816 Squadron History

816 Squadron Badge

816 Squadron has its origins in the Royal Navy (RN) where it was first commissioned as an anti-submarine squadron on 3 October 1939 aboard HMS Furious, a Courageous Class light battle cruiser that had been converted into an aircraft carrier in 1925. Equipped with nine Fairey Swordfish torpedo bombers, the Squadron carried out the first airborne torpedo attack of the war in April 1940. The Squadron joined Royal Air Force (RAF) Coastal Command in March 1941 and, returning from a mission escorting RAF aircraft being ferried to Malta, was embarked in HMS Ark Royal when she was sunk on 13 November 1941. The Squadron was subsequently disbanded but re-formed in February 1942. It disbanded and re-formed twice more during WWII and operated no less than five aircraft types. The Squadron was, for the most part, employed in convoy escort duties serving as far afield as the North Atlantic Ocean and Jamaica, and conducted operations in the English Channel during the Allied invasion of Normandy. The Squadron disbanded as a RN unit for the final time at Lee-on-Solent on 1 July 1948.

On 28 August 1948, 816 Squadron re-commissioned as a Royal Australian Navy (RAN) squadron at Royal Naval Air Station (RNAS) Eglington, Northern Ireland. Equipped with the new Fairey Firefly AS-5 aircraft and commanded by Lieutenant Commander C.R.J. Coxon, RN, 816 Squadron formed part of the 20th Carrier Air Group (CAG) along with 805 Squadron.

A RAN Fairey Firefly
A RAN Fairey Firefly

Aircrew began training in the UK, working up on a variety of aircraft loaned form the RN, the final phase of which was deck landing qualification aboard HMS Illustrious. HMAS Sydney (III), the RAN's first aircraft carrier, was commissioned on 16 December 1948 at Devonport in the south of England. 20th CAG performed a flypast to celebrate the event. The CAG embarked in Sydney on 15 February 1949 and spent the next few weeks working up at Moray Firth, north east of Inverness in Scotland. All of the pilots and observers in the CAG had extensive wartime operational experience but many had little or no deck landing experience. There were accidents, including one where a pilot from 816 Squadron managed to destroy five aircraft, all on loan from the RN, in one attempted landing. On 17 March 1949, Lieutenant Danny Buchanan crashed on Sydney's deck when his Firefly landed heavily and jumped the safety barriers. He first came down on Lieutenant John Gunn's aircraft (who had just landed himself) before hitting three more parked aircraft and coming to a stop close to the bows. Buchanan later rose to the rank of Commander and became Commander (Air) at HMAS Albatross.

Left: LEUT Danny Buchanan's Firefly jumps the barrier attempting to land aboard HMAS Sydney. Middle: LEUT John Gunn's Firefly (No. 227) after being hit by Buchanan's aircraft. The wing of Buchanan's aircraft struck right where Gunn's observer was seated. Luckily, the observer was doubled over in his seat retrieving a piece of equipment when Buchanan's aircraft crashed. He was uninjured. Right: Buchanan's aircraft in the aftermath of the crash. Luckily, no one was seriously injured but five aircraft were de
Left: LEUT Danny Buchanan's Firefly jumps the barrier attempting to land aboard HMAS Sydney. Middle: LEUT John Gunn's Firefly (No. 227) after being hit by Buchanan's aircraft. The wing of Buchanan's aircraft struck right where Gunn's observer was seated. Luckily, the observer was doubled over in his seat retrieving a piece of equipment when Buchanan's aircraft crashed. He was uninjured. Right: Buchanan's aircraft in the aftermath of the crash. Luckily, no one was seriously injured but five aircraft were destroyed.
 

Sydney departed for Australia on 12 April 1949 and arrived at Jervis Bay on 25 May 1949. Fifty-four aircraft were ferried ashore and then transported some 30 km by road to HMAS Albatross at Nowra where aircrews found conditions somewhat primitive. Albatross was the RAN's first naval air station. Constructed on the site of a never-completed wartime airfield, it was still very much under construction when the first occupants arrived. Most of the aircrews and their families lived in caravans at the Nowra showgrounds which had been extended with large packing cases used to ship Spitfires to Australia.

Nowra Airfield WWII

Nowra Airfield WWII

20th CAG re-embarked in Sydney in mid-January 1951, after the ship had returned from the UK to pick up the 21st CAG. Here they met the ship's new Executive Officer, Commander (later Admiral Sir) Victor Smith. Later that day, Smith introduced the entire CAG officer complement (about 35 people) to his captain from memory virtually name and rank perfect even though he had met most of them only once, such was his recall for detail.

On 16 February 1951, 816 Squadron and HMAS Sydney (III) experienced their first fatal deck landing crash. Lieutenant Bob Smith's Firefly crashed into the sea after his starboard wing was caught in funnel turbulence following a late wave-off. The aircraft struck the island and fell overboard killing Smith, though his observer, Petty Officer Keith Bunning, was rescued.

In February/March 1951 with the 20th CAG embarked, Sydney joined dozens of warships from a number of countries including the UK, Canada and New Zealand in a series of exercises in the Storm Bay area of south-eastern Tasmania. The CAG disembarked in April 1951, however, barely a month had passed before word was received that 805, 808 and 817 Squadrons were to comprise a new Sydney Carrier Air Group and would be departing for Korea later that year. 816 Squadron was disappointed to learn that it was to remain in Australia.

A RAN Firefly at NAS Nowra.
A RAN Firefly at NAS Nowra.

To make up for this disappointment, 816 Squadron arranged a flight around the eastern half of Australia leaving from Nowra and taking in Brisbane, Townsville, Cloncurry, Daly Waters, Darwin, Alice Springs, Oodnadatta, Adelaide and Mildura before returning to Nowra. The flight proved to be a great success both in terms of the RAN's public relations and in providing experience to flight crews in navigating, refuelling, inspecting, maintaining and flying their aircraft over long distances.

