September 2018 marks the 75th anniversary of the formation of No. 38 Squadron, a RAAF transport unit that has served on some of the Australian Defence Force’s most historic operations.
The No. 38 Squadron motto reads ‘Equal to the Task’, and few RAAF units have matched the milestones the squadron has achieved since 1943.
Today, the Squadron is equipped with King Air 350 light transports at RAAF Base Townsville, with a mix of Air Force and civilian staff from Hawker Pacific in its ranks.
The squadron’s origins date back to early 1942, when the RAAF established four dedicated transport squadrons. By mid-1943, more transport aircraft had become available from the United States, and the success of the war in the South Pacific for the Allies led to increased demand for transport.
A fifth transport squadron was established in July 1943, and a sixth – No. 38 Squadron – was established at RAAF Base Richmond on 15 September 1943.
Whilst most other RAAF transport squadrons equipped themselves with the Douglas C-47 Dakota, No. 38 Squadron received the Lockheed Hudson, a design which had its roots as a commercial airliner before the outbreak of war in Europe saw it converted into a patrol bomber. In No. 38 Squadron service, the Hudson would come full circle. Each aircraft’s offensive armament, which included nose mounted guns and a dorsal gun turret, were removed. Seating capacity within each aircraft was fitted for 14 passengers.
Much like its present-day duties, the role of No. 38 Squadron was to transport essential Defence personnel around Australia and into the immediate region, accomplished in the Hudson at a ponderous 200 knots. The Hudson was unpressurised, with a maximum range of 3000km.
The Hudson allowed 38 Squadron to create a transport network from RAAF Base Richmond (with a detachment created in Gorrie, near Larrimah in the Northern Territory). In February 1944, it began re-equipping with the Douglas Dakota, which would be operated by the Squadron for nearly 30 years.
The Dakota had a capacity of 28 passengers, along with the ability to carry cargo and aero-medical evacuation patients or bulkier items of cargo.
Following the Japanese Surrender in August 1945, No. 38 Squadron flew the first Australian aircraft into Singapore and Japan, with one crew taking Australian journalists to Hiroshima.
The unit participated in the return of Australian personnel (including former POWs) from the South Pacific Theatre. Former CO No. 38 Squadron, SQNLDR John Balfe, recounts in his published wartime memoir ‘….And Far From Home’ the emotional scene of No. 38 Squadron Dakota crews inviting former POWs – many of whom held captive since the fall of Singapore in 1942 – to the cockpit of the Dakota, allowing them to view Darwin from the air as dawn broke. For these rescued POWs, it was their first sight of Australia, and brought many to tears.
Sadly, many were never to return. On 18 September 1945, No. 38 Squadron experienced its worst ever air disaster with the loss of Dakota A65-61, which crashed in Irian Jaya, in present-day Indonesia. All of the 28 RAAF and Army members on board were killed when, during a return flight from the Japanese surrender in Morotai, their aircraft collided with a mountain range. Little was known about the cause of the accident, and the wreckage of the aircraft – and remains of its occupants – was not discovered until 1970.
The immediate post-war years featured some of the most colourful tasking in No. 38 Squadron’s history. The unit was spared the axe during the post-war disarmament, and along with 36 and 37 Squadrons, formed part of the fortnightly courier flights from Australia to Japan (via Morotai, the Philippines and Okinawa). A No. 38 Squadron detachment was established at RAAF Base Pearce and in Port Moresby (then still part of the Australian territory of Papua New Guinea).
In May 1946, three Dakotas from No. 38 Squadron transported 25 tonnes of pig bristle from Chungking in China to Hong Kong over two weeks. Pig bristles were essential part of paintbrushes, which were a necessary supply for the post-war housing boom. It was extremely hazardous tasking—there were no modern maps of China available to the crews, and the country was descending into civil war. The flight from Hong Kong to Chungking was an 1100km return trip with no available divert airfields. Alongside Royal Air Force (RAF) Dakota crews conducting the task for the United Kingdom, No. 38 Squadron completed eight return flights to Chungking and brought the pig bristles out.
In August 1948, No. 38 Squadron gave half its pilots to an ‘Australian Squadron’ flying RAF Dakotas during the Berlin Blockade—also known as the Berlin Airlift. Alongside crews from 36 SQN, the No. 38 Squadron members flew 2062 sorties to Berlin.
In June 1950, No. 38 Squadron was sent to Changi in Singapore (and later Kuala Lumpur), to provide transport for Commonwealth units engaged with communist forces in the jungles of Malaya. Airlift again proved an essential means of delivering cargo over difficult terrain. During this deployment, half of No. 38 Squadron’s strength was sent to Japan to form 30 Transport Flight, supporting Australian units engaged in the Korean War.
In December 1952, No. 38 Squadron returned to Australia from Malaya, having carried nearly 1.7 million pounds of supplies; 17,000 passengers; and 326 aero-medical evacuation patients. On its return to Australia, the squadron effectively absorbed 36 SQN, which in turn was re-established in Japan. In early 1954, HRH Queen Elizabeth II conducted her first Royal Tour of Australia as the reigning monarch, largely flown by No. 38 Squadron during the visit.
In March 1954, No. 38 Squadron took over VIP flying duties in Canberra, as well as becoming the RAAF’s air movements and transport training squadron. It was relocated to RAAF Base Richmond in 1958, with a number of its personnel posted to 36 Squadron to operate the C-130A Hercules.
