- A.N. Other
- Naval Aviation, RAN operations
- RAN Ships
- None noted.
- December 2011 edition of the Naval Historical Review (all rights reserved)
We are honoured to publish this keynote Address given to the Fleet Air Arm of South Australia Division following an RAN Fleet Air Arm Commemorative Service at the Adelaide Repatriation Hospital Chapel on Sunday 28 August 2011. This address was given by Captain Daniel Reilly, RANR, Chief Staff Officer Aviation Engineering, Headquarters Fleet Air Arm at HMAS Albatross.
Your Excellencies, Rear Admiral Kevin Scarce, The Governor of South Australia and Mrs Elizabeth Scarce; Commander Michael Doherty, the Commanding Officer Naval Headquarters South Australia; Mr Leon Coppins, President Fleet Air Arm Association – South Australian Division and Mrs Cherie Coppins and all Fleet Air Arm Association Executive members; Chaplains Peter Miller and Frances Bartholomeusz, distinguished guests, retired members of the Royal Australian Navy’s Fleet Air Arm and their families; Ladies and Gentlemen.
Thank you for the rare privilege of being able to address you today on this commemorative occasion. The Royal Australian Navy’s Fleet Air Arm and its rich history is a topic I know will resonate with all of you, and I recall Your Excellency serving at HMAS Albatross in the late 1980s as the Supply Officer, in between my own postings as the Aircraft Engineer on 723 and then on 817 Squadron. I am presuming by your presence here Sir, that you look back on your posting to Albatross with a degree of fond nostalgia as they were interesting days, when the FAA had to come to terms with not having a substantial fixed winged presence after the loss of the carrier, although we did of course retain the HS748 in the 1990s.
Tackling the task that Leon has set me to review the FAA Past Present and the Future in 15 minutes will be no mean feat given the rich tapestry of involvement in Australia’s history – but I will give it a try – and up front I will admit I am no historian, but I am cognisant that many of you here will have lived through the foundation era of the FAA, and will know much more about those early years than I can ever hope to know; I hope I can do you justice and please be kind to me where I omit salient facts. Undertaking the preparation for this speech has given me a new found respect for historians.
Importantly, apart from the facts and figures which no journey through history can hope to evade, the constant thread has been the personal contribution of individuals like yourselves that not only laid the foundations of the Fleet Air Arm but trained and handed it over to equally consummate professionals who in turn are now handing it to today’s young men and women as they look forward to the brave world of tri-service, helicopter centric, amphibious operations.
As with much of history the watershed moments are well reported, and one could classically start with the establishment of the Royal Australian Navy’s Fleet Air Arm on 3 July 19471 following the purchase of two aircraft carriers from the Royal Navy (HM Ships Majestic and Terrible) which had been under construction at the end of WW II – these Majestic Class Carriers were soon to become HMAS Melbourne and HMAS Sydney respectively. However as with all great ideas, the gestation takes a lot longer and reveals something about the character of those who dared to dream.
For instance, Australia’s original naval aviation force sprang out of WW I with the Navy lobbying for an RAN Fleet Air Arm as early as 1920, although formed up to fly Sopwith Pups/Camels launched off Cruiser gun turrets, maritime aviation found itself operating with Royal Australian Air Force Pilots. The original Albatross, a seaplane tender, was operated with Royal Australian Air Force pilots from its commissioning in January 1929 through until sale to the Royal Navy in 1933. Times were different then of course; being launched from its gun turrets provided a one way passage for the pilot who had to be winched up, along with the aircraft, back onto the deck at the end of each flight – presuming of course he survived the landing. I would imagine not only did the pilots have to know how to fly the plane but had to be pretty good swimmers as well. I also suspect this type of operation required a steely nerve and would not meet today’s more stringent Occupational Health and Safety regulations – well at least not in South Australia.