February 1952 proved to be a tragic month for 816 Squadron when it lost four of its members in two separate incidents. Lieutenant Brian Wall and Sub Lieutenant Douglas Saunders were both lost on 19 February when their Firefly went missing and was believed to have crashed into the sea near Moruya, NSW. Just three days later, a Firefly carrying Sub Lieutenant Durrant Small and Observer J.G. Sharp crashed into sea near Seven Mile Beach, NSW. Both Small and Sharp were killed.

In March 1953 Sydneysailed to participate in Queen Elizabeth II's Coronation Fleet Review in England with 817 Squadron embarked. 816 Squadron, however, remained in Australia and, along with 805 Squadron, became the first Squadrons to embark in the RAN's newly commissioned aircraft carrier, HMAS Vengeance, in June 1953. The original intention was for Vengeance to deploy to Korea to relieve HMS Ocean. It was decided, however, that Sydney, and not Vengeance, would return to Korea with 816, 805 and 850 Squadrons embarked. Sydney departed Fremantle for Korea on 27 October 1953.

A Firefly on the deck HMAS Vengeance. HMAS Anzac is in the background.
A Firefly on the deck HMAS Vengeance. HMAS Anzac is in the background.

The July 1953 ceasefire meant that Sydney's second tour in Korea should have been a comparatively uneventful affair. However, the deaths of two pilots (one from 805 Squadron, the other from 850 Squadron) and the serious injury of an aircraft handler marred the deployment.

A Firefly catches an arrestor wire on the deck of HMAS Sydney in Korean waters.
A Firefly catches an arrestor wire on the deck of HMAS Sydney in Korean waters.

Sydney departed for Australia on 4 May 1954 and arrived in Fremantle, via Hong Kong and Singapore, on 2 June 1954. After landing her aircraft at NAS Nowra later in the month, Sydney became a general service training ship. 816 Squadron embarked for short time aboard Vengeance before de-commissioning at NAS Nowra on 27 April 1955.

The squadron re-commissioned four months later on 15 August 1955 at RNAS Culdrose in Cornwall, England. Equipped with Fairey Gannet AS1s anti-submarine aircraft, the Squadron commenced its own training program at RNAS Culdrose and participated in the flying trials for the RAN's new aircraft carrier, HMAS Melbourne (II). The Squadron embarked in Melbourne for the carrier's journey to Australia in March 1956 and arrived in Fremantle on 23 April. The carrier disembarked most of its aircraft at Jervis Bay the following month before arriving in Sydney Harbour, with much fanfare, on 9 May 1956.

Gannets in formation.
Gannets in formation.

The Fleet Air Arm (FAA) entered a period of uncertainty in the early 1960's with the announcement that fixed-wing naval aviation was to cease. Rotary-wing operations would remain taking on Anti-Submarine Warfare (ASW) duties. By the end of 1963, 816 and 724 Squadrons were the only FAA Squadrons operating fixed-wing aircraft until fixed-wing operations recommenced in earnest in 1968. In July 1964, 816 Squadron added a flight of De Havilland Sea Venom F.A.W. Mk 53 all weather fighters to its complement of aircraft.

Sea Venom taking off from HMAS Melbourne (II).
Sea Venom taking off from HMAS Melbourne (II).

On 10 February 1964 at 8.56pm, HMAS Melbourne (II), with 816 Squadron embarked, collided with HMAS Voyager (II) in one of the most tragic accidents in Australian naval history. The disaster resulted in the loss of 82 lives, all from Voyager. Melbourne had been manoeuvring to find sufficient wind over the deck to allow for Gannet and Sea Venom Deck Landing Practice (DLP). The Commanding Officer of 816 Squadron, Lieutenant Commander Toz Dadswell (later Commodore Dadswell, AM) was approaching Melbourne in his Gannet at the time:

"I approached the ship from the port quarter in a descending turn. I noted that Voyager was not in the correct RESDES [Rescue Destroyer] position. At 2056 a huge ball of flame lit the sky. It was the boiler room of Voyager exploding. As a result of the collision, Melbourne had lost a number of aerials which had been lowered to the horizontal position for flying, so the ship asked me to activate the rescue services at Nowra. I advised Nowra that there was an emergency and to send all available helicopters to the scene and to also sail the search and rescue craft from Jervis Bay... It was an outstanding effort by the helicopter squadrons and in a very short time helicopters were over the accident area. In fact at one stage there were probably too many aircraft in the one small area... At first light the fixed-wing squadrons had aircraft there and we continued to fly all through the day in the hope of finding survivors."

The bow of HMAS Melbourne following the Voyager disaster in February 1964.
The bow of HMAS Melbourne following the Voyager disaster in February 1964.

A re-appraisal of the Naval Three-Year Plan in 1965, due partly to a deterioration in the political climate in Australia's area of interest and partly to a lot of hard work at Navy Office, put fixed-wing naval aviation back on the agenda. In July the previous year, Lieutenant Commander Dadswell had been involved in the successful trials of operating a Grumman S-2E/G Tracker from Melbourne. The Department of Defence decided that the RAN would purchase fourteen Trackers and ten McDonnell Douglas A4G Skyhawk to embark in Melbourne following her re-fit in 1968. 816 Squadron continued embarked operations in Melbourne, most notably in ASW-oriented South-East Asian Treaty Organisation (SEATO) exercises. Following Exercise 'Sea Dog' in July 1967, Melbourne returned to Jervis Bay where the Gannets and Sea Venoms were flown ashore for the last time. 816 Squadron then de-commissioned on 25 August while preparations were made to receive its new aircraft.

HMAS Melbourne with Skyhawks, Trackers, Wessex and Sea Kings on deck and HMAS Brisbane acting as escort.

HMAS Melbourne with Skyhawks, Trackers, Wessex and Sea Kings on deck and HMAS Brisbane acting as escort.

The fourteen Trackers and ten Skyhawks arrived in Australia aboard Melbourneon 21 November 1967. The Trackers disembarked the following day in Sydney where they were transported by road to Mascot Airport, checked, flight tested and flown to NAS Nowra later in the year.

