Whatever Happened to the RAN Historic Flight?

Whether you prefer to see Heritage aircraft flying or as static displays in a museum ultimately doesn’t matter.  What does matter is that when the time comes they are saved from destruction, and preserved in a place and a form that can be enjoyed by future generations.

Regrettably, we have all seen examples of when this didn’t happen. From the priceless Sea Otter that was on the brink of being saved but was broken up to become garbage, to the eleven Trackers presently rotting at East Sale aerodrome, our record is littered with missed opportunity and lost artefacts.

Sea Otter JN200 was discovered in a derelict condition on a property in NSW. It was on the brink of being saved but was instead consigned to the garbage tip. Only the bow section survives in the FAA Museum.

This Tracker was bought by a private individual to save it from the scrapyard. A lack of resources and interest will, however, confine it to oblivion.

Such an opportunity is happening right now – the RAN’s defunct Historic Flight has been put to limited Tender for disposal, and ‘crunch time’ has arrived. So, what’s the story?

For many years the RAN had a ‘Historic Flight’ (HF), comprising a number of previous Fleet Air Arm operational aircraft. The Flight included two S2-G Trackers, two UHI-B Iroquois, two Westland Wessex Mk. 31B and one C47 Dakota, remnants of a Hawker Sea Fury and a De Havilland Sea Venom, and a large quantity of miscellaneous spares. Some of the aircraft were airworthy.

Around 2008 the Navy decided to cease operating the Historic Flight and engaged with the Historic Aircraft Restoration Society (HARS, based at Albion Park not far from Nowra) 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.  This was endorsed by MINDEF on 19 January 2012.

The Navy/HARS partnership approach to loaning the aircraft to HARS broke down when the issue of risk and liability came 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, offering them in discrete Lots (although spares for all types were bundled in one Lot).

Of significance and, we believe, at COMFAA’s insistence, the Request for Tender (RFT) advised preference to sell all Lots to one Tenderer where possible, to preserve the collection as a group. The Tender closed on 31 August 2018.

It is our understanding that three organisations responded to the RFT, one of which is HARS.

We further understand that the two Tenderers other than HARS have no interest in retaining the entire collection as an entity. Rather, they have targeted specific airframes that suit their particular focus.  At least one of them intends to fly its acquisition (if successful) and has therefore also bid on the spares, which cover all aircraft types. As the spares are in a single Lot this would effectively separate them from other aircraft types, in which they have little interest.

AIRCRAFT OF THE HISTORIC FLIGHT.  Below, left:  The two Iroquois UH1-Bs. 898 was in good flying order but has not done so for many years. It could be restored to flying status.  Centre: The best of the two S2G Trackers – this was recently ground run at an air day and could also be restored to flying condition.  Right: Neither of the two Wessex will ever fly again due to engine availability and complexity.  They can be restored to pristine condition as ground exhibits. 

Above, Left: The RAN Historic Flight Dakota was in pristine flying condition but neglect and years in the weather have taken their toll. It could be restored.  Centre: Some of the spares offered as part of the Tender, but they are all in one Lot which could mean that one organisation gets all of them, even though they may not have bid for other aircraft types.  Right: The Sea Venom is in pieces in these containers. 

By contrast, HARS proposes to keep the entire collection together (with one or more to be restored to flying condition). In the short term it would secure the aircraft in its existing hangarage, but it has also committed to requesting (again) the allocation of land adjacent to the existing FAA Museum.  If that was granted it would raise funds to build a hangar complex for the HARS Navy Heritage Flight (see diagram).

The HARS Hangar proposal. Considerable work was done on the concept during the HARS/RAN partnership, which was dissolved when the “loaned aircraft” partnership approach was abandoned.  The work including clearing and decontamination of the land, and the preparation of detailed drawings. In the event that HARS wins the Tender it will approach Defence to allocate the land (again) and would start fund-raising to build the hangar complex.  (Image courtesy of HARS). 

HARS also has in place an expansion campaign to further improve its footprint. This includes an $80m proposal for three ‘pavilions’ adjacent to its existing Albion Park facility, which will include a regional airport passenger terminal; an aviation training, conference and event facilities, and more display space.  The other smaller and more geographically distant organisations cannot boast these advantages and, as a consequence, this collection of high heritage value will, at best, be remote from the seat of Naval Aviation and at worst will be separated and dispersed.

Of the three organisations that responded to the RFT, HARS is therefore the only one with the stated intent to keep the collection together, that has offered to locate them near to the Fleet Air Arm’s home at Nowra, and has the resources to restore the majority of the collection to either static or flying status, as appropriate. This not only guarantees the collection’s survival, but will engender continued community interest in Naval Aviation as people will see at least some of these aircraft flying in their original home locality.

We do not know when the Tender evaluation will occur, other than the bidders have been advised to remove the HF assets from B hangar by/during December 2018 if they are successful.   It will be a ‘closed’ process, as is normal in these things.

We consider it vital that in the evaluation process, preference will be given to the Tenderer who bids for all Lots to preserve the collection as a group.  We will be lobbying to that effect and will keep you informed. 

Image: Ben Kelly