When it comes to the lightest of light aircraft, Airborne Australia are the masters. They offer the best microlights, gyrocopters and hang gliders in the country, and they’ve been keeping the industry airborne for the past three decades. Behind the Scenes turns its attention this month to a homegrown success story.
The tale of Airborne Australia is one of local boys made good. It’s been a wild ride for the little Aussie battlers, but after a few tough years they’re still flying high. From building their own aircraft in the backyard to conquering the Chinese skies, their never-say-die attitude and determination to provide the best light aircraft in the world has seen them succeed.
Airborne was founded in 1983 by Newcastle boys Shane, Ricky and Russell Duncan, who grew up as keen water skiers and hang gliders. The boys became championship-winning pilots, picking up medals around the globe, and it was this early association with the spirit of adventure that lead to excellence down the line.
The high-flying world of hang gliding came at a price, so the Duncans funded their adventures by forming a hang gliding school named Airborne Windsports, along with close friend Chris Brandon. It was an immediate success, with the boys teaching the relatively new sport of hang gliding to many curious students, and helping to build the foundations of the fledgling sport. It was during the early 80s that they imported their first microlight to help with lessons, and the popularity of the tiny machine set off lightbulbs. The boys, with their mechanical backgrounds, soon designed a purpose-built two-seater microlight which could be used for passenger flights as well as training. Their business had pivoted from teaching students, to something much more ambitious.
The Buzzard Arrow was an immediate success, sparking a revolution in microlight aviation in Australia. In the mid-80s fellow hang gliding legend Paul Mollison joined the team as an engineer, becoming the technical director of the operation, and ultimately writing the legal standards for microlight aviation in this country.
Rob Hibberd, also a competitive hang glider pilot, joined Airborne as a director in the late 80s and took over running both the microlight and hang gliding schools. As the decade came to a close, these schools continued to grow, as more and more people decided to start flying for the very first time. With six partners on board, the Airborne team decided that certification was going to be a costly process for the Buzzard Arrow, and that there was a chance that it wouldn’t comply with evolving laws. After much deliberation they decided to completely redesign it and came up with the Edge, a brand new microlight, and proceeded to load test it to the new standard.
As the company was growing, all six directors were still travelling around the world, competing in hang gliding competitions and supplementing their incomes through sponsorships and teaching hang gliding and microlight flying. The growing company was operating out of a three-car garage in Newcastle, NSW, with most business conducted on an ageing Canon fax machine. It was a struggle, but the passion of the ‘super six’ kept the company afloat as they considered the design and merits of various overseas microlights whilst always working on their own machines, with a view to making the sales of their own machines the primary business.
After moving to a larger factory in the early 90s, Airborne finally started producing their own glider – the Breeze, which was an immediate success both in Australia and overseas. With their experience and passion for flying, the Breeze was a charming glider that proved to be an intermediate stepping stone to the company’s launch into hang glider manufacture. During this time the boys were also sponsored as competition pilots by other hang glider manufacturers.
Airborne went on to design and certify a number of microlights and hang gliders, building them in Newcastle and shipping them around the world. Whilst they became famous for producing aircraft on the cutting edge of technology, they never forgot their beginnings as a flight school, and continued to build micros and gliders for novices. For many pilots, their entire flying life has taken place inside Airborne aircraft.
With the rise of paragliding in the 90s and the subsequent reduction of the hang gliding market, microlights became very important for Airborne, and they continued to develop new trike bases and wings. A government initiative during the early 90s called the Export Market Development Grant helped Airborne expand into even more countries. The owners travelled extensively and the USA became Airborne’s largest market.
After many strong years of growth Airborne was listed in the 1996 BRW Magazine as one of Australia’s fastest growing companies. Rob and Rick picked up the award from BRW’s founder Robert Gottleibsen, who was most impressed that the little Aussie battlers had come so far – although he couldn’t be convinced to become a pilot himself!
The mining boom of the early 2000s created fantastic opportunities for the aviation industry, and Airborne were able to expand their business as money flowed from the mining boom into the economy and leisure activites with more people learning to fly and buy Airborne’s planes. Their microlights proved brilliant for traversing the extreme terrain of outback Australia, and were also good for rescue missions and mapping. But what goes up must come down, and the end of the boom marked tough times for this tough little Aussie company.
For Airborne it meant staff reductions, although this was mainly achieved through natural attrition. Imported microlights were entering the country in record numbers and taking what little business was around from local manufacturers. But Airborne kept trundling along, despite problems with the manufacturing sector driving costs up.
With the American market remaining soft, Airborne’s attention turned to China, which has become the saviour of the company. The majority of sales now fly over to the people’s Republic, and the skies from Shanghai to Shenzhen are swarming with Airborne aircraft.
Airborne have also become Australia’s biggest retailer of gyrocopters, proving that they’re always looking for ways to diversify their business and provide more flying opportunities for their customers.
