal Australian Air Force Walrus III aircraft. By the start of World War II the Royal Australian Navy cruisers HMA Ships Australia (II), Canberra (I), Sydney (II), Perth (I) and Hobart (I), were all equipped with catapults and Royal Australian Air Force Seagull V amphibians. The two Armed Merchant Cruisers HMA Ships Manoora (I) and Westralia (I) also carried Seagull V's.

The success and growth of naval aviation during the Second World War made apparent a need for an Australian Fleet Air Arm. The character of naval warfare had changed and the aircraft carrier was now an essential part of any modern navy. In April 1944 the Australian Prime Minister, John Curtin, approached the British Prime Minister Winston Churchill for England's help to establish a Fleet Air Arm.

In late 1945 Lieutenant Commander Victor Smith, RAN, an observer with wartime service in the Royal Navy's Fleet Air Arm, was sent to Great Britain to plan the establishment of a Fleet Air Arm for the Royal Australian Navy. Admiral Sir Victor Smith later became widely known as the 'Father of the Fleet Air Arm.'

In July 1947 the Commonwealth Defence Council approved the formation of the Fleet Air Arm under the control of the Royal Australian Navy. Prime Minister Ben Chifley approved the acquisition of two light fleet carriers from the United Kingdom and in August cabinet approval was given for the light fleet carriers, two naval air stations and three air groups. In April 1948 King George VI approved the names Sydney (III) and Melbourne (II) for the carriers and Albatross for the Royal Australian Navy Air Station at Nowra. HMAS Nirimba at Quaker's Hill, NSW, was commissioned in 1953 as a second Naval Air Station and air technical training school before becoming the Royal Australian Navy Apprentice Training School in 1956.

HMAS Sydney (III) arrived in Australian waters in May 1949, with the 20th Carrier Air Group embarked, and went on to serve in the Korean War. The commissioning of HMAS Melbourne (II) in 1955 with her angled flight deck, steam catapult and mirror assisted landing system, heralded the introduction of pure jet and turboprop aircraft into the Navy's Fleet Air Arm.

A Sea Venom fighter aircraft being guided to land on Aircraft Carrier, HMAS Melbourne (II).

A Sea Venom fighter aircraft being guided to land on Aircraft Carrier, HMAS Melbourne (II).

Melbourne (II) arrived in Australia in May 1956, carrying De Havilland Sea Venom F.A.W. Mk 53 fighters and Fairey Gannet AS1/4 Anti-submarine aircraft. The Sea Venom was a purely jet propelled aircraft, powered by a de Havilland Ghost turbojet engine. The Gannet, although a propeller aircraft was powered by a Double Mamba turboprop engine (basically two Mamba gas turbine engines placed side by side each driving one of two co-axial contra-rotating airscrews). They were joined by Westland Wessex Anti-submarine and search and rescue helicopters in 1962.

In 1966/67, the FAA began to take delivery of Douglas A-4G Skyhawk fighter/ bombers and Grumman S-2E Tracker anti-submarine aircraft from the United States of America. This potent fixed-wing element heralded a frenetic period of activity for the Fleet Air Arm. In terms of payload capability in the case of the A-4, and wingspan of the S-2, these were the largest aircraft that could be operated from Melbourne (II). The United States Navy operated the same aircraft from carriers four times the size of Melbourne (II).

By 1968 the composition of the naval air squadrons was at its highest number ever, with Tracker, Skyhawk and Wessex squadrons as well as 723 Squadron operating Bell Iroquois and Westland Scout helicopters in the training and utility role. The front-line ASW helicopter force was further enhanced in 1975 with the arrival of ten British built Westland Sea King Mk 50's. The Bell Kiowa 206B-1 also supplemented the existing training and utility helicopters. Also during the 1970's ten more Skyhawks were added to the fighter squadrons and sixteen replacement S-2G Trackers were purchased following the loss of nine of the original S-2E's in a hangar fire at HMAS Albatross. However, the age of fixed-wing naval aviation came to end with the Federal Government decision not to replace Melbourne (II) when she decommissioned in 1982. The last two last fixed-wing squadrons were decommissioned on 30 June 1984.

A Royal Australian Navy Westland Wessex helicopter lifting a slung load off the deck of HMAS Sydney

A Royal Australian Navy Westland Wessex helicopter lifting a slung load off the deck of HMAS Sydney

The operating philosophy for naval aviation in the Royal Australian Navy shifted from aircraft carriers to frigates and support vessels operating helicopters. Navy commissioned its first Adelaide class Guided Missile Frigate (FFG) in 1980, capable of carrying two medium-sized helicopters. In 1989 the Royal Australian Navy began taking delivery of its new S-70B-2 Seahawk anti-submarine helicopters. The Seahawks and Aérospatiale AS 350BA Squirrel utility helicopters were quickly pressed into active service aboard Guided Missile Frigates and other support ships during the 1990/91 Gulf War.

Navy deployments to enforce United Nations sanctions against Iraq were maintained through the 1990s. The first of the Anzac class frigates commissioned in 1996 and they were also equipped with Seahawks from 816 Squadron. The Anzac class frigates and their Seahawk flights have had a continued presence in the Gulf region, including the 2003 Iraq War. Royal Australian Navy Fleet Air Arm aircraft have also recently served numerous operational areas including East Timor, the Persian Gulf, Somalia, Bougainville and the Solomon Islands.

Today the Royal Australian Navy Fleet Air Arm operates four airframes; the AS 350BA Squirrel light utility helicopter, the Bell 429 training and utility helicopter, the MRH90 Taipan multi-role helicopter and the S-70B-2 Seahawk anti-submarine helicopter, and is in the process of introducing the MH-60R Seahawk Romeo naval combat helicopters.