Aviation Spotters Online videographer Mark Pourzenic, was recently given the privilege of being able to witness first hand, the Australian Defence Forces Humanitarian Aid mission, helping those affected by the bushfires in Victoria’s east through Operation Bushfire Assist.
Operation Bushfire Assist –
Since September 2019, the Australian Defence Force has been working with state and territory authorities in response to the deepening bushfire crisis here in Australia, which now has become the ADF’s main effort, and will continue for as long as needed.
With more than 6000 full time and reserve personnel providing direct support via air, sea and land from defence establishments across regions affected by the fires. In an unprecedented move, the Governor-General, His Excellency General the Honourable David Hurley AC DSC (Retd), authorised the call out of 3000 reservists to assist with Humanitarian Aid during Operation BushFire Assist, a first in Australia’s military history.
Overseeing OpBushFireAssist are three separate Joint Task Force teams-
JTF 646 Victoria- Utilising the Army’s 4th Brigade, along with support elements of the ADF. RAAF Base East Sale in Victoria is the central hub for all responses in the southern area.
JTF 1110 New South Wales and the Australian Capital Territory- Utilising the Army’s 5th Brigade, along with support elements of the ADF. Holsworthy Barracks is the central hub for all responses across NSW and the ACT.
JTF 1111 South Australia and Tasmania- Utilising the Army’s 9th Brigade, along with support elements of the ADF. Keswick Barracks is the central hub for all responses across South Australia and Tasmania.
The Chief of the Australian Defence Force Angus Campbell, has appointed Major General Justin ‘Jake’ Ellwood, as the Emergency ADF National Support Coordinator, working in support of state and territory authorities. Vision of the CDF and Commander JTF arriving at RAAF Base East Sale can be seen in the video link above.
Detailed Support as of mid January-
Victoria – Joint Task Force (JTF) 646-
Continued route clearance and assessment through coastal and alpine areas, with main focus of clearing areas of the Princes Highway.
Rotary-wing aircraft continuing to deliver fodder to areas of need.
HMAS Choules continuing its resupply to Mallacoota
ADF teams on standby to assist with disposal of deceased livestock
Approximately 100 members of the Papua New Guinea Defence Force (PNGDF) undergoing orientation and induction into the Joint Task Force Structure at Puckapunyal.
Air Support –
Up to four Australian Army Chinooks and a pair from the Republic of Singapore Air Force operating from RAAF Base East Sale providing support to firefighting operations and humanitarian assistance to isolated and communities cut off due to the fires.
Air traffic controllers providing a flight information service at Bairnsdale Airport in support of local authorities due to the high volume of traffic at the airport.
Boeing P-8A Poseidon aircraft conducting regular reconnaissance flights over fire affected areas, with following aircraft types conducting support flights: a pair of C-17A Globemasters from RAAF Base Amberley, a pair of C-130J Hercules from RAAF Base Richmond and three C-27J Spartans from RAAF Base East Sale.
Health and Pastoral Support –
During this crisis, the RAAF is operating a Role One Medical Facility at RAAF East Sale which sees it providing pastoral and support care to Joint Task Force operations, with mental health professionals onboard to assist with any mental health issues.
UAS Support and Mobility Operations-
The army have deployed a Small Unmanned Aerial System ( WASP) to RAAF East Sale for reconnaissance operations, along with engineering personnel and equipment to supplement those already in high demand by local state councils, for road repairs, firebreaks and removing debris from public areas. This also includes damage assessments provided to Victorian authorities throughout regional areas.
New South Wales and Australian Capital Territory – Joint Task Force (JTF) 1110-
ADF teams continuing establishing support and supply to areas of Batemans Bay, Lake Conjola, Milton, Shoalhaven and Cobargo.
HMAS Adelaide operating in the vicinity of Eden and disembark engineering elements to support route clearance, including Adelaide’s embarked MH-60R Seahawk Helicopter conducting reconnaissance of isolated communities in and around Clyde River Valley, including operations with Royal New Zealand Air Force NH-90 Helicopters.
Clearing of the Monaro highway south of Bombala, and further assesment of the Woodchip Mill at Eden.
Resupply of water to the townships of Gilmore with 60,000 litres dropped and Belowra and Nimmitabel receiving substantial amounts.
Catering support to the township of Bega, with 350 meals provided daily, along with fodder delivery.
Air Support –
A pair of Royal New Zealand Air Force NH-90 helicopters, an MH-60R Seahawk helicopter from HMAS Adelaide, Two EC-135 helicopters plus an MRH-90 Taipan from HMAS Albatross, Nowra utilised for fire mapping, surveilliance and search and rescue. Along with these Helo’s, up to four Australian Army MRH-90’s from Luscombe Airfield at Holsworthy have also been tasked, for duties in and around the Hunter, Greater Sydney, Illawara, ACT and southern regions.
