The Royal Australian Navy has successfully evacuated Bureau of Meteorology personnel from the path of Severe Tropical Cyclone Jasper using an MH-60R Seahawk helicopter.
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Four staff were ferried safely ashore after being evacuated from a remote offshore weather station by the next-generation submarine hunter and anti-surface warfare helicopter, operating from guided-missile destroyer HMAS Brisbane Navy warship.
Outside of rescue operations, RAN MH-60R Seahawk helicopters are equipped with Hellfire air-to-surface missiles, Mark 54 anti-submarine torpedos and, in some cases, Airborne Low-Frequency Sonar Systems.
HMAS Brisbane had previously been operating in the Coral Sea on 8 December when it was diverted north towards the weather station on Willis Island, located about 480 kilometres east of Cape Tribulation in Far North Queensland and directly in the path of the approaching cyclone.
After closing the distance overnight, Brisbane commenced the evacuation after first light on Saturday, 9 December, deploying its embarked MH-60R Seahawk helicopter to evacuate all four bureau staff from the small, exposed sand island in four flights.
Brisbane’s ship’s company and flight crew had to contend with heavy seas brought on by the storm, with three-metre waves, sustained 25-knot (46 km/h) winds and sea spray showering the front of the ship as it cleaved through the swell while repeatedly launching and recovering the helicopter.
Brisbane’s Flight Commander, Lieutenant Commander Matthew Urquhart, said the operation was not without its risks.
“There were some extreme challenges with this evacuation, most notably the weather; however, this is why we train. The whole flight team was responsive, and we successfully executed the mission,” Lieutenant Commander Urquhart said.
“We were just happy to get ahead of the cyclone.”
The weather presented similar challenges for those on the ship, but operations officer Lieutenant Kyle Livingstone considered it all in a day’s work for team Brisbane.
“Responding to emergencies is part of our job in the Navy. Once we received our tasking, HMAS Brisbane was able to quickly set up to conduct the evacuation,” Lieutenant Livingstone said.
“The weather conditions presented a challenge, but the skills and training of our people allowed us to safely conduct the evacuation before the weather conditions got any worse.”
All four evacuees were safely off the island and aboard the destroyer by around 7:30am local time before Brisbane turned southward away from the worsening conditions.
Commanding Officer HMAS Brisbane Commander Bernard Dobson is proud of how his whole ship’s company responded in the face of danger.
“Mariners will go to great lengths to preserve safety of life at sea. We had no issues turning towards danger if it meant evacuating our fellow Australians from a tight spot. I am proud of my team for their quick response and the professional execution of the mission,” Commander Dobson said.
“With Severe Tropical Cyclone Jasper behind us, Brisbane was returning from a successful deployment in north-east Asia, despite the challenging weather conditions and rough seas, we made the call early to turn back towards the cyclone and get in and out as quickly and safely as possible.
“It has been pretty rough, so we were pleased to again get ahead of the storm and be pointed for home.”
None were more relieved than the four Bureau of Meteorology evacuees, who have since been adjusting to life at sea as guests aboard Brisbane.
The Willis Island evacuees disembarked Brisbane at Fleet Base East, Sydney, on the morning of Tuesday, 12 December.
“We are all extremely grateful for all of the crew,” Meteorologist William Tom said.
“Waiting out Severe Tropical Cyclone Jasper on Willis Island was not something we wanted to take a chance on.”
Bureau colleague Nicholas Cox is equally grateful but struggling to find his sea legs.
“It sounds clichéd, but the food on board is really good. The movement of the ship, though … I’m not too sure how the crew deals with this much movement,” he said.
The evacuation was conducted under Defence Aid to the Civil Community arrangements, which, in this case, were invoked to utilise the capabilities of the Australian Defence Force to preserve the safety of life at sea.
Brisbane was returning from a three-month Indo-Pacific regional presence deployment, during which the ship participated in training, exercises and other engagements with Australia’s regional partners, along with HMA Ships Stalwart and Toowoomba.