Phil Buckley visited the frontline RAAF Fighter Force to talk to members of 3 Squadron / 81 Wing, Air Combat Group (ACG) who fly the F/A-18 Hornets which are located at RAAF Willamtown near Newcastle, NSW.

HISTORY of 3 SQN – MottoSecrets Revealed


The basis for the formation of No 3 Squadron AFC, started back in 1916 when the unit was raised at Point Cook, Victoria on 19 September 1916 and then sent to England equipped with RE-8 aircraft. It was then the first Australian Flying Corps Squadron to move to France. By the end of the war, it had flown over 10,000 operational hours in support of the ground forces in bombing, artillery spotting and reconnaissance roles. During World War II, 3 Squadron was the first RAAF unit deployed to the Middle East where it took part in many operations including the Battle of El Alamein against the Luftwaffe. Since World War II, No 3 Squadron has spent nearly thirty years at RAAF Butterworth in Malaysia, where they first operated CAC Sabre and then Mirage fighter aircraft.


In 1986, the squadron was redeployed back home to Australia to became the first unit in the RAAF to be equipped with the new state of the art F/A-18 Hornet.


The Royal Australian Air Force’s No 81 Wing is responsible for the provision of combat air power to Australian and coalition forces through the generation of Offensive Counter Air (OCA) and Defensive Counter Air (DCA) operations using the F/A-18 Hornets. The role of 3 Squadron is to project Australian airpower when required.


The RAAF currently flies 71 F/A-18 – a mix of single seat A and 2 seater Hornets across 3 frontline squadrons with 3, 75 and 77 Sqn. The main training for these frontline squadrons is undertaken by 2 OCU, who further up skill and increases the knowledge for all the fighter “fast jet” student pilots who come from 76Sqn, so that they become proficient fighter pilots. In the early 1970s the USAF was seeking a new fighter in a light weight fighter role and this lead to a competition, which saw the McDonnell Douglas YF-17 Cobra built as one of the aircraft. The Cobra lost out to the General Dynamics F-16 “Viper” and was improved over a few more years and by the late 1970s the YF-17 had developed into a new US Navy/Marines aircraft called the F/A-18 Hornet.


McDonnell Douglas saw this as a perfect aircraft to sell overseas as an export product. At this time in the late 1970s/early 1980s the then developing F/A-18 was finding it very to win over new buyers, as the now popular and fast selling F-16 had nearly taken over the light weight fighter market because it was cheaper and more versatile. So the F/A-18 was kind of left without market after so much development and really had only 2 certain customers – the US Navy and USMC. Another McDonnell Douglas product, the F-15 Eagle was slowly as well becoming totally dominant all across the world in the other end of the market in the heavy weight fighter section. This left the navalised F/A-18 looking at a potentially small market segment in the future. Luckily for McDonnell Douglas a few countries saw their Hornet product had the capabilities they were seeking. Co-incidentally by the early 1980s the RAAF was seeking a replacement for the Mirage and in 1981 the after an extensive competition, the F/A-18 Hornet was chosen. As well the Canadian government also selected the Hornet to replace F-101 Voodoos and F-104 Starfighters. The Hornet began to replace in service the Dassault Mirage IIIO from 1986 onwards. During 2003 over Iraq, the RAAF took the Hornet into combat for the first time, when part of the coalition to in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom”. The Iraqi combat operation experience has helped the RAAF learn more about using the F/A-18 Hornet as a bomber, in an active combat environment. It gave the pilots a rare warzone deployment they could write up as “green ink” which signified combat missions.


As the Commanding Officer of 3 Squadron at the time of AOPA visit, WGCDR Terry Van Haren is in charge of a well trained and highly motivated squadron.


Terry has been flying with the RAAF for over 20years and during this time he has graduated as a RAAF Fighter Combat Instructor – FCI.Wearing the coveted FCI patch means he is qualified to train, lead and mould the pilots in the squadron to be the best they can in air to air and air to ground combat roles. Very few pilots get to become the elite FCI, as it is a hard training course with challenging demands. Terry is also one of only a few people in the RAAF to so far have flown over 3,000 Hours in the F/A-18 Hornet. Commanding the squadron normally sees the CO facing a variety of challenges in ensuring the RAAF maintains air and ground superiority. Issues with daily administration, staffing rosters, maintenance issues for aircraft and training for combat keeps the unit very much occupied. Terry explained managing the personnel and training needs are important areas, which require strategic and operational reviews to ensure the squadron is running smoothly.


A recent pilot to join 3 Squadron was Flight Officer Duncan Herbert, who had graduated from 2 OCU. 


