Regularly flying over the Great Barrier Reef is one of the perks of the job for Able Seaman Hydrographic System Operator Scott Thomas, who is part of the small but highly-skilled Navy Laser Airborne Depth Sounder or LADS, Flight based in Cairns.
The Flight is the airborne unit of the Navy’s Hydrographic Service, which works in conjunction with the Navy’s two Leeuwin class survey ships, HMA Ships Leeuwin and Melville, to update Australia’s nautical charts for the safety of Navy and commercial shipping.
Cairns is a sharp contrast from Able Seaman Thomas’ hometown of Queanbeyan in the Southern Tablelands region of New South Wales.
“Flying over the Barrier Reef is always special, but seeing other parts of Australia, especially areas I didn’t see during my sea service, is also great,” Able Seaman Thomas said.
Navy has responsibility for charting more than one eighth of the world's surface, stretching as far west as Cocos Island in the Indian Ocean, east to the Solomon Islands, and from the equator to the Antarctic.
Able Seaman Thomas is part of the small team that operates the survey system in the air and appreciates the need to continually update his skills for the job.
“Keeping up to date with new processes, particularly in areas such as data rendering, is one of the challenges of the job but it’s also rewarding to be part of a tightly-knit team at the forefront of surveying capability,” Able Seaman Thomas said.
The survey team consists of eight hydrographic specialists: two officers, three senior sailors and three junior sailors. Specialist support is provided under contract by Fugro LADS Corporation and Cobham Aviation Services and includes pilots, aircraft engineers, systems technicians and a field manager.
The Australian Navy was the first and remains one of only a few military organisations in the world to employ this laser-based survey technique. The unit was formed in 1992 after more than 20 years of research and development.
Navy personnel fly in teams of two and operate the laser survey system from the main cabin of the aircraft. Back on the ground the depth data is processed and then sent to the Australian Hydrographic Office in Wollongong to become nautical charts.
During survey operations the aircraft surveys up to 40 square nautical miles per day at 100 per cent coverage. With more than seven hours endurance and flying five days per week, the aircraft totals up to 140 sorties annually.
The nautical charts developed from data gathered by the hydrographic service are essential for safe navigation at sea.