History of Fokker F27 VH-CAT the CSIRO story

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History of Fokker F27 VH-CAT the CSIRO story


Author: D.  J.   Llewellyn.Airfield: Various

Time Frame: 1978 – 1987


History of VH-CAT:  The CSIRO story:            by D.  J.  Llewellyn


Origins:  The DCA phase:


VH-CAT (F-27-100 series S/N 10132) was originally acquired by the Australian Dept of Civil Aviation (DCA) for the purposes of navigation aid calibration – particularly, things like Instrument Landing Systems develop errors due to reflections from buildings etc, and there is an ongoing need to calibrate them (and readjust them) to ensure that they meet ICAO standards.  DCA acquired two F-27 100 series for this purpose, in fact, and they performed that function for twenty years before being superseded by F 28s.  They were noteworthy in that, at that time, there was a controversy over rearward-facing seats in airliners; (these are demonstrably safer in a crash); and the Director-General of Civil Aviation, D. G.  Anderson (later Sir Donald George Anderson)  was strongly in favour of them.  The airlines considered that passenger reaction would be adverse, and in any case, rearward-facing seats are somewhat heavier that equivalent forward-facing ones (because the passenger’s centre of gravity is further from the floor  than that of a doubled-over passenger in a forward-facing seat), and the airlines were not going to have that.  So when he ordered the F-27s, D.G. decided to put his money where his mouth was, and ordered them with rearward-facing seats.  I suspect they were some of the only civil airliners in the world so fitted.


In the event, only a handful of seats was ever fitted to VH-CAT;  most of the cabin was full of instrument consoles and equipment;  it never had a full airline interior, and several window openings were left blank.


Whilst it was being used by DCA, a Fokker modification was incorporated by TAA to provide a de-pressurized bay under the cabin floor, for the purpose at that time of housing a downward-looking doppler radar antenna.


VH-CAT had RDa6 – 511 engines throughout the time it was used by DCA.  It had accumulated remarkably few hours in the twenty years; around 12,000 hours as I recall.  The maintenance was contracted to TAA.


Acquisition by CSIRO:


In 1978 it was acquired by CSIRO Division of Cloud Physics, for the princely sum of $250,000, (i.e. less than the cost of a single engine overhaul) to replace the aged  (ex Maralinga ) C-47 VH-RAA that had been used for atmospheric research for about a decade prior to that.   CSIRO Division of Cloud Physics had been formed to research cloud seeding;  and it  worked in this area together with the CSIRO Division of Atmospheric Physics.    The Division of Cloud Physics did most of the practical field research to prove (or more commonly, it seemed, disprove) the theoretical and computer-modelling which was mainly the prerogative of  CSIRO Division of Atmospheric Physics.  The whole question of weather modification is so potentially important that decades of research went in to learning enough about the subject;  and VH-CAT was the ultimate platform for that research in Australia.  However, it was so versatile that it was used for many more tasks than that.


CSIRO –  Phase I:


The Division of Cloud Physics had by that time acquired a great deal of knowledge about how best to set-up an atmospheric research platform;  however they lacked the necessary in-house aeronautical engineering capability to do so.  The author joined them in 1979, specifically to take over the task of supervising the modifications to VH-CAT that the scientists wanted for this role;  and to manage the contractors to whom the actual task of  supplying flight crew and maintenance was assigned.  Since the Division had had a long association with East-West airlines with the C-47, and since East-West operated eleven  F-27s in its airline fleet,  (which allowed pooling of rotable spares) they were the contractors selected.  The aircraft spent several months at East-West’s base at Tamworth in early 1979, undergoing the initial phase of these modifications, the initial target being the 1979 Horsham rain-making experiment, which was a large-scale experiment that hoped to establish what sort of economic benefit could actually be expected from rain-making programs over crops such as wheat, grown on flat terrain.


Because of this experience, VH-CAT was set-up, not as a platform dedicated to one task, but as a quick-change platform that could be adapted rapidly to a wide variety of research jobs.  To do that, it was equipped with an electrical power distribution system in troughs along either side of the cabin, and had three dedicated electrical power-supply racks on the stbd side; these converted part of the 28 volt DC power to 240 V AC.  Because it is fairly useless measuring something  unless you know where you were when you measured it, it was also equipped with a navigation rack on the port side, equipped with a completely independent suite of navigation aids to those used by the flight crew.  The Division had three RAAF-trained navigators, whose job it was to compile an accurate log of every minute of every flight, and to take the “closing error” at the end of the flight and correct the log for that error, and to present this as a report to the scientist for whom the flight had been performed.


