Recollections by Wing Commander Nick Leray-Meyer AM Commanding Officer No. 9 Squadron RAAF.
2 January 1979 – 13 January 1981
In early 1978, having just (somewhat reluctantly) settled into a new staff officer position at the newly formed Chief of Air Force Materiel (CAFM) Branch, I received a call from Peter Mahood; who had been my CO in Vietnam and whom I also new from fighter pilot days. Peter had just been advised that he was to get another tour as CO 9 Squadron as a “farewell present”; since promotion to Group Captain was most unlikely, following Bob Thompson’s unexpected resignation after just a few months into his command.
I felt good for Peter since I felt he had been very poorly treated when he was not given the privilege of continuing as CO when the Squadron returned from active service in Vietnam; despite not having completed a full tour as CO. I also harboured mixed feelings over that decision given the trials and tribulations that occurred within the Squadron in the period 1972 – 74.
Notwithstanding his earlier advice, the 1978 senior officer’s promotion list contained a welcome surprise; Peter was promoted to Group Captain! I called to congratulate him (and to discuss the vagaries of DPO machinations) and he indicated that he would be remaining at Amberley as CO Base Squadron. Peter also spoke of the trials and tribulations he had experienced at Amberley where, in his opinion, the Squadron was at the very bottom of the “pecking order” We discussed likely contenders for his replacement; discounting my own chances having just taken up the new Materiel position, but didn’t settle on anyone!
A day before the (embargoed) 1978 senior officer posting list was released I received several calls congratulating me on my positing to command No 9 Squadron. However, it was not until the next morning when AVM John Cornish, my boss, called me in that I believed the calls. The AVM wasn’t too thrilled that I had been posted (he apparently having had my posting ex Staff College changed so as to join his staff – I had previously worked for him as a Squadron Leader) – but stated that since it was a Command he would not stand in my way.
Later that day Peter called and we discussed a hand-over program, including a pre-Christmas visit. That plan was changed when CAFM ruled out pre-posting refresher flying and an Amberley visit; but was apparently over-ruled by CAFP on my attendance at CO Law School training in early December.
Peter rang in mid November to discuss a new hand-over program during which he mentioned that he was taking the Squadron to El Alamein for a major Army exercise; his last operation. I recall telling him to take it easy and that I would see him at Amberley in the New Year!
On Saturday morning 26th November I was having breakfast when the news of the accident was announced. By lunch-time I knew that Peter and his crew had made their last flight!
I spent most of my first day at the Squadron discussing past and current events with Peter (Wombat) Wagner, who had assumed Temporary Command of the Squadron for the immediate period following the accident at El Alamein. The remainder of the day was spent primarily in discussions with the Officer Commanding (AIRCDRE Ray Drury) and the Air Staff Officer (GPCAPT Bob Walsh). Both indicated a general disquiet with the squadron’s performance; the former being particularly concerned with the adverse findings of the recent HQOC Technical inspection while the latter was seemingly more interested in ensuring his Staff Officer (Bill Shepherd) got more operational flying – a position I didn’t support.
Well aware of the dangers of acting too quickly I focused on completing my re-qualification. Despite my previous intention to complete it at 5 Squadron – in line with the series of training courses and protocols I had formulated when I was the 5 Sqn Training Flight Commander – I gained approval to complete the course at the Squadron. This gave me the dual opportunity to assess the competency and approach of the squadron-training regime while observing the squadron “in action”. In the event I was relatively comfortable with the former (Angus Houston was given prime responsibility) but sensed some degree of “suspicion” from the hangar floor; which I later learned reflected the angst felt by some of the maintenance crew over the loss of SGT Paul Gallagher and CPL Barry Johns – the two Flight Fitters aboard Peter’s aircraft at El Alamein. I also renewed my A2 Instructor Rating during a unit visit by Central Flying School examiners.
My next few months were spent on a restructure of Squadron’s activities and operational culture; not all of which was readily and/or willingly accepted.
