This year will see HMAS Albatross make history with the first ever female commanding officer, Fiona Sneath.
Captain Sneath took over command from Captain Simon Bateman late last year, who will become the defence adviser in New Delhi, India.
It is a big change for the Nowra air station. As well as Captain Sneath, the Albatross command, including the executive officer, first lieutenant, ship’s warrant officer, coxswain, command staff officer and legal officer are all women.
Captain Sneath commands a team of 40 but administers around 1200 personnel stationed at the base.
“It is pretty exciting and a complete change for me to do something like this,” she said.
“I’ve been here for a couple of weeks and I’ve got a lot of learning to do, people to get to know and understand what they do.
“It is also a big change for the base to have someone from the legal side of military to be in charge of the home of the Fleet Air Arm.
“It is a complete change from my recent postings which were joint operations, to be back into a dedicated navy establishment, where daily operations are the norm.
“Until late last year I never really thought the opportunity would be given to someone like me, a specialist officer, who is not one of the traditional operator type people to come to an establishment like this in such an important position.”
In terms of leadership, I think it is important to have diversity, not just of gender but experience.
Commander Sue Cunningham is executive officer, Lieutenant Commander Belinda Finlay first lieutenant, Chief Petty Officer Charmaine Edwards coxswain, Warrant Officer Sharon Campbell ship’s warrant officer, Chief Petty Officer Linda Eddington command staff officer and Lieutenant Commander Dominika Czaja the area navy legal officer.
Captain Sneath joins Albatross from the Military Law Centre at Victoria Barracks, Sydney where she trained defence legal officers and provided and legal training for general officers, as well as being the deputy director Asia Pacific Centre for Military Law.
“I don’t come from an aviation background. I hope this demonstrates to a lot of other people that it isn’t a ‘stove pipe’, this isn’t a career path for only a certain few,” she said.
“In terms of leadership, I think it is important to have diversity, not just of gender but experience.
“When you get to this level you’re not necessarily demonstrating your skill in your particular specialty. You are demonstrating your ability to look at things in a strategic manner and make decisions that implement the strategies in place.
“I suppose my legal background helps. We are trained to look at things analytically and get evidence before making decisions.
It’s pretty special - a honour and privilege to be selected as the first female CO of Albatross.
“I’m learning the role of all the squadrons, working closely with the headquarters of the Fleet Air Arm and other resident units and of course the civilian base manager. They way bases are set up now it is a different mosaic of responsibilities to make it work as a whole.
“I have to build and understand the relationships.
“I suppose I offer fresh eyes. I will ask the questions perhaps they wouldn’t expect someone like me too ask. I haven’t got the assumed knowledge of how aviation works.”
She said it was a honour to be the first female CO of Albatross.
“It’s pretty special,” she said “a honour and privilege to be selected.
“Being the first female is great but it is also good in terms of diversity of background.
“Sure it may put pressure on me with expectations, but I have a good team working with me, who are behind me to maintain Albatross as a good working establishment that everyone likes to come to work.
“A place where everyone will see their input as important. Everyone has to contribute to the bigger picture and ongoing success of the base.”
Exciting time to be at Albatross
She said with the ongoing redevelopment of Albatross, including the HATS (Helicopter Aircrew Training School) still to come online, it was an exciting time to be at the Nowra base.
“HATS will come on line properly next year. I’m really looking forward to the extra people who will be on the base. More than 100 people will be training as aircrew, not just in the navy but defence wide,” she said.
“With all the redevelopment at the base, the future of Albatross is bright.
“We are not going anywhere. As well as HATS, the other new helicopters coming into service will need to be maintained, serviced and operated for many years.
“Albatross is here to stay.”
Captain Sneath started her career as an Australian Federal Police (AFP) officer in 1986 and during that obtained her initial qualifications in law.
She joined the RAN in 1994 as a direct entry legal officer.
She has experienced a wide range of postings as a legal officer, including at training institutions (HMAS Cerberus and the Australian Defence Force Academy); as the deputy registrar of the former Australian Military Court; the chief legal advisor navy headquarters, and in directorates in Defence Legal, Canberra.
Captain Sneath deployed on Operations Catalyst (twice) and Slipper in the Middle East and was awarded a Commander Joint Operations Gold Commendation for her performance as a legal officer on operations.
She has been seconded to the NSW Police prosecutors branch and the office of the Commonwealth Defence Force Ombudsman; and undertaken duties as counsel assisting Defence Boards and Commissions of Inquiry.
She also worked as a legal officer at the former National Crime Authority for two years.
It's a complete change from my recent postings which were joint operations, to be back into a dedicated navy establishment, where daily operations are the norm.
From September 2011 to December 2014, she was the staff legal advisor to the Chief of the Defence Force, advising on a diverse range of matters including the implementation of cultural reviews such as the Australian Human Rights Commission Review into the treatment of women in the ADF, responses to sexual offences and allegations of abuse within defence, combat deaths, complex personnel disputes and reforms to the military justice system.
On promotion to captain in 2015, she started duty as the Director Military Law Centre/Deputy Director Asia Pacific Centre for Military Law.
In that position she was responsible for managing and delivering legal training requirements for ADF legal officers and military justice training for general officers.
She also contributed to ADF regional engagement and promotion of the rule of law in the Asia Pacific region through the design and delivery of operations law and related courses for Australian and foreign military officers in Australia and the wider region.
Fiona is married to Peter, also a naval officer, and they have a son studying at university, and a daughter at primary school.