816 Squadron re-commissioned on 10 January 1968, equipped with the new Trackers, and began DLP aboard the newly re-fitted Melbourne in March 1969. There were some initial concerns as the earlier trials had indicated that there was only a 1.2 metre clearance between the Trackers' wingtip and the ship's island when the Trackers' nosewheel was on the right hand edge of Melbourne's centreline. However, with Landing Signal Officers Paul Hamon, Graham Quick and Keith Johnson in close attendance, DLP progressed without incident for 816 Squadron.

In May 1969, Melbourne , with her new CAG made up of 816, 805 and 817 Squadrons (flying Trackers, Skyhawks and Westland Wessex Mk31B helicopters respectively), departed Australia for the 'Sea Sprite' SEATO exercises in South East Asia. On 2 June 1969, 805 Squadron's Skyhawks successfully executed an attack on an 'enemy' Surface Action Group which had been spotted by 816 Squadron's Trackers. This marked the first time that RAN Skyhawks and Trackers successfully combined in exercises displaying the effectiveness of the RAN's aviation capabilities.

Left: A pilots view as a Tracker approaches HMAS Melbourne. Right: A Tracker accompanied by two Skyhawks.

Left: A pilots view as a Tracker approaches HMAS Melbourne. Right: A Tracker accompanied by two Skyhawks.

The exercises, however, were marred by a tragedy involving Melbourne. At 3.15 am on 3 June 1969, Melbourne collided with USS Frank E Evans recalling the HMAS Voyager (II) disaster five years earlier. No one in Melbourne was hurt but the American destroyer lost 74 lives. Melbourne made for Singapore for temporary repairs before departing for Australia and a new bow section. The CAG remained operational in spite of the extensive damage. A subsequent inquiry cleared Melbourne of any blame.

816 Squadron was based NAS Nowra but routinely embarked in Melbourne throughout the early 1970's to participate in multi-national exercises and deployments abroad. The Trackers earned a reputation as being a robust anti-submarine aircraft equipped with active and passive sonobuoys, anti-submarine torpedoes, depth charges, bombs and rockets. Shortly after re-commissioning, the RAN adopted United States Navy (USN) prefixes for its FAA squadrons and 816 Squadron became VS816 Squadron, indicating that it was classed as a fixed-wing, anti-submarine unit.

The intrusion of foreign fishing vessels to the north-west of Australia was becoming increasingly problematic to the Government through the early 1970's, not least for the poaching in Australian waters but also for the threat of exotic diseases and possible drug trafficking. At the end of February 1975, three Trackers from VC851 Squadron began what was originally intended to be a one month deployment in Broome, Western Australia in support of Operation Trochus.

Flying operations started on 6 March 1975 and covered thousands of square kilometres from the mainland to offshore reefs some 550 kms north of Broome. The deployment was so successful in curtailing the illegal intrusion of foreign fishing vessels that the original one month deployment was extended to three. VS816 Squadron took over from VC851 in May 1975 and the two squadrons continued Trochus operations until December 1980 when the task was taken on by a civilian company.

Both Tracker squadrons, VS816 and VC851, suffered major setbacks on 4 December 1976 when most of their aircraft were destroyed in a hangar fire at NAS Nowra. At around midnight that evening, 'H' hangar was engulfed in flames and all but three of the RAN's Tracker fleet were lost. One of these was at the Hawker de Havilland workshops in Bankstown at the time, undergoing inspection.

Around 100 RAN personnel and local Nowra fire fighters risked their lives battling the flames while trying to drag aircraft from the burning building. The Trackers' fuel tanks were fully loaded with volatile aviation fuel to avoid water contamination from condensation forming in the fuel tanks over the Christmas period. In spite of the inherent danger, personnel ran into the building and climbed into the cockpits of the aircraft to release the brakes and tow them clear of the hangar while the planes themselves were ablaze, in some cases, using their own cars to do so. They managed to pull five of the twelve aircraft in the hangar clear; two of them were repaired and returned to service. Their courageous actions drew high praise from the Minister for Defence, Mr Jim Killen, who said after visiting the site on 5 December 1976:

"If any people in this country think guts has gone from the Services, I invite them to reflect on what happened in the early hours of this morning."

Police suspected arson and a Board of Inquiry was immediately announced. On 19 January 1977, a 19 year old junior sailor from one of the Tracker squadrons admitted to starting the fire. He was subsequently found to be mentally unstable at his court-martial.

The fire had crippled the FAA's fixed-wing ASW capabilities. However, the following months displayed the excellent relationship that the RAN had developed with the USN as the RAN's ASW component was not only replenished but increased in astonishingly quick time. Six more modern second hand Trackers had already been ordered in October 1976 and delivery was being organised at the time of the fire. This order was expanded to sixteen and an RAN team travelled to the US to hand-pick the aircraft from USN stores. The aircraft were duly supplied and the RAN received them at a massive discount, as much as 97 percent.

Following its participation in RIMPAC 77, Melbourne travelled to San Diego to pick up the replacement Trackers, arriving back in Sydney on 5 April 1977. The aircraft were flown-off on 5 and 6 April, still with USN markings, with some flying to the Hawker de Havilland workshops in Bankstown for further work and the rest directly to NAS Nowra to prepare for service. In less than six months, the FAA's fixed-wing ASW capability had gone from being virtually destroyed to a higher standard than had previously been the case.

816 Squadron re-commenced Trochus and embarked operations aboard Melbourne, effectively split into two separate flights, for the remainder of the decade. In spite of its commendable service, however, the future of fixed-wing naval aviation remained in doubt. The chances of acquiring a new carrier to replace Melbourne when she paid off in the mid 1980's became increasingly thin and Naval Aviation's focus became firmly fixed on rotary-wing and Vertical/ Short Take-Off and Landing (VSTOL) aircraft. It seemed almost certain that the Trackers and Skyhawks of the RAN would cease operations after Melbourne's demise. However, the surveillance capabilities of the Trackers, highlighted during the Trochus operations in northern Australia and anti-terrorism patrols in Bass Strait, suggested that they may yet have a future in shore-based ASW or surveillance tasks.

This was not to be, however, and with Melbourne's decommissioning in June 1982 it was not long before the RAN's two front-line fixed-wing squadrons, VS816 and VF805 were disbanded at NAS Nowra on 2 July 1982. VC851 Squadron consequently absorbed VS816 into its complement.