New F/A-18 pilots like Duncan, come to the frontline squadron from 2 Operational Conversion Unit (2 OCU), which is also co-located on base and fly F/A-18A and B models. Before this the trainee Hornet pilots are trained on the Bae Hawk 127 LIF at 76 Squadron also co-located on base. In interviewing Duncan he came across as a keen and enthusiastic pilot and has being in the in the RAAF for 7years  his training and at 3 Squadron for a few months. Duncan is part of the constant flowing structure that gives the squadron, a necessary mix of new and experienced pilots to keep the squadron properly manned at its required operational levels. As seen with Duncan’s training there is a lot of technical and flight manual reading, simulator time and flights with instructors done before a pilot gets to fly solo in a single seat F/A-18 Hornet. Part of the intense training done on the simulators and on the Bae 127 Hawk deals with the systems that are found in the F/A-18 Hornet such as navigation and weapon delivery systems. The Bae Hawk has been customised for the RAAF to replicate as close as possible the same systems which are found in the F/A-18 Hornet. The Hawk cockpit is designed with MFDs and a 21st Century cockpit to manage the transition from the turboprop PC-9 to jet powered Hornet easier to handle.

 Duncan and Terry both explained what it is like to manage a complex and very versatile  computer driven controlled aircraft like the Hornet. As part of the learning how to handle a Hornet during training, new pilots are taught about such systems such the hydraulics flight controls, operating the twin F-404 engines, effects of drag on the external loads, flying at night time with formation lights, use of FLIR pods and the high impact landing gear features. These training profiles require considerable training which is undertaken at 2 OCU and then continually within 3 Sqn (also done as well at the other squadrons).

The modern Hornet pilot has to know a lot of details to fly safely and competently not only to their own limits but the aircraft’s limits. With the software controlling the aircraft upgraded after the Hornet Upgrade (HUG) program updates, it has enabled the Hornet to expand the weapons system availability, better defend itself and to become easier to maintain. Over the last few years as the Hornet fleet has got older, all of these upgrade capabilities have proven to be needed and useful.

 In flying aircraft in the military environment, the pilots have to face physical conditions including dealing with body hydration, pressure and stress on the body from altitude, g forces and learning to absorb oxygen via their oxygen mask as it is unusual for some pilots to experience without some training. To help overcome these issues, specific training is undertaken by pilot’s which focus on improving their cardiovascular system and is also supported by general fitness to help withstand unnatural conditions. Having a good fitness level is essential and is factored into each pilot’s daily routine with running, weights and other exercise to keep in top shape. Being extremely fit and able to handle the demands of flight, may mean literally the difference between achieving an air combat kill over an opponent or……. being the kill.

Having excellent eye sight is advantageous but the RAAF now allow pilots to join who are wearing glasses. Also the other reason not having perfect eyesight is now allowed, is that today’s modern air warfare systems do not rely as heavily on gaining first sight of the enemy with the human eyes but more so reliant on using system sensors such as radar, FLIR and EW sensors to acquire the targets at long distances.

Another pilot who joined at the same time as Duncan was Flt Lt Damien Wilkins who explained to AOPA that he enjoys flying the high tech F/A-18 Hornet.


As an example of his work, he could be each month undertaking training sorties, which can see him practicing various air to air and air to ground mission profiles. At other times he could be participating in exercises either around Australia or overseas, which can be to Asia or USA to operate alongside other Air Forces such as Japan, US, etc.


Damien sees some of his challenges as keeping fit, constantly learning new and improved air to air and air to ground tactics and how to get the best out of his aircraft systems. He finds the cockpit layout easy to work with due to the use of easy to use technology incorporated in to the MFDs and display setup.


As a frontline pilot he and his fellow squadron mates, are at the leading edge of Australia’s defence and as such, he believes he has one of the best jobs available and hopes to keep flying for as long as possible.



Sitting under a blown glass canopy, which gives superb visibility from the cockpit, is the pilot of the F/A-18 Hornet. For the large size of the Hornet, the cockpit is a fairly snug fit for some pilots. This means also that it brings most of the controls and instruments into easy reach, with some moderate bending or turning for some in the harder to reach locations. The main flight controller is the control stick which is located between the pilot’s legs when sitting in the cockpit. The flight stick function is to control the aircraft flight direction and extra functions are integrated into the stick top with features such as missile release/gun trigger, trim tabs switch and air to ground weapon release switch.


The rudders, which are located at the bottom of the pilot’s feet under the console, are also used to turn the aircraft in flight. When looking forward out of the cockpit, there is a large Head Up Display unit (HUD) on the console in front of the pilot. The HUD basically is basically a pane of glass, onto which projects (in a variable green colour), all the required flight information at the pilot’s eye level. This is done to enable the pilot to remains heads up while flying, instead of head down looking at instruments and screens.


