So here I am on vacation in Sydney Australia for two weeks. I’m here with my partner and two friends for Mardi Grais and the usual tourist stuff your’re expected to do in Sydney. However, with my freshly minted US PPL I’m intending to get some flying done down-under.
I spent some time online before leaving to find out what was available. Bankstown Airport is the main General Aviation hub in Sydney, it is only 11nm from my downtown hotel (according to my GPS) and is about a thirty minute train ride. I found an FBO online called Basair, which had a whole section of its website devoted to forign pilots flying in Australia. In order to fly in Australia (as PIC) you need a Certificate of Validation from CASA (Australia’s equvalent of the FAA). Sometimes, this will be granted without any requirements for a flight review, but more often than not one is required. The flight review is the same as a US BFR, its given by a CFI and you can’t fail as such, though the FBO might refuse to rent you a plane if you scare the instructor sufficiently. If you’re just going to fly in the Sydney area (i.e. no marthon cross-countries into the great outback) then you only need to get familiar with Bankstown and the “local” procedures in and around Sydney.
on the basis that the best kept web site probably equates to a well run company I gave Basair a call shortly after arriving in Sydney. To my great disappointment, they had very limited availability on Cessna 172’s and even less availability on instructors. There appeared to be no way to get the training flights they required along with the flight review done in the two weeks I’m going to be here. In the end I booked two flights on 2/28 and 3/7. Not really happy with Basair and after some more online time at my hotel I found another FBO at Bankstown called Chieftain Flying School that claimed to have some Skyhawks on the line. I called and spoke to the owner, John Lion. Chieftain was a different experience altogether. They couldn’t have been more helpful. They had a 172M and instructors available and I could come by anytime. They would help me get the CoV from CASA. John even organized to have me picked up from the nearest train station and driven over to the Airport. I scheduled a flight for 11am the next day. This would be an intro to the Bankstown/Sydney airspace and get the paperwork kicked off with CASA for the CoV. It was a pleasure to call Basair and cancel the two flight I had booked with them.
My hotel is right next to Central Station in downtown Sydney, as the name suggests this is the main train station for Sydney and it was a short 30min (AU$4.50) ride on the Airport Line to the East Hills station where I called Chieftain. A guy called Jamie answered the phone and told me he’d be over to pick me up in 10 minutes. Jamie turned out to be the CFI I’d fly with today. Chieftain’s office is located at the very southern edge of the field. It has a pretty nice lounge and briefing area opening out onto a grass area filled with mostly Piper aircraft and just three Cessna’s (a 152, a 172 & a 210). We decided to get the paperwork for the CoVout of the way first so Jamie drove me over to the other side of the field to the CASA office.
Bankstown is a big airport, three parallel runways running 11-29 and one runway running 18-36 at the east end of the field. What impressed me more was the huge number of FBO’s of all descriptions spread around the field. There was a whole fleet of DC3’s in various conditions (from flight worthy to wingless hulks) spread over one section of the field. This is a busy place and much bigger than most of the class D airports I’ve flown into in California. However, from an air-traffic point of view it didn’t appear much busier than RHV on a weekend day.
The CASA paperwork was just two fairly simple forms than can be filled out in 10 minutes. You also need your PPL (my temperory license was fine), current medical, log book and two types of photo ID (a passport and CA driver license work fine). They copied all the documents and returned them, asked for AU$55 and told me to drop back tomorrow to pick up my Certificate of Validation. It was as easy as that.
