Spotting Trip to RAAF Williamtown, September 2008
RAAF Base Williamtown (IATA: NTL, ICAO: YWLM) is a Royal Australian Air Force base located 14 kilometres (9 mi) north of Newcastle, New South Wales (27 km (17 mi) by road). Although a military airfield, it shares its runway with Newcastle Airport, a civilian terminal.
Williamtown is the RAAF's principal fighter base and currently home to F/A-18 Hornet fighters (operated by 2 Operational Conversion Unit, 3 Squadron and 77 Squadron), BAE Hawk 127 Lead-In Fighters (operated by 76 Squadron) and Pilatus PC-9 training aircraft operated by the Forward Air Control Development Unit. It is also home to a number of headquarters and other units such as the Australian Defence Force Warfare Centre and Surveillance and Response Group.
2 Squadron RAAF, with the Wedgetail Airborne Early Warning & Control aircraft, will also be based at Williamtown.
In addition to its military units, RAAF Williamtown is the home to Fighter World, a museum dedicated to fighter aircraft.
Located on the NE coast of New South Wales' Hunter Valley, Williamtown is about 2 hours drive north of Sydney. The airport is connected by air to Brisbane, Melbourne, Canberra and the Gold Coast by budget airlines Jetstar and Virgin Blue. In addition, Qantaslink, Brindabella, Aeropelican and Norfolk Airways run services to various regional Australian destinations from Newcastle/RAAF Williamtown.
No. 30 Fighter Combat Instructor's Course
For the first time in around a decade, elements of the US Air Force took part in exercises around RAAF Williamtown. Six F-15 Eagles, first from 114th Fighter Squadron/173rd Fighter Wing the of the Oregon Air National Guard, and subsequently a similar number of aircraft from the 199th FS/154th FW of the Hawaii ANG, participated in Dissimilar Air Combat Training with F/A-18 and F-111 pilots of the RAAF.
The course, which began on 30 June and concluded on 22 December 2008, provided participating Royal Australian Air Force F/A-18 and F-111 pilots and Air Combat Officers with the highest possible level of fighter combat skills.
The ANG aircraft and pilots were based at Williamtown to support the course from 20th August to 20th of September 2008, with the Oregon ANG participating in the first two weeks and the Hawaii ANG taking over in the last fortnight. In addition, a USAF KC-135R provided tanking support during the first fortnight, and numerous USAF C-17s provided logistical support for the exercise.
Spotting at RAAF Williamtown
The airport itself is serviced by one runway; Runway 12/30. Given its status as the main RAAF fighter base and in light of today's security climate, kudos must be given to the RAAF for its good sense in maintaining an enthusiast-friendly climate at the base surroundings. There are benches set down just outside the fence line at the end of Runway 30's threshold in a perfect position for enthusiasts to watch landings at Runway 30 and the roar of takeoffs from Runway 12. Take note that it is however forbidden to shoot photos beyond or across the fence as it is RAAF property, and several signs warn of this.
Walk a few hundred metres up the road and you will arrive at Fighter World museum, a nice little place dedicated to fighter aircraft, mostly in the context of the RAAF. The museum consists of 2 military-style buildings and among the indoor exhibits in the main building are 2 Mirage IIIs (a Mirage IIIO and IIID, both ex-RAAF), a Sabre Mk.31, Spitfire Mk. VIII, Gloster Meteor and even a MiG-21UM painted in Indian AF markings (ex-warbird). There is a secondary building where a number of aircraft are undergoing restoration, including a Bf109 and an ex-Singapore AF Hunter serialled 546.
There are also good vantage points to observe the movements at the airport. A café adjoining the main museum building with several outdoor tables and chairs, and to top it off, a flight of steps at the end of the main building leading to an elevated outdoor observation deck giving commanding views of the civilian airport and its operations. There's even a scanner tuned to the airport frequencies, so spotters can listen in and anticipate aircraft movements.
I spent a day at Fighter World on the 9th of September, arriving from Melbourne soon after 0830. A short (~2 km) walk in the spring sunshine brought me to Fighter World Museum. The museum itself opens at 10am, and after paying the A$7 entrance fee, I made a beeline for the observation deck and waited for the flying to start. I didn't have to wait long, for at about 10am the first aircraft lifted off, and for the next hour a steady stream of Hawaii ANG F-15s, RAAF Hawks and Hornets took off. With the wind blowing from East/Southeast most of the day, operations were carried out mainly from Runway 12. The F-15s were a mix of A- and C-models, with the F-15Cs being formerly from the 18th Wing in Kadena, Okinawa. In addition, 2 of the RAAF's special scheme Hornets were also seen; A21-110 in the 20th Anniversary scheme and A21-48, 77 Sqn's flagship with the "Grumpy Monkey" on its tail. Aircraft in the markings of Tindal-based 75 Sqn were also seen, but this was presumably more to do with aircraft pooling between the squadrons than any 75 Sqn involvement in the activities. The morning sorties ended just before noon and a second wave took off from 1430 onwards, with an interesting addition to the aircraft flying being Raytheon's Learjet 35 VH-ESM, possibly providing EW support.
The runway orientation and spotting locations very much favour morning photography, so be there early. If you opt to shoot from the road, a 200mm lens would be sufficient, but shooting from Fighter World would require at least a 300mm on a camera with a 1.6x crop factor.
More photos of my trip to RAAF Williamtown can be found in the RAAF Williamtown Gallery.