Aerotech flying high for fire protection and ag support

At the height of summer on those hot, windy days, the sound of a helicopter overhead can be both confronting and comforting.

Confronting because it might mean a bushfire is burning nearby, but also comforting because the flames will soon be doused by over 3000 litres of liquid from aerial firefighting bombers.

The Aerotech Group is behind the aircraft most likely to be seen in these scenarios. During peak periods 10 fixed wing aircraft and three helicopters are on standby at Brukunga in the heart of the Adelaide Hills, as well as two fixed wing aircraft and two helicopters in Hoyleton in the Mid North, two fixed wing bombers in Mt Gambier and two fixed wing bombers in Port Lincoln.

In the past six years Aerotech has doubled its fleet to 28 aircraft, grown to 50 employees and has seen growth in revenue of about 15% per annum.

Around 20-25 people are usually stationed at the Brukunga base and within three minutes of a callout the aircraft can be in the air, travelling at 300km/hour to provide a rapid response to the emergency and gather information for the CFS.

This vital service, covering the entire state, has been provided by the McCabe family for more than 30 years.

Now operated by Sam McCabe, The Aerotech Group was established in 1968 in Tintinara in the Murray Mallee as a one aircraft, agriculture aerial application service that sprayed crops for local farmers.

Sam’s parents Pam and Bob took over the ailing business when the owners walked out, and over time the business has grown via acquisitions and diversification to become one of South Australia’s great success stories and the largest company of its type in Australia.

As well as being the managing director, Sam is also the chief pilot. While he jokes that flying is “the only thing I really feel I am good at”, his business acumen is evident in the rapid expansion of Aerotech.

Aerotech’s planes are crucial in the fighting of bushfires across the state.

The past six years has been a period of intense growth for The Aerotech Group which has four operating entities including Aerotech Agriculture, Aerotech 1st Response, which is responsible for aerial suppression of bushfires and aerial response to oil spills around Australia’s coastline, Aerotech Helicopters, and Aerotech Maintenance. During this period the business has doubled its fleet to 28 aircraft, 50 employees and has seen growth in revenue of around 15% per annum.

“The re-structure of the state’s firefighting fleet, as well as additional government funding for aerial firefighting has played a big role in Aerotech’s growth,” Sam says.

“We have established two new airbases to support our aerial firefighting efforts, and we are in the process of re-building our facility at Parafield Airport.

“The rebuild will allow us to relocate our head office from Kent Town to the new facility which will have capacity for us to conduct maintenance on four times the number of aircraft at any one time.”

The planes are also used in the spraying of crops.

Sam began flying lessons in Year 12, and earned his commercial pilot’s license at the age of 19. Although he doesn’t fly as much as he would like these days, he says he still puts himself on the ‘roster’ as much as he can.

“I love flying,” Sam says. “I have over 10,000 hours in the air and reckon I’ve done around 40,000 landings/takeoffs. The agriculture side of things is what I enjoy the most. Flying four-feet off the ground, under powerlines at 300km/hour is a massive adrenaline rush.”

The Aerotech Group has recently conducted testing which shows aerial agricultural application provides better results for farmers than ground application for crops.

“We are part of SA’s rural community, so we want to make sure we are doing the right thing in servicing our farmers,” Sam says. “Other than our head office, all of our airbases are located in regional areas, which means that the people we employ and their lives and families are part of regional areas. Not only that but, over the past 50 years of business, we have formed strong relationships and friendships with the farmers we look after.”

An Aerotech plane flies above an olive grove.

However, Sam says that aerial firefighting and offering protection for people and property, is the most rewarding part of his job.

“You never know what a fire season might bring,” Sam says. “Everyone always has a lot to say about it – whether it’s a wet winter with lots of ‘fuel’ on the ground, or if it’s been dry and people say the country will light up easily.

“Either way, when you as the pilot are able to see first-hand that you have saved a house from being burnt, or farming equipment, lives and livelihoods, that’s pretty satisfying.”

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Eyes on the sky for spectacular Jamestown air event

All eyes will be on the sky above Jamestown’s Sir Hubert Wilkins Aerodrome on Sunday, October 21, as the local flying group presents its triennial Air Spectacular.

