A Tonga town official cleared his land with a machete to allow a helicopter to land in one of the missions flown by Navy's 808 Squadron aircrews during Operation Tonga Assist 2022.

The squadron's aircrews 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.

They used 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 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 Tonga’s Prime Minister Siaosi Sovaleni and Australian High Commissioner 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 also was used for vertical replenishments from HMAS Supply and cross-decked containers weighing up to 2.2 tonnes between Adelaide and Canberra.

The helicopter also was used in a mission to transport nurses and COVID-19 vaccines to Fotuha`a in the Ha`apai Group.

Navy's Chaplain Simote Finau waves goodbye to family and friends after a visit to his childhood village on Fotuha'a Island, Tonga, during Operation Tonga Assist 2022. Photo: Able Seaman Susan Mossop

That mission also allowed Navy 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 in Tonga by liaising with town officials.

It was at Fotuha`that a town official used his machete to clear a helicopter landing zone on his property. 

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

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