First I reorganised the Squadron Headquarters. The administration staff were relocated to the central wing of the building and their former abode became the pilot’s crew room, with the training staff in the adjacent office. Relocation of the executive staff to the western end of the building facilitated easier interaction along with an element of privacy for our discussions. The crewmen remained in an adjacent building that they had already converted to a comfortable and effective area. As with any squadron move, the map room was also relocated!!!
The Maintenance area proved more demanding; and not without some opposition. First, the SNCOs were informed in a face-to-face briefing that they were to cease being too “hands on” and revert to their supervisory roles; with trade CPLs being the primary work team leaders. Moreover, I expected SNCOs (reflecting I guess the lessons I had learned during my days on the hangar floor as an ex apprentice) to wear “dress of the day” (this was to assist in them focusing on their supervisory and mentoring roles!). Since the squadron records and maintenance control received especial adverse comment from the HQOC inspection team, they too reverted to dress of the day and their work area renovated (to reflect the need for accurate documentation etc). I also decided not to appoint the SENGO (Mark Pemberton who I knew and respected) as a “Subordinate Commander” since I wanted him to be seen as the primary maintenance “Supervisor and Mentor”; which he couldn’t do if he was also, from time to time, judge and jury. I also approved the construction within one of the hangars of a “Crew Rest Room”; readily accepted by the team though the OC wasn’t all that pleased. Dress and deportment also got a shake-up; the OC abhorred seeing cap and shirt-less technicians working on the line – an unsafe practice from and occupational health and safety viewpoint as well.
Operationally I explained to the flight crew that I probably had a somewhat different approach to others they had worked for and with. Firstly, I wanted to see the squadron act operationally in peacetime as it probably would on active service. Thus, I saw Cat B captains as those to whom I would entrust “fighting the squadron” on my behalf; not just a category based on passing the HQOC syllabus. The senior Category B (or Category A) captains were expected to be capable of “fighting” the entire squadron – thus being able to plan and control combined exercises involving “slicks” as well as “Slicks and Gunships”. The junior (in experience) Category B captains were expected to be competent in planning and leading either multiple “Slick” or “Gunship” operations. Cat C captains had to have my confidence (and that of the Flight Commanders) to operate a single aircraft without undue supervision on squadron away-tasks. For Category D pilots, the essence was to observe and learn!
Thus the task for the executive and training teams was to ensure that they kept this concept firmly in mind. Aircraft emergency training was to become a supportive role not the primary role! Further, there had to be a planned, rather than an adhoc, succession-training program (I reminded all the senior pilots that the threat of posting was always upon us and we couldn’t afford to leave the squadron unprepared). After some pockets of resistance the plan started to work well.
Shortly after assuming command the base GLO arranged a combined Army/RAAF briefing to be held at Amberley. I was somewhat surprised by the tenor of the remarks of several senior Army officers re lack of RAAF cooperation and support in their endeavours (an echo from the early days of Vietnam???). I put it somewhat forcibly to the Brigade Commander and his staff that they wouldn’t “fight” their units without thorough briefing and training so if they didn’t include their supporting helo units in the appropriate “Orders Groups” how could they reasonably expect us to understand what they wanted of us in tactical situations and the like. The Brigade Commander rose to the challenge and we were subsequently included in all the relevant and appropriate briefings and planning sessions. For our part, we spent more time of our training hours “working up” on mutual tactics; which resulted in No 6 Brigade receiving far more air support than they had to bid for through the Army system. This proved most beneficial in our subsequent working relationship as well as major exercises such as “Kangaroo 3” (October 1979) and “Droughtmaster” (October 1980). However, there was seemingly no real mutual interest in developing tactics to reflect emerging battle-field concepts, especially hand-held anti-aircraft weapons and use of gunship developments. Indeed the Army, as well as the RAAF hierarchy (including Amberley HQ as well as HQOC), demonstrated almost a total lack of interest in developing battlefield tactics – the Vietnam concepts still held sway despite attempts within 9 Squadron to develop new strategies.