The Squadron re-commissioned again on 9 February 1984 as HU816 Squadron operating the Wessex helicopter in a specialist army support role. Throughout this time it was often embarked in the heavy lift ship HMAS Tobruk and participated in the Bass Strait Counter-Terrorism Plan, known as the National Task, in conjunction with the Army's Special Air Service (SAS) Regiment operating from RAAF Base Sale. As safety and supportability issues caught up with the ageing Wessex's, National Task duties were transferred to HS817 Squadron late in 1986 and HU816 Squadron de-commissioned again on 30 June 1987.

On 8 February 1988, the Seahawk Introduction and Transition Unit (SITU) was formed providing the foundation for the re-commissioning of HS816 Squadron four years later.  SITU’s task was to provide fully trained crews for the early trials of the new Sikorsky S-70B-2 Seahawk anti-submarine helicopter. As part of this training, the Air Warfare Systems Centre (AWSC) was opened at NAS Nowra the previous year. The AWSC not only provided simulator training for Seahawk aircrew but was also responsible for the development and maintenance of the complex computer software at heart of the new helicopter.

The program was interrupted when, on 2 August 1990, Iraqi armed forces invaded the neighbouring kingdom of Kuwait and eight days later, the Australian Government announced that HMA Ships Darwin, Adelaide and Success were to be deployed to the Gulf of Oman in support of Operation DAMASK, the Australian component of Operation DESERT SHIELD. Darwin and Adelaide both embarked Seahawks. The first task force arrived in the Middle East Area of Operations (MEAO) on 3 September 1990 and conducted its first interception and boarding, the 40 000 tonne Iraqi tanker Al Fao, on 14 September. It was the first search operation carried out by Australian warships in the MEAO and the first use of the Seahawk helicopter in an operational role.

HMA Ships Sydney and Brisbane (DAMASK II) relieved Darwin and Adelaide in early December while HMAS Westralia relieved Success on Australia Day 1991. Seahawks remained embarked aboard Sydney and Brisbane.

On 17 January 1991, Operation DESERT STORM, the final assault to push Iraqi forces out of Kuwait, commenced.  The Australian Seahawks continued to perform a range of tasks including mine search, combat search and rescue, and early warning of any potential threat arising from Iran. By 26 February 1991, the war was over and the Australian ships left the Gulf on 22 March. The Aviation contingent provided by HS816 and HC723 Squadrons had contributed significantly to the RAN’s capacity to perform in a combat situation.

The Seahawks and the AWSC were both officially accepted into naval service on 2 July 1992. HS816 Squadron officially re-commissioned on 23 July 1992 in the unique situation of having embarked flights aboard HMA Ships Canberrain US waters for Exercise RIMPAC, and Darwin, in the Middle East, at the time of its commissioning. Australian based personnel and aircraft deployed to Western Australia the following month for fleet and squadron exercises while the Canberra and Darwin detachments also returned to NAS Nowra. A detachment re-embarked in Canberra in October to return to the Middle East in support of Operation DAMASK while the squadron continued Operational Flying Training in preparation for routine embarkation in the RAN’s Adelaide class guided missile frigates.

The squadron continued to operate in the Gulf and North Red Sea in support of Operation DAMASK until 2001 enforcing United Nations Security Council sanctions against Iraq. The flights’ operations were varied and included patrol, search and rescue, personnel transfers and fast-rope insertion of boarding teams.

The squadron was also a regular participant in public relations activities and events such as the Avalon Air Show, the Shoalhaven Spring Festival, various Navy Weeks. The squadron also participated in fleet and international exercises, as an embarked or shore-based unit, such as Exercises KAKADU, QUO VADIS, NEW HORIZONS, RIMPAC, OCEAN PROTECTOR, TASMANEX, CROCODILE, TALISMAN SABRE, SINGAROO, BERSAMA SHIELD and TRITON FURY among others.

The Seahawks have also regularly assisted in firefighting efforts around the country. In January 1994 a bushfire emergency developed which saw the Australian Defence Force join in extensive firefighting efforts. As well as providing crews on the ground aircraft from all three services were also involved including four Seahawks, three Sea Kings and three Squirrels from the RAN. On 7 January the NSW Bush Fire Chief was quoted as saying; “We have an unmitigated disaster on our hands. We have fire so ferocious, firefighters themselves are fleeing for their lives.” The Seahawks joined the effort the following day and used water buckets to fight fires through the central and north coast of New South Wales as far south as the Eurobodalla and Shoalhaven, as well as conducting evacuations, and personnel and stores transfers. One of the Seahawk pilots, Lieutenant Commander Mark Ogden, described his experiences;

"We were deployed to RAAF Richmond, primarily to support evacuations. When we arrived at the RAAF base, the Sea King detachment headed up by Lieutenant Commander ‘Tanzi’ Lea had established a beach head at the Operations Room and so there was little more for us to do in setting up. The RAAF support at Richmond was nothing short of outstanding… The Sea King crews had also already experimented with a bucket so when the request came through for us to commence bucketing operations, there was no question really that we could do the job, it was more a matter of figuring out how… we decided that the buckets were no more than external load and that was how we approached the issue… Next day Navy was out and about dumping water wherever."

Maintenance crews worked round the clock to keep the aircraft flying while the air crews flew in extremely hazardous conditions. The weather turned on 15 January bringing rain and an end to the bushfire emergency.

In the morning of 29 December 1994 HMAS Darwin was ordered to sail in search of solo yachtswoman Isabelle Autissier, a competitor in the BOC Challenge Around-The-World solo yacht race. Autissier’s yacht, Ecureuil Poitou Charentes 2, had been completely dismasted and suffered other, extensive damage the previous day following a full 360 degree rollover leaving Autissier adrift and at the mercy of seas of up to ten metres and 50-60 knot winds. With her communications equipment destroyed, Autissier activated her Emergency Position Indication Radio Beacon triggering the search and rescue effort.

