FAA - 50 Years of Triumph, Tragedy and Technical Achievement 1970-2020

RAN Fleet Air Arm in Vietnam, 1971

RAN FAA in Vietnam, 1971. Image: Bruce Crawford Collection.
Image: Bruce Crawford Collection.

The Bell UH-1 Iroquois helicopter is still arguably the most instantly recognisable symbol of the Vietnam War. Images of the ‘helicopter war’ feature prominently in books, films and documentaries. Less well known though is the role played by personnel of the RAN’s Fleet Air Arm (FAA), in a war that depended heavily on tactical air movement of combat troops, supplies and equipment in what were eventually called air-mobile operations.

Between 1967 and 1971 the Royal Australian Navy Helicopter Flight Vietnam (RANHFV), was fully integrated with the US Army 135th Assault Helicopter Company (AHC) flying Iroquois helicopters. As a result of this unique relationship between the RAN and the US Army, the unit was officially designated ‘EMU’, for Experimental Military Unit. This was fitting, given that the emu is a native Australian bird, yet amusing at the same time because of the emu’s inability to fly.

The Unit designed its own unique badge and adopted the unofficial motto “Get the bloody job done”, which was to personify their attitude to air-mobile operations. The role of the135th AHC was to provide tactical air movement of combat troops, supplies and equipment in air-mobile operations. This included augmentation of Army medical services, search and rescue and the provision of a command and control aircraft capability.

The gallantry and distinguished service of RANHFV members was recognised by the award of three Member of the British Empire Medals, eight Distinguished Service Crosses, five Distinguished Flying Crosses (DFC), one British Empire Medal, 24 mentions in dispatches and numerous Vietnamese and US decorations. 723 Squadron, RANHFV’s parent unit, was awarded the Battle Honour ‘Vietnam 1967-71’ on 22 December 1972.

The RANHFV ceased operations on 8 June 1971. During its four year deployment to Vietnam, over 200 RAN FAA personnel rotated through the RANHFV in four contingents. Over this period they were continuously engaged in 
offensive operations, earning not only the pilots but also the maintenance and support staff of the flight, a reputation second to none.

Operation BURSA: Offshore Counter Terrorism, 1980s

Image: RAN Fleet Air Arm Museum Collection.
Image: RAN Fleet Air Arm Museum Collection.

In February 1978 a bomb attack was carried out on the Sydney Hilton Hotel. The Australian Government, determined to take a ‘hard line’ on terrorism, and approved a Defence plan to establish a Counter Terrorism (CT) capability. This role fell to the Special Air Service Regiment (SASR) and in September 1979 the Regiment established and commenced training the Tactical Assault Group.

Offshore platforms (oil rigs) were considered particularly vulnerable to terrorist action and presented unique challenges to CT operations. On 25 August 1980 the Defence Chiefs directed the establishment of a Special Independent Offshore Installation Group, with dedicated helicopters, for 
tactical insertion of the Tactical Assault Group, and so began Operation BURSA.

Due to its expertise and experience in low level and night overwater operations, Navy was to provide the helicopter elements and the role fell to 723 Squadron and the venerable Westland Wessex 31B. The Offshore Installation Group commenced operations in November 1980, giving 723 Squadron little more than 8 weeks to develop the tactics and train the crews.

The helicopters needed to deliver the maximum number of troops, in the minimum possible time, with the least risk from small arms fire, by day or night, without colliding with each other. The tactics developed into six helicopters, each with six troops, commencing in relatively close formation below the height of the oil rig flight decks (40m above the water). At night, the helicopter’s lights were too visible from the oil rigs, so chemical light sticks were attached to each aircraft so the following helicopter could keep position.

In February 1984, the Wessex were transferred to the newly recommissioned 816 Squadron allowing the Unit to focus predominantly on support to the Offshore Support Group.

In late 1986, safety and supportability concerns with the Wessex dictated the role be transferred to the larger and younger Westland Sea Kings operated by 817 Squadron. The Sea King introduced additional capacity and capabilities, which allowed them to reduce to four aircraft from six. The tactics did not change markedly and placed significant demands on the crews. The role was transferred to Army in January 1990 ending nearly a decade of Navy involvement in Operation BURSA.

