Victorian Emergency Services Air Assets



Aviation Report Downunder joined around 25,000 Melburnians for a very local, enjoyable event, conducted on the main terminal tarmac in beautiful autumnal sunshine.

We intend to highlight the exhibitors of the Victorian Emergency services based here. This article will appear on our sister Facebook page “Victorian Emergency Services Air Assets”.

Parked on the sunny tarmac between Essendon Airport’s iconic “finger Arms” were a fine selection of aircraft types which perform important roles from this vital public infrastructure. Standing out from the many general aviation aircraft was the massive Coulson-Unical CH-47D “Chinook” helicopter, USA-registered as N42CU, HELITAK 341 which is now recognizable to many who live close the airport by its twin-rotor configuration which has recently been seen overhead on night trials. The Chinooks are the largest volume helicopters in Australia, with the capacity to carry up to 11,000 liters of water or retardant and are capable of night fire suppression Night Vision Goggle (NVG) operations. The Chinook displayed with its RADS-L Next Gen firefighting tank alongside.

Speaking with representatives of the company, the Essendon operation is now into year one of an extended contract with the Victorian Government which includes the potential for firebombing at night. We quote the National Aerial Firefighting Centre which co-ordinates these air assets: Fighting fires at night offers the opportunity to take advantage of more favorable conditions including lower temperatures and higher humidity, and to continue the work done during the day. HELITAK 341 has concluded the current fire season and will be shipped overseas in early April, a Chinook will again be available onsite for the next fire season.

Fixed-wing air assets play an integral role in delivering aerial firefighting solutions and well-known operator of Aero Commander series aircraft, General Aircraft Maintenance (GAM), pleasingly organized for AgAir’s BIRDDOG 370 VH-ATF to be available (positioned here on 23rd March). The “sharp edge” of any aerial firefighting operation, and often erroneously termed “spotters’, the role of these aircraft is often overlooked as they effectively reconnoiter the target area of the fire to be engaged, and take perhaps the most risks, as they are likely to be first to fly into the smoke of a fire and advise whether the bomber orbiting nearby should even drop. They may then lead in the bomber and signal the drop (which also indicates the wind direction or call abort if conditions change.

Pleasingly, GAM’s rare Dornier 228 aircraft VH-VJN was also parked nearby.

The Victoria Police Air Wing (VPAW) showcased their newest acquisitions, delivered in 2020, the Leonardo AW139 Helicopter (one of three in the fleet), VH-PVQ (callsign POL31) and the Beechcraft 350ER Super King Air VH-PVE (callsign POL35), the first fixed-wing aircraft to be used by Victoria Police for over 20 years.

The pairing of helicopter and fixed wing sees them operate, often as a team, together over the city and suburbs. The AW139 Helicopters replaced VPAW’s venerable Aerospatiale/Airbus Helicopter AS365N3 Dauphin fleet. Police Air Wing were on hand to answer questions and were approachable for the public.

Royal Flying Doctor Service had their Essendon RFDS base Textron Aviation (nee Beechcraft) B300C (designated B.350I) Super King Air aerial ambulance aircraft VH-MQK (callsign FD247). The Essendon Base began operations in September 1998 as part of a contract with Air Ambulance Victoria to provide pilots, aircraft and engineering services. When that contract ended in 2011 the RFDS Southeast Section established a Non-Emergency Patient Transfer Service (NEPTS) for the people of Victoria.

Not too far away, the Ambulance Victoria – operated Hawker Beechcraft B200C King Air VH-VAI represented the substantial fleet of four operated by the service. The fixed-wing fleet is to be upgraded with two recently announced Beechcraft King Air 260s and two Beechcraft 360s along with pilots and maintenance crews, to be provided by Rex (Regional Express) subsidiary Pel-Air Aviation Pty Ltd, with the first patients to be transported by the new system in 2024. It was good to see an aircraft from the current fleet on display. (The five AW139 helicopters also operated by AAV were needed to potentially save lives and thus were on callout – understandably an example was thus unable to be displayed.)

