Cyclone Tracy Aftermath: Helicopter fly-by

Cyclone Tracy Aftermath: Helicopter fly-by
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A convoy of six navy helicopters from the HMAS Melbourne aircraft carrier pass across the Darwin skyline. Workers continue to temporarily fix roofing as they watch the convoy fly by. A number of concrete buildings reduced to rubble, and wooden skeletons of buildings can be seen as the filmmaker drives down a deserted street. Summary by Poppy De Souza.

Keith Bushnell, who filmed this footage, recalls that the helicopters were flying an informal farewell to Darwin, signalling their work was done. The defence forces played an important role in the emergency response to the cyclone. The army flew specialist personnel to Darwin who assisted in both evacuation and provision of immediate supplies such as rations, equipment and medicine. The entire RAAF transport fleet was involved.

Cyclone Tracy Aftermath synopsis

This unedited raw footage was shot by freelance cameraman Keith Bushnell in the immediate aftermath of Cyclone Tracy which hit Darwin on Christmas Day 1974. It captures the devastation and destruction of the city and the temporary shelter and food hall set up to provide assistance to the people who lost their homes. It also shows a convoy of navy helicopters across the Darwin sky.

Cyclone Tracy Aftermath curator's notes

Freelance cameraman Keith Bushnell recorded the visible impacts of Cyclone Tracy and was one of the first cameramen on the scene to witness the devastation. Bushnell was freelancing for the ABC at the time and other parts of his footage were widely seen in news bulletins around the country. As a viewer, it is unusual to see raw footage like this not packaged up into a 90-second news story, although it is clear that Bushnell has a professional eye for what is valuable in this context. The close ups on people’s faces and objects, and the panoramic views of the destruction indicate that Bushnell has a clear understanding about news and current affairs.

It is estimated that Cyclone Tracy killed 71 people, with at least 22 people lost at sea. Between 80 to 90 per cent of housing was destroyed and tens of thousands were left homeless.

Notes by Poppy De Souza

Education Notes

This clip shows the devastation of Darwin by Cyclone Tracy in 1974. The footage was taken from the rooftop of a damaged house that men are shown securing. The hammering stops as six navy helicopters fly across into Darwin. The film also shows empty streets, ruined buildings and some of the extensive damage done to the city. The sounds of hammering, a dog barking and helicopter engines can be heard on the otherwise silent clip.

Educational value points

  • Cyclone Tracy was one of Australia’s most devastating natural disasters. This small but intense cyclone struck the largely unprepared city of Darwin very early on Christmas Day in 1974 and lasted until 7 am. Darwin’s lack of preparedness can be explained by the unpredictable path taken by the cyclone and residents’ preoccupation with Christmas. The cyclone destroyed or severely damaged 70 per cent of houses and other buildings in the city. Reports vary about the casualty rate, but 650 people were injured, and between 65 and 115 people were killed, including 16 who died at sea.
  • Keith Bushnell’s footage of the cyclone, from which this clip is taken, was the first to be seen on television screens across Australia. The cyclone had destroyed almost all external and internal communications in Darwin. Employed by the ABC as a cameraman, Bushnell shot footage that, accompanied by reporter Mike Hayes’s descriptions, brought images of the devastation to the rest of the nation. Both men left the Northern Territory soon after.
  • In an ABC interview in 1999 Bushnell described the trauma he experienced as he viewed the destruction and his fears for the isolated city: 'Everywhere you looked in Darwin, in every direction you looked, you saw wreckage and for all you knew, maybe the whole world looked like this and that was frightening’ (
  • The footage of the helicopters flying into Darwin records a special feature of the response to the disaster. All three branches of the defence forces, army, navy and air force, played a role in the relief operations and service personnel were recalled from leave to assist with relief operations.
  • The federal government declared a state of emergency and provided immediate financial assistance to residents. Public appeals conducted by the media and humanitarian associations also raised millions of dollars for the victims of the cyclone. Early on 26 December naval aircraft flew in supplies and personnel. Throughout January naval personnel were involved in the clean-up of government and private facilities. The army flew specialist personnel into Darwin and the entire RAAF transport fleet was involved in evacuating Darwin’s residents and airlifting in supplies.
  • Tropical cyclones are intense low-pressure systems that form over warm tropical oceans and develop a characteristic circular wind pattern. In severe tropical cyclones such as Cyclone Tracy, maximum winds surrounding the centre are greater than hurricane strength, 120 km per h. Cyclone Tracy’s winds were measured at 217 km per h prior to the destruction of the measuring instruments. In Asian countries severe tropical cyclones are called typhoons and in the USA and the Caribbean they are known as hurricanes.
  • The legacy of Cyclone Tracy continues to be felt in the housing and insurance industries in Australia. The insurance payout for Cyclone Tracy was the largest in Australia’s history and as a result the Insurance Council of Australia established the Insurance Emergency Service, which developed into the Insurance Disaster Fund. After natural disasters, the Insurance Disaster Fund enables timely assistance to those insured. Following Cyclone Tracy, Darwin was rebuilt with cyclone-resistant materials, and new national codes for building in disaster-prone areas were drawn up that are among the most stringent in the world.
  • Just over three years after Cyclone Tracy, the Darwin Reconstruction Commission achieved its mandate of reconstruction. By 1978 the city was able to house the same number of people as it had prior to the cyclone. However, electoral rolls reveal that 60 per cent of those living in the city in 1974 were no longer residents in 1980.

Education notes provided by The Learning Federation and Education Services Australia