THE HITCHINS PAPERS

MISCELLANEOUS NOTES ON AIR OPERATIONS IN THE AFTERMATH OF CYCLONE TRACY

AT DARWIN IN DECEMBER 1974.

EXTRACTED FROM THE PERSONAL PAPERS OF AIR COMMODORE D.W. HITCHINS.

 

(These events cannot be attributed to a particular aircraft and therefore do not appear in the main table)

 

Hercules Medevacs

"All told, 247 medical evacuation patients were flown south by Hercules." (Source: 38)

Hercules Availability

"By 5am ESST on 26 December, RAAF Richmond had twelve Hercules aircraft - seven C-130As and five C-130Es - available on a one-hour standby. A sixth C-130E became available during the morning. Test flights on a further two were completed by early evening. Aircraft were despatched on relief missions during the day as tasks became available." (Source: 38)

Military Airlift Loads

On 26 December, "A second Hercules of No. 36 Squadron carried 7,000 blankets, 6,000 lbs of milk and 2,000 lbs of Red Cross medical supplies. It returned with 35 evacuees for Brisbane and 82 for Sydney. A third Hercules carried 24,000 lbs of freight to Darwin and brought back 115 evacuees to Mascot. A fourth aircraft carried clothing, food, blankets, rolls of plastic and water purifiers with a total weight of 24,000 lbs, returning with 121 evacuees. On one C-130E flight 183 evacuees (107 children and 76 adults) were flown from Darwin to Adelaide.

" When aircraft were forced to remain at Darwin for prolonged periods awaiting passengers, the crews rested on board. Foam rubber mattresses, pillows, rugs and stretchers were carried for this purpose.

"On 26 December, RAAF Hercules aircraft evacuated 680 persons and on the next day 1218 in 22 sorties. Also on 27 December a USAF C-141 flew out 120 evacuees. On 28 December, 27 Hercules sorties transported 1771 evacuees. In addition, an RNZAF Hercules carried 170 and the American C-141 236.

"No. 36 Squadron carried evacuees to all major capital cities. It transported 3,074 passengers and 1.4 million lbs of cargo. By the end of January 1975, No. 37 (Hercules) Squadron had carried 2,160,627 lbs of stores and equipment, 4,990 passengers and 210 medical evacuees. In addition, an RAF C-130 aircraft had evacuated 162 passengers and RAAF Caribou, HS748, BAC111 and Mystere aircraft were also involved." (Source: 38)

Total Hours Flown by RAAF Aircraft Type

TYPE
HOURS
REMARKS
C-130 Hercules
1197.8
36 & 37 Sqn.
Caribou
102.5
35 Sqn. Included searches of local coastal areas and outlying communities with which contact had been lost. Carried 93 passengers and 12,400 lbs of freight in 78 sorties.
HS748
135.0
Support Command: 54.9. Two HS748 were based at Townsville.
BAC111
61.7
34 Sqn
Neptune
5.9
10 Sqn
Orion
31.8
Search and rescue for vessels lost at sea.
Canberra
15.9
2 Sqn. High and low level photographic surveys of Darwin for damage assessment.
Iroquois
6.3
Included search and liaison duties and tasks with the Electricity Commission. A second Iroquois was used to carry priority cargo between Canberra and Richmond.
Mystere
43.7
34 Sqn.
Macchi
3.2
Support Command
Dakota
29.3
Support Command. Included searches of local coastal areas and outlying communities with which contact had been lost. One aircraft flew evacuees from Laverton to Tasmania.

