On the 1st of January, 2000, Australian Army aviation was heavily engaged in operations supporting the Australian led International Force in East Timor. Black Hawks from 5 Avn Regiment, Kiowas and B200 King Air fixed wing from 1 Avn Regt provided invaluable airmobile, reconnaissance, medivac and liaison support to operations to stabilise the situation in the troubled area. It was not the only operation on the horizon, however, as later in the year the Olympic Games were held in Sydney, and a sizeable contingent of rotary and fixed wing assets from both regiments were committed to Operation Gold. A key component was the Black Hawk support to the counter-terrorist capability provided by A Squadron, 5 Avn Regiment. An indicator of just how committed Army aviation was can be gained from the fact that all four squadrons of 1 Avn Regiment had aircraft and personnel deployed on three separate operations at this time; in Timor, Bouganville and the Olympics. The establishment of a Commander, Divisional Aviation, and staff in HQ 1st Division was an important step in providing technical and operational command and control for operations both domestic and deployed.
In 2001, the Army Helicopter School, formerly known as the ADF Helicopter School, was moved from RAAF Fairbairn to Oakey. With this move, all Army pilot training, with the exception of an initial period of fixed wing at Tamworth and special to type Chinook training, was concentrated at Oakey. The 1 Avn Regiment Iroquois from Operation Bel Isi were withdrawn from Bouganville in August 2001, but at the same time the regiment deployed an aircraft onto Christmas Island in the Indian Ocean to support the military aspects of the MV Tampa crisis. The aircraft remained on station until the crisis was resolved, returning to Oakey in early September.
In late 2001 it was announced that the Eurocopter Tiger had been selected as the Army’s armed reconnaissance helicopter, effectively replacing the Kiowa. Twenty two ARH Tigers were ordered with deliveries commencing in 2004. Subsequently there have been significant delays in the delivery and acceptance of the Tiger and at the time of writing (mid 2012) the operational capability envisioned in 2001 has still not been delivered.
The command and control of Army aviation was fundamentally re-ordered on 2 April 2002 when Headquarters 16 Brigade (Aviation) was raised at Enoggera, Queensland. Formed from the Aviation Support Group and the Commander Divisional Aviation staff, the new headquarters provided unity of command for all operational aviation units, while providing aviation technical control for both training and operational units. Later the name of the headquarters was changed to 16 Aviation Brigade.
In 2003 a coalition led by the United States invaded Iraq. As part of the Australian contribution, three Chinooks from C Squadron, 5 Avn Regiment, were deployed and provided support to Australia’s special forces contingent in the west of the country. It was the first time since the Vietnam War that Army aviation assets had been committed to a high intensity conflict.
Australian army pilots on exchange with US units had been serving in Afghanistan since 2001, and would continue to do so with US and UK units in Iraq and Afghanistan throughout the conflicts, with a number earning foreign awards. In 2004, during a tour with a UK Army Air Corps unit flying Lynx helicopters, (then) Captain Scott Watkins was awarded the UK Distinguished Flying Cross when he successfully recovered his aircraft after it had been engaged by ground fire. His co-pilot was seriously wounded in the action.
Trouble erupted in The Solomon Islands in the middle of 2003 and as a result four Iroquois from 1 Avn Regt were deployed to support the infantry battalion group as stability was re-established. The detachment was part of an ANZAC combined unit under the operational control of 3 Squadron, RNZAF. The detachment provided important operational and logistic support to the force around the islands and was withdrawn in October 2003.
At the same time of the Solomon’s deployment, Army aviation again provided domestic support to the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting held in Queensland. The pace was not letting up.
In 2004, the first two ARH Tigers were delivered to the Army at a ceremony in Oakey. The presence of two mounted soldiers in Light Horse uniforms served to both link the event with the past and emphasise the new armed cavalry role for Army aviation. At the same ceremony a major re-organisation of the units of Army aviation was announced with the move of Iroquois from 1 Avn Regiment at Oakey to 5 Avn Regiment in Townsville, and the separation of both the counter-terrorist and the fixed wing capabilities from the regiments to the direct command of the brigade headquarters. As well as the Tiger being on display, it was the first public viewing of the King Air B350 in Army colours, replacing the less capable King Air B200.
In August of 2004, the government announced that the NH Industries MRH 90 had been selected to replace the Black Hawk and Iroquois fleets. The first announcement was for an initial buy of 12 helicopters for a squadron in 5 Avn Regt, but subsequent announcements increased the numbers to 46 with six of those going to the Navy. The first aircraft were delivered in 2007, however, subsequent deliveries have been seriously delayed and to date (mid 2012) only 13 have been accepted by Defence.
In late December 2004 a major earthquake struck the eastern Indian Ocean and the resulting tsunami devastated wide areas of Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, Sri Lanka and many Indian Ocean islands. As part of the international humanitarian relief effort a detachment of four Iroquois from 1 Avn Regiment were sent to the Aceh region of Indonesia where the death toll from the disaster was estimated to be 120,000. The detachment provided very valuable support in extremely harsh and rudimentary conditions flying food, water, clothing and emergency shelter to the dispersed villages hardest hit.
