This article was originally published in the 08 December 2011 issue of ‘Flightpath’ magazine and is reproduced here by kind permission of the author,  Mr Kim Dunstan.   Readers are invited to submit any similar articles, anecdotes or stories, or simply to offer comment on the material below. 

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WARBIRDS: The Royal Australian Navy’s Fleet Air Arm piston history

Naval aviation – the early days

The Royal Australian Navy (RAN) was formally established in 1911, but continued to co-operate as part of the Royal Navy’s (RN) fleet in the Pacific and Far East. A shared interest in naval aviation was to help, as in 1910 the Royal Navy began experimenting with aircraft, and in 1912 launched a Short S38 from a ramp on the bow of the battleship HMS Africa. Other navies were also test-flying aircraft – notably the US and Japan. With war clouds gathering over Europe, the development of naval aircraft gained a new urgency.

In 1913, excited by aviation’s possibilities, the RAN selected Point Cook, on Port Philip Bay, near Melbourne, for naval aviation training, in co-operation with the Army. Following the declaration of war in 1914, the RAN acquired a Maurice Farman float-plane and a B.E.2a aircraft, which left Sydney aboard HMAS Una, for the German colonies in New Guinea and Rabaul. However, the aircraft were never used and later returned to Australia. In 1915, off east coast Africa, HMAS Pioneer assisted Sopwith and Short seaplanes, searching for the German light-cruiser SMS Konigsberg. The cruiser HMAS Brisbane was also in the Indian Ocean, pursuing the German raiders Seeadler and Wolf – using a Sopwith Baby on loan from the seaplane carrier HMS Raven II. These ship-borne aircraft were of great value in wide-area searches.

Assisting the Royal Navy in home waters, and other W.W.I zones, were the Australian battle cruiser HMAS Australia; the light cruisers HMAS Sydney and HMAS Melbourne; and the destroyers Parramatta, Yarra and Warrego. Flying high above the reach of naval guns were German Zeppelins, aerial spotting and bombing RN ships. In 1917 the RAN cruisers began experiments with naval aircraft to counter the Zeppelin threat. The captain of HMAS Sydney, keen to use aircraft following his experience with the Zeppelins, directed the fitting of a new, rotatable launching platform – solving the problems of wind direction and launching aeroplanes from gun-mounted platforms. This convinced the Admiralty that aircraft could be successfully operated from cruisers. Another advance came in 1918 when HMS Argus became the first ‘flat-top’ carrier to fly-off and recover aircraft.

Two-seat Sopwith
1917 – With its engine at full power, a two-seat Sopwith races down a ramp on the ship’s guns and into the air. (RAN)

During this experimental period, aircraft launched from HMAS Australia, Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane included the Sopwith Baby, Sopwith Pup, Sopwith 1&½ Strutter, and Sopwith Camel 2F. These wooden-framed, fabric-covered aircraft, armed with .303 Vickers or Lewis guns, were used for reconnaissance and fighter duties, the contemporary term ‘scout’ covering the roles better than the modern ‘fighter’. In June 1918, HMAS Sydney and Melbourne, sailing to Heligoland Bight with the British fleet, launched their Sopwith Camel aircraft to chase two German aircraft that attacked with bombs, destroying one but losing the other in cloud. This makes the Sopwith Camel 2F1 the first aircraft from an RAN ship to engage enemy aircraft. Elsewhere, the destroyers were conducting trials with observation balloons. This was valuable experience for the RAN, confirming the value of naval aviation.

The way ahead: A seaplane carrier
At the end of W.W.I, the RAN ships stationed with the RN home-fleet, sailed from Britain to return to Australia. Prior to this the RAN handed back all its aircraft to the RAF – but retained their aircraft launching platforms. In 1918, the Australian Naval Board recommended that an Australian Naval Air Service be formed. To facilitate this a request for a seaplane carrier was forwarded to the British government, but due to financial pressures, and a shortage of suitable vessels, the request was rejected.

In 1920, building on its aviation experiences, the RAN secured two Avro 504L seaplanes from the Australian Flying Corps, for trials on HMAS Australia and Melbourne, but they were soon found to be unsuitable and were returned. A further plan, in 1921, to equip the light-cruisers with Fairey IIID seaplanes failed because they were too heavy and required too much space. Yet a shore-based IIID, operating with the survey ship HMAS Geranium, proved successful. After the post-war hiatus, attempts to establish a naval aviation capability were met with opposition, and naval aviation fell under the control of the fiercely independent new third service, the RAAF. The Navy didn’t give up entirely, despite losing their Faireys to the Air Force, and the answer arrived in 1929 with the commissioning of HMAS Albatross, a 6,000 ton seaplane carrier, built at Sydney’s Cockatoo Island Dockyard, capable of carrying six Supermarine Seagull Mk.III amphibians.

