Graeme Hill-Smith; Helicopter Pilot

Archipelago of the Recherche, Western Australia 1984

Major Graeme Hill-Smith DFC, CVSA was an exemplary helicopter pilot who worked with National Mapping for a few weeks in early 1984.  Graeme fitted in easily around the fairly basic Nat Map camps and tolerated wet weather camping conditions as good as any.  He is remembered for his ability to land observing parties on some tricky sites; at times with only one skid touching ground while holding the helicopter under power.  He adopted a helpful flying technique of bringing the aircraft into the wind when taking spot photos.

Graeme Hill-Smith was born at the northern Sydney suburb of Roseville on 13 December 1935.  His parents were Gordon and Marjorie (nee Boulton) Hill-Smith of nearby Killara.  At age 18, in June 1954 Graeme graduated from Officer Cadet School, Portsea as a Second Lieutenant with a corps posting to the Royal Australian Artillery.  His mother and his sister Rosemary attended the graduation ceremony and afterwards the three of them drove back to Killara where Graeme was able to enjoy a few days leave.

Early Career in the Australian Army

Graeme’s initial unit posting was a platoon commander in C Company, 12 National Service Training Battalion at Holsworthy, south-west of Sydney.  Here he was responsible for training national servicemen in the operation of the 40 mm Bofors light anti-aircraft gun.  (Brian Murphy served in C Company with Graeme Hill-Smith but in another platoon; the two did not meet again for some 30 years.)  Later, as a gunnery officer, Graeme trained as a Royal Australian Artillery Air Observation Post pilot.  The pilot’s role here was to observe the fall of artillery shot and advise the gun battery commander so any necessary adjustments could be made.  The training was on Auster and later Cessna aircraft as part of 16 Air Observation Flight that was located at the RAAF’s Fairbairn base near Canberra.  In the early 1960s, Graeme attended the first Army helicopter training course as part of the newly formed 16 Army Light Aircraft Squadron based at Amberley, Queensland.  This training was on Bell Sioux 47G-2 aircraft.  Later he was to join the Australian Army Aviation Corps.

Service in Vietnam 1969-70

Various training and regimental appointments in Australia and overseas were to follow, including a two weeks visit to the then Republic of South Vietnam in early 1969.  Later with the rank of Major, Graeme was posted to command 161 (Independent) Reconnaissance Flight based with the 1st Australian Task Force at Nui Dat in Vietnam from 11 June 1969 to 11 June 1970.  All but one of the Flight’s commanders in Vietnam were former RAA Air Observation Post pilots.  The Flight’s role in Vietnam varied from being field commanders’ eyes in the sky, aerial artillery observation and fire control support, to target marking for gunships and other assault aircraft and ground transport convoy escort duties.  (One of Graeme’s predecessors as Officer Commanding 161 (Indep) Recce Flt, Major George Constable, was shot down and killed by enemy ground fire while escorting a vehicle convoy returning from Fire Support Base Coral in an O1-G Bird Dog fixed-wing aircraft on 23 May 1968.)

Throughout his tour of duty in Vietnam, Graeme displayed courage, determination and flying skill of the highest order.  His leadership was an inspiration to the other pilots in his unit and brought great credit to the RAA, Aviation Corps and to the Australian Army in general.  Some of his contemporaries of that time believe he revitalised the unit and made it a supportive place for the pilots and the ground staff. 

Graeme commanded 161 (Indep) Recce Flt with great distinction and proved to be an outstanding pilot, unequalled in carrying out close and exacting air reconnaissance missions.  He logged over 1,100 flying hours, most of them under adverse flying conditions, at low level and at great personal danger. 