Edinburgh based Boeing P-8A Poseidons also conducting reconnaissance flights fire affected areas of NSW.
Recovery, Health and Pastoral Support
The ADF is providing personnel and equipment with initial recovery tasks as assessed by the NSW Government, based on advice given by ADF advisers. Towns covered by these assessments are Tamworth, Wollondilly, Nowra, Mudgee, Maitland and Wingecarribee. Army has also established a Role One medical Facility at Holsworthy Barracks, which sees it providing pastoral and support care to Joint Task Force operations, with mental health professionals onboard to assist with any mental health issues.
South Australia and Tasmania – Joint Task Force (JTF) 1111-
Kangaroo Island – Clearance of tracks by ADF teams for access by SA power maintenance teams to re-establish power to the southern half of island.
A pair of CH-47F Chinook helicopters to support ongoing operations on Kangaroo Island, including transfer of volunteer firefighters and fodder.
ADF personnel conducting livestock containment and burials, firebreak preparations and recovery of civilian vehicles.
Ongoing water purification at Kingscote that has surpassed more than 1,600,000 litres of water to date, that has seen the New Zealand Defence Force water treatment facility, in conjunction with SA water, providing up to 12,000 litres of fresh drinking water daily.
Army catering detachment providing fresh meals daily to all civilian and defence personnel.
ADF teams providing and assisting with koala rescue, repairs to farms and infrastructure, roadside maintenance, clearing fallen trees and transporting up to 20,000 litres of water for local farms and livestock in and around the Adelaide Hills.
Boeing P-8A Poseidon maritime aircraft Edinburgh providing reconnaissance flights over fire affected areas operating from Edinburgh RAAF Base.
Soldiers and Chaplains on hand to support vulnerable or persons of risk in the community.
Defence Base Support –
As part of Operation BushFire Assist, Defence has made available a number of bases along Australia’s east coast, with locations from Brisbane to Adelaide open for use by persons needing short term evacuation assistance. Bases providing accommodation to evacuees are as follows – RAAF Base East Sale, RAAF Base Williams, Latchford Barracks, RAAF Base Edinburgh, RAAF Base Richmond, RAAF Base Williamtown, RAAF Base Wagga and HMAS Harman.
Along with the above mentioned bases offering support, the following are also providing additional support where needed, these include –
RAAF Base East Sale supporting defence aircraft providing emergency response.
RAAF Base Richmond providing airbase access and support for Large Air Tanker and spotter aircraft.
RAAF Base Wagga providing refuelling support.
HMAS Albatross providing meals and accommodation for Rural Fire Service personnel.
Marrangaroo Training Area has been made available for RFS personnel.
International Assistance –
Japan has provided two C-130 Hercules aircraft and associated personnel. The pair of Japan Air Self Defense Force aircraft arrived mid January and are based at Richmond in New South Wales.
The New Zealand Defence Force along with the Singapore Armed Forces are and have been providing personnel and assets in assistance to operation BushFire Assist.
100 light engineers from Papua New Guinea Defence Force once brought up to speed will be integrated into Joint Task Force 646 (Victoria)
Offer by the Republic of Fiji to provide a platoon of engineers will work alongside the ADF out of East Gippsland.
Visit to RAAF Base East Sale –
Sunday January 12, 2020 saw myself, leave Melbourne at 7am for my 2 hr and 45min drive to the township of Sale, situated in Gippsland, located in the beautiful country of eastern Victoria. My purpose was to visit Royal Australian Air Force Base East Sale, primarily used to train the next cadre of up and coming Air Force pilots and navigators. But, since New years day 2020, it has been the home base of a massive supply network associated with Operation Bushfire Assist, and the purpose of my visit.
Meeting with my guide and host for the day, Flt.Lt Scott, I was quickly signed in and given my media pass which would see me visit all areas of the base associated with the Humanitarian Aid effort that was taking place around the clock at RAAF East Sale. Driving around this large base, we first found ourselves at the fuel site, one of the most important bits of cargo being transported to cut off communities due to widespread road closures. A team from the Australian Army was in control of the site, and where in the process of readying many fuel bladders, or (CFD) Collapsible Fabric Drums, as they’re known ready for airlift by any number of helicopters, or transport aircraft. Fuel and water are essential items needed by many cut off communities.
After our visit to the fuel dump, we quickly made our way over to the area where the Chinooks of C Company were parked, and got some vital information regarding their movements for the day, so we could get set up to catch any action of the Chinooks operating. As it was still early on in the morning, it was time to head over to RAAF East Sale Air Movements and get our names included on the daily manifest of C-27J Spartan flights to Mallacootta, which as part of my visit, was gratefully accepted. With three Spartans on the East Sale ramp, an opportunity arose to film one of the Spartan’s being readied for a flight east to Mallacootta, and whilst on the ramp witnessing its start up and taxi, an announcement was made that a VIP flight would be landing shortly, and the chance to film its arrival was given the all clear.