Source: https://www.faaaa.asn.au/snippets-history-operation-bursa.

Singapore Cable Car Disaster, 1983

Image: Sea Power Centre - Australia.
Image: Sea Power Centre - Australia.

At about 6:00pm on 29 January 1983, the derrick of the Eniwetok, a Panamanian-registered oil rig, passed under the aerial ropeway and struck the cable that stretched over the waterway between the Jardine Steps Station and the Sentosa Station.

As a result, two cabins plunged 55 metres into the sea, killing seven people. The oil rig was being towed away from Keppel Wharf when it became entangled in the cable and caused it to snap. It also left thirteen people trapped in four other cabins between Mount Faber and Sentosa. The disaster was the first involving death or injury since the cable car system opened in February 1974.

There were fears that the oil rig could drift further and cause more damage. The problem was worsened by a combination of strong currents and the rising tide (high tide was at 11 pm). To prevent the rig from moving, four tugs put lines aboard and worked to and fro in the water to keep the rig steady in the water.

In the air, the 120 Squadron of Republic of Singapore Air Force was tasked to rescue the people who were still trapped in the four cabins, as the cabins could not be moved along the remaining cables. Though an extremely risky measure, it was considered the fastest and safest way as the cabins might have plunged into the sea at any 

The riskiest rescues were undertaken by Royal Australian Navy Lieutenant Geoff Ledger, who was on loan to Royal Singapore Air Force to help train helicopter pilots. Despite the windy conditions encountered above the harbour and the strong downwash of the rescue helicopter’s main rotors, he piloted the second Bell 212 rescue helicopter close above the cars to allow winchman Lance Corporal Selvarajoo to enter two cabins hanging only by their towline. Overall, the entire rescue mission took three and a half hours in darkness and high wind conditions. All crew members received letters of commendation, Geoff Ledger was the first foreign national to receive such an award since the formation of the Republic of Singapore.

Source: Slipstream Magazine.

Image: Sea Power Centre - Australia.
Image: Sea Power Centre - Australia.

Seahawks Approved, 1985

Image: RAN Fleet Air Arm Museum Collection.
Image: RAN Fleet Air Arm Museum Collection.

The Seahawk was an integral part of the ship’s weapons and sensor systems. With its unique sensor suite and integrated weapons systems the helicopter extended the combat radius of the ship by finding, localising and attacking where appropriate, surface or submarine targets either independently or in conjunction with other forces.

In addition to the Seahawk’s primary roles, its comprehensive sensors and excellent performance made it an ideal helicopter for performing a number of secondary roles including search and rescue, troop lift and tactical insertion, utility operations (winching and external load lift) and fire bombing.

The S-70B-2 Seahawk flew in excess of 88,000 hours across the fleet, predominantly embarking in the Adelaide Class and Anzac Class frigates. The S-70B-2 was operated by 816 Squadron from the type’s introduction into service in 1988 until its retirement from service on 1 December 2017.

Source: Navy News, Volume 27, Number 9, May 1985.

RAN 75th Anniversary, 1986

RAN Helicopters and HS748 leaving HMAS Albatross on their way to Sydney Harbour. Image: RAN Fleet Air Arm Museum Collection.
RAN Helicopters and HS748 leaving HMAS Albatross on their way to Sydney Harbour. Image: RAN Fleet Air Arm Museum Collection.

When the seven-ship RAN Task Group sailed through Sydney Heads on Friday, January 24th, it marked the official beginning of the Royal Australian Navy’s 75th Anniversary Year.

The Feet Commander, Rear Admiral Ian Knox, led the Task Group Comprising the six ships which sailed into Port Jackson In a three abreast formation with HMAS Hobart, HMAS Darwin and HMAS Sydney leading HMAS Derwent, HMAS Parramatta and HMAS Vampire.

