The Evacuation – Robyn Mackenzie

Wondering if anyone can remember being evacuated from Darwin on a commercial flight that departed about 4pm on 26 December 1974?

My baby daughter and I were evacuated on 26 December on what I’m pretty sure was Ansett VH-RMW B727-277. The flight went via Mt Isa to Brisbane. Ron Cuskelly “Aviation in the aftermath of Cyclone Tracy”, (an extract for 26 December attached) lists this aircraft with an “ ? “ This flight seems to be an unknown … but I remember it well.  I wonder if anyone else remembers being on that flight?

Some background:

We ended up at the Mitchell Street Police building during the cyclone eye in the early hours of 25 December. My husband was a NT Police Officer. During and after Tracy, a number of police dependants ended up there. As Tracy eased, it became hectic in the building especially when people began to bring in deceased persons. When Major-General Alan Stretton arrived that evening, he was anxious to sort out what to do with this traumatised group of women and children in the police complex. He also wanted police as worry free as possible to work. About 3pm on 26 December we were advised that Stretton had organised the evacuation of families of essential services personnel and that we were to be transported to the airport for airlift. We went to the airport on a badly damaged bus, all seats and the floor covered in broken glass, but driveable.

Police families were sorted into three destinations; Adelaide, Sydney and Brisbane. We were grouped with what we thought were RAAF and Navy families at the airport. There were only three police families in line for Brisbane. We were put into the very back seats of what I believe was an Ansett 727. In one of the 3 seats sat J with her 4 children and me with my baby. R was in a seat with others across the aisle. The aircraft was overcrowded and there were injured passengers on board including some on stretchers in the front of the aircraft. There was no water or food on board, other than what evacuees had with them. As we taxied along the runway, I thought that after surviving the cyclone we would die in a plane crash.

As the aircraft took to the sky, we could see the chaos that was the Darwin airport. Only the actual runway had been cleared of debris. It was only as we flew higher and saw the total devastation of Darwin, that it really dawned on me how fortunate we were. The Captain announced that we were heading for Alice Springs which sent many evacuees into a panic. He later corrected his announcement and said that we would be landing in Mt Isa, then Brisbane. He again mistakenly advised passengers that we had landed in Alice Springs, however we were definitely in Mt Isa. I had lived in Mt Isa and categorically knew that we were there. I pointed out the orange striped smoke stack to others to reassure them. The flight definitely went Darwin – Mt Isa – Brisbane.

At Mt Isa we were asked if anyone would be prepared to leave the aircraft to make room for some injured people who had driven from Darwin. I knew one of the Mt Isa ground crew, who was happy to accommodate us, so the police families offered to leave the aircraft. It was still daylight in Mt Isa and we could see a number of damaged vehicles parked near the runway. Suddenly, some baby and sanitary products, drinks and biscuits were thrown onto the aircraft and the door was locked. The plane taxied out immediately. I’m not even sure if the aircraft fully refuelled. We were later told that some people were arguing to get on board, so it was decided to leave. The rest of the flight was reasonably uneventful and we had an opportunity to tend to our hungry and terribly soiled babies.

Perhaps ours was the first evacuation aircraft to arrive in Brisbane. The Red Cross/Salvation Army kindly wrapped us in blankets, helped with children and facilitated access to phones. I recall TV cameras filming and being asked what Darwin was like. All I could say was “Darwin has gone. There’s nothing left”. The authorities were unprepared for us. It took ages to load us onto buses and drivers and others were arguing constantly. No-one seemed to be in charge. Eventually we arrived at the Commonwealth Bus Centre, a large shed structure in Fortitude Valley. We were registered and given a taxi voucher to a Brisbane location. Officials were flustered and taxi drivers were in dispute with them about getting paid. It was around 1.30am when I was given my voucher only to discover that no taxi driver was prepared to take me to Manly, where my grandparents lived, because the voucher wouldn’t cover the cost. What followed is another story.

Much has been written in the negative about Major-General Alan Stretton’s role and his decision to evacuate the majority population of Darwin, but I will never waiver in my view that he did exactly what was needed. I only saw him once in Darwin Police Headquarters, hard at it, and I’m eternally grateful for what he did.

Both of the women and one of the children who shared the evacuation flight with me are no longer with us. One died of cancer at a young age; so too, have many other friends and acquaintances who went through Tracy. I hope that at least memories of all those who experienced Tracy can be kept alive.

I have seen a number of posts by people who were part of RAAF and Navy families and wondered if anyone else may have been on that late 26 December 1974 Ansett 727 flight to Brisbane. The police families aren’t recorded on the Darwin departure evacuation Red Cross list and information about the flight is vague.  (My real name is Robyn Mackenzie).

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