Flight Survey Operations in Vietnam - 1996
by Brian Surtees

Captain Brian Surtees was a pilot with the Departmental Flying Unit from 1974 until its closure in 1998. This article is based on a lecture given to the Civil Aviation Historical Society in October 2003.

Historically the Airservices Australia Flying Unit has calibrated the aeronautical radio navigation and landing aids, and visual approach aids, throughout Australia including Norfolk, Christmas and Cocos Islands, and in Papua New Guinea. In more recent times, the Flying Unit had a secondary role as back-up to No.34 VIP Sqn RAAF. The Unit was also engaged by Qantas VIP section to fly several high level business charters.

In post-World War 2 times the aircraft used have included the DC-3, Fokker F27, Fokker F28, HS-125 and numerous light aircraft. In 1976 we took delivery of the first of three F28s and the last F27 was sold in 1978. The F28s with their speed and new flight survey technology vastly increased productivity and halved transit times.

The opportunity was there to seek out more business, and in 1978 the Unit was awarded a contract to check all Defence aids including ship's systems. In 1991 the unit competed for and won a contract to take over all calibration in New Zealand and in the South Pacific Nations formerly served by New Zealand. At this time our Area of Operations extended from Cocos Is. In the west to the Cook Is. in the east, and from Tarawa in the north to Invercargill in the south, some 10% of the Earth's surface. Flight Survey operations were conducted by the F.28 for electronic and visual checks, and by the G.1000 light turboprop for purely visual checks. In addition, at various times, we were contracted by Indonesia and Malaysia for one-off jobs. We still had spare capacity.

In the 1990’s the Vietnam Civil Aviation Authority were increasingly dissatisfied with the service they were receiving from their currently contracted nation. They asked the RAAF Air Attaché whether Australia could help. This officer had previously been attached to the Flying Unit as a liaison officer for the Defence work and so was very familiar with our operations and capabilities. To his eternal credit this very smart fellow advised the Vietnamese to contact the Flying Unit directly. This meant that by the time the request was forwarded to Canberra it had been acknowledged and had attached to it a full work plan and cost estimate.

Months later the Vietnamese wrote to find out why they had heard nothing more. There was a sharp enquiry of Central Office and it appeared that the proposal was languishing on someone’s desk. Within two weeks the Chief Pilot and Chief Flight Surveyor were on their way to Hanoi to sign the contract, inspect facilities and make arrangements for the first Survey trip. There was paranoia in the Flying Unit at this time because efforts were being made to privatise the work and shed the assets. This continued throughout the decade. The suspicion was that Central Office was dragging its feet to discourage further complications to the privatisation. This may have been unfair - the delay was probably due to normal inertia.

The first Survey trip departed Melbourne on the 8th January 1996 with the Chief Pilot, Brian O’Shea, myself, Malcolm Staude - Chief Flight Surveyor, Trevor Foulds and Alan Johnson - Flight Surveyors and David Viviers - Engineer. The tasks in front of us included commissioning a new ILS at Hanoi, three new ATC radars and routine checks on all other aids. We flew via Alice Springs and Port Hedland to Christmas Is. for a night stop. The F.28 is not a long range aircraft and the practical IFR range is between 1500 – 1700 Nm. On the second day we refuelled at Kuala Lumpur and reached Hanoi in the late afternoon.

The visibility in the Hanoi area was terrible, between 1 and 2 nm. This was due to a persistent haze, apparently normal at this time of year. We had to fly via Gia Lam NDB in Hanoi City and then to the west to position for an approach to Runway 11 at Noibai. The ILS was not on the air and the VOR was NOTAM'd off. There was a twin NDB approach, but the beacons were very close in at 3nm and 0.5nm. In addition, the Controller’s English was heavily accented. We found that none of the NDBs were working properly, with poor field strength and no direction sensing at all on Gia Lam. This was where the dual Inertial Navigation equipment earned its keep, as we had programmed in all the NDB positions. We managed a successful approach and landing. We heard aircraft reporting over the beacons but knew it was for form’s sake only and they were making their own arrangements. We clearly had work to do here! I later asked a local engineer about the status of the new ILS and he merely pointed and said "Over there, lying beside the runway." In fact the Glide Path tower had not yet been raised to the vertical.

