Australian history made in Port Stephens with F-35A Joint Strike Fighter arrival at Williamtown RAAF Base

Defence force history was made in Port Stephens on Monday when the first two of Australia’s new generation of fighter aircraft, the F-35A Joint Strike Fighter, touched down at Williamtown RAAF Base.

The arrival of the jets, two of 72 purchased by the Australian Government for $17 billion and called the “most significant acquisition” in the RAAF’s history, marked a significant milestone in the 16-year JSF journey and it was treated as such with hundreds of dignitaries turning out for the occasion.

“The two aircraft that landed here today marks an early step in an exciting journey for the Air Force, which has been over 16 years in the making,” the Chief of Air Force, Air Marshal Gavin Davies, said on Monday.

“The F-35 is not just a fifth generation fighter with speed, agility and advanced information systems. It is a catalyst in transforming us into a fifth generation fighting force.”

Crowds believed to be in the thousands lined the roads around the RAAF base and filled the car park at Fighter World to watch the two F-35As complete a flypast with four F/A18-A/B Hornets.

Royal Australian Air Force F/A-18 Hornets fly in formation with a pair of F-35A Joint Strike Fighters over Stockton Beach. Picture: CPL David Gibbs

Royal Australian Air Force F/A-18 Hornets fly in formation with a pair of F-35A Joint Strike Fighters over Stockton Beach. Picture: CPL David Gibbs

Many more aero-lovers lined the coast in Port Stephens and Newcastle to watch the two F-35As and four Hornets complete a flypast, which ended with an aerial display at the RAAF Base shortly after 10am.

After landing, the JSF pilots – Wing Commander Darren Clare and Squadron Leader Red Borrman – plus members of Williamtown RAAF Base’s Number 3 Squadron met awaiting dignitaries, stakeholders and Australian Defence Force officials including the Air Marshal, Minister for Defence Christopher Pyne, the Governor General Sir Peter Cosgrove, the Governor of NSW David Hurley, Chief of Navy Vice Admiral Mike Noonan and Secretary of Defence Greg Moriarty.

Sqn Ldr Borrman said the experience of landing one of the first two F-35As in Australia, where they will now be permanently based, was “very rewarding”.

“It was a privilege to do it,” he said.

Squadron Leader Red Borrman, Wing Commander Jason Easthope, Sqn Ldr Ben Sawley and Wng Cmdr Leon Cossins at Williamtown RAAF Base on Monday. Picture: Ellie-Marie Watts

Squadron Leader Red Borrman, Wing Commander Jason Easthope, Sqn Ldr Ben Sawley and Wng Cmdr Leon Cossins at Williamtown RAAF Base on Monday. Picture: Ellie-Marie Watts

Mr Pyne, who was joined in Williamtown by the Minister for Defence Industry Steven Ciobo, said the JSF will be a “game-changer” for Australia and the ADF.

“We apply the word historic in politics pretty liberally, and in general, but when the first class of something as significant as the largest purchase in the air force’s history lands in Australia for the first time that’s seriously is an historic day,” Mr Pyne said.

“This is the most advanced, multi-role stealth fighter in the world. It will deliver the next generation capability benefits and provide a major boost to our intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance capabilities.

“In Australia’s immediate region, Japan and South Korea are in the process of procuring the F-35A Joint Strike Fighter, and are closely aligned with Australia’s pursuit of shared strategic, security and economic interests.”

The 72 F-35As plus associated weapons, support and equipment and infrastructure has been purchased by the federal government to meet Australia’s air combat needs beyond 2030.

They will be phased into service to replace the F/A18-A/B Classic Hornet fleet by 2023.

The first two Lockheed Martin-built JSF were delivered to the international F-35A Pilot Training Centre at Luke Air Force Base in Arizona in December 2014.

A further eight aircraft have since been delivered to the US air base.

Six are currently operating at the F-35A Pilot Training Centre. The other two, A35-009 and A350-010, landed in Williamtown on Monday.

The JSF are being operated by No. 3 Sqn under the command of Wng Cmdr Clare. 

RAAF officer Wing Commander Darren Clare, Commanding Officer of No. 3 Squadron, at the arrival ceremony of the first two F-35A aircraft at RAAF Base Williamtown. Picture: Sgt Amanda Campbell

RAAF officer Wing Commander Darren Clare, Commanding Officer of No. 3 Squadron, at the arrival ceremony of the first two F-35A aircraft at RAAF Base Williamtown. Picture: Sgt Amanda Campbell

A further eight F-35As are expected to arrive in Australia in 2019 and 15 more in 2020.

Pilot training is planned to begin at Williamtown in early 2019 with the aircraft expected to enter service in 2020.

The JSFs will be based at Williamtown and RAAF Base Tindal in the Northern Territory.

About $1 billion has been spent by the Australian Government to prepare the Williamtown base and air space for the JSF arrival including upgrades to accommodation, the runway, storage and workshop facilities.

Port Stephens Mayor Ryan Palmer, who attended Monday’s arrival ceremony, said the JSF has short and long-term benefits for the community.

“Currently, Defence and associate supplier industries in Port Stephens employ over 6000 people, generating $927 million in wages in our area,” Cr Palmer said.

“We know this is only set to grow, with flow-on economic benefits in the next 20 years set to reach $1.2 billion.

“With around $1 billion worth of investment in infrastructure and facilities to continue as part of the JSF program, we’re set for many new jobs to be created and better opportunities for our communities.

“There will also be further investment in initiatives such as Astra Aerolab, which bridges defence, aviation and aerospace industries to create a cutting edge commercial precinct in our area.

“This alone is expected to create over 5000 jobs and inject $246 million into the NSW economy.

“Long term, the impact will continue to grow as industries including education, hospitality, medical and other services all set to benefit.

“New businesses will attract new employees who will choose to live, work and play in Port Stephens, growing our communities socially, intellectually and economically for decades to come.”

Port Stephens MP Kate Washington, Paterson MP Meryl Swanson and Parliamentary Secretary for the Hunter, Scot MacDonald MLC, attended Monday’s arrival.

Uncle John Ridgeway, Flight Lt Matt Roberts, an Indigenous Liaison Officer, John Schultz and Uncle Neville Lilley, at Monday's JSF arrival. Picture: Ellie-Marie Watts

Uncle John Ridgeway, Flight Lt Matt Roberts, an Indigenous Liaison Officer, John Schultz and Uncle Neville Lilley, at Monday's JSF arrival. Picture: Ellie-Marie Watts

Worimi elder Neville Lilley did a welcome to country ahead of official speeches while John Schultz performed a traditional smoking ceremony. 

Wng Cmdr Jason Easthope, commander of 77 Sqn, led the Hornets formation that flew the F-35As in on Monday. He said the experience was “fantastic”.

“It really brings it home just how good these new F-35s are when you fly alongside them,” he said.

The formation and flypast held special meaning. The way the Hornets peeled off, allowing the F-35As to fly a solo lap around the base and airport, was a formal handover.

Volunteers at Fighter World, many of whom have experience with the Air Force and flying, had one of the best viewing spots to Monday’s aerial display.

A group of 10 volunteers told the Examiner they enjoyed watching the new generation of jet flypast and land at Williamtown.

“It was good to witness history being made,” volunteer Kerry Ross said. “It’s significant in Australia’s aviation history.”