“Airborne has been around awhile and I feel we see what is around the corner,” Rob Hibberd claims. “Our products are generally consumer discretionary, so when a downturn is coming we seem to feel it well in advance. The same goes for an upturn and I feel optimistic that we are moving into more of a growth period now.”
Airborne microlights and gyrocopters aren’t just marketed at the recreational community, because they play an important part in conservation projects across the globe. A fleet of Airborne microlights were initially purchased by the Indonesian Forestry department to locate illegal loggers. They had two operating with four rangers aerial-spotting on board, using GPS to mark logging operations and to direct ground crews into the area. The aerial surveillance effectively helped to wipe out illegal logging in Borneo’s 90,000 Hectares Gunung Palung National Park. The deforestation was adversly effecting the Orangutan. Since then and only two years ago, Airborne sold another 15 microlights to foresty that use sophisticated equipment to survey their vast National Parks. Over in Botswana, micros and gyros are used to track elephants and to keep evil hunters away from other endangered animals. Airborne are truly making the world a better place.
“Flying a microlight for me always has an element of excitement; it’s like embarking on a new adventure every single time,” says Rob. “Being an open cockpit aircraft means that microlights offer an amazing, panoramic view, and being able to feel the wind on your face makes it even more fun. It’s like hopping on my motorcycle versus climbing in the car – every rider knows bikes are a heap more fun!”
There are few more pure and exciting flying experiences than jumping in a microlight, and Airborne are the masters of this unique art. They have a number of different models and variations that will excite the senses of anyone interested in really small planes. The XT912 series of micros are heaps of fun to fly, and beautiful craft in every way.
The Tundra version is designed to be tiny and zippy, with plenty of research going into reducing the size of the wing in order to make this four-stroke, 80HP beauty as responsive as possible. Extensive refinements to the sail have led to an increased speed range whilst retaining impressive slow speed performance. The result is a comfortable flight, with rapid response and a truly comfortable feel with easy handling in turbulence at all speeds.
If you’re after something a bit more rugged, the Outback version is for you. It’s available with three very different wings that show off the versatility of this rig. Everything from low-speed aerial towing to cross-country cruising is possible with this tough beast.
Powered by the Rotax 912 80HP engine and with dual rear disc brakes, the XT-912 Outback has more than enough power for normal and towing flight, with exceptional stopping power. Whichever flavour tickles your fancy, the XT912 is a great machine.
If you’re a beginner, or simply after something a bit simpler, the XT582 is the microlight for you. It comes with a smaller two-stroke 65HP engine, but still provides a really fun flying experience. It comes with everything the beefier 912 offers, but it’s a bit cheaper and has a few options that might make it the aircraft for you.
It’s available in both Tundra and Outback versions, so it can be configured to what you’re after – either performance with the Tundra, or greater versatility with the Outback. Again, both are reliable and will serve you well. This time, though, there’s the Ezy, which is a perfect entry point for new pilots.
To keep the cost down, the Ezy offers less options than the other versions – they’ve taken away the intake and after silencer, the wheel spats are gone and there’s a simpler modified shock absorber system. It’s still a brilliant machine, and has everything for someone starting their adventures into aviation, and just goes to prove that Airborne microlights are perfect for anyone from novices to legends of the sky.
“Flying from Telford in the UK across the Irish Sea to Northern Ireland was a fantastic experience and really proved how versatile these aircraft are,” continues Rob. “I was delivering a new XT 912 to our dealer and we had two airshows to attend, complete with the Red Arrows and Harrier Jump. I think the 912 was every bit as exciting as those machines!
“Flying around the glaciers north of Anchorage, Alaska was another memorable trip. The scenery was incredible and the sense of freedom immense. Airborne microlights are well known overseas, because we used to display every year at the EAA Sun N Fun air shows in Florida and at Oshkosh, which are two of the biggest air shows in the world. I always made sure I explore the country while I was over there – for research reasons, of course!”
With gyros now making up around 20% of Airborne’s sales, it’s no surprise that they’re at the cutting edge of technology when it comes to these very unique craft.
“Production-built gyrocopters have come a long way,” explains Rob. “The tail plane has helped with stability and vastly improved the safety. The finish on the Magni range is excellent and they use a brilliant rotor and hub bar design. There is a point of difference between the gyros and our microlights and this dynamic works well for us.
As for the gyros available, there is an abundance. The M16 comes in two variants – the Tandem Trainer, which is perfect for learners, and the Agri, which is aimed squarely at the agricultural industry. Both versions are quick and easy to get to grips with, and have open cockpits to ensure they’re as much fun as possible.
The M24 is a step up and comes with a fully-enclosed cabin for a truly luxurious ride. It’s the zippiest gyro Airborne stock, and if you want to take another step up there’s the VIP version, with an even lovelier interior.
“The M24 is our most popular selling gyro. It’s fully enclosed, has cabin heating and costs around $140,000. The M16 is around $95,000. You can get into microlight flying for a lot less – around $18,000 for a single seater and from $42,000 for a two seater – so they’re covering different markets.
