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161 INDEPENDENT RECONNAISSANCE FLIGHT

 

In July 1965, the Australian Army deployed its own Aviation element with 1RAR, and 161 Reconnaissance Flight was formed at Amberly, Queensland. After a very brief but intensive workup, they arrived at Bien Hoa in September. Initial aircraft comprised two Sioux light observation helicopters, and two Cessna 180 fixed wing aircraft. A large contingent of RAAF technicians was included in the unit to assist with maintenance due to a shortage of trained Army people.

161 Flights roll was to fly visual reconnaissance missions and to provide a liaison and aerial command post service to the troops of 173rd Brigade and 1 RAR. The Sioux, with its distinctive bubble cockpit and low maximum speed of 91 kts (168 km/h) was ideal for VR's while the faster four seat Cessnas were mainly used for liaison tasks.

This small Australian unit quickly proved more versatile than first envisaged and quickly began to undertake more varied tasks. Eventually its roles would include ammunition resupplies, casualty evacuation, forward air control, leaflet dropping and broadcasting propaganda messages. At times the helicopters were also fitted with a sensor known as the Automatic Personnel Detector APD, or more commonly 'The People Sniffer' which could detect the presence of humans hidden in the jungle.

Not withstanding the dangerous nature of these tasks, it is surprising to note that Australian Army aircraft were not permitted to carry any fixed defensive armament, at least officially. As a result Army pilots relied on hand held weapons such as rifles and grenade launchers to reply to any ground fire.

Despite all the different roles, VR's remained 161 Flights bread and butter. These missions involved a great deal of low flying, at times actually under the tree line, in search of the elusive VC.

When located, the enemy invariably fired on the slow and vulnerable Sioux. When confronted by ground fire a favorite tactic was to fly so low that the chopper was skimming the trees. By doing this the number of guns that could be trained on the Sioux was reduced. Combined with good luck, the number of casualties were kept at an acceptable level.

During every major Australian operation in Vietnam a Sioux was allocated as the direct support helicopter of each battalion. It was during a direct support mission for 1 RAR in the latter part of 1965 that 161 flight suffered its first casualty. A bullet tore through the side of the chopper and badly wounded the pilot in the left hand. He made a safe if somewhat shaky landing and was evacuated for medical treatment. In hospital, the shattered bones in his hand were fused together at a right angle which allowed him to grip a helicopters 'collective control' thus allowing him to continue flying with the Army.

In mid 1966 1 RAR was replaced by the 1st Australian Task Force ( two battalions with supporting units). 161 moved south from Bien Hoa to Vung Tau in Phuoc Tuy province. Soon after they moved to Nui Dat, and newly completed Luscombe Field.

The 2000 square kilometres of Phuoc Tuy province had to be searched regularly by 161 flight and so the unit was increased from four to nine aircraft - six Sioux and three Cessnas. The unit was involved and part of all major operations that Australians undertook.

Early 1967 saw 161 Flight undertake yet another role - an air mail service or 'Possum Post' as it was called. Mail from 1 ATF and the troops in the field was flown direct to Tan Son Nhut airport where it connected with civilian flight to Australia.

The 161 Flight detachment was the last 1 ATF unit to leave Vietnam, (the very last Australian Unit to leave was AATTV) Thus ended 161 Flights roll in the Vietnam war. They can be proud of providing a degree of air support never initially envisaged by the commanders of 1 ATF.

Despite a distinguished record in WW1, the importance of the Aviation Corps to the Army had become obscured following the formation of the RAAF in 1921. However the wisdom of reforming was amply demonstrated by 161 Flight during its service in Vietnam.