723 Squadron History Part 1

723 Squadron has its origins in the Royal Navy (RN) where it was part of the Pacific Fleet's Mobile Operating Naval Air Bases concept in WWII whereby bare or unoccupied airfields could be rapidly manned and equipped for use by naval aircraft temporarily disembarked for training or maintenance. 723 Squadron formed in Britain on 21 November 1944 and embarked for Australia the following month, arriving on 28 February 1945. The Squadron was stationed in Australia, mainly operating from HMS Nabbington in Nowra, for the duration of its existence before disbanding on 31 May 1946.

723 Squadron recommissioned at Naval Air Station (NAS) Nowra on 7 April 1952 as a Fleet Requirements Unit. Commanded by Lieutenant Jeff Gledhill, the squadron was equipped with two Hawker Sea Fury Mark IIs, a Douglas C47A Dakota, a Supermarine Type 309 Sea Otter and a Commonwealth Aircraft Corporation CA-16 Wirraway. By the end of the year, the Squadron would take on two more Sea Furies, another Wirraway and four Fairey Firefly A.S.6s representing the most eclectic collection of aircraft in the Royal Australian Navy Fleet Air Arm (RAN FAA). Its main function was a cooperation role with the Australian Joint Anti-Submarine Warfare School, such as trialling directional sonobuoys, and also provided refresher flying for pilots and aircrew not currently posted to flying squadrons.

The amphibious Sea Otter was used by 723 Squadron primarily for search and rescue operations.
The amphibious Sea Otter was used by 723 Squadron primarily for search and rescue operations.

The CAC Wirraway was one of 723 Squadron's first aircraft.

On 11 March 1953, the Squadron took delivery of the RAN's first rotary-wing aircraft; three Bristol Sycamore HR 50 helicopters. With this new capability, 723 Squadron's responsibilities expanded to include search and rescue, rotary wing training and fleet support. Lieutenant Don Farquarson, RN, ran the first helicopter pilot training course in Australia, assisted by Lieutenants Gordon McPhee and Neil MacMillan. Two Sycamores later detached to HMAS Sydney (III) for her second tour in Korean waters as search and rescue aircraft.

On 18 June 1954, 723 Squadron also took delivery of the RAN's first jet aircraft. Lieutenant Peter Goldrick accepted the de Havilland Sea Vampire Mk T.34 at the de Havilland workshops in Bankstown before flying the aircraft to NAS Nowra.

In 1954 the Squadron took delivery of the RAN's first jet aircraft; a de Havilland Sea Vampire.
In 1954 the Squadron took delivery of the RAN's first jet aircraft; a de Havilland Sea Vampire T.34.
A Sea Vampire in RAN livery has been a popular attraction at the annual RAN Fleet Air Arm open day.
A Sea Vampire in RAN livery has been a popular attraction at the annual RAN Fleet Air Arm open day.

723 Squadron's Sycamores proved their worth as search and rescue aircraft offering civilian flood relief in February 1955 rescuing over 100 people in Dubbo, Maitland and Narrabri. However, the potential dangers of all operations were illustrated when one Sycamore was lost and two civilians killed attempting a rescue in Maitland. The helicopter, piloted by LCDR Gordon McPhee with his observer LEUT Brendan Hill, was attempting to rescue a group of men stranded on a disintegrating railway signal box. Two of the men grabbed the strop on the first pass when the helicopter lost reserve power. Aware that the men were not in the strop properly, McPhee tried to get them to the nearest high ground. Unfortunately, as the observer tried to lower the men onto a nearby bridge, they both fell and subsequently drowned. The helicopter's winch wire then tangled in a high tension power cable bringing the aircraft down. The crew were rescued eight kilometres downriver by an Army amphibious vehicle. Lieutenant Commanders McPhee and Don Farquarson, RN, were both awarded OBEs for their efforts during the floods.

The Squadron decommissioned on 25 October 1956 having grown considerably, taking on a number of new aircraft to meet its training and support responsibilities. Most of the Squadron's aircraft were transferred to 724 Squadron except for the Sea Furies and Fireflies which were transferred to 805 and 851 Squadrons respectively.