Photos:  CSIRO

Ten hard-points were initially provided around the fuselage a short distance forward of the propellers (and spaced so no wake was shed into the propellers by hardware mounted on the hard points).  An additional hard-point was added some time later.


The engines were up-rated to RDa6 – 514 status (by increasing the water-methanol flow; this required the addition of a water-methanol cross-feed system.)  It should be explained that the use of water-methanol enabled the aircraft to maintain take-off performance to ground  temperatures up to 45 degrees C;  the whole success of the F-27 as an airliner was largely due to this ability; it would have been relatively useless without this.  However the logistics of water-methanol supply largely dictated the hub-and-spoke pattern of regional airline operations that persists to this day, although more modern engines achieve this capability by flat-rating and so do not need water-methanol.  The conversion to -514 status gave VH-CAT better take-off performance at the cost of a voracious appetite for water-methanol, and arranging for a current supply of it at places like Victoria River Downs was one of the ongoing challenges in operating VH-CAT in the research role.


VH-CAT went to Mildura for the Horsham experiment late in 1979, equipped as shown in the photos.


VH-CAT did not (ever) do any cloud seeding – that was done, in the Horsham experiment, by two PA 31 aircraft.  Rather, VH-CAT’s task at Horsham was to fly in the clouds that had been seeded, and measure what the seeding was actually doing.   The cloud-seeding process used silver iodide crystals to cause the minute cloud droplets to coalesce into larger drops which would then fall; this process (known as the “cold cloud” process) takes advantage of the differing vapour pressure of supercooled water versus ice.  The equipment installed on the aircraft was intended to measure things like the droplet size, the amount of liquid water present, the number and shape of the ice crystals, as well as the amount of solar radiation penetrating the cloud and the light transmissibility through the cloud (aimed at developing remote ways to detect clouds that were ripe for seeding).   The array shown in the photo was actually that used for the initial flight test to determine the effect of  hardware in these locations, on the performance and handling of the aircraft.  The results measured in flight were related to wind-tunnel measurements and enabled each sensor “pod” to be assigned a coded set of numbers, which the pilots were able to use to compensate for the pods in their use of the aircraft’s weight and balance and its performance data.  This enabled the operational basis to be  initially kept in Transport category, despite the external hardware.



Close-up of typical instrument pods on forward-fuselage hardpoints.  The lower pod is a Knollenberg IP-2D probe, which records images of the shadows of water drops and ice crystals that pass through a laser beam between the two “horns” at the forward end of the probe.  The upper pod, whose strut was teflon-coated in an attempt to reduce icing,  contained an upward-looking radiometer to measure the incoming solar radiation;  a light beam receiver for a beam transmitted from the corresponding pod on the opposite side of the aircraft, and on the leading and trailing edges of the strut, are the King liquid-water hot-wire sensor and a reverse-flow thermometer, respectively.


As can be seen the sensor pods are too large to be carried with any ease by a light aircraft;  however the F-27 was hardly affected by the complete array shown on previous pages.



Photo:  CSIRO




The most significant instrument on the F-27 in the Horsham experiment – which had been scheduled to run for three years, but in the event was cancelled after the first season – was a newly-developed device (by Dr.  Warren King) for measuring the amount of liquid water present in the supercooled clouds.  It is just visible in the head-on photograph, as two white spots on the leading edge of the uppermost pod on the stbd. side in the photograph; it can be clearly seen in the close-up photograph of the pods.  What it showed was that the liquid water content varied considerably within clouds, and as a consequence, only a small proportion of the flying done for cloud seeding was actually productive, over the flat wheat country.  In effect, it had taken from 1947 to 1979 for sufficient to be learned about cloud seeding, to allow this crucial instrument to be perfected – and the answer it gave was that cloud seeding  by the cold-cloud process was not an economic proposition except  in special circumstances ( such as over the Tasmanian highlands and the Snowy, where it is used to this day).  As a consequence, the Division of Cloud Physics was wound down, and  in 1984  VH-CAT was made a general CSIRO research facility, with a small dedicated group set up under the author’s direction to make it available as widely as possible.



