Recollections of Early Days by Ray Scott
In early 1961, when I was a squadron leader flight commander of No 34 Squadron at RAAF Base Fairbairn, rumours circulated that a helicopter squadron was to be formed, and that I was a possible commanding officer. These rumours increased until June 1961 when a signals sergeant asked me did I look forward to going to the USA in August. Obviously he had sighted some sort of signals traffic, and that was sufficient to trigger a phone call to Sqn Ldr Geoff Michael, the Maritime staff officer in the Department of Air Operational Requirements Branch, whom I believed was working on the helicopter project. I told him I had heard I would be off to the USA in August and requested confirmation. I could hear Geoff talking to someone in the background, and very quickly he said “come in”.
On walking into Geoff’s office I was confronted by Air Commodore Charles Read who held the position of Director General Operational Requirements (and later advanced to be Chief of the Air Staff). In his usual blunt style Read said “you’ve heard?”. I confirmed I had heard rumours. He then said “you no longer belong to 34 Squadron – you belong to me. Sit down next to Michael and help him with the helicopter project”. Later, he gave me a lecture about the Army’s appalling record of helicopter crashes, and said “ your squadron is not to have a major accident for two years. If you fail you‘re finished“. After the Squadron had operated for two years without a major accident I confronted Read in the Department of Air bar where he had a daily session with his cronies. I informed him my two years were up. He was silent for a few seconds, then thrust his face close to mine and said “yes, and you’ve been bloody lucky”. My moment of triumph had lasted about ten seconds.
Geoff Michael revealed that the Bell HU-1B (nomenclature later changed by the US Army to UH -1B) helicopter had been selected to fulfil the RAAF’s requirement for a search and rescue role purely by a paper evaluation. No one in the Department had helicopter experience, so it was extraordinary that such a good selection eventuated. I never did sight the paper evaluation
When I received a list of the other five pilots selected for the Squadron I was horrified. Don White I knew quite well and he had some limited helicopter experience. Ken Clark I did not know. However, the other three names rang alarm bells – I believed they had poor accident records . I presented the three names to Wing Commander Herb Plenty, who was Director of Flying Safety, for confirmation of their accident records. Herb read the names and then said “ they have the worst accident history in the RAAF. God help you – I can’t”. A young flight lieutenant working in a corner of Herb’s office spoke up and said “I’ll go” – meaning he was willing to go to the USA for helicopter training.
I cornered Squadron Leader Roy Frost, who was responsible for aircrew postings, and told him the three with accident records were unacceptable to me. Frost refused to budge, so I told him of Read’s edict regarding accidents, and invited him to accompany me to Read’s office to sort it out. Frost immediately relented and gave me a limited list of names from which I could select replacements. I picked Laddie Hindley from the list but rejected the others. I insisted I wanted Jim Cox, as I had previously converted him to Sycamore helicopters at Woomera , and regarded him as an excellent prospect. Having previously checked with Herb Plenty, I also selected the flight lieutenant who had said “I”ll go” – Bob MacIntosh. Frost was not happy, but wasn’t up to facing Read, so I got the three replacements I had selected – all of whom turned out to be first class.
For the next three years the RAAF Personnel Branch made repeated attempts to post the three accident prone pilots to the Squadron. These attempts were strongly rejected.. The Squadron received many excellent pilots, but it also became a dumping ground for pilots who were not wanted by other units. The majority were fighter pilots who were getting a little old to withstand the “G” forces and rigors of flying modern jet fighters. Most had a lot of experience and good air sense, and became steady and reliable Squadron pilots.
Read informed me that he had planned that I would depart for the USA in August 1961 as head of a Procurement Team. Some historians interpret it as an aircraft evaluation team. It was not, as the aircraft had already been selected. It was a spares assessing team. The Air Members for Technical Services and Equipment both objected to a General Duties officer leading a spares assessing team, and Read had to capitulate. However, he said that to guard my own interests he was attaching me to the team as an adviser. Later I had cause to be very grateful for that decision.
I departed for the USA with the team in August 1961. The team (all of whom were from Headquarters Support Command Melbourne) consisted of a squadron leader equipment officer as leader of the team, a flight lieutenant equipment officer, squadron leader radio officer, a sergeant engine fitter, and a sergeant airframe fitter. Note the glaring omission of an aeronautical engineer. The radio officer was an ex-World War 2 NCO who appeared to know little about modern radio equipment. He was old beyond his age, and had medical problems. The engine fitter’s expertise was in assessing carburettors, but he turned out to be a reasonably quick learner. The airframe fitter had been employed solely on assessing aircraft brakes for about 5 years, and he was solid bone between the ears.
