Farewell to the mighty F-111s

RAAF Base Amberley

My Parliamentary colleagues; Senator Ian MacDonald, Shadow Parliamentary Secretary (representing the Shadow Minister for Defence) and the Hon. Rachel Nolan MP, Queensland Minister for Transport and Member for Ipswich. Local councillors.

Chief of Air Force Air Marshal Mark Binskin – and members of the Australian Defence Force.

Representatives from the Australian Defence Industry.

Ladies and gentlemen.

Today we are part of an important moment in the history of the RAAF. In the skies above us six planes from Number 6 Squadron are conducting the last flight of the F-111s.

In a few minutes they will land. In the last one to land – number A8125 – will be the Squadron CO, Wing Commander ‘Micka’ Gray.

He has been in F-111s for 22 years. I spoke to him yesterday. He told me they’re the smoothest thing he’s ever flown in.

The same plane Micka is in now – the one that will be the last to land today – was actually the first to land here 37 years ago when the F-111s arrived. Then Group Captain Jake Newham was flying it. Jake Newham went on to be Chief of the Air Force – and I spoke to him yesterday as well. He told me:

“I flew British Vampire aircraft in Malaya, Mustangs in Korea, as well as Meteors and Mirages, but for sheer capability there is nothing to touch the F-111, even today… it was the greatest single capability advance the RAAF has ever had… a terribly capable airplane.”

Ever since Jake Newham landed here 37 years ago – the F-111 has been at the forefront of the Australian Defence Force. That it has never needed to be deployed in combat – is at least in part a testament to it’s dominance of the skies.

The day Jake landed here in 1973 there was also a politician making a speech. In that speech the Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Defence Lance Barnard said: “I’m sure this aircraft will be flying well into the 80s, and beyond.”

He was right, and then some. It flew through the eighties, the nineties, and all of the last decade. Long after it was retired by the US Air Force it was still defending Australian skies.

This was only made possible because of the hard work of many of the people here today. And many others. Mechanics, fitters and electricians. Logisticians, navigators and pilots.

People like Daryl Hooper and Daryl Macklin – who have been maintaining F-111s almost all of their working lives. Daryl Macklin was here the day the first F-111 arrived – he marshaled it in off the runway. He’ll be doing the same job when it lands here again, for the last time, in just a few minutes.

The importance of the work of people like Daryl can’t be overstated. As Jake Newham told me yesterday:

“Unless your ground crew can put the plane on the start line – no pilot is worth two bob”

I know that this day is also a day of mixed emotions.

I want to particularly recognise those suffering the serious health effects associated with the fuel tank upgrade program. The Australian Government offers its sincere apology for the harm you have suffered as a result of your work, and will make sure you receive treatment and support.

A day like today is also time to stop and remember the 9 RAAF pilots and navigators and one US serviceman who lost their lives in these aircraft. Each one of these losses was a personal tragedy to a family and to the wider RAAF family.

They lost their lives serving us.

The work they did was very important, and the sacrifice they made cannot be forgotten.

Ladies and Gentlemen,            

As we close a chapter of Australian military history today – we open another. From today the F-111s place in the skies will be taken up by a new aircraft, also based here at Amberley.

We have already taken delivery of the first 11 of 24 Super Hornets. The next four are on their way as we speak from their assembly line in St Louis, Missouri. They will land here next week.

This time next week I will be in Missouri to see the production line where the remaining aircraft will be built. I’ll also be visiting Fort Worth in Texas to see the development of the next stage of Australia’s air combat capability, the fifth generation Joint Strike Fighter.

Fort Worth has a history of providing Australia with state-of-the-art aircraft. It was where the F-111s were built. On the morning he was killed, President John F Kennedy visited Fort Worth – and gave a speech that mentioned Australia’s decision buy the F-111. He said it:

“.. testified to the merit of this plane…”

He was right, and so were we. There was plenty of controversy at the time the F-111s were purchased. Early on, it had its problems – but history has shown that we made the right decision. I am sure that when our successors gather decades from now to farewell the JSF they will say the same thing.

In a moment we will head outside to see the mighty planes land for the last time. It is fitting that this will happen here at Amberley, the home of the F-111s. The place where Jake landed 37 years ago and Micka will land in a few minutes. The place where Daryl has worked most of his life.

There are lots of Jakes, Mickas and Daryls here. The men and women who have served on the ground and in the air.

Over four decades. Here and overseas. Today is your day.

For all your hard work and sacrifice. Thank you.