In the gully of sugar gliders

Anita Jaensch 26 March 2021

Despite its location at the heart of south east Queensland, most of us don’t know very much about Australia’s largest air force base, RAAF Base Amberley.

In 1938, the Federal Government acquired 882 acres of land, comprising two farm properties – ‘Amberley’ and ‘Willow Bank’. Flat, well-drained and close to engineering works and the railway line to Brisbane, it was deemed the perfect spot for a new air force base. In the language of the local indigenous peoples, this was Jeebropilly – the gully of sugar gliders.

But it was a Hornet Moth that first swooped down to land at the nascent RAAF Base Amberley in 1939. It was not an RAAF aircraft, but a civilian plane piloted by the contractor, Cyril Chesterfield, during the base's construction. Today, Amberley is home to the Super Hornet, and has evolved into the pre-eminent air force base in the nation, employing more than 5,000 people.

FA-18 Superhornet

A dazzling ‘white city’

The base was one of the largest construction projects undertaken to date in Queensland. Built at a cost of £300,000, it comprised a diamond-shaped parade ground surrounded by administration buildings, hangars, barracks, workshops, hospital and an aerodrome.

The new base was intended to be home to almost 300 Air Force personnel and 12 aircraft.  

Women at war

The RAAF led the way in introducing women to Defence during World War II, and the Women’s Auxiliary Australian Air Force (WAAAF) played a crucial role at Amberley. By 1943, almost 120 WAAAF members were engaged in various areas including administration, aircraft maintenance, signals and intelligence.

In 1941, nursing sisters from the newly formed RAAF Nursing Service arrived at Amberley, medically assessing air evacuation patients for onward air transfer or treatment in Brisbane.

Keeping up spirits

Despite the war, there was a lighthearted side to life on base; it was virtually a self-contained township with its own bank, post office and canteen. The Astra Cinema screened films six nights a week, a variety of sporting events were held regularly, and weekly dance nights were organised by the WAAAF (with entertainment provided by a band comprising musically talented airmen, accompanied by a tap dancer). Women from the local Country Women’s Association would also regularly visit the base to take care of the airmen’s mending.

The Yanks are coming

With the bombing of Pearl Harbour in December 1941, Amberley became the operational base for the US Army Air Force (USAAF). By 1943, the base was home to almost 2,300 Australian and US personnel. The Americans were largely welcomed by the Ipswich community, and often invited home for meals by local residents.

a terrible Tragedy

On 19 February 1948, a Lincoln bomber returning from Laverton crashed on the airfield at Amberley, bursting into flames on impact. All 16 personnel onboard were killed instantly.

It is considered one of the worst air disasters in Australian history.

Welcome to the Jet Age

The first jet aircraft – the GAF Canberra bomber – arrived in Australia in 1951, and was showcased at that year’s Air Force Week Pageant at Amberley. But it would be three years before the first Canberra was put into operation with No 2 Squadron.

Capable at flying at high speed and altitude and highly manoeuvrable, the Canberra was also notable for being the first RAAF bomber to be equipped with ejection seats.

The Vietnam War

In 1965, the 161 Reconnaissance Flight was deployed from Amberley to Vietnam, where it would remain for seven years.

Two years later, No 2 Squadron deployed to Vietnam from Malaysia. It was equipped with eight Canberras, and would fly 12,000 operational sorties.

In 1971, No 9 Squadron – together with 16 Iroquois helicopters – was posted to Vietnam. It was known for flying at treetop level, directed by a second aircraft, to insert and extract ground troops.

LIGHTING UP THE NIGHT SKY

After a ten-year wait, the first F-111 landed at Amberley. It was a major technological advance from its predecessor, the Canberra, featuring an advanced wing sweep mechanism, terrain-following radar, long range and weapons carrying capability. Its arrival consolidated the importance of the base to the RAAF’s capability.

The F-111 – and, in particular, its ‘dump and burn’ capabilities – made it a favourite with the public in Ipswich and Brisbane. Ipswich schools regularly enjoyed visits from RAAF personnel with a model of the aircraft, and many of that city’s organisations featured the aircraft in their logos.

An F-111 performs a 'dump and burn'

For many years, spectacular flying displays were part of festivals such as Warana and Riverfire, and the F-111’s ‘dump and burn’ also took centre stage at both the 1982 Commonwealth Games in Brisbane and the 2000 Olympic Games in Sydney.

The F-111 was retired in 2010, after 37 years of service. On its final day in service, six F-111s flew in formation over Brisbane and the Gold Coast, capping off the display with a final ‘dump and burn’.

Part of the community

Amberley has always warmly accepted its place within the community. Its first open day was held in 1948, attracting approximately 20,000 visitors. When the Defence Force Air Show was held at Amberley in 2008, more than 90,000 visitors attended over two days.

Air transport capability

In 2006, the introduction of the Boeing C-17 Globemaster cargo aircraft provided the base with air transport capability. This was further bolstered with the acquisition of the new Airbus KC-30A Multi-Role Tanker Transport aircraft two years later.

guardians at the gate

At the gate of every RAAF base in Australia is a former RAAF aircraft, which serves a dual role – a symbolic role of ‘guarding’ the base’s main entrance, and a historical role, linking the base to the aircraft that have operated there.

Given the close and long-term association of Amberley with the F-111, it is not surprising that a decommissioned F-111 serves this purpose at the new entrance gate. However, the previous main gate has its own guardian – a retired Canberra bomber.

An exciting future

As part of the enhancement of Australia’s Defence capability through to 2035, a new round of development is taking place at Amberley. Currently home to the F/A-18 Super Hornets, C-17A Globemaster III, the KC-30A Multi Role Tanker Transport and the Heron, RAAF Base Amberley will also welcome fleets of E/A-18G Growlers, F-35A Lightning II Joint Strike Fighters and C-27J Spartans.

 

If you’re interested in military aviation history, why not visit the RAAF Amberley Aviation Heritage Centre? Showcasing the history of RAAF Base Amberley and its links with South East Queensland, the Heritage Centre has plenty to see, including a WWII Boston Bomber, a Vietnam-era Canberra bomber, Sabre and Mirage fighter jets, F-111s, and Sioux and Iroquois helicopters.