• C-27J Spartans on the hardstand at RAAF Base East Sale prepare to move essential cargo and passengers in support of Operation Bushfire Assist 19-20. (Defence)
    C-27J Spartans on the hardstand at RAAF Base East Sale prepare to move essential cargo and passengers in support of Operation Bushfire Assist 19-20. (Defence)

RAAF Base East Sale lies in the heart of Gippsland’s lush dairy country – just six kilometres from the Victorian regional city of Sale. At the end of a two-kilometre stretch of rural road, where the local cows claim right of way, visitors are greeted by a display of three retired East Sale-based RAAF aircraft – a fleeting glimpse into the history of post-war pilot training.

RAAF Base East Sale’s laidback setting suggests a diminished capacity, but this is certainly not the case. As the RAAF celebrates its centenary in 2021, the base continues to evolve. Now home to more than 1,000 military personnel, civilians, students and contractors, it’s an integral part of Australia’s Defence operations, as well as a significant contributor to the local economy.

Mission ready

To meet the massive demand for aircrew during World War II, No. 1 Operational Training Unit (1 OTU) relocated from West Sale and nearby Bairnsdale in 1943 with almost 2,500 personnel and 128 aircraft in tow. The unit began with a fleet of Bristol Beauforts, Airspeed Oxfords, Lockheed Hudsons, Fairey Battles and one Tiger Moth. By 1945 more than 3,000 air and ground crew had undergone training at RAAF Base East Sale – among them, navigator and future Prime Minister Gough Whitlam.

Group Captain Nigel Ward, Officer Commanding Air Academy credits the training base as being crucial to Australia’s World War II contributions.

“This place was a part of what was called the Empire Air Training Scheme, which was the Commonwealth’s effort at generating aviators for the Second World War,” he explained.

“During war, the RAAF was the fourth largest air force in the world with more than 300,000 people serving in it and almost 185,000 still in uniform at the end; and this base was a fundamental part of that organisation.”

Formation of the future

In 1946, the base was renamed RAAF Station East Sale and became home to the Air Armament School, Crew Conversion Unit (CCU) and the School of Air Navigation (SAN). Just a year later CCU disbanded, making way for the Central Flying School’s (CFS) relocation from Point Cook. This move led to the creation of the RAAF’s first aerobatic display capability.

The Red Sales aerobatic team was formed in 1962, flying De Havilland Vampire jets. During its first year in operation, all four aircraft were lost while practising formation flying, killing six CFS staff. Despite this tragic loss of life, a second aerobatic display team was formed just six months later. The Telstars disbanded after six years of successful operation due to budget constraints.

But two years’ later, this decision was reversed with the creation of the Roulettes aerobatic team, crewed by CFS senior instructors.

Affectionately known as ‘Stars of the Sky’, the Roulettes commemorated 50 years of service in 2020. The team is preparing for a celebratory flypast at the Australian International Air Show, Avalon in December.

What it takes to be ‘Always Ready’

A continual focus on ongoing instruction, a frequent influx of personnel and extensive infrastructure developments have ensured RAAF Base East Sale remains at the forefront of Defence training and operations.

A four-year, $185.6 million redevelopment of the base was completed in 2017. A timely expansion which, together with further infrastructure works, made way for No. 1 Flying Training School (1FTS) to relocate from Tamworth to East Sale in 2019, bringing with it an increase in capability and operational activity. The base is now the country’s busiest in terms of air movements with high rates of effort from 1FTS, CFS/Roulettes and No. 32 SQN (which provides light air transport capability and low-level tactical and maritime operations training – under the auspices of the Air Mission Training School).

GPCAPT Ward is predicting “more of the same” in terms of expansion, starting with the provision of Officer Aviation Candidates to ‘fly’ unmanned aerial systems from 2023.

“That’s quickly going to become quite a central effort – for the RAAF in particular; and then many of our surveillance and reconnaissance platforms are being either replaced or the fleets are being expanded,” GPCAPT Ward explained.

“Those aircraft have non-commissioned mission air crew currently trained at RAAF Base Edinburgh and it’s proposed that that training will come here as well. So, this base will provide not just officer aviation but all of aviation training for the RAAF.”

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