ROYAL AUSTRALIAN AIR FORCE
No. 34 SQUADRON
DARWIN RELIEF OPERATIONS

 

BAC ONE-ELEVEN

Contributed by Neville Duus and David Smith

 

BAC 1-11 A12-125 (with A12-124 behind) at Brisbane in October 1982.
(Photo: Ron Cuskelly)

 

The cabin of one of the RAAF VIP BAC One-Elevens showing the VIP seating in the foreground. The forward zone featured four reclining swivel chairs. The next cabin zone featured a settee on one side facing inwards. The settee converted into three seats or it could be folded out into a double bed although it was rarely used for this purpose because of the limited range of the aircraft. This zone was normally occupied by the staff of the VIP. A third cabin zone aft of the bulkhead comprised 28 economy seats in seven rows of four. These seats were normally occupied by media, security and maintenance personnel. Passengers in the aft zone boarded and disembarked via the ventral airstairs.
(Picture: Unknown via Jake Jacobsen Collection)

 

On Christmas 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.

 

SOURCES

 

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Original issue.