ONE hundred years since two ambitious aviators circumnavigated Australia’s coastline, and 50 years since No 6 Squadron based at RAAF Base Amberley achieved the same feat in an F-111 aircraft, a flight commemorating both milestones landed at RAAF Base East Sale on Thursday, April 18.

This time, aviators piloted two Royal Australian Airforce EA-18G Growlers – an aircraft used in air combat that can reach a top speed of 1960 km/h.

A specialised electronic warfare variant of the F/A-18F Super Hornet, Growler aircraft are designed to provide tactical jamming and electronic protection in air combat.

As the Growler approached, Flight Lieutenant Joe Byrne explained the significance of the landing, which was a training procedure for the lucky student flying shotgun in the Growler’s back seat.

“It’s got a bit of history to it,” he said.

“A long time ago, they discovered you’re quite vulnerable on approach and landing as well as take-off, so trying to get on the ground quickly is important.”

Flying low and fast, the pilot skilfully manoeuvred the aircraft in an ‘initial and pitch’ sequence, where they fly low before pitching over the end of the runway, drop down, and circle back around for landing, whereupon the aircraft taxied towards its stationary twin-Growler to be refuelled.

Flight Lieutenant Joe Byrne is an Electronic Warfare Officer, who sits in the back seat of Growler aircrafts. Photos: Erika Allen

Like a scene from Top Gun, Flight Lieutenant Max Harlen of Amberley’s No 6 Squadron and Pilot Officer Cooper McClymont disembarked the Growler.

Grinning as they crossed the tarmac with duffle bags in hand, the aviators had made their last stop on a seven-day tour through RAAF bases Amberley, Townsville, Darwin, Pearce and East Sale.

Flight Lieutenant Harlen, who piloted the Growler, said the opportunity to pay homage to the two circumnavigations that came before was “fantastic”.

“We’ve been able to pay homage to the original circumnavigation in our own way with a much more modern jet,” he said.

“The Growler is an amazing fighter jet for Australia. It’s definitely a lot different to the original crew doing it in a Fairey Mk III D that had a max speed of 90 knots (about 150 km/h).

“We’ve been doing some of the flying legs at about 500 knots (about 950 km/h) at most, going around the northern tip of Australia – it’s fantastic.”

While the shorter, seven-day circumnavigation is not strictly traditional, Flight Lieutenant Harlen said No 6 Squadron aviators had the opportunity to fly alongside Michael Smith, who is re-tracing the original flight path made by aviation pioneers, Wing Commander Stanley James Goble and Flight Lieutenant Ivor Ewing McIntyre in 1924.

No 6 Squadron aviators shared the sky with Mr Smith above Townsville on April 12. Mr Smith, an aviator of 20 years who was named the Australian Geographic Adventurer of the Year in 2016, is completing the circumnavigation in a modern dual-engine SeaBear L65 amphibious seaplane.

On April 6, 1924, RAAF aviators Wing Commander Goble and Flight Lieutenant McIntyre took flight on a 44-day circumnavigation of the Australian coastline.

The daring journey aimed to test the Australian Air Force Equipment under the country’s varied climactic conditions as they surveyed where runways could be built.

The circumnavigation by seaplane was the first of its kind in Australia.

As reported by the Sydney Morning Herald on Saturday, April 26, 1924, Wing Commander Goble said the coastlines appeared different than they were depicted on maps and that he was satisfied they had demonstrated “this class of machine was suitable for the tropics and could be used both for war and commercial purposes”.

The pair flew a single-engine Fairey Mk III D seaplane on an 13,599-kilometre journey that took 90 flying hours.

WHEN the seaplane touched down at St Kilda Beach, the Sydney Morning Herald reported on May 20, 1924, that “two very tired and very dirty men clambered out, amid renewed cheering from the crowds that had now completely broken through the police barriers”.

A crowd of 10,000 gathered to greet the aviators.

They were reported to bear “manifest signs of the experience they had been through” – their torn oil and sand-stained uniforms told of the challenging weather conditions and countless maintenance troubles the pair confronted.

Prime Minister at the time, Stanley Bruce, commended their achievements.

“Wing Commander Goble and Flight Lieutenant McIntyre have shown true spirit of our early pioneers and by their achievement have enrolled their names in the history of our country,” he said at the time.

The original Fairey Mk III D seaplane was engineered by the Fairey Aviation Company in England and fitted with a Rolls-Royce Eagle VIII, 375 hp,12-cylinder V-type engine.

In 1924, Wing Commander Goble and Flight Lieutenant McIntyre completed the circumnavigation in 44 days. In 1974, Wing Commander Raymond Funnell, Commander of No 6 Squadron at Amberley, and Squadron Leader John Miller completed it in two days in a faster F-111. This year’s flight took place over seven days.

The EA-18G Growler is a two-crewed combat aircraft equipped with two F414-GE-400 turbofan engines and has a capacity to fly at 1960 km/h.

The journey to pilot such advanced aircraft is difficult, but made all the more rewarding by following in the footsteps of former RAAF aviators.

“It’s very nostalgic and it’s amazing to be able to give back to the training institutes that I went through myself,” Flight Lieutenant Harlen said.

“To come back and give that experience to hopefully motivate all of the students on base and also just give (Pilot Officer) Cooper (McClymont) an awesome experience he’ll never forget – hopefully motivating him to come and fly some Growlers in the future.”

Pilot Officer McClymont said he had dreamed of flying in a Growler since he was 10-years-old.

It was his first time in the aircraft on Thursday, but the aviator said he had “done that in my head many times in my life before today – it was very cool”.

Becoming a fully-fledged Growler pilot takes three years, Lieutenant Byrne explained.

For Pilot Officer McClymont, getting to experience the thrill of flying in such a powerful aircraft makes the hard work worth it.

“It’s a super long and arduous process to get through, even to start training,” he said.

“To jump in the back of one earlier than I expected (is) the most amazing opportunity.”

Pilot Officer Cooper McClymont flew in a EA-18G Growler for the first time on April 18.

Flight Lieutenant Byrne remembers the first time he flew in a Growler.

“I was a little surprised at how violent it was on take-off because it bounces around and you feel the afterburners kick in. It’s just unreal.”

Having trained at RAAF Base East Sale, Flight Lieutenant Byrne, who is a “back seater” in Growler jets, his proper title being the Electronic Warfare Officer of the aircraft, is responsible for “jamming” adversaries from the sky with electromagnetic equipment. He said he had spent much time at the Sale East Air Mission Training school, where he found his “happy place” flying in the back seat.

He said the opportunity to fly in a Growler as a student makes the tough training worth it.

“Having the opportunity to see these things up close gives you that motivation just to keep working because it’s a long, hard slog. But when you see these things, and you get to fly into the airfield that you were training at in (a Growler), it’s worth it.”

While it is hard to imagine the feeling of flying in a Growler, Flight Lieutenant Byrne said commercial flights are comparably disappointing once you experience the power of the Growler, highlighting it is sure to take your breath away.