Recently Port Macquarie Hastings Council released for public comment some plans for the future development of the airport. Residents are being invited to comment on proposed development plans, but most residents have little idea of what goes on at the airport, or how air traffic operates. This article attempts to illustrate some of the issues that many people may not understand. Story by Gregg Faulkner.
Port Macquarie airport has grown, fairly quickly, from a sleepy little regional airstrip with a handful of daily movements, to one of the busiest regional airports in the country. Last year’s arrival of Virgin Blue jet services, together with QantasLink’s introduction of the Q400 aircraft, were the most visible manifestation of this growth.
There has also been considerable growth in areas the travelling public usually doesn’t see. This is the rapidly growing flight training, aircraft maintenance and support, and recreational flying industries. With closures and increasing pressure on airports in the Sydney basin, Port Macquarie is in a great position to benefit from growth in aviation industries and jobs – if we are a bit smart about it.
Traffic congestion is a significant issue at PMQ. The airport has only a single sealed runway, with no full-length taxiway. This means that, if the wind is from the north, an aircraft has to taxi down the full length of the runway to the southern end before it can take off. This process takes several minutes, during which time the runway is unavailable for other aircraft.
It is not at all uncommon, during fine weather, to find four or five aircraft queued up on taxiways waiting for access to the runway. Often there will also be a couple of aircraft waiting airborne, as well. This represents a waste of time, fuel, increased pollution and potentially increased hazards.
The single runway at PMQ has recently been minimally extended and strengthened to accommodate the E-170 and Q-400 aircraft. It is still inadequate for A-320 and B-737 type aircraft (such as those regularly servicing Ballina and Coffs Harbour).
Accommodation of slightly larger, and higher capacity, aircraft is critical for continued growth of this region’s tourism and business movements. Without an urgent strategy to accept these aircraft, our regional growth is ham-strung. At present, the bigger aircraft can only lift enough load and fuel out of PMQ to reach Sydney. Direct flights to Melbourne, Brisbane, Canberra and more are highly desirable, for business and tourism reasons, but need a bigger runway.
From an airport user’s perspective, the most rational approach is to build a new primary runway – long, wide and strong enough to accommodate foreseeable demand, to recycle the existing runway as a full-length taxiway serving the new runway, and to maintain the existing grass cross-strip for use by light aircraft.
The existing grass runway at PMQ is a vital safety asset. The grass strip eases demand on the sealed strip, and provides the only safe ‘east-west’ landing place in this region for light aircraft in adverse cross-wind conditions. Talk of closing the grass strip is a stupid, short-sighted idea that demonstrates a lack of understanding of the issues and should be dismissed.
Aircraft using this airspace can be divided into several categories.
Regular Public Transport (RPT) are the passenger-carrying airliners, operated by Qantaslink, Virgin Blue, Brindabella and Rex (who service Taree but fly through PMQ airspace).
Military aircraft range from the huge C117 Globemaster transports using PMQ for navigation and ‘outlanding’ practice, to Hawk jet trainers practicing ‘touch and go’ landings, and many types transiting at low level along the coast past PMQ.
General Aviation (GA) is a large category encompassing air ambulances, helicopters of all kinds, single and twin-engine aircraft used for everything from pilot training (an important growth industry for PMQ) to light air freight and private pleasure flights. One of the most visible GA aircraft is the Cessna float plane operating from the Hastings River mouth.
Recreational Aviation is the fastest growing category in Australia. This category describes single engined, one or two seat light aircraft ranging from the ‘flying broomstick’ types commonly described as ultralights, up to very sophisticated, new design aircraft that are the sports cars of the sky. About 12 recreational aircraft are currently based at PMQ, and this number is growing.
The final category is a bit of a catch-all. I’ll use the term ‘microlights’ to gather powered hang-gliders (‘trikes’), powered parachutes, hot air balloons, gliders and meat bombs (my affectionate term for parachutists).
As you can see, there is a wide diversity of aircraft types sharing our airspace. Trikes generally wander around the sky at fairly low altitudes – up to 3,000 feet or so – at about 40 or 50 knots (80 to 100 km/h). Recreational aircraft cruise between 1,000 and 5,000 feet at 60 to 130 knots (120 to 260 km/h). General aviation types are a bit faster – from 90 to 250 knots. And so it goes on. Below 10,000 feet, all aircraft are generally restricted to a maximum speed of 250 knots so, for our area of concern around PMQ, we will regard 250 kts as the speed limit.
The number of aircraft in PMQ airspace at any time is determined mainly by weather. While the RPTs and military tend to fly in all conditions, many GA and recreational pilots only fly in good weather. On a fine calm day, there may be from 5 to 15 aircraft in the PMQ airspace at any time.
PMQ is defined as a CTAF® airspace. This means that carriage and use of aviation radio is compulsory for all aircraft in this airspace. Pilots talk to each other, using a special ‘aviation shorthand’ to describe who they are, where they are, and what are their intentions. There is a strictly observed set of radio calls that must be made at different points during every flight. By listening to calls on the area frequency, pilots build a three-dimensional mental picture of the other aircraft in their vicinity. This skill is an important part of pilot training, and is known as situational awareness (SA).
Aircraft around PMQ will usually be operating in one of four flight ‘patterns’.