However it was the Royal Navy Fleet Air Arm operations in World War II that planted the seed in the mind of the Australian Naval Board as WW II drew to a close when they selected a young ‘Observer’ who had served with the Royal Navy with distinction, Lieutenant Commander Victor Alfred Trumpeter (VAT) Smith (later to become Admiral Sir Victor Smith), and directed him to return to the UK and examine the prospect of setting up an Australian Fleet Air Arm – his reports formed the basis of the detailed expansion plans for Australia’s Fleet Air Arm and for his efforts and continued passionate involvement, ‘VAT Smith’ became known as the ‘Father of the Fleet Air Arm’ and in his later years became the Patron of the Fleet Air Arm Association on its formation in the 1970s.
To accompany the two aircraft carriers and associated aircraft on order, the Navy reclaimed both HMS Nabstock (later to be commissioned as HMAS Nirimba) in Sydney and HMS Nabbington (commissioned as Albatross on 31 August 1948) at Nowra. Both locations were existing airfields, initially used by the Royal Australian Air Force then further developed and used by the Royal Navy during their Pacific Campaigns. As history shows, the Royal Australian Naval Air Station – RANAS Nowra at Albatross became the home for today’s Fleet Air Arm.
In parallel, Sydney was commissioned in the UK on 16 December 1948 and dispatched to Australia with the 20th Carrier Air Group comprising 805 Squadron with Hawker Sea Furies and 816 Squadron with Fairey Fireflies. Sydney returned to the UK in 1950 to pick up the 21st Carrier Air Group comprising 808 and 817 Squadron with Sea Furies and Fireflies. War on the Korean Peninsular was looming and Australia’s fledgling Fleet Air Arm would soon be blooded in combat.
Looking back it is somewhat surprising that while Sydney was busy transporting aircraft and eventually taking part operationally in Korea in 1951 with 805, 808 and 817 Squadrons, HMS Majestic (soon to be Melbourne) was still being worked on with modifications encompassing an angled steel flight deck, a steam catapult and the then revolutionary ‘mirror landing aid’ to allow the most modern jet aircraft of that era to be operated.
During the Korean Campaign my father was aboard Sydney initially as an aviation mechanic (he came home as a cook, but that is another story!); so my personal ties go back to the Fleet Air Arm’s initial conflict where we lost three pilots, and one seriously injured, with 13 aircraft destroyed during that campaign, nine lost to anti aircraft fire and four to severe weather deck operations. We also shouldn’t forget over 90 aircraft were struck with shrapnel during this campaign – this was not a small confrontation. Overall though, these were remarkably light losses given the horrendous conditions experienced and the number of sorties flown.
The Royal Navy lent HMS Vengeance to the RAN in 1952, equipped with three Bristol Sycamore Helicopters which formed the first Military Helicopter Squadron and prompted the first military helicopter pilot school. Vengeance returned to the UK in 1955 with her crew transferring to and commissioning Melbourne on 28 October 1955. To put this into my own personal context, I was born a year later in October 1956.
Melbourne brought home the de Havilland Sea Venom jet fighter bomber for 805 and 808 Squadrons and the turboprop Fairey Gannet anti-submarine aircraft for 817 and 816. However by the end of the 1950s these aircraft faced obsolescence and fixed wing operations were slated to be replaced by the purchase of 27 Westland Wessex anti-submarine helicopters fitted with dipping sonar in the early 1960s, to be operated from Melbourne, while Sydney was to be converted for troop transport. The short golden age of two operational aircraft carriers had gone and the fixed wings operations other than that of the venerable Dakotas drew to a close with the literal scrapping of most of the Fireflies and Sea Furies at Albatross in the 1960s.
However in 1963 the Grumman S-2E Tracker anti submarine aircraft and the McDonnell Douglas Skyhawk A4 fighter jets were ordered and it wasn’t long before Melbourne had a modern and effective Carrier Air Group. Ironic as it may have seemed, Sydney once again was called into operational service providing troop and equipment transport services to Vietnam while Melbourne’s revitalised Carrier Air Group played no part in the Vietnam conflict.
