805 Squadron, RAN

805 Squadron

In a moving ceremony hosted by the Maritime Commander Australia, RADM Geoff Smith AM RAN, and attended by the Chief of Navy VADM David Shackleton AO RAN, 805 Squadron Commanding Officer CMDR A.C.(Tony) Dalton RAN read 805’s new commissioning warrant at 1830, Wednesday 28 February 2001. On the tarmac outside the squadron’s sparkling new quarters at RANAS Nowra, distinguished aviator Nancy Bird Walton, AO OBE, one of Australia’s earliest aviation pioneers, delivered the commissioning address and, with the most junior squadron member SMNATV Hamish Dale, cut the ceremonial cake with a naval sword. Alas, not for the first time, this early promise and enthusiasm failed to materialise into a viable front line squadron.

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A Maverick-armed RNZN Kaman SH-2G Super Seasprite makes a dirty dart onto a pitching and rolling deck.

 Back in the early 1990s, RAN S-70B-2 Seahawk helicopters were deemed too big for a proposed joint Malaysian/Australian “offshore patrol vessel” project. Instead, the Kaman Seasprite SH-2G helicopter, with it’s short wheelbase, well-proven airframe, reliable twin- engine layout and good load-carrying capability, together with an excellent AGM-119B Penguin anti-ship missile, seemed a better fit. A $667 million contract was signed in June 1997 for Kaman to recover 11 ex-USN Seasprites from desert storage after flying out their planned life and refurbish them. A similar refurbishment procedure worked well for an  A4G Skyhawk purchase in July 1967 and the RAN had previously led the world in upgrading the Wessex 31B as a virtually new aircraft with a novel integrated sonar and flight control system. In 1997 the RAN and Kaman hoped to replicate the task.

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The Wessex 31B was a brilliant innovation led by the RAN. Based on a production run of only 27 aircraft, with a new sonar and integrated flight control system, it was virtually a new aircraft, compared with the old Wessex 31A
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Then Malaysia announced it was purchasing a competing German ship in October 1977, effectively cancelling the joint “offshore patrol vessel” and dampening interest in any extended production run of refurbished Seasprites. Instead of cancelling and maybe forfeiting $100 million or so, a “Plan B” evolved to put the Seasprites into RAN frigates, a decision that might end up costing ten times that amount, for the same nil return.

Devising new electronic systems, including inter-linking the automatic pilot and the anti-shipping missiles to a brand new “all-glass” cockpit display for a production run of only 11 aircraft proved too daunting. The original software contractor, Litton, walked away in 1999, citing competing pressure for larger and more urgent (read more rewarding) tasks. CSC Australia took over the software project but further complications, including airworthiness and flight control problems, ultimately led to the project’s cancellation on 5 March 2008.

In contrast, the New Zealand navy, about the same time, purchased five second-hand ex-USN SH-2G Seasprites. They retained virtual legacy cockpit displays and they came with a less expensive but quite capable AGM-65 Maverick surface-to-ground missile. They have been operating from RNZN frigates since 2001.


Short squadron history

A number of speakers in the 2001 commissioning ceremony recalled the squadron’s colourful history. Formed originally as an RN fighter squadron in Donibristle, UK, on 4 May 1940, it rebirthed as a Fleet Support and fighter squadron in 1941 in the Western Desert alongside 816 Squadron. Flying a wide variety of aircraft, 805 saw extensive service in action in Crete, Egypt, Libya and Kenya, fighting in some of the bloodiest sea, air and land battles of the war. Slated for the British Pacific Fleet in the closing stages of WW II, most of the squadron’s Seafires were lost in bad weather during a pre-embarkation transit flight in East Africa and the squadron disbanded. 

Reforming in 1945 805 Squadron became one of the chief post-war display squadrons, with crack pilots driving well-polished Seafires and Fireflies. Disbanding again briefly in July 1948, it reformed with Sea Furies as RAN 805 Squadron, 28 August 1948. Together with the RAN’s 816 Squadron, they made up the 20th Carrier Air Group (CAG), embarking in the RAN’s first aircraft  carrier, HMAS Sydney, in February 1949. The CAG earned a case of champagne for completing their initial workup without losing one aircraft over the side.

