During Operation Tonga Assist 2022, crews from Navy's 808 Squadron completed dozens of missions around the 169-island archipelago, including VIP flights, airlifting essential stores and equipment, and transporting medical teams and COVID-19 vaccines to outlying islands. 

A Navy MRH-90 Taipan helicopter operated from the landing helicopter dock HMAS Adelaide and, subsequently, HMAS Canberra.

Flight commander of Ready Team 1, Lieutenant Robert Garnock, said every single flying mission conducted was rewarding.

Frequent air operations were supported by a team of maintainers who worked in shifts, day and night, to service and wash the helicopter.

“Having a really good team working on the aircraft means everything,” Lieutenant Garnock said.

“Without that, obviously we don’t go flying.”

A key task was transporting Tongan Prime Minister, Siaosi Sovaleni, and Australian High Commissioner Ms Rachael Moore to Nomuka Island in the southern Ha`apai Group to see tsunami recovery operations involving Australian Defence Force, French Armed Forces in New Caledonia and Republic of Fiji Military Forces personnel. 

The MRH-90 helicopter was also used for vertical replenishments from HMAS Supply and cross-decked containers weighing up to 2.2 tonnes between Adelaide and Canberra.   

The 808 Squadron MRH-90 Taipan lands on the makeshift landing zone on Fotuha’a Island, Tonga, during Operation Tonga Assist 2022. Photo: Able Seaman Susan Mossop

Another mission to transport nurses and COVID-19 vaccines to Fotuha`a in the Ha`apai Group also allowed Chaplain Simote Finau to visit his birthplace.

“It was a pleasure and a blessing. I had been praying in my heart for the opportunity to see my family,” said Chaplain Finau, who often supported air and ground operations by liaising with town officials.

A Fotuha`a town official personally cleared an area of his property with a machete so the helicopter could land safely.

Flight operations officer Lieutenant Tristram Gleeson said all the air missions were conducted according to Government of Tonga and Fleet Air Arm COVID-19 safety protocols.

“That involved a testing regime for aircrew, cleaning of equipment and the aircraft, and briefing passengers without close contact. Instead of fitting the personal protective equipment to passengers, we fitted it to one of the crew as an example,” Lieutenant Gleeson said.