(Photo courtesy of Mr John Ahern of Townsville)
In his accompanying text to the photograph above, John Ahern wrote:
“Here is a photo taken during the Maitland floods showing (L to R), the late Gordon (Pancho) Walter & myself.
Regrettably no info on the others. Sitting on the wheel is an RAAF officer who was with the Air Force Sikorsky which spent most of the time grounded with technical problems. We never did get to see it airborne.
After a few days operating out of Narrabri we were moved to the Walgett town centre using the tennis courts as a landing ground. When the emergency was over we flew from Walgett directly to Albatross with a few pauses hovering over small town schoolyards. It was early days as far as helicopter operations was concerned & it was good to see the kids emptying the buildings to get a close up view of something they had never seen before.”
Kim Dustan provided additional information, as follows:
“The RAN sent helicopters during the Maitland floods in 1955. They covered quite a bit of the countryside, rescuing some 100 people (there was also a tragic crash) and they reached as far afield as Dubbo, Narrabri and Wee Waa as you will see from the photo (opposite) taken at Narrabri with the GG Sir William Slim and the NSW Police Commissioner, which includes the same helicopter. The fellow wearing the Mae West looks like the one sitting the helicopter wheel in the Mystery Photo.”
An idea of the extent of the emergency can be obtained from the article in the Navy League newspaper here (scroll to page 10). An extract from this paper states:
“By Saturday, the position had eased sufficiently to enable the withdrawal of two helicopters to the Naval Air Station at Nowra. The two in the Narrabri area, which were assisted by an R.A.A.F. helicopter, continued, however, to drop supplies and medical stores to isolated homesteads in that area, and on Sunday, March 6, proceeded to the Walgett area to stand by in case the floods broke into that town . Although the flood position eased considerably in the next week, two Naval helicopters and the R.A.A.F. helicopter were left in the Walgett area and carried out many sorties with medical and food supplies. In the first four days, the five Naval helicopters flew 90 sorties in all three areas. In the first four days they rescued 70 people, of which 36 were in the Dubbo area, 18 in the Narrabri area, and 16 in the Maitland area.”
Accordingly, the Mystery Photograph is therefore of RAN Sycamore Helicopter side number 904 (XA653) which at the time was deployed at Walgett in support of flood relief operations. The exact date it was taken is not known but is likely to have been in the week commencing Monday 7 March 1955. Only two of the five people in the photo have been identified: Gordon Walter and John Ahern (on the LHS of the shot).
John also provided the following information, which is a number of news clippings regarding the Narrabri floods. Source unknown but we think it was printed in the Sydney Morning Herald.
Below. A dramatic image of Sycamore XA221 ditching during the Maitland Flood rescue. The aircraft reportedly struck power cables whilst attempting to pluck two people from the water. The crew were rescued unhurt five miles downstream by an Army Duck. The two men on the winch were drowned.
Below. Maintenance had to be done in the field, using whatever means were possible including borrowed kero drums and crates. Here a crew change a blade on one of the aircraft, using a bit of ingenuity and muscle.
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