When Hobart passed Bradleys Head the ships formed into a single ‘line ahead’ formation and shortly after a 21-gun salute from HMAS Hobart echoed across the harbour as the ships passed Mrs Macquaries Point in the Domain.

The Fremantle Class Patrol Boat HMAS Geelong embarked the Governor General, Sir Ninian Stephen, and the Chief of Naval Staff, Vice Admiral Michael Hudson, to take the salute. While anchored off Bennelong Point near the Sydney Opera House helicopters from the RAN Fleet Air Arm provided the finale for the 75th Anniversary Year arrival with the lead Sea King helicopter towing a giant 14.5 metre by 7.2 metre Australian Naval White Ensign beneath its undercarriage and weighed down by a 450kg plus weight.

Source: Navy News, Volume 29, Number 2, February 1986.

Westland Wessex Decommissioned, 1989

Image: RAN Fleet Air Arm Museum Collection.
Image: RAN Fleet Air Arm Museum Collection.

An era came to an end in December 1989 with the iconic Wessex helicopters being decommissioned. This was offset, however, by the commissioning of the first Sikorsky S-70B-2 Seahawk anti-submarine helicopter in February 1989.

The purchase of the Wessex 31A helicopter for the RAN came about because of Australian Government plans to disband the Fleet Air Arm. This was announced in 1959 when it became obvious that the Sea Venom jet fighter and Gannet anti-submarine warfare (ASW) aircraft would reach the end of their usable life in 1963.

The worsening political and military situation in Southeast Asia with a rising and unpredictable Indonesia, open conflict in Indo China and growing Soviet involvement in the area however meant that the aircraft carrier Melbourne needed to be retained. Thus the RAN ordered 27 Wessex 31A ASW helicopters, which began to be delivered in September 1962. With its folding tail and rotor blades the Wessex fitted easily into Melbourne’s hangar deck.

The first Wessex to be assembled in Australia conducted its ground run at the Naval Air Station – Nowra on 19 November 1962 and was test flown the following day. The Wessex helicopters were assigned to 725 Squadron for training of aircrew. 817 squadron was commissioned at Nowra on 18 July 1963 to become the main ASW squadron. By late 1963, 725 Squadron had nine Wessex helicopters and 817 had ten.

In late 1963 the Wessex helicopters were embarked in Melbourne for the first time. With its advanced ‘dunking sonar’ and ability to hover for lengthy periods, the Wessex gave the RAN a potent night-and-day anti-submarine capability, which when operating with the Fairey Gannet provided wide-area ASW 

In 1968, 23 of the original Wessex helicopters were upgraded to become the Wessex 31B; one aircraft retaining its 31A configuration. These helicopters were easily identified by the large dorsal hump behind the main rotor and the AN/APA 161 radar for station keeping in ASW operations. By March 1969 all 23 helicopters had been upgraded.

Source: seapower.navy.gov.au/aircraft/westland-wessex.



Operation SOLACE: RAN Relief to Somalia, 1993

HMAS Jervis Bay unloading at Mogadishu, 14 January 1993. Image: Sea Power Centre - Australia.
HMAS Jervis Bay unloading at Mogadishu, 14 January 1993. Image: Sea Power Centre - Australia.

In late 1992 Somalia was in the grip of famine following years of drought. The situation compounded by ongoing, fierce, tribal warfare. On 15 December 1992, the Australian Government approved Operation SOLACE, the deployment of Australian Defence Force assets to Somalia. The RAN’s heavy lift ships of the time, HMA Ships Jervis Bay and Tobruk were made ready.

HMAS Jervis Bay was loaded with 800 tonnes of cargo, comprising armoured personnel carriers (APC), trucks, four-wheel drive vehicles, ammunition, provisions and general cargo, in Townsville from where she sailed on Christmas Eve 1992, spearheading the military sealift operation to Mogadishu.

In Sydney, HMAS Tobruk’s ship’s company and her small ship’s Army detachment were embarking stores and preparing her for a nominal six month deployment. On Boxing Day a Sea King utility helicopter from the Fleet Air Arm’s 817 Squadron had embarked along with 16 aircrew and maintenance personnel. The ship sailed from Sydney on 26 December.