After landing we were met by a delegation of Civil Aviation personnel led by Miss Nga from the protocol department who spoke excellent English and was to be our Interpreter, Miss Fix-it, Friend and Guardian throughout our stay. While we were putting the aircraft to bed we noticed a number of gentlemen, dressed alike in long raincoats and berets, just floating around. We were of interest to the secret police.

Noibai Airport lies some 25km north-west of Hanoi City and so we were transported to our hotel in a mini-bus. It was a terrifying experience. The majority of the traffic consisted of bicycles and mopeds. There were very few cars but quite a number of large Russian trucks and a few mini buses. The traffic was all over the place and the vehicles seemed to have the horn hardwired to the ignition. Our crew was silent and tense, with continuing near disasters, as we saw it. We were just beginning to breathe again when we encountered the first roundabout. All the traffic from all four directions just piled into the roundabout and conducted close range negotiations for right of passage. We really were quite shaken by this experience. Over the next few days we came to realise that there was no aggression involved and everyone gave way a little bit as and when required. Apparently motor vehicles were required to blow their horn when coming up behind cycles, hence the continuous noise as there were literally thousands of them. Our driver should have been named Horatio.

We passed a large five star hotel and arrived at the Trade Hotel, where we were to stay. It was a charming colonial style hotel with large rooms, heavy dark wood furniture and big bathrooms. We were surprised to note that TV was provided and CNN, BBC and an Indian pop channel featured. The meals were tasty and the staff kept pressing more food on us. We discovered they had been ordered by Ms Nga to see we had enough to eat.

The next morning on arrival at the airport we were ushered into the VIP suite to be confronted by rows of senior military officers seated on an ascending dais at one end of the room. We and the Civil Aviation people were seated lower, in the body of the room.
This was the official "Welcome"! Only one of the officers spoke, the General in charge of Aviation. Ms Nga translated and we gave a brief on our proposed work plan. The Civil Aviation people seemed nervous. The General did ask if any of us had been to Vietnam before – the correct answer was, obviously, NO. It must have slipped the mind of the Chief Pilot that he had commanded No. 2 Australian Canberra Squadron at Phan Rang!

The weather was bad again with poor visibility, clearly there was no chance of starting the ILS work. Instead we flew a routine inspection of the Hanoi VOR using INS. A visual check with theodolite was preferable but an INS check is an acceptable alternative if no problems are foreseen. I note from my logbook that of a 1:30hr trip 1:20hr was on instruments. The extra 10 mins being taxying time! There is a ridge of higher terrain stretching N.W. from Noibai so care was necessary. Throughout our stay we used USAF Tactical Pilotage Charts at 1:500,000 scale for our low level work. These were very good and enabled us to conduct some operations safely, in bad weather, which we would not otherwise have attempted. Lunchtime saw us whisked off by Miss Nga to a dining room where the tables were groaning with food. This is not what you need when flying, but out of politeness we did our best. The Vietnamese ate as though it was their last meal.

In the afternoon we flew a 4hr sortie checking the Hanoi radar and as this was purely an electronic check at higher altitudes there were no flying problems. However the Hanoi radar was an interesting beast. It was Russian and looked like an enormous mushroom sitting in the middle of a paddock. We were told it was air-transportable but you would need several large Russian aircraft to move it. It was very powerful but getting cranky in its old age, something like the little girl with the curl, when it was good it was very very good and when it was bad it was horrid! The Flight Surveyors christened it "Ivan the Terrible". From what I remember the basic radiation performance was OK but a lot of the ancillary features were unreliable. The profile used for checking the radar involved a 6 mile orbit at 10,000ft then tracking in and out on a given radial to coverage at 10, 15, and 29 thousand ft. There was not much change out of 7 hours flying time and it could be more.

