Replacing The Trackers

The hangar fire was a huge setback to the Fleet Air Arm: of the 13 Trackers in Service only one remained airworthy, so the priority was to restore the RAN’s surveillance/ASW capability.  Coincidentally, six additional S2E airframes were already on order, and arrangements were in train to collect them from the United States.  The hangar fire galvanised action, however.  Two days after the fire the Defence Minister, Jim Killen, announced the Government would purchase a further 10 aircraft.  He then called the US Deputy Secretary of Defence and had an assurance within two hours that 16 Tackers would be available as soon as the RAN could arrange transportation for them.   The replacements came from the Davis-Monthan US Air Force Base, where a large number of S2 aircraft were stored in a state of preservation in the Arizona desert.  Twenty three of the best S2Gs were picked out before whittling them down to 16, at a cost of about $73K each – a discount reportedly of the order of 97%.   Read this extraordinary story here: Out Of The Ashes 

Above: The replacement Trackers were flown off HMAS Melbourne in early April of 1977, still bearing their USN markings – but they required RAN roundels to be able to fly on the Military register, so these were painted on them whilst still in transit from the States. (RAN image).  

Right.  Five replacement aircraft were placed in immediate Service at Nowra – the first job was to give them a good wash.  The remaining 11 had been flown to Bankstown, where Hawker de Havilland carried out maintenance work before they were released. (RAN image). 

Below:  With Trackers back in the air the Squadrons could concentrate on flying again. Anyone even remotely interested in Naval Aviation will have seen this stunning image of three of them practicing a formation break just off the coast of southern NSW. (Navy image). 

Below:  The budding photographer in the webmaster’s list of dubious skills couldn’t resist this image of a gaggle of Trackers reflected in a pool of water, probably on the dummy deck at Nowra in the days when rainfall was more plentiful than it is now.  The aircraft on the left was one of the two that were returned to service after the hangar fire.  It was redesignated side number 840 (previously 849) so the photo was some time later than 1977.    (Photo attributed to Cameron Martin). 

 

Left.  A good shot of the cockpit of an S2E/G, lifted from an American ESO website page, somewhat ironically as it appears to have been taken in our own FAAM.  The cockpit layout was conventional with the captain sitting in the left seat but the aircraft capable of being flown from either.  Instruments were, of course, analogue.  the fold up centre console can be seen in the ‘up’ position to aid access to the seats; when rotated downwards is provided mostly armament control functions – for example, sonobuoy release, torpedo depth selection and so on.  We would welcome a more informed description of the image, should anyone wish to do so.  Image courtesy of FLECOMPRON TWO.

 

Below.  Rear seat #3 (Left) and #4 (Right) positions in the S2G Tracker of the FAA museum. Not much information is to be found on the back-seat equipment, or the part it played in delivering capability – but of course it was essential  in both the ASW and Surveillance/SAR roles, which were the bread and butter of this aircraft.  Without the sensors it carried and the operators who employed them, the Tracker would not have been a fighting aircraft (Photographs: Marcus Peake).

In the image below the No #3 position on the port side remains intact, and the NATOPS ‘key’ below the photograph will give the reader information on what each component was. The starboard (No.#4) position has been stripped, however, with blanking plates where most of the equipment used to be. When the Trackers paid off in 1984 anything related to the AQA-7 sonar system was transferred to the ‘O’ Boats of the Submarine Force.

Above.  Another shot of a Tracker cockpit in flight.  Image via David Stephen on the ‘Friends of the RAN Grumman Tracker‘ page. 

Below. Apart from the single ditching in 1975, very few Tracker accidents occurred during their operational history with the RAN. One exception was when a nose wheel gear collapsed during an arrested landing.  Melbourne was in transit from Bombay to Sri Lanka on 29 August 1977, on her way home from the Spit Head Queen’s Jubilee deployment.   The aircraft was lifted by ship’s crane and moved to the hangar for inspection, which determined that shore repairs were necessary.

The aircraft was stripped and subsequently lifted off Melbourne’s deck by RAAF Chinook for transportation to the Hawker De Havilland facility at Bankstown, an evolution that occurred during a families day trip out of Sydney on 5th October 1975.  It was subsequently repaired and returned to service.  (Photos:  Ian Gibson).


