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NUI DAT 1966 - 1971
Luscombe Airfield was built at Nui Dat and officially opened
on 5 December 1966. The airfield was named after Captain Bryan Luscombe (RAA),
who was one of the early post WWII Army aviators. He was killed in action in Korea on 5
June 1952 whilst flying an air observation post mission as a member of 1903 (Indep) Air Op Flight - RAF.
Luscombe Airfield late 1966 early
from Ross Goldspink).
The First Australian Task Force (1ATF) moved into the Nui Dat
area in early June 1966, and units were deployed so that a compromise was struck
between immediate and future requirements. On the one hand was a need for a
fairly compact defensive layout around the Nui Dat feature; on the other was the
requirement for early development of domestic roads, and provision of adequate
empty spaces for eventual construction of essential buildings and installations.
Not the least important of these installations was an airfield.
With the wet monsoon season imminent, top priority for engineer
base development effort was directed to construction of scale 'A' accommodation
and access service roads to units, in the hope that units would not become
mud-bound in their essential domestic activities.
During the early stages of development of Nui Dat it was
necessary for 161 (Indep) Recce Flt, a Task Force unit, to remain at Vung Tau
with the First Australian Logistic Support Group (1ALSG), since the fixed wing
light aircraft had to use the Vung Tau airfield.
The initial master plan made provision for a Caribou standard
airfield and a large landing area for helicopters, in addition to other
facilities. Sites for the airfield and the main helipad were selected by 1 Field
Squadron (RAE) based on the Task Force Commander's tactical and logistical
requirements, the ruling airfield criteria provided by Military Aid Command
Vietnam (MACV), and local advice from RAAF.
In the initial laying out of the Task Force, three large tracts
were left vacant within the area to provide for the airfield and a major
heliport. Since all three of these areas were naturally fairly low and virtually
below the wet monsoon high water mark, they were not attractive for the initial
Since engineer effort was directed to other tasks and since the
wet season had commenced, reclamation could not be attempted at that time.
Between the Nui Dat feature (SAS Hill) and the Task Force rubber plantation was
a natural cleared area which was used initially as the main helipad, and was
known as Kangaroo Pad. By means of fairly substantial drainage and excavation,
this area could be converted to a large heliport running east-west, or, with
considerable more effort, a Caribou airfield with a number of fairly stringent
The proximity to TF HQ and the extensive earthworks requirement
for an airfield made this area better suited to ultimate development as a
heliport. The two main areas which were considered for the airfield were:
1. To the west of Nui Dat using Route 2 as a
centre line (running north-south), and located between 5RAR in the north and TF
HQ in the south, or
2. To the north of Nui Dat just south of the
rubber plantation which was occupied by 5RAR and to the east of Route 2,
The former location offered several advantages in the short term
- the alignment was already fairly clear of vegetation; the road provided a
ready-made (though narrow) runway, which could be widened and graded smooth; the
entire runway would be dominated by the Nui Dat feature; and the ends secured by
Task Force units; the airfield would be centrally placed for easy access from
Many disadvantages were apparent, however, particularly in the
long term. The alignment was at right angles to the prevailing wind directions,
these being east to west from November to February and west to east from April
to September. The flight path of fixed wing aircraft would cross that of
helicopters using Kangaroo Pad. The western flank of the entire length of the
runway would be exposed to enemy observation and possibly direct fire from Nui
Thi Vai Hills to the west. In addition this flank was vulnerable to enemy ground
attack since there were no friendly units located west of Route 2 in this area.
Immediate approaches from both ends were over rising ground and gradients along
the centre line were too great for ultimate use by aircraft larger than Caribou.
If excavation had to be done, the advantage of the ready-made
runway was negated. Drainage for subsequent expansion of parking areas and
service areas would be a major task, as there were two perennial streams
crossing the road in this area. If Route 2 was used for the airfield it would
be necessary to construct a bypass road so that civilians to the north could get
produce to the markets in Baria and Vung Tau.
Consideration of these, and other relatively minor factors,
pointed to the ultimate location as the most suitable. This site too, presented
some problems. Although most of the proposed area was only lightly covered with
young rubber trees and scrub, the northern and eastern boundaries were covered
with tall rubber, up to 45 feet in height - which provided cover for elements of
5RAR and 6RAR respectively. There was quite a pronounced cross-slope from the
5RAR area on the north side to a perennial watercourse running parallel with
the proposed runway to the south.
