With remote townships and establishments dotted throughout our parched country, traversing the remote reaches of the Australian environment can be a difficult undertaking. With roles in emergency situations, supply delivery, transport and even fixed-wing mustering, aviation has become a matter of necessity over recreation.
And Australia isn’t alone in its regional inhospitality. Our friends across the ditch also present some interesting geography. Although much smaller in size, New Zealand experiences short runways, hilly landscapes and varied weather.
In these conditions, Australian and New Zealand flying is a matter of finding the right tool for the job. Outback aircraft have got to be as robust as their residents – providing an opportunity for homegrown manufacturers to make their way in the global market. The diversity of Australia’s landscape is both a challenge and an opportunity, with many foreign manufacturers also experiencing success in the Antipodean market.
The best example of Australia and New Zealand’s adoption of outsourced workhorses is a story of king and country – the Beechcraft King Air. Despite being a foreigner, the American King Air produced by the Beech Aircraft Corporation (now the Beechcraft Division of Hawker Beechcraft) fits into the Australia-New Zealand market as snugly as a hand into an aviator’s glove. With at least 17 variations over its long history of production, the King Air twin turboprop was designed as a rugged utility aircraft that could cover the varied climate of the American landscape. This means that the transition to our Australian environment was a smooth one, with Aussie pilots adopting the aircraft as one of our own. In fact, viewing the live-feed of the Royal Flying Doctor’s activity across Australia, I can count at least five little twin-engine icons right now, each representing the crucial reach of the King Air’s service.
On May 15- 1963, the Beech company had begun flying a version of its Queen Air airframe paired with Pratt & Whitney Canada PT6A turboprop engines. May 1984 marked the King’s coronation day, receiving its Type Certificate from the FAA for the Model 90. As a six- to eight-seat business airplane with a 435 km/h cruising speed and over-the-weather operating capability, the King Air was an immediate success – with numerous pre-orders and down payments. But the King had another trick up its sleeve – the and slow-speed landing capabilities that permitted the safe use of small fields and airstrips. As the first in its class, the Beech had delivered 100 King Airs by 1966 and the royal family has remained in continuous production to this day, outselling all of its turboprop competitors combined.
So, why has the King Air been adopted so fervently in Australia and New Zealand? Simple – its rugged simplicity, versatility and handsome looking curves. Well…Ok, the last one may not be as important, but the aircraft has been an integral part of the Australian industry since its introduction. Probably best known in Australia for its service in the Royal Flying Doctor’s Service, the roomy, pressurised turboprop has many attributes that make it compatible for the often-strenuous role.
Let’s just say, if the King Air had a resume for a flying role in Australia or New Zealand, it would be a shoe-in for the job. Ideal for medical transfers and emergency recovery situations, the King Air runs at a sufficiently high altitude to cruise above often turbulent weather conditions – because no one wants precision medical equipment flying around the cabin. Additionally, the King’s STOL (Short Take-off and Landing) capabilities allow the aircraft to squeeze into isolated areas of Australia, South East Asia and Pacific regions without sacrificing speed. The King Air’s aptitude for handling short, unimproved runways allows it to serve as a utility outfit, hauling cargo and delivering supplies to where it’s needed most.
The King Air’s STOL performance relies on large power / weight ratios and low drag help the plane to accelerate for flight. The landing run is minimised by strong brakes, low landing speed and reverse thrust. This capability also makes the aircraft an asset to the economy, negotiating limited mining runways, deserted islands and grass strips for workers and the military. Plus, in terms of cost per kilometre, the King Air services in the emergency department are preferred over rescue helicopters where possible.
The King Air has been stretched, squished, re-engined, militarised, outfitted for deluxe business cruises and stripped back for students. It even had a brief stint as Air Force Once, ferrying President Johnson between Bergstrom Air Force Base and the Johnson family ranch in Texas. Despite or perhaps because of these changes, the rugged heart of the aircraft remains as stalwart presence in the Australian and New Zealand landscape for a few years yet.
Another overseas import into the Aussie and NZ market is the Sling series, produced by The Airplane Factory in Johannesburg, South Africa. The Sling 2 and 4 (differentiated by seat number) were introduced to our shores in 2015 by Global Aviation Products (GAP). Errol van Rensburg, head of GAP drew parallels between the South African climate and that of the Pacific Region. Stating that the Sling pair are “equally suitable for high and hot operations as well as very cold climates, so very similar to what we have here in Australia”.
The distance between Australia and South Africa is by no means a barrier between the two countries. As Mr Rensburg explains, the demographics and end user profiles of Sling customers are as varied as each other, saying that “[GAP does] find that the age profile of our current buyers are mainly over 50 years of age, and they are from all walks of life…from farmers to medical doctors, to retirees and Airline pilots, as well as a number of ex-fighter pilots”.
The biggest difference between the market for the Sling in Africa and Australia comes down to plain old geography. Size matters over here, making the reach of the Sling market less accessible for potential customers. Mr Rensburg says that GAP will endeavour to establish sub-dealerships, strategically expanding over our generously sized continent.