The team’s first visit in the USA was to the Lyoming factory at Hartford – the engine manufacturer. We were placed in the hands of a Dr Haber who had played a major part in the design of the T53 engine series. Haber was a German who probably was snapped up by the Americans immediately after the defeat of Germany in 1945. He looked like the typical Prussian aristocrat. He seated us in a very elegant lecture room; from a recess in a wall he pulled out a board on which was a large,sectionised drawing of the Lycoming T53-L11 engine; and proceeded to describe in technical language the design features of the engine. From the blank expressions on the faces of the Team members it became obvious that I was the only one who knew how a turbine engine worked. I had to interrupt the good doctor and inform him that his explanations were a little above the member’s knowledge. For a moment he looked as though I had challenged him to a duel, then thrust the board back into its recess, and drew out another showing a balloon with the air escaping from it. That was the start of the rot as far as the Assessing Team was concerned. I later learned that the technical members of the Procurement Team had been selected because “it was their turn”, and not on their ability.
The Sergeant engine fitter was a quick learner and coped reasonably well with his duties, but the airframe fitter and the radio officer were quite hopeless. Eventually, at the request of the Team leader and at the direction of the Head of Defence Staff Washington, I took over supervision of the initial spares assessing, and instead of staying in the USA for two months, as originally planned, I had to extend my stay to six months.
During a discussion with Dr Haber I became aware that the T53 engine would only operate on JP4 type fuel. At that time JP4 was only available in Australia at a few major airports, and this would limit Squadron operations. When I voiced concern Haber said Lycoming had designed a new combustion chamber (known as the “scoopless combustor”) which was under evaluation by the USAF at Wright Patterson AFB, and he had high hopes that this would extend the types of fuel on which the engine could operate. I very hastily visited Wright Patterson AFB for discussions with the USAF project engineer who informed me that the scoopless combustor had not completed all evaluation tests. When asked for his opinion he said he was fairly confidence it would pass, and from its performance so far on various fuels “it probably would run on anything volatile, including bay rum”.
Later Lycoming advised that there was a long lead time for engine production, and they required a decision as to whether the RAAF would accept the limits of the normal combustor or whether we would take a gamble on the potential wider fuel compatibility of the scoopless combustor. I sent a signal off to Department of Air explaining the situation – and got no reply. Ultimately, Lycoming gave me 30 days to get a decision. I sent another signal to that effect and added that if I did not get a reply within the time frame set by Lycoming I would have to make a decision. Silence from Department of Air, so I took the gamble on the still incomplete evaluated scoopless combustor. As the USAF officer had predicted, it turned out to be a winner. When I eventually returned to Australia I took Geoff Michael to task for not replying to my signals. He said Read had decided that “as he is prepared to make a decision let him wear the can”. A great way to run a railroad.
Having learned my lesson from that episode, at a later stage the Bell Helicopter Company wanted decisions on the rescue hoist and an emergency floatation system. On visiting Bell I found that the RAAF would be the first to have a hoist fitted to an UH-1 aircraft, and they had selected an electric hoist as an hydraulic hoist would have required major changes to the aircraft’s hydraulic system. In the contract the RAAF had not stipulated the type of hoist required. so I had to accept the Bell selection. Unfortunately, we later found it had a tendency to overheat with prolonged use. In testing the hoist fit Bell discovered they had to strengthen the cabin roof with honeycomb foil, similar to that in the rotor blades. In doing so they also found that the strengthened roof reduced the cabin vibration. Consequently, they incorporated the strengthened roof into the basic design of all UH-1 helicopters.
The contract stipulated an emergency floatation system that would keep the aircraft afloat “indefinitely”. Bell, quite rightly, asked for a definition of “ indefinitely”, and also in what sea state. They had designed a preliminary system and aircraft A2-384, which was in production at that stage, already had appropriate plumbing lines incorporated (and probably does to this day if it is still flying). In discussing their design, Bell engineers didn’t fill me with confidence, and said the floats could not be popped at speeds above 20 knots as their predictions were that above that speed the aircraft would assume an abrupt and uncontrollable nose down attitude and cause severe mast bumping, with consequent disastrous mast separation. Additionally, all flight testing would be carried out on A2-384 at our risk. I cancelled the requirement and advised Department of Air accordingly. As usual, I am still awaiting a reply and endorsement of my decision.
