This note was written in October 2000 describing one junior ex 9 SQN pilot’s memories of 9 Squadron RAAF in Vietnam from March 1970 to May 1971. Please forward any corrections, additions, and comment, to either the Secretary or President of the 9 Squadron RAAF Association – email preferred, check ‘office holders list in the public pages of the website: https://www.no9squadronassociation.org/
9 Squadron RAAF operated from Vung Tau airfield in Vietnam from May 1966 to November 1971 in support of the First Australian Task Force (1ATF) during the Vietnam War. The 1ATF main base was at Nui Dat.
9SQN flew Iroquois helicopters known as ‘Hueys’. Initially it had 8 UH-1B ‘Bravo’ model Hueys. The Bravo models were gradually replaced with larger UH-1D, and then more powerful UH-1H, models, until the squadron operated 16 of the UH-1H ‘Hotel’ models from about mid 1968. The Hueys cruised at about 90 to 105 knots, max 120 knots, for about two hours burning aviation turbine fuel (AVTUR).
The standard crew of a 9SQN ‘Huey’ was: pilot; co-pilot; crewman (in charge of loading and operation of the rescue hoist and gun – both on the right side of the cargo compartment); and gunner who would operate the machine gun on the left side, and help the crewman. Imbedded in 9SQN for most of its deployment in Vietnam were pilots of the RNZAF (16 in total), and a contingent of 9 RAN pilots. All 9SQN ground and aircrew rotated through the squadron on staggered 12 month tours of duty to maintain a good spread of competence – a trickle of experience was sent home to be replaced by a trickle of new folk. Occasionally tours were extended; many served two, and a few, three tours.
Most of the aircraft were ‘slicks’, or troop and cargo carrying versions, with two M-60 machine guns (one each side) for self defence, and a rescue hoist. The ‘slicks’ could, and often did, conduct ‘Dustoff’, ie: rescue of casualties. Although, when tasked as a dedicated ‘Dustoff’ aircraft, usually an Army or RAAF medic was carried in addition to the usual four crew. The callsign of the ‘slicks’ was ‘Albatross XX’: the XX indicating the mission, eg: ‘Albatross 01 (Zero One)’ was the flight lead, followed by ‘A02’, ‘A03’, etc.
Three of the UH-1H were configured as gunships, callsign ‘Bushranger 71’ (‘Seven One’ – lead), ‘BR 72’, and ‘BR 73’. The gunships were crewed by two pilots, a crewman, and a gunner. They did not have a rescue hoist fitted. They were armed each side with: twin M60 machine guns (total four, each with 1,000 7.62 calibre belted ammunition rounds in a bin), a fixed forward firing ‘Mini-Gun’ (total 10,000 7.62 calibre ammunition fed to both mini-guns), and a rocket pod with 7 rockets (2.75 inch diameter Folding Fin Aerial Rockets – total 14). The rockets could be fitted with: High Explosive (bunkers, vehicles); Fleshette, (anti-personnel); or, White Phosphorus heads for target marking (usually two, one in each rocket pod). Two gunships were called a Light Fire Team. Three gunships were a Heavy Fire Team.
Each dawn, usually, following an intelligence and operations brief at ‘Dingo Operations’ at Vung Tau, four slicks (A01, 02, 03, & 04), and two gunships (BR 71 & 72), would leave Vung Tau for the 10 to 15 minute flight to Nui Dat: or to a planned mission, then recover to Nui Dat for further planned tasks; or wait at ‘Kanga Pad’ on immediate standby for unplanned tasks. There was a small duty crew of 9SQN maintenance personnel at the gunship re-arm point at Kanga Pad, and also a number of refuel points. From November 1970 until November 1971, a dedicated Dustoff aircraft, ‘Albatross Dustoff’ maintained a 24 hour standby at ‘Red Earth’ (8th Field Ambulance Royal Australian Army Medical Corps) on ‘Kanga Pad’ at Nui Dat. The 9SQN ‘Dustoff’ crews and aircraft would change over at dawn and dusk each day. The aircraft were standard 9SQN ‘slicks’ – they were armed for self-defence, and not marked with red crosses.
In addition, unless tasked, Albatross 05 and Bushranger 73 crews and aircraft were on immediate standby at Vung Tau. The remainder of the crews and aircraft were held at Vung Tau at reduced readiness states unless or until tasked. If enemy action, or another emergency arose, the crews would respond to that planned or immediate tasking. As shorter time readiness crews and aircraft left on tasks, the longer readiness crews cascaded to the next shorter readiness state, except when all were needed as soon as possible.
Often pre-planned tasking meant that most, or all, crews and aircraft would move direct to tasks or land at Nui Dat before departing on task in company with part or all of the remainder of the squadron. The maintenance crews aimed to have 13 of the normal 16 aircraft available for tasking each day. Rarely was the aim missed, even when the Squadron had lost Hueys to enemy action, and two were not replaced for ’quite a while’. The 9SQN ground crew were magnificent, and I believe their competence and dedication were crucial to the impressive aircraft serviceability rate and thus the operational effectiveness of the squadron.
The Bushranger gunships almost always operated as a tactical pair, or three ship, with BR71 as flight lead. The Albatross slicks often operated in pairs or larger formations, eg: SAS patrol insertions or extractions; or troop moves, with A01 as flight lead, usually in coordination with BR71 & 72 providing fire support. When coordinating a large operation, the Commanding Officer (CO) 9SQN, or senior 9 SQN executives, would fly as mission lead in a Huey fitted with extra communications and carrying the ground commander and staff – callsign ‘Albatros Charlie Charlie’ (ACC). ACC would direct the slicks and gunships to best meet the objectives of the mission in coordination with other supporting arms, eg: naval gunfire, airstrikes, and artillery.
