Australian Air Safaris in 2009

By Adam Hunt



Flight 8's January meeting featured a presentation by Clare McEwan of Air Safaris International. This was actually the second time that McEwan has spoken to Flight 8, but since the previous time was in October 2005 it seemed to be a good time to invite him back again. Much has changed in the past three years!

It turned out to be a good day to think about a flying tour of Australia, since Ottawa spent the day enduring a substantial snow storm.

The weather, combined with it being day 50 of the seemingly endless transit strike did make for difficult traffic and unfortunately the turnout was below Flight 8's usual numbers. Still we had a small crowd for McEwan's slides of warmer climes.

McEwan started Air Safaris International in 2004. He partners with the Charisma Travel Group to provide his customers with all the usual protection that tour operators can offer in this age. He also has partnerships with several Australian aeroclubs, who provide the aircraft that the pilot-tourists whom McEwan brings to that country fly.

McEwan's role is to organize the tours, recruit the pilots and non-pilots who will make up each group, take care of the considerable amounts of paperwork involved and then act as tour director "in-country," while everyone is there.

McEwan's presentation featured stunning photos of Australia's topography throughout, from the vast scrub deserts that most of us think of as being typically Australian, to the lush coastal ranges and the islands of the north and east coast.

He started off with a look at the land and its rich flying heritage. Being a sparsely populated country of almost three million square miles, it is little surprise that aviation has played a big part in its history and continues to do so today.

McEwan mentioned in particular the famous Flying Doctor Service that was founded in 1928 by Reverend John Flynn that still serves the remote communities.

Away from the coastal mountains, the centre of the continent where most of the Air Safari tours venture is very flat. High daytime temperatures over 40C can send the density altitude over the 5,000 foot mark on many days and present challenges for pilots flying the usual Cessna 172s that the tour uses. McEwan prefers the newer 180 hp 172S as it provides just a bit more performance.

Other aircraft are also available, including 182s and low-wing designs on request. Pilots do a brief insurance-mandated check ride at the beginning of the tour.

Flying in Australia involves negotiating the Class C and D airspace that is found in the coastal areas of New South Wales, not to mention many poorly charted military restricted areas that require some attention to avoid.

Once in the interior of the continent, uncontrolled airspace and Common Traffic Advisory Frequencies (CTAF) instead of ATC are the rule! Away from the coast the radios are usually quiet, although the outback is home to a good deal of NORDO traffic, so a good lookout is recommended near the back-country airstrips. Fortunately most remote airstrips only get busy due to the arrival of the Air Safari participants.

The weather is usually good for flying in Australia, although occasionally fronts can bring thunderstorms and rain to skirt around. Some outback strips are only usable when dry and so if there has been rain phone calls for runway reports are required, all handled by the tour leader, of course.

The wet season runs from November to March and features heat and clear air in the mornings with great visibility and monsoons in the afternoons. The dry season, June to September, brings cooler, hazy weather and convective turbulence in the lower levels.

Most municipal and larger airports in Australia are similar to those found in Canada for layout and facilities, except that many feature high perimeter fences to keep Kangaroos off the runways.

Fuel can come from facilities ranging from sophisticated in-ground refuelling bowsers to barrels in the back of a hand-drawn cart pumped by a rotary hand-pump - all part of the adventure of outback flying.

The reality of operating from some of the remote station airstrips that the safari visits means pilots will pick up new skills, such as doing rolling run-ups to avoid dinged props. Navigation is primarily by GPS, backed up by map reading, as NDBs and VORs are far apart. Flying in the outback is relatively safe as out-landings can be conducted anywhere on the flat terrain. Reassuringly the country has an efficient SAR system so carrying water is the key to survival here.

The air safari experience usually consists of up to eight aircraft with two people per plane. The aircraft will depart on each leg together and generally arrive at the next destination at roughly the same time, having done their own independent navigation en route. There is no formation flying done.

McEwan plans the trips so that there is a mix of flying and non-flying days on each tour. As he explains, flying everyday would make for a gruelling trip and this is supposed to be a vacation!

The different tour routes that McEwan has planned and flown cover many different parts of the country, although there is never enough time to see it all. Participants will visit larger centres and well known places, like Uluru (Ayers Rock) as well as smaller locations off the beaten path, such as William Creek (population 6) which features a unique space junk museum.

Accommodation on the safari varies by location and runs the range from quite opulent hotels to more austere, but comfortable B&Bs. Most safari tours include numerous barbeques, picnics and pub nights. Tours typically run 14-21 days and can cover as much as 3,400 nm or more.

The tours are "all inclusive" at one price. This includes absolutely everything: aircraft rental, fuel, food, accommodation, insurance and gratuities. Many tours even include a river cruise right in the outback, as water levels permit. All participants are expected to do is show up and fly!

To fly on a tour you need a minimum of a Private Pilot Licence, a current medical and currency on a Cessna 172, 182 or similar aircraft. You can fly with a local pilot or fly solo if you prefer. For those flying as PIC, McEwan requires 250 hours total time and cross-country experience, plus a sense of adventure and a desire to explore. McEwan also recommends that pilots bring their own familiar portable GPS from home as the outback is not the best place to learn a new set.

Most past participants on McEwan's tours have found the real challenge is not the flying but the paperwork. The Australian Civil Aviation Safety Authority (CASA) requires foreign pilots to get an aviation reference number, a special pilot licence (based on your home country licence and good for day-VFR only) and an Aviation Security Identification Card (ASIC) which is good for two years.

This all means many forms to fill out and submit, well in advance, but fortunately McEwan has done it successfully many times and provides ample assistance to Air Safarists.

McEwan feels that flying on an Air Safari versus flying yourself solo in Australia offers some worthwhile benefits, including greater safety in numbers, the trips are easier and more efficient and, due to the other pilots on the tour, a richer experience.

McEwan admits that the fluctuations in the exchange rate between the Canadian and Australian dollar has been a challenge since most of his safari participants book and provide deposits long in advance of the actual trip. His policy has been to set prices for the year based on his best estimates and not to change prices based on currency changes as the year progresses.

The current economic situation has impacted the tours, as McEwan explained that some of his participants have placed deposits for 2009 and then asked to move them forward to 2010. McEwan has no problem with this, as he realises that there is a degree of uncertainty these days that wasn't present in past years.

With five seasons of running Australian flying tours under his belt McEwan reports with some justifiable pride that in the post-vacation assessments that he asks all participants to complete that the ratings have been consistently very high - participants uniformly enjoy the safaris and the flying down under.

More information: Clare McEwan Air Safaris International or Tel.: 416-407-6904.