The first major South Pacific cyclone of the 2007/08 season developed out of a tropical low in the northern Coral Sea on November 13, and went on to devastate parts of Papua New Guinea’s north-eastern coastal region around Oro Province. In the aftermath of the cyclone, ADF aircraft and personnel were dispatched to the area to deliver relief supplies to the people of Oro Province under Operation PNG Assist.
Guba, as the storm was named by the Tropical Cyclone Warning Centre in Port Moresby, began to intensify on the morning of November 14, and alerts were subsequently issued to eastern coastal and island communities of Queensland’s Cape York Peninsula. After drifting erratically around the Coral Sea for several days, Guba strengthened to a Category 3 storm with sustained winds of more than 140km/h and a barometric pressure of less than 970kPa.
Even though the cyclone remained small and slow moving, it was particularly intense on its northern flank which lashed Oro and neighbouring provinces with torrential rain and two metre high storm surges for six days before it eventually dissipated into a tropical depression on November 20.
The rain quickly swelled the rivers which flow down from the southern end of the lush Owen Stanley Ranges, knocking out bridges and roads, as well as disrupting water supplies and electricity to tens of thousands of people, more than 2000 of whom had to be evacuated. Landslides caused stands of large rainforest trees to be washed down the rivers, adding to the carnage caused by the torrents of water. At least 170 people were killed in Oro and the neighbouring Milne Bay Provinces by Cyclone Guba, while the PNG government estimated more than 145,000 people were affected by the resultant flooding and says damage to the infrastructure of the region totalled more than K200m (A$80m).
Answering the call
Late in the evening on November 21, Officer Commanding (OC) 84WG and former CO of 37SQN, GPCAPT Tim Innes was appointed to head up a joint task force to establish a relief operation to the people of Oro Province. An advance team arrived in PNG later the next day, and was followed that evening by two RAAF C-130Js from Richmond carrying medical supplies, emergency shelters and other provisions. By the morning of November 23, Operation PNG Assist had kicked into gear and the delivery of supplies was underway.
“So, a day and a half after getting the go-ahead we were delivering aid, which is a significantly rapid response,” GPCAPT Innes told Australian Aviation.
“Our main roles were to relieve human suffering. We were fully responsive to the PNG Natural Disaster Centre, and we worked closely with various NGOs in the region.”
By the afternoon of November 25, the ADF had the two C-130Js, three Caribous from 38SQN, and three Army Black Hawks in Oro Province. In addition, one of the RAAF’s new C-17s delivered 26 tonnes of supplies from Richmond to Port Moresby, and the Navy heavy landing craft HMAS Wewak was en route.
“We were mainly carrying medical items and medicines, tents and shelters, generators, toilets, food, water purification tablets, and the like,” GPCAPT Innes said. “The supplies came from the AusAID store in Sydney, and were brought out to RAAF Richmond and built up into pallets for the C-130s and C-17.”
An Army King Air was also used to provide transport for ADF, PNGDF, aid workers and PNG government officials, as well as command and control, communications, survey and observation flights, and other light duties during the relief effort.
“We quickly established that more than 70 bridges had been cut by the flood waters and that there was little or no ground transport available in Oro. In many cases, the locals could only communicate via UHF radio,” GPCAPT Innes said.
“The Oro Bay region recorded 65 fatalities from the floods – the whole area was covered in logs from trees swept down the mountains by flooding. Although the devastation wasn’t on the same scale as Banda Aceh after the tsunami, many pockets looked very similar. It was primarily water and debris damage, and in some cases the huge volumes of water actually changed the course of some rivers. It will take years to fully re-build the infrastructure.”
“Our concept was to use the Girua Airstrip near the provincial capital of Popondetta as our main base. We had the Hercs flying an air bridge over the mountains from Port Moresby to Girua, while the Caribous operated out of Tufi to the southeast, and the Black Hawks out of Lae-Nazdab up north. The Hercs would bring in avgas and avtur to Girua in 1,800 litre rubber blivets so the Caribous and Black Hawks could operate with relatively light fuel loads and thus carry more supplies.”
An appropriate force
Because most of the communications in the region had been cut, it took a few days to determine the extent of the damage and where the aid was most needed.
“There was the usual bit of confusion in the first few days, but it quickly settled down into a well coordinated effort,” GPCAPT Innes said.
