The sixties decade was a period of tremendous growth for Australian Army Aviation commencing with a decision by the Defence Committee in 1960 to allow Army to own and operate integral rotary and fixed wing aircraft, that did not exceed 4,000 lbs. This was a major step for Army Aviation. Prior to this, Army’s involvement in aviation was always in joint partnership with the RAAF. From this decision 16 AOP Flight and 1 Army Avn Coy were disbanded and 16 Army Light Aircraft Squadron (16 ALA Sqn) was formed on 1 Dec 1960 at RAAF Amberley in Queensland. The first CO of the Squadron was Wing Commander Ken Robertson, DFC, AFC and Bar.
The unit Chief Flying Instructor was also a RAAF officer, as was the entire servicing crew. Except for a few administrative personnel the remainder were Army. Cessna 180 fixed wing, transferred from 16 AOP Flight and new Bell Sioux 47G2 rotary wing aircraft made up the original aircraft in the squadron which included a training and an operations flight.
From 1960 to 1964 much experience was gained by the Army in the use of light aircraft. The scale and the variety of support provided for the Army were considerably increased together with the output of trained Army pilots. Army units and formations, both Regular and Reserve, continued the process of learning how to make better use of this resource. Throughout this time the Squadron was called upon a number of times to provide aircraft for a wide variety of tasks. Twice it provided aircraft for emergency operations in West New Guinea. In particular, on 18 November 1962, 16 ALA Sqn dispatched Australian Army Aviation’s first United Nations detachment as part of the United Nations Temporary Executive Authority (UNTEA). The two Sioux helicopters and eleven personnel provided vital air support in helping combat a cholera outbreak in the region.
In February 1964 four Cessna’s made an exploratory trip to New Guinea, carrying out reconnaissance and demonstrations throughout the territory. This flight paved the way for a permanent Aviation detachment to be sent to New Guinea to operate with the PNG Command.
In late 1964, command of the unit passed to an Army officer for the first time when Lieutenant Colonel Bill Slocombe was appointed CO. Colonel Slocombe had been an Air OP pilot with 16 Air OP flight and had flown in Korea.
In June 1965 the first training course for Army aircraft technicians was completed. This course consisted of RAEME members who had transferred from other trades. A total of 38 personnel completed the initial course. Of these 13 were Airframe Fitters, 13 Engine Fitters, 5 Instrument Fitters, 2 Electrical Fitters and 5 Radio Fitters.
In 1965 the first permanent Aviation detachment to leave Australia (two Cessna 180 aircraft) were deployed to PNG Command. These aircraft operated in support of the Pacific Islands Regiment, Australian Army Engineers and the PNG Volunteer Rifles. Later that year 182 Reconnaissance Flight (182 Recce Flt) (raised at Amberley) with two Bell 47G-2 Sioux was deployed to Malaya and then Sarawak in support of 4 RAR operations in the Malayan confrontation. The Flight was then redeployed to Terendak in Malaya on 14 April 1966.
In July 1965, 161 Reconnaissance Flight (161 Recce Flt) was raised from 16 ALA Sqn at RAAF Base Amberley to deploy to South Vietnam in support of 1st Australian Task Force. This element was commanded by Major Paul Lipscombe (RAASC) and was the first time since 1918 that an Australian Army Aviation unit had been readied for war.
Arriving in Vung Tau on 28 September 1965 the Flight became an integral part of the 1 RAR Bn Group, under operational control of the 173rd Airborne Brigade. The first operational sortie was carried out on 22 October 1965.
The flight initially operated two Cessna 180 and two Sioux G-3B-1 helicopters but the fleet was later increased to six Sioux and three Cessna. During the more than seven years on operations in South Vietnam the Flight operated five types of aircraft (in addition to the Sioux and Cessna, Pilatus Turbo-Porter, O-1 Bird Dog, and OH58-A helicopter) and flew more than 72,000 hours. Three pilots were killed in action, Major George Constable, Captain Barry Donald and 2nd Lieutenant Alan Jellie.
For those who seek a more detailed history of the flight, please visit http://www.161recceflt.org.au/UnitHistory/unit_history.htm
On the 26 April 1966, 16 ALA Sqn renamed 1st Divisional Army Aviation Regiment in keeping with the rest of Army nomenclature. Eleven months later, on 31 March 1967, the Regt was officially retitled the 1st Aviation Regiment. The Regiment comprised of an operational squadron (16 Sqn) and a Training Squadron. The latter conducted Army pilot training and conversion courses.
On 1 July 1968 Australian Army Aviation came of age with the formation of the Australian Army Aviation Corps with Corps seniority after Infantry. Initial Corps membership was limited to only officers, 106 at the start, all of whom were qualified pilots.
At about the same time, it became apparent that Army Aviation needed a home of its own. While RAAF Amberley had been very supportive of its lodger unit from the sister service, the mix of smaller, slower aircraft with the F-111 and other Air Force aircraft was not ideal. So a search was instituted to find a suitable base with good training areas and uncluttered airspace. Several locations were examined, Wagga Wagga and Uranquinty in New South Wales being two, but it was finally agreed that the airfield at Oakey in Queensland would be the best.
Oakey had been the site for the RAAF 6 Aircraft Depot during World War Two and had established runways and taxiways. It was being used as a civil airport for Toowoomba, but after negotiations with the Department of Civil Aviation, it was transferred to Army control on 1 Jul 1969, and a permanent home for Australian Army Aviation was built.
© THE AUSTRALIAN ARMY AVIATION ASSOCIATION