The amphibians – Seagull III, V & Walrus
As the RAAF was already using the three-seat Seagull III for survey work along the north coast and Great Barrier Reef, they were considered ideal for the Navy. As the RAAF was in charge of the RAN aircraft (and this continued until 1948) inter-service tensions erupted, easing only when RAN observers began training. Sadly, Depression-era budgets restricted the deployment of HMAS Albatross, and in 1933 it was placed in reserve, then sold to the RN in 1938. The heavy-cruisers HMAS Australia and Canberra were each given a Seagull III for spotting and reconnaissance, but they performed poorly at sea and a replacement was sought. The obvious choice was the new metal-hulled Supermarine Seagull V. It was a more powerful and better equipped amphibian, and critically, strong enough to be catapult launched.

Supermarine Seagull Mk V
With a roar from its 775hp Bristol Pegasus II engine and a hefty thrust from the ship’s catapult, this Supermarine Seagull Mk V quickly became airborne. (RAN)

The first Seagull V amphibian was delivered to HMAS Australia, in 1935, during a visit to England. After patrolling with HMAS Sydney during the Abyssinian Crisis, both ships returned to Australia. Full delivery of the 24 Supermarine Seagull V aircraft was completed in 1937, and this proved to be another step forward for RAN aviation. The Seagulls purchased by the RAAF were widely used, with units assigned to RAN cruisers HMAS Australia, Canberra, Hobart, Perth and Sydney, and to assist the survey ship HMAS Moresby. Others were issued to the Armed Merchant Cruisers HMAS Manoora and Westralia.

From 1940 onwards the Supermarine Walrus amphibian (a Seagull V with minor differences) was added to the inventory, as attrition replacements for the Seagulls. Tough but slow, they were capable of flying in most weather conditions, and well suited to their spotter, reconnaissance and rescue roles. Although the RAN made important gains, with naval observers now included as aircrew, they still had no independent aviation branch or aircraft carrier, and all aircraft were under RAAF control. This situation was influenced by economics and government policy of the time. During the difficult years of W.W.II, in Europe and the Pacific, the RAAF pilots and personnel worked hard to assist the RAN through their fleet co-operation units, 101, 9 and 5 Squadrons.

W.W.II and the carrier imperative    
When the Second World War erupted in October 1939, Seagull V amphibians were embarked on the cruisers HMAS Australia, Canberra, Hobart, Sydney and later Perth, along with the armed merchant cruisers HMAS Manoora and Westralia. During W.W.II RAN ships were engaged in operations against the enemy as far afield as the North, West and South Atlantic, the Caribbean, the Mediterranean, the Indian Ocean, Persian Gulf, the Red Sea, South East Asia, the Pacific, and home waters. During this time the RAN Seagull V and Walruses were engaged in scouting patrols, reconnaissance, spotting for the cruiser’s guns, as well as bombing enemy targets. Many other RAN destroyers, ships and units were also engaged in these areas.

Firefly and Sea Fury
A picture of action as these Firefly and Sea Fury aircraft start their engines and rev-up prior to take-off. (Alan Porter)

The overwhelming power of naval aviation during W.W.II left little doubt in the minds of the Australian military establishment and government about the value of an aircraft carrier. By 1945 the decision was made to equip the Royal Australian Navy with a carrier, and to form a fully functional Fleet Air Arm, independent from the RAAF, on the British model. Because the RAN was so closely associated with the Royal Navy, its advice and assistance were sought again. In 1946 the British Admiralty offered Australia two Majestic Class light-fleet aircraft carriers at a bargain price – basically ‘two for the price of one’. The plan was that the carriers should be equipped with the same Fairey Firefly and Hawker Sea Fury aircraft as the Royal Navy, along with training and support services, providing commonality for joint operation.

A Fleet Air Arm – new Navy era
In July 1947 approval was given for the formation of the Fleet Air Arm, under the control of the RAN, along with two light-fleet carriers from the RN, three air groups and shore bases. The carriers were named HMAS Sydney (the third ship of the name) and HMAS Melbourne (the second). The shore facilities were HMAS Albatross at Nowra, south of Sydney, and HMAS Nirimba at Schofields, near Sydney. Due to the delay in the delivery of HMAS Melbourne, which was to be fitted with an angle deck, a substitute carrier HMAS Vengeance was provided on loan from 1952 until 1955. To help overcome aircrew and maintenance crew shortages many RN Fleet Air Arm personnel elected to transfer to the RAN.

The air base, HMAS Albatross, commissioned in 1948, became the major air station and training depot for the RAN.  (It had previously been used as an RN naval air base 1944-46, HMS Nabbington.) HMAS Sydney arrived in Australia in 1949 with the 20th Carrier Air Group (CAG) consisting of 805 Squadron RAN FAA with Hawker Sea Fury aircraft and 816 Squadron with Fairey Fireflies. Sydney returned to England in 1950 collecting the 21st CAG with 808 Squadron’s Sea Furies and 817 Squadron’s Fairey Fireflies. At Nowra, aircrew training aircraft included: Tiger Moths, Wirraways, Douglas Dakotas and Auster J5Gs. 14 obsolete RAAF Spitfires were used for training aircraft handlers on the dummy flight-deck.

