Soaring above Cessnock and the surrounding Hunter Valley, doing loops, wing overs, barrel rolls and pulling Gs, is all in a days work for Aerohunter, as they take their customers through exhilarating aerobatic / combat manoeuvres, adventure rides or more relaxing and very interesting local scenic flights.
Operating originally from Cessnock Airport in the beautiful Hunter Valley, is a small and growing warbird business – Aerohunter. This business was formed in late 2010 by Dan O’Donnell. The concept is to allow customers to experience local scenic flight and safe aerobatics in a warbird trainer while under the full control of the front seat pilot. Because the business is only 2hrs from Sydney, it is possible for many people to easily come and fly at Aerohunter. In 2008 Dan bought a 1986 built Chinese CJ-6 Nanchang and then leased it to two other adventure flight operators. Seeing their success, Dan decided to form his own adventure flight business and started Aerohunter in late 2010. He used the Nanchang aerobatic trainer as the basis of this business. As the new business grew, Dan saw a need to acquire another aircraft to accommodate the growing customer market. This aircraft needed to be well suited to adventure and aerobatic rides. He decided to lease a Russian 1988 built Yak-52 in August 2012.
During 2013, Dan sold Aerohunter to well known aerobatic and warbird pilot, Paul Bennet. Paul, has for many years, been a well known and sought after pilot. Paul has created and developed the Paul Bennet Airshows (PBA) team, who has highly trained and safe members. The team flies thrilling, complex and safe aerobatic events at airshows around Australia and also globally. Over the last few years Paul has besides his aerobatic flying, acquired a few warbird aircraft which now form a niche collection ranging from a Cessna O-2, Tigermoth, WW2 era Wirraway trainer up to an Avenger. Paul’s decision to buy the Aerohunter business allows him to inject new warbird adventure rides into the solid and successful business plan started by Dan. Paul has chosen to form the new business with the Yak-52 alongside the Wirraway and Avenger, to allow people to take part in adventure rides. Flying in a WW2 Wirraway trainer or an Avenger torpedo bomber is not something that can be done readily as not many fly regularly or are permitted to take passenger for adventure rides. Additionally by adding the Wirraway and Avenger, Paul has created a very niche warbird and adventure ride experience in NSW.
Since 2010 nearly 1,000 customers have flown with Aerohunter. They have had fun and thrilling experiences over the last few years. The Aerohunter business is marketed via their webpage, Facebook page, on the Adrenalin webpage and by customer’s word of mouth. Such has been the interest in Aerohunter that it has also appeared on TV in Jan/Feb 2012 in an episode of the “Excess Baggage” show. The aircraft have been flown every few weekends as this when the flying is mainly booked in by the customers. In late 2013 Paul appointed Glenn Graham – who is also a member of the PBA team- to operate and manage the expanded business. Aerohunter intends to now operate the warbird adventure flights not only from Cessnock airport but also Rutherford airport. The aircraft are maintained and overhauled as needed by Matt Webber at Luskintyre Aircraft Restoration and by Cameron Rolph Smith at Performance Aero. A growing issue for any business in the aviation community is that flying is becoming more complex and harder to operate in some areas such as over the Hunter, due to noise restrictions and build up of population density around airports. Another very major issue is the rising cost of fuel has a constant impact on operational costs. With the recent change of ownership Dan remains involved with the ongoing development of the Aerohunter operations. Dan sold his CJ-6 Nanchang in 2013 to another enthusiast.
The basis of Aerohunter’s success to date has been its focus on the satisfaction of customers who they take up for their flights. Aerohunter employs highly skilled pilots which further adds to the overall feeling of safety for the customer. The customer is the focus, not the pilot. With a range of flights on offer, flights can be tailored to the customer’s requests and needs. For customers it is literally an adrenalin rush. It is huge fun with an ever changing and interesting view from in the back seat. Customers experience military style flight missions and manoeuvres or can fly around on a scenic flight to Newcastle Hunter or Nelson Bay. Before going up all passengers are put through a briefing to explain the aircraft and its systems and the associated risks they are to take on by flying in a Limited category warbird aircraft. All customers need to sign waivers before they take their adventure rides. Customers are fitted out with a supplied flight suit for the flight and a headset is available for use in the aircraft. Aerohunter is becoming so popular that it has taken up 16 people on one day in 2013. With a few years of operations, it is noted that the average customer is a 30-40yr male. However their age can range from 8-94yrs and includes a growing segment of women seeking a thrilling experience. Bookings need to be 1-2 months in advance due to the popularity and limited operational days.
