Mission to Iran
Squadron Leader Rita Blackstock, a Royal Australian Air Force nurse, was posted to the second United Nations Emergency Force (UNEF II) peacekeeping operation in December 1978 to assess the nursing care provided to the Australian contingent in the Sinai. But before she left, Blackstock was briefed on an urgent and confidential secondary mission to evacuate Australian civilians from the Iranian capital, Tehran.
She had enlisted in the Royal Australian Air Force Nursing Service (RAAFNS) in 1965, and was based at No 4 RAAF Hospital, Butterworth, in Malasia. From there she flew numerous aeromedical evacuation flights transporting wounded Australians between Vietnam, Butterworth and Australia. In 1967 she trained at the Institute of Aviation Medicine before transferring to the Permanent Air Force Medical Branch in 1977 with the rank of Squadron Leader, equivalent to Matron.
By 1978, opposition in Iran to the government of Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi had escalated into widespread demonstrations and rioting in major cities. Living conditions had severely deteriorated, with a breakdown in essential services, so the Australian government agreed to evacuate diplomatic staff, their families and other Australian civilians residing in Tehran.
A C-130E Hercules from No 37 Squadron departed Australia in late December 1978 with Blackstock on board, as well as a standby crew, a helicopter and stores for the Sinai. Travelling via Darwin, Malaysia, India and the United Arab Emirates, the C-130E touched down in Bahrain on New Year's Eve. After several days’ delay, and with ever-growing anxiety for the safety of the Australian citizens, the aircraft arrived in Tehran on 5 January 1979. Out of respect for Islamic custom, Blackstock wore a full-coverage dress and a mantilla (shawl) to cover her hair, and wore no make-up. The rest of the crew also wore civilian clothes to indicate to Iranian officials they were there only to evacuate civilians.
The crew disembarked to negotiate the departure of the Australians, leaving Blackstock alone to guard the aircraft. Years later she wrote, “I was apprehensive being left alone, especially when the armed guards patrolling the airport (and I mean armed!) entered our aircraft! The strict Islamic dress and behaviour code meant I should only keep female company, but I stood up to the guards and after looking around they moved on.”
Negotiations proved difficult and it took several hours before Iranian officials agreed to the evacuation of 29 Australian civilians, mostly embassy staff and their families. The C-130E departed for Bahrain; Blackstock provided cabin service while the loadmaster and other members of the crew helped to entertain the children, including allowing them to use the inclined rear ramp of the cargo bay as a slippery dip. Blackstock recalled, "It was a joy to see the happy faces on those who had been living a life of fear during the preceding weeks."
Ten days after the evacuation, Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi was forced into exile, preceding the emergence of the Islamic Republic of Iran under Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.
After this rescue mission, Blackstock continued to the Sinai, where she fulfilled her original peacekeeping assignment before returning to Australia. She and the crew of the C-130E were awarded the Australian Service Medal with Special Operations clasp for completing a humanitarian task under dangerous conditions. Blackstock was also awarded the National Medal on 18 June 1980, and left the RAAF in January 1981.