Maintenance System:


An F-27 used in airline mode, averages around 2800 hours per year, and normally gets an overnight check  (-A check) every night, and a -B check about once every two weeks, and so on.  This is quite unsuitable for a research usage, which may do at best around 400 hours per year and has to stay in the field for protracted periods; so a special low-utilisation maintenance schedule was developed by East-West airlines in conjunction with both Fokker and the Civil Aviation Authority, allowing the aircraft to be held in the field for up to three months.  To achieve this, a LAME with full licences for the F-27 accompanied the aircraft wherever it went, and a stock of critical spares and the ship’s maintenance library went also – this amounted to approximately 600 lbs of material permanently installed in the rear baggage compartment.  As a consequence, the aircraft proved to be extremely reliable.


The maintenance costs were an ongoing source of dismay to CSIRO; having acquired the aircraft at a ridiculously low price,  CSIRO somehow seemed to have the idea that the maintenance costs should be similarly low.   It had been assumed that for 400 hours per year, the maintenance cost would be something like one seventh of the cost for an F-27 doing  2800 hours per year –  however the cost to overhaul one RR Dart was at that time, typically around $ 350,000,  and calendar time comes into this, so this was naïve to say the least.  Low utilisation is not good for an aircraft, and the costs do not drop in proportion.   This led to some distrust of the maintenance contractor by CSIRO management, who appointed an ex-ASIO officer to keep an eye on things.  I recall some excitement over a parts account that included a sum of some $3500 for at item cryptically described as “pin”;  however, the part number showed it to be the nose undercarriage main pivot pin!  None the less, the maintenance contract came under close scrutiny;  however East-West played fair, and kept the aircraft at a high level of airworthiness;  some updating of minor components was done in the interests of commonality of the spares pool.  The aircraft was, at the author’s instigation, fully stripped and repainted in about 1985, in order to check on possible corrosion under the accumulated layers of 25 years of colour schemes;  however it proved to be one of the first F-27s for which the structure had been anodised prior to assembly, and what little corrosion emerged was very localised, and easily repaired.





CSIRO was most fortunate in that East-West had retained two extremely experienced airmen,  John McCracken  and  Ian Walker for its “special operations” pilots.  These two pilots had done virtually all the flying on the preceding CSIRO C-47 (which aircraft they had also flown in WWII, over the Burma Hump, with one of the navigators, Arthur Tapp ), and, the most marvellously professional completely unflappable crew, they took to the F-27 with enthusiasm, and made it perform wonders.   Other pilots were later rotated out of the East-West pool, and also enjoyed the change from routine airline operations.  It was a very happy arrangement all round – except that it necessarily represented a rather conspicuous burden on the CSIRO budget.




CSIRO – Phase II


Photo:  CSIRO

Following the return of the aircraft from the Horsham experiment,  early in 1980,  phase two of the modifications was started.  This involved the manufacture and installation on the aircraft of a 5.5 metre nose extension, and the consequent re-location of the weather radar from the nose to a pod under the port wing (clearly visible in the photo above).  The purpose of the extended nose, was to carry a high response-rate pitot-static head and a set of very sensitive pitch and yaw vanes, as far as possible ahead of the upwash caused by the wing.  These were used to measure fine-scale turbulence, because it had been found from previous work that the process by which water vapour is transported from the ocean surface into the atmosphere to form clouds – i.e. one of the governing processes that controls rainfall – is intimately related to the fine-scale turbulence created by wind shear in the Planetary boundary layer.    Better knowledge of this process was needed to improve the computer modelling on which weather predictions are based.


Previous attempts had been made, in particular by the UK Meteorology office, using an exended nose on a C-130;  however its ability to resolve small-scale turbulence was limited by the low natural frequency of the system;  large aircraft like the C-130 tend to be rather flexible, and the highest frequency that the C-130 could measure before the natural vibration of the nose interfered with the results, was three hertz (3 cycles per second).   The F-27-100, with its relatively short, stiff forward fuselage, was ideal for this task, and the nosecone on VH-CAT could measure accurately to ten hertz, and coupled with the somewhat slower speed of the F-27, this allowed a big improvement in these measurements;  VH-CAT was able to measure turbulence cell sizes down to about ten metres diameter.


