PERTH – SPOTTING FOR ANTONOVS!
What, exactly, makes four guys from Melbourne, Australia (and one girl) fly to Perth, Western Australia to see one aeroplane? This is roughly the same distance as San Francisco, California to Austin, Texas.
Spotters across the globe know the aeroplane in question, the 1988-built AN-225 Мрія, UR-82060 (Mriya in Ukrainian means Dream or inspiration) which is the World’s longest and heaviest aircraft yet built. Powered by six Ivchenko-Progress D-18 turbofan engines, it has the highest takeoff weight (at 710 Short Tons). The previous biggest aircraft, the Hughes H-4 Hercules or “Spruce Goose” did have a greater wingspan and overall height. Nonetheless, the -225 has flown absolute world records for outsize and overweight loads across the world, and its debut into an Australian port, was notable and attracted spotters from as far as Japan.
As an added bonus, seminal band Iron Maiden have recently been touring downunder and were also in Perth on the same weekend in their “tour-bus”, a Boeing 747-428 TF-AAK, leased from Air Atlanta Icelandic. The departure of this aircraft, nicknamed “Ed Force One” (EF1) by fans in an online competition staged by the band, is discussed below. It was also hoped to add some local and regional spotting to the schedule.
Arriving into Perth International Airport (YPPH / PER), we taxi past EF1 and a decent number of aircraft used for intra-state FIFO (fly-in, fly-out) mining flights. So successful have many companies been in this market, the largest ones – QANTAS, Virgin, etc. have been buying up this capacity for their fleets and networks that support the mining industry… which for years has boomed in Western Australia. We fly on low-cost Tigerair, and are made to remain in our seats while large cargo is offloaded – a first in all my years of domestic flying!
We make our way to the nearest spotting locations (off the airport but close by) to check out the lighting. We settle on a local site (on private land but with owner’s permission) and take advantage of the clear, perfect illumination. Perth has an amazing, deep blue sky – quite different from Victorian skies, and this highlights why you must set up your camera for each location differently.
The next morning, Sunday, we are up early to prepare for a possible 10.30AM initial scheduled time, but hear the departure was delayed from Kuala Lumpur. We check some positions in case of runway change (RWY21–03–?) but it is (correctly, as it turns out) anticipated that a long, straight run in from the north will be the preference, as this flight carries heavy plant equipment for a refinery south of Perth. Closer to the corrected arrival time, all are nervous – the spotters have now been joined on a cul-de-sac by half of Perth’s population! The other half are at the airport or on the opposite end of the runway. Word of mouth indicates we are cut off by traffic – due to heavy pre-advertising by the authorities here. This is a major event and traffic around the airport is now at a standstill. The tension proves too much for some who prepare to change positions. The word comes through just minutes before arrival – we are on the correct runway (RWY21), assisted by a handy wind change at just the right time! The AN-225 approaches and seconds later, and in less than half a minute, is down! While the crowd cheers and claps, we check backs of cameras to ensure we caught something, then grins appear and the tension is gone! The boys at the specially prepared viewing area on the airport also had good shots of the landing. Facebook and Twitter accounts get activated, posts are re-shared.
Traffic clears, the crowd disperses and we lunch on the way to the RWY03 spotting area for takeoffs; within a short time we have EF1 taking off with a long, low departure – using almost the full length of the runway – as they are off to South Africa carrying significant fuel.
The rest of our few days are spent mostly moving around between the best spotting locales, dependent on light and of course, runway direction. The remediation work done to my 80-400mm Nikkor lens has helped and I am getting great results on my Nikon D800 body.
We take time to visit Jandakot, Perth’s second airport and home to large training organisations including China Southern West Australian Flying College. Grob 115s galore! There is a spotting area in a small park on a hill overlooking the runway and aprons here. Among the interesting and eclectic sights are a North American T-28 Trojan in South-East Asia camouflage scheme.
Firefighting assets including Bell 212B heavy helicopters (McDermott Aviation who generously allowed us ramp access) and various larger agricultural/firefighting assets (mainly Air Tractor or Ayres Thrush types).
We also saw de Havilland Tiger Moth joy flights, a CASA C-212-200 (VH-TEM) operated by CGG Aviation Australia/ Fugro Airborne Surveys in full geophysical survey configuration, a Grumman HU-16 Albatross “air-yacht” conversion and Embraer EMB-500 Phenom 100 Very Light Jet of the aforementioned China Southern Flying College. Polytechnic West Aerospace Training Centre at Jandakot have repainted their Boeing 737-200 N732HV – or at least the tail, which may be seen protruding from their hangar. Once part of Paul Stoddart’s OzJet Airlines fleet – this is reputedly the largest aircraft to have landed at Jandakot though the exact circumstances of the ferry are “uncertain”!
Another important aspect of Perth spotting has to be – for me at least – the Royal Australian Air Force Base at Pearce. Home to RAAF No.2 Flying Training School (FTS), which operates Pilatus PC-9 aircraft, it is also home to Republic of Singapore Air Force’s (RSAF) Pearce Detachment – home to RSAF 130 Squadron and Standards Squadron, where PC-21s are flown in the fine WA weather conditions. According to some, the deal is they have 19 PC-21s of which the capability to fly these on any fine working day is apparently a stated requirement. They also do not fly in the wet! Apparently, since retiring their SIAI-Marchetti S.211 jet trainers, reliability has improved dramatically and RSAF have never looked back.
RAAF 79SQN is also based at Pearce, with BAe Hawk 127 Lead-in Fighters (LIF) providing “..introductory fast jet flying for RAAF pilots newly graduated from No 2 Flying Training School using Hawk 127 aircraft and Hawk Refresher and Instructor Conversion Courses for previously converted fighter pilots.” While we saw many PC-21s and several Hawks up, few PC-9s were observed and we were not surprised when, the following week, RAAF publicly announced the PC-9 fleet was being inspected for cracks so maybe – and we speculate – this may have contributed to fewer movements of the type during our visit. A period spent here is considered a must for spotters and photographers, usually the weather is of course, fine, and the field of view excellent. Fine flying was observed here over two afternoons. If planning a trip to Pearce, always remember to avoid photographing base infrastructure and of course, don’t post shots with dates, lists of aircraft numbers etc.
A successful visit, although the Antonov departed in the early hours, precluding takeoff shots and allowed only some ground photography under lights. With the added bonus of EF1 and several fine days for spotting, we feel it was well worth the time and motion to traverse the continent.