Ross Kelton Smith was born on 05 January 1945 at Collaroy NSW. He enlisted in the Royal Australian Navy at Sydney on 07 April 1963 for nine years, his occupation listed as motor mechanic. His first posting was to HMAS Cerberus (Flinders Naval Depot) at Crib Point (south of Melbourne), where he began his recruit training by learning the basic requirements of life in the Navy, and being assessed for specialist training. Given his experience as a motor mechanic it was a natural choice to be selected for training as an aircraft mechanic.
In July 1963 Smith was drafted to HMAS Watson on Sydney Harbour’s South Head, completing his basic training and being rated Ordinary Seaman; then to HMAS Kuttabul where he qualified as a diver. On 20 November 1963 he was posted to HMAS Albatross, the Naval Air Station at Nowra south of Sydney, where he commenced his training as a Naval Airman second class specialising in airframes and engines. This was a good fit for Smith who progressed well in this category, being rated Naval Airman (U) on 29 October 1963.
After passing his Airframes and Engines exams the usual procedure was to join a training squadron to gain practical experience. Due to the upheaval in Naval Aviation at the time 724 Squadron was transformed into a fixed-wing squadron with a varied complement of aircraft including Sea Venoms, Vampires, Fairey Gannets, Fireflies, Douglas C-47 Dakotas, and Auster J5-G Autocars. It would have been a remarkable learning environment for a trainee Naval Airman Mechanic.
On 03 March 1964 Smith was rated Naval Airman AE2. As the RAN had been newly equipped with Westland Wessex 31A anti-submarine helicopters, a draft to 725 Squadron was the next step to gain experience in maintaining these new machines, which were fitted with dipping sonar and could carry offensive weapons such as homing torpedos and depth charges. Further helicopter experience was acquired at 723 Squadron, a specialist helicopter training squadron, operating Bell Iroquois helicopter for training and utility purposes and for preparing pilots for conversion to the larger Westland Wessex helicopters.
After Smith was rated NAMAE1, he was drafted to the aircraft carrier HMAS Melbourne on 28 December 1964 for a 12-month period; while details are not available this was most likely a ‘ship’ posting rather than being attached to an embarked Squadron. In January 1966 he returned to NAS Nowra for more time servicing aircraft, and in April he completed an NBSD course.
In September 1966 Smith was posted to HMAS Kuttabul where he attended a 10-week diving course. This would have prepared him for an appointment as a Search And Rescue (SAR) Diver. Divers had an important role working with the winch operator in a ‘guard helicopter’ during the launching and recovery of aircraft on Melbourne. Swift action was required in the event of an aircraft ditching or other SAR situations, where exhausted or incapacitated people in the water needed to be rescued.
Having returned to NAS Nowra Smith continued working as a maintainer. In March 1967 he joined 725 Squadron and was selected for training as a SAR Diver and embarked on the necessary training before qualifying on 17 July 1967. This meant that, in addition to working as a maintainer, he was ‘on call’ any time of the day or night.
On the morning of 05 June 1968, Smith was assigned as the SAR Diver for range clearing on the Beecroft Peninsula Weapons Range, a routine task for the Squadron. The Bell UH-1 Iroquois helicopter he was flying in, while making a low-level pass on the range, hit an earth embankment causing it to crash on the clifftop and plummet into the sea below. SAR Diver NAMAE R.K. Smith, POACMN D.J. Sanderson and LEUT (P) P.C. Ward all lost their lives in the accident.
Compiled by Kim Dunstan from the following References:
National Archives of Australia
725 Squadron History
723 Squadron History