The space between 5RAR and the stream was obviously restrictive
for proper lateral cleared zones. The pronounced cross-slope indicated a
requirement for substantial drainage structures to carry run-off from 5RAR to
the stream. The approach glide path from the west was across unoccupied ground
to the west of Route 2, and the western end of the runway could be observed from
the Nui Thi Vais. Eventual extension of the airfield to C130 Hercules standard
would involve crossing Route 2 to extend the runway proper into unoccupied
ground to the west. Notwithstanding these shortcomings, the advantages (or
minimal disadvantages) made this site the most attractive for the Task Force
During the first three or four months, while the bulk of the
engineer construction effort was diverted elsewhere, there was little work done
on the airfield site. Since the 5RAR area needed major monsoon drains to carry
away run-off, these were constructed at proper levels, and in the right
positions to fit into the drainage plan of the future airfield. To permit
earthworks to continue at a later date, two 48-inch diameter corrugated iron
culverts were installed under the runway alignment, each one being 150 feet
long. Some clearing of the site was demanded during this period to permit
construction of the northern limb of Canberra Avenue, which ran parallel to the
airfield and provided major access to 5RAR. From time to time some additional
patchy work was accomplished when machines were precluded from working on
priority jobs by bad weather.
As essential base development work had progressed well since
June, priority of engineer effort was directed to the construction of a Caribou
airfield in mid-October 1966. 1ATF operations were ranging further a field, and
placing heavier demands on the limited available helicopter support for daily
resupply from Nui Dat to forward operational bases. The Task Force
Reconnaissance Flight was still located in Vung Tau.
A detailed survey of the site revealed a dilemma for the
airfield designers. Between Route 2 in the west and the 6RAR rubber plantation
in the east there was more than sufficient length for a Caribou strip. There
was, however, a total rise of 50 feet, with several natural hollows and bumps
over the length of approximately 3,000 feet.
After consultation with the RAAF, it was decided to accept the
overall fall and adapt operating procedures to allow for it. It was decided that
aircraft would generally land up-hill (towards the east), and take off down-hill
exploiting the assistance of gravity, and avoiding a glide path over the 6RAR
area. On the rare occurrences of strong easterly winds, procedures might have to
In order to minimize excavation it was considered satisfactory
to accept relatively large percentage changes in longitudinal gradients,
provided they were within the limits of the MACV criteria - hence the dips and
bumps in the airfield - not designed to provide ski-jump take-off assistance, as
was suggested by one early passenger.
A Caribou airfield would not require the full 3,000 feet which
was available, so it was decided to attempt to construct the field to meet
requirements of MACV criteria for limited use by C130 aircraft. The unique
operating procedures made it possible to do this, since the over-run at the
eastern end could be converted to extra runway. The runway could be extended at
a later stage to the west of Route 2, to measure up, with some minor
restrictions, to the standards for a fully operational C130
From the engineering point of view, it was desirable to
accomplish earthworks as quickly as possible. Disregarding the formidable list
of other tasks on the job-priority table, it was desirable to cut, fill, and
compact the earthworks during the period between the wet monsoon and the dry
season. It was hoped that it would be possible to work the soil at close to
optimum moisture content, thus minimizing the need to haul and spread water for
compaction, and for dust laying.
The plant operators of 21 Engineer Support Troop RAE, under
command of 1 Field Squadron, responded to the challenge in characteristic sapper
fashion. Earthmoving equipment operated from daylight till dark, clearing,
cutting, hauling and compacting. With the end of the wet season the soil quickly
lost its moisture, and it became necessary to spread water to ensure adequate
Improvised water tanks were constructed by reinforcing and
lining large packing cases which had contained prefabricated metal buildings.
Water was distributed and the airfield was rolled in pre-dawn darkness to
minimize evaporation losses and to exploit overnight condensation. This
operation was made possible by the co-operation of the APC squadron and the
infantry battalions who provided standing patrols to the west of Route 2, while
engineers worked in darkness.