The measurements from the vanes at the tip of the nosecone, had to be corrected for the bodily movements of the aircraft itself;  and in order to apply these corrections, the aircraft was fitted with the latest in inertial navigation platforms – a Honeywell ring-laser-gyro INS – the first, in fact, to be installed outside the U.S.A.  Since this technology was used in ICBM guidance systems, permission had, at that time, to be obtained from the U.S.  State Dept before this equipment could be purchased.


The phase II modification were used extensively by Dr. Chris Coulman to take research in this area forward, and were entirely successful.  The system was so successful that the French Institut Geographique Nationale, in 1987, purchased an identical nosecone from CSIRO for its own F-27 research aircraft.


This capability in VH-CAT, and the expertise of the research group in the CSIRO Division of Cloud Physics under Dr. Chris Coulman,  was subsequently used  to assist the QLD Government to determine the location of the large Callide B Power Station, near Biloela in QLD.  A small  (120 Mw) power station had been unfortunately located in the vicinity of the intended site; however it proved to be in an area prone to downdrafts, with the result that its flue gases often descended to ground level, much to the discomfort of the local inhabitants.  Callide B was to be (and is) a much larger plant,  700 MW in fact, and had a similar situation arisen, the consequences would have been disastrous.  CSIRO was called to assist, and Dr. Coulman’s group was able, using VH-CAT, to map the prevailing updrafts and downdrafts in the area, and the present site of Callide B power station  is the result of that work.  It cost approximately $30,000 to get the power station in the right place;  what would the cost have been if it had been built in the wrong place?  VH-CAT was the only tool in the Southern Hemisphere capable of doing that job at the time.


The nose cone was not a permanent feature of the aircraft; it was installed only when needed, because the weight of it, although not great, added to the bending loads in the fuselage, and thus used up the aircraft’s fatigue life at a slightly accelerated rate.  Its effect on aircraft handling was barely measurable;  however it gave the pilots a superb visual aid when landing in a cross-wind.  It was attached via five hard points that were added to the aircraft for that purpose, plus a ring of small bolts.  It was built in two halves, and had a reinforced zone mid-way along its length, to allow for some small additional sensors to be attached there.  An extra-long towbar, like a small crane-jib,  had to be built to enable the aircraft to be moved in and out of hangars whilst the nosecone was installed.


Front bulkhead, showing the five main attachment points for the exended nose-cone.  The weather radar was removed shortly after this photo was taken, and replaced with a smaller, more modern unit in a pod under the port wing.  The man is Cec Maher, the senior navigator of the Research Aircraft Facility.

Photo:                  CSIRO



At this stage, an air sampling intake was also added to the suite (it is just visible beneath the fuselage in the photo on he previous page).  To gather representative samples of discrete particles in the atmosphere is not as simple as it sounds; firstly, the air must enter the intake at exactly the speed of flight – this is termed an “isokinetic intake” – because if the air as it enters the intake is either slowed down or speeded up, the flow entering will either expand or contract ahead of the intake.  This means the number of particles entering with the air will not be an accurate sample of the atmosphere, because particles cannot follow the curvature of the airflow.  Secondly, the F-27 is pressurized – so the outside air is at a lower pressure than the cabin, so a simple intake opening to the cabin will in fact have cabin air going out through it, instead of external air coming in – and all the scientists would measure in their samples would be nicotine!   The sampling system had to comprise an intake, a diffuser to slow down the airflow before it turned the corner to enter the fuselage, a parallel section from which samples could be drawn, an exhaust section to which the sampling apparatus could be  exhausted, (thus maintaining a closed system, isolated from cabin pressure), and an outlet that could be throttled so as to give precisely the correct flow at the intake.  This was successfully accomplished, and the result looked rather reminiscent of a small fire-hydrant, opposite the forward entry door.  It was used successfully for about five years, before being replaced by an improved system that did not require the main flow to be turned through an angle in order to be brought inside the cabin.





In 1984, the operation of the aircraft was assigned to a group – at that time still part of the Division of Cloud Physics – known as the CSIRO Research Aircraft Facility.  Its task was to broaden the usage of the aircraft and generally facilitate the scientific community to make use of it.  This entailed the making available of flight-rated instrument racks and electrical power distribution modules, and the design and implementation of further modifications – most of a minor nature, but some substantial ones – as necessary to accommodate the various research tasks.


