The 2023 Australian International Airshow and Exposition, more commonly known as ‘Avalon’, concluded on Sunday, 5 March. Attendance records were broken on the three trade days, and the public days were also expected to exceed previous records.
After an absence of four years and two planned re-scheduled events, the commercial aviation, defence business and aviation geek communities were finally able to assemble again on the dusty, windswept plain between Geelong and Melbourne.
This was your correspondent’s 11th Avalon, and this year I was contracted by a company to provide communications and media engagement advice for the week.
As an international airshow, Avalon has some unique challenges in what it is able to attract for the exposition and flying displays. Whether it’s because it lacks any permanent airshow infrastructure such as sealed roads, exhibition halls, and corporate chalets, or a lack of convenient public transport to the site, or the fact that Melbourne is just about as far as one can get from those northern hemisphere countries who might be looking to display their wares and capabilities, there are so many reasons why Avalon shouldn’t be a success.
But the commitment shown to Avalon by the Australian Defence Force (ADF) and, in particular, the RAAF is commendable, while the RAAF also leverages its partnerships and alliances to encourage foreign air forces to send some of their best aircraft and display teams to the show.
The trade show is held in a temporary pre-fabricated tented hall, and exhibitors range from the world’s largest aerospace and defence companies, the ADF, state government industry bodies, media organisations, and small to medium-sized engineering, services, and equipment firms seeking to show their wares or to potentially partner with the larger companies.
Defence Minister and Deputy Prime Minister Richard Marles attended Avalon – located in his own federal seat of Corio – on at least two trade days and also addressed the pre-show Defence Industry Dinner on 27 February.
“The Air Show holds a particularly special place in my heart,” he told the industry guests.
“And this year, to be here as Deputy Prime Minister, Minister for Defence, and the Member for Corio, represents a sentimental convergence of my worlds.”
One notable announcement was that the RAAF’s No 9 Squadron would be re-established after 34 years to operate the new Northrop Grumman MQ-4C Triton uncrewed maritime reconnaissance system. Long-term Canberra residents may remember that 9SQN was based at Fairbairn when it operated the venerable UH-1H Iroquois helicopter in the 1970s and 80s before the unit was disbanded in 1989 when the helicopters were transferred to the Australian Army.
But 9SQN’s legacy goes much further back to when it flew maritime surveillance missions with flying boats operated from Royal Australian Navy ships in all the major theatres of the Second World War and operated the Iroquois helicopter with distinction during the Vietnam War.
“Today we’re announcing that 9 Squadron … is being reformed after a break of 34 years,” Mr Marles said during a doorstop in front of a full-scale Triton model at Avalon on 3 March.
“There’s a lot of lineage to this squadron – 9 Squadron was originally formed in 1939. It did maritime surveillance during the Second World War. It saw service during the Vietnam War, and for the keen military historians among you, you will have noticed that 9 Squadron’s insignia is on the tail of the Triton.”
Chief of Air Force Air Marshal Robert Chipman added: “The black-browed albatross is renowned for spending a long time on overwater flights, which makes it the perfect symbol for the perfect squadron for us to establish the MQ-4C Triton capability.”
Unfortunately for Avalon 2023, the expected release in April of the government’s Defence Strategic Review meant there were no new major capability acquisition announcements made at the show. Instead, there were several industry announcements made at Avalon, including the signing of several supplier and sustainment agreements between SMEs and companies such as Boeing Australia and Lockheed Martin Australia, while BAE Systems Australia unveiled its innovative Australian-designed Strix uncrewed combat aircraft concept to a packed audience in the exposition halls.
But not everything went smoothly at Avalon 2023.
As always, there were nowhere near enough toilet amenities for those of us who were working in or visiting the exhibition halls, the cost and range of food and drinks in the exhibition halls were ridiculous and, despite the moderate weather temperatures, the air conditioning struggled on the trade days.
An element out of the show organisers’ control is the seemingly never-ending roadworks on the approaches to the Westgate Bridge and the Princes Freeway. I’ve been coming to Avalon since 2001 and have made at least three return trips to the show from Melbourne each show, and can count on one hand the number of times I’ve been able to cover the roughly 60 km drive in less than 75 minutes.
If you didn’t have a car or a company-organised bus, the only real public transport option is the regular regional train service from Southern Cross (Spencer St) Station to Geelong, which stops at Lara and connects with a painfully slow shuttle bus to the show site. Victoria wants to be known as ‘The Event State’, but it continually lets airshow patrons down with poor access to Avalon.
And while I didn’t attend the show on the public days, Melbourne commercial television was scathing in their reporting of the traffic jams to and from the show on Friday night, Saturday and Sunday. I don’t know what the answer is, but neither, it appears, does the Victorian Government.
Preliminary figures released by airshow organiser the AMDA Foundation show trade and exhibitor attendance increased by 24 per cent to 48,516 over the three trade days compared to 2019. It also said there was a 14 per cent increase in participating companies to 798, and that 234 official delegations visited the airshow, an increase of 50 per cent.