• Late downwind for RWY14 at Hamilton Island. (Darren Friend)
    Late downwind for RWY14 at Hamilton Island. (Darren Friend)

In this first instalment of a special two-part Destinations series, Darren Friend tells you all you need to know to plan your own Queensland coastal air safari.

Everyone has heard the Queensland slogan, “Beautiful one day, perfect the next”. I mean, who hasn’t? When you’re part of a special group of Australians, and I’m talking about us pilots here, you have both a unique opportunity and ability to see this marvellous state from the air. Beautiful one day, perfect the next? Bloody oath, and even more so from the cockpit of a light aircraft.

Just how big and marvellous is this state of Queensland? Now that depends on who you talk to and where your information is coming from. According to Google, Queensland is the second largest state of Australia, covering almost 1.8 million km2 with a population of around four and a half million. These figures make up more than a quarter of all the Australian land mass and 20 per cent of its people – big numbers in anyone’s language.

Combine this with the fact that almost two thirds of Queensland’s population is located in its southeast corner, plus its 3800nm coastline, and you can clearly see that this combination makes for a very diverse state. You can have large cities and modern living luxuries in the south, to more sparsely populated centres and remote living in the north.
Add to this the fact that Queensland is more than seven times larger than the entire United Kingdom and you can see it’s probably a good idea to concentrate on just one area of Queensland at a time, lest this feature ends up running to encyclopedic lengths.

So in this the first of a two-part series I’ll zoom in a little and concentrate on Queensland’s southeast corner, working our way from Coolangatta just north of the NSW border, around Brisbane and up to the Sunshine Coast.

But before we hit the skies let’s look at general flight planning considerations for a successful Queensland coastal air safari. Over the course of these two features I’ll choose airports that have sealed runways that are long enough to suit the skill level of a regular GA PPL pilot, separated by an average day of flying in an aircraft cruising at about 120kts in VMC conditions. These criteria will cover the majority of GA pilots.

Too hot to handle
So let’s look at some general flight planning considerations for flying along the Queensland coastline. Timing is important. As the coast stretches all the way from the top of the Tasman Sea, along the Coral Sea, and into the Gulf of Carpentaria, there will certainly be varying weather considerations.

You should ideally plan your trip so that it avoids the notorious wet season, from around late October to late April. During this time there will be higher temperatures and humidity, making it uncomfortable for many southern state pilots and tourists who are used to air-conditioned comfort. Ahhhh air conditioning – if only more GA aeroplanes came equipped with this modern wonder of technology I’d be a happy pilot!

The heat and humidity tend to produce some fantastic storm activity on most days; great to watch if you’re on the ground, but not so entertaining to fly through. So this time of the year is probably best avoided for the average GA VFR pilot. However if time away isn’t a constraint and you’d like an adventure, knock yourself out, as the wet season can produce some spectacular weather not often seen in the ‘dry’, with amazing lightning storms and rivers and waterfalls running wild. Just make sure you’re on the ground when most of this happens!

And it goes without saying that the further north you venture up the Queensland coast in the wet season the more likely you are to run into the dreaded cyclones that are common place at this time of year in the tropics.

You want me to report where?
Along the Queensland coastline there are no less than eight areas of CTA (Controlled Airspace), and they are evenly divided between Class C and D. Many of them also have associated PRD areas nearby, with the R, or Restricted areas, being of the most concern.

Heading north, there’s Coolangatta (Class C), Brisbane (C), Sunshine Coast (D), Rockhampton (D), Mackay (D), Hamilton Island (D), Townsville (C) and Cairns (C). Many pilots who predominantly fly in rural areas, or can avoid CTA areas in their normal flying environment, might have some concerns with transiting these spaces.

But have no fear, as in all my experiences the guys and gals controlling these areas and towers have always been very helpful and accommodating in assisting the nervous or uncertain VFR pilot through their airspace and around any active restricted zones.

And don’t forget this very useful phrase when entering new airspace for the first time: “unfamiliar with area”. This can potentially prevent many embarrassing moments, such as when CTA assumes you’re familiar with local procedures and landmarks, and proceeds to tell you to report at road intersection X, or at shopping centre Y!