Jervis Bay arrived in the Area of Operations on 12 January. Early on the morning of 14 January, Jervis Bay proceeded into the port of Mogadishu, and within six hours the cargo had been unloaded. The ship sailed to rendezvous with Tobruk. The two ships met at sea on 17 January during which time Tobruk’s command team received important briefings from Jervis Bay. The ships then parted company, Jervis Bay proceeding home via Singapore, while Tobruk continued her voyage to Mogadishu arriving there on the evening of 19 January.

The following morning Tobruk berthed and disembarkation of cargo and personnel began. The evolution was completed early on 21 January, at which time the ship joined other multinational force ships at anchor in the harbour. Over the next five months, Tobruk conducted continuous resupply runs to neighbouring Kenya, carrying building materials and humanitarian aid supplies between Mombasa and Mogadishu. Throughout the deployment, Tobruk’s Sea King helicopter was also used in support of the operation, making several flights to Baidoa. For Tobruk it was to be one of many successful amphibious operations to follow in a career that spanned more than 30 years.

Source: Sea Power Centre - Australia, by John Perryman.

Sydney to Hobart Yacht Race, 1998

Tiger 75 being latched down to the flight deck of HMAS Melbourne after landing during a big swell, 1998. Image: Courtesy Rick Neville.
Tiger 75 being latched down to the flight deck of HMAS Melbourne after landing during a big swell, 1998. Image: Courtesy Rick Neville.

On Christmas Day, a storm equivalent to a force 12 hurricane storm, brought forth 10-15 metre swells and 60 knot winds, causing havoc among the participants of the Sydney to Hobart race. Overnight, the Royal Australian Navy began preparing for the coordination of Australia’s largest peacetime search and rescue operation to date.

Naval Airmen and Crewman from Fleet Air Arm 816 Squadron aboard an S-70B-2 Seahawk helicopter - ‘Tiger 75’ were on their way back to Nowra at 10pm on 28 December for a night’s rest when the Seahawk helicopter picked up one last signal from two Winston Churchill crew members in a life raft. This was significant as communication with those onboard had been considered lost. The crew of the Seahawk turned around, flying into perhaps one of the most dangerous rescue operations of their entire naval careers.

There were 36 knot winds and 15-18-metre seas. Flying in an aircraft 80-100 miles off the coast in pitch black and cloudy conditions. They could see there were two people in a life raft but couldn’t communicate with them, with the huge swells the life raft would be 20 feet below the helicopter one minute, and then 50 feet below the helicopter the next, and moving away from it.

The winchman prepared to go down to the raft, once in the ocean the winchman began swimming towards the life raft while dragging the winch cable behind him. Holding onto the side of the raft he determined that one of the crew members was injured and it was decided that he was to be winched first. When the strop was around the crew members head the helicopter’s RADALT automatic hover control tripped due to the severe conditions, and they both got pulled out of the life raft straight into a 40-foot wave.

While the aircrew were fighting to get the aircraft back under control, the winchman was fighting to hang on to crew members of the Winston Churchill as they got smashed into wave after wave. After getting back to the aircraft the crew deemed it too risky for the winchman to go back into the water again due to the aircraft malfunction. A strop was instead sent down on its own for the remaining crew member. After being lifted into the aircraft, even though two more crew members of the Winston Churchill were still missing, the Seahawk crew prioritised getting those rescued to land for medical attention and passed this information on to a Seaking helicopter that was still operating in the area. Fortunately those in the second life raft had been picked up on the same day.

RAN busy in East Timor: Operation STABILISE, October 1999

HMAS Tobruk detachment from 817 Squadron embarked with Sea King 907 in support of the INTERFET mission to East Timor, 1999.
The HMAS Tobruk detachment from 817 Squadron embarked with Sea King 907 in support of the INTERFET mission to East Timor, 1999.