Amongst the modifications added in this phase, was a ground power unit installed in the rear fuselage;  and the opening of the underbelly doppler radar bay to serve as a bay for downward-looking remote-sensing apparatus.


The role of the aircraft moved  in this phase, more towards the development of remote-sensing apparatus of various kinds;  although it was still used for various aspects of atmospheric research.   Because these roles placed increasing demands on accurate knowledge of the aircraft’s position at all times,  it became necessary to spend time erecting the inertial navigation system prior to engine start;  and because the aircraft was set-up for quick-change use,  and because it was often possible to run two or three experiments in the same flying session, its operational usage pattern settled down to one day on the ground to install the research equipment for the mission, one day of ground function testing of the research equipment, whereupon the aircraft would depart for a week or more for the duration of the experiments, after which it would return and a day would be spent removing that suite of research apparatus, whereupon the next lot of gear would be installed, and the pattern repeated.


This ground testing required an external power source, because the aircraft’s batteries could not be used for this purpose.  At major airports,  the availability of ground power carts is always limited – and at remote sites, nonexistent – which meant that trouble-shooting in the field was a real problem.   At first, a portable 28 volt DC external power set was carried as cabin freight;  however the necessity to manhandle this in and out of the aircraft, plus the requirements to drain the fuel out of it before loading it, every time, made it obvious that what was needed was a built-in ground power unit.  A turbine APU was out of the question due to cost;  so the decision was taken to design and build a small diesel-powered GPU that was small enough to be hoisted into the tailcone of the F-27 through the aft maintenance hatch, and to make a  permanent installation of it.  This was also convenient, as it helped offset the normal nose-heaviness of the F-27.


The GPU comprised a small air-cooled diesel industrial engine, driving a 28 V DC generator – which was also able to act as a starter motor when the engine was decompressed.  The whole assembly was housed in a fire-proof enclosure, on the port side of the F-27 rear fuselage, and exhausted through a port on that side.  The enclosure was equipped with an automatic fire-extinguisher system which also shut-off the air entry. Cooling air was drawn from the F-27 airconditioning condenser intake on the port side.  The system had overvoltage and reverse-current protection and could output 100 amps at 28 volts into the ship’s system, the ship’s batteries being isolated when the GPU was in use.  The change-over switch and overriding shut-down were located in the cockpit overhead panel; the standard shut-down drill after a flight included selecting the GPU.    The GPU was thus able to be entirely controlled from a panel in the cabin, which meant that scientists could use it without needing to enter the cockpit (experience had shown this to be a necessary point of discipline.)  Also, one of the Research Aircraft Facility staff was always present whilst scientists were accessing the aircraft.


The GPU made the aircraft independent of ground power (provided the flight crew took the necessary care to keep the ship’s batteries well up),  and it was used sufficiently extensively to wear out the first diesel in a little over three years.  It was also much less noisy than a turbine APU.


One of the first uses of the underbelly bay, was the installation of one of the first infra-red line scanners seen in a civil aircraft in Australia;  this was a very early Daedalus line-scanner, having a sensor cooled by liquid nitrogen.  As there was no means of topping-up the small vacuum-flask built into the scanner in flight, it was a troublesome piece of apparatus to use.  However, it had excellent resolution, and was used extensively for bushfire research, in the course of Project Aquarius, a program run by CSIRO Division of Forestry at the behest of the Prime Minister’s Dept.  This program called for a number of set-piece burns, both in East Gippsland and in West Australia; these were used to measure actual temperatures (which turned out to be a lot higher than anybody had expected) and was the basis for the information on bushfire risk reduction that is currently available from CSIRO.  The program was also used to assess the utility of fixed-wing aircraft for water-bombing; a large DC-6 fire bomber was brought out from Canada for that purpose;  VH-CAT was measuring what happened.


This program had an unforseen benefit;  VH-CAT was operating on bushfire research in WA when the Ash Wednesday emergency erupted.  Normal visual fire-spotting was unable to cope, because the smoke was too extensive.  VH-CAT was called in, and, operating out of Essendon, with an army film-processing unit standing by to process the scanner output, which was recorded photographically, was instrumental in saving the township of Warburton.  This demonstration, despite the cumbersome method of data handling due to the undeveloped nature of the scanner,  forced the Victorian fire authorities to recognise that airborne IR scanners were an essential fire-fighting tool.  At that time, the technology for an adequate data downlink to give real-time images on the ground was not readily available.  Nowadays, it should be possible for any fire-crew straw boss to access such data via a mobile telephone and a laptop.


