723 Squadron first commissioned into the RAN on 7 April 1952 with one Dakota, one Wirraway, one Sea Otter and two Sea Fury aircraft. The Squadron’s role was to support the Australian Anti-Submarine School (later known as AJASS).
On 11 March 1953, the Squadron received the RAN’s first rotary wing aircraft – three Bristol Sycamore helicopters – adding search and rescue, rotary wing training and fleet support to the Squadron’s roles.
By 1956, the Squadron had grown considerably, operating a wide range of aircraft including Sea Furies, Dakota, Wirraways, a Sea Otter, Fireflies, Vampire jets, an Otter communications aircraft and Sycamore helicopters.
723 Squadron decommissioned on 25 October 1956, recommissioning on 18 February 1957 with five Sycamore helicopters, two Austers and two Firefly target tugs. In November 1962, the fixed wing aircraft were transferred to 724 Squadron and 723 became an all-helicopter Squadron.
Soon after, the renamed HT 723 took on charge two Westland Scouts (in April 1962) and six Bell UH1B Iroquois (May 1964). The former supported survey operations of the hydrographic ship HMAS Moresby while the latter replaced the Sycamores.
With the Australian and US commitment in Vietnam increasing between 1965-1967, the US made a request to Australia for helicopters and crews to provide combat support to the war effort. The RAN already had a significant presence in the region with HMAS Sydney, converted to a fast troop ship, deploying troops as early as May 1965, and a Clearance Diving Team and a destroyer operating in Vietnam from February and March 1967 respectively. On 14 July 1967, the Minister for Defence, Mr Allen Fairhall, responded to the US request by announcing that the RAN would provide 8 pilots, 4 observers, 24 maintenance personnel, 4 air crewmen and 6 support staff to serve as part of the US Army’s 135th Assault Helicopter Company (AHC). This detachment would become known as the Royal Australian Navy Helicopter Flight Vietnam (RANHFV).
The cockpit of a Bell Iroquois as flown in Vietnam
Pilots were drawn from existing FAA Squadrons and were officially allocated to 723 Squadron, undertaking eight weeks of training with the Squadron at NAS Nowra. The first flight formed and operational training began on 28 August 1967. Their training included troop lift, insertion and support as well as survival training, code of conduct training, small arms and colloquial language. 723 Squadron suspended all other activities to devote all possible resources to training the RANHFV. No. 5 Squadron RAAF also assisted by providing M60 door guns and mounts as well other advice and assistance and the flight completed training by conducting field exercises with the Australian Army.
Four contingents of the RANHFV served in Vietnam between 1967 and 1971
During 1973, the Westland Scout helicopters were replaced by three Bell 206B-1 Kiowa helicopters. The Kiowas embarked on HMAS Moresby and for brief periods in HMA Ships Stalwart, Sydney, Adelaide, Tobruk and Jervis Bay. By the time the Kiowa retired in 2000, the Squadron had operated up to six airframes.
With the decommissioning of HT 725 in 1976, HC 723 received four Westland Wessex 31B helicopters stripped of their anti-submarine warfare equipment, for utility support. Wessex numbers increased to 10 in 1979 when the Squadron was tasked with additional Army support roles.
In 1984, the Wessex were transferred to the newly-commissioned HU 816, and HC 723 took delivery of six AS350B Squirrel helicopters for aircrew training and utility duties. The Squirrels were also embarked on the RAN’s guided missile frigates (FFG) as the interim FFG helicopter.
Two Hawker Siddley HS 748 fixed wing aircraft joined the Squadron in 1984 to provide electronic warfare training and VIP transport for the RAN. Both HS 748 aircraft retired from service in 2000.
On the decommissioning of HU 816 in June 1987, HC 723 received five Wessex for search and rescue, fleet support and the HMAS Success flight. Both the Wessex and Iroquois were retired from service in 1989.723 Squadron is now complemented with AS350BA Squirrels. Since 1984, the Squirrels have served with all FFGs and, as an integrated embarked capability, saw service during the 1990-91 Gulf War and in East Timor.
In 2002, 723 Squadron celebrated 50 years of service and is providing basic rotary wing training for all RAN aircrew.