Air Force has marked the end of an era with a decision to withdraw the Heron remotely piloted aircraft from service.
The Heron flew its last mission from RAAF Base Tindal during Exercise Diamond Storm on June 23.
During Diamond Storm, Heron completed 17 sorties in support of the Air Warfare Instructor Course in an intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance electronic warfare (ISREW) role.
No. 5 Flight is set to be disbanded at the end of the year. The aircraft has played a pivotal role in Air Force’s ability to deliver air-land integration effects in support of our national security interests including in Afghanistan, where it completed more than 27,000 mission hours during Operation Slipper.
CO 5FLT WGCDR Lee Read said it was immensely satisfying to end with such a successful involvement in Exercise Diamond Storm.
“I want to congratulate the 5FLT team, including our technical workforce from the contractor MDA and our embeds from No. 87 Squadron, JEWOSU and No. 1 Combat Communications Squadron, who all worked together to ensure that 5FLT and Heron closed for business on a high.”
After its last operational mission from Kandahar Airfield in Afghanistan on November 30, 2014, Heron then made history by flying in civilian airspace for the first time out of Rockhampton airport during Exercise Talisman Sabre 2015. This led to the commencement of operations from its home base at RAAF Base Amberley in 2016.
In October last year, GovernorGeneral Sir Peter Cosgrove presented the Meritorious Unit Citation to members of 5FLT during an investiture ceremony.
From January 2010 to November 2014, 5FLT, operating as Task Unit 633.2.7, provided ISREW support to Australian forces and International Security Assistance Force partners in southern Afghanistan. About 500 personnel who were deployed as part of the task unit were recognised.
Air Force has regularly operated the Heron aircraft in restricted military air space from RAAF Base Woomera. The Woomera community has always welcomed 5FLT; this year the hospitality moved to the cricket pitch, where locals and Air Force members challenged each other to two matches.
There was definitely a lot of sadness from the team watching the Heron taxi in for the final time at both Woomera and Tindal.
“We are really sad to be saying goodbye to this unique capability, especially in Woomera where we have been regular attendees for the past five years,” WGCDR Read said.
Detachment Commander SQNLDR Luke Connell said 5FLT had become a little family.
“While we will miss the interaction within such a small unit, we are also looking forward to the future – as one door closes another one will open.”
CAPT Mark Sandner, who spent the past two years as a sensor operator with 5FLT as an exchange officer from the Royal Canadian Air Force, said the experience was rewarding.
“It has been a big learning experience; I had no experience with remotely piloted aircraft before coming here. I will have a lot to bring to the table when I get back to Canada,” CAPT Sandner said.
A replacement capability is being acquired through Project AIR 7003 and is scheduled to be delivered after 2020. Project AIR 7003 will deliver an armed medium altitude long endurance unmanned aircraft system.
Air Force has taken steps to retain and further develop knowledge and experience, including embedding personnel in the US Air Force flying the MQ-9 Reaper.
These personnel will form the core of the future ADF capability to be delivered by AIR 7003.
One focus for the ADF has been to continue to see Heron operations integrated into airspace rather than accommodated, through the normalisation of operating the remotely-piloted aircraft ops in both military and civil airspace.
“We now have a cadre of some 150 ADF remote pilots and sensor operators who have gained significant experience in Heron operations. Further, we have integrated the Ground Mission System with some 300 intelligence support personnel into the crewed ISREW construct,” WGCDR Read said.
“We have learned many lessons from the unit’s operations and we need to provide that input back into a future capability – whatever that may look like.”
By Jaimie Abbott