Day three in the country again saw poor visibility but it was just good enough to have a go at the PAPI visual approach lights. The system consists of a row of 4 lights which turn red at different angles. If you are on the correct approach angle you see the two lights nearest the runway red and the two outer ones as white. If you go high all the lights progressively turn white, and if you go low they all turn red. It was necessary to check the lights at various angles between 1.9 and 3.3 degrees with a theodolite crew at the lights. On a good day you can check most of the lights on one run, but not on this day! After takeoff we could see a circle of ground around the aircraft but nothing else. This was where the F.28 showed its paces. We operated between 200 ft and 1000ft at 150kt with 25 flaps, gear up, in a 3 mile racetrack pattern. The aircraft could be manoeuvred very tightly with complete safety. The ILS Glide path was radiating on test and we were able to use this to estimate the required approach angle before we saw the PAPI lights. The theodolite crew only had time for about 4 to 6 calls after picking us up, but their skill enabled us to do the job.

Afterwards the morning was enlivened by the sight of a C130 making a missed approach at 90 degrees to the runway heading! This aircraft was USAF and carried a team of MIA investigators. The pilot negotiated the steep learning curve, went into cheating mode and got in off the next approach. At lunch time I cunningly said that I had to stay with the aircraft as the systems were running on the APU, thus hoping to escape the banquet. Alas, when everyone returned Miss Nga was carrying a large bag of food and she told me I must eat it during the afternoon flight! We finished off the radar flying and most of my lunch. In the evening all our regular Vietnamese crew turned up and took us out to a restaurant for excellent food and cold beer. One of the engineers had a bag of money to cover the whole of our stay and I suspect they were determined to make the most of it. This continued for the rest of the trip.

The weather showed no sign of clearing, so we made a tactical decision to head south and do the rest of the work, in the hopes that Hanoi would clear at some stage. The next day we set off for Danang, a 1:25 hr trip. On board besides the flight crew were our "Road Crew" Miss Nga, another lady, Mrs Huong, as deputy to Miss Nga (she wanted to improve her English and was the wife of the Security Chief at Noibai) two Navaid engineers, Mr Dat and Mr Tuan and an Air Traffic Control liaison Officer, Mr Tranh. Well before reaching Danang the weather changed completely to fine and warm.

On this day to celebrate our change of fortune we flew three more sorties and checked the VOR and the ILS Localiser and Glide Path. We also noted the improvement in the runway surface. From Danang South the airfields are massive and have good runways, courtesy of the USA. The next day we checked the PAPIs and finished at lunch time as we were up against our hours limit for 7 days. The day off in Danang included a trip north, via a spectacular coastal mountain road to Hue, the old Imperial Capital, where we visited the Imperial Palace and several Emperor's mausoleums. These were far from being depressing as they were parks, constructed, used and improved during the Emperor’s lifetime.


Our Hotel in Danang was on the famous China Beach and had been an R & R centre. It had an aura which was instantly familiar to anyone who had served in the military. We spent four nights in this somewhat spartan building which was about 20 yards off the beach.

Every morning I would go for a run on the beach at sunrise and see the fishermen launching their Dories and every morning on return to the hotel a crowd of children bearing trays of shell would besiege me. We had learned to be polite but very firm if we did not want to buy. One little girl was always first on the scene and I told them I would buy a shell on the third day.

On the third day all the bigger children had pushed in front of her and she was looking somewhat forlorn so I made my way to her and bought a shell for a dollar. Not much to me but a great deal to her. Vietnam had at this time a dual currency system, the American dollar and the Vietnamese Dong (no Donglets, just Dong) which exchanged at about 11,000 to the dollar. Needless to say the locals tended to call it a nice neat 10,000. Between Danang town and our hotel were the Marble Mountains a curious geological feature which enables a local industry where you see masons chipping away and making everything from small ornaments to large statues.