The yacht was first located by RAAF Hercules C130 and Orion P3C aircraft which attempted to air drop supplies to her, including radio equipment. With that, she able to notify that she was safe and that the yacht would likely survive until Darwin could reach her.

With nearly half the crew on Christmas leave, a recall was issued and Darwin was ready to sail on the afternoon of the 29th with the shortfall in her regular crew made up by personnel loaned from other units at Stirling. On the other side of the country, 816 Squadron was going through a similar process at HMAS Albatross in preparing a Seahawk aircraft and crew for a 14-hour trans-Australia flight and rendezvous with Darwin 150nm south of Albany.

The weather had abated by the time Darwin reached the stricken yacht some 800nm south-south west of Adelaide in the very early hours of New Year’s Day. The rescue proceeded without complication. The Seahawk launched at 3.15am and was vectored to the yacht by a P3C Orion. Petty Officer Shane Pashley was then lowered by winch to the yacht where he secured Autissier before both were lifted to safety. The aircraft landed back on board at 4.05am. Autissier later walked around the ship personally thanking all the crew members she met. The following morning the Seahawk flew Autissier to RAAF Edinburgh in South Australia. Darwin arrived back at Stirling on 5 January 1995 after a 3,000nm round trip. The rescue received media coverage around the world and, similarly, congratulatory messages were received from across the globe.

On 5 May 1998, as the fleet tanker HMAS Westralia (II) departed Fleet Base West for South East Asia, a major fire broke out in the ship's main machinery space. Other RAN units in the area rushed to the assistance of the stricken vessel. HMAS Adelaide’s embarked Seahawk was one of the first units to render assistance transferring personnel, firefighting equipment, medical stores, food and water. In spite of the bravery displayed by her crew to combat the blaze, four members of Westralia’s crew lost their lives.

Later that month the squadron embarked five aircraft in HMA Ships Adelaide (II), Newcastle (each carrying two aircraft) and Canberra (II) in support of Operation BRANCARD, the ADF operation to prepare a possible evacuation of Australian nationals from Indonesia in the wake of civil unrest. They joined other RAN units in the vicinity of Surabaya to form Task Group 627.5 from 17 May. The situation in Indonesia began to stabilise following President Suharto’s resignation on 21 May and the task group began to break up over the ensuing days. Canberra set course for FBW on 26 May, and Newcastle for Darwin the following day. Adelaide went on to visit Thailand before the operation was cancelled later in the month.

The year ended with two squadron detachments participating in what became Australia’s largest peacetime search and rescue operation as the ill-fated 1998 Sydney-to-Hobart Yacht Race encountered severe weather conditions as the fleet approached Bass Strait on 27 December. The embarked Seahawks in HMA Ships Newcastle and Melbourne were among the aircraft participating in search and rescue efforts over the ensuing three days along with two RAN Sea Kings, and RAAF and civilian aircraft. More than 50 sailors were rescued, around 40 of which were winched to safety by helicopter. Of the 155 starters, 66 yachts were forced to retire from the race, five of which were lost at sea. Tragically, six sailors lost their lives.

From February to September 2001 squadron detachments deployed to the Solomon Islands in support of Operation TREK, the ADF’s support for the International Peace Monitoring Team. Flights embarked in HMA Ships Newcastle, Darwin and Melbourne. The detachments conducted reconnaissance flights, personnel transfers and provided an aeromedical evacuation capability. On 16 August Melbourne’s Seahawk responded to request from Solomon Islands authorities to assist in search and rescue efforts for survivors from a sinking inter-island ferry, Thomas II, off the north-west coast of Malaita. The helicopter rescued 19 people from rough seas and in fading light, and directed a rescue vessel to the location of the remaining survivors. Later in the year the squadron also commenced embarked operations in support of Operation RELEX.

That March three Seahawks from 816 Squadron, three Sea Kings from 817 Squadron, air crew and maintainers supported flood relief operations in the Macleay Valley on the mid-north coast of New South Wales. Commander Andrew Whittaker, Commanding Officer of 816 Squadron, was appointed the ADF on-scene commander for the operation. Hundreds of people were rescued by the six aircraft over the course of three days.

The squadron’s commitment to Operation DAMASK ended in November when HMAS Anzac returned from the Middle East Area of Operations; however, the squadron’s operations in the Middle East continued with flights embarking in HMA Ships Sydney and Adelaide in support of Operation SLIPPER. The Seahawks maintained a near constant presence in the Middle East for the next decade and a half and proved to be invaluable in detecting narcotics and arms smuggling vessels during later deployments.

The squadron was once again called upon to support firefighting efforts against devastating bushfires in Southern NSW and the ACT in December 2002 and January 2003. Squadron aircraft conducted spotting and fire-bombing operations in the Shoalhaven in mid-December 2002, and commenced a two-week commitment to firefighting operations in the ACT on 14 January 2003. Three Seahawks were employed primarily as fire-bombers as three 723 Squadron Squirrel helicopters conducted reconnaissance flights. The fires claimed four lives and around 530 homes were destroyed. The squadron was stood down from firefighting operations on 27 January.

In April 2003 the squadron was involved in the high-profile intercept of the drug smuggling vessel MV Pong Su under the codename Operation TARTAN. The North Korean registered freighter had come under surveillance on 16 April in Bass Strait heading east and then north up the east coast. When civil police launches failed to board the vessel due to high seas, the RAN was called upon for assistance. HMAS Stuart, at the time undergoing maintenance in Sydney, was prepared for sea in just six hours. A Seahawk from 816 Squadron joined Stuart on the 18th along with Army, SAS, police and customs officers, and a detachment from Clearance Diving Team One.

Stuart located Pong Su on radar in the Tasman Sea east of Jervis Bay the following day and shadowed the smuggler over the horizon as they headed north. On the morning of the 20th, the frigate closed the smuggler at 25 knots radioing her to stop as she was about to be boarded. The master of Pong Su complied and an Army boarding team was inserted by fast rope from the Seahawk as the SAS, police and customs officers transferred by boat. The Seahawk returned to Stuart and embarked the clearance divers for transfer to the detained vessel. As the operation was progressing, a second 816 Squadron Seahawk was airborne with an Army doctor on board in case of a medical emergency. Pong Su’s crew was later deported and the vessel scuttled in March 2006.

