This feature story on the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) 38 Squadron first appeared in the September 2018 edition of Australian Aviation.
The end of an era is upon the Royal Australian Air Force as it farewells 38 Squadron after 75 years of continuous operational service.
The end of flying operations this November is a bittersweet moment for those who served with the squadron, with bonds that were forged in war and strengthened through countless humanitarian and peacekeeping missions in the decades after.
Australian Aviation takes a look at the famed squadron and its profound impact on those who were a part of it.
A quiet achiever
Based at RAAF Townsville with a fleet of eight Beechcraft King Air 350s, 38 Squadron has conducted its primary mission of light transport since the retirement of the venerable de Havilland Canada DHC-4 Caribou in 2009.
Originally formed at RAAF Richmond in September 1943 with a fleet of Lockheed Hudsons, the squadron would go on to distinguish itself flying Douglas C-47 Dakotas on transport operations in New Guinea during World War 2.
In the immediate post-war period 38 Squadron Dakotas provided a thrice-weekly air link between Australia and Japan in support of the British Commonwealth Occupation Force, while in 1948 a large contingent of 38 Squadron personnel was seconded to the Royal Air Force to fly as part of the Berlin airlift.
In 1950 the squadron deployed to Singapore to support the campaign against communist insurgents in Malaya, while later that year a detachment was sent to support UN forces in Korea.
Operations with the Caribou began in 1964, which the squadron use to support innumerable humanitarian and peacekeeping operations across the Pacific region, from Papua New Guinea to East Timor to the Solomon Islands.
The squadron’s final chapter, at least to date, opened in 2009 with its transition to the King Air, intended as an interim light transport until a replacement for the Caribou’s battlefield airlifter capability could be acquired (ultimately delivered in the form of the C-27J Spartan, now in service with fellow former Caribou operator 35SQN).
“The transition across to the King Air was probably about the time where it should’ve come, to tell you the truth,” 38SQN commanding officer WGCDR Michael Ward told Australian Aviation.
“In my personal opinion, the King Air has really provided something quite special and unique.”
The King Air has been valued for its inherent flexibility. With a fleet of eight aircraft, including three that were transferred from the Army’s 173 General Support Squadron, 38SQN has not only been able to conduct light passenger transport across the country, but perform aerial surveillance, act as a communications relay for ground forces and develop a classified intelligence, surveillance, target acquisition and reconnaissance (ISTAR) capability.
“While we did lose a bit of capability by not being able to carry a lot of cargo, we gained a lot more by being inherently flexible to Air Force and ultimately, government,” said WGCDR Ward.
In recent times, 38SQN has earned accolades from RAAF hierarchy for its high availability of aircraft, ready to be tasked at short notice.
“Our principal role is moving people around,” outlined 38SQN XO Matt Plenty.
“Over the time we’ve been operating, because we can get along at a reasonable speed and we get into a lot of smaller airfields that bigger aircraft struggle with, we’ve ended up doing a lot more work in that field than was previously done.
“We’ve done a lot of VIP or senior leadership tasks, again for the same reason – it’s the timeliness we can provide… I think that’s given quite a lot of efficiency to those sort of moves.”
Participation in training exercises like Pitch Black, Hamel, Southern Katipo, Talisman Sabre, Bersama Shield and Bersama Lima has seen 38SQN utilised to move personnel around the exercise area, act as an enemy aircraft and even conduct mock bombing runs to train joint terminal attack controllers in New Zealand.
There has been close cooperation with Army’s Townsville-based 3rd Brigade and Cairns-based 51st Battalion, Far North Queensland Regiment (51 FNQR), which also operates throughout Cape York, the Gulf and the Torres Strait.
“Units from 3rd Brigade have quite a lot of exercise interaction with PNG. So while they need a larger asset to move a company of people up there for instance, there’s all those smaller activities beforehand, like reconnaissance or a command liaison, that we support,” SQNLDR Plenty said.
“It’s similar with 51FNQR all through Cape York, the Torres Strait and Gulf country. Again, pretty much everywhere they operate we can get in and out of. We’ve helped them out with moving people around for recruiting drives or in and out of training activities.”
SQNLDR Plenty said the King Air itself had evolved as a platform in its eight years with the squadron.
“Interestingly, when the King Air came across from Army, we picked up a few roles that we hadn’t done. One of those was imagery acquisition, so camera survey work to produce maps,” he said.
“Another capability we picked up was the base station repeater, which is essentially a comms relay.”
The squadron’s ISTAR capability has been another interesting addition in recent years. While exact details are hard to come by given its classified nature, squadron members seemed confident it would achieve final operating capability this year.
