Moving can be stressful, but it helps when, like 35 Squadron RAAF, you can rely on colleagues flying C-17A Globemaster IIIs to do much of the heavy lifting.
The first of the 10 C-27J Spartan battlefield airlifters now operated by 35SQN arrived at RAAF Richmond in 2015 – about the same time the decision was approved by government to move the squadron from there to a permanent home at RAAF Amberley in late 2018.
“This was primarily for geographic reasons,” Wing Commander Ben Poxon, a 3,000-hour C-130J pilot who has headed 35SQN since December 2017, said to ADM. “The C-27J itself is a battlefield intra-lift aircraft that is very nimble and agile. However, it may take some time to transit large regions for a global response.
“By pushing the main operating base to Brisbane it provides the ADF more timely access into Southeast Asia for situations like humanitarian assistance and disaster relief (HADR).”
Further benefits accrue from co-location with the eight C-17A strategic transports of the RAAF’s Air Mobility Group (AMG), and humanitarian support warehouses.
Additionally, the aircraft is closer to training areas in Shoalwater Bay and Townsville, which are also utilised by Army’s 5th Aviation Regiment.
In the past three years some $300 million worth of new construction has been completed at Amberley to accommodate the squadron; primarily an operating building that groups together aircrew, operations, maintenance and three hangars; and a training facility.
“In the past 20 years I’ve not see a more functionally-designed flying building anywhere in the world,” WGCDR Poxon said. “The whole structure has been designed around minimising response times for operations and aircrew and reducing the time to fix aircraft. The design minimises the time aircrew receive a brief, and walks through their routine to the aircraft – accepting an aircraft, accepting life support and then walking straight out onto the tarmac.
“Industry engaged with Defence very early on and they listened and watched how squadrons function. This enabled the designers to match function with design to meet our needs. Our pilots and maintainers produced a study on how we would move through the building and its utility, and it was designed accordingly.”
Of the three hangars, one will be used for deeper-level maintenance, the second to provide protection from the weather for activities such as engine or propeller changes, and the third will be used on an ad hoc basis to support the squadron’s customers.
The training building houses maintenance training and loadmaster training devices and will eventually accommodate a full-motion flight simulator whose acquisition is still under negotiation, WGCDR Poxon says.
“The C-27J is a unique case, there are only 100 worldwide and only three simulators have been designed for it. These don’t quite meet the level of quality and the level of interaction that we require. We want to use a simulator to interact with other simulators around the world and play in a virtual sense to maximise training for integrated forces. What we’re going to get is worth waiting for.”
When this will actually occur is not clear, although it may not be until 2024 that the system is installed and certified.
C-27 training gap
This gap was covered until late last year by using a Level 4 simulator operated by C-27 integrator L-3 in Waco, Texas. Aircrew travelled to Waco twice a year, each time spending about 16 hours in the simulator in training focused on retaining proficiency in some of the emergency handling that can’t be conducted in the aircraft itself.
Late last year that training was moved to the C-27J simulator operated for its own and international Spartan aircrew by the Italian Air Force’s 46th Air Brigade in Pisa, a significant but presumably not unwelcome change of locale.
After achieving its highest-ever monthly rate of effort, 35SQN ceased all flying operations on 30 November but placed several aircraft together with aircrew and support staff on standby to handle any short-notice tasking required over the Christmas period and the move.
Because of the volatility of the weather at RAAF Amberley the aircraft were to remain at RAAF Richmond until late January, prior to which the squadron assumed full responsibility for its own move.
Overall this involved nine C-17A loads ranging from more than 140 10’x4’ G rigid containers to generators, towing vehicles, spare engines and propellers, and a warehouse’s-worth of critical on-demand parts.
“What stayed were physical buildings and furniture, everything else we moved,” WGCDRE Poxon explained to ADM. “Air Mobility Group are the masters at air mobility. We saw no reason to amove any other way. But often the type of aircraft are confused for their function and the C-27J was not utilised to move ourselves.
