December the 11th 2020 marked the end of an era as RAAF Base Williamtown bid farewell to the F/A-18 Classic Hornet with No. 77 Squadron retiring their fleet. Affectionally known as the ‘Hornets Nest’, Williamtown has formed the main base of the Hornet since the first two aircraft were delivered in May 1985 to No. 2 Operational Conversion Unit (2OCU).
The remaining pool of 73 Classic Hornets delivered to the RAAF were shared amongst 2OCU, No. 3 Squadron (3SQN), No. 75 Squadron (75SQN), and No. 77 Squadron (77SQN), all of which beside 75SQN have now relinquished their Classic Hornets for the F-35A Lightning II.
Since 1985, RAAF Williamtown has expanded to become the Headquarters for two Force Element Groups: Air Combat Group and the Surveillance and Reconnaissance Group, truly establishing it as the ‘Home of the Fighter Aircraft’.
Due to the Hornet’s significant impact on the Hunter region, it was therefore with great pride that the RAAF put on a week-long events schedule of public farewell displays over Newcastle, RAAF Base Williamtown and the greater Hunter to thank the community for their support over the years.
Thursday — A21-23 ‘Worimi’ Retirement Flight
Thursday morning saw the final flight of one of the more iconic paint schemes present in the Australian Classic Hornet fleet. Delivered to the RAAF on the 8th of February 1988, A21-23 ‘Worimi Hornet’ flew a total of 5663.1 hours across its 32 years and 10 months of service. The aircraft saw combat action in 2003 in the Middle East in support of Operation Bastille and Operation Falconer with No. 75 Squadron.
During the 2015 Australian International Airshow at Avalon, A21-23 was unveiled in a commemorative scheme in honour of WOFF Leonard Waters, the first Australian Indigenous fighter pilot serving in WWII. Designed by the Australian design studio Balarinji, the Worimi Hornet scheme consists of 400 individual motifs created using hand-applied stencils.
From mid-2021, A21-23 will be put on permanent display at Williamtown’s Fighter World museum, joining another seven airframes that will be retained for heritage purposes.
These aircraft include:
- A21-22 — Deployed on Operation Falconer and Okra, flying more than 70 combat missions with 6,131.5 flying hours across 30 years of service
- A21-29 — Former 75SQN CO aircraft with a top hat and cane on the vertical stabilisers. Involved in a fatal accident with A21-42 in 1990, resulting in the loss of 75SQN CO, WGCDR Ross Fox
- A21-32 — Aircraft Research and Development Unit aircraft
- A21-40 — Deployed on Operation Falconer in 2003
- A21-43 — Deployed on Operation Falconer in 2003
- A21-101 — First Australian Hornet built at St. Louis, USA and delivered to Williamtown in 1985
- A21-103 — First Australian built Hornet assembled at Avalon by Government Aircraft Factories (GAF), delivered in 1985
Thursday — Four-Ship Handling Display
With Williamtown’s morning display complete, crowds headed into the heart of Newcastle to Nobbys Beach for a four-ship handling display by the Green Rays display team. Situated atop the former defence establishment Fort Scratchley, The Aviation Studio were presented with a fantastic vantage point of the short but sweet nine minute display.
Following an initial run-in pass in a tight right echelon, the team put on a series of passes in both clean and dirty configurations. Breaking off from one another, the four aircraft then demonstrated their handling characteristics with a series of minimum radius turns and vertical climbs. One final pass saw the four Classic Hornets enter an unrestricted climb disappearing into the afternoon sun.
Previous iterations of the iconic four-ship display team have used a variety of names including the Black Diamonds, Green Lemons, Green Lions, Purple Cobras and Roaring Tigers across 2OCU, 3SQN, 75QN and 77 SQN.
Thursday — Additional Movements
In-between the morning single-ship handling display and afternoon four-ship handling display, there was no shortage of movements from 77SQN with a number of Hornets heading in and out of Williamtown.
Friday — Final Farewell Flight
Friday morning saw the final farewell for No. 77 Squadron with an eight-ship formation flypast taking place over the Nelson Bay, Hunter Valley, Newcastle and Williamtown communities. Despite the abysmal weather, No. 77 Squadron put on a thrilling send-off to one of the most iconic fighter aircraft to serve the RAAF.
With wheels off the ground at 0954L, the aircraft were back over the base 20 minutes later for three formation passes before the Green Rays split off to perform one final four-ship display. Shortly after A21-15 made a short solo handling display in conjunction with A21-24 before disappearing out to the coastline.
Forming up in pairs to the south of the base, the aircraft descending for a low level, high speed initial and pitch before joining the downwind circuit for landing. Rolling out to the end of RWY12, the eight Classic Hornets vacated the runway, opened their canopies and waved farewell to the crowds gathered at Fighter World and along Medowie Road before taxiing back to the flightline.
Interview with WGCDR Jason ‘Easty’ Easthope
On Thursday afternoon following his handling display over RAAF Base Williamtown, The Aviation Studio had the privilege to speak with WGCDR Jason ‘Easty’ Easthope, Commanding Officer of No. 77 Squadron.