Many a pilot has agreed to these instructions, only to then madly comb through their VTC or VNC maps engaging the services of any other pilot or passenger in the aeroplane to scour the map for said reporting point. Avoid the embarrassment and high cockpit workload and let them know early that you in fact have no idea where “The Big Pineapple”, or “Yorkeys Knob”, or “Southern Tip Berserkers” actually is.

What’s that in your pocket?
To facilitate your movement through CTA airspace and avoid those Restricted areas it is highly recommended to put a flight plan into Airservices well in advance and carry up to date weather forecasts. Most pilots are familiar with doing this when they’re at their home base, as many pilot rooms or flight schools will have a PC connected to the internet with NAIPS loaded onto it. The trouble starts when you’re away from home.

Many a time I’ve used the services of flight schools, charter companies or regional airlines to help me either lodge a flight plan or update my weather data for the next leg of the flight. If using this option, always be courteous, and remember that they’re providing their services at typically no cost to you. Having said this, I’ve always found everyone in the aviation industry more than willing to help a lone pilot gain the information they need to make the flight as safe as possible.

In addition, a thank you note or email to the operator at a later stage to let them know how much their assistance helped you will go a long way. Even a small supply of chocolate to the people helping you out will probably gain you access to the required services. In recent years an even more useful tool has become available in the form of the ubiquitous iPhone. I was a die-hard Nokia man, but after sampling an iPhone4, with all its wonderful pilot apps (plus quite a few non-pilot apps to pass away the time between flights), I’m now a convert.

For a minimal outlay you can have NAIPS, weather forecasts, actual real-time rain radar plots, and moving map GPS screens all in your pocket. Combine this with a Telstra account – which I’ve found to have the best coverage for pilots across the country – and you’ll find there’ll be very few locations where you won’t have access to coverage along the entire Queensland coast.

Which way is up?
When considering which way to fly the coastline, I prefer flying northbound. A large percentage of pilots who are planning on making a trip to fly the Queensland coast would come from the southern states or even at a stretch from the western states, and would still most likely come via the Great Australian Bight and through Victoria and NSW on their way to Queensland.

The benefits of flying the coast in a northerly direction are twofold. Firstly, as the most likely financer of the flight you want to be in the best position to see all the wonders, and as you sit on the left side, that’s where you want the coast too. No point paying for a trip and having to peer over the other side of the aeroplane to catch a glimpse of the beautiful scenery.

Secondly, it helps with navigation. When flying inland a VFR pilot will typically employ a navigating tool of flying slightly to the right of track. This assists the pilot in being able to see on their left the landmarks along the actual route they intended to fly a lot easier than directly over the bonnet and nose cone of the aeroplane. Again, this works perfectly when flying a coastline and keeping it on your left. In this case fly north.

Water on the right
Navigating along the coastline doesn’t intuitively seem like a difficult thing to do. After deciding to fly north, surely all you need to do is keep the land on your left and the water on your right, right? If anything goes wrong, just keep going and eventually you’ll end up where you started from. It may take a fortnight to get back to that point, but it will happen .... eventually!

The main two concerns in flying coastal are the weather and CTA airspace, both of which have been discussed already. Assuming you have good weather forecast ahead, and you’ve briefed yourself on the approaching airspaces, now all you need are positive fixes to ensure you are where you think you are.

It’s fairly simple VFR navigation to keep track of towns, river inlets, mountain tops, islands etc as you fly along. However if you do that long enough eventually you may get slightly confused as to exactly which town that is on the left? Is it just another average town or is it the town on the map where I should be calling the tower and asking for airways clearance through the upcoming airspace?

Again, this is where modern technology can be used as a useful navigation aid. Most GA aeroplanes these days will come equipped with some form of GPS unit. It could be an old single colour screen with limited or no mapping function or one of those new fang-dangled Garmin G1000 units that will tell you exactly where you are and probably what you ate for breakfast!

Any of these units will do, and even most handheld GPS units too, as you’ll only be using them as a navigational aid to your already developed VFR navigating skills. Once you’ve worked out where you are on the map, cross check that location on the GPS with a distance to your next waypoint, typically an aerodrome.

