Life in General: the State of GA
General Aviation is a fascinating and diverse industry; one that is currently facing a range of business challenges in an environment that has fundamentally changed in recent decades. Ryan Hart and Nicole Murrell take a closer look at some of the good, the bad and the ugly of the local GA scene.
The skills built up through the post?war years facilitated the maturing of GA into an invaluable Australian industry – an industry responsible for providing medical evacuations for sick and injured Australians in remote areas; for fighting summer bushfires; for agricultural spraying, surveying and mustering; for transport over the long distances of the Australian outback; and for training pilots with ambitions to work in commercial air transport.
However, the environment for aviation operators in Australia has changed significantly since the 1980s.
While this has created on the one hand numbers of growing airports and ? for many ? cheaper flights, the predominantly commercial forces driving this evolution have proved to be a challenge, especially for the small businesses in the sector.
There have been a number of recurring issues in the General Aviation industry. The first of these was the challenge posed by secondary airport privatisation, which dramatically changed the face of the industry. Small aviation businesses accustomed to low rents subsidised by the government crashed and burned, as the new airport owners pursued returns on their investments. Aviation businesses closed en masse, leaving some airports which had thrived during the halcyon days of the past, desolate and eerily quiet.
The second recurring issue in GA was skills. Australians command a justifiably high reputation in the aviation world but the boom in commercial airline activity over the past few years has created shortages of local pilots and aircraft engineers. In Australia, small businesses in particular struggled to recruit and retain skilled personnel.
And finally, unlike the sleek aircraft prevalent in the upstart recreational and sport category, the General Aviation aircraft fleet is ageing. On average, small piston?engine aircraft in the Australian fleet are more than 30 years old, a scenario that does little to attract newcomers to an industry whose popularity continues to diminish. While wholesale modernisation of the fleet over the next 10 years would be desirable, the prohibitive cost of such a worthwhile initiative makes such an outcome unlikely.
But is Australian General Aviation really the basket case that it is made out to be? Or do blue skies lie ahead?
Recreational aircraft activity has grown significantly over the past decade, a trend that reflects a long?term structural adjustment within the industry as enthusiasts and private pilots alike move into the lower cost recreational sector.
Despite its origins in ultralight aircraft, the recreational sector now includes many modern, sophisticated aircraft, often administered under a lower cost regulatory regime than those directly overseen by CASA. A win-win for pilots crossing the great divide, but a definite concern for traditional GA.
One of the great success stories of the recreational movement is Bundaberg-based Jabiru Aircraft, one of the few companies in the world whose expertise embraces aeroplanes “and” engines. Founded by Rodney Stiff and Phil Ainsworth, the company last year celebrated its 25th anniversary, a remarkable achievement for a business that started out small but evolved into a market leader worldwide.
In 2005, Stiff acquired 100 per cent ownership of Jabiru and has since been the recipient of numerous awards in recognition of his contribution to aviation, including an Order of Australia Medal.
To show how well-run and productive the company is, Jabiru’s Bundaberg facility has the capacity to produce 20 airframes and 90 engines per month. And with such a steady production schedule, it’s not surprising that Jabiru boasts over 2,000 flying airframes and more than three times as many engines in over 30 countries. Certainly an Australian success story to be proud of.
There’s no doubt that recreational aviation has made flying available to more people than ever before, and apart from the cost factor, the fun aspect also holds significant appeal.
Brett Anderson, owner of Victoria-based Anderson Aviation, believes that flying, particularly for the recreational pilot, needs to be fun and enjoyable. “Even the training needs to done in such a way that the enjoyment aspect should be there to enable the pilot to train more but not feel they are constantly being tested to the point the fun goes out of it,” he says. “If training can be enjoyable and the pilot sees the importance of it, then hopefully they will continue to become better, safer pilots.”
Anderson, who is the local distributor for the sleek Czech-built BRM Bristell, says he has always had an attraction to flying and in his younger years dreamed of being a commercial pilot. “Unfortunately, due to circumstances, it just didn’t turn out that way and now that I am older and established I can pursue what I always wanted to,” he says. Yes, like many others, recreational aviation has given Brett Anderson the opportunity to follow his dream.
