A ROYAL Australian Air Force (RAAF) Caribou aircraft has completed its final task in Papua New Guinea and returned to Australia last week, closing a 45-year relationship for the aircraft with the country.
The Australian Government announced earlier this year that the current fleet of 13 Caribou, operated by No. 38 Squadron from RAAF Base Townsville, will be retired in late 2009. They have been a workhorse of the Australian military and are still recognised as one of the most capable short-haul transport aircraft in the world.
The Caribou, so well suited to the difficult local terrain and conditions, has a long and distinguished history in PNG since 1964.
Operating in provinces such as Central, Oro, Milne Bay, Goroka and Madang, the Caribou has provided much needed assistance to many Papua New Guineans. However, helicopters can now do some of the work previously handled by the Caribou and there are bigger and more efficient transport planes.
This long service life has taken its toll on the Caribou. They are increasingly expensive to operate, and are not providing the necessary return expected by the RAAF.
The Caribou is also less able to effectively support the Australian Defence Force in other environments in which it operates. Training of RAAF personnel must be focused on providing them with the skills required to support modern and capable airframes.
Australian Defence Force aircraft, including the C-130 Hercules, will continue to train in Papua New Guinea. Operational air lift requirements, such as those assisting the civil community, will be effectively managed by the Australian Defence Force across its aviation assets.
The Caribou has supported PNG famine relief operations in 1997, tsunami relief operations in 1999, Cyclone Guba relief operations in 2007, and the mudslide which affected the Highlands Highway in 2008 as well as providing transport support for the PNG Defence Force. Most recently, a Caribou has been transporting building materials provided under the Basic Education Development Project to schools in the Kokoda area of Central province.
With the harsh terrain and the remoteness of many communities around PNG, it is often difficult to get relief supplies into disaster-struck areas. The unique capabilities of the Caribou, including short takeoff and landings, has seen the light transport aircraft cope well with the challenging flying conditions in delivering much needed assistance to affected communities across PNG.
While slow and noisy, the Caribou is a versatile transport aircraft, capable of short take-offs and landings on unprepared runways that cannot be used by other military transports. The Caribou has been used by the RAAF for flare-dropping missions, medical evacuation, search and rescue and paratroop training exercises, but the main task was always the airlift of troops, civilians, supplies, ammunition, mail and food.
The Caribou, replaced the previously-used Dakota aircraft and its main operational role has been in support of the Australian Army.
The RAAF began receiving its first Caribous in 1964, however in July 1964, some Caribous being ferried from Canada to Australia were diverted to Malaysia and South Vietnam to support Australiaís increasing commitment in the Vietnam War. During nearly eight years of operations in Vietnam, the Caribou, which used the call-sign ‘Wallaby’, carried over 600,000 passengers. Australiaís Caribou detachment in Vietnam began winding down in June 1971, and the last aircraft arrived back in Australia in February 1972.