Fire-fighters step into history at former airbase

SKY HIGH: Country Fire Service members David Pearce, left, John Jackson and Robin Geytenbeek stand beside a Squirrel helicopter used for air-navigation training. John and Robin's forebears each had links with the former military base at the airport.  It trained Royal Australian Air Force flying crews in World War II.

SKY HIGH: Country Fire Service members David Pearce, left, John Jackson and Robin Geytenbeek stand beside a Squirrel helicopter used for air-navigation training. John and Robin's forebears each had links with the former military base at the airport. It trained Royal Australian Air Force flying crews in World War II.

A helicopter and light plane took to the skies where World War II bombers once dipped and weaved.

The aircraft were called into action around the former wartime Bombing and Gunnery School at the airport as eight observers from the Country Fire Service and National Parks were trained in air-navigation.

It was thought to be the first time that the former Royal Australian Air Force base had been used for air-navigation training since it ceased operating about 1946.

The exploits of some of the airmen of that time are seared into the minds of two of the modern-day trainees.

John Jackson, of Adelaide, said his great-uncle Arthur Jackson was a tail-gunner on Lancaster bombers involved in training at Port Pirie.

“It is a small world. It is absolutely amazing to find this connection,” he said.

He said his ancestor was thought to have died after his plane was shot down over France in the war.

Mr Jackson’s father also learned to fly at the airport.

Robin Geytenbeek, of the Adelaide Hills, said his grandfather, Captain John Gerard Geytenbeek, was the pilot of a Lancaster in the war.

Captain Geytenbeek was trained aboard a twin-engined Avro Anson operating from the base.

Mr Geytenbeek said he had checked out nearby plaques when he first visited Port Pirie for maintenance training last year.

He has been given the flight logbooks kept by his grandfather.

“He told me more about things that happened in Europe than over here,” he said.

My grandfather said they had an unexploded shell rip through the wing of their plane. - Robin Geytenbeek. trainee air observer

“They had an unexploded shell rip through the wing of their plane. They also bombed German leader Adolf Hitler’s summer residence in Austria.”

Mr Jackson and Mr Geytenbeek have been passengers in a Squirrel helicopter and a Cessna plane while being assessed as trainee air observers above the Flinders Ranges.

Manager for CFS aviation operations David Pearce said it was the first time the site had been used as an air navigation school since the war.

He said the trainees had come from the West Coast, Murraylands and Adelaide Hills and would be involved in 28 flights in five days.

Future real-life missions could involve spotting lightning fires after a storm or gathering “intelligence” on blazes and warning residents in the path of flames.

“There is absolute value in what they are doing. As much as we have technology these days, it still takes a set of experienced eyes to properly assess the potential of any fire,” he said.

He thanked the local flying group, the Port Pirie Regional Council and airport manager Steve Joyce for their magnificent support of the program.

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