Commander Errol Martin Kavanagh

By John Perryman, CSM

Errol Martin Kavanagh was born in Millicent, South Australia on 2 July 1944. He enlisted in the Royal Australian Navy from Mount Gambier, on 29 October 1962 as a Midshipman, undertaking initial officer training at HMAS Cerberus, Westernport, Victoria.

Between 18 March and 25 Oct 1963, Midshipman Kavanagh undertook basic aircrew training at RAAF Base Point Cook, Victoria, learning to fly in CAC Winjeel trainer aircraft. Advanced flying training followed in November 1963 at RAAF Base Peace, Western Australia, where the young 19 year old converted to jets, flying De Havilland Vampires. It was there that he was given the nickname ‘Clump’ and awarded his naval pilot’s ‘wings’ on 4 May 1964.

On 18 May 1964, the then Acting Sub Lieutenant Kavanagh was appointed to 724 Squadron for operational flying training at NAS Nowra where he learnt to fly the ungainly Fairey Gannet Anti-Submarine aircraft before joining 816 Squadron in November 1964.

Left: Midshipman Kavanagh beside the cockpit of a Winjeel trainer in which he learnt to fly. Right: The presentation of his naval pilot wings on successful completion of advanced flying training, 4 May 1964.
Left: Midshipman Kavanagh beside the cockpit of a Winjeel trainer in which he learnt to fly. Right: The presentation of his naval pilot wings on successful completion of advanced flying training, 4 May 1964.

Midshipman Kavanagh beside a De Havilland Vampire jet trainer at RAAF Base Pearce in early 1964.

Between November 1964 and October 1966 Errol embarked variously in the aircraft carrier HMAS Melbourne (II) as a member of 816 Squadron, flying Gannets. During that time he became proficient in carrier flying operations notching up an impressive number of take-offs and landings during day and night flying serials in all weather conditions. It was during that time that his natural ability as a pilot began to flourish and he was promoted Lieutenant on 2 June 1966.

Left: Sub Lieutenant Kavanagh entering the cockpit of a Fairey Gannet on board the RAN aircraft carrier HMAS Melbourne (II). Right: A Gannet catching an arrestor wire on landing on the carrier's flight deck.

In October 1966 Lieutenant Kavanagh briefly joined 724 Squadron at NAS Nowra before being selected to train as a flying instructor. He was subsequently posted to the RAAF’s Central Flying School, East Sale, in January 1967, graduating as a Qualified Flying Instructor on 5 May that year. He was soon putting his newfound skills to good use at the Advanced Flying Training School (1AFTS), RAAF Base Pearce, as a pilot instructor. On 15 Nov 1967, at 23 years of age, he was appointed Senior Naval Officer at RAAF Base Pearce, assuming responsibility for naval aviators undergoing training.

This posting was to place Errol in good stead for his next appointment in November 1968 at the Operational Flying School (OFS), NAS Nowra. There he was among the first of the RAN’s pilots to convert to the newly acquired Douglas A4G Skyhawk fighter-bombers, an aircraft type he quickly mastered and one he would enjoy a close relationship with throughout its entire service life in the RAN.

In October 1969 Errol was selected to join senior RAN pilots Commander Grahame ‘Dusty’ King and Lieutenant Commander Bill Callan as a member of 724 Squadron’s aerobatic team – the ‘Ramjets’. Together they showcased the RAN’s new A4G Skyhawks to a crowd of 39,000 people in an air display at NAS Nowra, held to commemorate the RAN Fleet Air Arm’s 21st Birthday. Navy News was to report:

The eagerly awaited aerial display did not disappoint…there was a thrill a second…the Skyhawk pilots put their sleek craft through their paces with consummate ease, which betokened their skill in handling…as the jets reared skywards to loop, or to fly above the runway, rolling crazily upside down, excitement was at its peak…this was masterly flying… [it] was a magnificent performance as they flew the new transonic aircraft through difficult manoeuvres at speeds up to 550 m.p.h. There is no doubt they proved one of the highlights of the afternoon’s proceedings.

The Ramjets aerobatic team at NAS Nowra in October 1969. L-R: Commander Grahame 'Dusty' King, Lieutenant Commander Bill Callan and Lieutenant Errol Kavanagh.

On 19 November 1969, Lieutenant Kavanagh joined 724 Squadron as its senior pilot and OFS instructor. At that time the squadron was an all-jet unit comprising Vampires, Sea Venoms and Douglas A4G Skyhawks used for operational flying training, fleet requirements and trials. With the phasing out of Sea Venom and Vampire aircraft in 1970 the squadron was equipped with Macchi MB 326 jet trainers and three TA-4G two-seat trainers. Errol Kavanagh was proficient in all aircraft types flown by the squadron.

On 7 June 1970, Errol joined Lieutenant Commander John P Park, USN, in setting an Australian long distance record for a single seat fighter-bomber when they flew their A4G Skyhawks almost 2100 miles in 4.5 hours. The flight was performed to test the aircraft’s endurance and to provide navigation training. The two A4Gs left NAS Nowra at 10:18am and, flying at 32,000 feet, were soon over Canberra, Melbourne, Launceston, Hobart, Adelaide, Mildura, Hay and Sydney before returning to Nowra where they landed at 14:52 and 14:59 respectively. Both aircraft carried three reserve fuel tanks. A third A4G with a full load of fuel accompanied them on the final leg to provide in-flight refuelling if necessary. Both aircraft finished the course without landing or needing the extra fuel.