“We’ve done a whole bunch of trial work with that particular capability and it’s kicking goals,” SQNLDR Plenty said.
“Our progress has been moving in leaps and bounds this year. We’ve got to the point where we’ve got the Army ready to move into the next phase of its development.”
WGCDR Ward said the King Air’s manned ISTAR platform was an advantage in a complex battlespace environment.
“Instead of being able to push a drone around the sky, you’ve got someone you can talk to and actually outline specific information. That’s my view of it,” he said.
That capability will transfer to RAAF East Sale-based 32 Squadron, which also operates the King Air, in addition to its primary function of providing a platform for training air combat officers with 1 Flying Training School.
One beneficial by-product from 38SQN’s operation of the King Air, which it flew as a two-crew operation, has been the ability to develop the experience of junior pilots bound for bigger platforms within Air Mobility Group (AMG).
With its modern Pro Line 21 integrated avionics system, the King Air 350 has allowed for a smoother transition to the C-130J, C-17, KC‑30A and C-27J compared to a posting straight off pilot’s course.
“We would develop guys and girls straight off pilot’s course up to a captaincy,” said SQNLDR Plenty.
“Out of those, the ones that we could see were high performers, we kept pushing through training and then we would essentially go and CV them around the rest of AMG for larger aircraft roles.
“What they had was an accelerated progression and those units realised after a while that when they got someone from 38 with 500 hours or 1,000 hours as captain, they could progress quickly through their own qualification scheme.
“They would step up to the mark and normally become a captain on one of those other platforms quicker than someone who had come straight off pilot’s course.”
38 Squadron pilot and former XO SQNLDR Ross Benson admitted it took some convincing, but AMG squadrons eventually appreciated the advantages of taking on a pilot who had earned their stripes in Townsville.
“What I found was that when pilots here were pushing for other postings, initially it was hard to convince people in other squadrons to take them on,” he said.
“But after the first six or 12 months, almost all of the guys who have posted out are in flying jobs with other squadrons because they’ve seen the quality of pilot we’re producing.
“They’re getting a variety of experienced pilots who are at a good standard.”
FLTLT Stephen Maunder, who previously flew C-17s at Amberley-based 36 Squadron, said the wealth of knowledge and experience passed on to his junior colleagues by veteran pilots at 38SQN had been invaluable.
“The development opportunities for those junior drivers have been outstanding, especially with those senior pilots who have more experience than I could ever dream of,” he said.
“One of the reasons why I posted to 38SQN is because we had a lot of junior pilots who’ll go on to fly Hercs and C-17s, so that mentoring was critical from the senior drivers.
“It’s not just the flying and captaincy aspect but more the organisational understanding that the experienced drivers have built up over time. They’re exposed to a twin-engine aircraft and are able to gain command experience. They can run a mission, whether that be a benign, one day task going down the coast and back or one to two weeks away dealing with multiple government agencies.”
The flying gravel truck
A profile on 38 Squadron wouldn’t be complete without discussing the aircraft that helped it earn such a stellar reputation in the field.
To be sure, there was nothing fancy about the Caribou. But it was practical and built to serve a purpose.
And therein lay its appeal to the generations of pilots who flew it.
“It was a beautiful aircraft to fly,” recalled SQNLDR Plenty.
“I was firmly of the opinion that every pilot who joined the Air Force should get sent to Caribous before they went to something else because it had no auto-pilot and was completely manual.”
For retired Air Commodore and Vietnam veteran Kevin Henderson, the Caribou was a welcome upgrade from the tired, WW2-era C-47 Dakotas the squadron was then flying.
Reverse thrust, nosewheel steering and an impressive short takeoff and landing (STOL) capability were luxuries the old C-47 never afforded.
“The Army wanted an aircraft that could support them a little better than the Dakota could and that’s why the Caribou was purchased,” he explained.
“It had roughly the same cargo‑carrying capacity as the Dakota but it was a much better support aircraft with rear loading and was good for paratrooping out the back and side doors.
“The biggest advantage for the Army then was that it could operate off unprepared airstrips because of the low pressure tyres and reverse thrust. It came into its own operating in Vietnam.”
SQNLDR Benson remembered the Caribou a little differently.
After not making it through to fast jets, the rugged aircraft wasn’t exactly his first choice when he was posted to 38SQN in 1997.
“When I first joined, I never ever wanted to fly it,” he said.
“All I ever wanted to do was fly fighters and instead I was assigned to the slowest and supposedly the worst aircraft in the RAAF. But it’s been the most fun aircraft I’ve ever flown.
“Flying in Papua New Guinea was the greatest.”