A look at some of the Aerohunter fleet –
YAK-52 – First designed in the 1970’s the Yak is still being manufactured and used by many Air Forces all over the world. Very similar to the Nanchang in appearance, the Yak 52 was designed with one thing in mind – aerobatics! Over 1,800 of the aircraft have been manufactured with the super-charged M14P engine generating 360 Hp. With its long straight wing and span length ailerons, it can roll at over 180 degrees per second and snap roll even faster. The Yak uses steel in its construction and has external rivets. The Yak-52 is noted as a more aggressive type aircraft which is better designed for handling aerobatics and harder flying. Being a Russian aircraft design, it is easy to acquire parts but takes a while for parts to be shipped in from overseas.
CAC WIRRAWAY – Having served during WW2 and gained its fame as a pilot maker and light attack aircraft, the Wirraway is nowadays a popular warbird in Australia. The RAAF Wirraway trainer was developed from the NA-16 with a license issued by North American Aircraft with Wirraway production starting in 1939. During WW2 the RAAF used the aircraft type in operational training and also as a makeshift light bomber/ ground attack roles. It also formed the basis for the CAC Boomerang fighter. Production continued post war until 1946 and when ended, 755 Wirraways had been built The last RAAF Wirraway was delivered to the RAAF in July 1946. The aircraft is powered by an R-1340 600hp radial engine, with a top speed of 220mph. The Wirraway is able to handle aerobatics displays involving loops and barrel rolls. There are other Wirraways flying in Australia but they don’t do aerobatics adventure rides. There also some static, preserved Wirraways in various museums.
IN THE BACK SEAT – A PERSONAL EXPERIENCE
In order to understand the capabilities of these adventure ride aircraft, the author took part in a 15min flight in the CJ-6 Nanchang in 2012. Another 15min flight was taken in 2013 in the Wirraway.
NANCHANG – With the CJ-6 Nanchang experience flying from Cessnock, pilot Dan O’Donnell started with a preflight briefing, a walk around and after I squeezed into the back seat the aircraft was started up. With a few flicks and a start of the generator, the HS-6A engine roared into life and soon after the Nanchang ambled along the Cessnock taxiways. Not long after we were leaping into the air and climbing to the west of the airfield for the assigned aerobatic “box”. For the next 10 minute Dan guided me thro what he was doing with the controls. He showed me various turns, barrel rolls, loops and then introduced me to G-forces and my first ever experience of weightlessness. Also performed were some military manoeuvres including immelmans, cuban eights and a graceful stall turn. Handling up to 5-6G was quite an experience. It had been a while since I last did a full on aerobatic flight and I was surprised to be able to handle all the manoeuvres without blacking out. The sheer fun of feeling the weightless and G forces made it really an amazing experience for me.
WIRRAWAY – The flight with Paul Bennet at the controls, in the Wirraway was interesting as it allowed me to see how a 1940’s aircraft compared to the 1986 built Nanchang. The Wirraway is devised around a hydraulic pump system and before the flight Paul explained how the aircraft systems work such as flap, gear and engine and what was required by the pilot to operate these. The internal cockpit framing structure which acts like a roll bar assured me I felt safe. The flight in the Wirraway saw Paul start up the R-1340 engine, do checks, then taxiing and off we roared down the runway and into the air. The Wirraway I noted was faster than the Nanchang, quite stable and also a roomy aircraft. I was able to see how it handled loops, barrel rolls, wing overs and half Cuban eights with ease. The rear seat had all the necessary instruments and I could watch as Paul turned with the turn and bank gauge and climbed or dived on the altimeter. The experience enabled me to also understand what military pilots in WW2 and post war faced flying a Wirraway.
Photos here show my flight in Dan’s CJ-6 Nanchang in 2012.
Here we see Paul’s Wirraway and my flight in 2013.
Both of these immensely interesting experiences showed me that adventure flying is indeed safe and exciting. It allows the passenger in the rear seat to watch the flight with a unique perspective and it is why so many people have done these types of flights now there is availability. I highly recommend warbird adventure flights for anyone who ever wanted to fly in a warbird but didn’t know it was possible.