Opening of RAAF Base Curtin

11 Jun 1988

RAAF Base Curtin is a joint use military air base and civil airport located on the north coast of Western Australia about 35 kilometres south-east of Derby and 170 kilometres east of Broome, and covering an area of more than 25,000 hectares. Curtin is one of 3 RAAF bare bases that form an arc across the north of Australia, the others being Scherger on Cape York and Learmonth on the North West Cape peninsular of Western Australia. Although, during peacetime, Curtin is maintained by a small caretaker staff permanently stationed there, the base is activated for Defence Force exercises and operations by units deploying to the base from other parts of Australia.

During the 1930s, the RAAF developed a network of airfields around the Australian coast to provide protection for Australia's sea lanes of communication. As part of that program, the Minister for Defence, announced in 1934 that land would be acquired from the West Australian government of a site near Derby for constructing an all-weather landing ground. As the likelihood of war approached, existing airfields at Broome, Derby and Wyndham were upgraded along with other defence facilities in Western Australia.

Within weeks of the first Japanese bombing raids against Darwin on 19 February 1942, Derby and Broome suffered the same fate. Following a morning reconnaissance on 20 March 1942, about an hour later a medium force of enemy bombers and fighters attacked the two towns almost concurrently. While Broome aerodrome was bombed, Derby was strafed with machine-gun and cannon fire from a low level. Fortuitously, the enemy’s three runs over the target caused no casualties and resulted in little damage. In any case, an Operational Base Detachment was deployed to Derby aerodrome. It was based there for some time before Western Area formed it into No. 80 Operational Base Unit on 3 July 1944. The unit mounted .303 Vickers (Medium) and .50 calibre Browning Machine Guns in pits to provide anti-aircraft defence, trained in their use and developed a defence plan for the base. The unit’s main activity was to maintain and refuel transiting aircraft and to aid in the transhipping of bombs and fuel to other units. After the war ended, No. 80 Operational Base Unit departed Derby for Broome on 14 December 1945 where it lodged on No. 79 Operational Base Unit before finally disbanding on 11 January 1946.

Some 36 years later, in 1982, the Standing Parliamentary Committee on Public Works (Public Works Committee) considered a proposal for the establishment of a forward defence air base at Derby to allow operations by all types of RAAF aircraft.  At the time, the nearest airfields that could accommodate the RAAF’s fighters were Darwin and Tindal in the Northern Territory and Learmonth, another bare base, near Exmouth in Western Australia. Darwin / Tindal and Learmonth are about 2000 kilometres apart and adequate air defence of the entire north west of Australia could not be provided from them. Therefore, an airfield about half way between them was needed to fill the gap in Australia’s air defence capability.

While a number of civil aerodromes were available in the Derby - Broome area, none had runways of sufficient length nor runway pavements of sufficient strength to accommodate modern fighter jets. Accordingly, the Public Works Committee concluded that there was a need for a new military airfield in the north-west of Australia.

Construction at the Derby South site commenced in 1983 and was completed in December 1987. On 11 June 1988, Prime Minister the Honourable R.J.L. Hawke, AC, GCL, attended by the Chief of the Air Force (CAS) Air Marshal R.G. Funnell, AC, and conducted the official opening. After the official opening, CAS issued a directive discontinuing use of the name Derby South, and formally naming the new base RAAF Curtin, in honour of the Right Honourable John J.A. Curtin, Member for Fremantle in Western Australia, who served as Australia’s 14th Prime Minister from 7 October 1941 until his death on 5 July 1945.

After works associated with a civilian terminal and air service were completed in 1989, the civilian airport located near town of Derby was reduced to light aircraft status and is now used by charter and tourist operators, private craft and the Royal Flying Doctor Service. RAAF Curtin became a joint use, military and civilian airfield with Derby Curtin Aerodrome operating under a Civil Lease Agreement with West Kimberley Shire.

Curtin has been activated a number of times for large-scale exercises, including Kangaroo ’89 and ‘92 as well as Pitch Black ’91, a major air defence exercise. The base, which normally had a caretaker staff of 4, was able to expand to a fully functioning air base and headquarters with about 800 military personnel and fighter, strike and transport aircraft. Similarly, in 2016 No. 382 Combat Response Squadron outdid itself when within 48 hours it turned RAAF Base Curtin into a fully functioning airfield ready to support flying operations for Exercise Northern Shield 2016.

In 1995, the federal government established a detention centre at Curtin to accommodate asylum seekers arriving in northern Australia by boat. All operational activities, such as exercises programmed to involve RAAF Base Curtin during 1995 and early 1996, were transferred to RAAF Learmonth. The Curtin detention centre was shut down in 2002 but was re-opened again in 2010, before it was closed again in September 2014. At its peak, the detention centre held more than 1,000 detainees.

On 1 January 2013, responsibility for the provision of air base services at RAAF Curtin transferred to No. 13 Squadron. The occasion coincided with RAAF Curtin’s 25th anniversary which was celebrated in June of that year.

While no RAAF units are permanently based at RAAF Base Curtin, it forms a vital element of Australia’s defence posture.

Related base

  • RAAF Base Curtin

Related aircraft

  • F/A-18 Hornet