Back at Chieftain Jamie told me we would be flying a Piper Warrior rather than the Skyhawk. Apparently though nobody actually said anything I got the impression that none of the CFI’s really like the Skyhawk very much (which may be why its available whenever I want it). I flew a Warrior in Ireland last December, so I figured this would be another opportunity to learn a little more about the plane. In any case, I was more interested in learning the local procedures around Bankstown than in what particular plane I’d fly. Jamie told me he had already done the external pre-flight checks, so I satisfied myself with just checking the oil and fuel, kicking the tires and doing a quick walk around. The interior was much as I remember and the startup checks went fine. The ATIS was confusing the first time I heard it, they start with the runway information, 11C was inactive for some reason, 11L was for arrivals and departures and 11R was being used for pattern work (or circuit training as they say here), then it gave the wind, ceiling and temperature. Today there was a crosswind and broken cloud at 2,500′. Even though there is a Ground Control frequency you don’t need to get a taxi clearance, just start her up and go. First up was the fun of taxiing on grass, and maneuvering around the Seneca parked very close next door. As usual, with a strange field its really easy to get lost on the ground, Jamie kept me going in the right direction as we taxied over to the North side of the field. Without Ground Control you find yourself having to pull off the taxi way onto the grass to let planes pass going in the other direction. We did this to let a Skyhawk pass us on the way to the run-up area. It took a real burst of power to get out of the muck again and we left a pair of lovely deep tire tracks in grass. The run-up area has a great addition of painted position markers that indicate exactly where you should put the plane. This makes it really clear how many aircraft can be in the area and where they should point. This i! ! s a real improvement over trying to squeeze into a space between a gaggle of haphazardly placed aircraft doing runups at Reid Hillview. We had some problems with one of the magnetos and it took quite a long time runing at 2000RPM with a lean mixture to clear the plugs, but it eventually worked. You call the tower at the runway hold short line, as you haven’t talked to anyone yet you have to tell them your departure request. We were making a downwind departure.
Takeoff was fine, a turn to left crosswind at 500′,and then a turn onto downwind and climb to 1500′. This is the assigned departure altitude. Bankstown sits in what is called GAAP airspace (I think it means General Aviation Aircraft Procedures), it is roughly equivalent to class D in the USA. Its controlled with a tower, no approach or departure controllers, may or may not have radar capability. Separation services are not provided for VFR aircraft so its really just landing and takeoff sequencing services. You don’t need an explicit clearance to enter, but you do need to be talking with the tower. It sits right under Sydney Controlled airspace whose floor is 1500′ above the field. The Sydney Airport airspace is ridiculously complicated. It extends out for 70nm and has really low floors over the entire Sydney area. On the equivalent of the TAC it looks like a huge class B airport though its traffic volume is more like a busy Class C in the USA (like San Jose). The ceiling goes all the way up to the flight levels so a GA aircraft have no option but to fly very low underneath or get a clearance to enter. They don’t appear to make a distinction on the type of controlled airspace (like A,B,C,D or E), its just all “controlled”. I’m told than there are different classes of airspace within this area, but they are not indicated on the charts. You need an explicit clearance to enter and this can take a while if you haven’t filed a flight plan. Jamie laughed when I asked if you could request VFR flight following. It seems that the Australians are quite envious of ATC in the USA. In general it appears that the US controllers have a reputation for being very helpful and friendly to GA when compared to their Australian counterparts. In fact there is a big effort going on over here to reform Australian airspace and ATC to match the US system – so in a couple of years time it will be a very familiar experience for US pilots flying here (I believe Bankstown will become a class D and Sydney will become class C).
You need to maintain 1500′ until you depart the GAAP airspace around Bankstown (I guess you could climb into controlled airspace if you got a clearance). We turned northwards once we were a couple of miles downwind of the airport and flew towards Paramatta. There is a fairly obivious pipeline that marks the boundary of Bankstown’s airspace. Once you cross it, you are into class G airspace with the floor of controlled airspace at 2500′, so you can at least climb a little. There is a VFR corridor that you can follow northwards that allows you to clear the Sydney area (and another Military controlled area called Richmond to the West) while remaining in uncontrolled airspace (there is a parallel track about 5nm West for planes flying southbound into Bankstown). Once you get established on the airway you make a radio call on the “area frequency”. This is an ATC frequency (like Serria Approach for example), however its also used for GA planes in the area to call out their positions and intentions – so it works a little like a CTAF except for a large area rather than just an