During this phase,  the aircraft was also used extensively by Dr. David Williams, of CSIRO Division of Minerals and Energy, for two significant tasks:


Firstly, to monitor the Victorian Government’s program to clean-up the atmosphere in the Latrobe Valley.  In the early 1980’s, the Latrobe Valley was very heavily polluted by the effluent from its numerous power stations.  The task involved, firstly, a survey of the valley before the clean-up, to establish the base-line condition.  This involved flying at very low level, to allow the absorption of solar radiation by the atmosphere to be measured via upward-looking radiometers.  VH-CAT had a general low-flying permission down to 100 ft AGL, and this is about the height it was flown for these surveys.  The crew described it a “crop-dusting over rocks in fog”;  the author recollects flying between the two chimney stacks of one power station, for a precise navigation waypoint, closer to the bottom of them than to the top.  The air was so dirty that the two Dart engines had to be cleaned internally by walnut-shell blasting, to remove the deposits that had accumulated on the compressor impellers and guide vanes;  the deposits had degraded the engine performance sufficiently that they could not achieve rated power without this process.  Some two years later, the exercise was repeated, to measure the results of the clean-up procedures;  this time, the engines did not suffer.


Secondly, Dr. Williams used the aircraft to settle the question of whether air pollution originating in England could travel across the North Sea to produce the acid rain that was killing fish in Scandinavia.  To demonstrate that it could indeed travel that far,  Dr. Williams  took advantage of a unique Australian feature:   Mt. Isa features one enormous chimney stack, surrounded by a thousand miles of scrub;  this presents research possibilities available nowhere else in the World.   Dr Williams persuaded the Mt. Isa Mine people to inject a quantity of sulphur hexaflouride into the main chimney stack.    This is a very inert chemical, which does not break down;  and it also gives an unmistakable signature on a solar absorption spectrum.  By flying  North-South tracks underneath the plume of flue gases in the middle of winter, when the prevailing airflow at that latitude is from East to West,  and recording the solar absorption spectrum, Dr Williams was able to track the plume of flue gases as they drifted and spread downwind.   He was able to track the gases out to some 600 miles west of Broome, which was at the outer limit of safe range for the aircraft;  at this point, the plume had spread to approximately 300 miles wide.  This brought the British Vs Scandinavian argument to an abrupt end.  The exercise was not without its exciting aspects;  although the initial discharge at Mt Isa put the plume at about 1200 ft AGL, the change in synoptic pressure as it drifted further west, brought it progressively closer to the ground.  To stay underneath it, VH-CAT was at one stage pulling up to avoid startling the drivers of road trains.


The aircraft also participated in the U.S. /Australian Tropical Cyclone study, operating out of Gove.  The U.S. contributed a number of aircraft, amongst them the NASA atmospheric research C-130, and the NASA TR-1 (U-2) high-altitude atmospheric research aircraft.  This program would not have proceded had Australia not been able to be a fully-effective participant;  VH-CAT performed the middle-altitude portion of the study.


There were many experiments of less spectacular nature – but not necessarily less important in their consequences.  One such was the development the COSSA ocean colour scanner (OCS), a multi-spectral airborne scanner which has been used, inter alia,  to detect algal blooms.

Another was  a frost study, of a valley in the Goulburn/Marulan area.

An Ericcson side-looking radar was evaluated and proved very effective in fish-spotting.


VH-CAT was also used for search and rescue work, and several of the facility staff were trained in aerial despatch techniques for dropping rescue apparatus at sea.