But how exactly does an aircraft from over there to here? From the viewpoint of a prospective Aussie or Kiwi buyer, it can feel a little isolated over in our corner of the world compared to the aviation market overseas. I mean, try getting your hands on a limited-edition watch before it’s snapped up by fashionable hoards in the USA. The whole process can seem a little daunting. Fortunately, Gerard Kitt, Sales Distributor for Tecnam Australia was happy to untangle the seemingly complex undertaking.
“[Tecnam Australia] has been importing airplanes into Australia since the late 90’s, so we’ve got it down to a fine art” says Mr Kitt. As an Italian company, Tecnam manufactures their aircraft in three locations, one of which is based in Florida, USA, to support North American operators. “The process starts with an order from the customer, and then once the aircraft built at the factory, it gets disassembled and packed into a container.” But don’t mistake the process for the flat-packing you’d find at an IKEA store – the wings of the aircraft are carefully placed in a specially designed cradle, with the fuselage and tailplane individually packed into another carefully outfitted shipping container.
“It all happens quite quickly” says Mr Kitt. “Once [the aircraft] arrives by ship at the [Australian] port…the priority is to make sure all the bills are paid and correct. GST bills need to be paid on arrival, and if quarantine or customs decides they need to look the container over, that includes fees as well”. Having a good broker here can streamline the process of chasing paperwork to a matter of receiving and responding to emails and footing each bill as they come. “Just make sure you are well over-budget before you start the process” Mr Kitt warns. The biggest sticking point in the process lies with the customer, with Mr Kitt advising that potential customers make certain that they are well over budget before ordering the aircraft. “If you don’t have the money in the bank to foot the bills at the right time, it will end up costing more money…you don’t want a container sitting there that you can’t afford to get off the dock!”.
Once the paperwork is all in order, a freighter company delivers the aircraft to be reassembled, with structural engineers and mechanics rigorously overseeing the process. Amazingly, once the aircraft is delivered, it only takes about half a day’s worth of assembly before it’s flight-ready. “It’s not like you’re going to end up with nuts and bolts and bags…the bulk of the plane has already been built” says Mr Kitt. “However,” he warns, “I would suggest to any importer, whether they are importing private or going through a dealer like myself that they would always insist that the aircraft is put together by a proper engineering company. We use Hunter Valley Aerospace. A lot of people are looking at saving costs, but we need to assure that the aircraft will be put together with the utmost care. They perform maintenance on all our aircraft too”.
“After assembly comes the fun part, compiling all the paperwork and certifications” laughs Mr Kitt. The paperwork is sorted and sent off to obtain a Certificate of Airworthiness (COFA) which can take as little as 48 hours through a dealer or around two weeks for a private buyer. “Once that process is complete, the buyer is issued with registration, certificates and receipts” says Mr Kitt. I can’t help but imagine the mountains of paperwork for the process pre-email.
A test pilot hops on into the cockpit to put the aircraft through a preliminary test flight, verifying the integrity and safety of the newly assembled aircraft. Mr Kitt then takes the aircraft for a spin himself, conducting a rigorous in-flight inspection of the aircraft and signing off on a checklist to assure that the aircraft is good to go. After the all-clear, the customer receives a checklist and is left alone to physically examine the aircraft before taking receipt of the aircraft.
“Then we go flying” says Mr Kitt, “[that’s when] we do all the systems checks and [the inspection of] features in the aircraft…if [a customer] hasn’t flown a Tecnam before then I would invite our instructor to take them through the training too”. Once the customer is happy, they accept the aircraft receipt and merrily fly off into the sunset. “It’s not a hard process at all, really” says Mr Kitt. “You’ve just got to have all your ducks in a row”.
On working with the Italian manufacturer, Mr Kitt chuckles again. “I know we usually associate Italian exports with expensive cars and suits, but whatever they manufacture…airplanes or cars, there’s certainly a high level attention to detail which comes with Italian products”.
So what is it that makes our Aussie industry so attractive foreign markets? “We are quite lucky we have LSA (Light Sports Aircraft) here in Australia” says Mr Kitt “there’s only a small percentage of the world that carries RAAus (Recreational Aviation Australia) or LSA”. As the governing body for ultralights in Australia, RAAus has made a significantly positive impact on the light sport market. “We have this light sports movement that makes flying much more affordable. Where other parts of the world don’t have LSA, [we are able to have] cheaper uncertified aircraft coming into the country but with the pedigree of Tecnam behind them”.
Dassault Aviation is another big-ticket exporter to our shores. Didier Raynard, Dassault Aviation Sales Director notes that although the relative weakness of the Australian dollar has turned many a buyer to the pre-owned market, Dassault’s sales in very long range aircraft remain steady. “Australia and the Pacific region are key in the development of our market share” explains Mr Raynard. “We are seeing regular deliveries of all types of Falcon aircraft into in this region”.
All Falcon aircraft, whether legacy or current models – are type certified in Australia, which makes the transition quite seamless. Lengthy flights across the continent or over water are met with the Falcon’s most recent incarnation, which, as Mr Raynard explains “allow[s] our operators to fly 14 hours, and yet still be able to operate from very challenging airports”.