On 30 August 1999 civil unrest broke out in the East Timor capital of Dili, on the day the country gathered to vote on a referendum for independence from Indonesia. Some 1400 civilians were believed to have died. The massive task of bringing lasting peace to East Timor and restoring the infrastructure of the nation began and the Royal Australian Navy was there helping.

Royal Australian Navy ships and helicopters delivered food, fuel, machinery, as well as United Nations authorised peacekeepers from 15 nations. The operation continued as more and more East Timorese came down from the mountains or emerge from the bush to inspect what was left of their towns and villages. Sailors helped restore the buildings needed for the ongoing efforts of the INTERFET forces. RAN clearance divers were hard at work as was a RAN port services team.

“Rebuilding East Timor will be like the reconstruction of Darwin after Cyclone Tracy, but it will be on an even larger scale,” said the Chief or Navy, Vice Admiral David Shackleton.

Nine RAN ships operated by around 1000 personnel were involved in the United Nations’ sanctioned operation, dubbed Operation STABILISE. HMAS Darwin was one of the first RAN ships to deploy to East Timor, recalled with HMAS Success from a South East Asia deployment. After sailing on 6 September Darwin spearheaded the surveillance operation of East Timor, initially operating in company with HMA Ships Anzac and Jervis Bay, and USS Mobile Bay. In addition to her surveillance responsibilities Darwin also provided protection for Jervis Bay, and meals for the latter’s ship’s company and passengers.

RAN units were responsible for conducting operations in and around Dili Harbour, as well escorting civilian charters into the harbour. At any one time there was a RAN presence in the harbour which was reassuring for the troops on the ground.

Source: Navy News, Volume 42, Number 20, October 1999.

Canberra Bushfires, January 2003

Image: RAN Fleet Air Arm Museum Collection.
Image: RAN Fleet Air Arm Museum Collection.

On 8 January 2003, lightning strikes started four fires in New South Wales to the west of, but in close proximity to, Canberra in the Australian Capital Territory. Over the next few days the fires, initially small and slow moving, spread eastward toward Canberra into rugged, hilly terrain until the ACT Government requested Defence support on 13 January. AS350BA Squirrel and S-70B-2 Seahawk helicopters from 723 and 816 Squadrons respectively, departed HMAS Albatross on 14 January.

The Squirrel quickly set to work plotting the extent of the four active fire areas advancing on Canberra, while the Seahawk prepared for water bombing and fire team insertions. The following day conditions worsened with the Squirrel observing two of the fires merging into a single fire front. By 17 January the fires had merged into a single front and on the 18th the fire entered and damaged the suburbs of Canberra after burning through the bush surrounding the urban areas. Within four hours, four people had died and 470 homes were destroyed.

The 18th saw the Navy helicopters working alongside civilian helicopters and firefighters, conducting medical evacuation tasks in addition to fire mapping and water-bombing. On two occasions the Squirrel had to quickly relocate as fire threatened temporary landing sites at Tharwa and Symonston, south of Canberra.

In all, the two Squadrons deployed daily for 13 consecutive days, until the danger had passed. For both Squadrons and some of the crews, this was the second consecutive year fighting fires, having been involved in the Black Christmas fires in 2001/02, operating in the Shoalhaven and Sydney Basin and as far north as the Central Coast.

Sources: Navy News; seapower.navy.gov.au/history/squadron-histories; The Canberra Times; personal recollections.

Operation SAMOA ASSIST, November 2009

Members of HMAS Tobruk's flight deck team attach a cargo net to HMAS Tobruk's AS350BA Squirrel helicopter (Taipan 01) while conducting vertical replenishments from the ship to a designated drop off area ashore during Operation SAMOA ASSIST, November 2009. Image: ABIS Lincoln Commane.
Members of HMAS Tobruk's flight deck team attach a cargo net to HMAS Tobruk’s AS350BA Squirrel helicopter (Taipan 01) while conducting vertical replenishments from the ship to a designated drop off area ashore during Operation SAMOA ASSIST, November 2009. Image: ABIS Lincoln Commane.

HMAS Tobruk sailed from Sydney on October 27, loaded with relief packages and humanitarian aid in support of Operation SAMOA ASSIST, following a major earthquake and associated tsunami that caused devastation in Samoa and Tonga.

