Alastair Bridges: Stories of Service

Running time
6 min 13 sec
Place made
Canberra, Australian Capital Territory, Australia

Alastair (Al) Bridges was born in Scotland and moved to Australia with his family when he was 2. Like his father who flew aircraft in World War II, Al wanted to become a pilot. He joined the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) when he was 21. In 1967 and 1968, Al flew helicopters in the Vietnam War. He moved soldiers, including the wounded, in and out of the jungle, and often under heavy fire. Now retired, he shares his experiences and stories with others as a volunteer tour guide. His story is one of courage and purpose.

Student inquiry activities

  1. Why did Al Bridges want to become a pilot?
  2. Read a short biography of Al Bridges. Where was Al posted in Vietnam? What type of helicopters did he fly?
  3. Two of the most dangerous parts of Al's role as a helicopter pilot in Vietnam were 'SAS insertions' and 'hot extractions'. Watch Al talk about SAS insertions. Explain what both terms mean in your own words.
  4. In the Stories of Service video, Al says 'I'm hoping ... my helicopter never killed anybody, but who knows? We may well have done because we were firing down into the jungle'. What does this tell you about how Al reflects on his role in Vietnam?
  5. In the Stories of Service video, the Australian War Memorial in Canberra is referred to as 'an important place of learning but also healing …'. Discuss how visiting a memorial could help people deal with their experiences of war and conflict.


[Music plays]

Opening credits. The title 'Stories of Service: Vietnam War' appears. A collage of images shows an Indigenous soldier, a woman wearing glasses, a pilot in a cockpit, a map of Vietnam, the Australian Coat of Arms, an old typewriter, helicopters in a field, and a commander's diary dated 1968.

The presenter Ray Martin stands in front of the Australian Vietnam Forces National Memorial, dotted with artificial red poppies, on Anzac Parade in Canberra. A caption reads 'Ray Martin AM'.

Ray Martin speaks: 'Alastair Bridges was the son of a Second World War pilot. But as a young man, he never thought about a career in the air force. Instead, all Al wanted to do was fly Qantas jet airliners. But he ended up flying helicopters in the Vietnam War. That's about as dangerous as it gets. Al went on later to fly fixed-wing aircraft for the RAAF in New Guinea and then became an air crash investigator. Now he volunteers as a guide at the Australian War Memorial in Canberra. It's been a career of service, and one very different from what he'd imagined. So how did that happen?'

[Music plays]

A man's right hand sketches a young pilot in the cockpit of a plane using a lead pencil. He adds details with a fine tip pen and watercolours. Al Bridges's face slowly becomes clearer. A photo is labelled 'Alastair Bridges' in white cursive text.

Footage shows Al Bridges talking in a living room, RAAF planes with refuelling trucks, and a twin-seater Vampire jet aircraft taking off and then flying in formation with other planes. A photo of a young man in uniform and a pilot's cap.

Al Bridges speaks: 'I started off flying because I wanted to be a Qantas pilot. I wanted to earn big bucks. But not just that, I thought flying was a good thing. My dad had been a pilot during the Second World War.'

[Music plays]

Ray Martin speaks: 'Al couldn't afford private flying lessons, so he joined up and went to RAAF (Training) Base Pearce, near Perth. He learned to fly in a twin-seater jet aircraft called the Vampire.'

Al Bridges speaks: 'Now it never crossed any of our minds on the pilots' course that we'd end up flying a helicopter. When we graduated from Pearce, 4 of us were posted to helicopters, to 5 Squadron in Canberra.'

Photo of Al in uniform, then with a helicopter. Footage of a panel at the Australian Vietnam Forces National Memorial showing helicopters in flight.

Ray Martin speaks: 'Al served in Vietnam in 1967 and 1968. The helicopter he flew was the Bell UH-1 Iroquois, commonly known as the "Huey". It proved to be a reliable and versatile machine. There was nothing more dangerous for helicopter crews than what's called a “hot extraction”. This involved extracting or air-lifting troops, including special forces patrols, under enemy fire. And pilots like Al would have to land or take off in small clearings or hover over the jungle, within range of hostile fire, while soldiers scrambled on board.'