(Source: 38)

Amberley Movements

"Between 26 December 1974 and 3 January 1975, one BAC111, sixteen C-130, nine C-141 and three Caribou aircraft were loaded at RAAF Amberley with relief supplies. The number of aircraft movements associated with the relief operations during this period was 89." (Source: 38)

RAN Participation

"Of the Fleet Air Arm aircraft only the two HS 748s could transport personnel and freight from the south to Darwin, though the Trackers could fly search and rescue missions. At 1.05 pm ESST the recall of the following squadrons commenced: VC 851 (LCDR J.D. Campbell) with HS 748s and Trackers and HS 817 (LCDR T.J.S. Pennington) and HT 725 (LCDR B.F. Boettcher) which were both equipped with Wessex helicopters. At 2pm ESST, VS 816 (LCDR D.W. Bessell-Browne), a Tracker squadron, was also recalled. By 3.30 pm ESST the two HS 748s were ready for take off but, because of unknown weather conditions at Darwin and the lack of landing and navigation aids, this was delayed until the next day to ensure a daylight arrival. The first aircraft was initially tasked to carry a Navy medical team, but on advice from Darwin this was changed by NEOC to a Red Cross Blood Bank Team. Having departed from Nowra at 6.12 am ESST on Boxing Day, the aircraft stopped in Sydney to collect the team, arriving in Darwin at 4 pm CST. Three hours later the second HS 748 also landed there with eight members of Navy Clearance Diving Team One (CDT 1), who had been recalled from leave the previous evening, and 1400 pounds of their equipment, including a comprehensive compressed air outfit. Both aircraft returned south on 27 December carrying evacuees. Between 26 December and 21 January they were to complete fourteen Nowra-Darwin-Nowra flights, some with detours. These flights involved 222 flying hours and the carriage of 485 passengers and 50,000 pounds of freight.

" In addition, at NAS Nowra on Christmas Day, four Trackers had been ready by 7pm ESST to take off for Darwin at 7.30 am ESST on Boxing Day, but this was cancelled and instead they were placed on four hours standby. That period was later extended to twelve hours before their release from standby on 28 December. Meanwhile, on 26 December, seven Wessex helicopters with ground crews and support equipment had embarked in HMAS MELBOURNE and on the following day a further two joined HMAS STALWART. Three Iroquois helicopters of HT 723 Squadron (LCDR J.C. Buchanan DFC) assisted with the positioning of air personnel and stores on MELBOURNE." (Source: 38)

"... stripped of sonar equipment and rear seats a Wessex could lift ten passengers or 2,300 pounds of freight, underslung or internally." (Source: 38)

"The helicopters were not used solely to transport personnel. Seven helicopters were available on 1 January, nine from 2 - 18 January, and two until 31 January. As well as carrying passengers, they lifted freight, heavy materials to high roof tops and victuals to working parties, and undertook photography, survey work and coastal searches. In short, the Group's nine helicopters proved their versatility, providing the speed and flexibility that were often necessary for the movement of stores and personnel. On 1 January more hours were flown, 41, and freight landed, 98,300 pounds, than on any other day, while the peak number of passengers, 1054, was carried on 7 January. In all, while at Darwin, the nine helicopters flew 313.3 hours, carried 7,832 passengers and 244,518 pounds of freight, and made 2,505 landings. On the passage north, HMAS MELBOURNE's helicopters flew an additional 33.4 hours to collect personnel, stores and mail from Brisbane, Townsville and Cairns." (Source: 38)

Aerial Mapping

"On 26 December MAJ Thorogood suggested to the DGNDO* that an aerial photographic mission should be mounted over Darwin to assist with 'damage assessment and (the) reconstruction programme'. A request for this task was made to Army office in an untimed message received at 9.19 am ESST on 28 December. An RAAF Canberra flew the photo-reconnaissance mission and on 30 December Army Survey Regiment, Bendigo, reported that the provisional map sheets would be ready by 4.30 am ESST on 31 December. However, the maps were late in reaching RAAF Base Laverton and consequently did not arrive at Darwin by RAAF aircraft until the evening of 1 January." (Source: 38) (See Note 10 on Main List)
*Director-General National Disasters Organisation (Maj-Gen Stretton)

Conduct of the Air Evacuation

At a conference on the morning of 27 December, GPCPT Hitchins explained that during the air evacuation:

(a) Normal niceties of aircraft loading would not be possible. We would load to the maximum numbers possible without exceeding AUW limits. (the airline representatives agreed to this readily).
(b) It would be futile to attempt selective loading by destinations, but that all capacity must be utilised.
(c) QANTAS aircraft would be confined to operations between Darwin and Sydney.
(d) The Evacuation Committee must keep 500 people at the civil terminal at all times to ensure a rapid turn-round of aircraft.