In spite of these useful activities, this phase was characterised by an ever-increasing struggle to maintain funding for the aircraft.  The  Research Aircraft Facility sought to maintain the aircraft in an airworthy condition at all times and to have the services on one aircrew on call – which allowed approximately 180 flying days in a year, allowing for normal statutory flight time limitations.  This entailed a contribution to the East-West rotable spares pool, and to the AWA Radio Pool,  and, together with the six staff of the facility, cost around $1.2 million per year – without any allowance for depreciation or engine overhaul, which were treated by CSIRO as separate capital costs.  The users of the aircraft paid for the fuel, more or less.  This meant that the cost to have the aircraft available, with its crew, for 180 days per year, amounted to roughly $2300 per day, not counting the facility staff salary component.  Since the average annual usage settled down to around 250 hours per year, the hourly cost was thus of the order of $3200 plus fuel.  This was far too high a figure for the annual budget of a typical CSIRO research group, so the cost had to be subsidised out of the Facility budget.  We could not, therefore, balance our books whilst providing the required service.  Whilst the entire cost of the whole operation for the nine or so years it was run by CSIRO would have been a drop in the bucket compared to the cost of relocating the Callide B power station  had the aircraft not been available,  Govt. finances do not take this sort of cost/benefit into account.    Each operation must be able to recover its costs if it is to survive.  Also, envious eyes were being cast at the research groups who were aircraft users, by those that were not, because of this subsidy to those groups.  There were many more research groups that had no possible use for an aircraft, than those that did.  The annual cost of the aircraft as a research facility would have supported the research budgets (though not the salaries) of perhaps forty research groups that did not need to use aircraft.   In retrospect, VH-CAT should have been set up externally to CSIRO but primarily assigned to CSIRO custodianship, as a National Resource Facility  (like the Parkes radio telescope).


CSIRO – Phase IV:


It was in this climate that the Division of Cloud Physics was finally closed, in 1987, and the Research Aircraft Facility was placed under the aegis of CSIRO Office of Space Science & Applications (COSSA),  whose director, Dr. Ken McCracken, saw some potential for the use of the aircraft to develop remote-sensing apparatus for application on satellites.   At this stage, the French ordered a nose-cone and some other engineering developed by the Research Aircraft Facility (the hard-point design, etc), and the Author went to France to support the implementation of the modification of the French F-27 atmospheric research aircraft, F-WYAO.   However, the usage  hoped for by COSSA did not develop sufficiently to justify the ongoing cost of the aircraft, so it was eventually sold to Australian Flight Test Services (Adelaide), under a lease-back agreement.  Shortly prior to this, East-West Airlines underwent an asset-stripping event,  falling to Ansett as a consequence; and the maintenance and crewing contract for VH-CAT was let to Associated Airlines Pty Ltd  (Melbourne).  The Author lost contact with events concerning VH-CAT after September 1987, so somebody else will have to tell that part of the story.


The sincerest form of flattery:  French atmospheric  research aircraft, F-WYAO  (Le Bourget, 1988)

To see image please visit HERE

(Photo:  R.N.  Smith collection)


The author would observe that the value of VH-CAT as a national asset far outweighed its costs;  and that one cannot altogether substitute for a single large aircraft by a number of smaller ones, because the capability of the aircraft declines much faster than the costs, as one moves to smaller aircraft.  A substantial part of the value of VH-CAT was the fact that it – and the expertise of CSIRO scientists who had the special knowledge and equipment necessary for particular jobs – was available when needed, even at short notice, and the fact that it had a small but capable support staff whose function was to facilitate users  – including the supply of special equipment racks and power-supply adapters – who were not familiar with aviation, to make effective use of the aircraft.



Staff of the CSIRO Research Aircraft Facility:  1984 – 1987:


D.  J.  Llewellyn:      Manager/aircraft design signatory.

Cec Maher     : Navigator

John Meadows      : Navigator

David Parkin     :  Technical officer

Ross Gibson       : Technical officer

Jan Smith           :   Operations scheduler.


In point of fact, everybody in the group performed multiple functions;  the navigators were largely responsible for supervising the loading and unloading of the aircraft, and ensuring users were supplied with approved equipment racks (and retrieving them afterwards) as well as their primary navigation function;  the two technical officers were involved in the design of electrical and electronic items, as well as assisting scientists to get their instruments to function in the aircraft;  and all members were involved from time to time in flight operations.  The duties of the scheduler extended at times to sourcing obscure parts, facilitating special flight permits for foreign aircraft involved in CSIRO experiments, booking accommodation, travel, etc, as well as juggling scientists to get the best possible utilisation of the aircraft – including assigning hardpoints,  working out cabin layouts etc.  The overall attitude of the group was  “Yes, we can help you do that”.