In April I was sent to Canada to discuss float operations with a Canadian Defence Force helicopter unit; we were to use floats in a forthcoming Indonesian survey task “Operation Pattimura”. While an enjoyable trip (though some 40 hours in a C130 wasn’t exactly enthralling) little real operational information was gleaned, despite the Canadian’s having operated with the large Iroquois floats for extended periods. The most useful information gleaned was “make sure they don’t go flat!!!. Back in Australia, FLTLT Bruce Townsend visited a private operator (Esso helicopters) to receive float endorsement training. Bruce later endorsed myself and the Sqn QFIs; who in turn, spent some enjoyable time “splashing down” on the nearby Atkinson’s Dam while endorsing the remainder of the squadron. Operation Pattimura subsequently was completed without incident and despite the floats introducing the odd handling problem (especially during an autorotation) their presence on long water crossings was very reassuring.
Following the requisite Commanding Officer’s review of the Board of Inquiry into the El Alamein accident, I discussed flight duty fatigue with the HQOC phycologist (Dr Lee). As a result, we included a fatigue testing/assessment regime in the forthcoming squadron survival training program on Stradbroke Island. All the squadron pilots were involved, the lucky ones as the control group (which meant they were free to enjoy themselves “surviving” by fishing, swimming etc). The results were interesting: essentially the older pilots became fatigued faster, were slower in recognizing the onset and took longer to recover! Not good news for the RAAF since most COs and executive staff tended to be in their mid to late 30s while the line pilots were in their early 20s. Not surprising, HQOC didn’t like the results and nothing officially came of it; though within the squadron we planned operations to avoid, wherever possible, flight fatigue becoming a major causal factor.
For Kangaroo 3, I decided that the squadron should deploy as “tactical” as possible. Thus, instead of remaining at Rockhampton in support of the deployed Army units, we would deploy to the field for the entire exercise. To my delight the squadron rose to the challenge and we soon had camouflaged “put and take” hot water heaters, tents and supporting items (including camouflage nets) being assembled at the unit. All aircraft were fitted with armour plate seats and door guns (the gunships getting their full suite of weapons) with body armour and side-arms for the flight crew. Each aircraft was expected to deploy essentially self sufficient so far as crew tentage, camouflage nets etc. Obtaining tactical vehicles (Land Rovers and trailers) from RAAF Richmond (where they are stored) proved difficult (we couldn’t have them until just prior to the exercise) so again the Army came to our assistance. This enabled the maintenance teams to prepare the various mobile workshops etc so provide the necessary mobility. Detachments from 5 Sqn and the RNZAF’s 3 Sqn joined us with me being assigned Operational Command. The vehicles departed in convoy with the units of No 6 Brigade while the aircraft deployed en-masse from Amberley to the first refuelling stop at Maroochydore. After refuelling we continued in three flights of four aircraft until we reached Rockhampton. A planned overnight stay at Rockhampton became three nights as all Iroquois were grounded for a mandatory inspection of a rotor system fault that had been detected at RAAF Base Fairbairn shortly after our departure from Amberley.
The exercise proved successful and while welcoming our attempts the 6 Brigade units thought we were somewhat “clumsy” in our tactical “home”; though inspecting Army officers found time to “test our field showers”!!!. For our part we learned that operating 16 aircraft from dispersed areas requires far more logistic support than envisaged. A most pleasing aspect was the interaction and cooperation between the three units (5, 9 and 3 Sqn RNZAF). As I expected, the RAAF hierarchy didn’t visit or inspect our deployed site; they obviously preferred the comforts of the Rockhampton and Brisbane command centres!