However, for the aircrew and maintainers there were several deployments to Vietnam with personnel embedded within American Squadron’s or as part of the Royal Australian Navy Helicopter Flight Vietnam (a joint US and Australian Contingent) and an RAN detachment within the RAAF No 9 Squadron. These were torrid times with a number of Fleet Air Arm aircrew killed and wounded and a reputation for ‘getting the bloody job done’ which became their motto. Many US and Australian troops can tell you that a bearded pilot in an Iroquois was a most welcomed sight; they had the reputation of coming in to a hot LZ to evacuate personnel under heavy fire – and a few of these brave aviators paid the ultimate price.
Essentially, the ending of the Vietnam conflict in 1973 ends my look at foundations of the Fleet Air Arm, an era that many of you here today contributed to and as such you laid the foundations to what might be called the ‘modern era’. As I look back, perhaps this became ‘my era’ – which from my perspective is now drawing to its inevitable close. Even though I joined the Navy in 1973 (as an apprentice ‘stoker’ I must say) – it was the same year that the Sea Kings were ordered, and it wasn’t until 1980 that I joined the Fleet Air Arm. In the interim the Sea Kings, ordered to replace the Wessex in the Anti-Submarine role, started to arrive in 1976 on 817 Squadron and have served continuously through until their planned retirement at the end of this year.
The 1970s had their challenges and 1974 in particular was traumatic for Australia – the year of Cyclone Tracy and the incredible response from Navy with Melbourne, her Wessex helicopters and her crew sustaining the remnants of the city of Darwin until order could be restored; a herculean effort which is burned into the minds of all who recall that tragic Christmas day. Of course something else remarkable happened in the 1970s – the formation of the Fleet Air Arm Association (FAAA) in Western Australia with its first meeting on 17 February 1977 – with Admiral Sir Victor Smith as its patron. This seed of an organisation spread rapidly with the South Australian Division standing up next, then Victoria and across the next decade several more Divisions including NSW were stood up. Finally in 1998 as part of the Fleet Air Arm’s 50th year anniversary, a National body was established at HMAS Albatross. A lot of good ideas came out of the 1970’s – the FAAA was clearly one of them.
Moving towards the next decade you may well recall in 1980, just before the last Melbourne ‘Indian Ocean Cruise’, the Australian Government planned to purchase HMS Illustrious to replace the aging Melbourne. I was a Sub-Lieutenant Marine Engineer Officer on Melbourne at that time and put my hand up immediately for the Fleet Air Arm to go to the UK to do my Aero Engineer’s application Course and bring back the new carrier – I found myself in the UK soon enough but in the midst of the Falklands War; and unfortunately the decision was made not to press the UK for the carrier – political expediency on both sides perhaps – but a replacement carrier never eventuated.
I returned in 1982 to a Fleet Air Arm winding down its carrier based operations and looking towards the new FFGs with their requirement for a single Helicopter Flight. I was lucky enough to do my initial training on 723, with its Wessex, Kiowa, Iroquois and HS748s. I recall our ‘very scary’ asset protection activities on the Bass Strait oil wells, flying in close formation in the pitch black of night – and recall the tragedy of losing two personnel when a Wessex had a gear box failure in the Strait. 723 with its multi aircraft type and roles was a great squadron to learn on and a great foundation for my future career but it was also a very traumatic time for the Fleet Air Arm. As some of you might recall – when the Minister for Defence Mr Gordon Scholes announced at Albatross – in the Supply Officer’s Compound, to about 1,000 personnel – that the fixed wing elements of the Fleet Air Arm would cease operations – these were dark days and we saw a lot of our expertise leave the Navy mostly for the other Services. The currently serving Deputy Chief of the Defence Force, Air Marshal Binskin was one of them – I must say, he appears to have done remarkably well out of the situation but speaking to him last year at the annual FAA Mess Dinner, I know he still holds a soft spot for the Fleet Air Arm as it taught him his trade as a Jet Fighter Pilot on Navy’s Skyhawks – and perhaps a little known fact is that he still wears his original Navy wings on the inside of his mess jacket lapel.