Like Australia, New Zealand recreational aviation is experiencing significant growth and momentum, not just for those interested in hiring a plane but also for people who once dreamed of owning their own aircraft, only to be denied by the prohibitive cost of doing so. Anton Meier, who heads Cambridge-based Aerosport Aviation, is upbeat about the recreational sector and gets a real kick out of showing prospective customers the lifestyle possibilities associated with aircraft ownership.
“We don’t just talk about the lifestyle owning an aircraft can give you, we actually live it too,” Meier tells Aviator. “For example, flying from home to go skiing for the day. Flying over to the beach for a swim, or to a café for breakfast. Flying to the South Island of New Zealand for the weekend. Many of our SportCruiser customers have become great friends and they are our best advocates; this is very satisfying for both myself and my wife Jacky.”
Aerosport is the local distributor for two aircraft with bloodlines in the Czech Republic – the Triton Sport and Roko Via, and while Meier admits the past two years have been challenging, he’s expecting his business (and the recreational sector) to achieve significant growth in the near future.
It’s obvious that if there’s one thing that recreational aviation has done, it has allowed more people to follow their dreams. Not only to hire an aircraft for a reasonable outlay but to seriously consider owning an aircraft; thus living a lifestyle that not so long ago was only available to the fortunate few. That’s got to be a good thing.
Like all businesses, GA operations require competent and professional owners and managers. They also require people with a range of sophisticated technical skills such as pilots, instructors and maintenance engineers.
The profession of an airline pilot is one that has traditionally been highly respected and sought after. However, the career pathway towards that goal has also been difficult and has often involved significant individual investment and sacrifice. Instructor positions, charter, bank running and other aerial work activities which build flying hours experience have traditionally been poorly paid and do not offer the same status or rewards as major airline employment.
However, the traditional employment path for pilots has accelerated over the last several years. Worldwide airline growth has drawn relatively inexperienced pilots who traditionally filled positions in flight schools, charter services, regional airlines and emergency services into larger airline jobs more quickly than the industry has been able to cope with, forcing the industry to adapt quickly as the shortage of instructors in particular, may have a long-term impact on the ability of the industry to ensure its future supply of pilots.
Schofields Flying Club
Schofields Flying Club’s Steve Reh says that while the numbers of students training to be instructors has been steady, he expects a period of growth in the foreseeable future. “Several years ago there was a bit of a boom and I think that’ll happen again,” he says. “As people start going off to the airlines it creates more space here and in the GA sector. And a lot of airline pilots are due to retire. So once they retire that’ll create openings for people at this end; while many of those former airline pilots will also become instructors.”
For the past seven years Steve has been running Schofields’ instructor rating courses and throughout his career as an educator, the 56-year-old has put more than 105 instructors through the wringer, including more than 25 at his beloved Schoies. “They’ve all got positions within the industry,” Steve proudly tells AVIATOR. “The last candidate just got a position last week in WA.”
Steve believes that to be a good instructor, pilots need a variety of skills. “First of all, they need to be accurate pilots,” he says. “That’s something we teach them in the instructor rating … we improve their flying skills. They also need to be dedicated, confident and motivated; and have a good professional attitude and sound communication skills.”
Steve loves teaching and seeing his students achieve positive results. He particularly enjoys seeing his graduates move on in their careers – some even fly for the airlines – and receives a great deal of satisfaction from knowing that he has played a small part in their success. Little wonder that those who graduate from Schofields’ instructor courses are in demand from flight training organisations Australia-wide.
It has been common knowledge for some time that the most significant growth opportunities for pilot training come from demand for pilots in Asia. Despite continued volatility in world aviation markets and an uncertain global economic outlook, forward orders for aircraft remain strong and demand for pilots is likely to remain high as the Chinese and Indian economies continue to grow.
Australia is home to many training organisations that cater for foreign students, including airline-specific institutions such as the Singapore Flying College at Jandakot (WA) and Maroochydore (Queensland); and the China Southern West Australian Training College. However, other operations in Perth and interstate also provide specialised training for both foreign airline cadets and private international students. There are also many opportunities for regional Australian airports, not to forget the many first class training facilities in New Zealand, to pursue these opportunities as well as the traditional training grounds of capital city secondary airports.
With bases on the Gold Coast and Caloundra, Chopperline offers comprehensive theory and flight training for both aeroplanes and helicopters and is one of the largest combined flying schools in Australia.
