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The Evolution of Bankstown Airport

The Evolution of Bankstown Airport

Bankstown Airport is one of the most significant airfields in Australia. From being known as “Yankstown” during World War 2 to its new name of Sydney Metro Airport Bankstown, Sydney’s second airfield has led a colourful life and experienced more changes than it probably cares to remember. Aviator takes a stroll down memory lane and catches up on the latest the airfield has to offer.

It’s hard to believe that between 1942 and 1944, Bankstown Airport in southwestern Sydney was popularly known as “Yankstown” due to the presence at the airfield of several squadrons belonging to the US Army Air Force. Indeed, following the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor in 1941 and the Americans’ subsequent entry into the second world war, the U.S. military established several bases throughout Australia. One of those was at Bankstown, the then home to 22 units and squadrons belonging to the Royal Australian Air Force.

Other “interesting” tenants at the base during wartime included the Women’s Australian Auxiliary Air Force (WAAAF), which caused a bit of a stir when it was discovered that the ladies were sharing quarters with the RAAF and had their meals in the male mess. The WAAAF officers and trainees departed Bankstown in early 1942, shortly before the arrival of the Americans.

The outbreak of the war in 1939 brought forward proposals for a second Sydney aerodrome and of all the options available, Bankstown won favour due to its proximity to the Clyde Engineering Works at Granville. Clyde’s had been earmarked to manufacture parts and engines for the Avro Anson and it was also anticipated that the company would manufacture 800 of the planes at its new premises. Unfortunately, those plans fell by the wayside, but as a consolation, Clyde’s kept busy by taking on the assembly, repair and refurbishment of other aircraft instead.

Another company that opened its doors to assist the war effort was de Havilland (later Hawker de Havilland), which produced the all-wooden Mosquito bomber and other parts from 1942. By V-J Day on 15 August 1945, the RAAF had received a total of 103 Mosquitos from the de Havilland factory.

In January 1945 a Mobile Naval Air Base (MONAB) was commissioned at Bankstown for the (British) Royal Navy’s Fleet Air Arm. The airport became officially known as HMS Bankstown or HMS Nabberley. But Bankstown’s newfound Naval heritage was short-lived as the conclusion of the war saw the gradual departure of the military from the airfield, which eventually came under the control of the Department of Civil Aviation (DCA).

In 1946, a request was made for Bankstown to be used for private flying and aircraft manufacture in order to relieve some of the pressure caused by increased air traffic at Mascot. The request was granted and aircraft manufacture, assembly and maintenance continued during the post war years.

The Clyde Engineering Company, now known as Clyde Industries Ltd, combined with Britain’s Fairey Aviation and together they assembled the Fairey Gannet, an anti-submarine aircraft. Then in 1948, de Havilland commenced production of the Vampire Mark 30 fighter jet, the first being delivered in 1949. The Vampire went on to prove its worth during the Korean war.

Following World War 2, the Department of Immigration until the mid-1950s used accommodation at Bankstown Airport to house European migrants; adding yet another peculiarity to its list of “interesting” tenants.

By 1970, Bankstown Airport had emerged as the largest GA airport in the southern hemisphere, with more than 250,000 aircraft movements annually. The airport expanded its operations despite opposition from local residents and the state government; while the DCA controlled the airport from 1980. Eight years later, it was operated and controlled by the Federal Airports Corporation (FAC), and in 1998 privatisation kicked in and the airport was taken over by Bankstown Airports Limited (BAL).

IN THE late 1980s an insight into the awareness of Australia’s rich aviation heritage was driven home when Howard Knox, then manager of Bankstown Airport, was showing a school group around the precinct, and referred to Sir Charles Kingsford-Smith. None of the school kids knew who “Smithy” was!

So, when “Smithy’s” original flying school hangar at Mascot Airport was about to be demolished, a plan was hatched to relocate the building to Bankstown Airport. The significance of this landmark in Australian aviation history inspired many to action, and it wasn’t long before the dream crystallised into the concept of a Bankstown-based world class museum.

The first step towards realising the dream was the acquisition in 1994 of “Smithy’s” hangar from Sydney Airport. The next step was setting aside land at Bankstown to establish the museum.  On 15 February 1994 Prime Minister Paul Keating turned the first sod; then three eminent Australian aviators agreed to be Founding Patrons – Dick Smith (then Vice-chairman of CASA); pioneer aviatrix Nancy-Bird Walton, who was taught to fly by Kingsford-Smith; and Australia’s first space shuttle astronaut, Dr Paul Scully-Power.

It was soon apparent that a larger vision and building would be required to preserve Australia’s aviation history. Architecture students at the University of New South Wales drew up designs for the museum buildings and while the winning design was breathtaking, fundraising fell short of building costs.

