Is there a more beautiful and yet diverse haven for aviation than tropical North Queensland? Derek Royal finds out why the locals consider their part of the world to be their own version of Utopia and why it offers so much diversity for pilots and tourists alike.
Every year millions of tourists visit Cairns to witness the wonders of the region’s heritage-listed Great Barrier Reef and Daintree Ranforest. They flock there to admire the stunning scenery and to experience the sheer remoteness of the region. And they leave entranced by the untouched beauty, ancient culture and experiences unique to a part of the world locals consider to be their very own version of Utopia.
Cairns International Airport is the ultra-modern gateway to the region, and attracts over 4.5 million passengers per annum, a figure that is expected to rise in the near future. But Cairns isn’t just a thriving international airfield, it also boasts a General Aviation presence that not only includes critical organisations such as the flying doctors and State Emergency Service, but also provides a convenient base for flying schools and charter operators, each offering a service to clients who wish to explore and experience something special.
Commencing operations at Cairns Airport in 1949, the North Queensland Aero Club (NQAC) is one of Australia’s oldest surviving clubs that continues to train pilots. Offering a unique range of Class C Airspace, stunning scenery and the opportunity to fly in remote areas, the school provides quality flight training and a fantastic taste of the northern half of Australia and its diverse range of conditions.
“Obviously the club is unique because it borders world heritage rainforest, the Great Barrier Reef and to the west, the remote Cape York Peninsula,” says an aero club spokesperson. “The remoteness and the stunning scenery are unique. But for me personally, it’s the changing scenery I absolutely love about flying up here.”
Flying in the topics provides a unique, challenging and rewarding experience for students. Operating out of a busy international airport, getting close to the region’s natural wonders and being within close proximity to the outback provides a skillset uncommon to most pilots.
“The club’s CPL students not only gain invaluable experience flying in Class C airspcae, they also gain invaluable experience flying at bush aerodromes on Cape York and the Gulf of Carpentaria, which is invaluable when looking for jobs in the more remote parts of Australia,” the spokesperson adds.
A long-time bush pilot with more than 20,000 hours in his logbook, agrees with his colleague from the aero club and tells Aviator that North Queensland, including Cairns and the remote northwest of the state, offers some of the best, yet most challenging flying imaginable.
“Cairns is one of the most pristine areas in Australia, with the Great Barrier Reef and Daintree Rainforest very, very popular tourist destinations,” says the bushy, who spent a decade flying in Papua New Guinea before returning to his Queensland roots. “Millions of people flock here every year to experience what we locals consider to be Godzone. But not only is this an incredible place for tourists it’s also a brilliant place to fly, the remoteness and the stunning scenery are unbeatable.”
But the ‘bushy’ also warned that things can get a bit challenging during the wet season. “Things can get a little hairy during the wet season as the terrain around Cairns and Mareeba is very high,” he says. “Lowest safes in the area are around 6,800 feet to the south and 6,000 odd to the north and west. The contrasts between the wet and dry constantly keep pilots on their toes, which is a bloody good thing that discourages pilots from becoming cocky. This place has a way of punishing those with a bad attitude.”
A bush pilot in PNG (Papua New Guinea) for many years, ‘bushy’ flew plenty of medivacs and transport missions in the most treacherous conditions imaginable. “PNG?!” he exclaims. “Oh, my God, what a place! High terrain, low cloud, short sloping grass or gravel airstrips with what seemed like a million ridges and undulations, not to mention severe winds and rain: that place had it all. But for me as a pilot, PNG was a great learning curve and it taught me well. In my opinion, if you can fly there you can fly anywhere so coming back wasn’t a drama. Compared to that place, it was a walk in the park.”
So what about Northwestern Queensland, a mere hop, skip and jump from Cairns? How does that compare to Cairns and the coastal tropics?
“The northwest brings challenges of fast-changing weather, coupled with heat, severe thermal turbulence and the inherent dangers of long distance,” says bushy. “Turbulence is actually a real problem. The wind can whip along the flat plains and then start oscillating when it comes in contact with a small mountain range. There is also a wide variety of surface types that cause vast changes in thermal activity, particularly below 5,000 feet.
“There’s a lack of landmarks for navigation, it’s just about impossible to distinguish one jumbled river system from another. And roads are so far apart that using them as timing points is tricky. For most of the area there are no NDB references and often the ABC radio stations are your only triangulation references. Many out here talk about being IFR – ‘I Follow Road or Railway’.