Indeed, SQNLDR Plenty believed the Caribou was in its element when navigating the mountainous terrain of PNG’s Highlands region where its impressive STOL performance came to the fore.
“Thirteen tonnes of aircraft at 67 knots coming down on final with a landing roll that’s shorter than a Cessna’s – 500 to 800ft landing rolls is just incredible and you only needed about 1,000ft to takeoff,” he said.
“There’s some very challenging flying up there, extremely high lowest safe altitudes and getting in and out of places when the weather is unfriendly can be difficult.
“A lot of the places we were going to, you could only get in and out of there visually because there is no instrument approach, or if there is, it’s the NDB (non-directional beacon) that hasn’t worked for a long time.”
SQNLDR Benson, an East Timor veteran, said the Caribou’s versatility in the field unsupported was impressive.
“I look at what we’ve done with so little and we’ve always done the best we can,” he said.
“It’s like the support we gave for cyclone relief to Papua New Guinea in 2006. We went up there with 15 personnel and three aircraft. We had to hand pump them to fuel them up. You’re talking 10 44-gallon drums that we hand load ourselves – and we delivered 450,000 pounds of supplies in three weeks.
“The work was so rewarding though, I love it up there. Papua New Guinea is fantastic.”
But it wasn’t just PNG that had its challenges. SQNLDR Plenty recalled a particularly hairy situation during a very windy day on Murray Island in the Torres Strait back the mid-1990s.
“It’s got a 2,000ft strip on top of it and about 200ft up from the water with 400ft to 500ft hills,” he started.
“There’s a hill either side of the grass runway and I can still remember going in, because it’s quite short and damp so when you hit the ground you haven’t got great braking which means you slide on the grass.
“We were going to pick up some 51FNQR reservists and were coming down on final with all the flap out but too much wind, so you’re pointing sideways at the trees. You’ve got full rudder in and you’re outside your crosswind limit at that point.
“But you had to stick with it until you got into the lee of the hill, which cuts out the wind. So you’re sitting there watching it come down until you get about 200ft above the runway, and the wind peters out which lets the aircraft straighten up to touch down.
“It’s entertaining because you’re right at that point where you’re either going to touch down or power up and leave. We went in there a few times and had the same issue every time.”
SQNLDR Benson and former squadron XO SQNLDR Vicky Harrison had the privilege of flying one of the last two retiring Caribous, aircraft A4-152, to RAAF Museum Point Cook in late 2009.
Then squadron CO WGCDR Tony Thorpe was at the controls of aircraft A4-140.
“They were the first aircraft we ever took delivery of and the last aircraft to fly in RAAF service,” SQNLDR Benson said.
“It was weird because there were several hundred people at Point Cook as we taxied in. We shut the engines down together and I was quite emotional.”
Equal to the task
As 38 Squadron celebrates 75 years of continuous service this month, its status as one of the RAAF’s longest continually serving operational squadrons will soon come to an end.
The squadron’s upcoming disbandment is one tinged with sadness and nostalgia for the men and women who’ve been a part of its 75‑year history at some stage.
WGCDR Ward appreciated there would be mixed emotions about the squadron’s loss, but understood why the decision had been made.
“Because the squadron is so well loved and a lot of people have spent a lot of their careers in and out of the squadron, there is a lot of personal opinion out there about the closure,” he said.
“Having been involved in 38SQN for most of my career, I’m looking at it from an organisational perspective. In my mind, the disbandment makes sense. We’ve got a similar fleet down south. Why would you have two squadrons? Let’s merge it, cut costs and achieve the same job at the end of the day.”
38SQN is personnel capability officer FLTLT Aimee Holmes’ first posting, who rates the squadron achieving a milestone of 30,000 King Air flying hours last year as one of her highlights.
“We’ve been managing the drawdown for a couple of years,” she said.
“The squadron went from about a hundred personnel when I posted in during 2015 to 23 permanent staff in June this year. It wasn’t all at once, it was a slow process but we made it work.
“This is my first posting so it is a little emotional. It’s like a family here.”
But for SQNLDR Plenty, 38SQN is the closing of a memorable chapter after 29 years with the RAAF.
“I had 12 years on the Caribou. Most of it was with 35 Squadron but the first chunk of that was with 38 and you always love your first squadron more than any of the others,” he said.
“The wheels turned and I came back here eventually in 2016, which was awesome. Maybe the squadron will come back in some form in the future and that would be nice to see.”
VIDEO: A look at 38 Squadron deployment in to support Exercise Croix du Sud in Noumea in 2016 from the RAAF YouTube channel.
This article originally appeared in the September 2018 edition of Australian Aviation.