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The Fleet Air Arm: A History

Updated: Apr 17, 2022

The Fleet Air Arm (FAA), known formally as the Australian Navy Aviation Group, is the division of the Royal Australian Navy responsible for the operation of aircraft.

A sea king Hovers above the flight deck of the HMAS Tobruk in 2008.

The FAA was founded in 1947 following the purchase of two aircraft carriers from the Royal Navy. Initially operating only fixed-wing aircraft, helicopters were first acquired by the FAA in 1952, with the formation of Australia's first helicopter squadron. Helicopter usage increased over time, particularly after 1982, when the carrier HMAS Melbourne was decommissioned and not replaced. In 2000, following the removal from service of the land-based Hawker Siddeley HS 748 aircraft, the FAA became an all-helicopter force, operating in the anti-submarine warfare and maritime support roles. As of 2011, the FAA consists of three active squadrons, operating four helicopter types.

FAA personnel fought in the Korean War, operating from the carrier HMAS Sydney, and the Vietnam War, where they were attached to a Royal Australian Air Force squadron and a United States Army Aviation company, and participated in later conflicts and operations from host warships.

Even though the FAA was established in 1947, the navy was flying long before this. The first aircraft the navy flew was a Sopwith Baby sea plane. This was operated 1 example in 1917 from the cruiser HMAS Brisbane; and in 1928 it commissioned HMAS Albatross, which was defined as a sea plane tender, although by any reasonable measure it could be considered as a "pre-aircraft carrier". Its primary function was to fly aircraft, but its sea planes were lowered over the side by cranes, and did not take off and land on its desks.

It was at this same time, during the 1920’s, that the RAN started its attempt to acquire government support for a proper Australian Fleet Air Arm, modelled loosely on the Royal Naval Air Service and its Royal Air Force-controlled successor, the Fleet Air Arm. This was approved as part of improvements to Australia's military, but opposition by the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) prompted the Cabinet to disband the organisation in January 1928, shortly after its establishment. The RAAF assumed responsibility for naval aviation, which consisted primarily of amphibious aircraft flown by No. 101 Flight RAAF, and its successors, No. 5 Squadron, then No. 9 Squadron, from the RAN's cruisers and the seaplane tender HMAS Albatross.

The successes of naval aviation during World War II reignited the idea of a RAN-controlled aviation force, with suggestions that Australia provide the personnel to operate a British aircraft carrier and the attached squadrons voiced during 1944, although the offer was withdrawn in mid 1945 because of manpower shortages.

A review by the Australian Government's Defence Committee held after World War II recommended that the post-war forces of the RAN be structured around a Task Force incorporating multiple aircraft carriers.

Initial plans were for three carriers, with two active and a third in reserve, although funding cuts led to the purchase of the Majestic class light fleet carriers, Majestic and Terrible from the Royal Navy in June 1947.

A Fleet Air Arm was established on 3 July 1947 by the Commonwealth Defence Council to operate aircraft from these two carriers, and also maintain two former Royal Australian Air Force bases as support facilities: these became HMAS Albatross at Nowra, New South Wales, and HMAS Nirimba at Schofields, New South Wales.

As Terrible was the closer of the two ships to completion, construction was finished with only minimal modification. The ship was commissioned into the RAN as HMAS Sydney on 16 December 1948. Sydney's maiden voyage saw the delivery of the first two squadrons operated by the Fleet Air Arm: 805 Squadron with Hawker Sea Furies, and 816 Squadron with Fairey Fireflies. The two squadrons operated as the 20th Carrier Air Group (CAG). Sydney returned to England in 1950 to collect the 21st CAG: 808 and 817 Squadrons, with Sea Furies and Fireflies, respectively.

During the Korean War, Sydney was deployed to Korean waters in late 1951, with a wartime CAG of 805, 808, and 817 Squadrons embarked.

The Fleet Air Arm operated in a strike, ground support, and escort role during the deployment, which saw three RAN pilots killed and a fourth seriously wounded, while thirteen aircraft were lost. Nine of these were shot down by North Korean flak artillery, with aircraft damaged by flak on at least ninety other occasions. The other four were lost in deck accidents, or crashed because of foul weather.

