3 Squadron LIFETIMES
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Ross FOX was an outstanding RAAF Pilot. As the Executive Officer of 3SQN, he helped CO3 Bruce MOUATT deliver the first two operational F-18s to the Squadron at Williamtown on 29 August 1986 – an event nicely recorded in the TV News. 3SQN’s new jets were the first RAAF F-18s to enter operational service. It was a challenging time; 3SQN had to operate a challenging development schedule out of borrowed digs, while their new Headquarters Building was still under construction.
- AND THEN, only two weeks later, the Nation’s top-rating TV program started breathing down their necks! - The RAAF's entire reputation and/or budget was riding on a "good show”. However Bruce & Ross, ably assisted by the entire newly-assembled Squadron, rose to the occasion and managed to impress the TV gods! - That “Sixty Minutes” tape is well worth viewing. (Cameo appearances are also made by ‘JP’ CONLON and a young and hirsute Mel HUPFELD.) The fact that Ross taught the star reporter Ian LESLIE to fly the thing seems to have done the trick!
Poignantly though, the frank interviews with Ross and his wife Viki about the “risks” of the job have a grim resonance, given the events of four years later…
The book FIGHTER PILOT has several passages describing what a great mentor and leader Ross was. In early November 1986, Ross flew one of 3SQN’s new jets down to East Sale in Victoria for an airshow. While on the ground there he was very kind to an obsessive 16-year-old aviation fan, answering all of his questions and eventually inviting him to stay in a fighter-pilot pad in Newcastle and have an awesome week of unofficial “work experience” on the base. (Young FLGOFF Mel HUPFELD was one of the hosts!) That young airshow enthusiast, who eventually became the Hornet pilot “SERGE”, wrote:
“…That was something I later did for a few other kids once I was flying fighters. One of them became an F-18 pilot at No.3 Squadron.”
In 1990, SERGE did indeed qualify as a RAAF pilot, at the tender age of 19: “I had been given some good advice by my mentor, WGCDR Ross Fox, who was now the Commanding Officer of No. 75 Squadron at RAAF Base Tindal, near Katherine in the Northern Territory. - 'SERGE,' he’d said, 'if you don’t get jets, get a posting to Nomads at 75 Squadron [their twin-prop utility transport aircraft]. - I'll make sure you get jets after that!”
When Nomad-pilot SERGE arrived, as planned, at Tindal:
“FOXY got up from behind his desk and greeted me with a warm smile and handshake. Although more than three years had passed, it seemed like only yesterday that he had done the same as an F-18 pilot at the East Sale airshow. He gave me a quick lesson in how to apply myself, fit in, stay out of trouble and, most importantly to me, get to Hornets.
- No problems, Boss. - Will do!”
Months passed happily and Exercise PITCH BLACK
1990 commenced. SERGE was sitting at a desk in Tindal,
acting as Operations Officer (OPSO):
“All aircraft and pilots were flying in PITCH BLACK, except me…
The CRASH ALARM in fighter squadrons sounds like a
WW2 air raid siren… Woooooooooo-woooooooooo!
- Hell, that doesn’t sound good! - I thought to myself.
Immediately the phone rang. 'MAGPIE OPS, this is NIGHTCLIFF. MAYDAY in progress. BLACKBIRD 3 has ejected…’ came an unknown voice.
'Copied!’ was all I could think to say. We started to record all information... I looked at the flying program to find who was flying BLACKBIRD 3. My heart sank. It was FOXY. We confirmed that the search and rescue (SAR) chopper had been launched.
SMITTY was the other pilot involved in the accident. [FLGOFF David SMITH. - Thanks to the amazing handling characteristics of his Hornet, David didn’t realise that he had lost a significant portion of his port wing - until he looked out at it! The computerised controls coped very well indeed.] SMITTY was being helped by the 75 SQN Fighter Combat Instructor KRUSHER [SQNLDR Kevin RUSHWORTH], who had watched appalled as the fireball of the collision occurred right in front of him. With little hesitation KRUSHER calmly started talking SMITTY through the emergency checklist. SMITTY was losing fuel out of his wing and no-one was sure if the jet could be slowed for landing without entering a spin.