By a stroke of good fortune, the framework of a large and historic World War 2 Bellman hangar was donated, and erection commenced in 1997.  But it wasn’t until 2000 that the buildings were complete and Bankstown’s Australian Aviation Museum was opened to the public.

For many years the museum had access to the airport runways. Guest aircraft flew in for events, linking the museum into the everyday activities of Bankstown Airport.  This also allowed it to share its facilities and displays with the Australian Warbirds Association and the Historic Aircraft Restoration Society (HARS). Unfortunately, this link has been forever lost to airport development.

The Australian Aviation Museum Bankstown now counts more than 25 aircraft in its collection, and an extensive assembly of aviation artefacts.  Prominent in the collection are a pair of Dakota transports from World War 2; a Russian Mig 15 and Douglas B-26 invader (US) from the Korean conflict; and RAAF Mirage and Vampire fighters, and many more.

Today, “Yankstown” is officially known as Sydney Metro Airport Bankstown (SMA) and is an exceptional business location with a thriving business park boasting over 160 tenants. A major centre of economic activity generating employment for 3,000 people, the airport makes a significant contribution to the local economy.

When SMA CEO Colin Grove replaced the outgoing Kim Ellis in 2010, he walked into an environment that was still dealing with the impact of the GFC. Many training schools had collapsed due to a reduction in overseas students, rising costs, and a low Australian dollar that had increased the cost of importing aircraft and related components. This environment impacted greatly on the financial viability of the industry.

But according to Grove, the financial success of the non-aviation related income sources at Bankstown withstood much of the impact of the GFC without jeopardising the safety and maintenance of the airport.

Grove’s first major initiative was to meet with members of the aviation industry to listen and to try to address any concerns they had. Concerns such as operating their businesses in what was now a harsh and changing economic climate; to address any issues they had with the management of both Bankstown and Camden airports, and to finalise by negotiation in most cases, a number of ongoing legal actions.

“I would like to think that these concessions enabled me in the first six months to establish a degree of trust with the aviation industry and the local community which I found extremely satisfying, although like most airports we still have vocal critics within the industry and the local community and unfortunately always will,” Grove says.

Just prior to Grove’s commencement at SMA, Boeing, which was Bankstown Airport’s largest tenant, gave notice that it would be vacating the 59,000 square metres of accommodation it occupied at the end of December 2013. A tenant of this size by any measure is incredibly difficult to replace, however by strategic marketing, refurbishment and a total repositioning of the site as a business industrial estate, Bankstown has now leased 95 per cent of the former Boeing tenancy, bringing the total vacancy rate for the whole of Bankstown Airport to less than one per cent.

“We are close to finalising sublease negotiations with Toll for the construction of a purpose built aeromedical facility for their new 10 year contract with the NSW Government for aeromedical retrieval services,” Grove says. “BAL will spend $19 million building the facility based upon a 10 year lease. We are also the proponent for a Major Development Plan (MDP) under which Leda will develop a 40 Hectare site in the south west precinct of Bankstown Airport to be known as the Bankstown Business Estate. When fully completed the estate will comprise commercial, warehouse, large format (bulky goods) retail and entertainment uses. This project has a capital investment in excess of $160 million and will transform the area into a vibrant employment generating precinct. A further $50 million will be invested in road and utility infrastructure upgrades in and around the precinct as well as on the adjacent off airport road network.”

According to Grove, the biggest challenge he faces is what he describes as the decline in GA. “We are very aware that many of the traditional business models that drive the industry are no longer viable and some businesses are definitely struggling.  If the industry is to remain financially viable then Governments will need to seriously address the concerns raised by the various industry peak bodies such as AOPA and the RAAA and there will need to be a complete mindset change in how regulations are imposed and a transparent assessment of the impact they have on the aviation industry. To counter this decline we have encouraged the growth of freight activities and corporate aviation and have key tenants in Toll and Aeromil as well as many Government agencies such as the Police Airwing, NSW Ambulance, and firefighting and rescue helicopters.  These tenants along with our aviation tenants and of course retail tenants such as Bunnings have enabled us to trade satisfactorily.”

Grove also hopes that Bankstown will eventually be able to accommodate RPT services. “The Airport has the facilities for this and as well the centre runway at Bankstown Airport is code 3C capable. With Sydney Airport’s peak demand periods apparently at near capacity it makes good sense for Bankstown Airport to cater for some of this demand.” Indeed, the airport is located in the growing south western region of Sydney with a catchment of over two million people within the surrounding areas and houses not only a large residential population but is also the location of some of NSW’s major industrial companies and a mere 10 km from the Parramatta City Centre.