723 Squadron recommissioned on 18 February 1957 flying five Sycamores and also took on two Auster J5-G Autocars and two Firefly target tugs in May 1959. While the Austers and Fireflies were used primarily for communications and target towing respectively, the Sycamores had broader responsibilities. Two were required for use in HMAS Melbourne whenever Melbourne's Carrier Air Group (CAG) was embarked and one was always being overhauled by the Civilian Repair Organisation. This left two aircraft for duties such as search and rescue, training and surveying. The Squadron would also assist the police by providing transport and photography services for tasks as varied as search and rescue operations and murder investigations. When one of the helicopters crashed in January 1958 near Coffs Harbour while on survey duties with HMAS Warrego, just one aircraft remained to perform those duties. A replacement aircraft was ordered but was not be delivered for another six months, nor had any financial provision been made for a replacement.

AN RAN Sycamore on the tarmac at NAS Nowra.
AN RAN Sycamore on the tarmac at NAS Nowra.

The FAA entered a period of uncertainty in the early 1960s with the announcement that fixed wing naval aviation was to cease. Rotary-wing operations would remain taking on Anti-Submarine Warfare (ASW) duties, a role far-removed from the tasks of 723 Squadron and its comparatively rudimentary Sycamores. Consideration turned to a replacement for the Sycamores with the Westland P531 Wasp emerging as the preferred option. However, the Wasp's high performance characteristics left little room for error and made it impractical as a trainer. The Minister for the Navy, Senator John Gorton, was instead convinced to purchase the American Bell UH-1B Iroquois utility helicopter, an aircraft which became an icon of the Vietnam conflict. The first Iroquois came into service in May 1964. Meanwhile, in November 1962, 723 Squadron's fixed wing aircraft were transferred to 724 Squadron and 723 became an all-helicopter squadron.

A RAN Iroquois taking off from NAS Nowra.
A RAN Iroquois taking off from NAS Nowra.

The Squadron began test flights of two Westland Scout AH-1s on 6 April 1963. The small Scouts were to be rotated aboard the hydrographic survey ship, HMAS Moresby, mapping Australia's coastline and waterways. The Scouts represented a vast improvement on the seaplanes and flying boats that had previously been used in this role and proved the practicality operating helicopters from small ships. They did, however, require a higher level of maintenance work than other aircraft as the abrasiveness of coral sand eroded the rotor blades as well as the engine and airframe structure.

Scout hitching supplies.
A Scout hitching supplies aboard HMAS Moresby.

On 10 February 1964 at 8:56pm, HMAS Melbourne, with a Sycamore of 723 Squadron embarked, collided with Voyager in one of the most tragic accidents in Australian naval history. The disaster resulted in the loss of 82 lives, all from Voyager. 723 Squadron participated in search and rescue efforts in the aftermath of the collision.

The Squadron commenced its first advanced flying training course for the new Iroquois at the end of July 1964 and soon after began helicopter conversion courses for the fleet. Almost exactly a year later, on 15 July 1965, the Squadron's last Sycamore was flown to HMAS Nirimba to be used for apprentice training. The Squadron was now equipped with five Iroquois and the two Scouts.

The courage of naval airmen was displayed on the morning 21 May 1966 when 723 Squadron scrambled two Iroquois to search for survivors from the Dredge WD Atlas which had capsized about 18 kilometres south-east of Jervis Bay. The pilots, Lieutenants Pat Vickers and Barrie Lovett, and their crews hovered their helicopters in 45 knot winds just a few feet over ten metre waves. Thirteen sailors lost their lives but thanks to the efforts of 723 Squadron, four others were rescued. When an officer proposed that 723 Squadron deserved an Albert Medal for saving life at sea, the suggestion was laughed out of the HMAS Albatross mess. The Navy News reported on 10 June 1966 "The pilots...do not think they are heroes, dare-devils or stuntmen. Just men doing their job."