“The Gulf of Carpentaria area is also notorious for unexpected and extreme weather changes. I can fly there in cloudless conditions and be caught flying back in almost non-VMC (conditions). And because most property strips are dirt and marginal at best when wet and the bitumen strips are sometimes 100 nautical miles apart, there are often few options when dealing with changing weather conditions.
“Rain showers can also render airstrips unusable in a matter of minutes, especially on the black soil plains. And while the flat plains might look smooth from 6,500 feet, they’re not so appealing much closer to the ground.
“Sometimes airstrips are chopped up by roaming cattle or you find yourself having to chase cattle off the strip in order to land. Birds, particularly galahs and cockatoos offer a challenge as they often aren’t as smart as the eagles and hawks at getting out of the way.”
But this is the kind of diversity that pilots ‘and’ tourists operating out of Cairns have access to. And this is why the region is so challenging and full of surprises.
Cairns-based luxury helicopter charter operator Nautilus Aviation embraces the diversity. “Being based at Cairns Airport enables us to fly from a central location and gives us direct access to the Great Barrier Reef,” says Nautilus CEO Aaron Finn. “Cairns is one of the most pristine areas in Australia, with the reef, rainforest and outback right on our doorstep.”
Finn says that in recent years, business has been on a steady incline as the company added Heli Charters Australia and Cape York Helicopters to its portfolio in 2013 and 2014 respectively. “The acquisitions have enabled us to diversify our operations and increase capability both in passenger capacity and aerial services,” he says.
Nautilus’s growth has been remarkable. Starting out as a single R44 operator, the business has grown to a current fleet of 23 helicopters along with company acquisitions and fleet modernisation. “Last year we took delivery of our second EC130, the T2 variant from the factory,” Finn says. “This year we have added a second L4 Longranger and new AS350B3e Squirrel. Industry audit accreditations and the signing of long-term contracts are also worth noting.”
But while Nautilus is a success story, Finn admits there are some challenges associated with being based in the Far North. “Being a remote area has its challenges with little access to aircraft parts and specialised maintenance services,” Finn says. “The weather plays its part here as well, the wet season brings low cloud, heavy rain and low visibility along with it. But we’re currently consolidating existing operations while also planning potential new opportunities.”
As mentioned, Cairns Airport attracts over 4.5 million passengers per year and according to Kevin Brown, CEO of North Queensland Airports (NQA), the organisation that oversees Cairns and Mackay airports, this growth benefits the airport in many ways.
“This growth is stimulating new opportunities in various aeronautical and non-aeronautical areas, including retail, export, ground transport and commercial developments,” Brown tells Aviator. “We are continually exploring new potential partnerships and business expansion opportunities.”
Cairns Airport not only connects the world with the Great Barrier Reef and Daintree Rainforest, it is also positioned as one of Australia’s northern gateways to the Asia Pacific, an area in which Brown has taken a specific interest.
“My strongest focus for Cairns Airport has been increasing direct international connectivity and with the help of a great team we have succeeded with new direct routes to Bali, Singapore and Manila plus a second Auckland service all recently launched or announced,” he says. “This adds to our existing links with Hong Kong, Tokyo, Osaka, Guam and Port Moresby.”
In 2013 the Cairns Airport Land Use Plan gained Queensland Government approval and together with the airport’s Master Plan, provides a blueprint for its future aero and non-aero development.
“We have refined our 20 year development vision to provide new aviation and commercial enterprise precincts on-airport that create opportunities for existing operators to expand their businesses and for new companies to establish operations here,” Brown adds. “We are currently working to take this vision from the planning stages into construction.”
Since becoming CEO, Brown has taken Cairns Airport from a government-owned organisation run by the Cairns Port Authority, to a fully privatised company, actively exploring new opportunities while continuing to play a strong leadership role in the region. “Another challenge we face in Cairns as a regionally based international airport is that we have to work doubly hard to convince airlines we offer a sustainable destination,” Brown adds. “We have strong proof though as we have international carriers who have been servicing Cairns for well over 20 years.”
Brown’s long-term goal for the airport is to fulfil its 20 year development vision and thereby open up new opportunities for the region, while in the short term his team will continue to pursue increased international connectivity for Cairns, revitalise its retail options and develop a strong sense of place in both terminals.
