A newly refurbished DHC-4 Caribou transport aircraft will preserve an important part of Defence history at RAAF Base Amberley.

Following a seven-month restoration process, the Caribou (serial A4-236) was ‘unveiled’ on April 6 at Amberley Aviation Heritage Centre (AAHC), where it will be on static display during public open days.

Air Force operated a fleet of 29 Caribou from 1964 to 2009, with the aircraft – popularly known as ‘the Gravel Truck’ – renowned for its ability to operate from improvised runways and playing fields.

Caribou were a common site at RAAF Base Amberley when No. 38 Squadron’s fleet was based there from 1993 to 2007.

When the last remaining aircraft were retired in 2009, many surviving Caribou made their way into museums and heritage centres, including the Australian War Memorial and RAAF Museum at Point Cook.

Caribou A4-236 was handed over to the AAHC.

Warrant Officer Mike Downs led the team to refurbish A4-236, having worked on the Caribou at No. 38 Squadron in 2009.

“For a number of years the aircraft was left unattended before being transferred to the custody of the AAHC,” Warrant Officer Downs said.

“In the ensuing years, the aircraft exterior paint finish deteriorated to the point where bare metal was visible and the aircraft was deemed as sub-standard for an AAHC static display.”

Caribou A4-236 began its Air Force service with a marathon journey in August 1965 from the de Havilland Canada factory in Toronto to its new home at RAAF Base Richmond.

The 16,500km journey was completed in several legs at a stately cruise speed of 290km/h, with a few tense moments between Hawaii and Kiribati when a propeller fault forced the crew to shut down an engine.

In Air Force service, it provided airlift during the 1990 New South Wales floods, and peacekeeping in Timor-Leste (East Timor) and the Solomon Islands.

When A4-236 arrived at RAAF Base Amberley in November 2009, only cursory effort was made to preserve or protect the aircraft while it was parked in the elements.

In recent years, Air Force's History & Heritage Branch has initiated a project to restore many of the retired aircraft at RAAF bases around Australia.

The Branch’s static display aircraft support section (SDASS) works to bring the aircraft to a display standard.

“Work [on A4-236] commenced on August 30, 2021, with the removal of the wing-mounted flight controls,” Warrant Officer Downs said.

“Following this task, a civilian contractor erected a complex scaffolding assembly that allowed SDASS personnel to safely access every part of the aircraft exterior from the nose ‘bonnet’ to the tip of the tail at about 10 metres high.

“The next task was arguably the most arduous of the entire project – stripping the existing paint from the aircraft’s entire upper surface.”

Air Force aviator Sergeant Jon Oppelaar applies coloured paint to de Havilland DHC-4 Caribou A4-236 during the restoration at RAAF Base Amberley, Queensland. Photo: Sergeant Peter Borys

The SDASS team is comprised of Air Force reservists with a technical background, with an average age of 57 years and average service career of 32 years for each member.

Bringing a wealth of experience and nostalgia for the Caribou, the SDASS team was only too pleased to be working on the aircraft.

It spent five weeks chemically and mechanically removing the old paint, sanding the newly exposed surface and removing all remnants of oils, grease and dirt.

Using environmentally safe products, the SDASS team removed the existing paint on the Caribou and disposed of it using an approved contractor.

“This process was necessary to ensure paint adhesion for the new livery,” Warrant Officer Downs said.

“From mid-October to Christmas 2021, the team was fully engaged in masking, priming and painting of the aircraft in an olive green gloss finish and applying No. 38 Squadron markings. 

“About 200 individual paint stencils and decals were also applied to the aircraft.”

Throughout its 44-year career, A4-236 wore many liveries and markings, including an all-white United Nations scheme in the early 1990s, a planned deployment to Cambodia that didn’t eventuate for the Caribou.

In the 1990s, it received a green and black ‘lizard scheme’ that was carried through operations in East Timor and the Solomon Islands until its retirement.

For its refurbishment, a gloss olive-green finish was applied to showcase the aircraft as it appeared in 1983, including a prominent blue-and-white No. 38 Squadron flash on the tail.

The livery echoes the earlier refurbishment of Caribou A4-199 at RAAF Base Townsville, which is displayed in a similar No. 35 Squadron livery.

With the exterior of A4-236 largely complete, the SDASS team is turning its attention to the aircraft’s interior.

“This will allow visitors to AAHC to experience the full Caribou ambiance by allowing walk-through access on open-days at the centre,” Warrant Officer Downs said.

Once completed, Caribou A4-236 will feature in the AAHC alongside other Air Force aircraft with a strong connection to the Brisbane area such as an F-111 and the Iroquois helicopter.

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