Meanwhile, Majestic was undergoing major upgrades during construction to operate jet aircraft, including the installation of an angled flight deck, steam catapult, and a mirror landing aid. To allow the RAN to operate as a two-carrier force while Majestic was completed, the Royal Navy loaned the Colossus class light carrier HMS Vengeance to the RAN in late 1952. Vengeance arrived in Australia with three Bristol Sycamore helicopters for the Fleet Air Arm. Although not the first helicopters to see military service in Australia (that title belonging to a Sikorsky S-51 of the Royal Australian Air Force), the Sycamores formed the first Australian military helicopter squadron, and prompted the establishment of Australia's first helicopter pilot school.

Vengeance was returned to the United Kingdom in 1955, with the crew transferred to Majestic, which was commissioned into the RAN as HMAS Melbourne on 28 October 1955.

The new carrier delivered new aircraft to the Fleet Air Arm: the de Havilland Sea Venom jet fighter-bomber for 805 and 808 Squadrons, and the turboprop-driven Fairey Gannet anti-submarine aircraft for 816 and 817 Squadrons. These aircraft were due to become obsolete in the late 1950s, and the RAN considered purchasing modern aircraft of French or Italian design, which were smaller than British developments and better suited to light carrier operations.

By the end of the 1950’s, with Sydney decommissioned from service and refitted as a troop transport, it was decided that fixed-wing naval aviation would be replaced by a force of 27 Westland Wessex anti-submarine helicopters, to operate from Melbourne. This decision was rescinded in 1963, with Grumman S-2E Tracker anti-submarine aircraft and McDonnell Douglas A-4G Skyhawk fighter aircraft ordered for the Fleet Air Arm.

Although Melbourne and her air group played no role in the Vietnam War, Australian naval aviators saw action as part of Royal Australian Navy Helicopter Flight Vietnam, a component of the joint Australian-American Experimental Military Unit, and the RAN Detachment, 9 Squadron Vietnam was attached to No. 9 Squadron RAAF.

In 1972, the Fleet Air Arm's Wessex helicopters were replaced with Westland Sea King anti-submarine helicopters, although a small number of Wessex continued to serve in utility and search-and-rescue roles.

Melbourne remained in service until mid-1982, when she was placed in reserve. The Australian government initially planned to purchase HMS Invincible from the Royal Navy and operate Harriers and helicopters from her, but the British withdrew the offer after the ship's performance in the Falklands War, and the 1983 election of the Australian Labor Party saw the cancellation of plans to replace Melbourne.

With no aircraft carrier, carrier-borne fixed-wing aviation in the RAN ended on 30 June 1983 with the decommissioning of several squadrons, and many RAN pilots joined the Army and RAAF, or transferred to the aviation branches of other nations' navies. The RAN Skyhawks were sold to the Royal New Zealand Air Force, and the Trackers were removed from service and sold to a private company for disposal. Before being sold off, the RAN Trackers were flown from land bases as patrol and surveillance aircraft, and HS 748 aircraft continued on in the electronic warfare training and transport roles after all other fixed-wing assets were disposed of.

The shift from full, carrier-embarked squadrons to single- or two-helicopter flights operating from frigates forced overhauls of the management and organisational style of the FAA, with squadrons made to act with increasing independence and less experienced junior officers taking greater responsibility for the aviation activities of their assigned ship. During the 1980’s, the Eurocopter Ecureuil (Squirrel) and Sikorsky S-70 Seahawk were acquired to operate from the Adelaide class frigates. During the early 1990’s, these helicopters operated aboard Australian ships deployed to support the international coalition during the Gulf War; they were used for anti-air surveillance and surface search, to deliver boarding parties to interdicted ships, and provide search-and-rescue capabilities.

During 1992, FAA Sea Kings were embarked aboard HMAS Tobruk for Operation Solace, part of the famine-relief operation in Somalia.

During the 1990’s, the FAA ordered several refurbished Kaman SH-2G Super Seasprite helicopters to operate from the Anzac class frigates in the anti-submarine and anti-surface roles. Although due to enter service in the early 2000’s, the helicopters were not operational until 2006, and were grounded shortly after with concerns over their airworthiness, flight control system, crash survivability, and inability to operate in poor weather. The delays and problems with the acquisition led to the cancellation of the project in March 2008, and the completed helicopters were returned to Kaman. These airframes were subsequently purchased by the RNZAF to replace their existing SH-2 fleet.

Since 2000, when the last pair of HS 748’s were retired, the Fleet Air Arm has been an entirely rotary-winged force. The Fleet Air Arm became responsible for the operation and maintenance of the RAN's helicopter force from the frigates of the Adelaide and Anzac classes and from the RAN's amphibious and support ships.