With the Australian and US commitment in Vietnam increasing between 1965-1967, the US made a request to Australia for helicopters and crews to provide combat support to the war effort. The RAN already had a significant presence in the region with HMAS Sydney, converted to a fast troop ship, deploying troops as early as May 1965, and a Clearance Diving Team and a destroyer operating in Vietnam from February and March 1967 respectively. On 14 July 1967, the Minister for Defence, Mr Allen Fairhall, responded to the US request by announcing that the RAN would provide eight pilots, four observers, 24 maintenance personnel, four air crewmen and six support staff to serve as part of the US Army's 135th Assault Helicopter Company (AHC). This detachment would become known as the Royal Australian Navy Helicopter Flight Vietnam (RANHFV).

An RAN Iroquois conducts rescue training at NAS Nowra, flying over a Sea Venom.
An RAN Iroquois conducts rescue training at NAS Nowra, flying over a Sea Venom.

Pilots were drawn from existing FAA Squadrons and were officially allocated to 723 Squadron, undertaking eight weeks of training with the Squadron at NAS Nowra. The first flight formed and operational training began on 28 August 1967. Their training included troop lift, insertion and support as well as survival training, code of conduct training, small arms and colloquial language. 723 Squadron suspended all other activities to devote all possible resources to training the RANHFV. No. 5 Squadron RAAF also assisted by providing M60 door guns and mounts as well other advice and assistance and the flight completed training by conducting field exercises with the Australian Army.

Slick cockpit.
Slick cockpit.

Four contingents of the RANHFV served in Vietnam between 1967 and 1971 though the dangers of flying were not limited to those overseas. On 5 June 1968, three members of 723 Squadron, LEUT Peter Ward, PO DJ Sanderson and NAMAE RK Smith, were lost when their Iroquois crashed over the cliff at Beecroft Head Firing Range and into the sea while on a range clearing flight. The aircraft had just landed a fourth crew member, LEUT Robert Ray, who reported the crash to NAS Nowra.

The RAN's FAA Squadrons had adopted US Navy prefixes by the turn of the decade and 723 Squadron became HT723 Squadron indicating that it was classed as a rotary-wing training unit though the prefix changed to HC at the end of 1975 indicating a rotary-wing composite unit.

HT723 Squadron's only remaining Scout (the other was written off in April 1967 when it ditched on take-off from HMAS Moresby in Wewak Harbour) disembarked from Moresby for the last time as hydrographic aircraft on 27 July 1973. It was replaced by a Bell 206B-1 Kiowa on 10 October 1973 which embarked in Moresby for the first time on 5 February the following year. The Squadron took on a second and third Kiowa in August 1974 and March 1977 respectively. They would also embark for brief periods in HMA Ships Stalwart, Sydney, Adelaide, Tobruk and Jervis Bay as light utility aircraft.


Iroquois training for an 'insertion'. The troops who have just been landed form a guard around the helicopters as the aircraft leave the drop zone.
Iroquois training for an 'insertion'. The troops, who have just been landed, form a perimeter around the helicopters as the aircraft leave the drop zone.

The FAA became embroiled in industrial unrest in July 1974 when the Storeman and Packers Union black-banned the RAN resulting in fuel shortages and flying restrictions. This became a serious, and even life-threatening, issue the following month when heavy rain and flooding inundated the Nowra area. The FAA, including HT723 Squadron, was called upon for disaster relief operations but the fuel shortage gave rise to concerns about whether rescue efforts would have to cease. Eventually common sense prevailed and fuel tankers began to arrive allowing personnel from NAS Nowra to rescue some 352 people. HT723 Squadron rescued about 70 people in seven sorties including a lady from Greenwell Point who had suffered three heart attacks and required urgent medical attention.

Sub Lieutenants Ian McBeath and Terry Morgan were involved in rescue operations during the 1974 Shoalhaven floods.
Sub Lieutenants Ian McBeath and Terry Morgan were involved in rescue operations during the 1974 Shoalhaven floods.

