- A.N. Other
- Naval Aviation
- None noted.
- RAN Ships
- 817 Squadron, HMAS Melbourne II, HMAS Sydney III
- December 2011 edition of the Naval Historical Review (all rights reserved)
Early in 1969 the Squadron re-equipped with the more capable Westland Wessex Mk31B helicopter and re-embarked in Melbourne providing anti-submarine protection to the fleet. In May that year, Melbourne , with her new CAG made up of 805, 816 and 817 Squadrons (flying McDonnell Douglas A-4G Skyhawks, Grumman S-2E Trackers and Wessex helicopters respectively), departed Australia for the successful ‘Sea Sprite’ South East Area Treaty Organisation (SEATO) exercises. The exercises, however, were marred by tragedy when at 3.15 am on 3 June 1969, Melbourne collided with USS Frank E Evans recalling the HMAS Voyager disaster five years earlier. No one in Melbourne was hurt but the American destroyer lost 74 lives. A number of Melbourne’s crew were decorated or commended for their actions on the night of the collision including LCDR Des Rogers, 817 Squadron’s commanding officer, received the Air Force Cross for his efforts and the performance of his Squadron. The Squadron also received a Meritorious Unit Commendation from the US Secretary of the Navy. LCDR Col Patterson, Melbourne’s Flight Deck Officer, became a Member of the British Empire for his courage in the rescue operations which included boarding the US Destroyer’s aft section and searching it for survivors. Melbourne made for Singapore for temporary repairs before departing for Australia and a new bow section. The CAG remained operational in spite of the extensive damage. A subsequent inquiry cleared Melbourne of blame.
Shortly afterwards, the Fleet Air Arm (FAA) adopted United States Navy (USN) prefixes and 817 Squadron became HS817 Squadron indicating that it was a rotary-wing, anti-submarine unit. The Squadron and its Wessex helicopters were called into action in 1975 to assist in relief efforts for one of the most devastating natural disasters in Australian history. Melbourne was alongside in Sydney with her CAG disembarked at NAS Nowra when Cyclone Tracy hit Darwin on Christmas Eve 1974. HS817 Squadron personnel were recalled, leaving their homes and loved ones at Christmas time, to begin relief efforts in the northern capital. Melbourne arrived in Darwin on 2 January 1975 and HS817 Squadron’s helicopters made an immediate impact on Operation ‘Navy Help Darwin’. The Squadron was able to conduct search and rescue sorties in areas that had previously been inaccessible enabling evacuations to be carried out quickly and over great distances. Darwin’s mayor, Harry ‘Tiger’ Brennan, later said: ‘We owe the Navy the greatest debt of all.’
The Wessex had been an impressive ASW aircraft and had performed admirably in civil service operations for nearly a decade but rapid technological advancements meant that the search for a replacement was in full swing by the early 1970s. By February 1976 the Squadron was fully equipped with Westland Sea King Mk 50 anti-submarine helicopters representing another significant advancement in submarine detection over the ageing Wessex. A flight had been undergoing conversion training for the Sea King at RNAS Culdrose as early as October 1974. The Wessex took on a secondary role as a utility aircraft conducting plane guard and search and rescue duties. It continued to serve in the RAN for a further 13 years.
In 1977 Melbourne with 817 embarked returned to Spithead for another Fleet Review on 28 June, this time marking the Silver Jubilee of Her Majesty’s Coronation. When Melbourne decommissioned in 1982, HS817 Squadron operated permanently from NAS Nowra as the Sea King was prohibitively large for regular totally embarked squadron operations. The Sea King did, however, embark in HMA Ships Stalwart, Jervis Bay, Success, Tobruk, Kanimbla and Manoora throughout the 1980s and 1990s and beyond, and a flight continues to regularly embark in Success and Tobruk to this day.
With the re-commissioning of 816 Squadron in July 1992 and the introduction into service of the Sikorsky S-70B-2 Seahawk anti-submarine helicopter, HS817 Squadron’s Sea Kings began to reduce their role in ASW and were primarily used in ASW training for the RAN’s Oberon Class Submarines. Although primarily an anti-submarine weapons system, the Sea King began to take on a diverse range of activities and in 1995 began a major modernisation program, the first such upgrade since the aircraft had entered service with RAN some 20 years earlier. This upgrade removed the dipping SONAR capability permanently, and immediately following this modification the Sea Kings were officially tasked as the RAN’s Maritime Utility Helicopter (MUH).