“I also welcome the decision by the Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Infrastructure and Regional Development the Hon Warren Truss MP to approve the 2014 Bankstown Airport Master Plan and Airport Environment Strategy following the rejection of the 2010 draft Bankstown Airport Master Plan. The 2014 Master Plan forms Bankstown Airport’s operational and development plans for the next 20 years.”

Despite the confidence Grove has in his operation, not everyone is happy with the way the airport is heading.

Rick Pegus, MD at jet charter operator Skypac, believes that Bankstown Airport should be treated like Sydney’s Central train station and focus on helping aviation businesses grow as opposed to non-aviation considerations. “Whilst Central has some shops, they’re not going to knock down the platforms to put in a Myers or a Woolies because they need the platforms for the trains,” he explains. “Bankstown Airport should be considered in equal standing with a train station because it’s an important transport hub and as far as I’m concerned, it’s not considered like that at the moment.

“What we really need is someone in government with the vision to encourage Sydney Airport-based aviation businesses such as the air ambulance service and smaller regional airlines to come and set up out here. But to do that you also need a decent link between Bankstown and Sydney airports which I think can be done. We’re not far away from the M5 motorway and the East Hills Train Station, so we could set up a shuttle; we just need a bit of vision.”

Bankstown Airport or Sydney Metro Airport Bankstown as it is now officially known, is home to many excellent businesses. And while some people say that the halcyon days are gone forever, there are many organisations out there doing great things, including Schofields Flying Club, Basair, Hawker Pacific, Heliflite, Airbus Helicopters and Heli Scenic, amongst others.

Hawker Pacific’s base at Bankstown is impressive. Modern and plush, the building that sits on Airport Ave is the local nerve centre of a name that has been trusted in aviation since 1978. Hawker Pacific is a leading integrated aviation solutions provider with more than 30 years’ experience serving corporate, government and private customers across the Asia Pacific and Middle East.

The company’s enviable list of customers include heads of state, defence forces, emergency services, specialist agencies, airlines, air charter operators, major corporations and private individuals.

Hawker Pacific’s team of aviation professionals deliver a diverse range of integrated aviation solutions. These include aircraft sales, aircraft support and management and aircraft supplies across Australia, Auckland, Hong Kong, the Middle East, plus many more locations throughout Asia and the Pacific.

Another major player in the Bankstown stable is Airbus Group Australia Pacific, a company that considers itself to be the market leader for turbine helicopters in Australia, New Zealand and the South Pacific.

“There are currently more than 500 Airbus Helicopters aircraft flying in Australia, New Zealand and the South Pacific region,” says a company spokesperson. “For our growing number of customers we have several civil helicopter maintenance facilities in Australia and New Zealand. Our Bankstown facility is our centre of excellence for Asia, including Japan, and from this facility we offer dynamic component overhaul and blade repair. New helicopter sales, logistics and technical support and online maintenance are also controlled from Bankstown,” making the site a vital cog in Airbus Group’s business model.

In 2013, Heliflite was officially appointed the exclusive Oceania distributor for Marenco Swisshelicopter and will play an integral role in introducing and supporting the product in the region. Based at Bankstown Airport since early 2000 and a long-time representative for Robinson and AgustaWestland, Heliflite earns its keep through helicopter sales, service, spare parts and technical support.

Originally based in Sydney’s northwestern suburbs, Heliflite relocated to Bankstown to capitalise on its proximity to the heart of New South Wales’ GA and to be more connected with local pilot training schools.

“When we moved to Bankstown business was generally consistent with helicopter sales and service and spare parts growth,” says Heliflite’s Scott Edmonds. “Robinson helicopter-related sales played a major part in this growth over the period.” But then the GFC hit, causing more than a few ripples. “Post GFC, business has been challenging,” Edmonds says. “Exchange rate volatility, the mining industry slowing, long term drought in parts of Australia and a general slowdown in GA activity, has all made a contribution. But (thankfully) in the past six months we have experienced a gradual improve in business activity on the helicopter sales front despite a lower dollar, while service and spare parts have been consistently steady.”

When asked to name the company’s highlights and what the future holds for Heliflite, Edmonds replies: “Our company stability with long term loyal staff is a highlight – it’s essential to developing and maintaining strong relationships with our customers; and unmatched technical experience in our particular field. The future still looks bright with new products on the horizon.”

Bankstown Airport (I just can’t bring myself to say Sydney Metro Airport Bankstown) has a rich aviation history: from its origins as a military base during World War 2, to its current standing as a facility on the cusp of a bright future. But who knows what the future really holds for one of the grand old ladies of Australian aviation? I guess that depends on whom you talk to.

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