Sunday Information – The Royal Australian Air Force

Posted on Sun 04/03/2011 by


During the week just passed, the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) celebrated its 90th Birthday, and consider that for a minute. The RAAF formed as a designated Air Force in 1921.

The RAAF was the second Air Force established in the World, the RAF in the UK being the first, as a separate Force on its own. There were some other military flying forces, but they were always part of, and under the control of the Army of that Country.

However that wasn’t the start of it, as prior to forming as a separate Force, Australia had its own Air Force as part of the Australian Army.

Australia may only be a small (by population numbers) Country with only 22 million people, but it has a very proud, and also a very long Military tradition.

Australian Military Forces have been in every major and most minor Wars since the late 1800’s. Australia fought as a military service in the Boer War in South Africa from 1899 to 1902, and in nearly all major conflicts since.

As I mentioned above an Australian Air Force presence was around before the RAAF was formed.

In 1912 Australia formed the Australian Flying Corps, (AFC) part of the Australian Army, but coming under its own control and operations.

Consider that for a minute. This was 1912. Powered flight was still in its formative era, Orville and Wilbur Wright only having been the first to master powered flight barely 9 years earlier. (See the Post at this link.)

The AFC again was also the second Flying Corps formed, also following the RFC in England.

During the Great War (World War One) the AFC flew operations under its own control as an Australian Force, in conjunction with the RFC.

In fact, Australia has 12 ‘Aces’ and you had to be credited with 15 Enemy aircraft to be designated an ‘Ace’.

The AFC also had a Victoria Cross winner from that War, Frank McNamara. The Victoria Cross is the highest award for Valor and has a U.S. equivalent of The Medal Of Honor.

McNamara was part of a two aircraft raid. His fellow pilot had engine trouble and was forced down behind enemy lines. McNamara watched the crippled plane land safely, and also saw that the enemy had seen, and was sending troops. McNamara landed his plane on the rough ground, rescued the stranded pilot, and under fire proceeded to take off. The aircraft undercarriage dug in on the rough terrain and the aircraft crashed before it could lift off. Now under constant and heavy fire, the two men struggled back to the first aircraft. McNamara was badly wounded in the leg, but got the first aircraft started and the two men escaped in a shot up plane, flying it 115 miles back to a safe airfield.

The AFC had a distinguished history from that First War, and after the War finished, they maintained flying operations in Australia, growing in size and eventually becoming the RAAF.

At the start of the Second World War, the RAAF modernised (albeit slowly for such a small Country) and rapidly built up numbers, its Aircrew some of the best trained in the World.

During that Second War, the RAAF again distinguished itself. At the outbreak of the War, RAAF air and ground crews were sent to England where they operated with the RAF, under their own Service as the RAAF. Two pilots were awarded Victoria Crosses for actions over Europe, Rawdon Middleton and Hughie Edwards.

When operations started in the Pacific following Japan’s entry into the War, RAAF operations started in earnest. Australia had some  Spitfires and Hurricanes from the UK as their fighter aircraft, augmented by the Australian designed Boomerang fighter. They also then upgraded to the P40 Kittyhawks, and towards the end of the War constructed and later manufactured Mustangs and we had more than 500 of them by the end of hostilities.

For bombing operations the English Bristol Beaufighter was the most used aircraft and for long range operations we also had a force of Liberators, the venerable B24.

In the Pacific theatre, Australian pilot Bill Newton was awarded a Victoria Cross as well.

Following cessation of the War, the RAAF was in fact the fourth largest Air Force on the Planet.

The RAAF was one of the first Air Forces to convert to jet aircraft, the English Gloster Meteor fighter aircraft.

The RAAF operated Mustangs and Meteors in Korea, and in fact the RAAF had the honour of operating the first Meteor that shot down a MiG15, a vastly superior aircraft at the time.

Those Meteors were then replaced with English Vampires, and then three operational squadrons of Australian manufactured F86 Sabres, designated the Avon Sabre, a far superior and markedly different aircraft than the  the U.S. F86, because the Australian Sabre had the vastly more powerful Rolls Royce Avon jet engine, and two 30mm Cannon as well as the six machine guns.

The RAAF operated with 102 of these Sabres in four Variants from 1956 to 1971, all of these manufactured in Australia under license fro North American, the original designer of this fine fighter aircraft.

Mirage Fighter 76 Squadron RAAF

In 1963, to forgive France’s war debt to Australia for the First and Second Wars, they gave Australia 102 Mirage III aircraft. These were wholly constructed in Australia at our own huge construction facility, and the engines were also constructed here in Australia as well.

As with the Sabre, this Australian spec Mirage was a significantly better aircraft then the French original it was based upon.

The engine was a multi stage turbine with two stages of afterburning. There were 99 single seat Interceptors and 3 dual seat trainers. The RAAF operated the Mirage in four operational Squadrons, and one Conversion Unit Squadron. At a later date the RAAF added to its dual seat trainer version with the construction of a further 15 of these trainers, similar in most aspects to the Interceptor, but not as fast in top end speed.