In circuit – taking off, climbing in a left turn to 1,000 feet. Flying parallel to and about 1 mile away from the runway in the opposite direction, then descending in a left turn to land and, without stopping, repeat the training exercise. Each circuit takes about 5 minutes to complete.
Local training area – there are two designated areas, one between the river and Point Plomer, the other over Lighthouse beach and Lake Innes where trainee pilots practice their flying manoeuvres.
Local flights – general sightseeing flights, often up and down the coastal strip and over other points of interest. This would include seaplane scenic flights.
Arrivals and departures – this category also includes aircraft transiting through PMQ airspace without landing.
Local pilots become very familiar with these patterns, and understand the references to local ‘way points; – such as Dennis Bridge, or Innes Ruins.
In the PMQ area, aircraft are not controlled by air-traffic controllers, and radar coverage is, in any case, severely restricted. Pilots rely on their radio communications, their Situational Awareness ‘mental picture’ and, ultimately, on the oldest navigation tool of all – the Mark 1 eyeball.
An RPT aircraft, let’s use for example a Virgin E-Jet arriving from Sydney, will be directed by the Brisbane-based air traffic controller during its cruise at high altitude from Sydney. At about 50 miles from PMQ, the jet will be descending under radar control and gradually slowing from around 500 knots. By about 30 miles south of PMQ, the jet will be down to about 12,000 feet and about 300 knots. Usually, at around this point, the jet crew will make a radio call on the PMQ frequency, announcing their position and their estimated time of arrival at PMQ (about 6 minutes ahead). This is the first notice for pilots in the PMQ space that a jet is approaching.
By about 20 miles south of PMQ, the jet will be leaving air traffic-controlled airspace, and from here on navigation will be totally the responsibility of the jet crew. At 15 miles the jet will make a compulsory radio call alerting PMQ traffic of its position and intentions – preferably to make a ‘straight in’ landing approach to runway 03. Other aircraft in the area will respond to the jet’s announcement and advise the jet crew (and each other) of their intentions.
To be permitted to fly an aircraft requires much more training and discipline than driving a car. Pilots know the capabilities and requirements of different aircraft types. A light GA aircraft, like a small Cessna, can change direction on a sixpence. An E-jet cannot change direction or speed quickly (and if it did, the people in the back wouldn’t like it), so other pilots try their best to clear the path for the jet traffic.
Occasionally there is an issue when, for whatever reason, a GA or recreational pilot doesn’t hear the jet traffic radio message. Then the secondary safety system comes into play. Almost all GA and recreational aircraft carry a device called a transponder. This is a type of radio that ‘chirps’ the aircraft identification code and altitude every few seconds. The transponder can be detected by an RPT aircraft’s collision alert system and notifies the crew of the presence and general location of the light aircraft.
Now the jet crew will specifically call the conflicting light aircraft, and request clarification of his intentions. Usually this will result in a quick apology and clearing of the way for the jet. Once in a blue moon, the GA aircraft will maintain radio silence – maybe he has an undetected radio failure. Now the jet crew will revert to the final process, visual separation. They will search visually for the conflicting aircraft and will only proceed when they have identified the aircraft and determined that the potential conflict has been resolved.
This sounds fine, but remember that the jet is travelling at around 200 knots all this time. Things happen very quickly, and smaller aircraft can be amazingly difficult to see in flight.
So, is PMQ a dangerous airport? No, I don’t believe it is. There is a combination of traffic that requires the full attention of pilots. But that is what pilots train for. So long as all pilots behave professionally, and stay up to date with procedures, dangers are minimised. Of course, with any form of transport there are some dangers, but the aviation industry goes to great trouble to absolutely minimise dangers – especially for the travelling public.
To explore possible enhancement of the safety systems around regional airports, Airservices Australia (the quasi-government organisation that manages air traffic) recently conducted a six-month trial of a support system called Unicom. At several airports, and PMQ was one, specially trained Unicom operators were employed to monitor and log every radio transmission from aircraft in the local air space. In this way, the Unicom operator (who was also a qualified pilot) could concentrate on building an accurate mental picture of the local air traffic as it evolved.
The particular role of the Unicom operator was to watch for possible traffic conflicts and, when a possible conflict was detected, to ensure that the pilots involved were communicating with each other. If they were not communicating, the Unicom operator would intervene to draw the possible conflict to the attention of the pilots. Unicom operators are not air traffic controllers, and have no directive authority, but are intended as a backup safety process.
The Unicom trial was finalised, analysed, and appropriate reports circulated (as these things are done in the federal bureaucracy). Nothing has been heard for some time. I was one of the Unicom operators for the trial period and, while I don’t think Unicom is the be-all and end-all, I do believe it provides an extra layer of protection for very modest cost. I would like to see the service introduced long term.
> Story by Gregg Faulkner.
Gregg has been flying for more than 40 years, and owns and pilots a recreational aircraft based at PMQ. Gregg took part in the recent Airservices trial at PMQ as a Unicom operator.
For aviation purposes, Port Macquarie (PMQ) can be defined as the airspace in a cylinder 15 nautical miles radius around the airport, and extending up to an altitude of 10,000 feet. This is roughly from North Brother around to Kew, almost to Long Flat and Pappinbarra, and up to Kundabung and Crescent Head.