Voice recorders and a desk from which Flight Service officers at the Alice Springs airport assisted pilots flying in the vast and sparsely populated Central Australian outback. The facility, once employing two dozen highly skilled people, was shut down in 1992. The equipment shown is now in the aviation museum which is part of the Araluen complex.
By ERWIN CHLANDA
“There has definitely been no diminishing of services out of the Alice Springs tower.”
So said Airservices Australia manager of corporate communications Rob Walker, responding to concerns that a remote system, to be tried out next year, may replace with cameras the human beings in the traffic control tower at the airport.
In fact, there has been quite a lot of diminishing.
Until the early 1990s the tower was staffed 24/7, was in charge of all air traffic over Central Australia, international jets and all, and had about a dozen highly qualified controllers living here in Alice Springs.
Today the tower is staffed 8am to 6pm Sunday to Friday, and 8am to 7pm Saturdays, looks after only low-level traffic in the close vicinity of Alice Springs, and has a total staff of four.
Brisbane and Melboure now look after the rest.
The flight information service, Flight Service as we used to call it, has been shut down altogether.
Mr Walker says this was well before his time “back in the early days of aviation where we had large numbers of staff required to do those face to face briefings”.
This sounds like an event in the Wright Brothers era but in fact it was in July, 1992, a date Jim Lorkin remembers well because it was when his job disappeared.
Large numbers indeed: Mr Lorkin, who stayed in Alice Springs, says around two dozen of his colleagues also retired or were moved to other centres.
Says Mr Walker: “The way the aviation industry has evolved, a lot of that information is now available over the internet, people are able to do this over the phone.”
Well, not quite.
Apart from being valuable members of the community, the local flight service officers were providing a lot more than weather and traffic information.
It’s like a bank manager being replaced by an ATM – except that banks deal with money and flight service officers with lives, using local knowledge and face-to-face contact to prevent accidents.
Getting lost in the vastness of sparsely populated Central Australia is more likely to be fatal than elsewhere.
Mr Lorkin says the officially available information goes only part of the way.
Much vital detail was learned, and passed on, when pilots popped into Flight Service to file their flight plans.
The southern end of the strip on such and such cattle station is a bit soft. Land long.
Such and such community has run out of Avgas. You might be cutting it fine on the way back.
Or, a navigation radio beacon may be out of commission.
Many a time, Mr Lorkin recalls, he would radio a flying tourist: “It’s Mt Connor you’re looking at, Sir. Ayers Rock’s a bit further on.”
In those days the the WAC (world aeronautical charts) were sprinkled with little blue circles, marking registered airstrips maintained and controlled by the Federal Government.
There are many fewer now.
But many unlicensed station strips are usually perfectly serviceable and certainly useful for emergency diversions when you have a rough running engine or the weather is closing in.
Mr Lorkin says Flight Service was an informal place for exchanging news about bush runways, with information for station owners or people on settlements.
We used to fly “full reporting” in the outback.
We could use VHF (very high frequency) or HF (high frequency) radios.
VHF is relatively short range – around 100 nautical miles – but HF, with its huge range, was often the saviour in the outback.
Our flight plans were submitted to Flight Service before departure, usually in person, quite often before first light.
We nominated reporting points and times, about 30 minutes apart.
If the wind forecast was inaccurate and our navigating revealed that we would be abeam or overhead our next reporting point more than two minutes sooner or later, we would radio to Flight Service an amended time.
Three minutes after the flight planned reporting time, if we had not called in, Flight Service would call us.
If we did not respond an uncertainty phase would be declared and Flight Service would ask other aircraft to call us on VHF.
If that doesn’t work an alert phase would be declared.
If nothing was heard of the aircraft, just 15 minutes after it should have called, a distress phase would be initiated.
This was likely to involve other aircraft being asked to search under the missing plane’s flight path, past the last reporting point at which it had called Flight Service.
Preparations for a ground search would be made.
This meant if you’d gone down, help would be on its way much sooner than under the current practice, when rescue efforts would not start before a nominated SAR (search and rescue) time, quite often last light.
True, a VHF call you’re making may be picked up, perhaps by another pilot.
But when your engine stops you need to focus on finding the best spot for a glide landing, rather than talk to someone who may have no idea what you’re on about.
It was great feeling of comfort for VFR (visual flight rules, as opposed to IFR – instrument flight rules for which full reporting is mandatory) pilots to have that backup, and it kept your navigation skills pretty sharp.
Full Reporting for VFR has been replaced by Flight Following but that is rarely used and doesn’t work well where VHF is patchy and there is no radar – in other words, in most of Central Australia.
Mr Lorkin, who first took up his post in The Alice at Christmas 1978, says Flight Service was a welcome, sometimes vital facility well beyond its aviation role.
“We’d monitor the Flying Doctor frequencies at night,” he says.
“We’d pass on emergency messages for young nurses or teachers in the bush.
“They were fairly scared at times.
“It was a very satisfying part of the job.”
Although the Airservices staff in Alice is now down to about one-tenth compared to its heyday, Mr Walker says the controllers “are always happy to talk face-to-face in the tower or on the phone with local pilots about local issues, conditions, concerns or any other aviation-related matter”.
(The writer has more than 2000 hours flying light aircraft as a private pilot, 630 parachute jumps and 340 hours piloting gliders.)