Freeing up airspace

Liz Bell

AFTER years of negotiations, light aircraft pilots are hopeful that change is underway to resolve long-standing access issues at West Sale Airport.

Civilian aircraft pilots share the facility with the RAAF, which uses the aerodrome for training and has plans to ramp up its operations there this year.

The airspace around the airport is activated and controlled from RAAF Base, East Sale, Air Traffic Control, but that arrangement is leaving some civilian pilots feeling pushed out.

At certain times, military use of active restricted airspace imposes constraints on the use of the airspace, with recreational pilots the most affected because their licences lack the necessary endorsements.

West Sale Airport has recently undergone extensive improvements to cement its place as a key player in Victorian aviation, including a $6 million runway extension and lighting upgrade.

It’s all part of a bigger council plan to bring the West Sale Airport – 10 kilometres west of Sale – up to the high standard required by the RAAF Air Academy, to attract investment opportunities for aviation businesses and investors.

Alf Jessup, a recreational pilot who has used the airport for close to 16 years, said he didn’t want to “jinx” the situation, but believed talks between the RAAF, Wellington Shire Council (which owns the airport) and airspace regulators were happening behind the scenes.

“It makes sense to free up the airspace, especially with the council pushing for the development of the airport as a major aviation precinct to encourage business there,” he said.

“If it’s to be a major player in the aviation industry, that access is essential.”

The RAAF now activates the air space at West Sale Airport for military flying weekdays from 8am to as late as 10pm – an increase of up to five hours a day from two and a half years ago – and locks out recreational aircraft during those times.

All other non-military aircraft must seek RAAF clearance each time they want to land or take of.

Lorraine MacGillivray, who runs an aviation consultancy company at the airport, says airport access has created some untenable situations, where general aviation licensed pilots are sometimes forced to wait half an hour or more to gain clearance, sometimes when there doesn’t appear to be any military training taking place.

“With the exorbitant cost of aircraft fuel, that makes me pretty upset,” she said.

Ms MacGillivray said she was forced to close her pilot training school at the airport in 2016 because of the competition for airspace, which went against council’s policy of supporting the aviation industry in Sale, and against the Commonwealth policy “that all people in Australia are supposed to have equitable access to air space”.

Mr Jessup said pilots were frustrated that there were no open transit lanes that recreational pilots could use to fly in or out of West Sale Airport when the airspace was activated by the RAAF, despite other regional airports having open transit lanes. He said a simple solution would be to free up one of the three air routes into West Sale Airport for recreational pilots.

“We certainly don’t have a beef with anyone, and we are happy to have all this work done at the airport largely because of the RAAF – we just hope things can be fairer,” he said.

“From what I’ve heard lately, it sounds promising and we are really hopeful of a good outcome.”

As part of the development of the airport precinct, TAFE Gippsland plans to expand its aeroskills course and relocate the avionics training to West Sale, and will move its non-aeroskills training into the new TAFE building near the Port of Sale, to free up more airport land for development.

Ms MacGillivray said non-military aircraft and associated companies provided significant investment in Sale, and should be recognised for their contribution to the local economy by having better access to airspace.

“Why would other aviation businesses want to come here if they can’t get easy access in and out of the airspace?” she questioned.

Ms MacGillivray and her husband were the first to buy land in the West Sale Airport precinct in 2002, after the council released its plan to grow the area as an aviation precinct and attract industry growth.

A Defence spokesperson said it was working on a solution to suit all users.

He said it supported the use of West Sale Airport for civilian flying operations conducted in accordance with the Civil Aviation Safety Regulations.

In addition, it is working with Wellington Shire Council, in conjunction with the Air Force Aeronautical Information Service, to review current airspace arrangements.

Through this collaboration, Defence will attempt to identify potential solutions with “the view to enhance civil access to West Sale aerodrome”.

The spokesperson said pilots of aircraft operating under Recreational Aircraft Aviation Australia rules were not appropriately licensed or endorsed to operate in controlled airspace or military restricted airspace, thus were limited by civil regulations.

But, he said over the past few years Defence had worked to allow aircraft greater access through active military restricted airspace.

The Civil Aviation Safety Authority said access was out of its “remit” because West Sale was military airspace, but it was aware there were ongoing discussions with the RAAF.