The RAN followed Royal Navy tradition in naming front line squadrons with an 800 prefix, while training or fleet support squadrons had a 700 prefix.

A substantial proportion of both 20th CAG aircrew and ground crew were initially on loan from the RN, but there were many Australians in the training pipeline and it would not be long before the squadron had its first Australian Commanding Officer, LCDR Jimmy Bowles, RAN, in late 1950. The squadron achieved a number of world and Australian firsts, including a speed and distance record for fighter aircraft as the squadron flew from Brisbane to Hobart in battle formation in 1950.

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An 805 Squadron Sea Fury poised for the cut
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The Sea Fury was the fastest single-engined piston-engined aircraft in service in the world at that time. It could be a bit of a brute to deck land sometimes, because its big engine obscured the pilot’s view on finals approach, but it was a delight to fly, with a powerful responsive engine and light balanced controls.

Korea

With barely enough time to settle in at Nowra, convert new aircrew to Sea Furies and work up the aircraft carrier, 805 Squadron, along with 808 and 817, became the Sydney Carrier Air Group and sailed off for active service in Korea in September 1951. Tony Dalton highlighted this period in one speech during the evening. He reminded the gathering that on the passage to Korea, SBLT Ian Webster, RAN, of 805 Squadron, was the first in the world to ditch a Sea Fury successfully.

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805 Squadron’s 106 in Korean livery (but without rocket rails and drop tanks). This aircraft was leading in the unofficial sweep for the maximum number of sorties until the second last patrol. Flown by the Squadron CO, 106 was badly shot up during a run down the notorious Haeju Gorge flak trap. The aircraft brought the CO home safely, but it’s extended down time under repair allowed another aircraft, 101, to creep by and win the sweep.

There was a real fear that the Sea Fury’s big radial engine would nose the aircraft under when it first touched the water. Pilots, given the option, chose to bale out rather than ditch. As Dalton explained, after experiencing an oil pressure failure on 11 September 1950, Webster tried to return to the ship for an emergency landing but the engine suddenly failed when he was downwind. With his undercarriage and flaps down, the aircraft dropped like a stone. There was no time even to retract the undercarriage. The Sea Fury certainly nosed over when it hit the water, but although the cockpit went under water and stayed under, the aircraft sank slowly enough for Webster to scramble clear and inflate his dinghy.

The accompanying rescue destroyer saw the crash and headed for it at very high speed, but somehow overshot the floundering pilot and tipped him out of his dinghy. Before the destroyer could turn around for another attempt, Sydney‘s seaboat came to his aid. However, by the time it reached him, Webster had reboarded his dinghy, opened the rescue pack, devoured all the food (except for an iron-hard block of chocolate) and even deployed his fishing line. Squadron aircrew learned initiative along with survival skills.

The accident demonstrated not only that the Sea Fury could ditch successfully, but it could even ditch safely its wheels down. This was the forerunner of a number of successful RAN and RN Sea Fury ditchings after enemy action in Korea.

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“Flying completed for the day” (aka “out ukkers boards in the crewrooms”) was the pipe in stormy seas, such as Typhoon Ruth in 1951 (left) and snowstorms in 1952.

The ship and the carrier air group distinguished themselves in Korea through both excellent seamanship and airmanship. The ship weathered a very nasty Typhoon Ruth that killed more than 500 people ashore and set a record number of sorties per day for a light fleet carrier in Korea. When not hitting designated targets, mixed divisions of 805 and 808 Squadron Sea Fury aircrew roamed the North Korean countryside looking for targets of opportunity with each aircraft carrying a load of eight three-inch (60-pound heads) ballistic rockets and about 125 rounds per gun in four 20 mm cannon.

