Day 1974, as news began to filter through that Darwin had been devastated
by Cyclone Tracy, one of the first official responses was to fly the
Director General of the National Disasters Organisation, Major-General
Alan Stretton, from Canberra to Darwin. This task fell to No 34 Squadron
at RAAF Fairbairn. BAC One-Eleven A12-125 departed Canberra at 1530
hours with Flt Lt David Smith as captain, Flt Lt Bruce Copley as co-pilot
and Sqn Ldr Neville Duus as navigator. In addition to Maj-Gen Stretton,
the aircraft also carried a civilian surgical team comprising 3 surgeons,
1 anaesthetist, 1 registrar and 3 nurses as well as medical supplies
and one ABC cameraman. It was intended from the outset that the aircraft
would call at Mackay to collect the Minister for the Northern Territory,
Dr Rex Patterson (1927-2016) from his electorate. However, it soon emerged
that the aircraft could not make Darwin in daylight and that the BAC
1-11 was not well equipped for a night landing on a runway that was
probably damaged and contaminated with debris.
In the meantime, C-130E Hercules A97-168 had departed Richmond, NSW
at 1500 hours loaded to maximum take-off weight with a medical team
and relief supplies. The crew of the BAC 1-11 were aware that the Hercules
was en route to Darwin so they called the Hercules to suggest that it
divert to Mount Isa to rendezvous with the BAC 1-11 to uplift its passengers.
By this time, Dr Patterson had boarded the BAC 1-11 at Mackay making
the aircraft officially a VIP operation at the disposal of the Minister.
No doubt fully seized with the urgency of their own mercy flight, the
crew of the Hercules asked who had authorised the diversion to Mount
Isa. The response from the BAC 1-11 invoked the authority of the Prime
Minister and the two aircraft duly rendezvoused at Mount Isa where the
load from the BAC 1-11 was transferred to the Hercules which departed
immediately for Darwin. The BAC 1-11 over-nighted at Mount Isa. (The
full story of the flight by Hercules A97-168 can be read here)
On Boxing Day, BAC 1-11 A12-125 departed for Darwin loaded with bread,
water and other provisions. Approximately 63 evacuess (nominally 21
women and 42 children) were uplifted to Brisbane for southern destinations.
The aircraft then returned to Mount Isa where it over-nighted. This
cycle was repeated with the same loads on 27 and 28 December.
On 29 December, Neville Duus assisted the exhausted RAAF Air Movements
personnel in Darwin, who had not slept in 72 hours, to assemble another
load of 63 evacuees for southern destinations. After the evacuees had
boarded the aircraft, Dr Rex Patterson, Minister for the Northern Territory,
arrived and demanded that the aircraft go to Mackay in his electorate
of Dawson. With his arrival on board, the aircraft was officially a
VIP flight at his disposal and the aircraft departed for Mackay leaving
the RAAF crew to apologise to their passengers for the diversion and
inconvenience. On arrival in Mackay, the Minister was seen to disembark
first with a baby in his arms. The evacuees were forced to over-night
in Mackay where they were accommodated in two facilities. The RAAF crew
visited one of these facilities to check on the welfare of their passengers
and found that they were required to spend the night on camp stretchers
in a building with just two toilets rather than in the comfort of relatives
and friends at their intended destinations.
On the morning of 30 December, the aircraft departed for Brisbane and
Sydney and then positioned empty to its base in Canberra, the crew having
been away for the better part of a week without change of uniform or
so much as a tooth brush. By their own admission, they were a bit "on
the nose" by the second day. Thankfully the crew were able to acquire
shorts, shirts and thongs (footwear!) from relatives in Brisbane and
this became their uniform for much of the operation. The pilots found
that they had no difficulty manipulating the rudder pedals in a form
of footwear which was de rigueur in the Northern Territory! On returning
to Canberra, the crew each added 38.1 flying hours (day) and 1.0 hour
(night) to their log books.
Major-General Stretton regarded 31 December 1974 as the final day of
the airlift and it was on this day that he departed Darwin via RAAF
C-130E Hercules A97-177, formally relinquishing his responsibilities
on 2 January 1975.
On 2 January 1975, the Governor-General, Sir John Kerr, arrived in Darwin
on an RAAF BAC 1-11 (serial unknown). On the same day, A12-125, again
crewed by Flt Lt Smith, Flt Lt Copley and Sqn Ldr Duus operated Canberra-Melbourne-Alice
Springs where they over-nighted. The following day they operated Alice
Springs-Darwin-Melbourne-Canberra. It is believed that these flights
were in connection with the Governor-General's visit although the crew
of A12-125 have no recollection of carrying His Excellency. Therefore
it is speculated that the Governor-General might have travelled on A12-124
and that A12-125 might have been a support aircraft.
Normal airline services to Darwin resumed on 3 January 1975.