Through a Pentagon liaison officer I arranged a meeting with a U.S Army colonel to discuss training for Squadron pilots. I was quite surprised to be ushered into the office of a very large female colonel. We settled on H34 Choctaw training for the three pilots with no helicopter experience (Hindley, MacIntosh and Clark) followed by a special instrument course on the UH-1 for all six pilots, plus an “Instructor Pilot” course for the four QFIs – Scott, Hindley, White and MacIntosh.
The RAAF had allocated limited project funds for some US training. I requested the colonel supply me with an approximate cost figure.. She replied that the US trained hundreds of “free loaders” such as South Americans, Koreans, Vietnamese, National Chinese etc for no recompense and she could see no good reason to charge a good ally like Australia. Furthermore, if we insisted on paying, under US law she would have to seek Congressional approval, and that could take months. I doubted the latter, and believe she had already been well briefed to treat the RAAF kindly – for whatever reason. I pointed out that we had no desire to impose on US generosity like a third world country, and Australia would be embarrassed by such an event. Her reply was that if she and I could stand the embarrassment, who else was likely to know that she would not be sending any bills. On thinking of the extra spares we probably could buy, I accepted the embarrassment of joining the freeloader’s club.
Having returned to Australia and the Operational Requirements (Helicopter) desk in January 1962, with Jim Cox and Don White I returned to the US in June 1962 . We joined Laddie Hindley, Bob MacIntosh and Ken Clark who had just completed a flying course on the H34 Choctaw helicopter at the US Army base at Fort Rucker Alabama, to commence the UH-1 special instrument flying course.
Instrument flying in the US Army was in its infancy at that time. However, the instructors pilots were surprisingly good. Initially, we were supposed to train on link trainers to learn the basics of instrument flying. We convinced them that we were all fixed wing green card holders and were a little beyond link trainers. We did about four hours familiarisation flying in the clear, covering all aspects of a normal UH-1 aircraft conversion course. Having completed that phase the instrument flying blinkers were produced and we never saw beyond the instrument panel for the next forty hours.
The blinkers came down immediately after start up, and the instructor air taxied the aircraft to the launching pad and set it down. The student had to request an airways clearance on the intercom, which the instructor, acting as an airways controller, gave. Clearances were long and complex and each student developed his own brand of shorthand to write them down for repetition back to the “controller”. An instrument take-off from the ground was then initiated, and the flight then followed the “airways clearance“, mostly using omni beacons and low powered NDBs. As we gained experience “clearances” became more complex, and having reached a height of about twenty feet from take-off the instructor would change the “clearance” to a new and more complex one. Subsequent clearance changes occurred throughout the flight. We had a very busy time coping.
Holding patterns, diversions, and many other complications were fed in by the instructor. Having reached a non -controlled “destination” airfield, either an ILS or GCA approach was made. During the latter the instructor acted as the GCA controller in a most convincing manner. Ultimately, both types of approaches were continued on instruments right to touchdown. I found the course tough but very rewarding. At the end of the course the four QFIs (Self, Hindley, MacIntosh and White) did an “Instructor Pilot” course of about five hours. A waste of time as far as instructing goes, but after forty hours not seeing out of the aircraft, it helped our visual flying.
One technical NCO, Sergeant Keith Wadling received basic rescue crewman training in the USA.
The six pilots returned from the USA in late August 1962. During our absence No 9 Squadron had been formed at RAAF Base Williamtown by FltLt Brian Sullivan. Brian was a pilot with no administrative experience, but had been posted to the unit as the administrative officer. Considering the difficulties of forming a new unit, but particularly one with a totally new type of aircraft, this was another instant of the RAAF Personnel Branch being completely out of touch with reality. Moreover, despite my protests, when Sullivan was posted to a new unit his replacement was a pilot officer fresh out of flying training school. Sullivan did the best he could against tremendous odds. Through no fault of his own, the pilot officer was virtually useless but, fortunately, we had an excellent orderly room sergeant (Sgt Stone).
The buildings allocated to the Squadron at Williamtown were a Bellman hangar, a prefabricated hut for office space, and a one hole toilet. The hangar was in a state of disrepair, and the office space and toilet totally inadequate. There was no separate space for individual technical sections, aircrew, or lecture room. Airman accommodation was poor, and married quarters and rental properties in the area virtually non-existent. Moreover, in discussions with the Base hierarchy, it became very obvious that the Squadron would be the poor man of the Base, highly restricted in operations, and would be subjected to suffocating and ridiculous control by the higher powers.
