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
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.
28 Squadron members march into Canberra as part of a traditional
freedom of entry parade to mark the squadrons 20th
anniversary and the official closure of RAAF Base Fairbairn.
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
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.
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.
Fairbairns 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 Fairbairns 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
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
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 Forces main
transport aircraft until the arrival of the Caribou and Hercules
transports. 34SQNs 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 bases 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.