The next two flying days were devoted to the Danang radar, ploughing in and out at various altitudes praying for the end of coverage. This radar consumed some 9:45hrs flying time but there is no other way than to sample the radar in the airspace where it is used. One big advantage we had was that there is no General Aviation in Vietnam, so once out of controlled airspace it was all ours.

On the 17th of January, the 10th day of the trip, we flew on to Phucat to check the VOR and commission the Quinhon Radar. Quinhon is on the coast about 30 km from Phucat and is where we stayed overnight. We asked if we could go out that night to see how the locals spent their leisure hours. The men in our "Road Crew" confided that they would get rid of the women and show us a good time. At the end of the evening they said if only they could have got rid of the women etc. Nevertheless, we were taken to a coffee lounge in the depths of Quinhon where the dress was western and good jazz was heard. It was probably just as well that Miss Nga showed an unblinking, beady eyed concern for our moral welfare.

There was no sign of a break in the Hanoi weather so after finishing the Quinhon radar we pressed on to Ho Chi Minh City, or Saigon as the locals call it. We were back into slightly tropical hazy conditions but not too bad. Tansonnhat Airfield is truly huge and like Danang has parallel runways but only one ILS. On landing we saw an SA2 Guideline ground to air missile site right next to the flight strip, but it did have an abandoned and rusty look.
Our ATC liaison officer really shone here and got us preferential treatment in what was a much busier environment than hitherto. We successfully completed all the work at Tansonnhat in two and a half days and had a day off in Saigon.


The traffic was horrendous with a higher proportion of motor vehicles but thousands upon thousands of two wheeled vehicles carrying up to 4 people. There were still some rickshaws around, as in most towns we visited, carrying the most unlikely loads. Saigon is clearly the commercial capital and is surging with activity. Any goods you require are available.

One of our crew learned how not to cross a street. We watched the pedestrians just step off into the traffic and walk unharmed to the other side. Our hero reckoned it looked pretty straightforward and set off, only to completely lose his bottle after three steps whereupon he reversed to the pavement. This was the very worst thing he could have done as all the riders had made their plans to achieve the approved miss distance of a few inches. All was confusion while we howled our derision at the hero. At this point a wizened and bent old gentleman walked up and took hero by the hand and led him safely across the road, really charming and indicative of the politeness and respect the Vietnamese show to each other.


Included in our work at Saigon was a check of a remote VOR at Phantiet on the East coast. As there was no airfield nearby, this meant an early start and a four hour drive, each way, for the theodolite crew. They also had to hump the theodolite and radio gear along levee banks past several paddy fields.

At the end of our 5th day in Saigon we had a message that the weather in Hanoi had improved so the next morning we flew back, a 2hr trip. We got 2 sorties in that afternoon and commissioned the Localiser. Unfortunately the next day was clamped again so no flying at all. We had already extended the trip by two days and it started to look as though we would not finish the ILS as the aircraft had contractual obligations elsewhere. The next day 25th Jan, day 18 of the trip, was filthy again and by lunchtime we were contemplating leaving for Australia the next morning. Suddenly a wind from China arrived and blew all the haze and cloud away. Maximum effort from all concerned saw the Glide Path finished by last light.

We were relieved, the Civil Chief was relieved and the General was apparently pleased. We were given a slap up meal that night in Hanoi. Only one dish was unidentified and might have been barking the previous day!

The next morning we said goodbye and left Hanoi, Miss Nga even shedding tears. A 3:35hr flight to Brunei and another 3:55 got us in to Darwin after dark. Everyone had been fantasizing about a Big Mac and chips for days, but having rushed off to buy one we all felt queasy. In fact it took up to a week to readjust our digestion. No one had had the slightest problem with the food in Vietnam.

