Skippy Squadron

Between 1965 and 1972 Qantas flew civilian charter flights from Sydney to Saigon, carrying approximately half of all Australian service personnel sent to the Vietnam War. These flights were given various nicknames, the most common being “Skippy Squadron”, but they were also called “Champagne Flights”, and the “Red Tail Rats”.

More than five hundred Qantas staff crewed, maintained, serviced, and coordinated Skippy Squadron flights. There was no shortage of volunteers to fly or service the Boeing 707s, even though it was understood they would be going to a war zone.

Qantas made its first charter flight in June 1966 when 1st Battalion, Royal Australian Regiment (1RAR), completed its tour in Vietnam and was replaced by the 5th and 6th Battalions, Royal Australian Regiment (5RAR and 6RAR), as the new Australian task force was built up. The following year, when 5RAR and 6RAR had completed their tours, Qantas again transported the troops during the changeover period.

Flights left from the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) base at Richmond, Sydney, briefly stopped in Townsville, Queensland, before flying to Manila, in the Philippines, for refuelling. The flight then flew to Saigon, spending only a few hours on the ground before returning to Sydney.

The shuttle service was periodic until March 1968, when Qantas began regular weekly flights to Vietnam. Later flights went via Singapore, instead of the Philippines. But during the stopover military personnel had to wear civilian clothing – usually a T-shirt with uniform trousers and boots.

After the war, a member of the cabin crew remembered his first flight into Tan Son Nhut, Saigon’s international airport, in 1969. The aircraft was approaching to land when, “We were told to go around and the American controller very dryly said, ‘Qantas, try the other end of the runway, there’s a small war going on at this end.’ Ahead we could see the tracer coming up.” A pilot recalled seeing “aircraft rocketing and machine-gunning patches of foliage that were only about a mile from the edge of the airport”. In the opinion of Chris Clarke, the sheer volume of air traffic at Tan Son Nhut was also a risk – at the height of the war it was one of the busiest airports in the world. Due to the dangers associated with the flights, Qantas used only male staff members.

Civilian charter flights were regularly used to supplement the RAAF’s transport force. Australia’s domestic airlines, Trans Australia Airlines and Ansett Transport Industries also flew military charter flights in addition to those flown by Qantas. Qantas’s weekly charter flights to Vietnam ended on 1 February 1972, and only three more flight were made after this. Skippy Squadron’s last flight left Sydney on 26 February.