Apart from Tufi, the Caribous operated to airfields at Tetebedi, Kokoda, Ioma, Gurney, Itokama, Wanigela, Afore and Sila, while the Black Hawks operated into airfields and landing zones (LZs) such as Iva, Sasembata, Ero Mission, Tave, Kotaure, Ombisusu, Korasta, and to Popondetta Hospital.
“I believe we had an appropriate force for the task,” GPCAPT Innes offered.
“We were just able to keep up with unloading the C-130s, and the Caribous and Black Hawks could just keep up with what was coming in on the air bridge. The C‑130s flew with just three crew members, two pilots and a ‘loady’, so it was great flying for them – a tremendous experience.”
“We had about 50 people at Girua, 10 of whom were responsible for running the forward supply base. We also had comms people from the 1 Combat Communications Squadron at Richmond, medical personnel from Amberley and Richmond, a Navy clearance diver team to survey and clear Oro Bay for HMAS Wewak, the small ATC team at Girua, and a team of Army engineers from 19 CEW. There were people from all three services.”
“We certainly applied a lot of what we learned from Operation Tsunami Assist in 2004/05. One of our initial weaknesses back then was in having an insufficient number of load teams, so we went into PNG with this in mind so we could better grease the wheels of the airlift. Having our own ATC team was also a bonus, but I guess the other good thing was we were virtually the only ones there. (PNG company) Heavylift was also in the area with its chartered helicopters, as was an NGO with a couple of Twin Otters.”
“I’d have to say though that the real success story of the whole exercise was the Caribous. They were outstanding. They were flown to the maximum extent and never broke once. It was the ideal environment for them, and it really vindicated the training the Caribous have done in the region over the past few decades. The crews were already familiar with the environment, the locals and the airstrips up there.”
The ADF has been investigating the replacement of the Caribou, which entered service in 1964, for more than 20 years, but finding such a replacement with the Caribou’s unique short and rough field capabilities has proven difficult. The current Air 8000 Phase 2 replacement program is scheduled to be decided this year, with aircraft such as the Alenia/Boeing/L-3 C-27J or the EADS-CASA C-295M under review. But while both of these aircraft have greater uplift capability, faster cruise speeds and greater range than the Caribou, neither can replicate its extraordinary field performance.
“We thought about taking Chinooks up there too, but in many cases that aircraft’s greater rotor downwash had the potential to damage some of the already fragile buildings that commonly closely surround the airstrips and LZs the Black Hawks and Caribous were using.”
“There was also a lot of sentimental history there with the Australians in Oro Province, going back to WW2,” added GPCAPT Innes.
“The local chief was extremely helpful in facilitating our deployment and in getting the locals working. Everything had to be double-handed, and it was a real cooperative effort between all the locals, the ADF, PNG Defence Force, the PNG Police Force and the NGOs. It was a good exercise in airlift precision and logistics.”
Shoulders to the wheel
In the two weeks of the operation, the two C-130Js flew 58 sorties and carried 411 tonnes of stores from Port Moresby to Girua. The Caribous flew an amazing 311 sorties for a total of 171.9 hours, and carried 246.9 tonnes of stores, including one day where they carried 63.6 tonnes in 40 sorties! The Black Hawks flew 162.8 hours in 118 sorties, and carried 170.7 tonnes of stores, while the King Air flew 36.3 hours and carried 58 passengers.
“The Black Hawks were flown back to Australia on civil airlift.”
In addition to the airlift numbers, HMAS Wewak also carried 220 tonnes of cargo from Lae to the small port of Gona near Popondetta.
For GPCAPT Innes, a veteran of Banda Aceh as well as a couple of C-130 deployments to the Middle East, it was a satisfying and successful mission. “We really reacted well to the situation – the way we combined fixed and rotary winged assets, personnel from all three services, and an extremely compressed planning cycle, and then to get going on the spot was very satisfying.
“For a few days, Girua was the busiest airfield in PNG, and we were fortunate to be blessed with good weather while we were there. By the time we had left the locals were in a pretty good way in terms of infrastructure – most had shelter, and some river crossings and roads had been repaired and road transport was starting to get moving again.
“I was given a lot of autonomy by the ADF and government, but we also had very clear guidelines. It was important to be aware of when the relief phase ended and the sustainment phase began so we knew when it was appropriate to depart.
“Everyone dug in and had such a strong commitment to the operation – it was a pleasure to be a part of such a professional outfit.”
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