Mentioning the Skyhawks – 10 of these ended up being sold to New Zealand in 1984, and as we are also aware, the Fleet found that it couldn’t do without these versatile fighters, ironic perhaps noting that the Falklands War about three years before had shown their effectiveness, so it wasn’t too long before we hired them back – and in 1991 the RNZAF No 2 Squadron relocated to Albatross through until 2001 to fly attack profiles on the Fleet – a function now contracted out to Lear Jets also operated out of Albatross. The Kiwis did a superb job through until just two weeks before their scheduled withdrawal, when their CO was lost tragically in a Skyhawk accident at the base. This loss was another warning about the hazardous nature of military operations whether in peacetime or at war.
However, back in the 1980s Navy was changing, and when I joined 723 in 1985 as the Aircraft Engineer Officer we were transitioning the Wessex out, and introducing the AS350B – known as the Squirrel (also known as the ‘plastic fantastic’ or the ‘battle budgie’) as the introductory aircraft to train pilots and just as importantly, Ships’ Captains, in the era of single flight ship operations. Building on the 1970s single flight operations with a Bell 206 (Kiowa) on the back of HMAS Moresby, this humble commercial aircraft paved the way into the 1990s when we introduced a new aircraft type; the Sikorsky Seahawk S-70B-2 – and I was lucky enough to be involved with the introduction of that aircraft as well, as a member of the Engineering Manager in the Project Team in the early 1990s.
Perhaps as a side note but fundamental to the modern Fleet Air Arm was the introduction of females into all occupations in the late 1980s early 1990s – I had the first few female maintainers join both my squadrons during this period and today they make up just under 10% of the maintenance and around 5% of the aircrew workforce. These introductory years were interesting times, especially for the old salts, but now the organisation could not function without their expertise and having females involved in all aspects of operations is in all respects an everyday event.
It has been the Seahawks that have been the mainstay of our single flight ship combinations over the past 20 years and remarkably we have operated 16 aircraft without loss across this period, tallying nearly 90,000 airframe hours with around half operationally embarked. 816 Squadron has had a presence in the Middle East and Gulf region for over 20 years and will continue to do so for as long as the Government requires it, or until aircraft retirement – whichever comes first. The future actually holds out the promise of a replacement Seahawk in the form of the Romeo model – but before we jump to the future we must look at the remarkable history of our venerable Sea Kings.
The Sea King helicopters joined us in the mid 1970s as Navy’s premium ASW helicopters throughout the 1980s taking over from the Wessex, but perhaps they are better known for their more dramatic involvement in many and varied responses to national disasters and maritime rescue. Like most aircraft types, the Sea Kings also have their share of tragedy with the loss of several aircraft operationally, and the loss of life at Bamaga and more recently the loss in 2005 at NIAS of ‘Shark 02’ with all nine crew and passengers killed during the humanitarian mission following the Indonesian tsunami. The lessons that came out of that disaster have changed fundamentally the way we maintain and operate our aircraft. For instance, the establishment of my position as the Chief Staff Officer Aviation Engineering in a revitalised Headquarters to provide advice on the range of engineering maintenance and support issues affecting the FAA reporting directly to the Commander of the Fleet Air Arm, currently Commodore Peter Laver, has been one of many fundamental changes across Naval Aviation.
These tragedies should not take away from the Sea King’s glories, like the many rescues and emergency services provided during bushfires, floods and long distant maritime rescues like the Sydney to Hobart and the recent rescue at Lord Howe Island. This unique helicopter has the ability to traverse the Australian-Lord Howe Island ocean gap, and conduct a rescue from the highest peaks or boiling seas in the most adverse of weather conditions. This is a squadron which I feel a strong personal attachment – being the Aircraft Engineer Officer from 1990 to 1991 during the first Gulf War.
As those who attended the recent Goolwa farewell detachment can attest, the Sea King is an extraordinary aircraft, 817 Squadron, currently under the Command of Commander Paul Moggach, is an extraordinary squadron and I can assure you that 817 will leave an equally extraordinary legacy that has not only made its mark on our history but will influence the way the FAA does its business for generations to come. It is notable, that any correspondence from the 817 now features on the signature block – ‘you will miss us when we are gone’ – I suspect that when they cease calling ‘chocks away’ on the 16th of December this year – the ‘Kings’ will be sorely missed indeed!