The following year, on 28 April 1971 while conducting an instructional flight in a Macchi jet trainer over Jervis Bay, NSW, Errol and a student pilot, Lieutenant Peter Clarke, RAN, were forced to eject when control of their aircraft was lost after entering an inverted spin. A local fisherman, Mr Syd Williamson, rescued both pilots in his 12-foot fishing boat remarking later that:

I looked up and heard two loud bangs. Smoke was pouring from the aircraft tail and I thought momentarily the Navy must have been using the jet for target practice. Looking to the north I saw two white parachutes drifting from the sky towards me. I started the boat and manoeuvred to the closer chap (Clarke) who landed about 200 yards away. [Clarke said] “Be careful mate, my back’s had it”.

He asked me where his mate was and I told him he was safe in his dinghy about 100 yards away. His mate had a little radio going. I got him aboard also.

A Macchi of the type being flown by Lieutenants Kavanagh and Clarke when they were forced to eject after the aircraft entered an inverted spin.

Both aviators were taken to the nearby HMAS Albatross sick bay suffering minor injuries that left them black and blue from the violence of their ejection. Not wanting to alarm his then pregnant wife Carol, Errol advised her that he had had a mishap that morning and taken a ‘dip’ in Jervis Bay. His good intention appears to have worked for it was only later that she learned of the magnitude of the morning’s events.

Errol and Clarke both returned to flying duties and a short while later they received notification that they had been inducted into the Martin-Baker Tie Club - an exclusive club for those aviators who had safely ejected from an aircraft using the Martin-Baker ejection seat system.

Left: Lieutenant Errol Kavanagh beside a Martin-Baker ejection seat of the type used by himself and Clarke on 28 April 1971. Right: The exclusive Martin-Baker Tie and membership card.
Left: Lieutenant Errol Kavanagh beside a Martin-Baker ejection seat of the type used by himself and Clarke on 28 April 1971. Right: The exclusive Martin-Baker Tie and membership card.

In August 1971 Errol was selected to serve in the US at NAS Kingsville, Texas, as an exchange jet instructor with VT-22 Squadron. His role there was instructing student naval aviators in the final areas of training before transitioning to fleet assignments. On 31 January 1972 he completed the USN Air Training Command, Instructor Training Course, qualifying him to fly the TA-4J Skyhawk variant. Later that year he also completed courses of instruction qualifying him to fly A-7E Corsairs and to perform the duties of a Landing Signals Officer in aircraft carriers.

During his time in the US Lieutenant Kavanagh gained further flying experience in TA-4J Skyhawks and A-7E Corsairs.

Although not yet 28 years of age, Errol Kavanagh was proving himself an experienced and highly capable officer and, with that in mind, he was selected to attend the Naval Post Graduate School, Monterey, California where he remained until 31 August 1973 before returning with his family to Australia in October and taking up an appointment with 724 Squadron.

Lieutenant Errol Kavanagh on exchange with VT-22 Squadron, NAS Kingsville, Texas. By age 28 he was fast becoming an experienced and promising pilot in the RAN's Fleet Air Arm.

Between January and December 1974 Errol served in the destroyers HMAS Perth (II) and Vendetta (II) to hone his mariner skills and qualify as a bridge watchkeeping officer. On completion he returned briefly to NAS Nowra as the Base Flight Safety Officer having been promoted Lieutenant Commander on 2 June 1974.

In June 1975 Lieutenant Commander Kavanagh was appointed to Navy Office as the staff officer responsible for aircrew postings, remaining in that role until 13 December 1976. On 31 December 1976 he was appointed Commanding Officer of the Ton Class minesweeper HMAS Ibis and Commander of the Australian Mine Countermeasures Squadron.

As Commanding Officer of Ibis he undertook a circumnavigation of Australia between 24 January and 23 May 1977. His approach to his seamanship duties was as diligent as that of his flying duties and he enjoyed his time in command of one of the RAN’s small ships, fostering a keen sense of esprit de corps among its crew. In early January 1978 Ibis went into refit at which time Errol was appointed Commanding Officer of 724 Squadron.

Left: The Ton Class minesweeper HMAS Ibis departing Sydney. Right: The crew of Ibis pose for an informal photograph on her foc'sle. Errol Kavanagh can be seen third from the right. Fostering esprit de corps was important in small ships particularly during longer deployments such as that undertaken by Ibis in 1977.

Again finding himself in the familiar cockpit of A4Gs, Errol became the first RAN pilot to log 1500 flying hours in Skyhawks during a night air-refuelling sortie in August 1978.

In August 1979 Lieutenant Commander Errol Kavanagh became the first RAN pilot to achieve 1500 hours in A4G Skyhawks while serving as Commanding Officer of 724 Squadron, NAS Nowra.

