5ACS OPERATIONS AT TINDAL
Extracts from the book “GOING SOLO” By Dr, Alan Stephens
Air Marshal F.W.R. Scherger succeeded Air Marshal McCauley as CAS in March 1957. More than anyone else, Scherger appreciated the need for a system of modern, flexible, and robust bases in the north, for in February 1942, as a group captain, he had been in command at Darwin. While Scherger had emerged from the subsequent commission of inquiry with his reputation intact, the experience was salutary and chastening in the extreme. From then on he was committed to establishing a second major base in the Darwin area. His appointment as CAS gave him the authority to pursue the cause, while his promotion to air chief marshal and chairman of the Chiefs of Staff Committee in May 1961 enabled him to sustain the pressure at the highest levels for an unusually long period.
Scherger began pressing the government for a second major airfield in the Darwin area in 1959, and even before receiving a reply instructed No. 5 Airfield Construction Squadron to start stockpiling materials for the job. His lobbying was successful and provision was made in the 1959/62 Defence Program for work to start on the new base. After the usual delays, the survey of possible sites was completed in May 1963 when the former wartime airfield of Tindal was selected." Located eleven kilometres south of the town of Katherine and two hundred and fifty kilometres from Darwin, Tindal met the RAAF's main geographic and strategic criteria. It was sufficiently far inland to make enemy incursions difficult and reduce the worst effects of the tropical cyclones, which often lashed the coast, while being sufficiently close to Darwin to establish a mutually reinforcing connection.
Scherger's concept for Tindal was to establish an 'Un Manned Operational Base', later known as a 'bare base'. Permanent facilities would be kept to a minimum and would consist of high quality movement surfaces a 2750 metre long runway, taxiways, and hard standing supported only by essential infrastructure such as electricity and water. There would be almost no permanent buildings. In times of defence emergencies or exercises all other facilities and services would be moved in by air or truck. It was a concept ideally suited to a relatively small air force with a vast, largely under populated, and under serviced continent to defend.
But despite the obvious merits of both the concept and Tindal's location, the project was delayed yet again, this time by competing strategic considerations. Limited resources meant that at the start of the 1960s only one airfield could be built, and priority had gone to the Australian mandated Territory of Papua New Guinea, where the Air Board believed the RAAF's new Mirage fighters would need a transit airstrip for their deployments to and from Southeast Asia. Sites on the mainland at Nadzab and Wewak were under consideration, as was the possibility of rehabilitating Momote. Pending that decision (which eventually favoured Nadzab), work at Tindal was deferred. The delay worried Air Member for Supply and Equipment Air Vice Marshal D.A. Creal. Any construction work in Papua New Guinea was likely to go to civilian contractors rather than the RAAF, and Creal was concerned for the future of No. 5 Airfield Construction Squadron, which had already been pared back and needed the job at Tindal to maintain continuity of employment and, to some extent, to justify its existence. Under pressure from Creal the Air Board agreed that Tindal should proceed. At a cost of about $7 million,
Extract from the book Always First by David Wilson
The antecedents of 5ACS's Tindal task date back to 21st December 1956 when the Air Member for Supply and Equipment wrote to the commander of 5ACS, Wing Commander Harrison, that the decision had been made to select a site for an airfield which would be `mutually supporting with Darwin'. The conditions laid down were that the site should be in an area that would not be `subjected to fall out from a nuclear weapon aimed at Darwin, be easily accessible by road or railway, have an adequate water supply and to be no further from Darwin than 200 miles [322 kilometres]'. Harrison undertook a reconnaissance of the Katherine Larrimah area from 15 18 June 1957 and recommended that `the Tindal (sic) airfield be accepted as a base suitable for development'. However, this did not finalise the matter. A survey team comprising Group Captain J.F. Lush, the Director of Air Force Plans, Wing Commander J.E.S. Dennett from Headquarters Operational Command, Flight Lieutenant W.D. Pronger (Directorate of Works and Buildings) and a representative of the Department of Works, Mr. H. Williams, were tasked to survey the Katherine area on 6th July surveyed the wartime Venn airfield east of the town. Lush recommended that `subject to a survey of the Venn area proving that runway gradients to the required standards can be achieved ... the new airfield should be sited at Venn [and that if not] the new airfield should be constructed at Tindal (sic)'.
