- A.N. Other
- Naval Aviation, Naval Heritage Sites, Aviation
- RAN Ships
- HMAS Albatross (Shore Establishment)
- December 2021 edition of the Naval Historical Review (all rights reserved)
By Carl Robinson1 and Terry Hetherington2
Created in early 1985 at HMAS Albatross, the RAN Historic Flight was an ambitious project to keep a representative core of Australia’s classic navy aircraft operational and in the air. For the next 14 years and without major incident, the RAN Historic Flight operated a variety of aircraft and appeared at military and public events as far north as Mackay, west to Adelaide and south to Hobart, Tasmania. And then in 1999 for a combination of safety, administrative and budgetary reasons, the Historic Flight was grounded by the RAN. Sadly, for its supporters and aircraft too, another 20 years dragged on before a new home for its remarkable collection was finally found at the Historical Aircraft Restoration Society (HARS) Aviation Museum in Albion Park, NSW, 100 kilometres south of Sydney.
Today, HARS is the proud home of the re-badged Navy Heritage Flight (NHF), which is keeping these vital pieces of Australian naval aviation history alive. A total of nine aircraft makes up the NHF collection, with three – our C-47B, Tracker 844 and Iroquois or Huey 898 – dating from the RAN Historic Flight’s earliest days.
At HARS, these former Historic Flight aircraft will join two other former RAN aircraft, most notably HMAS Melbourne-based Grumman S-2G Tracker 851 which played such a crucial role in the rescue of 99 Vietnamese refugees in the South China Sea 40 years ago, and whose sterling history was only recently discovered (see NHR, June and August). The other is a tiny single-engine Auster J-5G Autocar, a replica of one of two once flown by the RAN.
The genesis of the RAN Historic Flight began in 1974 with the establishment of the Fleet Air Arm (FAA) Museum at Albatross by the then Commanding Officer, Captain Andrew Robertson DSC, RAN. Several ‘out-of-service’ aircraft such as a Fairey Gannet, de Havilland Sea Venom, de Havilland Sea Vampire, Bristol Sycamore, Douglas C-47A Dakota, Hawker Sea Fury, Westland Scout and Fairey Firefly had been retained as ‘gate guards’, ground-training aircraft and historical artefacts and were displayed or stored at various locations around the Air Station.
Captain Robertson appointed a supernumerary ‘Museum Officer’ and a full-time ‘Curator’ whose job it was to assemble the aircraft and to create a display in ‘D’ Hangar, an unoccupied WWII vintage Bellman hangar. The Museum was officially opened in December 1974 and was managed by the curator, Leading Seaman Aviation Glen Dore.
As a result of the destruction of the Tracker squadrons and ‘H’ Hangar by an arsonist in December 1976 the FAA Museum was dislodged from ‘D’ Hangar to make way for a temporary home for the replacement Tracker aircraft. The Museum aircraft were relocated to an area on the northern boundary of the Base, known as the Dummy Deck, and once again displayed in the open air. Several WWII-vintage buildings were also repurposed to provide storage, display and administration accommodation.
By the early 1980s the FAA Museum was operating as a public tourist attraction but in the ensuing years formal support from Navy and the Department of Defence was officially withdrawn, leading to the establishment of the Australian Naval Aviation Museum Foundation. This Foundation laid the groundwork and raised the multi-million dollars required to construct and operate today’s impressive Fleet Air Arm Museum at Albatross.
The concept of a RAN Historic Flight grew out of an idea by LCDR Ken Alderman, a Navy helicopter pilot who was the Commanding Officer of HU816 Squadron between 1985 and 1987. He had also been involved with the further development of the Fleet Air Arm Museum and recognised the synergies of both units. The RAN Historic Flight was first recognised in March 1985; LCDR Ken Alderman was the first CO of the Flight, followed by CMDR Keith Englesman, CMDR Jeff Ledger and CMDR Cris George.
The Historic Flight was allocated a WWII-era Bellman Hangar and associated admin buildings in 1985 and began operations in March 1985 with a core of eight volunteer personnel and two aircraft: a Westland Scout helicopter and C-47B Dakota N2-90, which was recovered after some preparation work from HMAS Nirimba at Quaker’s Hill and put on the civilian register as VH-NVZ. The Dakota’s first public appearance was at the 50th Dakota Anniversary at Mackay in April 1985. N2-90 performed faultlessly on the trip to and from Mackay.