After about 50,000 cubic yards of soil had been excavated and
the flight-strip had been graded and compacted, a covering of locally won
laterite was laid over the runway and shoulders. The runway proper was clad with
high quality leached laterite which was extracted from a quarry between 1ATF
and Hoa Long. Some 5,000 cubic yards of this material were imported to provide a
9-inch thick compacted pavement on the 80 feet wide runway.
On 31 October a Cessna 180 from 161
(Indep) Recce Flt conducted
several 'proof landings' on the airfield, though it was far from complete at
this stage. The purpose was twofold. The landings confirmed that the runway
could be used in emergencies from that date. Plant operators working on the site
had noticed FAC aircraft of the US Air Force doing low-level runs over the
cleared area. While engineer graders and excavators pre-empted an American
inaugural landing on the strip, a hasty engineer/aviation reconnaissance was
arranged and a Cessna 180 was diverted from Baria to conduct the proof landings.
By late November, the airfield was ready for inspection by USAF representatives.
They required the removal of some 400 rubber trees from the
eastern end of the airfield in order to certify the field suitable for use by
Caribou and C123 and by C130 with Grade A pilots. This additional work was
completed in time for the official opening of the field on 5 December 1966, the
completion date which had been forecast in early October. At this stage the
airfield was regarded as dry weather strip - since traffic during wet weather
could damage the surface.
A simple opening ceremony took place on 5 December before a
small guard of honour of engineers and Army aviators, flanked by light aircraft
and earthmoving equipment. Brigadier Oliver David Jackson, Commander 1 ATF, unveiled a
commemorative plaque, naming the airfield 'Luscombe Field'. A Caribou of 35
Squadron (RAAF) landed on the runway, using only a small part of the total
Later in December the runway was sealed with
bituminous dust palliative. In the absence of crushed rock, sand was used with
the bitumen. Even spreading was difficult to achieve without special equipment,
and a technique was developed whereby hovering helicopters spread the sand and
blew away excess material from the sealed strip. Repeated applications created a
waterproof skin which enabled Luscombe Field to be used throughout the following
wet season without damage.
1 Field Squadron (RAE) built workshops, parking
accommodation for 161 (Indep) Recce Flt in the rubber trees adjacent to the
northern edge of the airfield, at the eastern end. Pre-fabricated metal airfield
matting was laid over a plastic membrane to give a waterproof, dust free, parking
and working area in the shelter of the rubber plantation. Aircraft parking areas
were constructed on the south side of the runway, and a new Task Force
Maintenance Area was built between Nui Dat and 6RAR, to the south of the
Development progressed continuously until December 1968 when
engineers of the US 34 Engineer Group extended Luscombe Field to 4,100 feet and
permanently sealed the whole runway. The pavement of the extension was made from
locally won crushed rock and it had been intended to sheath the entire runway
with similar material. Since the existing runway had shown no signs of failure
or weakness at any time, and since the existing pavement was obviously adequate
to the task, the runway re-construction plan was abandoned as unnecessary.
Luscombe Field was probably taken for granted by most new
arrivals to the Task Force area at Nui Dat. An airfield is to be expected in a
well developed task force base. Probably the only comments which were aroused
were those which questioned the peculiarities of the airfield or those which
wondered where it got its name.
Luscombe Field was a monument to much more than Captain
Luscombe. It represented many aspects of the part played by the Australian Force
in Vietnam. It contributed to the connecting link between the Task Force and its
supporting units and commanding HQ. It was the 'front door' of 1 ATF through
which thousands of men passed, going to and coming from the war.
Luscombe Airfield - Nui Dat 1971
Luscombe Field was a symbol of co-operation and mutual support
between the forces of Australia and the United States; between the Royal
Australian Air Force and the Australian Army Aviation Corps; between those who
needed roads, buildings, and airfields and those who constructed them - the
sappers of the Royal Australian Engineers.
This insight into Luscombe Field was written by Major Warren
Wilson Lennon (RAE) and published in copy 246 of the Army Journal dated November
1969. Major Lennon was the OC of 1 Field Squadron in Vietnam with 1ATF from 24
May 66 until 09 Dec 66 and then with 17 Const Sqn from 10 Dec 66 until 20 May
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