Starting out in the Royal New Zealand Air Force at the age of 18, Easty has flown a multitude of aircraft types including the BAe Hawk, McDonnell Douglas A-4K Skyhawk & F/A-18 Classic Hornet and SEPECAT Jaguar. In 1996 he moved to the United Kingdom on a three-year exchange with the Royal Air Force and in 2002 transferred to the Royal Australian Air Force.
What do you think the Classic Hornet and 77SQN operations of the type meant to the greater Newcastle community?
“The Hornet has been the backbone for the air combat capability for over 30 years so it’s part of the fabric of the Hunter and obviously I’m biased…having Fighter World and the Hornets Nest and pictures of the Hornet all over the place it really is connected to the local community.”
Regarding the Classic Hornet, what was your career highlight in your many years spent working with the type?
“When you’ve been flying the Hornet for so long it’s hard to pin it down to one event. If I was just to move away from flying for just a second then the highlight would be the absolute dedicated professionals that are involved in an entire fighter squadron. The Hornet itself I’ve got a soft spot for because obviously it’s hugely capable…some highlights that really stand out are Exercise Red Flag in Nellis and taking the aircraft to Japan where 77SQN were the last to leave Japan after the occupation from World War II and were the first to return [to Japan, for Exercise Bushido Guardian in 2019].”
You said in the docu-series Real Top Guns in 2007, that flying fighter jets, “was always a boyhood dream”. Do you think 77SQN’s presence in the greater Newcastle community has resulted in many more children dreaming to fly, and if there was any advice you could give to someone wanting to fly in the military, what would it be?
“I remember as a young boy looking up into the sky at an airshow seeing a fighter aircraft fly over and I was hooked, I was hooked [sic] straight away and it became a boyhood dream way back then. And all of the young kids that I talk to after they see a Hornet fly over, they are just mesmerised by it, they are hooked just at the sight of it. [With] 77SQN flying around the local area there’s going to be young boys and young girls out there who will be inspired by that and will now to start to think ‘hey maybe I could do that.’ If you’re a real young boy or girl then start with getting up in the morning, making your bed…and working really hard at school.
“As you’re getting older and older through your schooling and towards starting to looking towards a career, don’t lose the focus, don’t lose the hunger, don’t lose the dream because it’s totally achievable.”WGCDR Jason ‘Easty’ Easthope, CO 77SQN Squadron
What unique challenges have come from the transition of ex-RAAF Classic Hornets to the Royal Canadian Air Force and Air USA, especially in the midst of a global pandemic?
“77SQN was over in Nellis for exercise Red Flag in February last year and we flew two aircraft over to Canada which were the first two to be delivered so 77SQN was actually involved in the first delivery. Those ones were actually very easy to deliver because we took them over [for Red Flag]. Preparing the aircraft back here in Australia is obviously significant and the Classic Hornet draw down team are involved with that, getting it ready [to be flown over in an AN-124]. Because our aircraft are very similar to theirs the actual conversion to Canadian spec is quite easy.”
How do you prepare and coordinate a flying display such as the solo routine and four-ship formation that have been seen around Newcastle over the past week?
“As you imagine the solo handling display which is very aggressive, on the edge of envelope flying [which] is quite different to our formation display. Formation display uses different skills and is much more graceful. The manoeuvres through we’re using in the aeroplane are standard manoeuvres that we would use every day. The difference with doing a display is being near the ground or near the public, so we just make sure that we have additional controls, checks and balances that if something went wrong during the display it doesn’t endanger anybody. But the aircraft performance down low as you can see is actually phenomenal and is quite hard work actually flying a solo display like that, the Gs are high all the time, the aircraft has so much thrust and when you’re going fast the G is really high and just stays there.
“But flying in formation it’s actually about showcasing formation skills, being graceful in its approach and being a lot smoother as flight lead when you are doing a display like that to ensure that everyone flying close formation on you, are able to do that accurately.”
After all this – what’s the next challenge?
“I’m actually going off to Chief of Staff Air Combat Group, which sits above the squadrons and the portfolio for that position is wide and varied and quite different to the position I’m in now, so as the CO of the squadron, my main focus is to ensure that we have the right people and equipment in order to answer the governments call which is quite different to the position I’m going to…as of the end of the week I am going to be a Group Captain.
“[Being a Group Captain] is one step further removed from the tactical teeth position as a CO. So I’ll go through a phase, and a grieving phase I might add, of being out of the cockpit for an extended period of time, I will keep flying the Classic Hornet next year in support of 75SQN so I’m not gonna [sic] go entirely stir crazy but…sitting in the cockpit, strapping in and getting people ready for war being my day to day job over the past two and a half years, I won’t be doing that next year and that will be quite sad.”
The Aviation Studio would like to extend a huge thank you to WGCDR Jason Easthope, Ben Wickham and Defence Force Media for allowing us this opportunity.