I took two days leave, drove to Canberra, sought out the Director of Operational Requirements Group Captain “Spike” Marsh and Geoff Michael, and acquainted them with my views on the situation at Williamtown. I pointed out that RAAF Base Fairbairn would be a better base for the Squadron for the following reasons:-
- it had only one small flying squadron (No 34 VIP Squadron) on base;
- the National Capital Development Commission, which had responsibility for future planning of Canberra, had published a map showing the airfield as a future housing area. – a plan which the RAAF opposed. Committing another squadron on the base might forestall that plan (it did).
- Fairbairn had two excellent, large, well constructed hangars that were empty;
- it had relatively few aircraft movements for most of the day;
- it had a large fresh water lake (Lake George) nearby for water rescue training, and nearby mountains for high altitude and snow training;
- it was close to midway between the two bases nominated by Army (Holdsworthy and Puckapunyal) where most helicopter training for the Army would be
- a requirement (this eventuated as a gross miscalculation by the Army);
- there was a nearby area suitable for basic flying training;
- the Federal government provided public servants in Canberra with government owned housing at reasonable rentals, and ultimately the tenants could purchase the dwelling at residual value on a deposit of 5 %. I believed it would be discrimination if RAAF personnel were denied similar conditions;
- the Squadron had a much better chance of non-interference by the base hierarchy at Fairbairn;
- there were two negatives – airman accommodation was adequate but needed upgrading, and the Squadron would have to form a permanent SAR detachment at Williamtown.
Spike Marsh indicated that he favoured the suggestion, but consultation with more senior officers was necessary. Shortly after I returned to Williamtown a signal arrived directing No 9 Squadron to move to Fairbairn. The move began immediately as the first of the Squadron aircraft were due to arrive within a few days. Squadron personnel were delighted with the move and, after protracted arguement, we overcame public servant opposition to the equal housing concessions. Many Squadron members eventually purchased their government allocated houses, and it set up many financially.
Whilst awaiting the arrival of the aircraft Squadron maintenance personnel had been busy learning about the UH-1B aircraft under the tutelage of the Engineer Officer, Flt Lt Keith Taylor. Keith was experienced in helicopter maintenance, had excellent rapport and control of his troops, was full of fresh ideas, and was not afraid to speak up when he believed I had made a bad decision. I cannot speak too highly of the man. The future success of the Squadron owes a tremendous amount to his efforts. The maintenance section, under his guidance, achieved outstanding results.
The US Army UH-1 aircrew training course was designed for direct entry recruits who received initial training on Sioux or equivalent light helicopters followed by further training on an intermediate type before converting to the UH-1. I was convinced that converting experienced fixed wing pilots directly to the UH-1B was quite feasible. Consequently, Squadron aircrew were kept busy on tasks such as devising pilot and crewman courses, writing an instructor’s briefing manual, designing aircraft test procedures, and designing a simple aircraft weight and balance computer.
Aircraft began to arrive by both sea and air (C130) transport, and under the guidance of a Bell Technical Representative assembly of the aircraft was completed. We had a race with the Navy to get the first turbine powered helicopter airborne in Australia. We would have lost except for the Navy making a vital mistake. They assembled the engine and main gearbox into their new Wessex and then found that to get the connecting shaft installed either the gearbox or engine had to be removed. It cost them a vital day, so we won that race. I might add that the Bell representative very quickly became most impressed with the technical knowledge and skill of Squadron NCOs and within a month stated he was no longer required as their knowledge now exceeded his. Nevertheless, he managed to enjoy the delights of Canberra for about six months.
he first arrival of an aircraft by C130 indicated that the air transport system employed by the Bell company was very primitive and required redesign. For instance, the main rotor blades had been stored, uncrated, under the UH-1 fuselage and tail boom. The C130 loadmaster and passengers had found them to be a nice footpath to and from the rear end of the C130. The result was that one set of very expensive rotor blades was ruined. Additionally, there were no wheels for assisting in getting the UH-1 into, and out of, the C130. Ultimately, the maintenance section redesigned the whole system, including modification of ground handling wheels to assist loading/unloading. Unfortunately, the C130 loadmasters never conquered the operation of their aircraft’s winch, nor appreciated that too much tension on tie down chains/straps could distort the UH-1s structure such as tail booms, skids etc. Education frequently fell on deaf ears, and although we devoted much time to briefing the Air Movements Training and Development Unit at Richmond and C130 loadmasters the problem remained with us for years.