The HUD is supplemented by the throttle controller on the left side which is called the hands-on throttle and stick (HOTAS). This HOTAS function allows the  pilot to have easier control of the aircraft’s weapons systems which can include such features as choosing which radar mode to select, choosing the missile / bomb release, gun trigger, chaff/flare dispense and more. This setup helps to limit the hands moving around all the cockpit systems when in intense situations.


Beside the HUD and HOTAS, the pilot uses in their daily flying of the F/A-18 Hornet, 3 primary screens which are called the DDI (Digital Display Indicator) or more commonly known as Multi Function Displays (MFDs) which are located in front of them on the console beneath the HUD. The screen can be set to modes covering Air to Air, Air to Ground or navigation. Examples of the data which can be displayed can include engine / airframe and performance data, weapon system settings and flight control information. With 3 MFDs available to use, with each screen able to project different system setups, a pilot can be operating different modes all at once. The combined benefits of a well laid out cockpit and HUD is that it enables a Hornet pilot to better detect, analyse and neutralise threats such as air to air or ground to air – AAA and Surface to Air Missiles – SAMs.


In air to air combat, air to ground and flying in general, a pilot needs to be heads up to see their terrain. The Hornet is acknowledged as having a good large blown shaped canopy which affords excellent vision for the pilot. This is also due to the design as it extends down to arm level allowing better viewing downwards as the canopy edge is low. There are no airframe or canopy bulkhead / components blocking views directly looking backwards so the Hornet pilot is able with some careful turning and positioning in the ejection seat, see the other side of the aircraft if they turn around. This ability to see behind is extremely important when flying in dogfights, as you need to see where your enemy is at all times.


One of the most important parts of the cockpit is the SJU-5/6A ejector seat, which is used if the pilot needs to leave the aircraft in case of an emergency. The pilot is connected to the seat by use of a parachute harness which they “wear” once they strap into the seat, The harness is needed should they ever need to eject, as it keeps them with the ejection seat until the automatic release mechanisms activate the pilot parachute/seat separation process. The pilot’s parachute canopy is packed into the top of the seat along with the seat deploying drogue chute. The ejection seat has ankle straps to pull tightly the pilot’s legs into seat the legs and lock them in prior to leaving the aircraft.  If a pilot ever needs to eject, the whole ejection process, can be over within 2 seconds due to the fast workings of the modern ejection systems. With such a fast time frame it is necessary that a pilot tries to adopt the best sitting position on the seat, as an incorrect alignment can cause serious spine and limb injuries if not prepared. The seat padding is rather thin, as this is due to it can’t be too comfortable as the pilot needs to have a firm body position in the ejection seat if they need to eject. The downside to the thin padding is that most pilots experience a sore backside after a few hours of flying.


To enable the pilots at 3 Sqn to carry out their vital missions, it would not be possible if it wasn’t for their support team – which is made up of the rest of the squadron and assorted base personnel.


From the administration and paperwork needs that keep the squadron operational each day, through to aircraft maintenance – engine, fuel, avionics and weapons. The enthusiasm and spirit seen at 3 Sqn is noticeable and everyone knows they are playing their part in getting the pilots airborne at any time day or night when required.


Looking towards the future for younger pilots such as Duncan and Damien, they will be in the not too distance future, based on the planning and development been sorted, transitioning to an entirely new aircraft – the Lockheed F-35 Lightning II. This future transition will be even more advanced than the transition from the Mirage to the Hornet was back in the 1980s for the RAAF. The F-35 will bring new capabilities to the RAAF such as having such as greater situational awareness, able to handle and process intelligence data quicker, able to be more versatile in adapting to mission requirements or re-role, have a lower radar/observation signature due to use of stealthy design/RAM coating and have ability to stand off with long range bombs and missiles. It does have one difference, in that it will have a single engine but have the same range as an F/A-18 Hornet. With the most recent F/A-18 Hornet HUG upgrades now complete and with the oldest airframes reaching nearly 28years in age, the RAAF with careful management could extend the Classic Hornet fleet flying hours a bit more to reach the F-35 IOC service date.  If the RAAF does needs to further extend the Classic Hornet force airframes hours to meet the entry of the F-35, which is slated for around 2020 at this present time, this could be done or maybe be supplemented by more F/A-18F Super Hornet purchases.


If you are interested in a career flying aircraft like the F/A-18 Hornet or maybe helping maintain the fighter force at bases like RAAF Williamtown, it is recommended you get in touch with Defence Force Recruiting by calling 13 19 01 or visit online at www.defencejobs.gov.au/recruitmentcentre and read the various information to assist in your query.

Acknowledgements – AOPA wishes to thank 3 Sqn personnel and RAAFPR personnel for their assistance in putting this story together.


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