In early 1990 the ADF Helicopter School was raised at RAAF Fairbairn, based on the training flight of 5 Squadron, RAAF, which had been closed down. Despite its name, the ADF Helicopter School was actually an Army unit, albeit the first CO was an RAAF Officer and the staff and instructors included personnel from all three services. The addition of the AS350B Squirrel to the Army fleet brought to six the number of types in service. The role of the ADF Helo School was to conduct ab initio rotary wing training after which students would be awarded their Army Flying Badge (wings) and continue their operational training with the School of Army Aviation at Oakey onto Kiowa, Iroquois or Black Hawk (in 1991).
By the end of 1990, 5 Avn Regt was close to its final planned shape and size with B Squadron raised and most of the Black Hawks delivered to Townsville. A significant proportion of the Regiment was still RAAF personnel, albeit the Army strength was increasing. In early 1991, Black Hawk training was transferred from the Regiment to the School of Army Aviation at Oakey along with six aircraft. Also in 1990 a decision was taken to re-equip 171 Squadron, a sub-unit of 1 Avn Regt, with UH-1H Iroquois, thus retaining more Hueys in service longer than had been anticipated. This proved to be a prescient decision and in a very short time, Army Hueys were deployed by CI30 to the Solomons, Samoa and Vanuatu to conduct relief operations following cyclones, and to search for and recover victims from crashed civil aircraft.
In October 1992, after twenty five years sterling service, the Pilatus Turbo Porter was withdrawn from service, leaving the Nomad as the only remaining fixed wing in the Army. At about the same time, N24 Nomads, a stretched variant of the aircraft, was introduced, however, their service was short-lived and following two major fatal accidents, one Air Force and one Army, all Nomads were withdrawn from ADF service in 1995. This left Army with no integral fixed wing support for the first time since 1960, and a decision was taken to lease civil Embraer Bandierantes while the future of Army fixed wing was determined.
Prior to this, in 1993, the Black Hawks at 5 Avn Regt were deployed on their first operational mission. A troop of six were sent at very short notice to support the UN Mission in Cambodia overseeing and providing security for the first free elections in that country. The Black Hawks were painted white with UN markings before deployment and were used to deliver and recover ballot boxes in hard to get to or insecure areas. This short deployment was followed in 1994 by five Black Hawks being sent to Bougainville in PNG to provide support the peace process. Again this was to be a very short deployment.
In 1989 the RAAF withdrew the Chinooks from service. The Chinooks had been exempt from the transfer of so-called battlefield helicopters that had resulted the raising of 5 Avn Regt and the Black Hawks and Iroquois coming to Army. Bought towards the end of the Vietnam War, the CH47C Chinooks were very expensive to maintain and operate and of the original 12 acquired, only six were in service, the rest in storage. The capability as a whole was an obvious choice for Air Force to take out service in the financially tight late eighties. But that presented a major problem for Army as the Chinooks were crucial to support the Black Hawks, particularly for the movement of fuel. Not long after they withdrawn, staff work commenced in Army to find a way to get them back into service.
Innovative thinking and creative management came up with a solution and a proposal was floated to ‘trade-in’ the eleven remaining C model Chinooks (one had been lost in an accident) to the US Army who were short of Chinook hulls. All eleven would pass through a re-manufacturing process to bring them up to CH47D specifications and four would be returned to Australia to be operated by the Army. It was a hugely successful project and the first of the ‘new’ CH47D Chinooks entered service with the newly raised C Squadron, 5 Avn Regt, in the middle of 1995. That same year 161 Recce Sqn of 1 Avn Regt redeployed from Holsworthy to the RAAF Base at Darwin to continue the support of 1st Brigade that was progressively moving up to the new Robertson Barracks just south of Darwin.
By late 1994, Black Hawk availability was reducing significantly and logistic support of the aircraft was lagging. This was exacerbated in early 1995 and a decision was taken in mid-year to set up an Army Aviation Joint Support Project Team to study the issues and recommend a way ahead. Headed by an Army Brigadier, the team included Army and RAAF aviators, engineer and supply officers. Following several months of examination and deliberation, the team recommended the establishment of Headquarters Aviation Support Group, to be based at Oakey, and to be responsible for managing operational airworthiness for Army aviation as well as co-ordinating the logistic and engineering support of Army aircraft. The headquarters was formed in early 1996.
Headquarters Aviation Support Group set about rationalising the logistic support of Army aviation and providing clear lines of authority and responsibility. Black Hawk availability began to recover and additional resources flowed to the capability. Later in 1996 the Bandierantes were replaced with a mix of B200 King Air and De Havilland Canada Twin Otters, also leased, the latter stationed at RAAF Darwin with 161 Sqn. At this time, Army operated seven types (five rotary wing, two fixed wing) and had more than 100 aircraft in the fleet.
On 12 June 1996 two Black Hawks from 5 Avn Regt collided mid-air over the High Range Training Area near Townsville. The aircraft were conducting counter-terrorism training with members of the SAS Regiment at the time. Eighteen servicemen were killed, including three crew from one of the helicopters. Many others were injured, some seriously. A lengthy investigation process followed which resulted in a number of changes to aircraft configuration (fitment of cockpit voice recorders and flight data recorders primarily), procedures and practices.
In November 1997 three Black Hawks and two Chinooks from 5 Avn Regt were deployed to Papua New Guinea to provide drought relief distributing food and supplies to starving villagers, particularly in the Highlands. The deployment continued until April 1998, but as they were withdrawn from PNG, a further three Black Hawks were deployed to (then) Irian Jaya on a similar mission. They remained in country until July 1998.
Earlier, in May 1998, four UH1-H Iroquois were deployed to Bougainville as part of the multi-national peace monitoring force under Operation Bel Isi. These aircraft from 1 Avn Regt, painted red to identify their special role, were to remain on Bougainville until August 2001 and were often supported by the King Air aircraft from the Regiment.
Also in 1998, the Army Aviation Training Centre was formed at Oakey. Bringing together the School of Army Aviation, the ADF Helicopter School and the RAEME (later Rotary wing) Aircraft Maintenance School, the Centre was commanded by a Colonel. The ADF Helicopter School later re-located from RAAF Fairbairn to Oakey and was re-titled the Army Helicopter School.
In September 1999 trouble erupted in East Timor following a UN sanctioned referendum on the province remaining autonomous within Indonesia or as an independent state. The UN authorised a peacekeeping force led by Australia and as part of that force Kiowas from 1 Avn Regt and Black Hawks from 5 Avn Regt were among the first forces to deploy. For the Kiowas, this was their first operational deployment, having been in the Army since 1971. The aircraft was well past its first planned withdrawal date (1990) and the extended one (1995) by the time it saw active service!
As 1999 drew to a close Australian Army aviation had entered a period of continuous operations that would stretch out for more than ten years.
© THE AUSTRALIAN ARMY AVIATION ASSOCIATION