When I assumed command the Squadron was maintaining a full time SAR standby aircraft and crew; ready to respond to any request – defence or civilian. In addition squadron pilots and crewmen were still required to undertake traditional base duties such as Orderly Officer and Orderly Sergeant. I considered this an unreasonable requirement, especially given the regular deployments the aircrew made away from home base vis-à-vis other officers and SNCOs on the Base. Following protracted discussion with the Officer Commanding it was agreed to cancel the 24/7 SAR requirement; since it was a local decision rather than a HQOC imposed task, but retain a dedicated daily SAR crew who would be relived of all other duties for the day. This ushered in a series of incidents where the Air Staff Officer (GPCAPT A Reed) and I took opposing views as to how the squadron should be tasked.
The highlight of the year was probably the rescue of three mariners by Angus Houston and his crew. Following a call for assistance, the squadron was tasked by HQOC to deploy to the vicinity of Evans head and await instructions to retrieve any survivors of a shipwreck located by searching P3C and C130 aircraft. Shortly after arriving in the vicinity Angus was directed to some wreckage well out to sea. On arrival he found three survivors clinging to wreckage and proceeded to winch them to safety. Huge seas battered the crewman (Sandy Roman) during his three trips to the water while Angus hovered in gusting winds of some 70 knots. Once the three survivors had been transferred to shore-based ambulances Angus conducted an inshore search for the two missing yachtsmen; but to no avail. Angus and his two crewmen were later the recipients of well deserved Air Force Cross and Medals.
Given that the 1978 HQOC Maintenance Inspection was very critical of the Squadron it was with some pleasure to see that the efforts made by the maintenance teams were rewarded with a glowing report following the 1979 inspection. Random “hats off” visits to the hangars ands supporting sections during the year had proved successful though I was never quite sure whether their individual and collective efforts were because or in spite of my leadership!!! But that was immaterial to me; the fact that they were now achieving their potential was the main objective.
In early November, after returning from Exercise Kangaroo 3, I proposed to the OC that the Squadron should hold a small memorial service to commemorate the first anniversary of the El Alamein accident. I felt that it would be appropriate, especially for the maintenance staff. To my disappointment the proposal was vetoed without any real explanation of the reasons for such a decision; though I suspect it was that previous squadron fatalities had not been accorded such an event. Nevertheless, we paused for reflection on the 25th by way of remembrance!
1980, my second and last year in command, proved to have about the same highs and lows for the squadron as did 1979.
The lows included the seemingly never-ending battle for recognition of the squadron’s requirements, contributions and achievements – both at Amberley and HQOC. A typical example was the annual rotary wing COs (5, 9, 12 and 35 Sqns) meeting at HQOC. Despite having four of his command’s Commanding Officers present the AOC deigned not to address us or for that matter even speak to us at either of the lunch or morning tea breaks we had during the two days of discussions; though he was in the same room!! Even the Chief of Staff spent less than five minutes with us. Yet when the strike and/or fighter squadron COs (in my opinion essentially flight commanders since they had no maintenance staff, only flight crew and a small administration staff) visited there was almost the “scattering of rose petals”!!!! Another example was on the question of flying suits. The focus on designing the new flying suit (again in the hands of the Equipment folks rather than the users) was the fighter and strike flight crew requirements. Following lack of interest at HQOC on the rotary wing requirements for two-piece flying suits I was moved to send a message, with the Chief of Air Staff (AM Neville McNamara who had been Commander RAAF Vietnam during my tour there) as a CC addressee, in which I pointed out the difficulty of using a standard flying suit on a “bush toilet” during darkness, which was a typical situation for chopper crews. I received a “rocket” for this message from both HQ Amberley and HQOC but when the CAS supported my position things seemed to change a little (though it was reminiscent of “winning the battle” but “losing the war”). HQOC’s lack of interest in rotary wing units was also reflected in the almost total disinterest when I reported that I by chance I had become aware of the intention of the then Army Field Force Commander (MAJGEN Bennett) to actively seek transfer of RAAF rotary wing assets to Army Aviation (Bennett having been a major critic and opponent of RAAF helicopter support during his pre-1970 service in Vietnam). My advice, later was to be proved correct during General Bennett’s period as CDF.