On many occasions, Graeme’s determination to complete a reconnaissance resulted in his aircraft being fired on by the enemy.  On three separate occasions he had to struggle with a damaged helicopter to safety land it back at a base after it had been struck by enemy small arms fire.  On the evening of 3 May 1970, he flew in support of the 8th Battalion Royal Australian Regiment which was in contact with the enemy south-west of Dat Do.  Whilst acting in spotter role for a light fire team of helicopter gun-ships, his helicopter received enemy ground fire which severely damaged the main rotor blade.  With a superb display of flying skill, Graeme flew his disabled aircraft to the Australian forward base at the Horseshoe feature north of Dat Do and landed it safely.

Recognition and Awards

In recognition of his service in Vietnam, Graeme received the Queen’s Commendation for Valuable Service in the Air (CVSA) on 1 January 1970.  On 25 November 1970, he was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross for his Vietnam service.  On 14 July 1977, Graeme was awarded the National Medal for diligent long service to the community in hazardous circumstances, including in times of emergency and national disaster, in direct protection of life and property.  On 8 November 1979, Graeme was awarded a 1st Clasp to his National Medal; in other words he was awarded a second National Medal for further diligent service.

Flying after Army Service

After his Army service, and to keep his license current, Graeme Hill-Smith spent some time as a helicopter pilot in the commercial aviation sector.  Unfortunately, sufficient resources to sketch a comprehensive picture have not yet come to hand.

Flying with National Mapping in 1984

In early 1984, National Mapping senior surveyor Brian Murphy led a small survey party to establish the exact positions of islands and rocky outcrops in the Archipelago of the Recherche, off Esperance in Western Australia; the largest feature was Mondrain Island.  Over a few weeks the party established 15 control points, positioned several isolated rocks and determined a number of height points.  The party used Magnavox MX1502 Transit Doppler satellite receivers, theodolites, Geodimeter 8 distance measuring equipment, and Mini ranger positioning equipment. 

To position observers on to various island up to 50 miles off shore, the party used a Bell 206B Jet Ranger helicopter (VH-BKG) chartered from Central Australian Helicopters, Alice Springs.  The aircraft was also used for spot photography sorties over the various islands and other features using a 70 mm Hasselblad camera from a through-the-floor mount.  The aircraft pilot was Graeme Hill-Smith who flew the aircraft from Alice Springs to the Nat Map operational base at Duke of Orleans Bay east of Esperance.

Brian Murphy recalled that during the survey, the helicopter was caught out to sea on a small, low-lying rock by an extremely sudden and violent south-westerly wind squall.  For a little while Graeme Hill-Smith was extremely hesitant about starting the helicopter in the violent winds.  Graeme’s concern was that oscillation of the main rotor at low revolutions in the heavy winds might result in slicing off the tail boom and rotor.  Also daylight was running out and Brian thought that the party might be there for the night if the wind persisted.  Fortunately Graeme made up his mind very quickly and decided to start up, which went without any problems and the party arrived safely back at the Duke of Orleans Bay base at sunset.

In more recent times

In more recent years, Graeme’s expertise has been sought to help improve flying safety.  In early 2003, the Civil Aviation Safety Authority consulted Graeme (and various others) during development of proposed rules for air transport and aerial work operations for rotorcraft.  At the time, Graeme was with Capital Helicopters. 

Graeme has also remained active in military-related events.  In March 2007, along with other former Air Observation Post pilots, Graeme attended the opening of new display at the National Artillery Museum at North Fort on Sydney Harbour’s North Head.

Graeme Hill-Smith passed away aged 82 on 13 Jun 2018 at Narrabeen, Sydney.


Prepared by Laurie McLean, 2013.



The assistance of Brian Murphy and Paul Wise who kindly contributed their recollections of Graeme Hill-Smith and also reviewed and provided helpful comments on earlier drafts of this profile is gratefully acknowledged.





Anonymous (undated), AAAA Fourays Australian Army Aviation Association Inc website accessed at


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Wise, Paul Joseph (1984), Mondrain: The Last Island Survey, in The Nat Map News, No 48, Dandenong Office, April 2004, accessed at:

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