For anyone who worked on or flew Trackers, the photo on the right would being back fond memories: of the distinctive sound of the Wright Cyclones under full power, and the unmistakable late afternoon silhouette of a Tracker about to touch down.  

 

Below. The Tracker was designed from tip to tail to be a carrier borne aircraft, so deck operations were its bread and butter.  The two RAN images below (click to enlarge) almost capture every sensation of a catapult launch.  On the left the Tracker is ready in all respects to go: the bridle is tensioned, the flight deck crew in a safe position and the aircraft sits on its tail bumper, nose in the air, primed for the launch.  A moment later it is flung into the sky, accelerating to about 110 knots as it crosses Melbourne’s bow.

Below:  Another day, another launch.  Taken from the left hand seat of the Wessex Plane Guard helicopter, a Tracker takes to the skies.  The plane guard was never needed to rescue S2E/G aircrew – unlike the Skyhawk, which lost several during catapult operations from the ship.  You can see the A4 Skyhawk story here.
Below. Only two RAN Squadrons operated the Tracker – VC851, for Training and Comms, and VS816 which was the operational Squadron.   The photo below shows VC851 some time between Feb 78 and Jan 80, when LCDR Bob “Windy” Geale was the Commanding Officer (front centre, with a beard).  We include it here not only as a snapshot of history in the story of the Trackers, but because Bob later went on to be honoured in the work he did for the FAA Museum in preserving the Fleet Air Arm’s heritage. The two Squadrons were later to combine (VC851 absorbed VS816) towards the end of the era of fixed wing in the Fleet Air Arm.

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Right:  A rare hiccup in Squadron safety when workmen in Queanbeyan were surprised by a crashing noise in their factory.  On investigating they found a military sonobuoy in the yard.  Examination of the offending aircraft found a worn latch on the sonobuoy chute, which was later replaced.  Fortunately there were no injuries.  (Image: Canberra Times Sept 1995).

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Left.  This image was probably taken when the Wessex was still in Service, noting there is one on the line, but it was prophetic insofar as the S2Gs, if not already paid off, were living on borrowed time.  It’s also the only photo we’ve seen of a Tracker in company with its two direct ancestors:  the Fairey Gannet to its right and the Fairey Firefly in the foreground.  It’s also the only American aircraft in the group, illustrating a marked split from years of traditionally buying British equipment.   HMAS Albatross, in the background, is as many veteran FAA folk would remember it with F hangar on the left and the old control tower and fire station just across the taxiway.  None of those buildings remain, just as none of the aircraft in the photograph are still in service.  (FAAM).

Left.  Although long-gone, the RAN Tracker has a passionate group of followers who exchange photos and tales of their service when the S2 was still around.  Occasionally they can’t resist a tongue-in-cheek image, such as this one showing a Tracker flying under London Bridge.  Photo courtesy of Deb Oxy,  Friends of the RAN Grumman Tracker.

Right. One of the Tracker’s roles during the early 80s was keeping an eye on the Bass Strait oil fields, mostly for maritime safety reasons.  The RAAF shared the role, but the lion’s share fell to VS816 and VC851 Squadrons who flew over 2500 hours on the three-year operation.
     Operation ESTES was concluded in December 1983.  By then, Operation Bursa was in full swing involving Navy rotary-wing assets and SAS Tactical Assault Groups in the protection of the oil rigs from potential terrorist threats.  You can read the full story of Bursa here. 

The Bass Strait surveillance task covered a period that marked the end of fixed wing aircraft in the RAN. HMAS Melbourne, the crucible of the Fleet Air Arm’s fixed-wing force,  was over thirty years old and debate had been raging for years about her replacement.  A light appeared in January of 1982 when the Government agreed to buy HMS Invincible.  The ‘Flight International’ article to the left gives some indication of the issues that decision raised – most noticeably, what aircraft she would be equipped with.  In any event,  the sale was cancelled just six months later when the Falklands war showed just how important a fixed-wing strike carrier was.   Hope for a Plan B lingered until March of 1983 but was finally dashed when the new Hawke government announced there would be no replacement carrier for the RAN.  By then the two fixed-wing operational Squadrons (Trackers and A4s) had been disbanded, and their aircraft relegated to the training Squadrons.


