The third Hunter Valley Airshow was held on the weekend of the 6th & 7th of April this year at Cessnock airport; a change from the previous two shows which had been held at Rutherford airport, Maitland (See our reports on the 2015 & 2017 shows HERE and HERE). This change in location, particularly to using the south-west end of the roughly north / south runway at Cessnock, had the added benefit (at least for us photographers) that the sun is behind the crowd for most of the afternoon’s flying.
Last minute display practices and aircraft arrivals were squeezed in between rain showers on the Friday afternoon but the wet weather which had beset the organisers and their preparations during the week leading up to the show, cleared on Saturday morning for a weekend of glorious sunshine and pleasant temperatures (another benefit of moving the show to later on the calendar. The previous two shows having been held in the scorching heat of January).
Each day’s flying activities began with a flag drop where a parachutist descended trailing a large Australian flag while Paul Bennet circled in his bright yellow Wolf Pitts Pro and, if the audience was in any doubt about who had put this show together, they were spectacularly reminded when the flag drop was followed by Paul making a knife-edge pass, in front of a wall of fire with the “Paul Bennet Airshows” (PBA) banner being towed above it all. A great opening for the show that was to come.
The speed and noise was then kicked up a notch with the arrival of the Royal Australian Air Force’s (RAAF’s) FltLt Kris Sieczowski in a Hawk 127 from 76 Squadron at nearby RAAF Base Williamtown. FltLt Sieczowski really put the Hawk through its paces and displayed the high performance capability of the RAAF’s Lead-In-Fighter. Saturday’s display was particularly impressive as Kris did his best to wring the humidity out of the cool morning air, creating ecto clouds and vortices not often seen from a Hawk. To top it off, Kris (a keen sports parachutist), parachuted back into the show a bit later in the day as well.
From one extreme of aviation to the other, Levi Wagner, Jeff Sparkes and Sam Unicomb then put on a show with their incredible, large scale RC models. It takes a second look to tell some of these models from the real thing in photos and the skilful flying by the pilots added to the effect as well. One thing the show organisers aim to do is display the many different ways and means that people can find enjoyment in aviation in all its forms and RC models like these have been the inspiration for many a successful career in aviation, and a popular hobby for others to enjoy the fun and skill of flying too.
Also along these lines, Craig Gunther then displayed the Breezy from nearby Luskintyre. Possibly one of the most unusual machines you are ever likely to see, it’s literally a basic tubular frame upon which the pilot (and a brave passenger at times) sit very exposed at the front, with the wing from a Piper Cub on top and a pusher-prop at the back. Open cockpit flying at its absolute best and reminiscent of the very earliest forms of aviation.
Tim Dugan flew Chris and Haley Tibbetts’ Beech-18, showing of the type’s classic lines and surprising agility (you can see more about this classic twin in our previous article; HERE) followed by Ben Lappin in Paul Bennet’s CAC Wirraway, the iconic Australian-built trainer of WWII (you can see more of this machine HERE).
In keeping with the trainer theme, next up was the RAAF Trainer formation team with Matt Henderson in his CAC Winjeel (the successor to the Wirraway) and Murray Wallace, Matt Denning and Ben Thompson in their NZA CT-4s (themselves successors to the Winjeel). The team made some passes in formation before Matt Denning broke away to give a solo demonstration in his lovely yellow and green CT-4, followed by Matt Henderson in the much larger Winjeel.
Paul Bennet then flew Ross Pay’s beautiful silver CAC Mustang, one of the Second World War’s most significant fighters, before James Crockett painted the sky with some amazing smoke trails thanks to the generators mounted on the wingtips of his incredible, modified Yak-3 racer, “Steadfast”. (You can see more of Ross Pay’s Mustang HERE)
Aerohunter’s Yak-52 was put through a very crisp routine at the hands of Glenn Graham, the bright yellow machine trailing its plume of smoke made for a colourful display against the clear blue sky. At one point, Glenn even managed a wave to the crowd while inverted!
Paul Bennet was then back at it as he performed an incredible solo routine in his Wolf Pitts Pro. One of only two in the world, the Wolf is a unique and very powerful version of the diminutive Pitts Special which has been designed for speed and manoeuvrability, both of which Paul exploits to the fullest in his display. As if Paul’s display wasn’t impressive enough, the crowd was treated to the added spectacle of motocross rider Kain Saul performing a backflip above Paul as he performed a very low side-slip below.
Not all the attractions were in the sky either, with plenty to see and do on the ground. The RAAF Balloon offered tethered flights and the Royal Australian Navy had Virtual Reality helicopter simulators available for future pilots to test their skills. There were several static aircraft to view including some of Luskintyre Aircraft Restorations quality rebuilds, Hunter Valley Vintage Aviation’s fleet and other locally based machines. In Addition to their incredible stunts as part of Paul Bennet’s routine, the team from Australian Ramp Designs put on a great show of jumps, backflips and riding skills for the crowds across the weekend and there was also a great display of historic military vehicles thanks to the Australian ex-military vehicle collectors society and various local clubs had some beautifully restored cars on display too.
Back in the air (or nearly), we were treated to the rare sight of two very different types from the Vietnam period sharing the runway as Ben Lappin lined up in Paul Bennet’s Cessna O-2 ahead of the Historical Aircraft Restoration Society’s (HARS’) Caribou. It was even better on Sunday when both the O-2s at the show lined up and took off together as Andy Bishop headed back to Temora in his machine.