A survey of the Venn site by Squadron Leader Lessels and Flying Officer W. Peck from 7 10 August 1961 confirmed in a report signed by Peck on 31 July that the `Venn site is unsuitable for an airfield owing to the sub surface instability'. This was also supported by a soil survey of the site undertaken by a party lead by Flying Officer R.N. Gurevitch, which had left Darwin on 24 July 1961, the party comprised of Mr. K. Hand (Dept. Works. Eng) Sgt W. Kingston, Sgt R. Pointing, CPL T. Wilson, LAC Finnegan, LAC G. Smith, lived under canvas with a brilliant piece of innovation by the Motor Transport Fitter, Finnegan, supplying one small luxury. He fitted hoses to the engine of a Diamond `T' prime mover to enable water to be heated in the engine block and then supplied to the shower. Gurevitch boasts that the group had the only `200 horse power shower in the Air Force'. The survey established that the Venn site was superior to Tindal in regard to access to gravel and the soil type. However a resistivity survey confirmed Peck's earlier assessment; there were many sink holes along the proposed line of the runway.
Gurevitch's relationship with Tindal continued when he led the advance party of 30 members to the site on 8th October 1963. Four convoys were dispatched from Darwin during November to join the advance party which had, in the meantime, established themselves in tents so old and rotten they had to be changed twice weekly in the `wet' season. Building materials were scrounged from the RAAF dump at Darwin to improve the lot of the men, water bores sunk and portable showers erected. Conditions were primitive and even the charms of local belles such as `Sexy Lexy' and `Hot Tubes' were no competition for the attraction of home and family in Darwin. Members travelled by road between the two areas and this local derby was not without personal cost. Leading Aircraftmen K.J. Sherlock and J.R. Kennedy were seriously injured on 13th May 1964 and E.G. Perse was involved in a motor vehicle accident on 12th March 1967. Sergeant R. Pointon died in Darwin on 9th April 1966 as a result of an accident. The situation improved after July 1966 when the 114 married quarters allocated to the base were completed and occupied, thus decreasing traffic between Darwin and Katherine. Landscaping of the `married patch' made it more comfortable and hospitable with gardens and lawns, although Worrall reflects that the houses themselves `were pretty rough and leaked when it rained. There was such a gap between the walls and the ceiling on one of our rooms that I could see cars driving down the road in front of the house. It made for good ventilation but lots of dust used to blow in'.
The `Tank and Tummy Station' at Pine Creek was a popular `watering hole' for members of 5ACS, travelling to and from Darwin. Many men made friends with the publican's shaggy Airedale dog. As a result, 5ACS gained a new recruit named Trevor (in recognition of the Works Supervisor, Flight Sergeant Trevor Christie, `who was also a bit shaggy'). `Trevor' joined `Oilcan', `Dipstick and `Suitcase' as canine members of the squadron, proving his worth, carrying nuts and bolts in a bag tied around his neck for use by the hangar erection team.
Planning and preparation prior to earthworks on the 2,743-metre runway and associated taxiways started at the end of 1964. The camp was completed by the end of January 1965. Progression on airfield was steady and had reached the stage that Wing Commander J.L. Ingate AFC was able to land Dakota A65 96 on 10th March 1967 to become the first aircraft to land since reconstruction of the wartime airfield commenced. Three months later the airfield had been developed to the stage that Canberra aircraft from 1 Squadron, 81 Wing fighters and a unit from the Singapore Air Force were able to use it as a base during exercise `High Venus'. This exercise highlighted weaknesses in the `bare base' concept under which the airfield was built. On 29th March 1968 Air Vice Marshal K.S. Hennock, the AOC Operational Command, identified areas where improvement was required to `establish those facilities required for the effective conduct of peace time exercises ... and construct those facilities required in a war situation'. Tindal required extra work to enable facilities to be available for the use of deployed squadrons. Thus squadrons did not have to transport equipment from their home bases. Tindal had reached this stage when 3 Squadron deployed Mirage aircraft for `High Jupiter' in January 1968.
Over the following thirty years Tindal was to provide three more bare bases, the first of those additional bases was needed in the north west of the country, where there was no airfield suitable for sustained operations by jet fighters and bombers between the existing RAAF bases at Darwin and Pearce, a distance of some kilometres. Until that gap was plugged, such concepts as the mobile task force and rapid deployments either internally or to Southeast Asia were problematical. The station selected by the Air Force was Learmonth on the Exmouth Gulf, 1100 kilometres north of Perth.