Keith Taylor and his men also set about designing and producing ground support equipment for both base and field operations. Items such as a mobile crane for removal of engines and rotor heads, and a windproof blade balancing box had to be manufactures. Additionally, items such as manual and powered refuelling rigs, and auxiliary power units which could be carried within the UH-1 aircraft were required. Our first effort to produce a powered refuelling rig ended up as a 1300 pound monster, as the RAAF technical branch hierarchy insisted that a standard refuelling tanker filter must be used. Eventually, Keith Taylor convinced them that small commercial filters would meet the requirements, and we ended up with a small, lightweight rig. Mobile workshops for field operations, based on long wheelbase Land Rovers, also were built.
For the next few months the Squadron concentrated on further training of both aircrew and maintenance staff. Crewman training mainly consisted of dry and wet hoist operation, simple navigation and map reading, and rescue beacon homing. At that stage the homing system was called SARAH (search and rescue aid to homing). It was a fairly primitive system in which the crewman scanned a hooded oscilloscope screen attempting to locate responses from a transponder. Ultimately, we carried out extensive tests for Department of Air on two rescue beacons that could be detected by the aircraft’s UHF homer – the British SARBE and the US URC-10. We found the latter to be the far superior device and recommended accordingly. Unfortunately, the powers that be ignored the many advantages of the URC -10 and selected the SARBE. When the Squadron began SAS operations in Vietnam, initially we gave most of our SARBE beacons to the SAS to aid in their location, and very rapidly acquired URC-10s for both units.
High altitude training was carried out in the vicinity of Mt Kosciusko in February 1963 in preparation for training in the Lae, Bulolo, and Goroka areas of Papua /New Guinea in March. Two aircraft were transported by C130 from Townsville to Lae. On return, one aircraft was returned to Fairbairn, whilst the second aircraft, captained by Bob McIntosh, returned to Townsville to carry out some training for the Army. At about 0215 hrs the following morning Bob was awakened and told to fly his aircraft to Adavale in the Queensland “channel country” for flood rescue work. Arriving at Adavale with minimum fuel remaining he winched 11 men from the roof of the local hotel. Before being winched into the aircraft the last man insisted on diving down into the hotel bar to collect a few bottles of beer.
A second aircraft, plus air and maintenance crews, was airlifted by C130 aircraft to Quilpie. During the next two days the two aircraft crews rescued about one hundred men, women and children from rooftops and trees in the Quilpie, Blackall, Isisford areas. Many airfields were flooded, and a supporting Dakota had difficulty keeping up a supply of AVTUR fuel. On several occasions the Squadron aircraft had to land beside an auto service station and refuel with normal motor fuel. It was the first time non AVTUR fuel had been used, and the scoopless combustor passed the test – at the cost of some minor lead fouling of the turbine blades. The RAAF received great press coverage for the rescue effort, and the Squadron’s reputation within the RAAF began to climb -particularly as the Squadron was not due to become operational until June 63.
There were several humorous occurrences during these rescue efforts. Perhaps the best was when one of the crewmen (Sergeant Gordon Buttriss) was hoisting up a rather large woman. Unbeknown to Gordon, the woman had thrust her pet cockatoo up the front of her jumper. When she got to the aircraft door Gordon, in accordance with SOPs, turned her to face outwards, put his arm around her midriff, then let out winch cable as he pulled her into the aircraft. Having done so, and being a plain speaking man, he remarked over the intercom “this woman has a mobile tit – and what’s more it just bit me”.
The Squadron Engineer Officer (Keith Taylor) and I visited and operated with US Army units in Vietnam for a short period in April/May 1964. At that time Vung Tau airfield contained a junk yard of crashed aircraft. On his own initiative Keith filched all the major components of a UH-1B from the junk yard, and obtained a Dakota from Butterworth to transport them to that base, for on- forwarding to Fairbairn by C130 aircraft. On arrival they were cleaned, painstakingly sectionised and appropriately highlight painted. Department of Air and Headquarters Operational Command Technical staff officers were amazed at the results, and the Squadron training section became the model for all other units. Ultimately, the training section became part of No 5 Squadron in 1966.