Once the O-2(s) had departed, Richard Elliot, David Dredge and Chris Joyson displayed HARS’ mighty Caribou. Never a fast routine, but always impressive to see such a large machine still being well displayed for the public, thanks to the hard work and efforts of the team at Illawarra. They departed later on Sunday to head home, giving us another nice pass as they headed on their way (You can see more on this impressive machine in our previous article HERE).
After the ‘Bou had landed (and was performing its “trick” of reversing on the runway) Ben returned to display the O-2. A type not often seen at Australian airshows, Ben displayed the nice lines and surprising agility of this unusual machine to great effect. Sunday’s routine was particularly impressive.
On Saturday, the diminutive O-2’s display was followed by the RAAF’s much larger P-8 Poseidon, the replacement for the P-3 Orion in the maritime role, flown by FltLt Joshua Brown and crew from 11 sqn, all the way from Adelaide in South Australia. FltLt Brown and the crew put on a great show for such a large machine. It’s not often that you get to see a type that is more often associated with passenger-carrying airlines maneuverer like that, so close to the ground. Although the pass with the weapons bay open highlighted the fact that this machine is a very different beast to your average 737.
Ross Pay’s beautiful P-40E was then displayed by Paul Bennet. This machine wears the makings, nose art and even signature of the late Robert (Bobby) Gibbes, OAM, DSO, DFC and Bar, from his time as Commanding Officer of 3 Squadron RAAF, in North Africa during WWII.
Glenn Graham showed off his aerobatic skills once again, this time in the Rebel 300. The Rebel is a bit of an odd-one-out in the PBA aerobatic fleet as it is the only monoplane amongst all those Pitts biplanes. Glenn showed that it doesn’t matter how many wings it has though, he’s still going to try and turn it inside-out.
Changing pace (and size) again, Glenn was followed by Tim Dugan displaying the surprising manoeuvrability and throaty rumble of Paul Bennet’s large Grumman Avenger, the largest single-engined aircraft of WWII, which included a few “bombing runs” accompanied by pyrotechnics.
Paul Bennet and Doug Hamilton then took up the Hawker Hurricane and Temora Aviation Museum’s (TAM’s) Mk VIII Spitfire respectively and made some passes in formation to give the crowds a rare chance to see and hear these two iconic fighters from WWII together once again. Paul and Doug then separated to give individual handling displays of each machine.
Interestingly, Temora’s Spitfire also wears the markings of the late Robert (Bobby) Gibbes, OAM, DSO, DFC and Bar; This time from when he was Wing Commander of 80 Wing in the Pacific Theater, while the Hurricane, restored and operated by Vintage Fighter Restorations at Scone, is painted up as the aircraft flown by Pilot Officer John Crossman, an Australian pilot who fought in the Battle of Britain until being shot down and killed in September 1940.(You can see more about the Hurricane’s story HERE).
On Saturday afternoon, Tim Dugan put on a great aerobatic display in Paul Bennet’s Pitts Model 12, a larger, radial-engined version of the Pitts family. This gives it a distinctly different look to its more common and diminutive, in-line-engined cousins. Something of a curious cross between a classic 1930s biplane and a modern, high performance aerobatic machine. And then there’s that “sound of round” too.
For the final civilian performance of the day, Paul Bennet, Glenn Graham and Ben Lappin took their Pitts’ up for a formation display as the PBA Sky Aces Team with a skilled combination of graceful manoeuvres and high energy aerobatics. The routine was rounded off in dramatic style as Paul made low and slow pass against the backdrop of a huge wall of fire.
Next on scene was FltLt Darren Wong from the RAAF Roulettes aerobatic team with a solo display in the brand new PC-21. The Roulettes had performed their final displays in the venerable PC-9s at the Australian International Airshow at Avalon just a few weeks earlier, so the PC-21 is still very much the “new kid on the block” for the team and this was a great chance to get a look at the new machine. The increase in performance over the PC-9 is quite apparent and the sound is something else as well. It will be interesting to see the whole team display one day.
And the RAAF ended the show with a bang each day (or at least a whole lot of noise) with a roaring performance from FltLt Michael Keightley in an F/A-18 Classic Hornet from 2 Operational Conversion Unit (2 OCU) at RAAF Base Williamtown. Always a crowd favourite, the ground shook as FltLt Keightley showed that, while it may be in the twilight of its service with the RAAF, the Hornet is still a front-line machine of brute power and manoeuvrability and it was a fantastic way to end a great show and a brilliant weekend.
This show has only improved since the first event back in 2015 (and it was good then too) and I believe that the change in venue to Cessnock, with the support of the local Council, has been another great step forward which will benefit future shows as well. The ability to bring together such a varied range of types and displays, thanks to great support from the likes of the RAAF, HARS, Temora, Pay’s Air Services, Team Steadfast and others in the air as well as the great variety of attractions on the ground to entertain the whole family, is a testament to the hard work and professionalism of the organisers. This is definitely one to mark on your calendars in the future.
My sincere thanks to the team at Paul Bennet Airshows for the opportunity to capture the weekend’s events and to the Royal Australian Air Force, all the aircraft owners and operators and all the sponsors for making such a great airshow possible.