After 15 days at sea, Tobruk berthed in Samoa’s capital, Apia, on November 9. Once secured, the Ship’s Army Detachment immediately started unloading the much-needed supplies and equipment on the Wharf ready for 
distribution. In Samoa, about 3000 people were still homeless because of the tsunami, with more than half of those people still living under tents and tarpaulins.

The next stage of the operation saw Tobruk spend three days anchored off a little island in Tonga, Niuatoputapu, which was one of the hardest hit islands in the vicinity of the earthquake and tsunami. Sixty per cent of the homes on the island were destroyed with 192 families left without accommodation. Almost two thirds of the population of 1000 are living on the island with no housing, no clothing and no possessions apart from what they were able to carry to higher ground before the four-metre wave hit.

This part of the humanitarian assistance package will allow local authorities to start rebuilding after the severe 
damage caused by the disaster. The ship’s crew also scheduled time to assist in the clean-up process. Commander Thompson said that, after the success of the efforts in Samoa, the ship’s crew were extremely excited about 
continuing the humanitarian relief work.

Off-loading the aid and equipment took just over two days, with the ship’s company working alongside the locals to ensure a speedy unload and distribution. Working parties, together with the local communities, cleaned up areas of debris and rubbish, including the local hospital that had been completely gutted by the tsunami. Very few buildings were left standing and the reconstruction equipment and materials that were unloaded are the lynch pin that will 
allow rebuilding to occur.

Source: Navy News, Volume 52, Number 22, November 2009.

Exercise RIMPAC 2010, Hawaii

817 Squadron Sea King ‘Shark 22’ lands on the forecastle of HMAS Kanimbla in preparation for arrival in Pearl Harbor to commence Exercise RIMPAC 2010.
817 Squadron Sea King ‘Shark 22’ lands on the forecastle of HMAS Kanimbla in preparation for arrival in Pearl Harbor to commence Exercise RIMPAC 2010.

Exercise Rim of the Pacific (RIMPAC) 10 began in and around the islands of Hawaii on 23 June 2010. The ADF’s largest international maritime exercise, RIMPAC celebrated its 22nd year and was designed to hone skills and test interoperability with 14 fellow Pacific Rim nations. About 1200 ADF personnel participated in the five week exercise.

Senior commanders from 14 countries joined Commander of the US Fleet, Admiral Patrick Walsh, in opening the 22nd Rim of the Pacific exercise (RIMPAC 10) in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. Twenty-two thousand military personnel, 30 ships and more than 100 aircraft gathered in the Hawaiian operating area for the biennial exercise.

Admiral Walsh said training opportunities were essential to pass knowledge and skills from generation to generation.

“We cannot assume we are able to operate in times of need unless we’ve had this sort of training opportunity.

“When we have the ability to communicate with each other, we are able to take full advantage of the respective capabilities that each nation brings to the sea,” he said.

RIMPAC Exercise Commander, Rear Admiral Rick Hart, said the greatest outcome of RIMPAC 10 would be combining the diversity and experience from participating nations and ensuring those capabilities were interoperable while achieving national required training objectives.

“Once that has occurred, we all want to take our experiences to a higher level and work very effectively together in a changing dynamic environment,” he said.

“RIMPAC participants are part of a tremendous gathering of likeminded nations working to secure the maritime 

He said the Hawaiian island chain offered an ideal geography for scripting an exercise.

“This exercise will allow countries to explore a variety of scenarios. Over the course of RIMPAC we will train for all aspects of warfare, anti-piracy, humanitarian assistance and disaster relief.”

As well as HMA Ships Warramunga, Newcastle and Kanimbla, the RAN provided Clearance Divers and Sea King helicopters from 817 Squadron. Soldiers from the Townsville-based 2nd Battalion, Royal Australian Regiment participated, and the RAAF provided a command element and AP3-C Orion aircraft.

Source: Navy News, Volume 53, Number 13, July 2010.


