Controlling the air from the sea

May 27, 2019 – Three Royal Australian Air Force personnel are controlling the airspace from a moving airstrip on board HMAS Canberra.

Squadron Leader Ross Madsen and Flight Lieutenants Hamish Upton and Paul Atteridge are deployed on Canberra – one of Australia’s two landing helicopter docks (LHDs) – for three months during INDO-PACIFIC ENDEAVOUR 2019 (IPE19).

A senior air traffic controller (ATC), Squadron Leader Madsen said providing an air traffic control service at sea was largely similar to on land.

“The biggest difference is the airfield moves and the runway points in a different direction, so we are constantly dealing with different airspaces,” Squadron Leader Madsen said.

The ATCs work within the Air Division, a tri-service division that integrates Army and Air Force personnel into a Navy team.

“Working in Canberra is a great example of joint operations, with RAAF controllers working alongside Navy on a Navy ship controlling the airspace for Army aircraft,” Squadron Leader Madsen said.

As well as helping the Australian Defence Force, the deployment benefits other nations involved.

“During IPE19, we’ve been working with other nations to enhance interoperability with different helicopters landing on Canberra’s deck and our MRH90s landing on their ships,” he said.

“We’ve also embarked four Army Armed Reconnaissance Helicopters, from the Australian Army’s 1st Aviation Regiment in Darwin, to train aircrew and ground staff for deck landing qualifications by day and night.”

Lieutenant Commander Tony Hammond, the officer in charge of flying operations in Canberra, said the ATCs brought experience managing many aircraft to enable safe and efficient flying operations.

“Additionally, having established points of contact at land bases, which control associated restricted airspace, has proven beneficial to successful completion of short-notice tasking,” Lieutenant Commander Hammond said.

“Having a joint environment on IPE19 demonstrates how the ADF works collaboratively to achieve the required capability of LHDs.”

Squadron Leader Madsen is enjoying being posted to a Navy ship, an uncommon experience for a RAAF officer.

“Certainly 35 years ago when I joined Air Force, I never expected to find myself sailing through the Bay of Bengal next to a Kilo-class submarine operated by the Indian Navy,” he said.