Angus Houston had earlier left for the US on exchange duties to the USAF. In return we received a US Army helicopter pilot (Capt Fielder)! He settled in well but initially lacked the flying skill we expected of a pilot of his general experience. Nevertheless he made up in enthusiasm what he initially lacked in competency and it was not long before he was fully integrated into the squadron and awarded his aircraft captaincy. My only hope (in retrospect) was that on his return to the US Army he was able to benefit from his experience with 9 Squadron. It never failed to amaze me how DPO often “wasted” experience gained from exchange postings. For example, Graeme Chalmers on return from the USAF where he had flown CH53 Heavy Lift helicopters with a USAF SAR unit was posted back to 9 Sqn, to fly Iroquois! While we were glad to have him his recent operational experience was more beneficial to 12 Sqn with its medium lift Chinook; a posting we were subsequently able to arrange.
The Squadron had its only aircraft accident during my command while carrying out a SAR task. HQOC tasked two Iroquois to search for a stricken yacht, being pounded by heavy seas north of Fraser Island that were the result of an on-coming tropical Cyclone, and rescue the crew. The two Helicopters were to coordinate with a C130 search aircraft. Given the prevailing weather conditions each of the Iroquois was commanded by a Category A Captain, with the “A” Flight Commander (Peter Hales) the Detachment Commander. The pre-departure briefing contained the usual qualification – don’t unnecessarily hazard the aircraft or crew. The crews spent the entire daylight hours on standby on Fraser Island (at a small seaside resort at Rainbow Beach). With darkness approaching I discussed the “State of Play” with the HQOC SAR controllers and stated that I wanted the aircraft withdrawn back to Maroochydore; where the aircraft were more protected. HQOC refused the request so I advised the captains to batten down as best they could. The next morning, after advising the Squadron that the Cyclone had moved further out to sea HQOC called off the search and released the aircraft. In turn, the crews were advised to use their judgement of the local conditions and either depart without delay or be prepared to stay a further day. Both crews agreed on the former and the first aircraft departed in steady rain only to be confronted with heavy winds and down draughts as it passed Indian Point and despite full collective, impacted the water. The flying skill of “Spida” Rider enabled the badly damaged aircraft to be flown ashore and the entire crew saved; earning him an AFC. Although badly damaged, the Brisbane airport Bell Helicopter facility rebuilt the aircraft. At the subsequent Court of Inquiry, HQOC absolved itself of any responsibility arguing that the Squadron (the CO) should have exercised its command responsibilities by withdrawing the aircraft earlier even when HQOC had refused permission to do so! A salutary lesson for me!!!!
Despite being an operational squadron, DPO seemingly decided to “test” the squadron by posting in two female officers; one engineering officer and one administration officer. Though both performed quite competently in their roles it certainly made life difficult for us when we deployed tactically. This difficulty was increased still further when the squadron’s first intelligence officer also proved to be a female. Discussions with DPO staff demonstrated that they essentially had no idea of the operational situations confronting tactical helicopter squadrons. Nevertheless, the squadron accepted the situation and made every post a winner!
The remainder of the year was essentially incident free despite the squadron being tasked well above its planned rate. Both the flight crews and maintenance teams rose to the challenge and responded to everything asked of them.
Perhaps the most disappointing event during the year was the end-of-year posting list. Although well aware that I would be posted, I had requested DPO to avoid posting out too many of the Squadron’s senior staff; to avoid the pitfall of early periods where continuity was lost and overall standards were damaged. In the event, the CO, SOPSO, “A” Flight Commander, two senior pilots and the SENGO were all posted. It seemed to me that yet again there was little interest in the RAAF hierarchy in the impact on operational effectiveness of helicopter units that simultaneous “mass:” postings of executives and experience can have!
Nevertheless, I thoroughly enjoyed the two years that I was entrusted with the command of No 9 Squadron. As events unfolded, the continuing lack of support for RAAF helicopter units was to be the catalyst for my early departure from the RAAF; something I had never previously contemplated; and at times still rue!!
Nick LeRay-Meyer AM
4th April 2009