Members of the Royal Australian Navy (RAN) disembark from RAAF C-17 Globemaster A41-208 at RAAF Richmond, after providing flood relief in Queensland. Image: LAC David Said.
Members of the Royal Australian Navy (RAN) disembark from RAAF C-17 Globemaster A41-208 at RAAF Richmond, after providing flood relief in Queensland. Image: LAC David Said.

Australian Defence Force (ADF) personnel played a critical role in response to the worst natural disaster in Queensland history. The ADF brought significant specialist capabilities to the assistance effort and later brought boots on the ground when the waters began to subside and numbers were needed. For many operational veterans, the aftermath in devastated areas was among the worst sights they had encountered.

Brigadier Paul McLachlan assumed command of Joint Task Force 637 on 17 January and was in place to witness first-hand the effect of the floods on damaged areas.

“It was the worst carnage I have seen,” McLachlan said.

“Grantham has continually shocked everybody and there are guys who have experiences of East Timor early in 
operations and an engineer corporal who was part of the tsunami response.

“Certainly, the worst affected areas of Brisbane and Ipswich have been trashed.”

The magnitude of the problem became apparent with reports of an area the size of NSW inundated in north Queensland. However, no-one was prepared for the later vision of cars being swept away in Toowoomba and a destructive wall of water descending on Grantham.

Helicopters provided vital early response bringing lifeblood supplies to isolated towns and regions and executing daring airlift rescues by day and night. The network of RAAF bases at Richmond, Amberley and Townsville provided staging areas. At one point 19 aircraft were flying continuously out of RAAF Base Amberley.

Specialist ADF capabilities such as Navy clearance divers were later deployed to survey all of Brisbane’s 16 river bridges for damage and blockages. HMAS Huon began operations fitted with sophisticated sonar equipment on January 18 to search for debris that posed navigational hazards to shipping in Moreton Bay and the Brisbane River.

“People are amazed at just how hard every person is working.

“The dedication, professionalism, humility and support for those involved has been truly amazing.”

Chief of Navy VADM Russ Crane said he was extremely proud of Navy’s efforts.

Source: Navy News, Volume 54, Number 1, February 2011.

Operation BUSHFIRE ASSIST, 2020

An MRH-90 Taipan Military Support Helicopter on the 808 Squadron Flight line at HMAS Albatross, Nowra. Image: CPOIS Kelvin Hockey.
An MRH-90 Taipan Military Support Helicopter on the 808 Squadron Flight line at HMAS Albatross, Nowra. Image: CPOIS Kelvin Hockey.

At about 10:30am on New Year’s Eve 2019 at HMAS Albatross, Commanding Officer Captain Robyn Phillips saw flames at the western edge of the airfield.

“I didn't know what would be left of Albatross,” Captain Phillips said.

“We had fire licking at the doorstep and we knew it was going to be a bad day.”

Fire travelled around the base’s western perimeter, then a spot fire burned across the grass around the runway’s north side and continued near the Fleet Air Arm Museum and the Parachute Training School.

“We’d see black plumes of smoke on the horizon and wonder if that was someone’s house that had gone up,” Captain Phillips said.

By 3pm, no sunlight penetrated the black smoke enveloping the base. Contractors and firefighters drove around the airfield extinguishing spot fires ahead of the main fire front. “We were just waiting for that fire front to come up Nowra Hill and get us,” Captain Phillips said. Everyone who wasn’t supporting aircraft operations moved into one building, where about 40 people sheltered. Volunteer firefighters protected the building with hoses and a fire truck at each end.

During the worst ember attack, small blazes ignited deeper inside the base, including one between the accommodation blocks.

“My staff were discovering spot fires and pulling out hoses to put them out,” Captain Phillips said.

At the last minute, the wind changed and pushed the fire back on itself.

It was a harrowing start to the job for Captain Phillips, who took command on 12 December. Albatross has been supporting this season’s firefighting efforts since late November when the RFS aviation element first arrived. In mid-December civilian firefighters and trucks began staging from Albatross.

Source: Navy News, Volume 63, Number 1, February 2020.