During the early 1960s, No. 38 Squadron was responsible for a number of ‘hack’ aircraft at RAAF Base Richmond, intended to provide currency flying for Air Force pilots in the Sydney, Williamtown and Canberra area, as well as being available for communications duties. Amongst the Squadron’s fleet included a Meteor fighter, Canberra bomber and Winjeel trainer.
By the 1960s, the need to replace the venerable Dakota was evident. The respective views of Army and Air Force on replacing the Dakota were formed from their recent operational experience. Army wanted a light transport that could carry 32 troops over short distances and support personnel on the frontline. Air Force, having recently introduced the C-130 to great effect, wanted a pressurised transport that could carry 9,000lbs (four tonnes) of cargo over 1300km. The Army won out, with the DHC-4 Caribou being ordered for No. 38 Squadron.
The first Caribou were collected from the factory in Canada in early 1964, and flown over 25,000km to Australia. Subsequent deliveries of Caribou that year saw aircraft dispatched directly to the RAAF Transport Flight Vietnam (RTFV). While 38QN itself was not deployed to the Vietnam War, it played a hand in training and supporting the workforce that served with the RTFV, later re-titled 35 SQN, until its withdrawal in 1972.
In the meantime, No. 38 Squadron Caribou were operated in Port Moresby under ‘Detachment A’, with Papua New Guinea (then an Australian territory) being a key proving ground for No. 38 Squadron personnel. The Squadron’s Colours were presented by HRH Prince Philip in April 1971.
On 28 August 1972, No. 38 Squadron suffered its only fatal accident with the Caribou. Aircraft A4-233 came down in poor weather whilst flying through the Kudjeru Gap in Papua New Guinea, claiming the lives of three RAAF crewmembers along with an Army Ground Liaison Officer, an Instructor, and 19 Army Cadets. Four Cadets survived the accident, discovered by rescue teams four days later.
In September of 1973, the Dakota was finally retired from No. 38 Squadron service. From March 1975 until 1979, the United Nations Military Observer Group in India and Pakistan (UNMOGIP) saw No. 38 Squadron deploy a Caribou to the Kashmir region between the two countries. Taking over courier duties from a Royal Canadian Air Force Caribou crew, flying conditions in the Kashmir were perhaps some of the most challenging in the squadron’s history, with some airfields as high as 8500ft and some minimum safe heights being 21,000ft – close to the Caribou’s maximum ceiling.
From August to October of 1975, No. 38 Squadron provided Caribous to support Red Cross operations in East Timor, then emerging from Portugal’s colonial empire. During these operations, a No. 38 Squadron Caribou held the ‘distinction’ of being the only RAAF aircraft to be hijacked, as a group of Timorese Democratic Union soldiers forced A4-140 into the air with 54 people on board on September 4. The aircraft was just able to arrive in Darwin safely.
For much of the 1970s and 80s, No. 38 Squadron’s work entailed support to Army exercises and assistance to civil communities in Australia and Papua New Guinea. In December 1992, the unit relocated from RAAF Base Richmond – where it had spent the majority of the past 49 years – to RAAF Base Amberley. From 1997, the Caribou’s cockpit was fitted with Night-Vision Goggle compatible lighting.
In 1999, 86 WG Detachment B was established in Darwin, with 35 SQN and No. 38 Squadron providing Caribou and crews to support operations in East Timor. The deployment continued through the disestablishment of 35 SQN in December 2000, which saw No. 38 Squadron becoming Air Force’s sole Caribou operating squadron. The Caribou detachment returned from East Timor in December 2001, however in mid- 2003, No. 38 Squadron was deployed with its Caribou to the Solomon Islands as part of the peacekeeping mission ’Operation Anode’.
Support to the civil community continued throughout the Caribou’s twilight years, with No. 38 Squadron relocating from RAAF Base Amberley to Townsville in December of 2007. Civil aid to the community continued following flooding in PNG in November 2007; Floods in Ingham, Queensland, in February 2009; and following the crash of a commuter airliner in Kokoda in August of that year. By 2009 however, the writing was on the wall for No. 38 Squadron’s Caribou days. Low serviceability and ageing airframes were leaving No. 38 Squadron out of many operational deployments, and in December 2009, the Caribou was finally retired from RAAF service. No. 38 Squadron had operated the type for 45 years – more than two thirds the Squadron’s history.
The announcement had been made to retire the Caribou in early 2009, with a decision made to reallocate three King Air 350s in Army service to No. 38 Squadron. Another five new aircraft would be introduced to No. 38 Squadron, leased from Hawker Pacific and operated from RAAF Base Townsville.
Since 2009, No. 38 Squadron has provided a service much as it did during its early days with the Hudson – a flexible light transport with a twin-engine aircraft, intended to provide a flexible regional service to Defence. Its recent history has continued to focus its operational efforts within Australia and in several operations within the Asia Pacific region. For example, the commitment to supporting election activities in Papua New Guinea and humanitarian relief operations.
Beyond this, No. 38 Squadron has supplied personnel to operations overseas; and provided aerial survey and other flexible air support to Defence units. What’s more, No. 38 Squadron has allowed young pilots to develop skillsets and command experience on the King Air before transitioning to larger aircraft.
The King Air was intended for No. 38 Squadron as an interim light transport, until the selection of a Battlefield Airlifter. In May 2012, it was announced that the C-27J Spartan would be selected as Air Force’s next Battlefield Airlifter, however it would be operated by a re-established 35 Squadron.
With the Spartan now established in RAAF service, No. 38 Squadron will transfer King Airs to No. 32 Squadron, and cease operations in November 2018.