Australian Maritime Safety Authority (AMSA) operates the Bombardier Challenger CL-604 twin-jet for high-tech search-and-rescue. VH-XND (callsign RESCUE660 – they are all fondly known as NEMO for obvious reasons) – is one of four in the Australian fleet, operating at three bases (Perth, Melbourne-Essendon Fields and Cairns) and may support each other on extended emergencies. As described in the government website: A contract was signed in October 2014 with Cobham SAR Services Pty Ltd (Cobham) to provide the next generation aircraft dedicated to search and rescue from late 2016 for a period of 12 years. Cobham acquired, modified, commissioned, operate and maintain the four Bombardier Challenger CL-604 special mission jet aircraft to provide a search and rescue capability over land and sea. The aircraft are available for search and rescue tasking at short notice, 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

Operational crew were on hand to answer all our questions and we thank long-time aviation enthusiast, Ray Woodford for his time explaining the mission and responsibility of the team. Ray explained, in his unflappable manner “…if you have need of our services, you are having a really bad day”! In all, a good representation of the current emergency services fleet operating vital missions in service to Victorians. A range of helicopters and light general aviation aircraft were available for the public to look over, many operated by Essendon Fields-based flying training organizations. Some are shown in the gallery.

Helicopter flights were also available from the southern tarmac.

The site of the present-day Essendon Fields Airport (as it has become rebranded) has hosted aviation activities since 1919 when the Victorian Aero Club first established its base on farmland known as St Johns. On the 11 August 1921 it was gazetted that the site was acquired by the Commonwealth Government for the purpose of formally establishing an airfield. In 1923, St Johns airfield was given the title “Essendon Aerodrome” and became a base for Australia’s rapidly growing civil aviation industry and later, Defense operations during World War II. It was always known locally as “the aerodrome’.

After the war, passenger services grew steadily and Essendon operated as Melbourne’s international airport from 1950 until 1970 when international flights were transferred to Melbourne’s new airport at Tullamarine, with domestic flights transferred one year later.

Since the 1970s, Essendon Airport has operated as a general aviation facility and today hosts regular passenger transport to regional locations, charters and tourist flights, emergency services, freight and private aircraft.

In 2001, the long term lease to operate and develop Essendon Airport was acquired from the Federal Government by Essendon Airport Pty Ltd, a joint venture between Fox and Beck families. Since privatization, the airport’s operators have drawn on their experience in logistics and property development to revitalize the airport and create the vibrant commercial hub of Essendon Fields.

At Essendon Fields Airport, the custodians of the history are the Civil Aviation Historical Society inc., operating as The Airways Museum. The museum houses a collection of national importance that traces the development of Australia’s civil aviation airways system through innovation and technical development from its beginnings in the 1920s to today. The museum holds photos, artefacts and documents relating to the history of Essendon Airport and currently has exhibits on the 1919 England – Australia Air Race.

There were expert lectures on the airport’s history throughout the day and the well-subscribed (sold out) walking tours conducted by CAHS President, Roger Meyer OAM. Spending the afternoon hosted by the museum was a great opportunity to soak up some atmosphere amongst like-minded enthusiasts!

On 11 August 2021, amid the pandemic, Essendon Fields Airport marked its centenary. A snap lockdown announced a few days out from the big day threw plans into chaos, but on Sunday March 27, 2022, Melbourne’s first airport was finally able to celebrate, holding an action-packed, precinct-wide open day for the community.

Essendon Fields CEO, Brendan Pihan;
“It was incredible to welcome the community to our open day to celebrate an incredible milestone of 100 years of serving the people of Melbourne and our surrounding community. Thousands turned out for this event, where together with our tenants, operators and local ministers, we celebrated the past and also looked eagerly to the future.”

With thanks to the website and the websites of the operators discussed.

Dion Makowski

A keen photographer from an early age, Dion developed a genuine interest in all things aviation. After cutting his teeth on historic aircraft restoration and dabbling in model plane building, Dion took things further with a passion for collecting 1:1 scale and helped establish an aviation metal fabrication shop. With a former museum colleague, together they formed the Clyde North Aeronautical Preservation Group in 1989. Many years later, Dion published the Aviation Historical Society's of Australia's Journal Aviation Heritage and News and is currently active on the Society's committee. Today, he concentrates on aviation photo-journalism, specialising in current ADF activities and as always, fast jets, warbirds and antique aircraft historical research, remain his core passions.

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