[Music plays]

Footage of an injured soldier on a stretcher being winched out of the jungle by a helicopter, soldiers trekking through jungle vegetation towards a helicopter with its engine running, and helicopters lifting into the sky and flying over grassy fields.

Al Bridges speaks: 'So you had to go back into this very tight area, not much bigger than the helicopter with trees up to 10 metres. Go in there, and sit on this area while the SAS soldiers came running out of the jungle to get on board. And they were hesitant, because out there, there's a machine gun firing at you, which you could see. How they missed us, I don't know. And then once they're all on board, get out of there as fast as you could, full power, climb out over the top of the trees. And once we'd clear the trees, we'd all look at each other and just laugh: "Ha, it's over." They were frightening, they really were.'

[Music plays]

Al and Ray watch footage on a laptop. It shows helicopters landing and troops hurriedly climbing aboard.

Ray Martin speaks: 'Al says that he didn't like war. He preferred looking after people, protecting them, rather than shooting at them. He had mixed feelings about why Australia was involved and whether the war was worth it, but still, he never shirked his duty.'

Al Bridges speaks: 'It never occurred to me that I should throw my hands up and give up. Not at all. Apart from anything else, I had a beautiful young lady at home waiting for me.'

A photo album opens to a photo of Al, carrying a Qantas bag, and his wife Sandra when they were young.

[Music plays]

Ray Martin speaks: 'On return from Vietnam, Al married the love of his life, Sandra. Years later Al became a volunteer at the Australian War Memorial, taking school children on guided tours. By amazing coincidence, the helicopter on display there is the very same one that he flew in Vietnam.'

Footage of Al showing a group of children a display inside the Australian War Memorial, including a helicopter.

Al Bridges speaks to the children: 'We had 2 pilots, and we were very very busy talking to people all the time on the radios. We'd be talking to the soldiers on the ground, to the Australian artillery, the big guns. We'd be talking back to our headquarters, we'd be talking to big jets that were going around waiting to drop their bombs. And they were a bit scary. I didn't like them very much. So we didn't want them to crash into us. And we'd be talking back to the hospital to say "hey look, the soldier we got is very badly wounded, so where should we take him?”'

Al Bridges speaks to the camera. 'I'm hoping that I, my helicopter never killed anybody, but who knows? We may well have done because we were firing down into the jungle.'

Footage of Vietnam veterans walking in a parade, many wearing service medals. A banner reads 'Vietnam 1962-63'. Some people hold Australian National flags.

Text on screen reads: 'PTSD or Post Traumatic Stress Disorder is a condition that sometimes occurs after experiencing or witnessing a traumatic event.'

Ray Martin speaks: 'The trauma from serving in Vietnam lives with many veterans.'

Al Bridges speaks: 'I also suffer from post-traumatic stress. Next door, we've got a very loud dog. And if I'm down there and it starts barking, I'm on the ground. I've gone for cover, I'm getting away, there's incoming, there's exploding. You don't think; it's just an automatic reaction.'

Footage of helicopters in the air, and Al showing his grandsons exhibits at the Australian War Memorial.

Ray Martin speaks: 'Al says the Australian War Memorial is an important place of learning but also healing for himself and for others.'

Footage of Al speaking as a guide to a group of children at the Australian War Memorial.

Ray Martin speaks: 'What message do you want to give to school kids today, given your experience?'

Al Bridges speaks: 'It would be nice to say that it's up to them to make sure we don't have wars in the future. They are absolutely terrible things. But I think that's being unrealistic. I just hope that none of you children will ever be involved in a war.'

[Music plays]

The presenter Ray Martin stands in front of the Australian Vietnam Forces National Memorial.

'Al is a humble man, but he should be very proud of his life of service. He didn't like war, but he put himself in harm's way, over and over again, doing his duty. In his retirement, Al chooses to spend his time educating visitors to the War Memorial about Australia's military history. In war, and in life, Al Bridges is a wonderful role model.'

[Music plays]

An old photo of Al Bridges in the cockpit of a plane. Then the white logo for the Department of Veterans' Affairs is shown on a black background.

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