“When you look at it simplistically, the C-17A is much like a B-double truck; large loads, long distances. The C-130J is very much like an international container truck that goes up and down the eastern seaboard, and the C-27J resembles a five-tonne truck that gets in and around the city.
“Some large and awkward warehousing equipment went by road. But when you’re talking about the amount of stuff we had, it made more sense to do it in nine C-17A flights rather than with more than 30 C-27J missions.”
About 230 personnel were involved in the shift, although the number of people physically moving was about 180.
“The move was carefully planned over a posting cycle; a lot of people stayed at RAAF Richmond and people who were coming from other aircraft types, for instance the AP-3C, relocated with us. So overall at the beginning of this year we have about 250 people, with 70-80 that have come from other types.
“In the drawdown of AP-3C and the ramp up of the P-8A Poseidon the actual physical number of people required to maintain or fly the aircraft is not a one-for-one comparison, therefore we inherited people from AP-3C as well as across Air Combat Group and there are also people from other squadrons.
“The move will be completed by 10 February and I’m confident we will be ready for operations.”
C-27J maintenance is carried out by 35SQN with the support of Northrop Grumman (NG), who do not work on the aircraft itself but provide documentation suites, configuration control, structural integrity and the logistics pipeline.
“NG have up to eight field service representatives that are embedded in the squadron. They also moved with the squadron and they’re an integral part of the team. We have areas within the new building at Amberley to facilitate their role,” WGCDR Poxon said.
Initial Operating Capability (IOC) was achieved in 2016. This involved the ability to move passengers and cargo and focused mainly on HADR and aeromedical evacuation missions.
The latter was successfully demonstrated in late 2017 when a C-27J landed on the Nullarbor as part of a scenario simulating a bus collision that had resulted in mass casualties.
In last year’s major exercises Hamel and Pitch Black, 35SQN practised the skill-sets required to operate in a tactical threat environment, developing the ability to conduct airdrop or air-land operations anywhere in the world.
Following Pitch Black, the squadron broke new ground with a successful 30-day operation out of Townsville conducting search and rescue and border security missions that included intelligence gathering with 100 per cent mission success.
“What the RAAF and the ADF in general are finding is that the breadth of role in which we’re employing the aircraft, much like the C-130J, is much more than any other operator around the world,” WGCDR Poxon noted. “We’re beginning to move into roles we were conducting test and evaluation on that no other operator is undertaking. It’s an incredibly agile and flexible aircraft.
“In terms of capabilities we fit between the C-130J and the Chinook for our battlefield lift and there are overlapping capabilities in each of those aircraft types.
“On any given day, if a special operations command wants to do parachuting it now has four different options, each with their own unique capabilities.”
Full Operational Capability (FOC) for the C-27J is scheduled for December this year. At that time, WGCDR Poxon states, Amberley will be fully established as the main operating base; facilities and a supply system will be in place to enable the required training throughput; and all elements of the squadron will have the capability to supply the rate of effort required to respond to the government’s needs”.
Training through to FOC will involve airborne operations in a threat environment, and support for the other services including the special operations community.
There’s been no shortage of aircrew wanting to move to the C-27J, he says.
Pilots new to the C-27J who have transferred from a type other than a C-130J undertake a six-month initial qualification course, at the end of which they are competent to conduct airborne operations missions.
An increasing number of graduates from the No2 Flying Training School (2FTS) at RAAF Base Pearce are also being posted and undertake a two-year co-pilot to captaincy tour.
“The move to South East Queensland, training in Italy, state-of-the-art buildings and a very capable aircraft mean that the C-27J scores well on the priorities of 2FTS graduates. And that’s not mentioning the high likelihood in 2019 of deployments to operations that complement their hard work and training,” WGCDR Poxon concluded.
This article first appeared in the Februrary 2019 edition of ADM.