By Owen Zupp
Imagery supplied by Air Affairs
Nowra, on the NSW south coast is well known as the home of the Royal Australian Navy’s Fleet Air Arm (FAA) and the Army-Navy Joint Helicopter Aircrew Training School (HATS) at HMAS Albatross.
But, if one casts the eye across the western side of the airfield, a growing network of sizeable, modern hangars, offices and workshops can be found beyond the perimeter fence.
This is the home of a lesser known, but significant participant in the Australian aerospace sector. Spanning both the civilian and defence sectors, Air Affairs Australia undertakes a broad range of activities that range from flight operations and manufacturing to ongoing service and support. And while their name may not be high profile, as the world’s largest operator of the Learjet, their fleet and their operations are impressive.
You can never judge a book by its cover and, at first glance, the 6,500 square metre Air Affairs facility is testament to that. The large, modern, glass-fronted office is typical of the entrance to any company in a modern industrial estate.
Air Affairs CEO, Chris Sievers started his working life as an apprentice sheet metal worker with Trans Australia Airlines (TAA) before joining Stillwell Aviation. At the time, Stillwell was the Australasian distributor of the Learjet, and Sievers was involved in modifying Learjets for special mission roles and, in a first, for military training.
After six years at Stillwell, Sievers began supplying specialist aircraft services under contract to the Royal Australian Navy, before establishing Air Affairs in 1995. The company has now grown to 170 employees, operates more than 20 aircraft, and fulfils substantial contracts with governments, defence forces, and multinational companies.
TARGETS & MORE
The concept of target towing is not a new one. As a training aid for fighter pilots, the opportunity to engage a target towed behind a host aircraft has long proved beneficial. However, the fabric drogues of the past were superseded many years ago by sophisticated hard-bodied targets, both in tow and free flying form. And now missiles have joined the ranks of the ordinance used in what is now a sophisticated training regime.
The Learjet has been pivotal in the role as a target towing aircraft for decades, and today is better than ever able to provide realistic threats for surface-to-air, air-to-air missiles and for medium and large caliber guns. In turn, the targets can be further augmented with devices such as light, smoke and active and passive radar, and are a far cry from the early days of a cloth drogue.
The long line of twin-engined Learjets on Air Affairs’ ramp is impressive to say the least. Immediately identifiable by their sleek form, T-tail and tip tanks, the distinctive aircraft possess an endurance of three hours plus reserves, and the ability to provide their special missions role at a speed range of 200 to 350 knots IAS.
Flown by ex-military pilots, the advantages of a single type are several, such as spare parts inventory, crew checking and training as well as maximising the availability of an aircraft when needed.
In its current Jet Aircraft Support Contract, Air Affairs’ Learjet 35 and 36 series corporate jets have been extensively modified to carry underwing equipment, reeling machines, miss distance scoring equipment, command and control telemetry units, military radios and tracking cameras for a range of tasks across all three services of Defence.
At first glance, An Air Affairs Learjet may seem like any other business jet, with the wing hard points, special mission wiring and UHF radio less than obvious. But the sight of a white pod beneath the wing points to its true purpose.
Two MTR-101 reeling machines can be carried, with each extending forward of the Learjet’s leading edge. Built by Air Affairs, the MTR-101 is designed to accommodate a range of tow targets using cables of various diameters that can extend up to 30,000 feet, or more than nine kilometres.
Controlled by an operator via a console in the aircraft cabin, the target is deployed by a launcher arm which, when extended, offers a stable launch clear of aircraft-generated and shear layer turbulence. Additionally, the extended position ensures that separation exists between the tow cable and the tow aircraft through the range of manoeuvres that are called for across a range of training scenarios. A camera on the pod monitors the launch and recovery of the target, while a removable spool allows a quick change of the tow cable on the ground should it be shot off in flight.
In the case of a shot not actually hitting the target, miss distance indicator systems can calculate how close the shot came. The Mini Marque acoustic system measures the distance between a supersonic projectile or missile and the tow target in any firing situation, be that air-to-air or surface-to-air. The target towing operator can then present the firing results in real time for up to six targets simultaneously.
As with so many aspects of Air Affairs operation, the maintenance of the company’s Learjet fleet is conducted in-house. From flightline and basic component maintenance, to the incredibly deep 12-year inspection, Air Affairs is accredited to conduct the full range of maintenance actions upon the Learjets and the single Beech King Air 200 in its fleet.
The two aircraft types also combine to provide high altitude fire mapping services Australia-wide – a role that the company has performed for more than 20 years. Capable of operations up to 40,000 feet, the Learjet’s onboard imaging systems are capable of mapping fires through dense smoke, both day and night.
The systems utilised by Air Affairs permit onboard processing of the image data to provide firefighting authorities with the much-needed information as soon as is practically possible. The upload and enhancement processes are usually completed within a few minutes of having overflown the bushfire.