With the decommissioning of HT725 Squadron in January 1976 and HS817 Squadron re-equipping with Westland Sea King Mk 50's the following month, HC723 Squadron (as it was now known) received four Westland Wessex 31B helicopters stripped of their anti-submarine warfare equipment, for utility support. However, the Wessex was simply too big and heavy to operate from RAN Destroyers and consideration turned to a replacement. In spite of this, the Squadron detached a Wessex and an Iroquois to RAAF Base Williamtown in January 1981 to test the viability of operating the Wessex as a troop carrier aboard the new heavy landing ship HMAS Tobruk. The tests were successful and Wessex helicopters continued to operate in the RAN well into the 1980s.

Three Westland Wessex helicopters in company with HMAS Tobruk.
Three Westland Wessex helicopters in company with HMAS Tobruk.

On 18 August 1982, the Government announced the purchase of 18 Aerospatiale AS 350BA Squirrel light utility helicopters. Twelve would replace the RAAF's Iroquois while the remainder would be allocated to HC723 Squadron. The Squadron started operating the Squirrels in 1984.

In December 1982, HC723 Squadron began exercises for the Bass Strait Counter-Terrorism Plan, known as the National Plan, in conjunction with the Army's Special Air Service (SAS) Regiment operating from RAAF Base Sale. The Squadron was divided into two flights; 'A' Flight was made up the Squadron's entire Wessex complement (now 14 aircraft) for counter-terrorism tasks and 'B' Flight was made up of Iroquois and Kiowas for search and rescue and small ship flights. The performance of the Wessex crews was notable, achieving standards that the more sophisticated Sea Kings would find difficult to emulate in the future.

On 19 November 1983, the Wessex celebrated 21 years of service in the RAN and the occasion was marked with a flypast of RAN Wessex, Iroquois and Sea King helicopters as well RN Sea Harriers from the visiting HMS Invincible. Shortly afterwards, the National Plan suffered its only fatal accident on 4 December 1983. While on a routine flight from the Marlin Platform in Bass Strait, an HC723 Squadron Wessex crashed into the water after suffering a catastrophic transmission failure that in turn destroyed the aircraft's flying controls. Six of the aircraft's eight crew were rescued but LS Gary Macey and RAAF medical orderly Corporal J Campbell lost their lives.

The wreckage of the RAN Wessex recovered from Bass Strait after the accident that claimed two lives in 1983.
The wreckage of the RAN Wessex recovered from Bass Strait after the accident that claimed two lives in 1983.

On 12 February 1984, HU816 Squadron was re-formed as an Army support unit to decrease the number of aircraft types and variety of tasks that were being performed by HC723 Squadron. The Wessexes were transferred to HU816 as were a number of personnel including Lieutenant Commander Clive Mayo who assumed command of the reformed Squadron. HC723 Squadron's aircraft complement was quickly bolstered, however, when it took delivery of its first Squirrel on 14 May 1984 (it would receive its sixth and last on 10 July) and two fixed wing Hawker Siddeley HS748s from the recently decommissioned VC851 Squadron on 1 September. The HS748s continued to perform electronic warfare training support and VIP transport duties for the RAN.

The Squirrels arrived in the Squadron as a civilian helicopter, not designed with maritime operations in mind; however, the RAN's new Adelaide class guided missile frigates (FFG) lacked a dedicated helicopter and a capability gap existed until the introduction of the Sikorsky Seahawks later in the decade. The RAN was the first Navy to operate the Squirrel at sea and, indeed, there was some scepticism about the aircraft’s ability to perform in that role. Nonetheless, the Squirrels did embark in the frigates as an interim aircraft and performed so well that they continued dedicated embarked operations until 1997, well after the introduction of the Seahawks.

Harbour acceptance and first-of-class flying trials were conducted towards the end of 1984 and a Squirrel embarked in an FFG, HMAS Sydney (IV), for the first time on a long-term basis on 21 February 1985.

723 Squadron's Squirrel Helicopters and HS748 at NAS Nowra.
723 Squadron's Squirrel Helicopters and a HS748 at NAS Nowra.

