Edited by Lieutenant Commander Desmond Woods OAM RAN
Published by the RAN Fleet Air Arm in conjunction with Avonmore Books, Kent Town, South Australia 5071
Reviewed by David Hobbs
In 1998 Allen & Unwin published Flying Stations to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the formation of the Royal Australian Navy’s Fleet Air Arm in 1947. It was edited by Mike Lehan, Director of what was then the Australian Naval Aviation Museum run by a Foundation Trust and written by a team of experts and historians, many of whom had first-hand experience of the events they described. In 2006 the RAN resumed full control of the Museum and restored its original name, the Fleet Air Arm Museum. Flying Stations had a picture on the dust jacket painted by the late David Marshall which depicted an S-2E Tracker of 816 NAS landing on HMAS Melbourne with flight deck personnel and a parked Sea King helicopter of 817 NAS in the foreground, clear of the wingtip safety line. The island is depicted to the left of the picture. The foreword was written by Admiral Sir Victor Smith AC KBE CB DSC who referred to the pride he felt in having served as an observer and in being associated with the Fleet Air Arm’s establishment and development. He predicted that in due course there would be a sequel and Flying Stations II exactly fulfils that expectation. It has been published by the RAN Fleet Air Arm in association with Avonmore Books to mark its 75th anniversary and continue the story.
Like its predecessor, this book has no single author but contains text which, in many cases, was written by people who took part in the events they describe. The material has been expertly edited by Desmond Woods to create a chronological narrative with added chapters enlarging upon specific subjects. The earlier volume made use of black and white images but its successor takes advantage of improved printing technology to include a large number of coloured images, often several to a page, and many of them are the work of Navy photographers and imagery specialists. The result is a beautifully-illustrated volume that captures the spirit of the Fleet Air Arm from the perspectives of its history, aircraft and people during the period from 1998 to the present. The foreword is written by Vice Admiral Tim Barrett AO CSC, a former Captain of HMAS Albatross who was Commander of the Australian Naval Aviation Group between 2005 and 2008. He draws attention to Sir Victor Smith’s comments and adds that Flying Stations II is the current generation’s account of ‘what has been occurring at sea, ashore, on operations and deployments in war and peace in the Fleet Air Arm’. This exactly describes what the book achieves so well.
To say that this book is impressive is an understatement as there is so much to engage readers’ attention. The picture on the dust jacket is a photograph that has been chosen with care to complement David Marshall’s original painting. It is taken from the same perspective and shows MH-60R Seahawks of 816 NAS landing on HMAS Adelaide during Operation Bush Fire Assist in early 2020. Again, the island is to the left and flight deck personnel are stood clear of the wingtip safety line watching the aircraft. Smoke from the fires burning ashore gives the image a distinctive burnt orange colour which, together with the aircraft lights reflecting on the wet deck, makes the image stand out. The book is divided into five chapters and an appendix. They are preceded by informative pages which list Commanders of the Fleet Air Arm under the various titles used since 1998, commanding officers of HMAS Albatross, RANAS Nowra, and the badges of units in existence during the period described. A thoughtful touch is the inclusion, on page 10, of an illustration of the 75th Anniversary shoulder patch.
Chapter One contains a chronology of events from October 1998 to March 2022. It is, therefore, as up to date as it can be at the time of publication. Events are covered in the order in which they occurred and the text is enhanced by carefully selected photographs of the people, aircraft and ships involved. There are also short service histories of some personalities which, apart from paying due respect to the individuals concerned, help to give the book a feeling of ‘family’. The Fleet Air Arm has never been a large organisation but the descriptions of its many and varied activities tell a fascinating story. They are as diverse as aid to civilians in fire and flood situations in Australia, humanitarian aid overseas, rescues at sea and combat operations. There are, of course, many ceremonies, displays and other events that occur on a regular basis and it would be impractical to include them all but the editor has carefully chosen examples that are both illustrative and interesting. Whilst this book ideally captures the spirit of the moment in marking a significant anniversary, it deserves to be recognised as an invaluable resource for telling the Fleet Air Arm’s story in an accessible way for many years to come. The appendix complements the text by listing the 76 members of the Fleet Air Arm who have been awarded Australia Day, Queen’s Birthday Honours and foreign awards between 1998 and 2022.
After the chronological history in the first chapter there are three chapters which cover specific subjects in greater detail, all written by people who were intimately involved with them. Chapter 2 describes how a combination of factors led to the cancellation of the Seasprite project after the type had been evaluated and found wanting between 1997 and 2006. Imaginatively, in Chapter 3 the editor has included the stories of RAN aircrew who flew on long-term exchange programmes with the Royal Navy, the Royal New Zealand Navy and the United States Coast Guard. Some of these are remarkable stories in their own right and together they add to the completeness of the activities covered by the book besides allowing comparisons to be made with other air arms. Chapter 4 builds on the description of the tragic loss of Sea King Shark 02 in 2005 in the main text by giving details of the subsequent Board of Enquiry and ends with a photograph of the Sea King Memorial at Russell Offices in Canberra. The last chapter describes a visit to 817 NAS, Shark 02‘s parent unit, by a reporter for the Sydney Morning Herald in August 2006 which revealed how the unit had been re-built as a team after the Sea King’s loss.
I was delighted to be able to add an early copy of this outstanding book to my library. Not only would I highly recommend it, I would go further and say that I cannot understand why anyone with a connection or interest in the Fleet Air Arm would not want to own a copy. It will, of course, also be of considerable value to anyone following the evolution of the RAN during the twenty-first century. The editor has carefully selected and used both text and illustrations in a way that allows the reader to be absorbed into the recent history of a tightly-knot, gallant and resourceful organisation that has achieved success in a variety of different ways. One day there will be a Flying Stations III; I hope its editor will do as well.
Copies can be ordered through the Director Fleet Air Arm Museum, Mr Stuart Harwood firstname.lastname@example.org.