(Source: 39)

May Day Calls

"One C-130 entered a thunderstorm and called 'MAY DAY' shortly after takeoff that night." (27 December) (Source: 39)

On 28 December, "There were two 'MAY DAY' calls from RAAF aircraft (engine fires). Both were covered by a helicopter with a doctor until they landed."

Aircraft Seating Limits

"On 27 December, I limited C-130 aircraft to 150 passengers provided that there was a predominance of young children. On 28th December passenger loading was reduced to normal numerical limits. After 30th December almost all evacuation was by military aircraft." (Source: 39)

Caribou, Dakota and Iroquois Usage

"The one Caribou and one Dakota aircraft searched local coastal areas and outlying communities with whom contact had been lost. At General Stretton's direction a road reconnaissance was made as far as Mount Isa - Later completed to Townsville under HQOC tasking. Both aircraft participated in the evacuation of Frances Creek on 7 January. A food lift to Tindal became necessary to maintain a kitchen for refugees. (An ex RAAF cook was serving 1000 meals per day from the combined kitchen.) (Source: 39)

"The one RAAF helicopter was twice alerted for in-flight emergencies (one C-130 engine fire and an HS748 with an overheat problem). The helicopter also carried out several photographic, search and liaison missions (including one flight to HMAS Melbourne), and tasks on behalf of the Electricity authority and other government organizations." (Source: 39)

Visit by the Governor-General

"On 2 January His Excellency the Governor-General* met representative groups of the various committees on the RAAF tarmac. He visited the RAAF Operations Room, hospital and married quarter area for 45 minutes before departure on 3 January. His visit was marked by great simplicity and understanding, and was greatly appreciated." (Source: 39)
* Sir John Kerr (Ed.)

RAAF Aircraft Evacuation prior to the Cyclone

"The decision was then taken to fly out A65-68 to Tindal departing at 1650 hours local time. There was no crew to fly the second Dakota, A65-104, so that aircraft was secured by chains to the rings set in concrete in the floor of hangar 124, and firmly chocked. The only Iroquois pilot available was medically unfit due to a badly sprained left ankle. The possibility of him flying A2-721 out notwithstanding was discussed, and rejected when he stated that it was doubtful if he could retain control following a hydraulic failure. Consequently, that aircraft also was firmly chained to the hangar floor." (Source: 40 - Monaghan)

Cyclone Damage to RAAF Aircraft

When the eye of the cyclone arrived at 0350 hours, a quick inspection revealed that "A65-104 was not in the hangar, having broken the tie-down chains and been blown down to the roadway adjacent to the Officer Commanding's married quarter. Damage was provisionally assessed as Cat 5. A2-721 had also broken its chains, and had moved several feet, but was assessed as about Cat 3 or 4. The tie-down chains were replaced and this aircraft was again secured." (Source: 40 - Monaghan)

Immediately After the Cyclone

"The first situation report which could be despatched was sent by OT/C through a Connair Heron aircraft which was maintaining HF contact with Katherine FIS. This was transmitted at about 1200 hours local time. No advice of its receipt by HQOC has been received.

"A65-68 arrived back from Tindal at 1150 hours and was immediately tasked to Smith Point to pick up the Officer Commanding. Group Captain Hitchins stepped from that aircraft at 1550 hours local time and assumed command of RAAF Base Darwin." (Source: 40 - Monaghan)

OT/C = Officer Temporarily Commanding
FIS = Flight Information Service
HQOC = Headquarters Operational Command

Participation of other Air Forces

Please Note: The following is extracted from a transcript of an oral history interview with Air Commodore David Hitchins recorded in 1987. For reasons of clarity some minor editing has been necessary.