The HS748s, as part of VC851 Squadron, had performed invaluable disaster relief operations in 1974/75 in the aftermath of Cyclone Tracy and the Tasman Bridge Disaster. In 1989, they were again called upon to provide a community service of a different kind. Following the breakdown in talks between commercial pilots and domestic airlines, the Government decided to break the pilots strike by using Defence aircraft to transport civilian passengers. Over the course of four months, HC723 Squadron's HS748 flight carried over 10,000 passengers between Sydney, Canberra, Melbourne, Hobart and Launceston. Prime Minister Bob Hawke travelled to NAS Nowra to personally congratulate the crews (there were only three), and the Flight was awarded the Navy League of Australia Plaque for Aid to the Civilian Community and would later be adopted by the City of Launceston.

That year also marked the end of an era for two FAA aircraft and HC723 Squadron. On 31 May 1989, after 25 years of service, the RAN's Iroquois were decommissioned. The Wessex also decommissioned, finally, on 31 December after 27 years of service. The Wessex's had returned to the Squadron earlier in the year as HU 816 Squadron took delivery of the RAN's new Sikorsky S-70B-2 Seahawks.

The RAN's last Iroquois prepares for its final flight at NAS Nowra in 1989. Lieutenant Keith Champion was the pilot while the Commanding Officer of HMAS Albatross, Commodore Matt Taylor, sits right seat.
The RAN's last Iroquois prepares for its final flight at NAS Nowra in 1989. Lieutenant Keith Champion was the pilot while the Commanding Officer of HMAS Albatross, Commodore Matt Taylor, sits right seat.

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. HC723 Squadron embarked a Squirrel in each of the ships. As part of the deployment, the Squirrels received extensive operational modifications including GPS navigation, radar warning equipment, night vision devices and thermal imagers. One of the most significant modifications was the addition of the MAG 58 General Support Machine Gun (GSMG) Mount which was conceived, designed and produced at HMAS Albatross during August 1990.

The likely role of embarked RAN helicopters in the Gulf made it clear that a cabin gun was essential but neither the Squirrels nor the Seahawks included such a system. Commanders Cris George and Alex Wright (Commander (Air) and Commanding Officer HS817 Squadron respectively) drew up a functional concept sketch of a folding tripod mount which included mechanical stops in azimuth, elevation and depression to prevent the aircraft’s structure being damaged by gunfire. The conceived tripod was low enough when erect to ensure that any recoil was passed to the aircraft structure as a sliding and not a toppling force, and the potential for the mount to slide was reduced by four securing turnbuckles which attached to existing cargo securing points.

The sketch was passed on to the Aircraft Support Unit (ASU) to build a prototype while Chief Petty Officer Jim Hill, a reservist armourer with operational experience, was assigned as the project manager. A prototype was built within two days (including a ‘brass-catcher’ to collect expended shell casings, overlooked on the original concept sketch) and tested on the back of a truck at the South Nowra Rifle Range. The mount was modified and strengthened as a result of the truck trial and then flight tested by the Aircraft Maintenance & Flight Trials Unit. Further minor modifications were incorporated following flight trial and the ASU workshops commenced final production. The production mounts incorporated minor configuration differences between mounts for the different helicopter types. They remained in use for some ten years before commercially produced mounts were procured for the Sea Kings and Seahawks.

The first task force arrived in the Gulf of Oman early in September. HMA Ships Sydney and Brisbane (DAMASK II) would relieve Darwin and Adelaide in early December while HMAS Westralia relieved Success on Australia Day 1991. Brisbane and Westralia did not have Squirrels embarked though the Squirrel embarked in Sydney was generally used for surface search and utility tasks.

A 723 Squadron Squirrel flys past an Adelaide Class guided missile frigate: HMAS Adelaide
A 723 Squadron Squirrel flys past the Adelaide class guided missile frigate, HMAS Adelaide.

On 17 January 1991, Operation DESERT STORM, the final assault to push Iraqi forces out of Kuwait, commenced. HC723 Squadron's Squirrel 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 HC723 and HS816 Squadrons had contributed significantly to the RAN's capacity to perform in a combat situation.