Onboard the Beechcraft KingAir350 operated by 32 Squadron, was the Chief of the Australian Defence Force Angus Campbell, along with Joint Task Force Commander Major General Justin Ellwood, who’d flown in to see first hand the available assets on the ground, and to personally meet with evacuees, as well as meet with current ADF personnel directly associated with Operation BushFire Assist and whats needed to continue with the ongoing Humanitarian Aid mission being carried out.
With all the commotion going on, a Republic of Singapore Air Force CH-47SD Chinook took off on an Red Cross mission to help out an isolated town north of East Sale, whilst an NH-90 Helicopter from the Royal New Zealand Air Force dropped in for a hot-refuel, before heading over to the fuel compound to pick up a CFD to gift to another community in desperate need of fuel. It was truly amazing to witness the amount of flights in and out of the airfield in such a short period of time, and was told that this is happening around the clock, during OpBushFireAssist.
The time had arrived for our flight, and the excitement grew as I met with the crew prior to our boarding, to discuss what access I was allowed in regards to filming and capturing images etc. Our crew for the flight was plane Captain Kersnovski, along with Pilot Officer Wuttke as his right hand man, whilst one of only two female loadmasters with 35 Squadron, Corporal Guterres was looking after the passengers and our cargo in the rear of the C-27J Spartan. After boarding the aircraft and given our flight safety brief, we had a slight delay due to the demands of flying in air that is thick with smoke and debris from the bushfires, with the aircrafts APU (Auxiliary Power Unit) being a tad temperamental due to the harsh conditions experienced. With a thumbs up from the ground crew, our flight was back on track and clearance given to taxi. I myself was fortunate in being allowed the honour of having the jump seat for the flight and was privy to wearing a headset and listening in to the radio chatter associated with military flying.
Once the clearance for take off was given, the sheer brute force of the Spartan was unleashed, and before long we were at 6,500 feet indicated before auto pilot was set for the remainder of our climb, and easterly track to Mallacootta. Following the coastline past Lakes Entrance, looking out the left side of the aircraft one could start to see the massive smoke plumes and haze in the distance, and with clear skies to the right over Bass Strait, one could feel the devastation waiting ahead. It wasn’t long before some of the smoke plumes came into full view, and although we ourselves were cruising at 16,500 feet indicated, the plumes of smoke weren’t much lower than our aircraft, which wasn’t a welcome sight I can assure you.
One thing that struck me deeply, and still sends shivers down my spine is the amount of blackened and burnt bushland that we over flew. It was very sad to see so much of the natural bush burnt, and something that really isn’t shown on the local news. One can only imagine the amount of loss to local flora and fauna, human life and property. With the ADF’s involvement with Operation BushFire Assist, a lot of these affected communities are getting the help and supplies they’re desperately in need of.
Coming in to finals at Mallacootta Airfield, one could see the Royal Australian Navy supply ship that’s provided evacuation relief for residents and holiday makers stranded at Mallacootta, HMAS Choules anchored off the coast, before we touched down to an airfield that had literally all of the surrounding trees around the airfields perimiter blackened by fire, a rather confronting sight as we touched down. Once down and stopped, to minimize wear and tear on the runway surface due to our operating weights, the loadmasters in the rear guided the pilots as we reversed our aircraft into a holding bay, before the all clear was given for passengers to disembark, and cargo to be off-loaded, all the whilst the engines kept running.
One of the crucial supplies our flight off-loaded to the community of Mallacootta was a bladder full of diesel fuel that would be very welcomed to the township. This was a relatively new concept of transportation as developed by the Squadron as the Operation is progressing along, showing the capabilities of the RAAF in the field when needed. Once our Spartan was reloaded, and passengers embarked, it was time to head back to RAAF East Sale. After than no more than 25 minutes on the ground, we were once again airborne and headed back over the fire front. As I mentioned earlier of being privy to wearing the headset, the constant chatter of the aerial fire bombing aircraft over the airwaves was constant, showing that the fight is endless until the last ember is put out, one must regard the work of these firefighters as gods work.
Once back safely on the ground at East Sale, one last opportunity beckoned, and that was to interview a CH-47F Chinook pilot from the Australian Army’s 5th Aviation Regiment, that had flown four of their Chinooks down to Victoria from Townsville, in far north Queensland, to help and assist with Operation BushFire Assist.
It was an incredible day had at RAAF East Sale, having the chance to meet all the dedicated personnel of the Australian Defence Force in all their forms, all united for one cause, and that was to help their fellow Australians in need due to the Bushfire crisis. I for one feel truly humbled by what I was personally able to experience during my time at the Base, and the commitment shown by all serving members of the ADF. Thank you.
Aviation Spotters Online would like to thank Flt.Lt B.Scott for her time and assistance, along with all members present, and on duty at RAAF Base East Sale during the course of ASO’s visit in helping making this article.
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