The evacuation of Sydney Airport’s Air Traffic Control (ATC) Tower on 29 March saw a No. 37 Squadron (37SQN) C-130J Hercules crew directing civilian traffic at Australia’s busiest airport.
According to ABC News, smoke from a broken air-conditioning system saw 15 ATC staff evacuated from the Tower around 11.30am.
At that moment, the crew of a 37SQN C-130J Hercules – callsign Trojan 55 – was completing a flypast over Martin Place Cenotaph in Sydney CBD.
The flypast was part of a commemorative service for the 98th anniversary of the Air Force.
Flight Lieutenant (FLTLT) Tony Hick was the Captain of Trojan 55, and said the crew was flying back to RAAF Base Richmond when it learned Sydney Airport ATC Tower had been evacuated.
“As the aircraft approached Brooklyn Bridge (36 kilometres north of Sydney), we contacted Sydney ATC to advise them we were switching frequency to Richmond Tower,” FLTLT Hick said.
“The Controller asked us to remain on Frequency (135.1MHz) and attempt to relay a message for an All Nippon Airways flight, and the message was passed.”
“We asked the Controller if we could be of further assistance and his response was that if we could help then it would be appreciated, as there had been an incident at Sydney Tower.”
The crew flew back to Sydney, and for over an hour, Trojan 55 orbited at 5000 feet while the crew directed traffic at what is normally Australia’s busiest airport.
“At no time while we were on station were aircraft allowed to depart Sydney Airport,” FLTLT Hick said.
“Once on station we conducted a number of re-broadcast messages on ‘Sydney Terminal’ (135.1 MHz) and ‘Guard’ (121.5 MHz) for civilian traffic; both on the ground and airborne.”
“Sydney adopted a Mandatory Broadcast Zone with aircraft conducting Common Traffic Advisory Frequency arrivals.”
Flights into Sydney were delayed and diverted, and the crew of Trojan 55 directed traffic on the ground.
“Most aircraft that were inbound to Sydney were maintained on Melbourne Centre, and subsequently diverted,” FLTLT Hick said.
“Trojan 55 was responsible for assuring aircraft – such as Qantas, Singapore Airlines, China Eastern, Jetstar, Virgin Australia - on the ground requesting ‘Airways/Start Clearance’ were kept updated of the situation unfolding.”
“We also relayed taxi instructions to aircraft that had landed to ensure the runway and main taxiways were not blocked.”
FLTLT Hick said while the task was not particularly difficult, it led the crew to appreciate the variety and volume of traffic managed by ATC every day.
Once the Tower was back online shortly after 12.30pm, Trojan 55 returned to RAAF Base Richmond.
“Following recovery to Richmond I received a call from Sydney ATC – a RAAF Reservist by chance - thanking me for the crew’s efforts,” FLTLT Hick said.
“We also got positive feedback, via email, from the No. 453 Squadron Flight at RAAF Base Richmond ATC.”
FLTLT Hick, who is currently on exchange with 37SQN from the Royal Air Force, said it was the first time he’d done something this complex.
“Aircrew get asked by ATC to relay calls on frequency every day, usually because they have gone out of range, but never on this scale,” FLTLT Hick said.
“The Co-Pilot, who is fresh out of training, loved the responsibility placed on us during this task.”
“Along with the Loadmaster on board, it was great that we could provide this service for our civilian counterparts.”