For the great majority of Navy’s 19 Trackers the end was ignominious, as it often is for proud military aircraft. 

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Left. The final in-Service flight of Tracker 851 for the NAS Nowra Air Day in 1984. Left to Right: Norm Ridgeway (AEO 851); Harry Wendt (Obs/SENSO), Roger Scovell (SOBS 851) and Dick Scott (CO 851).

Above Right: A combined 851 (Trackers) and 724 (Skyhawks) shot taken on the day of the final Nowra-Canberra-Sydney-Nowra round-robin flypast by S2G and A4G (we think on 01 Jun 84), (L-R): Andrew ‘Mum’ Davis, Rick Neville, Peter Brown, Mal Hume, Bob ‘Timber’ Mills, Tony Caladine, Harry Wendt, Graham ‘Dusty’ Miller, Roger Scovell, Dick Scott, John Hamilton, Ray France, Dave Coote?, Mike Killingsworth, Larry Mills, Neil Austin, Neale Coulch, Deane Williams, Lynton Beggs, Sandy Nelson and Bob Jones. Photo via Al Byrne, who was flying the HS748 aircraft taking photos of the flypast.

Below: There were 18 Trackers on the ORBAT when the fixed-wing axe fell (16 purchased after the fire and two salvaged from it).  After their last flight the airframes marked for disposal were gathered on the edge of NAS Nowra, where they languished for almost six years. We have heard that most of the engines were bought by an overseas company but have been unable to confirm that. Eleven airframes were then bought by Hook Aviation and were individually ferried to West Sale aerodrome over an extended period (’91 to ’94).  There were only three serviceable engines (which diminished to two during the process), so for each ferry flight they were fitted to an airframe and then trucked back to accomodate the next aircraft. 

Peter Hookway wheeled and dealed in aircraft and hoped to on-sell the aircraft for firefighting or SAR duties – or even as spares. In the event, only two were onsold or gifted – one to the Gippsland Armed Forces Museum and one to the National Vietnam Veteran’s Museum (which is being restored as a static display).  The others remained with Hookway and after his death were eventually disposed of by auction.  Most were purchased in 2014 by an American consortium, but by then the tired airframes had been moved into the weather and there they remain, mostly broken into component spares. 

Of the seven that didn’t go to Hookway, two went by private sale to save them from the breaker’s yard, but  were in the open near Nowra in a decrepit state (see update at the foot of this page).  Two went to the Fleet Air Arm Museum and one to Qantas – subsequently bought by HARS and beautifully restored.  The remaining two found their way to the RAN Historic Flight.

Below.  One of the lucky survivors. RAN Historic Flight Tracker 844 – without doubt the most photographed S2 airframe of all – doing a ground run at the Albatross Air Day in 2008.  The aircraft had been cleared for fast taxi but not for flight. It was hopeful that final hurdle could be overcome, but it was not to be: the Flight was shut down just a year later and the aircraft locked in a hangar.   You can read the story of the Tracker’s Taxi Run here.

Following the demise of the Historic Flight, Navy engaged with the Historic Aircraft Restoration Society (HARS) to see what could be done to preserve them.  The then Chief of Navy agreed a partnership between the RAN and HARS in 2009 which essentially loaned the aircraft to the latter to maintain and, where applicable, to fly them.
The Navy/HARS partnership approach to loaning the aircraft to HARS broke down in 2016 when the issue of risk and liability rose to the fore – essentially, Navy received legal advice that it could not delegate such responsibility in a loan arrangement. A decision was then made to dispose of the Historic Flight aircraft by Restricted Tender, which closed on 31 August 2018. Three organisations submitted bids and in November 2018 HARS was advised it had been the successful Tenderer.  Left:  Historic Flight Trackers in ‘F’ hangar in August 2018.  They were moved to HARS early the following year and, over time, will be refurbished for static or flying displays depending on their condition. 

Right.  Our take on the last known whereabouts/status of the ex-RAN Trackers.  It’s hard to keep track of them (excuse the pun!) so if you have more information use the “Contact Us” box below to update.  Most are destined for the great scrapyard in the sky, we think, but a lucky few will survive – some to fly another day.  

It doesn’t take long for them to deteriorate though.  Some hope was held for 153566 (pictured above at West Sale in 2009). It was bought by a US consortium and eventually shipped to its yard near Davis-Monthan AFB, Arizona (close to where the RAN collected it). 