RAN squadrons follow the same numbering system as those of the Royal Navy, with operational units numbered from 800 onwards and training units numbered from 700 onwards:

723 Squadron is based at Nowra and is currently flying AS 350BA Ecureuil and Bell 429. It provides helicopter conversion training and hydrographic ships' flights as well as the RAN helicopter display team. It was the last unit in the Fleet Air Arm to operate fixed wing aircraft, when it withdrew its pair of HS 748’s in June 2000.

725 Squadron is also based at Nowra, flying MH-60R Romeo Seahawks and proving Seahawk conversion training for pilots

The last operational fixed wing squadron was 851 Squadron, which operated both HS 748’s and S-2 Trackers until it was disbanded in August 1984.

A sea king Hovers above the flight deck of the HMAS Tobruk in 2008.

808 Squadron at Nowra provides tactical transport using MRH-90 Taipans.

816 Squadron is also based at Nowra and is flying S-70B-2 Seahawks off small ships today. It was one of the FAA's two carrier-based fixed wing units, operating the Tracker, the other being 805 Squadron operating the A-4 Skyhawks, when HMAS Melbourne was decommissioned in 1982.

An additional flying unit of the Royal Australian Navy is the Laser Airborne Depth Sounder Flight, based at Cairns, which operates the only remaining fixed-wing aircraft in the RAN's inventory. This unit however is not under the operational control of the Fleet Air Arm, but is instead part of the Australian Hydrographic Service, with both RAN and civilian personnel.

The RAN is not responsible for the flying training of its new aircrew. Basic flying training is undertaken by the tri-service Basic Flying Training School at Tamworth Airport, while advanced training for RAN pilots and training for observers is run by the Royal Australian Air Force. Advanced training for pilots is undertaken by No 2 Flying Training School at RAAF Base Pearce, while training for observers is undertaken by No 32 Squadron at RAAF Base East Sale.

Once RAN aircrew have passed through this process, they are posted to 723 Squadron for helicopter conversion training, before joining one of the two operational squadrons.

In the 2009 Defence White Paper, Defending Australia in the Asia Pacific Century: Force 2030, the government stated that the RAN needed 24 new naval combat helicopters by 2014, to replace the Seahawks and compensate for the cancelled Super Seasprite acquisition. They are to be capable of both anti-submarine and anti-surface warfare, while also being capable of search-and-rescue and troop transport (primarily of boarding parties). Two aircraft were under consideration, the NATO Frigate Helicopter variant of the NH90, and the MH-60 Romeo, a version of the Sikorsky SH-60 Seahawk.

The NFH-90 has 80% commonality with the RAN and Army MRH-90s, airframes are to be assembed at existing facilities in Queensland. It is built from composite fibre which is corrosion-resistant and better able to survive crashes at sea, and although on order with several European navies, did not enter operational service until late 2010.

The S-70 Seahawk, operated by 816 Squadron

The MH-60 Romeo has been operational with the United States Navy since the end of 2005, and the commonality with the RAN's existing Seahawks will cut down on re-familiarisation training for pilots and maintenance personnel. The airframe has less interior space than the NFH-90 for the same approximate external size.

By October 2009, the RAN was recommending the MH-60 Romeo, as they would be cheaper and less of a technological risk. On 1 June 2011, Defence Minister Stephen Smith announced that the MH-60 Romeo was successful, and the 24 helicopters would be delivered between 2014 and 2020.

Under current plans, the Royal Australian Navy's Canberra class amphibious vessels can accommodate up to eighteen helicopters. Although the ships are potentially capable of operating STOVL fixed-wing aircraft, such as the F-35B Lightning and the V-22 Osprey, the operation of fixed-wing aircraft was not a tender criterion, and despite numerous suggestions, the Australian Government indicated that it did not intend to purchase fixed wing aircraft for the Fleet Air Arm to operate from the Canberra class.

However, in 2014, Tony Abbott, the Prime Minister, and David Johnston, the Minister for Defence indicated that the 2015 Defence White Paper could potentially consider the purchase of a number of F-35B aircraft as part of the final tranche of F-35 orders for Australia.

In mid-2015, following evidence presented to a committee of the Australian Senate in which the Department of Defence conceded that there would be significant costs in adapting the two Canberra-class ships to operate the F-35B, the plan was dropped from the intended list of proposals that would be included in the government's upcoming defence white paper.

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