MEMBER for Macquarie Susan Templeman spent a week with the RAAF in Queensland and wrote this first person account.
You know you're in for a week out of the ordinary (especially for a politician), when the program includes flight simulators, puppies and abseiling.
I have just spent a week living at the RAAF Base in Amberley, Queensland, as part of Australian Defence Force Parliamentary Program.
Members of Parliament are encouraged to sign up for the Program which is an opportunity to engage closely with members of the ADF and see the diverse capabilities of our Defence Force.
My week has given me a deeper appreciation of the incredible individuals who make up our Air Force, from the ground defence team to the medics and fire fighters, through to the pilots and air crew who fly the C-17A Globemaster IIIs, KC- 30A Multi Role tanker Transport, F/A-18 Hornets and F/A-18F Super Hornets.
Previously, I have had an opportunity to do a number of visits to RAAF Base Richmond and RAAF Base Glenbrook in the past year, and have seen the insides of the Herc and Spartan, the load testing work that Richmond does. But seeing it and being part of it are two different things. For a start, I have never been in uniform, so even being kitted out in the blue camouflage with heavy boots and cap was a new experience.
So, why Amberley? Amberley is the biggest of the RAAF bases, and before long will be the biggest of any Defence base in Australia. In addition, many personnel stationed at Richmond have done or will spend postings at Amberley, and many squadrons have people spread across the two base. The Spartans that you currently see on the tarmac at Richmond are also due to head north in the next year or so.
My first exposure to the work on the Amberley Base, after putting my kit in my student quarters, was learning how to pack a pallet for loading onto a plane. Equipped with steel capped boots and heavy gloves for this exercise, I joined three young women who had completed their training the week before, and under supervision we loaded, attached webbing and got feedback on our performance. I learnt signals for directing the forklift, and again with supervision, directed the driver to pick up the pallet and move it to its next point.
What impressed me about the process was the ongoing training and feedback loop that was in place to build the skills and confidence of the personnel. This was to be repeated time and time again during my stay and, as a trainer with 25 years’ experience, I saw high quality adult education.
Simulators are key to modern defence force training. They save money and reduce dangers when people do the real thing. I had the opportunity to fly planes, refuel mid-air, do air traffic control and fire a gun at a fixed target for the first time in a safe environment, where no one was going to get hurt from my lack of expertise. Even though it was just a simulation, it was easy to take the responsibility very seriously, given the quality of graphics and environment that were created. As it turns out, I didn't crash my Hawaii landing and managed a nice lazy eight over Brisbane's CBD.
All of it was possible thanks to exceptional instruction and direction by the instructors, and I suspect a little bit of help from them on the joy-sticks as co-pilots and the ability to hit "pause" as the traffic controller.
I looked at the fuel depot, spoke with maintenance personnel, inspected the runway, tested the Bushmaster, observed the training of the ground defence personnel, talked to the aero-medical evacuation team about their on-going professional development; all some of the less prominent parts of the chain that get, and keep, planes in the air and look after our deployed personnel.
That exposure made hitching a ride on a training flight on a C-17A Globemaster III all the more meaningful. It was an incredible privilege to experience low-flying and tactical landings, including touch and goes. And I'll be ever grateful to the Loadmaster who warned me to be prepared to brace on landing after coming in sharp from 10,000 feet.
While clearly the machines themselves are impressive it's the conversations with people that had the biggest impact. Their reasons for being in the RAAF were many and varied. Every conversation showed the diversity of experience and skill that members develop in their different postings, and their commitment to being the best they can be at their designated role.
My meals in the Airmen’s Mess were another opportunity to talk about things such as the challenges they face - like the moving of families every few years - and the pride they have in wearing their uniform.
And it wouldn't be a visit to Amberley without one really special stop - the working dog breeding program. Military Working Dogs and their handlers are responsible for providing security, crime prevention patrols, emergency response and intruder detection, both on RAAF Bases and in deployed locations around the world.
It's not often you get to hold a two week old Belgian Malinois puppy, play with 7 week old pups, see slightly older puppies do their initial treat-based training, and then suit up in padded gear to get a dog bite from an older dog. The handlers have strong and affectionate bond with their working dogs.
As Parliamentarians, we make decisions and vote on legislation that impacts people all over the country. One of the groups we have the biggest impact on is Defence Force personnel. It is incumbent on us before we make decisions and develop policy that will affect the lives of personnel and their safety, and obviously have implications for their families, to step into their shoes. Or as I did this week, their boots.
I not only learnt about the people who serve our country, but I learnt about myself, and I am grateful to the women and men of all ranks, both civilian and military, for their generosity of spirit and the time they took to share their experiences and thoughts with me.