Later in 1985, the S-2G Tracker 844 (VH-NVX) and AS6 Firefly WD826 (VH-NVU) were added to the Flight and brought up to airworthy standard the following year. The Historic Flight’s Firefly only flew for two years until it suffered a major engine defect. Between 1992 and 2015 an enormous effort was expended on WD826 by volunteers, not to mention hundreds of thousands of dollars, to make it airworthy. But sadly, the Firefly never flew again and is now part of the FAA Museum’s permanent display. But Grumman Tracker 844 has proved a real stalwart and, along with Huey 898, is the pride of today’s HARS NHF collection with a hard core of volunteers keeping the aircraft going through those trying years after the Historic Flight was grounded.
In 1987, Sea Fury FB11 WG630 and Sea Venom DH-112 WZ895 were added to the collection for Historic Flightrestoration to flight status. But neither reached airworthy status by the time the RAN Historic Flight was disbanded, and the aircraft were later sold to HARS. Along with the RAN C-47B Dakota, a British-made Westland Scout WS-101 was the first operational helicopter of the Historic Flight but it crashed at an air show in November 1985, later rebuilt for static display at the FAA Museum. (A replacement ex-British Army Scout was acquired, but was never made airworthy and was sold off by public tender in 2019). But as noted earlier, the most active aircraft with the Historic Flight was the Bell Iroquois or Huey 898 (N9-3104) which first flew in 1991 and remained airworthy and continued display flying.
Between the Historic Flight’s grounding in 1999 and 2010 when the RAN convened a Project Board to consider its future operation and the disposition of its aircraft and assets, the only aircraft approved and capable of flying was Huey 898. Quite simply, Navy was becoming increasingly averse to the level of risk in ownership and operation of Historic and Warbird aircraft. This culminated in a formal invitation issued by senior Navy personnel to three Australian Museums, including HARS, to bid for a selected range of RANFAA aircraft.
Thankfully, HARS already had a close relationship with the Historic Flight from when its first Neptune aircraft was based at Albatross, including joint participation in various air shows, and assisted by the Fleet Air Arm. And in 1989, President and Chief Pilot Bob de la Hunty, Vice President Maureen Massey and Gordon Glynn discussed the future of the Historic Flight with Chief of Navy. So, HARS clearly had an inside track as talks for a possible solution continued over the years.
By June 2015, an operational pause was invoked on the RAN Historic Flight with the FAA Museum Manager appointed custodian of both entities, as the representative of the Director of the Naval Heritage Collection. At that moment, HARS representatives with Michael Hough appointed Project Leader were invited to join the Project Board with one possible outcome: RAN retaining ownership but transferring operational responsibility to HARS.
A ‘due diligence’ audit of the overall status of Navy’s heritage aircraft collection, both static and flying, was then undertaken by technical, operations and logistics specialists. The audit provided an understanding of the aircraft and spares holdings and also revealed governance and compliance shortcomings within the RAN Historic Flight management. The Navy hierarchy determined that the best course of action was to disband the RAN Historic Flight and ensure that the best example of each aircraft type in the Heritage Collection was selected for display in the FAA Museum. Observing all the obligations of ownership, and because outsourcing the delegated responsibility of flying Commonwealth-owned heritage aircraft to a third party was not legally possible, Navy absolved itself of ownership by placing nine selected former Historic Flight aircraft up for open tender. HARS was the successful tenderer and took ownership of the aircraft in December 2018.
History of HARS
Formed in 1979 by a group of passionate aviation collectors desperate to preserve Australian aviation history, HARS was a logical new home for Historic Flight with its rich collection of over 50 historic military and civilian aircraft, many still operational. In its early years, HARS members traversed the Australian continent seeking aviation artefacts that were located on farm properties, scrap yards and bushland. These expeditions resulted in HARS providing considerable assistance to many restoration projects including outside of HARS itself, both in Australia and overseas. Of great significance was the recovery in the early 1980s of two Beaufighter airframes from northwestern Australia. One, a Mark I Beaufighter aircraft, was restored by HARS and subsequently exchanged for the Lockheed Super Constellation, VH-EAG, the only one in the world still operational. That Beaufighter now resides in the United States Air Force Museum in Dayton, Ohio.
