808 Squadron return from Operation FIJI ASSIST

This article has photo gallery Published on Ms Dallas McMaugh (author), POIS Kelvin Hockey (photographer)

Location(s): Koro Island, Fiji

Personnel from 808 Squadron returned to HMAS Albatross after a period attached to HMAS Canberra which was deployment to OP FIJI ASSIST 2016 - the Australian Defence Force’s humanitarian assistance relief to Fiji in the aftermath of Tropical Cyclone Winston. (photo: POIS Kelvin Hockey)
Personnel from 808 Squadron returned to HMAS Albatross after a period attached to HMAS Canberra which was deployment to OP FIJI ASSIST 2016 - the Australian Defence Force’s humanitarian assistance relief to Fiji in the aftermath of Tropical Cyclone Winston.

Personnel from 808 Squadron returned to HMAS Albatross recently after a five-week deployment on Operation FIJI ASSIST. The aircrew, engineers and three MRH90 helicopters formed part of the Australian Defence Force’s humanitarian assistance relief to Fiji in the aftermath of Tropical Cyclone Winston.

On 25 February, two MRH90 aircraft, seven aircrew and 16 engineers flew to Brisbane where they joined the existing MRH90 embarked onboard HMAS Canberra and set sail from Brisbane that night.

Flight Commander, Lieutenant Commander Steve Brown said the voyage to Fiji gave the team the opportunity to prepare the aircraft and themselves for the task ahead.

“The engineering team familiarised themselves with working on three aircraft in a hangar space which also contained vehicles and stores, while the aircrew honed their deck landing skills on a deck that was moving more than usual as the ship steamed towards the stricken islands,” Lieutenant Commander Brown said.

As dawn broke on 1 March, Canberra was off the coast of Fiji. The three aircraft flew that morning to the island of Koro, which had been in the centre of the cyclone's path. The initial task was flying in Army engineers from the 2nd Combat Engineer Regiment to survey the damage which was proved to be extensive.

“It soon became clear that there was a huge task ahead,” Chief Petty Officer AircrewmanJim Ritchie said. 

“We spent most of our time on Koro which was just about devastated, it seemed that every building had received severe damage.

“Our initial and impression was one of widespread destruction,” Lieutenant Commander Brown said.  

“Many of the villages we saw were flattened. Our first focus was on the people, ensuring they had access to basic hygiene facilities.”

The dedication of the crew and the versatility of the MRH-90 helicopter made a valuable contribution to the wider relief and recovery efforts.

As the operation developed 808 personnel were involved in a wide range of tasks which included conducting aerial surveys to assess damage in outlying areas, transporting the building supplies and combat engineers required to rebuild villages, airlifting large water containers to ensure access to clean water and crucial aero medical evacuation sorties. 

Demonstrating the significant capacity to move equipment, the detachment also moved 26 tonnes of building equipment over a two-day period, supplying three villages with the critical materials required to repair schools, while on another sortie the crew delivered six tonnes of stores to villages that had been cut off due to impassable roads.

Onboard Canberra, 808 engineers worked tirelessly to ensure serviceable aircraft for the relief effort. 

Able Seaman Aviation Technician Aircraft Dylan Marshall described the experience, which was also his first time at sea as “intense”. 

“We had a tight time frame leading up to departure, just concentrating on getting the aircraft ready and then when we were at sea, it was just a matter or working together and dealing daily with the logistics.”

Able Seaman Aviation Technician Avionics Nicholas Yates said the experience was an “eye opener.” 

"It was remarkable to see the Fijian people living in such devastation but in really good spirits and focussed on moving on. It was great to be involved," he said.

“Our contribution was crucial beyond doubt,” Chief Petty Officer Ritchie said. 

“I got a lot of personal satisfaction seeing the direct impact of our work and the change that we facilitated in just five weeks. 

"The Army engineers got many of the villagers to the point where they were in the very strong position of now being able to help themselves. It was very fulfilling.”

“It was fantastic to get such a welcome from the Fijian people, and I’m sure the children will be talking about the helicopters for years to come," Lieutenant Commander Brown said. 

"Even though it was plain to see that they have lost so much there was an overwhelming sense of community and dignity.”