So, by the skin of our teeth we had achieved all our objectives with radars, ILS', VORs NDBs and PAPIs checked, fixed or commissioned. Even the crook Russian NDBs were working again (however temporarily).

We decided we should bring the second trip forward to avoid the bad weather period in Hanoi in January. We had a different crew except for me and the Chief Flight Surveyor. The new pilot was Ian Sinnot, ex army, but we can’t be lucky all the time! The two new Flight Surveyors were Alan Cousens and Glenn Seaton-Stewart. The engineer was Ron Hardy. We set off on 25th of November 1996, flew via Brunei to get a quicker turnaround than in KL and arrived in Hanoi at 15:15 local. On getting out of the aircraft we saw one of the navaid engineers, Mr Dat, running towards us. He clasped me in his arms and said "Welcome Capt Brian, welcome back, so pleased to see you." I was relieved that French influence had declined to the stage where he did not kiss me. I can state with authority that no such welcome from a navaid tech would occur in Australia!

Over the next three days we completed all our work at Hanoi. The following day it poured with rain just when we needed one more day to commission a new VOR at Namha, about 50nm south of Hanoi. The Civil Chief said he was sure we could do it anyway and was happy to accept a commissioning done by INS, not our usual practice. We flew orbits of Namha at 20nm radius to get better accuracy with the INS and the flight surveyors did a magnificent job with INS and GPS overlays to get excellent correlation and a result we were happy with. This was done in cloud, heavy rain and turbulence, with the aircraft changing altitude frequently to maintain optimum terrain clearance. Not a pleasant trip. A day off in Hanoi was enjoyed by all as Miss Nga took us all around the sights.

Once again on the flight from Hanoi to Danang the weather cleared although the whole of the southern part of the country had suffered massive rain-fall and flooding the previous week. On the way in to Danang we noticed the VOR was off the air. In fact it had physically disappeared altogether. After landing we were told that an Air Vietnam Tupolev 134 had departed the runway in bad weather and sheared it off at ground level! The offending aircraft was parked on the dispersal with tarpaulins over the jagged bits. These are very robust aircraft, built by Russians for Russians. We were told that, previously, one had got a little low on approach to Hanoi and had relocated the middle marker NDB to the airfield.

The next day we flew to Phucat for the VOR check and to commission a new NDB. This was a day when, as usual in aviation, bad things happened in threes. Firstly the weather was not good. Secondly I had asked the ATC chap for a Phucat letdown chart, as being a domestic-only airfield it did not appear in our Jeppesen books. He had one faxed from Hanoi and I did not get it until departing Danang. It was an NDB letdown chart and something about it was not kosher. After comparing it with the topographical map I realised all the elevations were in metres - the hills and check altitudes were all a little more than 3 times as high as first thought. Gulp! Five minutes with the prayer wheel and all the relevant heights were marked in feet.

This was only a short leg so we were approaching descent point by this time, all in cloud. The third wrinkle was that the NDB was located on the field 100m from the VOR and they wanted to commission a new NDB about 6 nm away on the runway approach centreline, on the same frequency. We were to commission the NDB and approve the new letdown. However we were assured that the old NDB would be radiating until we landed and then switched over. There was no Tower or communication with the technician. I’m sure you have guessed the next bit. INS, DME and the VOR all said the NDB had moved, and as we could not do a let-down for real using a non commissioned aid or procedure, we were in a small pickle. For some reason a let down for the VOR had not been published, however we went for the slightly illegal option of flying the old NDB procedure on the nearby VOR with INS backup. It all worked out and we broke cloud at about 1500ft.

On the ground the ATC man got stuck into the local tech but the shrug of his shoulders was eloquent: we were here weren’t we? The conditions were marginal for the VOR and NDB checks but good enough. We flew on to Tansonnhat that afternoon.

