15 January 2021
Navy’s Fleet Air Arm has been recognised for its contribution to Operation Bursa with the awarding of the Australian Service Medal with the Counter Terrorism/Special Recovery clasp.
Operation Bursa ran from 1980 to 1990 and had elements of 723, 816 and 817 Squadrons provide air support to Special Forces protecting offshore oil rigs against potential terrorist attack.
Those recognised represent a pathfinder group, who were the first cases in the honours and awards process, which included, Captain Vic Battese (retired), Commodore Vince Di Pietro, Commodore Peter Ashworth, Captain Mal Wright and Captain Marcus Peake (retired).
Also recognised in the first group of recipients were Leading Seaman Gary Macey and Royal Australian Air Force Corporal James Campbell, who were killed in the crash of Wessex 825 in Bass Strait on December 4, 1983.
Captain Andrew Whittaker, who served as a Wessex pilot with No. 816 Squadron during this time, is a strong proponent for the recognition of Navy personnel assigned to Operation Bursa. He is leading the efforts to identify other serving and former personnel who may be eligible.
“The operations were real seat-of-the-pants flying,” Captain Whittaker said.
“Particularly in the Wessex – looking through today’s flight safety and risk management prism, those operations in the 1980s would never be conducted now.
“This was before such technology as night vision goggles or GPS. It involved six Wessex aircraft flying in formation at low level, over water, at night, with nothing more than strategically placed cyalume glow sticks attached to the aircraft for formation keeping.
“Just being on recall at short notice-to-move was in itself a challenge. This was pre-mobile phones and the squadron duty officer had the latest technology, a pager, meaning he had to call lots of landline numbers in the event of a call out. Some people remember being in the Roxy Cinema in Nowra and squadron recall announcements being made during the movie.”
Captain Whittaker said the award was significant to Navy personnel on Operation Bursa.
"It recognises some exceptionally demanding flying, long nights on the flightline for the maintainers and everyone being restricted in their movements for the years that they were assigned to the task,” Captain Whitakker said.
“Unfortunately, some of our squadron colleagues who qualified for the award have passed away without knowing their contribution has been acknowledged. We will seek to ensure their next of kin are presented with the medal."
Navy has verified an additional 176 applications for the Australian Service Medal with the Counter Terrorism/Special Recovery clasp.