In an Australian first, the Air Force’s remotely piloted Heron aircraft flew in civilian airspace over Rockhampton this week as part of preparations for the joint Australian and United States exercise Talisman Sabre.
The month-long biennial training event will see more than 27,000 troops take part at training bases in Shoalwater Bay near Rockhampton and in Darwin next month.
The Heron has completed more than 27,000 mission hours in southern Afghanistan to provide an eye in the sky for Australian forces and the International Security Assistance Force.
Wing Commander Jonathan McMullan has completed four tours in Iraq and most recently three in Afghanistan as part of the Heron Taskforce Unit.
He said it was an historic week as it was the first time an unmanned aircraft had flown in civilian airspace without interrupting domestic flights.
“Our intent is to integrate, not accommodate … and that allows us to expand our operations outside of defence restricted airspace in Australia and allows us to participate more fully in ADF exercises,” he said.
He said while the Israeli-built aircraft is unmanned, pilots must have a minimum of three to five years’ experience flying a manned aircraft on tour before they can operate the system.
Wing Commander McMullan said the remotely controlled aircraft were capable of serving civilian purposes.
“That is a perfect use, or perfect utility of this asset,” he said.
“In fact if we had have been out of Afghanistan earlier it’d be highly likely it would have supported the G20 back in late 2014.”
The Heron weighs one tonne and is capable of flying uninterrupted for 24 hours.
He said this week is about familiarising pilots with the Rockhampton airspace ahead of the war games.
“Now that we’ve finished our commitment in Afghanistan, we have the ability to provide that support,” he said.
“What it will do is allow the army commanders to integrate the Heron system into the battlefield to provide enhanced battlefield awareness.”
Wing Commander McMullan said although the aircraft has a wingspan of 16.6 metres, members of the public will struggle to see it unless they view it from the Rockhampton Airport.
“It actually looks like a really large glider but because it has such a massive wingspan we can fly to about 30,000 feet, so apart from take-off and landing, [the public] probably won’t see us,” he said.
The RAAF currently has two Heron systems operating from its base at Woomera in South Australia.