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History

Farewell to Fairbairn
Hosting heads of state and searching for escaped Japanese POWs are some of the functions that have engaged its personnel, but after 63 years of service RAAF Base Fairbairn is no more, as Richard Hogan reports

No. 28 Squadron members march into Canberra as part of a traditional freedom of entry parade to mark the squadron’s 20th anniversary and the official closure of RAAF Base Fairbairn.
No. 28 Squadron members march into Canberra as part of a traditional freedom of entry parade to mark the squadron’s 20th anniversary and the official closure of RAAF Base Fairbairn.
 
Federation Guard members Leading Aircraftmen Chris Gelston, Shane Trigg, Anthony Palmer and Isaac Cullen at an afternoon tea at RAAF Base Fairbairn after the Freedom of Entry parade.
Federation Guard members Leading Aircraftmen Chris Gelston, Shane Trigg, Anthony Palmer and Isaac Cullen at an afternoon tea at RAAF Base Fairbairn after the Freedom of Entry parade.
Photos by LACW
Simone Liebelt
 
An aerial view of RAAF Base Fairbairn in busier times during an open day in September 1965. In addition to the many RAAF aircraft on display, a RAF Vulcan can be seen in the foreground.
An aerial view of RAAF Base Fairbairn in busier times during an open day in September 1965. In addition to the many RAAF aircraft on display, a RAF Vulcan can be seen in the foreground.
IT STARTED as a home to wartime operational units and has hosted numerous ceremonial parades for royalty, world leaders and visiting dignitaries but RAAF Base Fairbairn in Canberra has been officially closed as an Air Force establishment.

As part of the Defence Reform Program, the base was sold to the Capital Airport Group in May 1998 and ceased operating as an Air Force base on June 30. Defence will continue to lease the base until May 2004 and, until then, Corporate Services Infrastructure Group will manage the remaining assets.

Although most units have moved, No. 28 (City of Canberra) Squadron will continue to operate from Fairbairn for the time being, as will No. 34 Squadron which operates the special-purpose aircraft fleet.

Fairbairn’s closure as a RAAF base marked the end of a 63-year link with the national capital. Although the Air Force had a temporary camp near the site of the current airport for the official opening of Federal Parliament in 1927, its first operational presence in Canberra came with World War II.

The Canberra Air Force base was officially established on April 1, 1940, and initially named RAAF Station Canberra. Its first Commanding Officer, Squadron Leader P.G. Heffernan, and personnel came from No. 8 Squadron which had been stationed at Canberra airport from September 11, 1939.

The name Fairbairn also comes from the war years. The Canberra Aerodrome became known as Fairbairn on February 18, 1941, in honour of Air Minister James Fairbairn, killed in an air crash on August 13, 1940. Repatriation Minister Geoffrey Street, Minister in Charge of Scientific and Industrial Research Sir Henry Gullett and Chief of the General Staff General Sir Brudenell White also perished when Hudson bomber A16-97 crashed into a hill just east of the base.

From the end of 1940 to the end of WWII, RAAF Station Canberra was an operational base for anti-submarine patrols and a training school for Army co-operational personnel.

The base was also used by three squadrons of the Netherlands East Indies (NEI) Air Force from April 1942 until December 1943. These were composite squadrons with RAAF and Dutch personnel. No. 18 Squadron, flying B25 Mitchell bombers, operated from Fairbairn from April to December 1942. Another NEI squadron, No. 119, operated from Canberra for about three months in late 1943 before disbanding and being replaced by No. 120 Squadron, which flew Kittyhawks.

Other wartime squadrons that operated from Fairbairn included No. 4, equipped with Wirraways, and No. 13, flying Ventura bombers.

On August 5, 1944, the station received a report from Army security station that 500 Japanese prisoners had escaped from the Cowra POW camp. Aircraft were dispatched to help search for the prisoners.

On May 31, 1952, RAAF Station Canberra ceased to function and the following day it was re-formed as RAAF Canberra. It adopted the Fairbairn name on March 19, 1962.

There have been 45 commanding officers in Fairbairn’s history including a former Chief of the Air Staff, Air Marshal Barry Gration.

The base has been home for numerous squadrons and aircraft over the years, most notably the historic No. 5 Squadron and 34SQN.

5SQN, first formed in April 1936, was renamed No. 9 (Fleet Operation) Squadron in January, 1939, and 5SQN was disbanded until January 1941. The squadron operated Wirraway and Boomerang aircraft from Bougainville during the war.

Disbanded in October 1946, the squadron was re-formed with UH-1B Iroquois helicopters in May 1964 and moved to RAAF Butterworth in Malaysia. Based at Fairbairn in April 1966, the squadron supported peace-keeping forces in the Middle East in the late 1970s and early ’80s.

The Iroquois were replaced in May 1984 by AS350B Squirrel helicopters which formed the nucleus of the ADF Helicopter School when it was raised at Fairbairn on January 1, 1990.

The school, which has since moved, was an ADF training unit for new helicopter pilots. Although the Air Force had relinquished its role in rotary wing aviation, more than half of the personnel in the disbanded 5SQN were temporarily transferred to the school.

34SQN was originally formed at Darwin on February 23, 1942, four days after the first Japanese raids, with a strength of two de Havilland HD84A Dragons, two officers and four airmen. A Tiger Moth was added to the inventory a few months later and, during the war, the squadron operated from many airfields in northern Australia and the south Pacific.

The squadron, responsible for general transport and courier operations, began flying the famous Douglas Dakota in 1943. The Dakota C47B, the military version of the DC3, became the Air Force’s main transport aircraft until the arrival of the Caribou and Hercules transports. 34SQN’s last Dakota, A65-108, flew out of Fairbairn on August 11, 1967.

After the war the squadron moved to Richmond and was disbanded in mid-1946. No. 34 (VIP) Flight was reactivated at Fairbairn on March 12, 1956, and No. 34 Special Transport Squadron became an independent unit on May 1, 1959. It was retitled 34SQN on June 13, 1963.

In its early days the squadron operated Dakota, Metropolitan, Vampire and Winjeel aircraft. These were later replaced by Viscount (1964), Hawker Siddeley 748 turbo-props and Mystere (1967) and BAC 1-11 jets in 1968.
The squadron switched to a fleet of five Falcon 900 jets in 1990 and has just completed the transition to a new-look fleet of three Challenger 604s and two 737-700 Boeing Business Jets.

Fairbairn has also been the home of the RAAF Staff College since the early 1960s, albeit with some organisational changes in recent years. The RAAF Staff College, established at Point Cook in 1949, moved to Fairbairn in 1960. In preparation for the base’s closure, the college was amalgamated with the Australian Defence College at Weston in 2001.

One of the units to maintain an Air Force presence at Fairbain, at least in the short-term, is 28SQN, formed on July 1, 1983, as part of an expansion of the RAAF Active Reserve. To mark its 20th anniversary the squadron was granted Freedom of the City of Canberra on June 27, three days before RAAF Base Fairbairn ceased to exist.

 

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