We also had talks with several two and three star US Army generals. One such discussion was with General Stilwell and some of his staff officers. I understand he was the son of “Vinegar” Joe Stilwell of World War 2 fame. He was a tall, no nonsense “hands on” man who, when he got bored of the office, participated as a door gunner on helicopter operations in the Bien Hoa and Delta regions. Early in the discussions he asked us how many UH-1Bs we operated and what problems we had. We informed him we had twenty four aircraft and, inter alia, that we could not obtain the new up-rated main gearbox bearing for the UH-1B because of US Army Vietnam priority. Two of the staff officers left the room and about ten minutes later returned with twenty four of the new bearing, which the General presented to us – they were worth about A$20,000 – a lot of money in those days.
During further discussions the General outlined their main problems – one of which was a very high crash rate due to overloading of aircraft and C of G problems. I advised him that we had found many of the performance figures in the flight manual were incorrect, and outlined a power check that we had obtained from the Bell senior test pilot that gave a better indication of performance. I had a simple weight and balance computer, designed by the Squadron and manufactured by W and G, in my bag. After demonstrating it to the General he was like a kid with a new toy, and immediately wanted to buy it. Having just received A$20,000 worth of bearings as a gift I believed I had no alternative than to present the A$18.00 computer to him. On return to Australia, to account for the loss of the computer I raised a Stores Adjustment Voucher citing all the circumstances of the bearing gift and the General’s attempt to purchase the computer. The transaction was to haunt me for about the next twelve months. Questions followed questions. Ultimately, a request was received from the US Army for permission to manufacture the computer. That apparently frustrated further nonsense from the civilian bean counters. I received a letter reluctantly writing off the cost of the computer, but very bluntly advising me that only the Treasurer is authorised to give gifts to foreigners, and we were to produce proof that the bearings had been correctly brought on charge in the RAAF stores inventory.
Support of the Army became the major role of the Squadron during 1963. With its small number of aircrew and maintenance personnel the Squadron was fully extended coping with an increasing Army requirement. Moreover, Army frequently requested that our supporting forces live in the field with them. We pointed out that:
- operationally, it was not a practical proposition to base aircraft overnight with small forces in the field due to the vulnerability of the aircraft and fuel to mortar and small arms attack. At that time mortar range was about 8,000 metres;
- servicing of aircraft could not be carried out at night due to the Army SOP of no noise or lights after last light. Consequently, this would have an adverse effect on aircraft availability;
- the Squadron was not manned and equipped for extensive field operations.
When Army advised us of their increasing long term support requirements and a shift towards Queensland locations we calculated that Squadron aircrew and maintenance personnel would spend, on average, somewhere in the vicinity of 120 days per year living in the field. I arranged to fly to Headquarters Operational Command to discuss this aspect with the senior staff officer responsible for helicopter operations. On arrival he greeted me in plus fours, informed me it was his “golf” day, and attempted to pass me over to his assistant. We exchanged some very heated words and I then stomped off to present my case directly to the AOC. I repeated the objections we had pointed out to Army. Additionally, I added the following:-
- the Squadron would require a large increase in establishment, including aircrew, maintenance personnel, and a “base support element” to cater for domestic requirements spread over several widely dispersed and concurrent field detachments.;
- on most Army commitments we were self supporting as far as air transport was concerned. However, with the added personnel and logistics required for field operations we would require fixed wing transport support;
- we could not expect personnel to take kindly to living in the field more often than the average Army personnel. They would look for posting to another unit or quit the RAAF for a more stable domestic life;
- contrary to the provisions of the CGS/CAS Agreement which made Army responsible for area defence and RAAF only responsible for their own point defence, Army frequently planned exercises with Squadron personnel manning part of the defensive perimeter;
- we did not have to spend most of our lives living in the field to learn how to erect a tent, make a shell scrape, or live like a boy scout on a school holiday exercise;
- I suggested that the Squadron live in the field on a maximum of two occasions per year on major exercises only.
The AOC agreed, and life for Squadron personnel became a little less frantic.
For the first couple of years no senior staff officers visited the Squadron field operations. However, that did not prevent ay senior officer at Headquarters Operational Command from constantly voicing ridiculous criticism. His criticisms were disowned and nullified by both AOCs, under whom we served during my tour. After about two years of nitpicking without once observing Squadron operations, he (or perhaps the AOC) decided he would accompany a Squadron training mission to Papua New Guinea., as he did not believe such training was justified. He came back white faced and a chastened man. From thereon his criticisms were greatly modified.
