100 Years At Essendon Airport, Captured By A Spotter

It’s not often you get to recognise such a large milestone as turning 100 years old. Dave Soderstrom from Aviation Spotters Online joined the Essendon Fields team on the ground for their EF100 Community Open Day, where the Airports past, present and future was celebrated. 

Personally I have been ‘spotting’ at this airport my entire life. Growing up in the local area, I have always visited regularly and am familiar with seeing and hearing the aircraft that have used it over the years. Having also been in attendance at the last few open days, I was keen to compare the celebrations of such a large milestone event!

The line-up of exhibitors within the static aircraft display this year saw aircraft and helicopters of all shapes, sizes and roles. A static display such as this allows the general public to approach aircraft, pilots and operators – something a lot of them would have likely never done before! From an aviation ‘spotters’ perspective, the variety of aircraft and helicopters on display showcased the airports diverse uses. It really is a central part of Victoria’s aviation industry.

Walking through the entrance, the static aircraft display began in the Airport’s General Aviation Parking area. A diverse eclectic mix were presented, ranging from a 1935 Ryan SCW-145 through to a Beechcraft Mooney, a couple of Piper Pacers, a Piper Seminole and even a Cessna O-1 Birddog.

The Ryan VH-SCW in particular was an extremely rare example of that type of aircraft, and is presently the only one of its type currently flying in Australia.

Cessna Birddog O-1 VH-LQX was another highlight, originally delivered to the US Army wearing serial 51-7381. After its US service it then moved on to to the Royal Thai Army becoming 7381. In 1991 it was imported and restored back in Australia, and is now a regular feature of Essendon Fields Airport.

Progressing across to the north finger, the display moved into the Regular Public Transport (RPT) area of the Airport. Aircraft display grew in variety, size and operational roles. The locally based operators presented their machines to high standards, and to the delight of the crowd, allowed access into a few of them!

The first aircraft on display in this area, the Australian Maritime Safety Authority (AMSA) Bombardier CL-604 Challenger VH-XND is a regular feature on this tarmac. Earning the nickname ‘Nemo’ thanks to its orange and white markings, this beauty patrols the seas and skies in its role as a search and rescue platform. Its crews were kept busy with lots of interest in its role.

A very nicely presented business jet was next in line thanks to operator Australian Corporate Jet Charters (ACJC). The Embraer EMB-135BJ is a luxury version of a passenger jet that in the larger version was a feature at airports in Australia until recently. The jet looked an absolute gem in the crisp morning light, and is one of several based at the airport by ACJC.

The Victorian Police Air Wing has been based at Essendon Fields since its formation. The blue and white helicopters have changed in shape and size over the years, with the fleet growing both physically and also diversifying into a fixed wing capability. On show were one of three Leonardo AW-139s VH-PVO alongside a Beechcraft KingAir 350 VH-PVE. Both have provided Victoria Police with significant enhancements to the force. The larger and more powerful AW-139 also have greater endurance which makes them safer and better suited for its role. The KingAir adds a much needed capability, and is fitted with the same daylight and infrared camera and mapping and image detection systems as the AW139.

An example of Air Ambulance Victoria’s KingAir was also on display – and very popular with the public at that! The fleet of five AW-139 helicopters and four KingAirs provide the link between rural communities and metropolitan health services in Victoria. The KingAir 200s are owned and provided by Pel Air, from its parent company REX Airlines. The aircraft are due to be upgraded to new and larger models of the KingAirs in 2024.

The largest helicopter on display and one which drew a lot of attention, was the Coulson CU-47D Chinook. The N42CU arrived in Australia from the USA to work the southern fire season based from Essendon Fields. While its role on active fires was reduced significantly this season due to the La Nina event, the crews who were deployed on the machine spent a lot of time working on a program which saw the Chinook approved in the use of night time Aerial firefighting. A big achievement for a big machine! The helicopter will soon be packed up for onward shipment for its next assignment in the Northern Hemisphere. It will return next season ready to protect Victoria and Victorians.

General Aviation Maintenance (or GAM Group) has been based at Essendon Fields since its founding in 1983. Initially the company set up to provide maintenance on aircraft, however quickly grew and purchased its own aircraft so as to enter into the aircraft charter business. Continued growth has seen the company expand its fleet to now encompass over 30 aircraft. On display at the open day was once of the companies Dornier DO-228 and a Turbo Commander VH-ATF.

A third example of the KingAir VH-MQK is a 350ER version that was showcased by the Victorian Royal Flying Doctors Service. The lines of people queuing to see inside this aircraft shows the power and passion the RFDS has on the Australian public.

The smallest locally based helicopter on show was courtesy of Melbourne Helicopters – a two seat Guimbal Cabri G2 VH-PDV. The Cabri is marketed as the ‘Little Big Heli’ and Melbourne Heli fly the type for pilot training. Its piston engine gives the machine a unique sound when operating and Melbourne Heli are the local distributor of the type. Also on display by this operator were one of their Robinson R66s VH-NEJ. Taking people for scenic flights all day, the bright red machine was fully booked throughout the event.

Another heli presented on the day was the AW-169 VH-UMN. Owned by Leonardo Australia, the company demonstrator is a regular feature at Essendon Fields. The AW-169 is larger and more powerful than the AW-139 and is configured for VIP charter operations with a luxury interior.

Piper PA-31 Navajo VH-XGL operated by Interair, is another long term resident of the airport. Interair has been based at Essendon since 1979, and have provided a host of aviation services since its fruition including aircraft for charter, tours, aerial survey, photography and aircraft maintenance. The Navajo on display was built in 1967 however it doesn’t show its age with its beautiful blue and white paint work.

A highlight for me was the aerial display by the Royal Australian Air Force, provided via a short demonstration of the 100 squadron’s North American T-6 Harvard NZ1075 VH-HVD. This ex Royal New Zealand Air Force machine was delivered to New Zealand in 1944 and retired from active service in 1977. It then moved to Australia in 1981 and has been flown actively since as a way to promote the history of wartime flying.

As the airport was still active during the event many locally based aircraft came and went throughout the day. Shortstop Jet Charter’s C-47A known fondly as the “Gooney Bird” provided a bit of nostalgia, and a host of biz jets and GA aircraft lit up the sky.

Essendon Fields Airport really shows no sign of slowing down and can only lead you to ponder what is in store for the next 100 years. Happy 100th Essendon Fields Airport! You have been an integral part of my life for 40 years, and I look forward to spending many more years enjoying your sights and sounds.