The Air Force has high expectations of its newest officers, who started their training during Australia’s unprecedented bushfire season and graduated during a global pandemic.

The 45 officer trainees began their 17-week Initial Officers Course (IOC) on January 20 during the height of Australia’s worst bushfire season.

The course was scheduled to take place, as usual, at Officers’ Training School (OTS) RAAF Base East Sale. However, given the base’s proximity to the Victorian bushfires, it was transformed into the primary staging point for Operation Bushfire Assist, which required the school to temporarily relocate 01/20 IOC to RAAF Wagga in NSW.

Flight Lieutenant Rowan McBride, the Course Director for 01/20 IOC, said the temporary relocation provided officer trainees with a unique opportunity to leverage the experience and resources at Wagga and make use of training facilities not available at East Sale.

The temporary relocation required significant support from the OTS staff, who were also providing training and education to 105 ADFA cadets. The mix of IOC students, ADFA cadets and Wagga recruits created a rare training environment that may never be replicated.

“As the bushfires subsided and RAAF Base East Sale facilities became available, 1/20 IOC prepared to redeploy back to OTS only to be faced with the emerging restrictions associated with COVID-19,” Flight Lieutenant McBride said.

“The response plan required a review of the course structure, where stringent segregation requirements saw 01/20 IOC move between different accommodation blocks three times in order to ensure sufficient social distancing space was provided for incoming courses.”

Forged in fire and isolation, these newest officers have one of the strongest peer networks I’ve seen.

Officer Training School Executive Officer, Squadron Leader David Elliott, said students were also unable to take their normal off-base and trainee leave privileges, which undoubtedly put a strain on morale. However, as new ADF members they accepted this is often one of the realities of military life, particularly when deployed.

Squadron Leader Elliott said after the course’s return to East Sale, a two-week training pause was required to assess and implement the new requirements in responding to COVID-19.

The course then resumed on a seven-day-a-week training schedule to make up for lost time and meet the graduation date target.

“This required an absolute whole-of-unit approach and the OTS team’s dedication and motivation enabled this to be possible,” Squadron Leader Elliott said.

Both OTS staff and students believe the unusual challenges that 01/20 IOC faced enabled greater team cohesion and created stronger leaders.

“Resilience is absolutely key in facing future ADF challenges and I have no doubt that COVID-19 impacts provided the graduates with the opportunity to develop a greater level of resilience within themselves, above and beyond ordinary expectations,” he said.

Despite the challenges, Air Force’s newest officers graduated on schedule on May 14, unfortunately without the presence of their families and friends.

“Forged in fire and isolation, these newest officers have one of the strongest peer networks I’ve seen and I have no doubt they will continue to support each other throughout their ADF careers,” Squadron Leader Elliott said.