In the meantime, all the other aircraft returned to base at top speed, in order to land ahead of SMITTY without getting in his way. If SMITTY crashed on the runway and blocked it, any remaining jets would not have had enough fuel to get to the next available runway, in Darwin, and the pilots would have had to eject, leaving their planes to crash - another horrifying prospect.
Once all the other planes had landed, SMITTY (guided in by the reassuring voice of KRUSHER) did a sterling job of landing his jet with only half a wing. It was a testament to a great aircraft and two fine pilots.
We were all massively relieved that SMITTY was safe, but tension was still high. We still hadn’t sighted a parachute, nor had we been able to identify where FOXY's aircraft had crashed. The SAR chopper was running low on fuel and it would soon be nightfall…”
SERGE was sent off in one of the 75 SQN Nomads to take
over the search: “I wanted to make sure that, no matter how
slim the chance, if Foxy had somehow lived through the crash, he
would not be left alone…
We established communications with the SAR chopper, which was coming off station, and coordinated our search area to de-conflict with where the chopper had already searched.
The lack of an SAR beacon was disconcerting for us all. (The F-18 ejection seats are fitted with a radio beacon that is automatically initiated when the seat leaves the aircraft…)
Maintaining our optimism as best we could, we methodically searched the area of interest, flying at 150 metres. After about 90 minutes we spotted the wreckage. Expecting a smoking hole, we were surprised to see that the jet looked like it was intact, aft of the cockpit, though the entire nose section, including the cockpit, was missing. [Eventually found 2.5km away.]
The aircraft had come down perfectly flat on its belly in the middle of a cleared paddock. On my tactical pilot chart, I found the cleared area and noted the slight rise in the otherwise flat terrain. The F-18 was smack-bang on the middle of the rise, which had a name that was too much of a coincidence to be real… The rise was called ‘Hornet Hill’.
The rescue team found FOXY's body still strapped to his seat. He had been killed instantly on impact with SMITTY's wing. Thankfully, it had been quick and he had died doing something he loved, but tragically he was leaving behind a lovely wife and children.
After FOXY's death we all spent the first few nights drinking at the Officers’ Mess, playing the piano and singing. I then realised why the mess halls during the Battle of Britain had been so paradoxically filled with song and cheer…”
Hornet Hill is located 40km WNW of Katherine, Northern Territory. The satellite view of the hill contours is quite reminiscent of a Hornet insect-shape, facing west.
On 10 August 1990, a party of 82 officers and airmen from 75 SQN were flown by RAAF Boeing 707 to attend Ross’s funeral at St John’s Anglican Cathedral, Brisbane. They escorted the 75 SQN colours and bore the casket through the streets to its final resting place.
Personnel from 75 SQN erected a sandstone Memorial Cairn at the crash site. Part of the A21-42 airframe has also been preserved at the Darwin Aviation Museum, with a memorial plaque to WGCDR Fox
Two years later, in the Queen's Birthday Honours List 1992, WGCDR Fox’s outstanding leadership was recognised with a posthumous Conspicuous Service Cross.
In 2010, on the 20th anniversary of the accident, 75 SQN inaugurated their perpetual “WGCDR Ross Fox Trophy for Excellence”, awarded to the most outstanding 75 SQN member each year. On the same occasion, Mrs Viki Fox, Ross’s widow, opened a memorial garden in the compound at Tindal, dedicated to all fallen members of 75SQN.
A21-29 was repaired and flew again, still with its “Top Hat” marking.
In 2022, after all of the RAAF F-18As were retired, this airframe was returned to Tindal by road, for permanent exhibition at the base.
[Pic: ADF Serials}
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