Media were invited on Friday 11 March 2016 to watch up close the ADF’s ability to deploy at short notice,  then prepare and maintain its air drop capability from RAAF base Richmond in western Sydney, NSW.

Exercise Elephant Trail 16 took place between March 3 to 11, 2016 in the western Sydney area at the RAAF base at Richmond and the nearby Londonderry tactical air  drop zone. This critical training involved the Australian Army’s 176 Air Despatch Squadron working with the RAAF 35 and 37 Sqn and other ADF personnel. The goals of this real world exercise were to ensure the 176 Sqn Air Despatch training could be conducted successfully and evaluated adequately. The tactical exercise was designed to test the Squadron’s personnel and their projection capabilities. This was to ensure they can operate to short notice tasking, while deployed in a rough field environment. The criteria tested and proved that the unit’s ability to be certified operational within 15 hrs of being notified, can be maintained.
176 Air Despatch Squadron, were for the duration of the exercise, set up in a simulated deployed/field posture in a rough field area of the RAAF base Richmond. The loads were prepared on the base and then transported to the flight line.They were then rolled onto either the C-27J Spartan or the C-130J Hercules and then taken to the nearby drop zone (DZ) at Londonderry and then collected. 

The training enabled the 176 AD Sqn stores building/parachute packing personnel……… known as “riggers” …. to observe the end results of their work at Londonderry DZ.  The units other members – the Air Despatchers – also got to see the results of their work, with them releasing the rigged loads out from the rear of the transport aircraft. Once the rigged loads had been dropped by the air despatchers, the various cargo loads floated down under small and large olive green parachutes and landed within the 176 Sqn secured drop zone at Londonderry.

The retrieval personnel used Mack and UniMog trucks to collect the cargo and then headed back to the base for an evaluation and debrief session. Watching on were also aircrew from the RAAF transport and other units who are  closely involved with the air despatch capabilities.

The history behind 176 Sqn is very complex and in-depth. However a brief review shows it has a long history stretching back nearly 100 years and has gone through many changes. Starting in WW1 the ability to resupply Australian troops in battle started with the first primitive air drops. This much needed capability grew, was developed and then maintained across the next few decades. It went through much more development with small and medium sized units and moving around within the army’s  organisational structure during WW2. Skills were upgraded to match the larger and faster cargo aircraft that came into use…like the C-47 Dakota. Air despatch in WW2 was heavily utilised in Papua New Guinea where simple supplies were hard to otherwise supply to troops in the muddy and hilly terrain.

The air drop capacity was maintained into the 1950s by regular and citizen military forces. By the 1960s, deployments to Asia and the Vietnam War enabled the air dropping skills to be become very refined. Further consolidation after the Vietnam War, witnessed more changes to structure and unit makeup. Over the last few decades newer transport aircraft, new parachute systems and extensive training has enabled the role of 176 Sqn to continue providing a unique capability built apon many years of operational and training experiences. More of its history can be seen at – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Army_Air_Dispatch .

Here is a video of air despatchers at work on transport aircraft – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4OHcY-25jAk

176 Sqn is an Army based unit which closely interlinks with the RAAF to provide a unique service. 176 AD Sqn is an important component of the Australian Army’s 9th Force Support Battalion / 9 FSB. The logistic unit headquarters is based at Amberley, Queensland but 176 AD Sqn operates from its home base at Richmond. The 9 FSB battalion is comprised of various units – Battalion Headquarters, Special Advisory Group, 9th Logistic Support Company, 26th Transport Squadron, 37th Force Supply Company, 176th Air Dispatch Squadron and the 8th Personnel Services Company. The 9 FSB was stood up on 1 August 1998, following the merger of a number of supply, medical, military police, maintenance and transport units in the ADF. 176 Sqn personnel structure includes a platoon of parachute riggers in addition to the aircraft based Air Dispatch troops. The background to the unit is not the normal makeup but is a mix of personnel who come from two separate Corps within the Australian army. The Air Dispatch troops are assigned from the Royal Australian Corps of Transport, while the Parachute Riggers are part of the Royal Australian Army Ordnance Corps.
The primary role of the 176 Sqn unit is to provide the general and logistical aerial dropped support needs for the ADF by enabling delivery of equipment within areas of operations (AOs) at landing zone. The other part of the core function of 176 Air Dispatch Squadron is to provide the Federal Government with the capability to enable the Australian Defence Force to have an aerial delivery system for either civil operations within country or humanitarian operations externally. The latter has seen the unit deployed to places such as Timor and Iraq. This air drop capability is ensured and maintained by 176 Sqn regularly interacting with the various fixed-wing (C-27/C-130/C-17) and helicopters (S-70/CH-47/MRH-90) squadrons of the RAAF and AAVN.