Also in 2003, embarked units in HMA Ships Anzac, Darwin and, later, Sydney participated in the 2003 Gulf War, known as Operation FALCONER. As with previous Gulf deployments, the aircrafts’ operations were varied and included aerial surveillance of mine clearance operations, fast-rope insertion of boarding teams, and personnel and stores transfers. On one occasion a Scud missile attack on Coalition forces in Kuwait forced Darwin’s Seahawk aircrew, which was ashore at the time, to take shelter and self-protective measures against chemical attack.

On the night of 24 April 2004, with HMAS Stuart on patrol in the MEAO, terrorists in fishing dhows launched a series of determined attacks against Iraqi oil terminals. One dhow, packed with explosives, was detonated when a Rigid Hull Inflatable Boat (RHIB) from USS Firebolt drew alongside to challenge it. Three American sailors were killed and four seriously wounded.

Stuart immediately rendered assistance, ordering her Seahawk to close Firebolt’s position. On approaching the scene, the Seahawk’s sensor operator, Leading Seaman Benjamin Sime, observed that the RHIB had capsized and that all of its occupants were in the water. Following several unsuccessful attempts to get survivors into a rescue strop lowered from the helicopter a decision was made for Sime to enter the water and provide direct assistance. Moments after he did so, two further attacks were launched against the nearby oil terminals. Sime continued to provide support to survivors throughout the unfolding action until he was himself recovered by Stuart’s RHIB. Sime was later awarded the US Medal for Gallantry in recognition of actions.

Three 816 Squadron Seahawks played an integral role in relief operations when Tropical Cyclone Larry lashed the coast of Queensland in March 2006. A Seahawk, Tiger 78, was the first ADF aerial asset in the air over Townsville in support of Operation LARRY ASSIST. Tiger 878 had been embarked in HMAS Tobruk and was ashore in Townsville when Larry hit on 20 March. Tiger 881, also embarked in Tobruk, soon joined relief efforts later that day, and Tiger 872 was deployed from Albatross on the 21st. The three aircraft provided logistic support carrying personnel, stores, water and other supplies to cyclone affected areas.

Tiger 878 and Tiger 881 re-embarked in Tobruk upon the conclusion of LARRY ASSIST to participate in Operation PERINGATAN, the ADF’s support to the dedication of the memorial to those who were killed in the Sea King tragedy on Nias Island the previous year.

On 12 May a Seahawk departed Albatross for Darwin, having assembled a full detachment of aircrew and maintainers overnight, where it was to embark in HMAS Adelaide in support of Operation ASTUTE, the ADF contribution to restoring peace and stability to Timor-Leste following civil unrest. Adelaide arrived in the area of operations on the 25th to provide support for the landing of Australian forces. Adelaide was released from ASTUTE tasking three days later and the aircraft disembarked when the frigate arrived back in Darwin on 2 June.

The squadron received another short-notice operational tasking at the end of October and embarked an aircraft in HMAS Newcastle in support of Operation QUICKSTEP, the ADF’s preparation to evacuate Australians in the lead-up the 2006 Fijian coup. Newcastle arrived in the area of operations, outside Fijian territorial waters, on 4 November in company with HMAS Kanimbla and conducted preparation for evacuation operations with a particular emphasis on flying operations. Concurrent to developments in Fiji, civil unrest was also occurring in Tonga. Newcastle and Kanimbla were directed to proceed to Tonga and arrived on station on 17 November. Newcastle’s Seahawk was immediately put to work conducting personnel transfers and reconnaissance flights over Nuku’Alofa.

After the situation in Tonga stabilised, Newcastle and Kanimbla returned to Fiji taking up a patrol pattern off Suva on the 26th. On 29 November one of Kanimbla’s embarked Blackhawk helicopters crashed on deck while attempting to land and subsequently ditched into the sea. Newcastle immediately closed on Kanimbla to assist and the Seahawk was launched to commence a search and rescue operation and lay a SAR datum buoy. Nine of the Blackhawk’s ten crew members were rescued from the water but, tragically, Captain Mark Bingley later passed away due to injuries he sustained in the accident. The tenth crew member, Trooper Josh Porter, was never found. Search and rescue operations continued until 6 December when both Newcastle and Kanimbla resumed QUICKSTEP operations. All units were released from QUICKSTEP tasking on 13 December and Newcastle returned to Sydney.

In April 2009 a Seahawk and squadron detachment embarked in HMAS Sydney for Northern Trident 09, a six-month, round-the-world voyage supporting international maritime security and conducting exercises with foreign navies. Sydney departed Sydney on 23 April, delayed by three days due to a defect in a gas turbine. She visited Eden on the New South Wales south coast, Cairns and Darwin where she rendezvoused with HMAS Ballarat, before the two ships set course for Kochi, India on 30 April.

Following a successful three-day visit to Kochi, Sydney and Ballarat set course for the Red Sea and the Suez Canal. On 17 May, while crossing the Gulf of Aden, the ships received a distress call from MV Dubai Princess, some 20nm ahead of Sydney and Ballarat, which reported that she was under attack from pirates. Both increased to maximum speed and Sydney launched her Seahawk both to conduct a reconnaissance of the area and to provide an early visual deterrent to the pirates. The two ships arrived on the scene to find Dubai Princess being harassed by two pirate skiffs, which broke off their attack when the Australian warships arrived. However, soon afterwards a second vessel, MV Stellar, 6nm astern, reported that she too was under attack by pirates. Ballarat detached to assist Stellar while Sydney remained with Dubai Princess to affect a hand-over to USS New Orleans later in the day. With New Orleans assuming responsibility for the situation, Sydney resumed passage towards the Suez Canal and rendezvoused with Ballarat the following day.

The two ships transited the canal on 22 May with all of Sydney’s seaman officers taking a turn at the con during the passage. Sydney went on to visit Toulon in France and Ferrol in Spain, and conducted exercises with French and Spanish naval units before both ships joined multi-national exercises off Plymouth on the English south coast in June. They went on to visit London and Portsmouth in the UK before crossing the North Atlantic Ocean, with a dedicated iceberg watch in place, to St John’s in Canada.