HC723 Squadron's responsibilities in the Middle East did not come to an end, however, and the Squadron continued to operate in the Gulf and North Red Sea for the next five years (Operations DAMASK III-VIII) enforcing United Nations Security Council sanctions against Iraq. The Squadron also maintained its training and fleet support duties at NAS Nowra and regular detachments in other RAN ships while the HS748s were heavily involved in exercises and trials during the 1990s such as trials for the Rapier surface-to-air missile systems.

This period in HC723 Squadron's history was particularly busy and it was a great credit to the Squadron's maintenance personnel that a high level of serviceability was maintained. On 6 April 1992, the Squadron's Commanding Officer, Lieutenant Commander Vincenzo Di Pietro, said "The Squadron has put in a high rate of effort this month which could not have been achieved without the dedicated and professional maintenance effort."

The Squadron celebrated its 40th Anniversary on 7 April 1992 with a flypast of all three of its aircraft types (Squirrels, Kiowas and HS748s) and a families' day at NAS Nowra. Just two days later the Squadron participated in a flypast in Sydney to commemorate the 50th Anniversary of the Battle of the Coral Sea and the 60th Anniversary of the Sydney Harbour Bridge.

In 1997 the RAN dropped the prefixes that had been attached to FAA Squadrons for the past 25 years and HC723 Squadron reverted back to 723 Squadron. In the same year, the Squirrels ceased dedicated embarked operations and they were replaced aboard the RAN's frigates by the Seahawks of 816 Squadron.

The Squadron made history in January 1999 when it was joined by the RAN's first female pilot. Sub Lieutenant Natalee McDougall was one of six to graduate from the Australian Defence Academy's helicopter training facility on 13 November 1998 after 17 months of intensive classroom and practical training at RAAF Base Fairbairn.

During September 1999, a 723 Squadron Squirrel was again embarked at sea, this time in HMAS Anzac as part of the Navy's contingent for Operation WARDEN, the Australian response to the East Timor crisis. The aircraft was involved in surface search operations.

The final vestiges of naval fixed wing aviation came to an end in the year 2000 when 723 Squadron's HS748s were finally decommissioned after more than a quarter of a century of service. The HS748 flight conducted its last sortie on 9 June and departed NAS Nowra for the final time on 26 June, officially decommissioning on 30 June, flying to RAAF Base Sale for disposal. Later that year, in October, the Kiowas were transferred to the Army after 23 years of service in the FAA, most significantly in embarked operations aboard the hydrographic survey ship, HMAS Moresby.

A 723 Squadron Kiowa leaves HMAS Moresby with a full load.
A 723 Squadron Kiowa leaves HMAS Moresby with a full load.

The squadron maintained training and fleet support operations into the new century including participation in fleet exercises, range-clearance flights for the Beecroft Weapons Range and embarked operations in HMA Ships to assist in work-up and other exercises. Detachments also embarked in HMA Ships Melville and Leeuwin for hydrographic operations and duties related to Operation RELEX. Public relations remained an important part of the squadron’s duties as personnel and aircraft participated in commemorative events, visited schools and participated in airshows around the country, as well as conducting aerial displays for special events such as regular appearances at the Australian Formula One Grand Prix and the Royal Hobart Regatta.

In April 2001 the squadron implemented the Pilot Basic Rotor Course providing initial rotary-wing training for naval pilots, a service previously provided by the RAAF and, later, the Army for more than three decades.

In the early hours of Christmas Day 2001, 723 Squadron was tasked to deploy a Squirrel helicopter to support the NSW Rural Fire Service (RFS) in battling what would become known as the ‘Black Christmas’ Bushfires. Maintenance personnel and aircrew were recalled from Christmas leave and were on base at Albatross by 1:00pm. Severe turbulence prevented the aircraft from taking off that afternoon but, subsequently, two aircraft were tasked from first light on Boxing Day; one deploying to Bankstown Airport while the other operated from NAS Nowra. Five 723 Squadron Squirrels were used in fire fighting operations over the ensuing three weeks.