Sydney’s Korean War
Sadly, little recognition has been given to the RAN contribution during the Korean War. The fact is the RAN Fleet Air Arm effort, along with the numerous frigates and destroyers, was outstanding by any measure. At the time, HMAS Sydney set a record for a light-fleet carrier, totalling some 64 days in operational flying, averaging 55 sorties a day.

After exercises and shakedown cruises in 1951, HMAS Sydney with her Sea Fury and Firefly aircraft sailed north to join the United Nations (UN) forces fighting the invading North Koreans. Sydney’s aircraft took part in strike operations, supporting Australian and other UN ground troops, and naval gunfire spotting. Flying some 2,366 sorties, they destroyed buildings, railway lines, bridges, ammunition dumps and shipping. Three RAN pilots were killed and others were wounded, with 13 aircraft lost, some 77 were damaged by flak or small arms. Further damage to aircraft was done during Typhoon Ruth. HMAS Sydney was deployed a second time in 1953 to monitor the Korean armistice. HMAS Vengeance, which delivered more of the Sea Fury and Firefly aircraft, including three new Bristol Sycamore helicopters for air sea rescue work, was to have been used in Korea, but was assigned to other duties.

Before the Bristol Sycamore helicopters arrived in 1953, Supermarine Sea Otter amphibians were used for air sea rescues from 1948 on HMAS Sydney and Vengeance.  Even before the Sycamores, during HMAS Sydney’s tour in Korea, a remarkable rescue was carried out by a US Navy Sikorsky S-51 helicopter stationed on Sydney. It flew a 107 mile (172 km) journey in fading light to pick up two aircrew shot down after a bombing raid. With Sea Furies and RAAF Meteors keeping the North Koreans at bay, the USN pilot Babbit, with his crewman Gooding firing an Owen sub-machine gun at the enemy, successfully extracted the men. Apart from saving the aircrew they also set an unofficial 75 mph (120kph) speed record for the S-51 type. This has become a HMAS Sydney ‘legend,’ deserving of retelling here.

Vale Sea Fury & Firefly
One of the truly legendary aircraft of the pre-jet RAN Fleet Air Arm, which served on Sydney and Vengeance, is the Hawker Sea Fury. The RAN ordered 101 of the Sea Fury Mk 11 fighter bombers, the first of these single-seat fighters was delivered in 1949 and the last deleted in 1963. The 2,480 hp (1,850KW)  Bristol Centaurus, 18 cylinder radial engine gave them an outstanding performance. Four 20mm cannons, 8 x 60lb air-to-ground rockets or 2 x 1,000 lb bombs delivered a powerful blow in strike actions. The Sea Fury is considered by many to be the ultimate piston-engine fighter. Pilots who flew them tend to get misty-eyed when talking about them.

Sea Fury
A moment of excitement as a Sea Fury touches down on the flight deck, losing a wheel in the process. (RAN)

The other great workhorse of the RAN’s pre-jet age was the Fairey Firefly. Designed for carrier operation as a fighter, anti-submarine and reconnaissance aircraft, with a crew of two: pilot and observer, it proved to be a rugged aircraft capable of taking punishment. The RAN purchased 108 Fireflies in the Mk 4, 5 & 6 models. They had the big, reliable, in-line, 2,259 hp (1,685KW) Rolls Royce Griffin engine, which enabled pilots to bring aircraft home despite battle damage. They had 4 x 20mm cannons, could fire 16 x 3-inch rockets with 60lb heads, or carry 2 x 1,000 lb bombs, or drop tanks. The anti-submarine Mk 6 Firefly did not have 20mm cannons, but carried sonar buoys for tracking submarines, and 250 lb depth charges for destroying them. Some Fireflies ended up as target tugs and doing Fleet radar checks; others went for fire practice. The last Firefly was struck off in 1968.  While there are no ex-RAN Fireflies flying in Australia, there are a couple airworthy overseas, and Sea Furies are a popular warbird worldwide.

Fairey Firefly
Two Fairey Firefly aircraft taxi to a halt at the RAN air station HMAS Albatross at Nowra. (RAN)

With the new generation of jet aircraft coming on stream in the late 1940s when HMAS Melbourne was purchased, it was decided the ship should be modified to accommodate jet aircraft, by fitting an angle-deck, steam catapult, new arrestor gear, and mirror landing system. When Melbourne arrived in Australia in 1955 with her de Havilland Sea Venom fighter-bombers and the turbo-prop Fairey Gannet anti-submarine aircraft she was as modern as a carrier could be – and one of the first with an angle deck. This effectively spelled the end of the piston-era with the Sea Furies and Fireflies moving to second line duties and HMAS Sydney becoming a training ship and later a troop carrier during the Vietnam War. HMAS Melbourne went on to serve a long and illustrious career well into the jet age with the piston-engined Grumman Tracker. But that is another story.

Discovering the Fleet Air Arm Museum
For those interested in finding out more about the history of flying in the RAN, they can do no better than to visit the Fleet Air Arm Museum at Nowra, just over two hours drive south of Sydney. It has an excellent display of  restored aircraft and artefacts. Details at: www.navy.gov.au/Fleet_Air_Arm_Museum