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