“Airborne became the distributor for the Italian Magni gyrocopter range a few years ago,” Rob continues. “We had recognised that some of our microlight customers were moving onto gyros. Gyros can fly in pretty strong conditions and this is part of the reason they’re becoming popular.
“I’m currently learning to fly a gyrocopter and getting used to opposite controls, and stick and rudder. Needless to say I’m learning in our open cockpit Magni M16 rather than the M24 enclosed cockpit – it’s just more fun!”
Just because nanolights look like they could be pulled apart and carried off in a backpack doesn’t mean they’re not serious machines. Airborne’s line-up of nanos – the T-Lite and the V-Lite – are both rugged and dependable.
The original idea behind these lightweight soaring trikes was to use the engine’s power to climb to an altitude where a thermal could be found. The motor would then be shut down and the pilot could fly cross country using thermal lift, pushing himself to fly further and further. Although pilots use these little trikes for soaring, many others are simply using them as a fun low cost single seater trike. And they certainly are fun to fly!
The T-Lite is powered by the incredibly fuel efficient 27hp Polini Thor 190 electric start engine. The Polini is purpose-built for lightweight soaring craft, is extremely quiet and only weighs in 32.8 kg.
Simplicity is the key with this design. The Airborne T-Lite can be pulled down in minutes and the trike base folds up to fit in the boot of a reasonably-sized car. The wing can be carried on the roof racks and is not much heavier than a standard hang glider. The wing is built to handle the design loads and Airborne has performed stringent load testing to ensure the structural integrity of the design.
The T-Lite base is engineered to the usual Airborne standards. The 10 litre fuel tank is removable so the pilot can carry it for re-fueling if necessary. A neat fuel line connecter allows the user to disconnect the fuel tank in seconds with the push of a button.
The lighter V-Lite F2-T is designed to comply with Australian sub-70kg regulations. These regulations allow hang glider pilots to fly sub-70kg aircraft with a simple powered endorsement, with no need to complete a full microlight licence. This provides the V-Lite with a unique position in the marketplace.
The Polini Thor 100 two stroke 110cc 20.5hp engine is an excellent choice for this type of aircraft. The climb performance is surprisingly good and the finish of the engine superb.
Flying the T-Lite or V-Lite is pure fun right from take off. Hang glider pilots will appreciate the glider-like handling, and once aloft and in suitable lift the engine can be cut, leading to a truly enjoyable flight. They’re the perfect first aircrafts for hang glider pilots looking for something with a bit more grunt.
Microlight pilots will love the nanos, too. The simplicity and ease of set-up is fabulous, and the trikes are so easy to cart around. Microlight pilots will also be impressed with the T-Lite and V-Lite’s cross country ability under power.
“Everyone at the factory can’t get enough of flying the V-Lite with the easy handling F2-T wing,” exclaims Rob “It’s fun and simple and very transportable.”
The genesis of Airborne lies in hang gliders, and they’re still offering the best rigs available. The F2, Sting 3 Race and the Rev are popular across the globe and provide enough variety to suit everyone.
The F2 is perfect for beginners, whilst also being zippy and manoeuvrable enough for those with a bit more experience. It’s a refinement of the wildly successful Fun which remains one of the biggest-selling entry level gliders ever produced in Australia. The F2 retains all of the good features of the original Fun, being the lightest in its class, but has been completely overhauled.
The sail has been reworked to include a new luff curve which pre-loads the leading edge and enhances performance. The other significant advantage is the increase in trailing edge tension, therefore eliminating flutter at normal operating speeds.
The frame has some changes including new cross bar leading edge hardware to allow for better sail fit at the junction. It’s a better glider all-round, which is quite a compliment because the Fun is still incredible.
The Sting 3 Race is for the pilot who demands a glider with great performance and exceptional climb, but that’s still easy to launch and land. It’s the perfect mid-range glider for pilots who know what they’re doing and are looking to push themselves.
Finally, the top-of-the-range Rev, which has now been discontinued, was what the best in the world used to fly during competitions: a serious bit of kit. It was a difficult decision to drop this winner from the range but the company wisely decided not to keep designing and manufacturing high performance, competition hang gliders. It was proving to be too costly an exercise in a declining and flooded market. A tough call as competition hang gliding was, and still is, the directors’ passion and the reason Airborne exists today.
Buzzing this Year and Beyond
Airborne recently spread their wings by becoming part of a consortium to buy Lake Macquarie Airport. They’ve since signed a contract with the Westpac Rescue Helicopter Service to build one of their new bases at the site, and the service will be operational by mid 2017, flying the latest Augusta Westland 139s. It’s just another way for Airborne to give back to the community.
The new facility also means that Airborne can return to flight training, something they were forced to let go a number of years ago. The next generation of pilots won’t just be flying Airborne aircraft, they’ll be learning in them.
It’s been a tough few years for Airborne, but you can’t keep a good Aussie down and it looks like they’ll be going from strength to strength in the future.