Additionally, Air Affairs has an alliance with CareFlight International to provide a range of aeromedical services both in Australia and abroad. Utilising specially-configured Learjet 35 and Learjet 60 aircraft, the service is available 24/7/365, with a response time to deployment being as little as 60 minutes to conduct retrieval operations throughout Australia and the South Pacific region.
All flight operations are monitored from a command centre equipped with a wall of screens. These screens display security cameras, weather, aircraft readiness status and a pictorial display along a timeline of where and when, which aircraft are to be tasked into which specific role. It is effectively the command and control centre of Air Affairs Australia, and has an unmistakable air of professionalism.
PHOENIX & ALPHA JETS
And as impressive as its Learjet and King Air operations fleet may be, there is much more to Air Affairs.
Not all targets are towed and, with the rise of unmanned aerial systems (UAS) across the aerospace spectrum, its presence is felt in the target drone space. Still, it is a not a new concept in Australian skies, dating back to the 1950s and the Australian-developed GAF Jindivik. With a bloodline that flowed through the BAE-supplied Kalkara target drone, Air Affairs operates the newest remotely piloted target, the Phoenix Jet.
Available in various configurations, a long line of the orange delta-winged Phoenix Jet targets are lined up along the walls of the facility in various states of maintenance. Designed, manufactured and serviced in-house by Air Affairs, the composite aircraft provides a mid-performance training solution for a variety of gun and air defence missile system. Powered by a jet engine and with a maximum speed of 330kts (600km/h), the Phoenix can carry a large variety of payloads.
Launched from a catapult and recovered by parachute, the Phoenix is controlled by a ground-based operator to provide a realistic threat simulation. It can employ enhancements such as acoustic miss distance indicators (MDI), smoke, and IFF, while infrared (IR) and Luneburg lenses can be fitted to enhance the target’s signature for a range of weapons systems. Air Affairs Australia has also been involved with operating the larger and faster, V-tailed Kratos MQM-178 Firejet UAV target.
Up until the recent completion of the contract, Air Affairs was also responsible for the operation of three Dornier Alpha Jets to deliver fast jet adversary air capability to the ADF. Teamed up with Top Aces in Canada, the jets were based at RAAF Williamtown and provided ‘red air’ for the RAAF, joint terminal attack controller (JTAC) training for the Australian Army, and fast jet surface training for the Royal Australian Navy.
At the time of the visit to the Air Affairs Australia facility, the Alpha Jet trial had ended following the completion of the 2019 Air Warfare Instructor Course in June, and were in containers preparing to be shipped back home to Canada. But the Alpha Jets’ time in Australia demonstrated yet another capability of this Australian company.
BEHIND THE SCENES
To keep such an expansive fleet airborne, a broad range of support services is required. Air Affairs Australia not only maintains its fleet and equipment but, in many cases, it designs, modifies and manufactures it. The support services include a nearby advanced manufacturing facility located in a 3,000 square metre purpose-built facility. Housing CNC machines and sophisticated measuring machines, the facility performs a large range of tasks including the manufacture of its own training equipment.
Back at the Albatross facility, there is a Rescue Hoist Workshop that accommodates a modern testing rig and repair facility. A welding and fabrication workshop has a range of tooling to cut, weld, form, and fabricate a range of components. There is also an electrical and electronics workshop which undertakes work on the target drones across the range of design, manufacture, test and repair.
Complex wiring harnesses are manufactured to military standards, and an environmental chamber is available to test components. The underwing stores rack – so pivotal to a range of Air Affairs’ operations – is manufactured in Nowra, while the assembly shop alongside manufactures target tow equipment, target drones, air pods, and reeling machines.
Air Affairs Australia is also contracted to provide common services support (CSS) to the Royal Australian Navy’s fleet of helicopters, comprising support for life rafts, flight suits, battery maintenance, and a helicopter corrosion control facility (HCCF). The certificates of approvals for the supply of services, fabrication, testing and more fill the office wall at the facility and are a written representation of the skilled workforce and capability of Air Affairs Australia.
A DISCREET AFFAIR
Many in the aviation field are aware that aerial target towing takes place off the coast of Nowra but, because the fleet of Learjets are usually towing targets or making runs on vessels off the coast, there are few witnesses to the level of activity. When they are mapping fires at high altitude, their work is not obvious from the ground, and the Phoenix Jet is catapulted skyward in remote Woomera or some other location away from populated areas.
Even more subtle are the numerous support tasks performed by the majority of the company’s workforce. Highly skilled and highly specialised, they not only keep Air Affairs’ projects operational, but provide a range of services to external customers.
Certain elements of the operation are undoubtedly kept quiet by virtue of their Defence links, but even Air Affairs Australia’s commercial roles do not seem to attract the attention that a company of its scale would normally draw. Even so, the dedicated team continue to design, manufacture, test and operate, meeting the demanding standards of governments, military customers and multinational companies alike.
Air Affairs Australia is a far-reaching company of substance and professionalism, yet it remains a discreet affair.