Established at Caloundra on Queensland’s Sunshine Coast in 1980, Chopperline has developed into a well-respected operation, offering students modern facilities and aircraft, plus a variety of courses, including aeroplane and helicopter CPLs, command instrument ratings and simulator training.
Chopperline also boasts an experienced team of instructors with years of industry experience; some of whom fly part-time for Westpac Rescue and various television news organisations.
“Chopperline are held in high regard for the training of international students and we are proud to currently retain the contract for the training of the ‘Royal Oman Police Air Wing’ in both the rotary and fixed wing divisions of aviation. Our international presence is continuing to grow with more international government agencies calling on our professional services to provide a first class training package for their students.”
Australia doesn’t have a monopoly on flight training in the region, as New Zealand training standards are also highly regarded by many overseas orgnisations. For instance, Hamilton-based CTC has placed thousands of cadets with several airline partners, including Jetstar, Qatar Airways and easyJet.
Initial prerequisites such as age, academic qualifications, and citizenship, vary depending on the program or course chosen. If the initial prerequisites are met, then a potential cadet undergoes CTC’s own selection process – one that has been created in conjunction with the company’s airline partners. Depending on the program or course, the number of cadets accepted per intake varies. With courses starting every couple of months, the size of the group can range from four to 10 cadets.
CTC’s course costs are competitive in the international market and while they vary depending on the program, they include everything required to complete the training program, including accommodation.
Depending on the program, as a minimum, CTC cadets will graduate with a CPL, multi-engine instrument rating, and passes in their ATPL theory subjects. Cadets also have the option to complete a multi-crew cooperation certificate, jet type ratings for the A320 and Boeing 737, or an instructor rating.
CTC also receives a limited number of New Zealand Government funded places on training courses (for New Zealand permanent residents only) and while airlines do not guarantee employment, the company works closely with several airline partners to ensure that the number of cadets recruited meets the airline’s forecast demand. CTC’s high standard of success in training has resulted in almost 100 per cent of cadets being employed with airlines worldwide; a good enough reason for any airline to consider them as a prospective training partner.
Flight training is a significant part of General Aviation, but the industry is also critical in supporting other industries such as agriculture, mining and aero-medical. The importance of aviation services to broader community outcomes is also significant. For example the operations of the Royal Flying Doctor Service of Australia (RFDS) rely both on access to airport infrastructure and on a reliable supply of pilots and engineers to maintain aircraft operations. Aerial fire?fighting services and some law enforcement activities also rely on access to airports in both city and regional locations.
It is certainly true that GA is interdependent with a number of industries and indirectly shares their fortunes. The growth of the Australian mining industry has provided a wealth of flow?on business to many aviation operators over recent years and the efficiencies inherent in access to air transport have also benefited the mining industry.
The interface between the mining sector and GA is also important because it is often excluded in dealing with common GA issues due to their focus on smaller aircraft. The mining industry is serviced by a wide range of aircraft, from small piston?engine aeroplanes to very large jets most commonly used in mass passenger transport. The chief challenge in the present economic environment is for fly?in, fly?out operations to have access to the requisite infrastructure, skills and aircraft to continue to support the mining industry as it continues through a steadyperiod of growth.
GA operators also provide an important public transport service in remote areas of Australia, indeed comparable with taxis and buses in metropolitan areas. Where scheduled airline services are not viable, charter services provide the means of allowing people in remote areas to have access to business, medical, educational and social opportunities in bigger regional centres or capital cities.
One company that understands such demands is Switzerland’s Pilatus, whose robust, high performance PC-12 is the flagship of the Royal Flying Doctor Service and several other operators, including various police air wings and charter companies.
One organisation that has been using the high performance single with great success is the Northern Territory Police Air Section; who took delivery of their first PC-12 in 2000 and last year added two brand new NG models to their expanding fleet.
“The PC-12 is an excellent aircraft for our operation, it’s robust and copes just as well in the harsh tropical environment of the Top End as it does in the temperate extremes of Central Australia,” says NT Police Air Section Chief Pilot, Philip Agg. “We operate the nine-seat commuter version, which is exceptionally versatile as we can remove the rear three seats in seconds, set up a cargo net and have a huge cargo area that accommodates just about all the freight, baggage and specialist equipment we’re required to carry. The flight deck with the state-of-the-art Honeywell Primus Apex avionics suite is a pleasure to operate, provides excellent pilot situational awareness and facilitates quick 15 minute turnarounds at remote locations, which is vital when we may have five to six sectors in any one flight.”