As long as you’re following the coast and you have a de facto DME by using your GPS, you have a positive fix. This way you can decide whether you wait for the next town, or if you start with that radio call.

Okay, taking all of these considerations on board, it's time to hit the Queensland skies.

Cooly and surrounds
Think of the Gold Coast and so many things come to mind! Surfers Paradise, Schoolies, Meter Maids, sun, surf, sand, Broadbeach, Cavill Avenue Mall, Sea World, Movie World, Dreamworld, and tacky tourist souvenirs. All of these wonders can be yours if you arrive at the right time of year.

Most Australians know what to expect from this area of Queensland, and there’s bound to be something to suit everyone. For we pilots the gateway to all these wonders lies with Gold Coast Airport. It’s located at the very southern point of Queensland and literally a stone’s throw from the beach.

Gold Coast has two runways: 14/32 at 2342m for the big boys, and 17/35 at 582m for us smaller players. Being roughly parallel with the shoreline, when an onshore breeze blows it’s possible to exceed either the aircraft’s or your own personal crosswind limit. Therefore, listen to the ATIS early and determine whether an alternate is required.

If you’re approaching from the south a suitable alternate may be Ballina. Just 40nm south, back inside NSW near Byron Bay, it may be your best option with its 1900m long 06/24 runway.

For pilots not current with short field landings, the prospect of landing on a 582m runway may not sound enticing. Not to worry, as you stand a good chance you’ll either be offered or can request the main runway. The last time into the Gold Coast Airport with a student we were offered the main runway (32). The clearance was subject to a caution for wake turbulence, as we were following a heavy, a Jetstar A320.

For many, this may be a rare chance to land at a major airport following jet traffic. My student was suddenly faced with trying to remember all that wake turbulence theory from the Bob Tait books, such as keeping at or above the preceding aircraft’s flightpath, and landing beyond their touchdown point. It was a great example of putting theory into practice.

Once landed, there is one runway incursion hot spot right near the taxiways that lead to the GA parking areas, so be on the lookout.

On departing the Gold Coast to the north, you’ll almost always be lucky enough to get a coastal clearance past all the high rise buildings at Surfers Paradise. It’s certainly an amazing sight cruising along at 500’ AGL and looking up at the Q1 at 1058ft, Australia’s tallest building and the world’s tallest residential building. Very cool indeed!

Once past Surfers Paradise you’re faced with a choice of either requesting clearance to transit through Brisbane CTA or taking the cruisey route via the VFR lane. This route takes you east along North Stradbroke Island, one of the world’s most ecologically important wetlands, and Moreton Island, one of the largest sand islands in the world. This route is beautifully scenic and cleverly routes you around the Brisbane Class C airspace whilst maintaining you inside Class G at all times.

The Sunny coast
Now, if the Gold Coast doesn’t take your fancy, there are always other choices in the local surrounding area. Just past Brisbane to the north are two options: Caloundra and the Sunshine Coast. Caloundra offers a more relaxed lifestyle feel compared to the Gold Coast, but still boasts sun, surf, and sand.

Caloundra Airport also has nice sealed cross runways, offering choices in times of crosswinds. There are also some extensive noise abatement procedures in place here to avoid undue residential complaints, so always check your ERSA at the pre-flight planning stage to ensure compliance.

No landing or parking fees help tip the scales in favour of Caloundra Airport when looking for a quiet coastal experience. In recent times Caloundra Airport also won a battle against the Council in its attempt to move it. Like many other airports around the country being squeezed out by councils and developers, it’s a nice change to see an airport score a victory, so drop in and support them if you get the chance.

Sunshine Coast Airport may be more familiar to many of us as Maroochydore Airport, but in June 2010 it went through a name change to better reflect the area it serves. Sunshine Coast Airport also offers sealed cross runways and a more relaxed atmosphere for GA aircraft to operate in compared to Gold Coast. The Sunshine Coast is a cross between the upbeat Gold Coast lifestyle and the more relaxed approach of Caloundra.

In Part 2 of this feature, Darren’s Queensland sampler safari continues from the Whitsundays, heading up to Cairns, Horn Island and the Cape York Peninsula, the most northerly point of mainland Australia.

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