There were many routine tasks flown by 9SQN slicks on various single or multi aircraft tasks eg: logistic re-supply, liaison, reconnaissance (recce), special ops (‘sniffer’), spray (insecticide or defoliant), maintenance test flights, medevac (Dustoff), etc.
Planned tasking of 9SQN was from the 1ATF Tactical Air Operations Centre (TAOC) at Nui Dat through Dingo Ops at Vung Tau. The TAOC was manned by Army and RAAF personnel, (including a 9SQN executive) who would plan tasking of 9SQN for the next day and pass that plan by message to 9SQN via ‘Dingo Operations’ in Vung Tau. Unplanned tasks would be sorted immediately by radio (often to either A01 or BR71) when airborne, or by phone if the flight leaders and crews were at the 9SQN alert shack at Kanga Pad, Nui Dat.
Planned SAS recces, and patrol insertions and extractions, were briefed by A01 at the Alert Shack with the SAS patrol in attendance for the recce and insertions. Often SAS patrols had to be extracted when in contact with the enemy. Then A01 and BR71 would follow standard procedures to minimise risk during the ‘hot’ extraction. The 9SQN Standard Operations Procedures (SOP) manual was complete, concise, and effective. The SAS and 9SQN were a well practiced and harmonious team.
Navigation within the 1ATF Area of Operations (AO – Phuc Tuy province) was visual using 1:100,000 or 50,000 scale tactical maps with a 1000 metre grid overlay and covered in plastic laminate. Coloured aerial recce photography was used when detail was necessary, and available.
Navigation beyond the 1ATF AO was visual using adjacent tactical maps, or ONC Air Navigation Maps if venturing further afield, eg: 1:500,00 or 1:1,000,000 air navigation maps.
Usually we flew above small arms range: 1500ft above ground level in the AO. We would minimise time descending to, or climbing from, low level. If low level we flew as close to the tree tops as possible. Most of the AO was covered in jungle – ‘The J’. If possible, we avoided low level flight over open country. Medevac (‘Dustoff’) at night often was the most difficult trade-off between risk of hitting ground and obstacles, or being hit by ground fire – we had no night vision devices, and usually had to navigate at night, visually, and often below lowest safe height due cloud overcast.
Aviation communications and airfield information were listed in a soft covered booklet (A5 size) which was equivalent to the En-Route Supplement Australia (ERSA), but much reduced in content. See the accompanying file ‘VietnamFreqPub11Oct70.pdf’, the RVN Frequency Publication produced by the US 165th Aviation Group on 11 Oct 1970.
Communication was by voice, no encryption. We did have a ‘KAK Code’ list which changed at noon each day if we wanted to encode sensitive information by hand to send by voice over radio. It was tedious. When airborne, information passed by radio/intercom was recorded on the aircraft plexiglass windows or crew kneepads, using ‘chinagraph’ (or ‘grease’) pencils. There were frequent examples of enemy monitoring and attempts to disrupt and deceive our communications and tasks.
Each 9SQN Huey was fitted with one each: VHF (Very High Frequency) AM (Amplitude Modulated) radio, VHF FM (Frequency Modulated) radio, and UHF (Ultra High Frequency) radio. The UHF and VHF FM radios provided a bearing to another station transmitting on the frequency being monitored. The only navigation aid was an ADF (Airborne Direction Finder) for homing to an aviation Non Directional Beacon (NDB) – rarely, if ever, used by 9SQN in Vietnam due scarcity of NDBs.
The VHF FM radio was used for communicating with the ground unit being supported and for listening on the Fire Warning frequency (usually ‘Nui Dat Arty’ – artillery) when transiting to and from supported ground units.
The VHF AM radio was used for some air traffic control frequencies, but most of the time for the 1ATF TAOC, Callsign ‘Atoll’, for tasking and flight following (or Dingo Ops at Vung Tau).
The UHF radio was for air-to-air communications within 9SQN, or some air traffic control agencies including ‘Paris’ radar near Tan Son Nhut air base close to Saigon.
9SQN Hueys departing Vung Tau airfield for Nui Dat would call ‘Dingo Ops’ using VHF AM; switch to Vung Tau airfield for air traffic control; and, when clear of Vung Tau airspace, call ‘Atoll’ at Nui Dat for flight following and/or tasking.
If departing in company, all aircraft would check with the lead aircraft on UHF to control and coordinate tasking and tactics. In addition to the normal UHF frequency, the UHF ‘Guard’ frequency (243.0) was monitored at all times for emergencies.
Also, as soon as practicable, ‘Nui Dat Arty’ would be checked on VHF FM for warning of any firing enroute, and then monitored until the need to communicate with troops on the ground.
Approaching Nui Dat the aircraft would call Luscombe Field for clearance to Kanga Pad, and advise ‘Atoll’ of intent.
Crews would learn to monitor the four frequencies almost all the time, the captain balancing volumes of the three radios and his intercom controller, or splitting the monitoring of the four frequencies (3 radios plus UHF Guard), with the other three crew. The other crew managed the volume of their own intercom controllers, and which frequencies they monitored, in accordance with their own priorities, subject to a ‘captain’s call’.