"It is a normal function for the RAAF air transport system to have specialist people who receive and distribute equipment, the stuff that's moved around the countryside on service aeroplanes. There was quite a lot of building material and other technical things that were destined for the civil community that came in on service aeroplanes, not only RAAF. The RAF contributed something. The Indonesian Air Force had two Hercules operating there for quite a long time, I've forgotten exactly. I think maybe ten days. The Yanks pulled in a Starlifter and several Hercules at one stage of the game. So there was a lot of Service air activity and so it was necessary to have a gang of people there to receive and distribute and probably store and account for all the equipment that was brought into Darwin for civil relief. It wasn't only just for military purposes." (Source: 41)

Aerial Spraying

"The control of aerial spraying by three civilians began on 29 December, and further spraying by vehicles has been a major RAAF undertaking. All areas of the wrecked city are sprayed every three days." (Source: 39)

Please Note: The following is extracted from a transcript of an oral history interview with Air Commodore David Hitchins recorded in 1987. For reasons of clarity some minor editing has been necessary.

"We did have amongst our supplies on the Base, quite a large store of chemicals. I've got a nasty feeling it might have been DDT but I really have forgotten. And so we did have the wherewithal to cope with a fairly big area of potential fly menace and as I've said there were toilet facilities and all those things were marginal. It seemed to me that we should do something about it and I couldn't contact Charles Gurd*. Well, I thought, 'To hell with them. We'll fix this ourselves.' So after a little bit of sculling around, I found three old gentlemen, mostly old fellows about my own age, who were agricultural pilots and they had at Katherine one aeroplane, at Tindal there was another one, and I think another one came over from Kununurra. We gave these blokes carte blanche to spray Darwin, including the RAAF Base. We said that we'd provide them with a place to live, free beer, and they could control their own air operations. They didn't need us to tell them how to conduct aerial spraying. They were professionals; it was their game. I put Sergeant Cowan in charge of them and told him to provide them with the necessary chemicals and the wherewithal to spray the place, and the only thing I wasn't able to tell them was that there was any prospect of ever getting paid. I said, 'I'm very sorry. I'm in no position to let a contract, and I really can't offer you any prospects of ever getting paid.' They said, 'It doesn't matter. It will be good fun doing the job.'

"So they spent the next three or four days beating up and down the main streets of Darwin at about 100 feet and I think they used to possibly drink a little bit of our beer in the evenings and Darwin got sprayed and we didn't have a health hazard. I do believe that the action I took was possibly a little high handed but somebody had to do something and well, you know, sometimes you do things you regret. That I don't regret. I feel sure that we did the right thing and later on, much later, when sanity prevailed, I had a very nice letter from Charles Gurd on the subject and he agreed that we'd done the right thing, so that was one of the things that I felt we did something that was of general civic use." (Source: 41)

* Head of the Department of Health

RAN Wessex Usage

Please Note: The following is extracted from a transcript of an oral history interview with Air Commodore David Hitchins recorded in 1987. For reasons of clarity some minor editing has been necessary.

"Some days after all the evacuation had been completed and things were pretty well back to normal routine sort of activity, the Australian fleet arrived bringing with them a number of helicopters (Wessex Ed.) which were very useful. Since the RAAF controlled the military airspace around there, we set up an operating procedure for the Navy aircraft and they performed a very useful task around the city, mostly carrying building materials to sites around the town which were difficult to reach by road because lots of streets and roads were blocked by debris and it was much easier to take stuff from place to place by chopper and the Navy did quite a lot of that for some time after the cyclone." (Source: 41)

The Civil Air Evacuation

Please Note: The following is extracted from a transcript of an oral history interview with Air Commodore David Hitchins recorded in 1987. For reasons of clarity some minor editing has been necessary.