The humanitarian deployment in 2004 served as a forerunner to another overseas deployment in response to a natural disaster. An earthquake measuring 7.4 on the Richter scale struck north eastern Pakistan in October 2005 causing widespread damage and claiming the lives of 73,000 people. With major infrastructure and communications damage, the scene presented a humanitarian relief challenge that was well beyond national resources, and again a major international effort was mounted. Australia’s contribution was a medical team supported by four Black Hawks from 5 Avn Regiment. The aircraft conducted search and rescue missions, medivac, logistic supply and the movement of medical teams as well as VIP transit services. It was a five month deployment during which the detachment lifted over 2500 passengers, 181 tonnes of food, 68 tonnes of general cargo and more than 100 VIPs.
In 2006, the Army deployed two Chinooks to Afghanistan to provide support to the coalition forces in the southern part of the country. The aircraft had been heavily modified by the addition of ballistic armour and mini-guns. The deployment has continued to the present (mid 2012) albeit the majority of the personnel are withdrawn over the northern winter months when the demand for rotary wing support is reduced. In May, 2011, one of the Chinooks on an operational mission crashed and a passenger, LT Marcus Case, an Army pilot on detachment with the Heron UAV section, was sadly killed.
The operational commitment in Timor Leste, formerly East Timor, was gradually being reduced as the decade advanced, but in 2006 it ramped up again when large scale unrest rocked the new country. As a result, additional troops along with additional Black Hawks and Kiowa were redeployed to provide aviation support. The Kiowa were finally withdrawn in 2008, but a detachment of Black Hawks remain in country.
2006 also saw another operational deployment domestically to provide support to the Commonwealth Games in Melbourne and overseas when a Black Hawk detachment was embarked on HMAS Kanimbla in response to unrest in Fiji. Sadly on this deployment a Black Hawk crashed conducting an approach to the ship and two people, including the pilot, Captain Mark Bingley, were killed.
Finally in 2006 a disbandment parade was held at Oakey for last independent RAEME Workshop. Originally formed in 1972 at Amberley as the 5th Base Workshop, the unit moved to Oakey in 1973 and underwent many name changes through 5 Base Workshop Battalion, Oakey Workshop Battalion, Oakey Logistics Battalion and finally Aviation Support Group Workshop. Throughout, the workshop provided operational level support to the School of Army Aviation and subsequently the Army Aviation Training Centre and some deeper level maintenance for the rest of the Army fleet. 5 Base as it was affectionately known despite all the name changes was an integral part of the Army aviation capability that became redundant as more and more commercial support of maintenance and training was introduced.
In 2007 a number of structural changes were made in the Army aviation capability. 1 Avn Regiment was consolidated in their new facilities at Robertson Barracks near Darwin and eagerly awaited the arrival of the ARH Tiger. A new regiment, 6 Avn Regiment, was raised by placing the two independent squadrons, 171 and 173, under a regimental headquarters and locating the former at Holsworthy, near Sydney, in facilities built on the airfield vacated by 161 Recce Squadron in 1995. The role of 6 Avn Regiment was to provide counter-terrorist and fixed wing support to the Army.
In October 2007, Army finally bid farewell to the veritable Huey. Having served in all three services, the UH-1 Iroquois was an ADF workhorse without peer. First introduced into RAAF service in 1962, Hueys saw operational service in Vietnam, the Middle East, Bouganville and The Solomon Islands, as well as survey deployments in Papua New Guinea and Indonesia, and humanitarian work in numerous domestic and regional locations. The Huey served in Army colours for 17 years and is remembered with great affection by all those who flew or maintained them.
2007 also saw the first of the presentations of guidons to the Army aviation regiments. In November, on a parade to mark the 20th anniversary of the unit, the Governor General presented a regimental guidon to 5 Avn Regiment. On the same parade the Governor General announced that he had that day approved the award of the Unit Meritorious Citation to the regiment in recognition of the sustained operational performance in Timor Leste and Afghanistan.
It was 1 Avn Regiment’s turn in 2008 and in July the Governor General duly presented the regimental guidon at a parade at Robertson Barracks. The first contingent of ARH Tiger helicopters had arrived in the unit only a week earlier and the aircraft was a welcome addition to the ceremonial occasion. July also marked the 40th anniversary of the formation of the Australian Army Aviation Corps, and the presentation and anniversary were celebrated with the annual Corps Dinner held in Darwin for the first time.
While the operational deployments in Afghanistan and Timor Leste continued to the end of the decade and beyond, there was still room for more changes in Army aviation. At the end of 2009, the Army lost its fixed wing capability when the King Air B 350s were transferred to the RAAF. For close on 50 years Army had owned or leased integral fixed wing aircraft which had served on operations in Vietnam, Vunuatu and Timor Leste, conducted surveys across Australia, in Indonesia and Papua New Guinea and seen Army fixed wing pilots operate as far away as Antarctica. But from 2010 Army aviation would be an all rotary wing capability. This change, and the delays in the introduction of both the ARH Tiger and MRH 90, saw the retention of the Kiowas and their move to 173 Squadron in 6 Avn Regiment to provide useful training for the increasing number of graduate pilots unable to do operational conversions onto the delayed aircraft. As this is being written (mid 2012) the Kiowa has already passed 40 years in Australian Army service and is more than 22 years beyond its original planned withdrawal date!
As the decade drew to a close, the Governor General presented a regimental guidon to 6 Avn Regiment and at the annual Corps Dinner in Holsworthy shortly after the three Army aviation guidons were on display for the first time. For more than ten years, Army units and aircraft had been continuously deployed on operations domestically and overseas, and at the same time the capability had undergone major reorganisation and had been heavily engaged in introducing two new types of aircraft into service.