Both ships conducted exercises with Canadian and US naval units during the North American leg of the deployment in July and August with the Seahawk detachment taking on the rare opportunity to exercise with a nuclear-powered submarine, USS Albany, en route to New York. They conducted port visits to Halifax, New York, Baltimore, Norfolk, Jacksonville, Nassau and, after passing through the Panama Canal, San Diego. Sydney and her Seahawk also contributed to the Joint Inter-Agency Task Force – South, a multi-agency counter-narcotics organisation, off the US east coast with the helicopter conducting aerial searches for potential narcotics smugglers. Both ships departed San Diego on 24 August and visited Pearl Harbour where they parted company; Ballarat bound for Japan while Sydney continued on to Apia, Samoa. The Seahawk was launched for the final time just as the Australian coastline was sighted on 18 September and returned to Albatross having made an excellent contribution to Northern Trident 09. Sydney arrived back in Sydney, via Eden and Jervis Bay, on 19 September having travelled 32,943nm and visited 21 ports in 10 countries during the deployment.

The squadron once again provided assistance to the civil community when detachments conducted flood relief operations in both Queensland and Victoria in January 2011. Two Seahawks, aircrew and maintenance personnel were dispatched to RAAF Base Amberley on 18 January in support of Operation QUEENSLAND FLOOD ASSIST. The aircraft primarily conducted personnel transfers to and from flood affected areas. On 23 January the two helicopters were re-tasked to conduct flood relief operations in Victoria. The aircraft and personnel were relocated to Bendigo where they once again conducted personnel transfers, reconnaissance and air-dropped food and provisions for residents and livestock, including the provision of feed to a pig farm dubbed Operation ‘Save the Bacon’ by the personnel involved. The two Seahawks delivered some 16,000kg of stock feed for stranded animals.

The impending end of the Seahawks’ service became a reality in August 2012 with the first Seahawk airframe to be withdrawn in accordance with the graduated S-70B-2 Draw Down Plan in preparation for the FAA’s transition to the MH-60R Seahawk Romeo helicopters.

The squadron was involved in two notable rescues in 2013. On 7 June a machinery fire broke out in the oil tanker MV Perla while in the Somali Basin that left the vessel adrift and vulnerable to pirate attack. Two Philippine sailors suffered second and third degree burns to their heads, shoulders and hands. HMAS Newcastle, deployed in support of Operation SLIPPER, immediately launched her Seahawk with a medical team on board while the ship made best speed towards the tanker some 100nm distant. The medical team were winched onto the vessel and stabilised the injured sailors while Newcastle took up a security position for Perla as the sea state prevented an immediate transfer of the casualties. The sailors were eventually embarked in Newcastle for further treatment before being transferred to ESPS Numancia and then on to a hospital in Port Victoria in the Seychelles.

On 29 September, as one Seahawk was about to take off from Albatross to conduct deck landing practice with HMAS Perth, the aircraft was re-tasked to conduct a search and rescue for two French sailors whose yacht had capsized some 380nm off-shore. The two sailors, who were adrift in a small boat, were successfully winched to safety in trying conditions suffering only mild hyperthermia.

The squadron was heavily involved in the International Fleet Review in October conducting numerous flying sorties over Sydney. Five Seahawks were part of the 27 aircraft flypast on the 5th, two carrying the Australian National Flag and the White Ensign. Three aircraft initiated the fireworks and light show spectacular by firing flares over Sydney Harbour. Four more Seahawks participated in the flypast for the Freedom of Entry parade while a detachment of personnel participated in the parade itself.

A new era commenced for 816 Squadron on 4 December 2015 when the first two MH-60R Seahawk Romeo flights transferred to the squadron and embarked for the first time in HMAS Warramunga the following January. The final deployment of an S-70B-2 Seahawk to the MEAO occurred in 2016 with HMAS Arunta’s Operation MANITOU deployment from November 2016 to July 2017. The aircraft, aircrew and maintainers arrived back at Albatross on 29 August bringing an end to embarked operations for the S-70B-2 Seahawk.

816 Squadron’s Seahawks formed an integral part of the Navy's anti-submarine defence capability. They have regularly supported special events such the AFL and NRL grand finals, the Australian Formula One and MOTO GP Grands Prix, Anzac and Remembrance Day commemorations and numerous other social, sporting and cultural events around the country. The S-70B-2 Seahawks approach the end of their service lives at the end of 2017 and will retire with an enviable operational record built over nearly three decades of service.

As the S-70B-2 Seahawks completed their final embarkation, the integration of the Romeos into embarked operations continued. With five Romeo flights operational in August 2017, one flight embarked in Warramunga for Unit and Mission Readiness exercises ahead of a nine-month deployment in support of Operation MANITOU, the second deployment to the Middle East Region for a Romeo, and the first in support of an extended deployment (note, HMAS Perth deployed with a Romeo in 2016).

816 Squadron is known as “The Fighting Tigers” and derives the Squadron motto, ‘Imitate the Action of the Tiger’ from King Henry’s famous speech before the battle at Harfleur in William Shakespeare’s Henry V:

"Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more; Or close the wall up with our English dead. In peace there's nothing so becomes a man As modest stillness and humility: But when the blast of war blows in our ears, Then imitate the action of the tiger; Stiffen the sinews, summon up the blood, Disguise fair nature with hard-favour'd rage; Then lend the eye a terrible aspect;"

Chronology

 

03/10/1939

Formed as RN Squadron

01/07/1948

Disbanded

28/08/1948

Re-commissioned at RNAS Eglinton as a RAN squadron equipped with Fairey Fireflies for service in HMAS Sydney as part of 20th Carrier Air Group

10/1952

Participates in ‘Operation Hurricane,’ British nuclear tests in the Monte Bello Islands

