Old Collegians keeping us safe from fires

February 20, 2024

Sam Bleakley (SPC 1995-97, PY1998) and Ben Townsend (SPC 1996-2001).


Ballarat’s bushfire safety is in good hands under the guidance of two Old Collegians, Sam Bleakley (SPC 1995-97, PY1998) and Ben Townsend (SPC 1996-2001).

The pair have been on duty this summer providing guidance and life-saving information to the fire crews on the ground and water bombing aircraft in the air.

Sam and Ben are a team in the air.

Sam and Ben were both busy last Tuesday, where lightning strikes sparked fires and they were requested to attended fires at Pomonal, the Grampians, Scarsdale and Beaufort. They will be on duty again this week as the weather heats up.

Sam, a pilot, spends most of the year flying for work in Western Australia, while Ben is a professional firefighter at the Ballarat Fire Station.

Since late November last year, the two Old Boys have been on duty at the Ballarat Airport with Sam, a pilot for Microflite and Ben working as an air attack supervisor for Fire Rescue Victoria.

The two men didn’t realise they were fellow Paddy boys until they were chatting one day about their younger lives and school days.

Sam was a boarder from Harrow, in the Wimmera region of western Victoria, between Years 9-11 and loved his time at SPC.

“I loved being a boarder, the friends and mateship you had as a full-time boarder.

“I recently rekindled with a few, with about eight of us getting together at a pub in Ballarat and it was great.”

Ben was a day student and also has plenty of good memories.

“Boat race was great, I wasn’t in the rowing, I was too big to be a cox and too small to be elsewhere in the boat, but the atmosphere was fantastic, singing the war cry and feeling the school spirit.”

Both Old Collegians tinkered in different directions after leaving school before eventually realising their true passions, leading them to their dream jobs.

Ben tried out accounting before becoming interested in being a firey after meeting career firefighters through his now wife.

He worked in dispatch at the Triple 0 emergency communications centre before changing paths and heading to Fiskville for 16 weeks to become a firefighter.

Ben, who grew up at Enfield and still has family there, then spent eight years working in metro Melbourne before returning to Ballarat.

Ben, pictured in his Year 12 class photograph, published in the 2001 College Annual.

Sam, on the other hand, has spent much of his life interstate turning his aviation dream into a reality.

“I always wanted to be a pilot as a kid, but I was a bit unsure when I was at school, so I did an apprenticeship in metal fabrication at Portland.”

Eventually, when Sam decided to pursue his dream of becoming a pilot, he headed to the Sunshine Coast in Queensland to complete his pilot theory, and then on to Kununurra, in outback Western Australia, to increase his flying hours.

“It was all about taking a risk and going and chasing my dreams. I spent a lot of time in aviation in Western Australia before coming back here.

“I always wanted to come back here and fight fires.”

Sam Bleakley pictured in his Year 11 class photograph, in the 1997 College Annual.

It is Sam’s first season working at Ballarat over the summer fire season, and Ben’s fifth season.

“It’s been very quiet this season (until last week), which makes up for some of my other seasons, especially 2020.”

When these two Old Boys are in the air together, they are a team in every sense of the word.

“I’m busy directing people out of the way and directing the Black Hawk on where to drop the water. We’re talking about up to four tonnes of water, which can take out the tops of trees, so you need to make sure everyone is a safe distance away.”

Sam and Ben will continue to be on duty from sunrise to sunset in these important roles until early March.


Ben and Sam, standing next to the Microflite Firebird 307 helicopter, with the Black Hawk helicopter in the background, and fuel tanker on standby.

“I’ve always had an infinity with the bush, I remember getting evacuated when the fires came through,” says Ben. “I knew a few people in this department who spoke very highly of the role and I love it.

“You can make a real difference in this role, serving the community is what it’s all about.

“I’ve been at the frontline of fires where the aircraft have turned things around. Where, without air coverage, there’s been serious damage.

“The role is a privilege … it’s full on but it’s extremely rewarding.”

For Sam, the reward is reflected in helping others.

“The excitement of the job is the flying part, but the joy is serving the community and helping people.”