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Plane sailing – Moving a Mirage fighter jet

Hauling a jet fighter through Sydney’s streets and motorways is no mean feat, but the top gun team at Clein Transport Solutions it was another day at the office. Warren Aitken tags along for the flight

There are a couple of really good reasons why I don’t get out to do many oversize shoots these days. Number one, because photographing them requires a special sort of skill set. Moving objects, at night, in poorly lit areas, yeah it’s tough. When you do jag some good shots it’s worth it, but there’s always a lot of shots just not sharp enough, or a little too dark. It is a real challenge. That’s not the main reason though.

The main reason is that you have to be up really, really early! Or sometimes really, really late. However, when you find out a classic fighter jet is going to be doing a low-level pass through the streets of Sydney, well you just can’t pass that up.

Justin Clein takes centre stage as he gathers in his team and the team of pilots to go over the plan one last time before the fly off

Boy am I glad I sacrificed my much-needed beauty sleep earlier this year and stayed up for this shoot though. Nearly 12 months of planning and preparation had gone into this and finally the Clein Group’s Kenworth K200 left Bankstown Airport with a huge piece of RAAF history in tow – a 1968 Dassault Mirage III Jet Fighter.

Lucky for me the first folk I ran into while we awaited the 9pm departure time for the Mirage were the delightful John and Anne Parker. John and Anne run Warbirds Online and are heavily invested in a lot of major airplane restoration projects. Along with the Hunter Fighter Collection board they played an integral part in this major restoration and relocation project.

One of the tightest squeezes in Sydney was the toll booths coming off the M2

Once the mighty Mirage is restored it will spend the next 10 years on display at the soon-to-be-opened Scone Warbird Attraction, obviously in Scone. When the museum is completed and opens at the end of 2021 there will be around 16 historic planes on display, as well as joy rides, flight simulators and plenty of other attractions. It’s more than enough to entice me back for sure.

John and Anne were able to fill me in on the aircraft. It’s a 1969 Dassault Mirage III IIIO(F) and has spent its entire life based in Australia. Already I was learning stuff. I’d always assumed as a French aircraft that they originated in France. However, John informed me, like many, this Mirage III was built in the Government Aircraft factory in Victoria back in 1969. The plane spent most of its time in the 76th Squadron and had the notoriety of being flown by the world’s oldest fighter pilot, squadron leader Phillip Frawley. Obviously, he wasn’t the world’s oldest when he flew this particular Mirage; that came in 2012 when he surpassed a 60 year-old F-16 pilot.

Sitting outside Bankstown airport, the Cleins K200 looks almost small compared to the big Mirage

Delicate relocation

The Mirage had spent the last decade at the Bankstown Museum which has now closed, leading to John and Anne helping to arrange its restoration and relocation to Scone.

Enter Clein Transport Solutions. Justin Clein and his heavy haulage team have built up quite a reputation when it comes to these types of delicate aircraft relocations. Hence, they were the first port of call for this shift.

“It was 12 months in the making,” Justin informs me when I ask how long it takes to organise things, going on to explain that COVID played a massive hand in things as well. Clein Transport Solutions had been hired to not just move the Mirage to Scone but also an Aermacchi MB-326 jet from the Amberley RAAF base in Queensland down to Scone as well.

The Clein Group team take a few minutes break to check everything is nice and secure before they tackle Sydney’s Pennant Hills Rd

“When COVID hit they basically closed down the airbase to everyone,” Justin adds. So as the coronavirus pandemic did to everyone, it threw a spanner at the Hunter Fighter Collection’s plans as well.

“We spent a good three to four solid months with different councils … TMR and stuff to get it approved,” Just explains, adding that it was still getting worked on and finalised right up until the night before.

A police escort helped ease the way

Preparation for a move like this saw Justin and his team doing a couple of dry runs, measuring out all the areas where it would get a bit tight with the 8.5m wide plane. Their plan was then backed up by a third party who do an independent evaluation.

It’s worth noting that all the planning in the world can’t avoid last minute hiccups. Thankfully the only minor hiccup would have occurred during the navigating of Muswellbrook where a local company had installed new fencing and signs that would have been an issue, if it wasn’t for an oversize load the night before ripping it all down. Timing, hey?

Just getting out of the city streets is a mission when you’re over 8m wide

Obviously the old Mirage wasn’t moving to the truck on its own accord so on the early hours of Friday morning a crane was brought in and the eight-tonne aircraft was lifted over the airfields fence and delicately placed on the custom build setup on the back of the Clein Transport Solution’s Kenworth K200. The morning was spent strapping it down and making sure it was set to go when Justin’s driver arrived ready to head out at 9pm.

Intersections checked

Word can spread pretty quickly among both oversize load fans and aircraft enthusiasts when there’s a special move on. So when the truck pulled out onto Milperra Rd there was already a small crowd watching. The stressful exercise of getting underway through Sydney’s narrower streets and onto the motorways required incredible finesse from not just the driver, Steve Sternberg, but also Justin and his chauffer Stephen Joyce who were flat out checking every intersection and corner, jumping out and guiding the truck through, often with mere centimetres to spare.

The final hurdle: A very tight roundabout straight off a narrow bridge, but easily managed by the crew, then it was just a simple run to the airport. Well done guys!

Once the boys hit Sydney’s motorways it was fairly good running, with the police escorts ensuring there wasn’t your typical highway idiots trying to squeeze up the inside.

The 330km journey took nearly eight hours, concluding with a concentrated effort through the back roads of Scone to get to the airport. It gave me another opportunity to watch the high level of skill as the team squeezed round corners and roundabouts that bear the scars of a few 4WDs that failed to negotiate the roads.

Negotiating the streets of Scone; its airport the last challenge for team Clein and one they handled with ease

The Clein team and the Mirage were greeted with a welcoming committee of around 400 people, a celebratory reception. They all watched as the Mirage was lifted off the truck and placed in its new home. It had been a year-long project, brought to an end by and eight-hour road trip.

Well done to all those involved. I can’t wait for the Scone Warbird Experience to open in late 2021; I’ll be down there for sure!

Pennant Hills Rd was definitely an easier journey at this hour of the night

Photography: Warren Aitken

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