They were in service until 1988, a period of 25 years. The Mirage was a Mach 2+ (1500+MPH) capable aircraft. It could operate as a short flight interceptor and with a range of under wing fuel tanks, the range could be extended out to almost two and a half hours. They were armed with two 30mm Cannon, Matra Air to Surface missiles, and Sidewinder Air to Air missiles. Their only drawback, if it could be called that was it only had the one Engine, and pilots, being as they are, always prefer two engines. The Delta wing configuration while enabling high speed capability also meant that the landing speed was also quite high, necessitating long airstrips and the utilsation of a brake parachute for the last part of the landing ‘roll’.

These Mirage fighters were replaced with FA18’s which commenced operations in 1987, and we have almost 75 of those aircraft.


RAAF Canberra Bomber

After the Second War, the Bomber fleet was updated to operate the English Electric Canberra.

At the time of their design, the Canberra was the state of the art bomber aircraft, could carry an internal payload as well as bombs mounted on under wing stations as well.

This aircraft when it came into service could fly higher and faster than anything in operation anywhere in the World, and because of that, it was considered that it did not need any defensive weapons whatsoever, so it had no guns, as it could easily outfly, outpace and outclimb any fighter aircraft. This became worrying in later years with the advent of faster fighters, air to air missiles and ground to air missiles, but in all conflict operations, Australia only ever lost two aircraft. It was stable, forgiving and remained in service for a long time. The Canberra bomber aircraft carried out bombing sorties during the conflict in South Vietnam.

RAAF F111C with wings swept back

The aging fleet of Canberra’s was replaced by the F111, first ordered in the early 1960’s in what was a contentious political decision at the time. Australia was the only Country outside of the U.S. to purchase this wonderful aircraft, and we took delivery of 24 aircraft in 1973. These were the F111C, a vastly different variant from the U.S. aircraft with stronger undercarriage, different avionics, and a stronger wing carry through box where the variable sweep geometry wings joined. The RAAF upgraded their fleet of F111’s over the years with the addition of the PaveTack capability for weapons delivery, and then conversion to digital, both of these major modifications at the time. This turned the F111 into one of the most capable military aircraft ever built. Over the years, the RAAF added to that original number with the purchase of other F111’s from the U.S. which they then updated to Australian specifications. Those F111’s were only retired last year, 2010 after 27 years of operational service, long after the U.S. aircraft went into retirement.

The F111 fleet was replaced with the FA18 Super Hornet.

Currently the RAAF is also part of the joint venture to procure the F35 Lightning, a genuine Fifth Generation Fighter aircraft to replace the FA18’s still in current use.

During the Vietnam War, the RAAF operated bombing sorties with the Canberra bomber and also had one Squadron of  Iroquois gunships, the venerable ‘Huey’, operating from Vung Tau.

The RAAF operates more than 20 Orions as part of Maritime Patrol and Strike operations.

The RAAF has operated a variety of rotary wing aircraft, mainly those Hueys and Chinook Heavy Lift helicopters. All rotary wing operations were transferred to the Australian Army in the 80’s but the RAAF retains some rotary wing aircraft.

The RAAF has a considerable Transport airlift wing. They operated the Dakotas, then for many decades the Hercules in a number of variants. They also had a squadron of Caribou’s as well, and currently operate the Super Hercules and the huge C17 Globemasters.

The RAAF also has a number of Air Refuelling aircraft and also some Executive aircraft, these also utilised as troop carrying aircraft as well.

In a training role, the RAAF has also operated a variety of aircraft over the years. Initial training was achieved with the Australian designed Winjeel, probably one of the most stable prop driven training aircraft ever designed, and operational in the RAAF as trainers and as Forward Air Control aircraft from 1955 until 1994, almost 40 years. Other prop trainers include the military variant of the Australian designed Victa Airtourer, and now the Pilatus PC9.

Jet trainers included the Macchi, and currently the British Aerospace Hawk. Jet training variants of the Sabre and the Mirage have also been utilised as lead in aircraft for fighter Squadron operations.

So, while Australia may only be a small Country by population, we have always maintained a very potent Air Force, with what amounts now to a long and distinguished history.

The RAAF has also been in operations in Iraq, and in numerous other peace keeping capabilities in the intervening years as well.

The current force structure may only be around 14,000 members, but that is a very highly trained complement of men and women spread not only across the whole of Australia, but in fact throughout the World.

The RAAF may not be a large Air Force now, but as is quite obvious from the above, its capability ensures it can fulfill a number of operations at almost a moments notice.


76 Squadron Crest RAAF

I can speak about this from experience, as I was a serving member of the RAAF for 25 years. I served as ground crew in the electrical trade, and I was posted to squadrons operating the Canberra Bomber, Sabre and Macchi training aircraft, and with 2 Squadrons operating Mirage fighters, 76 and 77 Squadron. I also worked on equipment for a variety of those and other aircraft during my time. As I rose through the ranks, I moved into Supervisory, Man management, and Administration roles, and I was a Technical Trades instructor teaching the electrical trade to new members.

The RAAF may be a small Force, but it now has almost 100 years of history as a Service operating military aircraft, and it has a long and very proud tradition.

The aircraft images shown on this page are from my personal collection. If you click on the images, they will open in a new and larger window. The image of the 76 Squadron Crest is also from my collection.

The image below is another from my collection and is explained in the Comments below.

76 Squadron Closure

Posted in: Australia, Military