Additionally, Mr Raynard adds that “all [Falcon aircraft] are approved during curfew at busy airports like Mascot”. Mascot Airport in Sydney maintains curfews that restrict commercial aircraft operating during curfew. According to Air Services Australia, some exceptions to the rule including “a limited number of low noise corporate jet aircraft that meet international noise standards.” Creeping into airports while others remain on the ground means that the Falcon range can squeeze through the unlocked cat-door without anyone noticing a thing.
But just because we’re taking plenty of aircraft in, doesn’t mean we aren’t dishing them out too. With our budding climate of aviation industry and technology, we can’t help but pique the interest of foreign manufacturers keen to add a new wave of aircraft to their arsenal. Jabiru, home grown and homemade, is the biggest Aussie aircraft and engine manufacturer .
Operating near the Bundaberg airport, Jabiru manufactures both its engines and its range of aircraft. As a family business, the company started up in 1988, producing LSA and kit aircraft as well as the Jabiru 2200 and 3300 engines. Since then, they’ve narrowed in on the training market both here and overseas.
Constructed largely of composite materials, the Jabiru is marketed as an economic alternative to more mainstream trainers. And although they may look cute, Jabiru aircraft they can take a bit of roughing up too. Sue Woods, General Manager at Jabiru, explains the idea behind the aircraft, “the Jabiru…was designed around crash worthiness…The training market is tough on aircraft and the Jabiru had to be tough to match”.
The approach works, the light, tough trainers have made their way into the hearts of many a pilot who’ve cut their teeth in the cockpit of the Jabiru. And this kind of romanticism pays off, as Ms Woods states simply “what a person learns to fly in, is usually what they purchase”.
Because of the rugged capabilities of the Jabiru design, the range of aircraft are marketed overseas in the same vein as in Australia. Sculpted alongside our vast Aussie environment, Jabiru aircraft have translated well for buyers overseas too. As the aviation industry gradually becomes more global, Ms Woods notes that “marketing overseas is very much the same as here in Australia”. It’s a logical equation really, if you build aircraft with capable of operating in Australian conditions, then they are going to cope elsewhere.
In Southern Africa, the four seat Jabiru J430 has become one of the most sought after kit aircraft of the Jabiru line. The J430’s low entry level costs, good visibility and capacity to operate in diverse environments have made the aircraft sought-after for touring and aerial surveying in both Australia and Southern Africa. According to Jabiru’s website, the Botswana Wildlife and National Parks have six Jabiru J430 aircraft operating for anti-poaching and wildlife conservation. The Jabiru aircraft had also been the aircraft of choice for the Rhino Project and GRU (Game Reserves Against Rhino Poaching). In fact, the popularity of Jabiru aircraft prompted the company to open a Jabiru assembly facility in George, South Africa.
Jabiru’s role in anti-poaching efforts in Africa has garnered support with ethically minded constituents too, earning praise from aviators and enthusiasts alike. As well as a substantial number of ‘likes’, Jabiru’s Facebook post on the successful detention of a poacher had constituents add comments such as “Fantastic. Keep up the good work on the anti-poaching… proud to be a part of the Jabiru family” and “whoooohoooo!”.
Weathering a brief rough patch, Jabiru’s 2200 and 3300 engines are designed to be manufactured in small batch quantities using Computer Numerically Controlled (CNC) machine tools. Although Jabiru does have the benefit of outside expertise in the manufacturing process of the engines, the vast majority of the components are manufactured in Southern Queensland in a network of small companies.
Manufacturing engines and aircraft here in Australia inevitably has its perks. As Ms Wood explains, the community and the council of Bundaberg have welcomed Jabiru, encouraging the aviation business that the company ushers in. Easy access to a readily available runway and quieter traffic conditions allows for in-house testing and demonstrations. Monitoring the manufacturing process carefully, Ms Woods prefers a hands-on approach, stating that there is much more “oversight and control of the design and product”.
The versatility of the aircraft is matched by its variety of constituents who range from fledgling pilots to well-versed aviators. Reflecting on current and past customers of Jabiru, Ms Woods explains that the consumer profile for Jabiru aircraft “has always been the self-funded retirees who love to fly recreationally [and] flight training schools”.
Nowadays, sales of Jabiru aircraft have exceeded well over the 2000 mark, with more than 6,000 Jabiru engines distributed to 35 countries at least. “We have many long-time customers who have enjoyed their Jabiru over many years and thank us for making aircraft ownership a reality rather than a dream for them” says Ms Woods.
In Australia, we buy them tough and we build them tough. Our landscape and economy rely on aircraft to shuttle us around, deliver important cargo, train the next generation of aviators and perform in challenging situations. While importation of aircraft from overseas manufacturers well established in our industry, we have some pretty good product ourselves. With the development of the global aviation industry, new areas of opportunity are forging new pathways in the Australian market, making room for more home-grown aviation endeavours in the future.