They also maintained a daylight hours Combat Air patrol of two Sea Furies and performed other duties such as Naval Gunfire Support, Army Support and Photoreconnaissance. The Fireflies of 817 Squadron either carried bombs and concentrated on knocking out all the bridges and rail tunnels or flew anti-submarine patrols with depth charges. No enemy aircraft or submarines were detected by the CAP or ASW patrols, but contrails denoting combats between North Korean Mig 15s and USAF aircraft were frequently spotted way overhead by the low-flying RAN aircraft.

The Sydney CAG shut down all day movement of road, rail and barge traffic in the ship’s sector of Korea whenever Sydney was on patrol. Substantial evidence indicated that nothing of ox cart size or greater moved by day without being hit.

USN Chief Aviation Machinists Mate Arlen Keith (Dick) Babbitt performed the longest helicopter rescue of the Korean War in Sydney‘s borrowed USN HO3S-1 helicopter. SBLT Neil MacMillan and Obs1 Hank Hancox in an 817 Squadron Firefly had been shot down deep inside enemy territory and a company of aggressive troops quickly surrounded them. The opposed rescue effort was covered by 805 and 808 Squadron Sea Furies.

Babbitt won a well-deserved DSM for his courage, skill and determination.

Returning to Australia, 805 Squadron worked up once more for Korea, but hostilities ceased before they arrived for the second tour. A period of relative calm followed, with regular cruises around Australia and through the tropics, in either Sydney or HMAS Vengeance. The squadron also became an Operational Flying School, helping to convert young pilots directly from the RAAF pipeline. Some had to be re-converted carefully from jets as they learned to master high-powered piston engines.

The jet era

 

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805 Squadron Sea Venom on
Melbourne‘s forward lift.

Disbanding on 26 March 1958, the squadron reformed five days later at Nowra as a Sea Venom all-weather fighter squadron. The twin-boom jet carried an excellent air intercept AI-17 radar, but it had no air-to-air missiles, it possessed a poor contemporary fighter performance and to avoid linear overstress it required seven knots or more of natural wind to launch from Melbourne in the tropics. This resulted in many frustrating aborted sorties from HMAS Melbourne and 805 eventually disbanded once again on 30 June 1963.

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805 Squadron’s 884 on
Melbourne‘s steam catapult (left) and off Jervis Bay (right).

The squadron reformed once more on 10 January 1968, this time with A-4G Skyhawks. In contrast to the Sea Venoms, this highly successful aircraft melded beautifully with Melbourne. 805 Squadron Skyhawks carried AIM 9 Sidewinders as well as a pair of 20 mm cannon and a large variety of underwing stores, ranging from buddy refuelling packs to triple-tiered bombs. The Skyhawk also had the huge and very welcome advantage of being able to operate from Melbourne in the fighter role without natural wind in the hot and sticky tropics. Following the political decision not to replace the 40-years old Melbourne, the squadron disbanded on 2 July 1982 and the remaining ten invaluable Skyhawks were sold at fire sale prices to New Zealand. Some of these same Skyhawks then returned to Nowra as Number 2 Squadron RNZAF aircraft, hired to make up the shortfall of Fleet Requirement Unit effort promised by RAAF and local civilian resources.

Helicopters

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After 805’s decommissioning ceremony, inhibited Seaprites look on  forlorn as Chief of the Navy VADM R. E. Shalders and ABATA P.J. Geutjes cut the decommissioning cake.

After starting with so much promise in 2001, a seven-year roller-coaster ride of “on again” and “off again” decisions followed and the RAN Seasprite project was finally scrapped 5 March 2008. In another moving ceremony attended by Chief of Navy VADM R.E. Shalders AO CSC RAN, 805 Squadron sadly decommissioned in HMAS Albatross on 26 June 2008.  “The hardships have not deterred the men and women of 805 Squadron from doing their jobs,” LCDR Matthew Royals RAN, CO 805, said. He went on to explain how they are all looking forward eagerly to the many challenges ahead, learning how to maintain and fly new aircraft. They also looked forward to the day when a new 805 Squadron would be formed.