Sadly, while Cairns Airport experiences exceptional growth and development, the North Queensland Aero Club has decided to pull up its roots of the past 65 years and relocate to its secondary base at Mareeba.
“Due to the expansion of Cairns Airport as an airline destination, the owners of Cairns Airport are looking to gain larger rentals from GA companies, so a lot of businesses are leaving the airport,” the spokesperson says. “The NQAC will still maintain a presence on the airport in Cairns however probably not to the same extent as it has for the last 65 years. The Mareeba base will expand and the majority of the club’s operations will also. However Cairns is only a 15 minute flight away so the Class C training environment is still just down the road, offering the best of both worlds.”
With the proposal to move the business to Mareeba, club members have been working tirelessly behind the scenes and according to club president Scott Brady, indications from the majority of club members are that the move to Mareeba is a move in the right direction.
“Time is of the essence with this proposal as it is in our best interests to remove Cairns from the equation as quickly as possible,” Brady says. “In order for the club to progress, there is no doubt that we have to make the move away from the current building in Cairns as the costs are prohibitive.”
NQAC plans to fully develop the Mareeba base this year, with members hoping to use it as the club’s primary base from 2016.
Meanwhile, a little further south from Cairns lies the city of Mackay. And together, Cairns and Mackay airports make up the entity known as North Queensland Airports.
Mackay Airport services a diverse regional community and offers a high frequency of jet services to a range of destinations operated by all the main domestic carriers. And like Cairns, Mackay is also a base for several GA operations. Located in one of Queensland’s most liveable cities, Mackay Airport is the transport hub for the Bowen and Galilee Basin resource centres as well as servicing Mackay’s agribusiness and tourism sectors.
In recent years the airport has secured new routes of Gold Coast with Jetstar and Tigerair’s Sydney and Melbourne services; plus an upgrade to Boeing 717s by QantasLink on their Brisbane service.
“We’ve undertaken a terminal refurbishment and seen the opening of a Qantas and Virgin lounge, a runway overlay and car park redevelopment and the introduction of online booking,” says airport GM Rob Porter. “And we’ve just opened the 152-room ibis Mackay Airport hotel.”
As well as delivering these key projects, Mackay Airport has also developed a strong team as part of NQA and built strong links with the Mackay community.
Since taking over as GM, Porter has overseen some major challenges at the airport, the largest of which has been the progress of the resources industry in the Bowen Basin. “This has had a strong impact on Mackay but with initiatives such as Diversify Mackay our region has fostered new opportunities which have kept it ahead of other affected centres,” he says. “We are also actively working with those involved in new mining ventures in the Bowen and Galilee Basins and as new projects get underway the city of Mackay is already well placed to serve as the service and supply centre, with the airport providing a multi-modal integrated transport hub.”
So what are Porter’s goals for Mackay Airport, both long and short term?
“In the short term our goals for Mackay are to secure increased connectivity to major cities and regional areas such as Sunshine Coast, Newcastle and Cairns and to further consolidate our position as the transport hub for the Bowen and Galilee Basins,” he replies.
“Further out on the horizon we are working to establish Mackay as an international airport. We are well placed for this in the centre of the Queensland coast and demand for services to Papua New Guinea and New Zealand will grow as the Galilee Basin continues to develop.
“We will also continue to fulfil our 20 year development vision for Mackay Airport which has commenced with the recently opened ibis Mackay Airport hotel and construction of an Embraer Legacy hangar. A new General Aviation operator is expected to be announced soon along with a ground transport transit centre.”
Mackay Airport’s development vision includes expansion of the Terminal Business Zone and development of dedicated aviation and commercial enterprise precincts. This will ensure Mackay Airport not only provides the aeronautical infrastructure essential for the region’s development, it will also provide exciting new opportunities for local, national and international operators to expand or establish new premises at Mackay Airport and generate thousands of jobs and almost $1 billion for the economy.
“Mackay Airport services almost one million passengers per year and is Central Queensland’s multi-modal transport hub,” Porter explains. “Passenger growth in the past few years was attributable mainly due to a strong resources sector but with a more diverse economy than some other centres we are currently seeing growth in agribusiness, leisure and education, the latter through CQ (Central Queensland) University in particular.”
Aviation is certainly doing more than its fair share in helping to foster growth and development in Central and Far North Queensland. Just goes to show what a strong aviation sector can achieve.