The Jamestown Flying Group’s 11th air show promises to live up to its spectacular name, and World War II and vintage aircraft buffs and adrenaline seekers alike will be in their element.

A rare World War II Hawker Hurricane XII fighter aircraft never before seen in South Australia will be drawcard for the 2018 event.

Used during the Battle of Britain, the Hurricane aircraft is largely ‘under-rated’, having shot down more enemy aircraft than the better-known Spitfire.

The restored Hurricane now based in Scone, New South Wales, is the only plane of its type in existence in the southern hemisphere.

The Hawker Hurricane XII fighter aircraft will visit SA for the first time this October.

Aircraft co-ordinator for the event, Jim Best, says it was a major coup to secure the Hurricane and the air spectacular event will give spectators the opportunity to see it in action for the first time in SA.

“The plane will fly in for the event, it will do aerobatic manoeuvres similar to what they would have done in a dog fight (aerial combat within close range),” he says.

Hurricane pilot Paul Bennet will be in control and says spectators can expect to see him perform loops, rolls and wing-overs in the $4 million aircraft.

“It’s massive really for the event to get this aircraft,” he says.

“There’s every chance it will probably be the first and last time it goes to SA, the furthest it’s travelled so far has been the Illawarra Airshow in NSW.”

Just 2.5 hours drive from Adelaide in the Mid North of SA, Jamestown will be abuzz all weekend, with spectators on Sunday treated to some skilful flying by some of Australia’s best pilots and a fleet of rare aircraft.

A past pyrotechnics display and re-enactment at the Jamestown Air Spectacular. Photo by N Daw.

Among the other features will be an Australian-built Wirraway, Jim Whalley with his rare, historic Boomerang aircraft and Gazelle helicopter, a Grumman Avenger and other antique aircraft.

A heart-stopping aerobatics display by legendary pilots Chris Sperou and Paul Bennet, a dog fight re-enactment, a locally-owned General Grant tank and pyrotechnics display will all feature.

Behind the spectacular event is a small but dedicated group of flying and aircraft enthusiasts and community volunteers.

The Jamestown Flying Group (JFG) has just 28 financial members in a small community, but president Danny Keller says local support, the Friends of the Jamestown Flying Group, and sponsorship made the event possible.

Started more than 30 years ago, the JFG has worked tirelessly over the years, with fundraising and pure hard work to get the Sir Hubert Wilkins Aerodrome established to now include an all-weather bitumen strip, lighting, clubrooms and hangars.

It is a vital local asset, providing a safe landing spot for the Royal Flying Doctor Service (RFDS) and other emergency services.

A bird’s eye view of the Sir Hubert Wilkins Aerodrome at Jamestown, which will host the 11th triennial Air Spectacular this October. Photo by N Daw.

The flying group was borne from an incident which saw a retrieval plane clip trees at the end of a short, dirt air strip as it flew out with a patient, local doctor John Shepherd and ambulance officer and founding club member Tony Leesong all on board.

The close-call led to a handful of locals starting the group to develop a more adequate facility. The airstrip was lengthened, lights installed, surfaced with rubble and then eventually bitumen to make it the all-weather landing site it is today.

Club members also made many night-time dashes to the airstrip to turn the landing lights on in preparation for the RFDS to land safely for retrievals in what signifies a true, community effort.

The Australian-built Wirraway will be among the vintage aircraft flying in to Jamestown on October 21. Photo by Darren Mottram.

Last financial year, the RFDS landed 71 times at the Sir Hubert Wilkins Aerodrome for emergency retrievals and medical transfers.

“It’s used by the RFDS, for fire water bombers and general aviation access to the community,” Danny Keller says.

“It’s a very important facility and asset to the community and over the years the JFG has supported the RFDS through our Air Spectacular event.

“This year however, any proceeds from the event have been committed to the Jamestown Hospital auxiliary to support its refurbishment project.”

The air show beings on Sunday, October 21, at 10.45am (gates open at 7am) through until 4pm.

For bookings and information visit the website or Facebook page.

Header photo: A Jamestown Flying Group archive photo by Clive Palmer.

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