The Sydney aircraft operated primarily in the Baulkham Hills/Wilberforce area and provided fire spotting, reporting and reconnaissance for RFS commanders. It was released and returned to Nowra on 9 January 2002 but was recalled to Sydney just two days later to continue fire-fighting operations in Sydney and the Hunter Valley. It was released again on 13 January and returned to Nowra the following day having completed more than 68 hours flying time.

Nowra-based aircraft flew every day between 27 December 2001 and 13 January 2002 accruing more than 152 hours flying time, often operating from first to last light. They provided fire spotting, mapping and air attack. The fire mapping task required the aircraft to fly along the fire-front as accurately as possible, which with poor visibility meant low and slow, while National Parks and Wildlife observers mapped the fire front using GPS.

Squadron aircraft and personnel were directly involved in a number of life-saving and property protection efforts in the Shoalhaven such as; directing water bombers onto an RFS bulldozer that had been jumped by the fire and left without a line of retreat on the Tianjara Plateau, directing water bombers onto a disabled RFS tanker and its crew caught in the path of the fire in Yarramunmun Creek, and directing a number of campers in the St George’s Basin area clear of the fire.

In all, 51 members 723 Squadron and the Training Authority - Aviation were involved in fire fighting operations.

Just twelve months after the Black Christmas bushfires, the squadron was again called upon to assist fire fighting operations in southern New South Wales and the ACT. Albatross itself came under threat on 4 and 5 December 2002 with the flames approaching to within 100 metres of the airstrip and nearby residents seeking shelter on board for themselves and their animals. They were accommodated at the Albatross gymnasium while their animals, including horses, cows and dogs, were penned in the tennis courts. A change in the weather accompanied by rain, and the conversion of Sea King and Seahawk helicopters into water bombers, eased the situation.

The following January, 723 Squadron was employed in plotting bushfires around the ACT. The squadron deployed daily for 13 consecutive days from 14 January rotating three Squirrels. At one point the aircraft flown by 723 Squadron’s commanding officer, Lieutenant Commander Stuart Harwood, was forced to evacuate a paddock in which it had set down after a mapping flight. He later described the situation:

“The plan was to send the information through but minutes after we landed the fire came over the hill to our west, having travelled about three miles in ten minutes. Sparks dropped into the valley where we were and went up the western side. It was an inferno in about three minutes. Embers had also set alight to the eastern rim of the valley. It too was soon ablaze. We knew it was time to get out otherwise the smoke would have held us on the ground.”

The fires reached their zenith on 18 January claiming four lives and destroying some 530 homes.

Squadron detachments deployed aboard HMAS Arunta (II) while the ship visited South East Asia in March to June 2004; HMAS Parramatta (IV) when she visited New Zealand in February to April 2005 to participate in Exercise TASMANEX; and in HMAS Warramunga (II) when she deployed to South East Asia in March to June 2005 to participate in Exercises BERSAMA SHIELD and SINGAROO.

Two Squirrels and a total of 24 Squadron members embarked in HMAS Manoora (II) in June 2006 to join 19,000 sailors from eight nations for Exercise RIMPAC in Hawaii. The aircraft were kept busy throughout July conducting various embarked exercises and personnel transfers. New trainee pilots were embarked in Hawaii at the conclusion of RIMPAC and training serials were conducted en route back to Australia. The detachment arrived back at Albatross in August.

A Squirrel preparing to commence a vertical replenishment onboard HMAS Manoora during RIMPAC.
A Squirrel preparing to commence a vertical replenishment onboard HMAS Manoora during RIMPAC.

In June 2007 the squadron took delivery of the first two of three Agusta Westland A109E helicopters on lease from Raytheon Australia for a period of four years. The three aircraft provided multi-engine helicopter training for pilots, observers and aircrewmen transitioning from the Squirrels to the heavier Sea Kings and Seahawks.

Two RAN Agusta A109E helicopters conducting a flyover, NSW
Two RAN Agusta A109E helicopters conducting a flyover, NSW.