"One thing that should be said about the general business of the air evacuation arrangements was that some days elapsed before General Stretton announced that he wanted 'x' number of thousand people evacuated per day. I've forgotten the figures and it doesn't matter very much but while that decision was being arrived at, I, with the full knowledge and cooperation of the Army and Navy commanders, started evacuating our own people using our own aircraft, and there were a couple of Navy aircraft involved, evacuating the few medical cases we had, one or two urgent civilian medical evacuees and Service families. We had an agreement between the three Services as to how that would be done and we got on with doing that in the belief that we would fairly soon be asked to evacuate civilians and that we wanted to be free to get on with that task when we were asked to do it so we got on in the first instance and evacuated most of our own people. I'm not sure whether this was ever misconstrued as being the Services jumping in and looking after themselves first but if people have taken that view, they are quite mistaken. It was done with the full knowledge of everyone else and we had not at that time been asked to evacuate civilians and we did evacuate those we were asked to. So that all had been largely completed when we got to the point where Stretton or the civilian people asked us to start evacuating the community en masse.

"The problem was that after I was told by the civil authorities that I had no authority to do this they seemed to take exception to my poking my nose into that thing, and I just said right, I'll leave them to it. Now it was very obvious to me that as soon as the civil evacuation began that there was no coordination. TAA for example, Ansett, and the other companies involved, were sending aeroplanes to Darwin for a purpose that they could only guess at. Somebody would load such an aeroplane. People coopted from the civil community were placed in charge of this operation. Now they were very worthy and good people but I don't think their experience in these particular matters was very extensive. Aeroplanes would arrive, they'd be filled up with people half of whom were to go to Brisbane and half to go to Perth and aeroplanes would be all over the place. The airlines were unable to coordinate their maintenance arrangements, they didn't know where their aeroplanes would finish up at night, their crewing and other operational considerations were disregarded and the thing became totally chaotic.

"While this was going on I was able, by the normal Service arrangements, to coordinate anything that affected Service aeroplanes. Where military aeroplanes were involved, no problem. We took charge of those and we would use them as we believed to good advantage. But, the use of the civilian aircraft was chaotic and I hasten to say that I had nothing to do with it because I had been told to keep out of it. And so, anyone who wants to criticise the operational aspects of the civil air evacuation and says it was chaotic would be absolutely dead right. It was.

"I'm afraid I can't quite remember just exactly what took place, but it was certainly long after the 27th of December that I was given any semblance of an opportunity to coordinate the air evacuation of Darwin which General Stretton had called for to be done. I can't quite remember but it was a long time after the 27th. And, I would certainly refute any suggestion that there was opposition from the civilian operators. They were hoping and praying that someone ought to be telling them what they ought to be doing in order to simplify the activity. On the 28th of December at 10 o'clock, General Stretton directed me in writing at my request to take immediate control of the destinations of outbound aircraft. Now, what I was unable to control and what had been placed in the hands of local civic people was who got on aircraft. I was unable to say, 'Right there's an aeroplane going to Brisbane. I want a whole lot of Queenslanders to get in it.' The Civilian Evacuation Committee, run by a very nice chap who was a schoolmaster or Education Department officer was placed in charge of that civilian committee and they said who got on aeroplanes, hence the chaotic conditions prevailed. I was trying very hard to simplify the operation. There were difficulties being caused at just about every interstate airport. People in Adelaide, Sydney, would be waiting with local committees who were organised to welcome and assist Darwin evacuees. They didn't know who was coming there, who they were, where they lived, did they have relatives living locally, what the precise requirement would be. How much simpler if we'd been able to tidy it up before the aircraft left Darwin and that's what we didn't do and that's why we didn't do it because there was no central control of the activity." (Source: 41)

 

The compiler records his thanks to the family of Air Commodore David Hitchins.

 

SOURCES

 

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ISSUE
DATE
REMARKS
1
30JAN12
Original.