In 1988 HARS became an incorporated society with a formal constitution and is a registered deductible gift recipient organisation, allowing tax deductible donations to support its operations. The development of a mission statement strongly emphasising its direction reflects what as a group we do today. That mission is, ‘to recover and where possible restore to flying condition, aircraft or advise on aircraft that have played a significant part in Australian aviation history, both in the civil and military arenas’.
The membership of HARS – now close to 800 – includes many current or former licensed aircraft engineers and others with piloting, regulatory or general support skills, including many from the Royal Australian Navy. Its 11,000 square metre hangar complex at the Illawarra Regional Airport receives financial support from corporate sponsorship, supportive entrepreneurs and the general public, plus various events. Like the rest of its operations, HARS depends heavily on private and public donations, plus sponsorship, to keep the Navy Heritage Flight (NHF) going both in the air and in restoration projects, and always eager to hear from old-timers ready to help. Donations are also most welcome.
With the successful tender, HARS specially-created Navy Heritage Flight (NHF) took possession of nine former RAN Fleet Air Arm airframes: two Grumman Trackers; two Iroquois (Hueys); one Sea Venom; one Sea Fury; two Wessex helicopters and one C-47, plus spares, which were quickly moved off-base to nearby Air Affairs, a HARS sponsor. But even greater challenges lay ahead. For one, years of outdoor storage and neglect had taken their toll. The flagship C-47B no longer flew. The Venom was broken up and stored in a container.
The Sea Fury was in slightly better shape. Thankfully, Grumman S-2G Tracker 844 was flyable from Nowra up to Albion Park, but its S-2E cousin, Tracker 845, was in very poor condition. The two Iroquois were safely hangared and in good shape. And then the collection’s big land moves began with Wessex 832 making its way to HARS Albion Park and the second, Wessex 813, all the way to the museum annex at Parkes. Without too much effort, the Sea Fury was safely hauled up to Albion Park and was soon on static display. After two years of meticulous work by HARS volunteers, the reassembly of the Sea Venom has been an amazing project and it has just recently gone on static display.
Last on the road in July 2020 was the venerable C‑47B and then Tracker 845, both the worse for wear as they were unloaded at HARS, Albion Park. But in a remarkably short time, the Dakota had its wings back
on and put onto the restoration path to operational status, its interior royally re-done to honour the aircraft’s role in Queen Elizabeth’s 1954 tour to Australia, then in RAAF livery. With a new coat of paint, roundels and front windscreens, Tracker 845 – a lone surviving S-2E from that 1976 hangar fire at Albatross – looks almost pristine. Tracker 844 has just done its 10-year service and is expected back in the air by year’s end.
With hangar space from Air Affairs, plus locally-residing maintenance crew and pilots, the NHF’s two Iroquois remain in Nowra with Huey 898 back in the air with regular flights up to HARS, Albion Park, and appearances at air shows and fly-overs such as this year’s RAAF Centenary over Canberra. Present plans call for Huey 893’s refurbishment as a helicopter gunship in honour of those RAN veterans who flew with the US Army 135th Assault Helicopter Company (EMU) in South Vietnam. Under the tender agreement, HARS pledged to eventually shift its Navy Heritage Flight to a hangar complex on land adjacent to the Fleet Air Arm Museum at Albatross with its own collection of static aircraft. But that is still some time away.
So in the meantime, those wanting a close look at the Royal Australian Navy’s aviation heritage, including still-functioning aircraft, will always be warmly welcomed at HARS Albion Park, open for guided tours every day of the year except Christmas.
To keep in touch with this ongoing story, and to make any donations or offer assistance, please email: firstname.lastname@example.org. Website: www.hars.org.au. Also on Facebook.
1 US-born and long-time Australian resident, Carl Robinson was a Vietnam war correspondent and is a volunteer at HARS, co-editor of the Navy Heritage Flight (NHF) bi-weekly newsletter and co-organiser of the 40th Anniversary of the MG99/RAN Rescue by HMAS Melbourne at HARS in June 2021.
2 Terry Hetherington is the HARS Grumman Tracker maintenance team leader; he was a founding member of the RAN Historic Flight in 1985 and was Manager and Senior Curator of the Fleet Air Arm Museum from 2006 to his retirement in 2019.