In December that year Errol was appointed Commanding Officer of VF805 Squadron. The following year on 27 November he led six A4G Skyhawks on an independent deployment from NAS Nowra to Malaysia to participate in two Integrated Air Defence System excercises. The 4000 mile flight was flown in four legs over two days with stops at RAAF bases Townsville and Darwin as well as Bali International Airport in Indonesia.

Left: The route taken by VF805 Squadrons six A4G Skyhawk fighter bombers. Right: An A4G on the tarmac at Bali International Airport during a fuelling stop.

Left: RAAF Butterworth Malaysia. Right: LCDR Errol Kavanagh, 3rd from left, with his fellow officers from VF805 Squadron at RAAF Butterworth.

It proved another milestone for Errol, being the first occasion on which VF805 Squadron had deployed outside Australia or New Zealand independent of the aircraft carrier HMAS Melbourne. The deployment also included Dissimilar Air Combat Training with 75 and 3 Squadrons RAAF, flying Mirage fighters and 12 Squadron Royal Malaysian Air Force flying F5E aircraft.

Left: Malaysian Air Force F5Es take to the air from Butterworth. Right: One of VF805s A4Gs getting the better of an RAAF 3 Squadron Mirage.

In January 1980 Errol joined HMAS Melbourne as the Deputy Head of the Air Department. During that time the RAN public relations unit produced a feature on HMAS Melbourne and her embarked Fleet Air Arm squadrons in a short documentary entitled 'Sea Eagles'. Many of the embarked aircrew, including Lieutenant Commander Kavanagh, appeared in the production that illustrated the complex nature of carrier operations and the strategic capability the ship and its aircraft gave Australia at that time.

Centre holding helmet: Lieutenant Commander Kavanagh poses with aircrew and flight deck personnel while serving in HMAS Melbourne as the Deputy 'Air Boss'.

Promoted Commander on 31 December 1981 Errol’s next appointment was as the Area Director, Joint Intelligence Organisation at the Department of Defence, Canberra. He remained in that appointment for two years during which time the fixed-wing component of the Fleet Air Arm was dealt a blow from which it would not recover. A deal with Britain to replace the ageing aircraft carrier Melbourne with an Invincible Class light aircraft carrier did not proceed and consequently the RAN’s fixed-wing aircraft were phased out of service, not to be replaced.

That decision saw numerous RAN aviators leave the Service or transfer to the Royal Australian Air Force in order to continue flying. Commander Kavanagh, although deeply disappointed, continued to serve joining the fleet oiler HMAS Supply as her executive officer on 6 January 1984. This proved to be Commander Kavanagh’s last sea-going appointment before undertaking the RAN Staff Course at the Joint Services Staff College in July 1985. On completion of that training he was appointed Deputy Director Naval Plans in Canberra before resigning his commission in November 1987 to fly privately operated Lear jets in support of the RAN fleet.

An RAAF F/A 18 and Lear jet operating together in the fleet support role in the Eastern Australia Exercise Area.

Commander Kavanagh continued to fly Lear jets for the next two years before joining Qantas where he qualified as a Boeing 747 pilot flying internationally around the world. Although still flying, it was a far cry from piloting single seat jet aircraft and when an opportunity presented itself for him to pilot a privately operated MiG-15 jet, operated as a ‘war bird’, he embraced it. His long time friend and fellow naval aviator, John Hamilton, was to recall the infectious conversations he had with ‘Clump’ concerning flying the MiG and the joy it gave him. Errol flew the MiG-15 variously between 1992 and 1993 and it was to prove a popular feature at a number of regional air shows throughout NSW and the ACT.

On 13 March 1993 Errol took off from runway 12 at Canberra Airport with an associate in the rear seat. After becoming airborne, the aircraft entered a climbing left turn levelling out at about 1200 feet. At that point Errol detected a technical problem and requested a landing. The request was granted and instructions issued to land on runway 35. When the MiG was about 4km from the threshold of runway 35, it was seen to enter a steep nose-down attitude before crashing in open ground in the Canberra suburb of Narrabundah. Both Errol and his passenger were killed instantly.

Eyewitnesses subsequently labelled Errol a hero for avoiding a crowded oval on which children from a nearby school were engaged in sporting activities. A coronial investigation was conducted in July 1995 but following representation by Errol’s wife and experts in the aviation industry, the Bureau of Air Safety Investigation conducted a more thorough examination of the crash determining, inter alia:

that an in flight fire, fuelled by an unknown source of combustible material, melted and burned the rudder and elevator control tubes located in the fuselage aft of frame 21. As a result of the damage to these items, control of the aircraft was lost making recovery impossible.

Commander Errol ‘Clump’ Kavanagh’s funeral was conducted at the Duntroon Military College Chapel attended by family and his many friends. There he was remembered fondly as a loving husband and father, a man of absolute integrity and a professional and accomplished aviator who helped train a generation of RAN frontline jet pilots.

Errol Kavanagh was survived by his wife Carol and two daughters Justin and Erin. The Narrabundah sports oval that he avoided using the critical last seconds of control he had over the doomed aircraft is named in his honour.