Remote Airstrips – Lifeline for a Vast Land
Australia’s remote airstrips are a lifeline for small communities. Australia is a vast, sparsely populated country. With a landmass of more than 7.6 million square kilometres and a population of about 25 million, it’s hardly surprising that vast areas are sparsely populated. Indeed, according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, in 2018 70% of Australians lived in major cities (i.e., cities with populations exceeding 100,000); the remaining 30 percent resided outside those urban areas.
One consequence is that people living outside major cities are often reliant on isolated airstrips for their mail and supplies. This is not just individuals but entire townships which have grown up around these strips.
In addition to delivering vital goods such as food and pharmaceuticals, this network of airstrips also provides a much-needed lifeline for medical emergencies.
Flights are vital for not just maintaining contact with the outside world but also importing medical equipment which may be needed urgently. (The relative remoteness of some settlements means they can’t rely on supplies from a larger city.) These flights also provide an essential lifeline should anything go wrong. Health services can reach people much more quickly by air than by road. For example, the Royal Flying Doctor Service has bases at Broken Hill, Wilcannia and Menindee. All are within easy flying distance of Sydney or Melbourne.
One of the remote airstrips in Australia is at Broken Hill, New South Wales (NSW). Originally a tiny settlement almost exactly halfway between Melbourne and Brisbane. Broken Hill was established as a mining town over 100 years ago. Today, it is home to 17,000 people but despite its size has an airstrip which serves regional passenger flights.
The importance of this strip isn’t just for those in town, but also for far-flung communities that depend on it. These include Wilcannia, Menindee and Tilpa – all townships in what’s known as ‘the west’ of NSW. The population of these three areas combined is about 2,600 people; QantasLink and Virgin Australia service flights to Broken Hill and another nearby airstrip at Tibooburra.
Heroes of the Outback – The Royal Flying Doctor Services
Many towns rely heavily on their airstrips for use by the Royal Flying Doctor services. These include:
· Innamincka (South Australia) which is closest to Alice Springs and home to a population of about 50 people; the airstrip was built in 1939 but it has been regularly upgraded since.
· Ayers Rock/Uluru Airport (Northern Territory). This strip is located on the outskirts of one of Australia’s most famous natural attractions. It’s used by the Royal Flying Doctor Service and also private pilots. It’s also capable of accommodating larger aircraft such as those operated by QantasLink or Virgin Australia.
Other strips support small communities who see air service as vital to their survival. These communities are so remote that their local airstrips have become known simply by their location – for example, Borroloola in the Northern Territory and Marree in South Australia.
In these small communities, airstrips have become social focal points (in addition to the obvious role as an airfield). The land is often leased by families who live nearby and it becomes a place for not just private pilots but locals to congregate. In some cases, airstrips are also used for public events like fundraising barbecues.
A similar phenomenon can be seen at airports such as Alice Springs which has an international terminal and regularly handles scheduled flights from Sydney and Melbourne. However, it’s not just the larger regional centres that rely on their runways – even smaller towns with populations of less than 1,000 people may have flights landing every day of the week.
Small Communities rely heavily on their airstrips
Such is the importance of modern air travel in regional Australia that communities are often desperate for any sort of service. Even when flights have been cancelled because of poor weather, locals will still desperately hope for them to resume as soon as possible. In many cases, they’ll consider any form of scheduled air service – even if it’s provided by little-known airlines such as Brindabella Airlines which flies between Adelaide and Coober Pedy (South Australia) or QantasLink which has regular flights from Port Hedland to Perth in Western Australia.
In addition, there are some areas of the country where even larger aircraft won’t fly. While most airstrips in Australia can handle planes with lengths of up to about 20 metres, other strips must be able to accommodate much smaller jets (typically around 10 metres). This is because pilot visibility becomes a critical issue – if it’s impossible to see people and vehicles on the ground from high above, there’s a risk of crashing into them when landing.
And just as remote communities rely on flights servicing smaller regional centres, these areas need in turn to support their own airstrips. Because they’re so far from the nearest city, towns such as Port Hedland or Newman can’t rely on imports such as food or fuel; they have to produce everything.
The isolated nature of many of the airstrips in outback Australia can lead to problems for those who use them: pilots can sometimes find themselves operating under difficult conditions, especially when trying to land.
For example, Broken Hill is one of four Australian airports where the runway slopes downhill at its southern end – South Steyne on Kangaroo Island in South Australia is another example. These slopes are there because they help drain water from the runway and make it easier for planes to take off in wet conditions. However, when landing they can provide challenges – if a plane lands too fast or too slow it can start to skid downhill, especially on a rainy day.