The air drop on Friday 11 March 2016 at Londonderry drop zone (DZ).


The RAAF 37 Sqn C-130J Hercules arrived over the drop zone and then conducted a pass to ensure all was correct and then did a wide turn to the west, then realigned again for the run in to the DZ for the actual drop.



On the final run in, the C-130J crew were aiming to arrive over the marker panel which had been set up in the middle of the drop zone. The aircrew up front, would be working with the loadmaster down the back of the aircraft – who would ensure that the drop signal is given to the air despatchers, so they know when to release the cargo load.


Final run in, rear ramp down.


And the signal to drop is given and the Air Despatchers are now pushing out the cargo load on board …. and it floats down into the DZ.



The Hercules then departed the DZ, then flew west in a tight turn around the drop zone and proceeded then back to the DZ.  A final run over ahead and then headed east over the personnel on the ground, dipping a wing as they departed.


After the airdrop – the retrieval personnel moved in to the secured drop zone and proceeded to clean up and packed away the parachutes and placing the cargo loads on to the trucks.


Over the 3-11 March timeframe, the 176 Sqn personnel worked in a simulated deployed situation, which meant experiencing rough field conditions that they are likely to encounter when deployed locally or internationally. This exercise had the unit’s personnel operate from within from a defensive position, while using large tents as their operating centres and living quarters.

The personnel built up 30 tonnes of the cargo loads which were then ready for air dropping. These loads ranged in various size from small containers requiring 1 small parachute, to larger loads needing a slightly bigger parachute up to to a few drums on a pallet requiring an even larger parachute. It was not demonstrated on the day I visited, but the unit has the ability to prepare other loads varying in size, such as specialised cargo containers, dropping vehicles on pallets with cardboard packing to soften ground impact. Examples might be….. light 4 wheel quads which may need 1-2 parachutes, through to heavy vehicles eg trucks which may require up to 8 large parachutes.

The unit is able to adapt to dynamic tactical and strategic situations via calling in personnel as required. Sometimes operational tasking may only a few personnel assigned to carry out a short notice task, while other times the whole unit could be tasked. The men and women of 176 AD Sqn  involved in Elephant Trail 16 were observed at work in the rough field conditions, rapidly building up the stores to be ready for an operational drop. They demonstrated assorted skills in loading pallets of cargo, tying items down using harnesses/cargo nets and then inserting corrugated cardboard packing to minimise the shock on landing. Once all the cargo is secured to the pallet, the final rigging of the parachute pack and deployment lines completed then the load is certified as approved to be dropped. The operational tasks being conducted by the 176 AD Sqn personnel as they built up a 4 x 4 quad bike on a pallet to be air dropped showed how they worked in a team and job task process with everyone having set procedures to complete to ensure it was ready to be dropped. Note the cardboard packaging for reducing the shock on landing.


The completed payload ready to go – to the flightline for loading.


While CO of the 176 AD Sqn, Major Molnar explained to the media the tasks and duties undertaken by 176 AD Sqn at the “base camp”, the ADF’s Joint Public Affairs Unit (JPAU) also visited and interviewed Maj Molnar along with several other personnel.



176 AD Sqn is a highly trained logistic unit with an extensive wartime and peacetime history behind it, thus giving it a very solid basis to work from into the future for any air dropping capabilities tasks directed to the Air Mobility Group. It will be required long into the future to enable the Australian Government to meet its military and civil air drop needs. If you are interested in a career as an  Air Despatcher, this career insight may help you understand the job position better – http://www.defencejobs.gov.au/army/jobs/AirDispatcher/

DUAN wishes to thank the Defence Media communication advisors Eamon and Ben for facilitating access on the day.