About the Departmental Flying Unit

Editor's note: The following public relations text describes the Department of Aviation's Flying Unit as it existed in the early to mid 1980s.


Australia's most unusual 'airline' never carries a paying passenger! The reason is simple - it is not really an airline at all. 'Airline' is the nickname given by the Australian industry to the special flying unit operated by the Australian Department of Aviation.

The Unit has eighteen aircraft - three Fokker Fellowship jets, two Aero Commander 690Es, five Beech Bonanzas, four Swearingen Merlin IIBs, two Swearingen Merlin IIIs, one Piper Cherokee and a Piper Aztec.

The Unit's primary task is to maintain a continuous check on the accuracy and operation of the nation-wide network of navigational and instrument landing aids. The aircraft are also used for crew training, aerodrome inspections, aerial surveys, navigation aid site selection, search and rescue operations and special project flying - such as flight evaluation of new aircraft navigation systems.

Some idea of the Unit's task can be gauged from the following statistics:

The Department of Aviation controls all civil flying throughout an area of approximately 33,750,000 square kilometres, the largest area administered by an aviation authority in the Western World. The region includes Australia and large areas of the Southern, South Pacific and Indian Oceans.

The Department installs and maintains all airways navigation aids and provides air traffic control services for civil flying through Australia.

There are 453 aerodromes in Australia and the Department of Aviation owns and operates 82 of these, including all of Australia's major aerodromes, on behalf of the Australian Government.

Australian domestic airlines operate over a route network of approximately 113,015 kilometres.

The history of the Flying Unit goes back to 1921 when the civil aviation authority was then a Branch of the Australian Defence Department. It bought its first aeroplane - a Bristol Tourer, G-AUCA. Uniform Charlie Alpha (UCA) was in the first group of aircraft to go onto the Australian Register of Civil Aircraft on June 28, 1921. It received Certificate No. 46 and for the following two years was chiefly on aerodrome inspection work and civil flying.

Aircraft Registers of the 20's and 30's show that the civil aviation authority acquired more than thirty aircraft - mainly DH60s (Moths) but the acquisition was in name only. These aircraft were handed over for use as trainers by the growing Australian aero club movement. The civil aviation authority's own fleet continued as a small compact unit, and up to the second World War included such varied types as a DH50A, a DH60M (Moth Major) a Percival Q6, a Wackett Widgeon, a Monospar, and a Northrop Delta. One DH50A, VH-UAY, was sold in the late 1930's and found its way to New Guinea where it was finally shot down by Japanese aircraft on March 11, 1942.

At the outbreak of World War II most of these aircraft were impressed into RAAF Service. After the war the Department re-equipped with a number of war disposal aircraft including 2 Lockheed Lodestars, 6 DH82s (Tiger Moths), an Auster and 5 ex-RAAF Avro Ansons. These were followed by 4 DC3s and 2 De Havilland Drovers. The Drovers were bought to help stimulate Australian production of the machine. By 1957 the fleet had settled down to 3 Douglas DC3s, 5 Avro Ansons, a Cessna 170, a DH82, two Austers and a Drover.

The Department then started planning the modernisation of its fleet. The need to up-date arose from two primary considerations. The Unit's then front-line aircraft (three DC3s) were inadequate for the task of electronic facility checking because of their speed and altitude limitations. The DC3s flight characteristics were also unequal to those of the aircraft the facilities were designed to serve. Viscounts had been introduced into Australian domestic routes in 1954 and the industry was rapidly swinging over to turbo-prop operations. Secondly, the Unit's war-time surplus Ansons had reached the end of their useful careers.

The fleet modernisation programme began with the purchase of two turbo prop Fokker Friendship aircraft which were delivered in 1959. A third F27 was leased from TAA in 1965 and subsequently purchased outright. This gave the Unit a front line aircraft with similar operational characteristics to the turboprops then in use on Australian domestic routes.

Two Aero Commander 560Es were also delivered in 1959 followed by two Aero Commander 680E models, a Piaggio 166 and a Cessna 310 in 1960. These small. twin engine types met the Unit's special operational and short field requirements, and served as useful backup aircraft until 1968 from which date the Merlin IIB, a turboprop aircraft, has been progressively introduced into the Regions to replace the Aero Commander 560Es which were disposed of in 1969. Four Swearingen Merlin IIBs and two Merlin IIIs are now operating with the Unit.

The Australian domestic airlines began to introduce jet aircraft into domestic operation in late 1964. In order to give this Department an aircraft with the same general operational characteristics as the airline equipment, a British built Hawker Siddeley HS125 mini jet was added to the fleet, in 1964. It was used for radio navigation aids and route checking, and in developing and proving operational standards and procedures in the range of operating altitudes and speeds of the new domestic jets.

As a result of the requirements to carry out comprehensive checking of navigation aids at the speeds and altitudes of which domestic jet aircraft operate, studies were initiated in the late 1960s to modernise the fleet again. These plans came to fruition in December 1976 when the first of the Department's new Fokker F28 Fellowship aircraft arrived in Australia. It was subsequently followed by two other F28 aircraft in February and May 1977. These aircraft are now in service as flight survey aircraft.

At present, the three Fokker F28s, one Merlin III, and one Aero Commander 680E are based at Essendon, the administrative and operational centre of the Organisation. The smaller aircraft, including five single engine Bonanza aircraft, are distributed among the five regional administrations.

Periodic survey flights throughout the radio navigation network are repeated every three months for Instrument Landing Systems and every six months for other navigation aids. A typical three monthly check flight on a full ILS involves up to fifteen separate approaches on the facility as well as an orbit. Special electronic check equipment in the aircraft records the performance of the ground installation. The recordings taken in the air are matched with continuous theodolite readings on the aircraft's position as measured from the ground. This matching enables the accuracy of the ground installation to be determined.

Each year the Unit makes about 1,200 individual facility checks on radio aid facilities throughout Australia. Its blue and white aircraft have become familiar sights throughout Australia, especially in the outback. As well as checking civil facilities, the Flying Unit has also assumed responsibility for checking all military navigation aids. This task was accepted from the R.A.A.F. in January 1978.

The Unit expects a further increase in its widespread checking activities during the next few years as further improvements are made to Australia's radio navigation aids system.

Back to the main Flying Operations & Departmental Aircraft index

If this page appears without menu bars at top and left, click here