P-3B A9-292 over Penang Harbour eleven years after Cyclone Tracy


The following is extracted verbatim from Cold War Warriors
by Ian Pearson


The year 1974 ended for 11 Squadron with participation in one of the largest recovery operations in Australia's history, John Lee recalling that:

"My final Search and Rescue recall was a sad day for the country - Cyclone Tracy - Christmas Day 1974. I was the then Captain of E Crew, and had organised a big, house open to anyone, Christmas Day morning at my home in Smithfield. It had been a great success, parents and kiddies mixing in, very hot, and the bubbly flowing freely. Around 3 pm my two trusted flight engineers (Colin Asimus and Chilla Gillet) called over with family for a short drink and asked me at the front door if I had seen the news.

"The answer was obviously no, as it was Christmas, and TV doesn't go on! They informed me of the devastation that had hit Darwin, and it was then that we all realised that we were on the composite SAR crew on standby the next day - Boxing Day. I rang the base at Edinburgh who informed me that we were definitely required, thus all drinking and merriment stopped. We were called out on the morning of 27 December. The journey started out with a search for three or four vessels off Darwin that were overdue.

"By the time we reached destination the orders were - search at low level out to a range of about a hundred miles, report and investigate any wreckage/survivors/debris in the water, as there were now about double the original boat numbers reported as overdue or whereabouts unknown. I requested a low pass over the city and the harbour and was shocked at the devastation. There was not a green piece of foliage on any tree, huge telegraph poles made of steel and concrete were bent over, not broken, and one could only imagine the wind strength that would cause this. In the harbour there were sadly hundreds of dead floating animals including cattle and horses. Silence prevailed.

"It was an overall daunting task that we were handed but managed several hours on task before it became time to return to Edinburgh. With the enormous evacuation taking part on the ground at the Airfield by Qantas and RAAF Hercules, we were given strict orders that we could not land at the airfield. Gaining our airways clearance for the transit home, our radio operator picked up a Mayday call from a sinking vessel in the harbour. I relayed that we could go and investigate, but only on the condition that we could be granted permission to land and refuel as there was only enough fuel to transit back to Edinburgh.

"Enter the old warhorse - or Crazy Horse as his nickname was - Group Captain Dave Hitchins again!!! As the overall RAAF Commander in Darwin still, he liaised with ATC and we proceeded to investigate the vessel, relay its position for Navy authorities, and landed to refuel. Our maximum number of total people on board the P-3B was 24, thus with a crew of twelve, we piled in another twelve evacuees, and headed back home. It was a long and tiring day with 16.8 hours recorded in the logbook. However, once again a hugely proud and gratifying moment, to be able to assist in one of the country's worst natural disasters."

Flying a few days later as Lead AEO on the SAR crew captained by Peter Jabornicky (on A9-298 Ed.), Flight Lieutenant John Saunders would later recall:

"Our involvement with Tracy again involved looking for missing fishermen. After the search we landed at Darwin, dumped all our search stores in the hangar, watched the PM being filmed on the tarmac and then took twenty-three pax to Adelaide. A good number of the pax were shell shocked and very young. This load included two babies, who were strapped in on the back bunk for take-off by one of the flight engineers, using a cargo strap. I said to one old dear, 'You know madam, you are travelling in the best aircraft in the RAAF!' Her answer, 'I would expect nothing less!' Our total flight time for the day was fifteen hours."

Source: Ian Pearson, Cold War Warriors, Big Sky Publishing, 2021 (pp.139-140)




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Original issue. Thanks to Ian Pearson.