A Squirrel detachment embarked in HMAS Anzac (III) at the end of April 2008 for her deployment to South East Asia to participate in Exercise BERSAMA SHIELD in May. In October 2009 a Squirrel detachment embarked in HMAS Tobruk (II) for training and remained embarked when Tobruk deployed for Operation SAMOA ASSIST in the wake of a tsunami which had devastated parts of Samoa and Tonga. On 27 October, prior to Tobruk’s departure for Samoa, the detachment exchanged aircraft; the replacement Squirrel, designated Taipan 01, while still set up as a training platform, was lighter and better suited to the operational tasks expected in Samoa and Tonga.

Tobruk arrived in Apia, Samoa, on 9 November and Taipan 01 immediately conducted a reconnaissance and photography flight of the tsunami affected area in the south-west of the island. The Squirrel was not ideal as a utility aircraft but Taipan 01 played a vital role in reconnaissance, and personnel and cargo transfers. On 23 November, the aircraft transferred a member of Tobruk’s crew, who had suffered a severe hand injury, to Nuku’Alofa for return to Australia. Tobruk was officially released from SAMOA ASSIST that same day and returned to Australia, via Vila, Vanuatu, on 3 December.

Leading Seaman Aircrewman Leanne Billington reads a flight manual before flying during Operation Samoa Assist.
Leading Seaman Aircrewman Leanne Billington reads a flight manual before flying during Operation SAMOA ASSIST.

In April 2010, the Sydney Swans and West Coast Eagles AFL Clubs, representing the namesake city and last port of departure of HMAS Sydney (II), competed for the inaugural HMAS Sydney II Memorial Trophy. The match was played on 24 April at the Sydney Cricket Ground with sailors from HMAS Sydney (IV) participating in Anzac Day commemorations on the day. The trophy itself was delivered to the SCG by a 723 Squadron A109E, the aircraft touched down in the centre of the ground. The RAN Fleet Commander, Rear Admiral Steve Gilmore, AM, CSC, RAN, presented the winning team, the Sydney Swans, with the trophy while Sydney’s commanding officer, Captain Peter Leavy, RAN, presented the award for the Player of the Match, a 76mm shell casing fired from HMAS Sydney (II).

Aircrew from the Royal Australian Agusta A109E Helicopter deliver the HMAS Sydney II Cup.
Aircrew from the Royal Australian Agusta A109E Helicopter deliver the HMAS Sydney II Cup.

An A109E detachment deployed to Queensland in January 2011, flying nearly 54 hours in support of Operation QUEENSLAND FLOOD ASSIST, and that May a Squirrel detachment embarked in HMAS Darwin for that ship’s deployment to Asia and participation in Exercise TALISMAN SABRE. During the course of the deployment, Darwin was embedded with the USN 7th Fleet and visited Guam and Yokosuka, and offered the 723 Squadron detachment the rare opportunity to conduct exercises with a USN Carrier Strike Group. The detachment disembarked on 26 July. In two and a half months embarked in Darwin, the detachment achieved a 100% serviceability rate. Not a single flight had to be cancelled due to aircraft unserviceability; a remarkable feat and a great credit to the detachment’s maintenance team.

Two Squirrels deployed to Wagga Wagga in March 2012 to support flood relief operations, and on the ninth of that month, the three A109Es conducted their final flights before their return to Raytheon in July. In April, the squadron took possession of three Bell 429 utility and training helicopters. On 7 April the squadron also celebrated its 60th Anniversary.

Three Australian Navy Agusta A109E helicopters conducting their final flight.
Three Australian Navy Agusta A109E helicopters conducting their final flight.
An Australian Navy Bell 429 being displayed August 2012.
An Australian Navy Bell 429 being displayed shortly after joining the squadron, August 2012.

From September to November 2012, a Squirrel detachment embarked in HMAS Sydney (IV) during the ship’s deployment to Asia. She departed Sydney on 26 September and arrived at Yokosuka in Japan, via Guam, on 6 October. Sydney sailed on 14 October for Sagami Bay to participate in the triennial Japanese Maritime Self Defence Force International Fleet Review, one of just three international ships to participate alongside some 35 Japanese vessels. She went on to visit the Philippines where she participated in Exercise LUMBUS, Vietnam and Brunei where she took part in Exercise PENGUIN.

723 Squadron History Part 2