The next day, with an early start, we checked the ILS, the VOR and the PAPI systems in an intense day of flying in a busy environment. Interestingly our ATC chap told us later that there had been a cock-up about informing the nearby military airbase at Bien Hoa about our unusual activities and they had launched a MiG 21 to intercept us. The MiG had speared right through the traffic pattern, had not been able to find us in the haze, and was then roundly abused by ATC and sent away.

A wash-up conference was held with our team and the local Tansonnhat techs. All the crew sensed a Sydney-Melbourne atmosphere amongst the Vietnamese north and south. However we were sincerely thanked for our efforts and there were compliments all round. On the evening before departure the Vietnamese took us to a superb restaurant in Saigon and the Civil Chief of Aviation had flown down from Hanoi to be present. We made the stupid mistake of agreeing to a beer drinking contest. Their contender was a slight engineer who probably weighed 9 stone when wet. We put forward one of our flight surveyors who is tall and has plenty of beef to go with it. No contest, the Viet was far ahead by the third and no amount of shoulder massage or napkin fanning was going to get our man into the final straight.

So ended our Vietnamese experience, successful on both trips and with very close bonds forged. As a Pom import who has only been Australian for 28 years I feel I can comment on the way Australians quickly break down barriers and forge happy working relationships by just being themselves. Two stories to illustrate the harmony we achieved.

Miss Nga rarely flew with us on our calibration sorties but chose to occupy the jump seat at Tansonnhat. It was hot and humid and as we taxied to the threshold we passed the tracker crew and our man was stripped to the waist and wearing the Vietnamese conical hat. Miss Nga grabbed the 3rd seat Microphone which operated on our discrete survey frequency and said "Alan, put your shirt on you naughty boy".

Again, we were flying over the highlands checking NDBs with the ATC man in the jump-seat when our ex-army pilot looked down and said "Well we sure bombed the shit out of that place." Somewhat stricken I looked at the ATC man and saw a huge grin on his face which he embellished with a wink. To digress for a moment, Ian told a nice story about himself when he was serving in Vietnam. He was flying along in his army aircraft one day when his engine failed and he had to make a forced landing on a road. He knew of no Australian forces in the area and while he got out a distress call he was somewhat apprehensive. He got away from the aircraft and hid in a ditch. After a while he heard footsteps coming closer. He burrowed deeper, but the footsteps came closer yet then stopped. He felt a hard object in his back, at which point he nearly disgraced himself. Then an Australian voice said "Its OK Sir, you can get up now."

The empathy factor certainly eased our way. The Vietnamese "Road Crew" were all speaking quite fluent Australian English by the end of the first trip and we learned about two words of Vietnamese. Perhaps the most important of these sounds like "chocks away" and is their drinking benediction - how appropriate!

In summary, the first trip included a lot of commissioning and restoration work. It lasted 20 days and included 81:50hrs flying time of which 62hrs were in-country. The second trip lasted 13 days and included 56:40hrs flying time of which 34:20hrs were in-country. Apart from the odd glitch everything was pretty well sorted by now.

As a postscript, we later found out that the Flying Unit was to be disbanded in February 1998 and that we were unlikely to do another trip to Vietnam. The Vietnamese refused to deal with a non-government organisation and we advised them to contact the Malaysians. We were aware that the Malaysians had acquired new Flight Survey aircraft and equipment. I don’t know how they went for the next few years but recently they had a visit from the same commercial organisation that took our work over in Australia. I don’t know what their tasks were but apparently it took 37 days to do them, in a Beech King Air.

Capt JBC Surtees
DCA Flying Unit
1974 - 1998

Click here to see photos of the F28 Flight Surveyors

Flying Unit Flight Survey Trips to Vietnam
Trip One Jan 8th – 27th 1996
In Country – 62 approx.
Trip 2 Nov 25th – Dec 7th 1996
DAY 6 NAM VOR (Commissioned by INS)
In Country – 34:20hrs

Click on the image at left to see a typical test plan for a VOR.


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