DHC-4 Caribou in RAAF Service
The de Havilland Canada DHC-4 Caribou was a legendary tactical transport aircraft with its incredible Short Take-Off and Landing (STOL) capability that served the RAAF admirably for 45 years from 1964 to 2009. Operated by No. 35 and No. 38 Squadrons they flew in and out of difficult to access places, with rough and short landing fields, conducting army support and humanitarian aid operations.
Over the years RAAF DHC-4 Caribou aircraft were operated at home out of RAAF Richmond (NSW), RAAF Amberley (QLD) and RAAF Townsville (QLD). The DHC-4 contributed admirably for almost 8 years of valuable service during the Vietnam War initially with the RAAF Transport Flight Vietnam (RTFV) from 1964, which then became No. 35 Squadron from 1966. In Vietnam the DHC-4’s had the call sign “Wallaby” and were known as “Wallaby Airlines” carrying cargo and over 600,000 passengers before the last Caribou returned to Australia in February 1972!
3 RAAF Caribou were also operated by No. 38 Squadron Detachment A out of Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea from 1965 to 1975 in support of the PNG Defence Force (withdrawn following PNG independence in 1975). They racked up 27,000 hours of flying in PNG.
In the early 1970’s RAAF Caribou aircraft conducted aerial survey work of parts of Indonesia in Sumatra and Irian Jaya. They were also used to support RAAF Butterworth in Malaysia (until 1988) and conduct United Nations Peacekeeping and Red Cross missions. From March 1975 to November 1978 a No. 38 Squadron Caribou painted in white and wearing UN markings operated with the UN Military Observer Group in India-Pakistan (UNMOGIP) to provide transport support to the UN mission to monitor the cease-fire line in the North-West Frontier of Kashmir following the Indo-Pakistan Wars of 1965 and 1971.
RAAF Caribou aircraft from No. 35 Squadron wore Red Cross markings transported humanitarian aid to refugees in Portuguese (East) Timor in 1975 during civil war fighting originating from the Indonesian military invasion of the nation following the departure of the Portuguese. RAAF Caribou aircraft would later support Australian peacekeeping forces in Bougainville following a ceasefire in long drawn out unrest in that region of PNG from 1998 to 2003 (the Australian commanded Peace Monitoring Group – PMG), in East Timor again with the UN International Force for East Timor (INTERFET) during the security crisis between 1999 and 2000; and the Solomon Islands in 2003.
Delivery, Losses & Disposal
Of the 29 DHC-4 operated by the RAAF, 14 were still in use in 1992 (reduced from 21 in 1991, the remainder were put into storage at RAAF Amberley and used as a source of spare parts for the fleet). The first of 18 ordered in 1963 began to be delivered in 1964. 7 more were delivered in 1966 to cover those in use in Vietnam and aircraft losses. A final four Caribou were delivered between 1968 and 1971. The aircraft were finally retired in 2009 due to their age and increasing maintenance requirements.
The first RAAF DHC-4 was lost on July 1st, 1964 when A4-134 from No. 38 Squadron was written off following a heavy landing at Nowra Naval Air Station in NSW (today the remains are said to be at the Bandiana Army Museum in Victoria but I did not see it on my visit there in early 2010). 3 were lost in Vietnam, 2 to accidents in 1964 (A4-185) and 1967 (A4-171), and 1 to enemy mortar fire in 1970 (A4-193). A further 3 were lost in accidents in Papua New Guinea in 1965 (A4-202), 1968 (A4-147) and 1972 (A4-233 a devasting crash with the sad loss of 25 personnel onboard including all the RAAF crew and 21 of 25 PNG cadets), with another aircraft damaged in a heavy landing there in 2008 and believed scrapped (A4-285).
In 2001 the Queensland Air Museum in Caloundra acquired the fuselage of DHC-4 A4-173, a Vietnam War veteran that was retired in the 1990’s. In 2002 they acquired the wings and tail of A4-164 to join to the fuselage of A4-173 and this aircraft is now on display at the museum. They also acquired the forward fuselage of A4-159 in 2010.
Following the retirement of the Caribou in 2009 a number were placed in storage and others became training aids or were scrapped. A4-236 was sent to RAAF Amberley Aviation Heritage Centre in 2010 (served with in East Timor with INTERFET and also in the Solomon Islands). In 2011 the Historical Aircraft Restoration Society at Illawarra Regional Airport acquired A4-210 and A4-234 along with six semi-trailer loads of spares (!) to maintain and fly them for up to 20 more years as part of their Vietnam Veterans Memorial Flight.
In 2015 an official tender process for private historic associations to purchase one of six DHC-4’s held in storage at Oakey in Queensland was conducted. They went to the South Australian Aviation Museum (A4-225), Australian Army Flying Museum in Oakey, Queensland (A4-195 – served in East Timor and was already at Oakey so it was an obvious museum choice), Vietnam Veterans Museum on Phillip Island (A4-204 and A4-231, the latter served in East Timor as part of INTERFET), Australian Aviation Heritage Centre in Caboolture, Queensland (A4-228 – served in PNG), the Historical Aircraft Restoration Society (HARS) received A4-275 (served in PNG) and A4-299 went to the Evan’s Head Memorial Aerodrome Heritage Aviation Association in NSW.
Other examples were presented to the Australian War Memorial (A4-140 currently in storage – served in Vietnam, Bougainville and East Timor) and the RAAF Museum at Point Cook (A4-152 on external display). A4-199 is a gate guardian at RAAF Townsville.
Since early 2017 I have seen 4 of the surviving former RAAF de Havilland Canada DHC-4 Caribou aircraft that are on public display. At the time they were in varying stages of being rebuilt, restored or maintained, with one flying with HARS.
South Australian Aviation Museum (SAAM)
The recently completed new display hangar at SAAM has been purpose-built to accommodate some of the new and larger aircraft the museum has already purchased or is going to soon receive. It includes a special elevated section at the rear of the hangar to accommodate the extremely high tail of the RAAF de Havilland Canada DHC-4 Caribou transport (A4-225). This DHC-4 was delivered to the RAAF in 1965 and was operated by No. 38 Squadron Detachment A in Papua New Guinea from 1965 to 1971 then returned to regular operations with No. 38 Squadron in Australia until retired in 2009 (it was purchased by the museum in 2015 – info from ADF-Serials.com.au).
Historical Aircraft Restoration Society (HARS)
HARS at Illawarra Regional Airport in Albion Park, NSW have two examples A4-210 (flying – served in Vietnam from 1965 to 1968) and A4-234 (currently undergoing maintenance and restoration to flight – served in Vietnam from 1970 to 1972) they intend to fly both as part of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Flight – what a fantastic tribute they are! HARS also have the forward fuselage of A4-179 which was acquired in 2014 (this airframe served in Vietnam from 1964 to 1972 – the first in and last out) and A4-275 which is apparently a source for spares (served in PNG).
RAAF Museum Point Cook
The RAAF Museum Point Cook DHC-4 (A4-152) was one of the first three Caribou’s delivered to Australia in 1964 and the second last to be retired in 2009. This aircraft served in Vietnam (October 1967 to September 1968), Kashmir (three tours with the UN from 1975 to 1978), East Timor (1999) and the Solomon Islands (2003). It was also used for the aerial surveys of Indonesia in the early 1970’s.
Although it looks a little worse for wear when compared to the SAAM and HARS examples it really just needs a new coat of paint but this is unlikely while it is on external display. That is going to remain that way for a long time as there is no display space in existing hangars (an ongoing problem at this historic air base).