However the departure of the Sea Kings makes way for a future that promises to maintain the FAA’s traditions yet press us into closer alignment with the US Navy and the Australian Army as we enter the brave new world of amphibious operations – once again launching aircraft from carriers with Navy’s purchase of the Landing Helicopter Dock vessels, the LHDs (a ‘carrier’ in anyone’s language), and from a new generation of destroyers – the Australian Warfare Destroyers (the AWDs). In some respects this will bring back the old with the new; not only does Navy have to learn how to deal with large capital ships again (time and a half the size of the Majestic Class) but also how to operate so many aircraft on a flat top vessel. Initiatives, like bringing back the ‘Bears’ to handle the aircraft in a new branch called the ‘Avation Support Branch’, which has just been stood up with the arrival of five experienced ‘aircraft handlers’ from the UK , will require re-invention of the old skills your era took for granted.
There are now two new aircraft types that provide us much promise in the future. Firstly, the MRH90 from Europe – a medium lift, modern, fly by wire, troop carrying utility aircraft which the Army will use to replace their Blackhawks and the Navy will use to replace the Sea Kings. These are to be managed logistically by Army and will allow the Navy and Army to operate in the amphibious Air Mobile and Maritime Support space with a common aircraft type, utilising the LHDs as the centerpiece. Those amongst you who remember the early 808 Squadron, will be proud to see the Trident and the Rings of Unity from the Squadron Crest being worn once again by the fit young men and women aircrew and maintainers of NUSQN 808. This squadron has already stood up at Nowra and will commission and commence embarking helicopters at sea in the coming years as the Navy and wider ADF develop this critical and exciting capability. Rest assured, the proud tradition of 808 Squadron will continue. The other aircraft that will determine the Fleet Air Arm’s future is the MH-60R – the Romeo – a modernised weapon system focused Seahawk that not only has a proven Anti-Submarine Warfare capability but can take on surface fleet assets in its own right with forward facing missiles and 50 cal door mounted machine gun. This is a serious fighting helicopter, proven with around 100,000 flying hours of service already in the US Navy. When the new 816 stands up with a sister training squadron (yet to be assigned a squadron number, a traditional right reserved for CN’s discretion) we will once again return to an era of front and second line squadrons operating not only on the back of small frigates and destroyers but from two sizable ‘carriers’.
By 2018 the Australian Navy will once again have a formidable presence in this region and much of that will be due to the synergies inherent in being able to operate with Army on a large scale while offering world class ASW and Anti-surface Warfare capability with the new Romeos. This is a much more substantial force than we have had for over three decades – and the future looks bright. Before I close however, I would like to hark back to how we got here. You will recall I mentioned on opening, that no journey through history can hope to evade the facts and figures – and I’m glad most of you have stayed awake – but the constant thread has been the personal contribution of individuals like yourselves that not only laid the foundations of the Fleet Air Arm but handed it over to equally consummate professionals that you trained for the task. That generation, my generation, is in turn now preparing to hand over to the next and I can assure you that they are equally well trained and motivated young men and women – they are looking forward with great anticipation to a brave new world of tri-service, helicopter centric, maritime tactical and amphibious operations, once again on the back of a two ‘Carrier’ Fleet.
For those here today, and for those no longer with us, we can all be proud that we have been part of this rich tapestry of history and part of the making of a proud tradition that is still being carried forward. Rest assured, your contributions have laid firm foundations for the on-going safety of our Nation. Australia remains proud of you. Know that, it is because of your efforts that we can pass the baton with confidence to the next generation – in the firm knowledge that the Fleet Air Arm and indeed, Australia, are in safe hands.
- I was reliably informed after the presentation of this address by one of those from that era, Mr John Saywell (and he kindly provided historical references after the service), that when HMAS Australia had returned to the UK for repairs in 1944 the Australian Government had intended to bring back a Colossus Class Carrier. Australia had about 300 extra crew members on board specifically to do so. The extra crew ended up twiddling their thumbs for some time in the UK as the Australian government, possibly because of concern about the vulnerability of Carriers as a result of the Battle of the Coral Sea, hesitated to commit to the purchase. It wasn’t until 1947 that a final commitment was gained.