Before joining the NT Police Air Section eight years ago, Agg was developing his skills as a bush pilot, flying for the Mission Aviation Fellowship (MAF) for four years while living in remote Aboriginal communities in Arnhem Land; operating scenic flights to the Twelve Apostles in Victoria; before returning to MAF, where for two years he flew an RPT service from Gove to remote communities in the Top End.
“This is a job where flexibility as a pilot is required, the initial task for any flight may change considerably throughout the course of the day,” Agg says. “Most of our flights are routine and planned in advance. However, police often need to travel at short notice for various reasons and we are regularly called to prioritise tasks but achieve as much as we can on any flight. Pilots will have a variety of requests to meet operational requirements, however they need to be able to make quick decisions as to what can be achieved based on their own limitations and the limitations of the aircraft. This is an excellent pilot job for those who like variety as no two days are ever the same. And the PC-12 is the perfect machine to get the job done.”
While both the new NG and older Legacy models are excellent for the NT Poice operation, the NG provides an added payload capability of around 180 kg, ideal when carrying nine passengers who like to take with them some of the comforts of home.
“The NT Police require reliable, comfortable and capable aircraft to support remote Police operations,” Agg says.
“The PC-12 is capable of transporting Police to just about any remote location across the Territory without the requirement to stop for fuel.” No doubt this is why the PC-12 is such a perfect fit for the job.
BLUE SKIES AHEAD
So, what is the future of Australian GA? Are there blue skies ahead or will a generous part of the industry continue to face an uncertain future?
Hawker Pacific is a leading presence in the Asia-Pacific region and according to Chief Operating Officer Pacific, Doug Park, blue skies lie ahead for local GA, especially in the corporate market.
“The Australian and South East Asian economies, for the most part, have been far more robust than the traditional aircraft markets of the US and Europe in recent years,” Park says. “Fortunately, Australia’s GA industry continues to rate well against international markets overall and as indications of confidence increase, we’re expecting 2014 will be a good year.”
Last year Hawker’s conducted demonstration tours of brand new aircraft, including the Diamond DA40-XLT, Bell 407GX, the Bell 412EPI and more recently, the Beechcraft King Air 250 – and with a great deal of success. The tours were well received and the company intends to continue to conduct the demo tours across Australia and the Asia Pacific region.
“We see it as crucial to get the latest generation of aircraft in front of our customers so they can see first-hand how the aircraft perform before they buy,” Park says. “I should also mention there continues to be a strong interest in the Diamond family of light aircraft we represent.”
Park added that the corporate market has seen a lot of product development as the next generation of aircraft continue to be released. “This is always exciting because these new, more capable aircraft are catalysts for boosting sales as owners and operators seek to stay current with technology improvements and enhanced aircraft performance. We will continue to showcase these aircraft across APAC as they become available in the immediate future.”
Moving forward, Park stresses that the GA industry in Australia is very well positioned, with the right products in one of the most exciting market places in the world.
“We expect the APAC region will continue to grow at a pace greater than other markets around the world. It’s exciting times for GA in Australia and Hawker Pacific remains confident in the long-term potential for the business aircraft industry in the region. A positive development worthy of mention though is we have observed the use of business aircraft is becoming more popular across the Asia Pacific region, and in particular, Asia.
“In the corporate market we’re seeing a lot of product development as the next generation of aircraft continue to be released – and this is always exciting because these new, more capable aircraft are catalysts for boosting sales as owners and operators seek to stay current with technology improvements and enhanced aircraft performance. We will continue to showcase these aircraft across APAC as they become available in the immediate future.”
When asked to give his opinion on the state of Australian GA, Park replied: “There is clearly pent up demand in Australia and Asia right now, which will bring plenty of opportunity in 2014. Currently there is significant activity in Australia for a whole range of models which service small and regional requirements – that is, King Airs and smaller jets for domestic requirements and larger jets for a more regional focus.
“In recent years, buyers have been deferring their decisions to purchase aircraft, but as confidence in the global economy improves and new aircraft are introduced to the market (both as replacement and new models), more sales are being realised.”