– Leithen Francis
"We had a stump out front with a phone sitting on it and that was our office,” recalls Chris Woods, co-founder and managing director of Milbrae Quarries, now one of Australia’s largest quarry and mining services companies.
Besides quarries and the mining services business, the company now also has a cement manufacturing operation that makes use of the hard, high-grade rocks from its quarries, as well as a prefabricated cement operation that makes concrete walls and structures for Australia’s building industry.
The family-owned business started in 1983 in the small NSW regional town of Leeton, where it is still headquartered. It began with one quarry and has since expanded to more than 50 sites across Australia, primarily in NSW and Queensland.
“We began with one little crusher and then end up like this,” Woods says with a laugh.
“It has been great fun. It is something that my brother Brett and I have stuck to and grew. We started the business with our father, who is now retired. It has been a challenge, but we have really enjoyed it.
“We were doing a lot of work up in Mt Isa in Queensland when the mining boom was happening. I was there for five to six years and my brother was here in Leeton–2000 km away–so there was a need for aircraft."
The company’s first aircraft was a four-seat seat piston-powered aircraft. Then they moved up to a six-seat aircraft that was also piston-powered.
He says after about 350 trips to Mt Isa in the six-seater “I had to do something. I couldn’t stand it any longer.
“I was flying home one day and then a Pratt & Whitney turbine-powered Pilatus PC-12 went whizzing straight past and above us and I said to the pilot, ‘let’s go and get one of them’. So we did buy a PC-12. After a few years.”
The company’s PC-12 VH-BEV, was bought new from Pilatus.
“When you have a business aircraft, it makes the whole of Australia a small place,” says Woods who attributed Milbrae Quarries’ ability to grow and expand to the fact the company has its own aircraft.
“You no longer look at doing jobs just 200 km from home. You look at doing a job anywhere in Australia. You can fly your crew in and out of [remote] places.
“We have also used the aircraft to transport spare parts for mining machinery. I remember being up in the gulf and we had some mining machinery break down around dinner time and then we flew parts up overnight and by 7 a.m. the next morning we were up and running again.
“Having your own business aircraft just puts you in a different league. It’s more professional. We tried flying guys in and out of mine sites using commercial flights, but it proved to be too time-consuming and impractical.
“From the mine site, the workers would have to drive several hours to get to the nearest commercial airport. You have to get to the commercial airport one hour before your flight, which was often an early morning flight.”
Woods says most mine sites in Australia have a small general aviation airstrip nearby, either built by the mining company or the local council.
“With a PC-12 we can just fly straight into the airstrip at the little township right by the mine site.”
Milbrae Quarries workers are at a quarry for two weeks at a time and then return home for one week of rest. When they finish work at the end of two weeks, the aircraft is waiting and ready to take them home.
The company’s quarries in NSW and QLD are in inland places such as Lake Cowal, Cobar and Nymagee. But workers’ homes are in towns by the coast: Sunshine Coast, Maitland, Port Macquarie, Ballina and Coffs Harbour.
The company’s aircraft is flying very regularly. Its average monthly utilisation is often more than 150 hr thanks to the fact some days it is flying up to ten sectors and eight hours in a day, according to Woods.
There are no direct commercial flights linking these tier-three coastal towns to the remote mining and quarry sites further inland. But with the business aircraft, Milbrae Quarries can fly workers direct between the mine site and their home town, unlike commercial flights that would have to transit through the capital cities of Sydney or Brisbane.
“The aircraft picks them up and flies them back home, pretty much to the back door of their home,” quips Woods.
“You also avoid the rigmarole of commercial airports. You just throw your bag into the back of the aircraft luggage hold, hop on board and away you go. It has changed the whole feel of the company.”
Woods says the reason they chose the Pilatus PC-12 was the reliability and performance of the aircraft’s single Pratt & Whitney PT-6 engine.
“I did a lot of reading and read how reliable the PT-6 engine is,” says Woods, adding that safety is his top priority.
He says the PT-6 engine allows the aircraft to access short, unpaved airstrips. Woods says he feels safer flying on a turbine-powered aircraft, and likes that PC-12 can fly above the weather.
He has considered getting a jet aircraft, but decided that the turbo-prop aircraft best suits the company’s needs.
If they were to buy a new aircraft, Wood admits they would probably wait to buy the next generation of PC-12.