27/10/1953

Departs Australia for HMAS Sydney’s second tour in Korea

04/05/1954

Tour in Korea ends

27/04/1955

De-commissioned at NAS Nowra

15/08/1955

Re-commissioned at RNAS Culdrose equipped with Fairey Gannets

10/02/1964

HMAS Voyager disaster. 816 Squadron assists in SAR efforts

07/1964

Receives Sea Venom fighters from 723 Squadron

25/08/1967

De-commissioned at NAS Nowra

10/01/1968

Re-commissioned at NAS Nowra equipped with Grumman Trackers

03/06/1969

HMAS Melbourne collides with USS Frank E Evans

04/12/1976

NAS Nowra hangar fire destroys almost the entire RAN Tracker complement

05/04/1977

Replacement Trackers arrive in Australia

02/07/1982

De-commissioned at NAS Nowra

09/02/1984

Re-commissioned at NAS Nowra equipped with Westland Wessex helicopters in an army support role

30/06/1987

De-commissioned at NAS Nowra

08/02/1988

Seahawk Introduction and Transition Unit formed

02/08/1990

Iraq invades Kuwait signalling the beginning of the first Gulf War. SITU, and later HS816 Squadron, embarks aircraft aboard RAN ships in the Gulf.

23/07/1992

Re-commissioned equipped with Sikorsky S-70B-2 Seahawk helicopters

08/01/1994

Supports firefighting efforts in NSW.

01/01/1995

HMAS Darwin flight rescues solo round-the-world yachtswoman, Isabelle Autissier.

09/01/1997

HMAS Adelaide flight rescues round-the-world yachtsman, Thierry Dubois and assists in the rescue of yachtsman Tony Bullimore.

05/05/1998

Renders assistance to HMAS Westralia in the wake of a fire which tragically claims four lives.

27/12/1998

Conducts search and rescue operations for the disastrous 1998 Sydney to Hobart yacht race.

16/08/2001

HMAS Melbourne flight rescues 19 people from a sinking ferry off Malaita during Operation TREK.

14/01/2003

Supports firefighting operations during devastating bushfires in the ACT and southern NSW.

18/03/2003

Australia commits to the second Gulf War with elements of 816 Squadron already deployed.

20/03/2006

Contributes to Operation LARRY ASSIST.

25/05/2006

Contributes to Operation ASTUTE.

29/11/2006

Conducts search and rescue operations for a missing crewman when an Army Blackhawk helicopter crashes on HMAS Kanimbla’s flight deck and ditches into the sea while supporting Operation QUICKSTEP. Two of the ten personnel on board the Blackhawk were killed.

23/04/2009

A detachment embarks in HMAS Sydney for Exercise NORTHERN TRIDENT 09, a six-month round-the-world voyage.

18/01/2011

Conducts flood relief operations in Queensland and Victoria.

08/2012

First S-70B-2 Seahawk airframe withdrawn from service.

04/12/2015

The first two MH-60R Seahawk Romeo flights transferred to 816 Squadron.

07/06/2016

A MH-60R Seahawk Romeo flight deploys to the Middle East Region in support of Operation MANITOU for the first time aboard HMAS Perth.

29/08/2017

The final embarkation of a S-70B-2 Seahawk completed when HMAS Arunta flight returns to HMAS Albatross.

 

Commanding Officers

 

Assumed Command

Commanding Officer

28/08/1948

Lieutenant Commander C.R.J. Coxon, RN

02/09/1950

Lieutenant Commander A.J. Gould

27/09/1951

Lieutenant Commander D. Buchanan

21/10/1952

Lieutenant Commander W.G. Herbert

27/07/1954

Lieutenant Commander D.J. Robertson

27/04/1955

De-commissioned

15/08/1955

Lieutenant Commander B.G. O’Connell

03/1957

Lieutenant Commander J. Griffin

12/01/1959

Lieutenant Commander D.C. Johns, RCN

11/01/1960

Lieutenant Commander B.G. Hill

16/06/1961

Lieutenant Commander K.M. Barnett

22/06/1962

Lieutenant Commander A.E. Payne

29/06/1963

Lieutenant Commander T.A. Dadswell

01/11/1965

Lieutenant Commander M.J. Astbury

25/08/1967

De-commissioned

10/01/1968

Lieutenant Commander R. McKenzie

21/07/1969

Lieutenant Commander K.A. Douglas

26/01/1970

Lieutenant Commander E. Wilson

24/04/1971

Lieutenant Commander R.V. Morritt

15/01/1973

Lieutenant Commander J.L.R. Clarke

11/02/1974

Lieutenant Commander G.W. Bessel-Browne

23/08/1976

Lieutenant Commander R.N. Partington

04/04/1977

Lieutenant Commander P.O. Hamon

06/06/1978

Lieutenant Commander P.K. Coulson

10/12/1979

Lieutenant Commander R.J. Godfrey

22/12/1980

Lieutenant Commander T.L. Ford

02/07/1982

De-commissioned

09/02/1984

Lieutenant Commander C. Mayo

06/12/1985

Lieutenant Commander K.J. Alderman

30/06/1987

De-commissioned

23/07/1992

Commander B.M. Dowsing

15/12/1994

Commander M.J. Wright

15/12/1996

Commander M.P. Folkes

18/12/1998

Commander M.G. Campbell

08/12/2000

Commander A.H. Whittaker

13/12/2002

Commander B.I. White

10/12/2004

Commander A.P. Rushbrook

30/06/2006

Commander S.J. Bateman

07/12/2007

Commander C.J. Smallhorn

11/12/2009

Commander S.A. Craig

20/01/2012

Commander G.A. O’Loughlan

17/01/2014

Commander M.L. Pavillard

30/01/2017

Commander A.J. Savage

 



Further reading

  1. Australian Naval Aviation Museum, Flying Stations: A Story of Australian Naval Aviation, Allen & Unwin, St Leonards, 1998
  2. Eather, Steve, Flying Squadrons of the Australian Defence Force, Aerospace Publications, Canberra, 1995
  3. Gillett, Ross, Wings Across the Sea, Aerospace Publications, Canberra, 1988
  4. Jones, Colin, Wings and the Navy 1947-1953, Kangaroo Press, Kenthurst, 1997