Despite heavy smoke and poor visibility, C-27J Spartan crews from No. 35 Squadron have made essential contributions to airlift missions for Operation Bushfire Assist.
On New Year's Eve, bushfires tore through national parks in eastern Victoria, cutting off the coastal town of Mallacoota.
In response, No. 35 Squadron sent three C-27J Spartans and a detachment of 34 personnel to RAAF Base East Sale to work alongside Defence units and state agencies as part of Operation Bushfire Assist.
Their missions included delivering supplies and specialist personnel into Mallacoota, and evacuating members of the civilian community.
The mission to Mallacoota is also being supported by Australian Army Chinook, MRH90 and Black Hawk helicopters, contracted Search and Rescue helicopters, and the Royal Australian Navy’s HMAS Choules.
The first Spartan landed in Mallacoota on the evening of January 3 and evacuated 25 people, but heavy smoke thwarted the first attempts to land in Mallacoota on January 4.
Video of a Spartan crew flying through an eerie red glow generated by the smoke garnered international media attention.
Improved conditions on January 5 allowed Defence aircraft to evacuate 381 people, with eight Spartan missions carrying out 243 people.
This included 73 children and 15 infants, along with 13 dogs and three cats.
As of January 8, the Spartan detachment had carried 472 people and nearly 18 tonnes of cargo and supplies.
This included generators and diesel bladders flown into Mallacoota to help provide power for the community.
The flights have also delivered disaster relief specialists including health and medical personnel.
A C-27J Spartan pilot with No. 35 Squadron, Flight Lieutenant Sean Joyce, said the biggest challenge to the mission had been the smoke from the bushfires, and the weather.
“Initially all the smoke that was being blown in from the fires in the vicinity of Mallacoota [and] was making it very difficult to land at the airfield,” Flight Lieutenant Joyce said.
“A cold front has come through and brought in some associated cloud and rain as well, which has made it even more challenging.”
Even with a forecast of heavy smoke and poor weather, Spartan crews have launched on missions on the chance that visibility around Mallacoota would be good enough for them to safely land.
“We’ve been really well prepared – we built up as many different approach options for getting into Mallacoota that we could,” Flight Lieutenant Joyce said.
“But I don’t think any of the crew on board have encountered conditions like this before.”
“On some days the visibility has been down to 500m or less, when you wouldn’t even attempt to get in.
“We were utilising all of the tools we have available to get in – and on some days, none of those will get us there.
“On other days, we can make it in, and we’ll work a full crew duty day just to get as much as we can in and out of Mallacoota."
This included flying an extended crew duty day on January 5, allowing an additional 90 people to be flown out of Mallacoota before bad weather closed in on the following days.
Whilst the flight from Mallacoota to East Sale takes less than an hour, Spartan crews do what they can to make the trip enjoyable for passengers.
This has included providing children with lollies provided by the Australian Red Cross, along with poppers and colouring-in books donated by the local community.
“It’s pretty clear to us that they’ve been through a lot, but once they’re able to get on the plane and get airborne, and they know they’re being evacuated out to a safe part of the community, they’re pretty relieved,” Flight Lieutenant Joyce said.
“They’re really glad to get all the help.”
Flying into small regional airfields is a mission that plays to No. 35 Squadron’s strengths with the C-27J Spartan.
“At Mallacoota [we have] a smaller physical footprint than larger transports, so we can have multiple aircraft on the ground there at the same time with other assets like Chinooks and Black Hawks,” Flight Lieutenant Joyce said.
Mallacoota Airfield has two runways – one asphalt, the other unsurfaced - measuring approximately 1km long.
On these missions, the Spartan is able to take approximately 30 passengers or up to 2700kg of cargo.
No. 35 Squadron’s Detachment Commander at RAAF Base East Sale, Squadron Leader Mark Seery, said crews carefully managed the Spartan’s weight, fuel and tyre pressure when operating from Mallacoota.
“What you don’t want to do is land on a runway and put any holes in the surface or damage it in any way so that other aircraft can’t use it,” Squadron Leader Seery said.
“No. 35 Squadron has been landing on the unsurfaced dirt runway, and taking off on the sealed runway.
“Our light footprint has made us really effective in operating from Mallacoota.”
The Spartan’s work has been made easier by a No. 4 Squadron Combat Control Team delivered to Mallacoota on January 5.
The team has helped coordinate passengers for the Spartans, provide weather and airfield information, and assess the condition of the runways.
“There are no weather reports available from Mallacoota, so a Combat Control Team from No. 4 Squadron has been providing us those reports each day,” Squadron Leader Seery said.
“This is the first time we’ve worked on such a large scale with other Defence units, especially a Combat Control Team and Mobile Air Load Team, on a disaster relief mission.”