Honour on a higher plane

THE world fixated on Perth when the initial search for missing passenger plane MH370 centred on the Indian Ocean in 2014.

Sorrento resident David Dunham, who today appears on the Australia Day Honours List, found himself playing a pivotal role in the operation that developed at RAAF Base Pearce.

As the base’s air operations coordinator, Mr Dunham was responsible for ensuring the safe and efficient use of the Pearce air space as international aircraft pushed the military hub well beyond capacity.

The pressure was on for the Department of Defence career man, who needed to keep the regular operations of the base running while managing an influx of vessels carrying intense global interest.

“It obviously came completely out of the blue when they tracked the aircraft moving down this way,” he said.

“It started off as a bit of a trickle, then quite quickly a lot of nations got involved, so it definitely fired the base up.

“It was basically in addition to what we normally do. Primarily it’s a training base and that continued on throughout the MH370 search… it maxed us out for parking and our fuel usage went up significantly.

“We were providing 16-hour or greater air traffic control services.”

He said morale at the base was strong during the trying period and a sense of disappointment pervaded all involved when the search was unsuccessful.

But he was glad Pearce had the capabilities to assist when an occurrence the magnitude of the MH370 disappearance came calling.

It was a test of nerve that no doubt strengthened Mr Dunham’s resolve for what was to come from major bushfires in nearby areas such as Whiteman Park and Bullsbrook later that year and into 2015.

As the fires raged, water bombers required the RAAF’s grounds and air space, leaving the air operations co-ordinator to again conduct a crucial juggling act between everyday operations and civil service.

This included the guidance of heavy-lift aerial firefighting equipment deployed from interstate for the first time.

Mr Dunham’s success in managing the unanticipated air traffic from the bushfires and the Malaysian Airlines search – all within a year – today earns him a Public Service Medal.

It is an honour that humbles the valued RAAF member, whose resume includes deployment during the East Timor crisis and a Conspicuous Service Medal in 2002.