A similar problem can occur at Alice Springs Airport where pilots must circle around before landing on the slightly sloping runway. On final approach, pilots may find their view of the strip obscured by turbulence – only after circling do they have an opportunity to land safely using visual cues on the ground.
Air Travel in Australia is the safest form of Transport
While these challenges show why some airstrips are safer than others, air travel in Australia remains one of the safest forms of transport. According to Airservices Australia, there were zero fatalities from commercial aircraft usage (including both charter and regular flights) between 1990 and 2005. Such safety is partly due to the nature of Australian flight paths where planes are often at a low altitude; circling for a safe landing can also allow pilots an opportunity to identify any potential problems with the strip itself – if they spot anything untoward like sand or livestock on the ground, they’ll need to divert their flight around this area.
Air travel has been crucial in helping remote communities survive over many years – indeed, without it life would be even more difficult for those living beyond major centres across outback Australia.
These are the reasons why outback airstrips are so important. Without them, many areas of the country simply wouldn’t be habitable for their residents. The isolation would make life impossible without access to flights from distant cities.
Many Remote Airstrips support Tourism
In addition, air travel has helped create jobs in remote areas throughout Australia; since airports have been established these spots have attracted further investment from tourists eager to experience their unique culture and attractions (such as Uluru) or just enjoy the tranquillity of the natural landscape surrounding such places.
Though there are still around 400 Australian airstrips with fewer than 200 passengers per year, they fulfill an essential role in providing services for local communities while attracting more tourists to these special parts of our nation.
It is not uncommon now in Australia for many large cattle stations and farms to have their own airstrips , with the plane used to carry out all manner of jobs such as picking up goods and dropping off workers.
Such airstrips are a vital link for a remote community, giving them access to services that would otherwise be impossible in such spots far from major cities. Unfortunately though, many of these valuable remote airstrips are being shut down as the costs to maintain them soar. Some town councils organise and build an airstrip to support their town, meeting some of the costs by way of landing fees from aircraft using the airstrip.
Landing on Remote Airstrips in Bad Weather
Because they’re so isolated, landing on a remote airstrip can sometimes create problems – pilots must always check the conditions before flying anywhere near it (and may have to circle around or land elsewhere if there’s bad weather), but is very important that people living in Australia’s most remote communities should have easy access to flights throughout the country.
An excellent example of this can be seen at Alice Springs Airport where Runway 17 is the last chance for pilots to land safely during bad weather. Pilots who have been unable to land on other runways must therefore succeed in landing here or divert their flights around the region.
Airlines operating small planes tend to use such airstrips as they are often more convenient than runways with staff on hand to guide incoming aircraft; but when travelling across outback Australia you should be aware of how important these strips really are – without them many people would have never settled in such remote locations where life was so difficult before the arrival of reliable flight services.
Australia’s Remote Airstrips – A Pilot’s Perspective
Flying our outback is one of the great joys and privileges that comes with an Australian pilot’s licence. As a pilot you will find that most airstrips out here aren’t overly burdened with the first class trappings of a city strip, like bitumen, a windsock or a centreline. Many pilots learn how to operate safely on bush strips as it opens the gates to so much of regional Australia that they’d otherwise miss out on.
There’s a lot to consider when planning to land on a remote Airstrip
- Is it actually suitable for your aircraft and your level of competence?
- Is it long enough?
- Are there any slopes to be aware of?
- What about the surface. Clay? Grass? Stony?
- How long since it’s been graded?
- What about the surrounding terrain?
- Is the farmer planning to open the gates and let his prize stock in to graze that day?
Once you arrive in the circuit area of an unfamiliar strip, the pilot will take the time to overfly it and, as well as checking out the surface, check for any wildlife waiting to meet you half way down the strip. Roos are particularly fickle and can be hard to see amongst any bushes either side of the strip. Without notice, they can bound out in front of the plane, often with family in tow. If you see you have company, the pilot must fly low and loud along the length of the strip to encourage them to scamper off.
The pilot must be very aware of the surrounds. If they’re coming into a bush strip on a windy day, they need to have a look for any nearby trees or possible cause of rotor wash that’s going to disturb the air flow which, in turn, will affect the approach and landing. He must also check the other end as well in case of a go-around and size up whether there are any high branches, posts or powerlines that need to be factored into the equation.
Australia wouldn’t be the country it is now without our network of remote Airstrips
As well as opening up regions of Australia that would otherwise be virtually impossible for people to inhabit, aviation has played an important role in attracting more tourists to these unique places and creating new jobs where previously little work could be found.
Such improvements have helped change the image of outback Australia from barren wasteland to somewhere with plenty of opportunities – so let’s celebrate the creation of these valuable strips across our expansive land.