Shortly thereafter, during a two week Army exercise in the Budawang ranges west of Nowra we received an surprise visit from about a dozen very senior staff officers accompanying the Minister for Air (the Hon. Peter Howsen). It was a very unpleasant day with low cloud, a 60 knot wind at treetop level and moderate to severe turbulence. All other aircraft had ceased to fly because of the conditions, but when the Minister and party arrived the Squadron was in the midst of an external load resupply mission. They watched in awe as the aircraft at short intervals hitched up to loads and headed off with loads swinging wildly as they hit the 60 knot gale and turbulence. The Minister and staff officers also were most impressed with all the ground support equipment in use that had been designed and manufactured by the Squadron. They were less impressed by the lunch we eventually had to serve them – the “base support” cooks had yet to learn how to produce a respectable meal from Army rations. The visit did much to enhance the Squadron’s already high reputation. The exercise report heaped outstanding praise on the Squadron.
Water was rationed during the exercise based on one gallon per man per day. This had to cover all personal water use – drinking, shaving, cooking, and ablutions etc. At the end of a week each individual was allocated one gallon of water for a shower. The shower was the usual field canvass bag within a rough hessian enclosure next to our pit latrine. Unfortunately, I happened to be having my weekly shower when the reservist medical officer decided that it was time to burn out the pit latrine with a volatile mixture of AVTUR, kerosene, or whatever. I was just using the last of my water when there was a terrific whoosh accompanying a fireball, followed by a rain of the contents of the latrine pit. I cheated. I grabbed the filthiest of my flying suits, leaped into a spare aircraft and flew to the RAN base at Nowra which was only a few miles away, and had a long glorious hot shower and washed my flying suit in the first ablutions hut I came to.
When I returned from Vietnam at the end of 1966 I reverted to my previous appointment in Department of Air of Operational Requirements (Helicopter). In 1967, when the Government approved an increase in the Squadron’s aircraft strength to 16 aircraft, a meeting was held in Department of Air to formalise the purchase of 16 new aircraft. During the meeting I had a lively battle with the senior Technical Branch representative (Acting Air Commodore Harvey Smith) as he insisted that to retain compatibility with our present fleet we should purchase either UH-1B or D models with the T53-L1100 rather than the UH-1H with the uprated L1300 engine. He also wanted to eliminate some of the radio equipment (such as the UHF homer) that was essential for operations in Vietnam. Ultimately, Smith’s total ignorance of both technical and operational requirements and capabilities in Vietnam became glaringly exposed, and the meeting approved the purchase of UH-1H models.
Unfortunately (I believe) at the meeting I lost another battle. From my experience of UH-1B gunship operations with the US Army in 1964, I was not a great supporter of converting some of the Squadron’s B model aircraft to the gunship role. I believed we could do better – particularly for the long term. The US Army gunships I flew were grossly overloaded, tended to wallow and vibrate excessively which made accurate rocket and gun fire difficult, and being very limited in speed and manoeuvrability made them ( and any slicks being escorted) more vulnerable to enemy ground fire. I favoured substituting the much more capable Bell AH-1G Cobra for four of the proposed UH-1H purchases. Harvey Smith again objected on the grounds of proliferation of types. Eventually, the chairman of the meeting (AVM Bill Townsend) vetoed the AH-1G on the basis of additional costs. Ultimately, four of the UH-1H aircraft were converted to the gunship role. With its up-rated power the H model was more capable than the B model. Brian Dirou probably would argue that the UH-1H was a better gunship for 9 Squadron’s purposes in Vietnam than the AH -1G, and perhaps he is correct. However, although I never flew either aircraft in the gunship role, I remain to be convinced.
Although members of the Squadron were not all angels, one of the most enduring memories I have is their outstanding work ethic, morale and discipline. In many ways, life frequently was tough in the early days. Yet members retained a good sense of humour, were always willing to do that little bit extra, and retained a “can do” attitude. During my four and a half years as commanding officer I only heard one disciplinary charge against a Squadron member, and that was raised by a non-Squadron member. I dismissed the charge. Keith Taylor also had some, perhaps, unorthodox methods to keep his troops in line. However, we had a new and unique role within the RAAF, for its time an excellent aircraft and, virtually, all members closely participated in and felt part of the unit’s operations. They were immensely proud of the Squadron, as I was of them.
Ray Scott, Sept 2009