The state of its sister ship 153598, that was also shipped to Davis-Monthan doesn’t bode well for any hope of restoration, however (image Jo Schmidt, 2015).

Build No Last Known Whereabouts
152333 Acquired by Historic Aircraft Restoration Society (HARS) late 2018.  Aircraft stored at Albion Park Rail, NSW, under survey to determine status (but probably static).
133160 Queensland Air Museum
153582 Fleet Air Arm Museum, HMAS Albatross.
153600 Acquired by Historic Aircraft Restoration Society (HARS) late 2018.  Aircraft flown to Albion Park Rail, NSW, under survey to determine long term status (but probably flying).
152334 Was a survivor but destroyed by bushfire in NSW on 31/12/19.
152800 Purchased by Hook Aviation, West Sale Victoria. Reported as sold to United Aeronautical Corporation, USA but was still in storage at West Sale when last checked.
152805 Purchased by Hook Aviation, West Sale Victoria. Current owner/status not known.
152809 Purchased by Hook Aviation, West Sale Victoria. Current owner/status not known.
152811 Purchased by Hook Aviation, West Sale Victoria. Current owner/status not known.
152812 Acquired by QANTAS for training. It was sold to HARS in 2006 and is being restored to flying status.
152837 Purchased by Hook Aviation, West Sale Victoria. Purchased by unknown bidder in the USA. Status unknown.
153566 Purchased by Hook Aviation, West Sale Victoria. Reportedly sold to United Aeronautical Corporation (USA) in 2013 and was dismantled for transportation three years later. Last reported as being in that Company’s yard adjacent to Davis-Monthan AFB in September 2016.
153567 Purchased by Hook Aviation, West Sale.
Sold to Melbourne/Kangan TAFE for training.
Sold to National Vietnam Veterans Museum, Phillip Island (2014) under restoration for static display.
153576 Purchased by Hook Aviation, West Sale Victoria. Current owner/status not known.
153578 Purchased by Hook Aviation, West Sale Victoria. Current owner/status not known.
153597 Private owner near Albatross in a decrepit state outdoors. Survived bushfire 31/12/2019.
153598 Purchased by Hook Aviation, West Sale Victoria. Current owner/status not known.
153604 Purchased by Hook Aviation, West Sale Victoria. Current owner/status not known.

We try to keep tabs on ex-Navy aircraft although sometimes its difficult. Not so much in the case of these two Trackers (left), which were acquired by a private buyer to save them from the graveyard on the south of HMAS Albatross.  Unfortunately they  suffered 20+ years in the open, not a couple of  miles from there, until the bushfire on 31Dec19 sealed the fate of at least one of them.  The aircraft at the back of the image is 845 (152334), a G model which he had donated to the Vietnam Veterans Museum at San Remo Phillip Island. Their team spent several weeks in August and October 2019 taking the centre wing section of the fuselage and preparing the wing and fuselage for transport to San Remo. The transport was supposed to occur in November 2019 but could not be organised in time due to the team leaders sudden illness. Ironically, the main part they needed was the fuselage to do a transplant on the S2G they have which is full of corrosion. The fuselage was destroyed by the 2019 bushfire but the the wings survived.
     The more intact Tracker in the foreground is 842 (153597), an E-model.  

It was the only S2E to survive the 1976 hangar fire unscathed, due to it being at De Havilands at the time. It was, therefore, the only Tracker onboard Melbourne when it attended the 1977 Spit Head Review and the only S2 on 816 until the repaired S2Es  were returned from HdH Bankstown, and the newly acquired S2Gs arrived from the States. It therefore not only survived the hangar fire, but also two bush fires in its current locality – one in 2017 and this devastating New Year’s Eve conflagration of 2019. 

 

Note
This website feature could not have been produced without the kind assistance of individuals and organisations who were prepared to help.  Our particular thanks to Kim Dunstan, Ian Gibson, Terry Hetherington and Owen Nicholls and, of course, the team at ADF Serials.  We have attempted to acknowledge photographs and other articles where we can, but some are ‘hand-me-downs’ with no source information. If you believe we have used one of yours without permission/acknowledgement please contact us.   Marcus Peake  September 2018.