airport. The call is something like “All stations, Piper SWU, 3 miles south of Parramatta, 2,500′ northbound on Bankstown lane of entry”. You would also use the area frequency to call “Sydney Radar” to go about getting a clearance into controlled airspace. While on the airway you monitor the frequency for other planes that may be flying nearby. The chart gives the various headings to fly along the airway, but there are a sequence of fairly obvious landmarks that you can follow instead. The first is Parramatta, a cluster of tall buildings, next is Pennant Hills where there is a single tall building with a flashing white beacon on top, then onto Hornsby which is a little harder to pick out, its just a small built up area surrounded by other small built up areas. After Hornsby you are out over Gum Tree forest heading for the ocean. The last landmark on the airway is Patonga which is impossible to miss because its on a peninsula in Broken Bay. We turned east and flew over Barrenjoey Head which is the last bit of land before the Pacific Ocean, then turned southwards to fly along the coast back towards Sydney. Again, there is a sequence of landmarks along the coast that help you determine your position relative to the controlled airspace above you. At Barrenjoey head we were still at 2500′, by the next landmark down the coast called Long Reef (a little headland that juts out with lot of surf breaking in front of it), you need to be at or below 1000′. The next landmark is called Manly and its just before the mouth to Sydney Harbor. By this time you have a great view over the whole harbor in as far at the downtown skyline, the Opera House and Sydney Harbor Bridge. At the south side of the harbor entrance you need to drop down to 500′ to stay under the controlled airspace. Frankly, I not that fond of flying half a mile offshore, at basically the same height as the cliffs dropping into the ocean – I don’t care to imagine where I’d put the plane down if the engine failed. South Head is also the start of a VFR airway called “Victor 1”. This airway is at 500′ with planes flying both north & south. It has its own assigned CTAF frequency and you make a call to announce your position and intentions as soon as you get on it and then keep listening carefully for any other traffic. Victor 1 tracks the coast down past Botany Bay where you get a pretty good view into Sydney Airport with Jets passing about 1000′ above you on their final approach. In general you are not able to “contour fly” the coast (i.e. fly into all the little bays and inlets along the way). There is controlled airspace down to the surface running along the coast, but it doesn’t exactly follow the coastline and you have to stay outside it. The only exception to this rule is Port Hacking, which is a huge semi-circular bay where the controlled airspace to the surface follows the beach (so you can too). The south end of Port Hacking is called Jibbon Point and it marks the southern end ! of Victor 1, it is also when you can finally climb back to 1000′ above the water. From Jibbon Point we flew down past Wattamolla which is a little village that helpfully marks where the floor of controlled airspace goes up to 2500′ and you can too (finally a comfortable distance above the water!)
There is a big section of restricted military airspace south of Sydney. To avoid it you have to keep flying south along the coast until you get to Stanwell Park. This is a small town that’s easily recognized by a cluster of radio masts on the top of a hill. Once past Stanwell Park you turn back inland once again over dense forests. There is a large lake called Cataract Reservoir that has a road running parallel on its north side. Staying between the lake and the road keeps you out of any trouble with the restricted airspace to your north and with airspace around a couple of small uncontrolled fields (Wedderburn to the north and Wilton to the West). Flying generally northwest you quickly cross a major highway, this is you turning point back to Bankstown. Turning right you follow the highway keeping to the western side to stay away from the restricted area. You next landmark is the call in point for the southern approach to Bankstown, so at point we descended to 1500′ and got the ATIS. The call in point is called “Two RN”, its a huge radio mast that almost impossible to pick out the first couple of times you go looking for it, with a lot of help from Jamie I finally found it. The call into Bankstown is pretty standard, “Bankstown Tower, Piper SWU, at 2RN, 1,500′, inbound to land with Romeo”. We were told, “Make straight in for runway 11, report Warwick Farm”. At this point you need to get down to 1000′ fairly quickly, this is the approach altitude for Bankstown. Warwick Farm is a race track and its pretty easy to pick out. Once you report at Warwick Farm the tower gives you an assigned runway, for example “SWU number two after the Cessna for runway 11 center”. It you are over Warwick Farm having come from Two RN, then you are at about a 45 degree angle between base and final for runway 11. You are also at 1000′ and less than 2nm from the threshold. With three parallel runways its critical not to overshoot or undershoot the turn to final (there was a mid-air collision a couple of years ago that killed a ! family of four in just this way). So its a fairly hairy approach the first time you do it – take a lot of care to look for traffic coming straight in for the parallel runway or turning base to final of either side of you. With Murphy’s Law in full force, there was a Cessna overshooting his turn to final on 11L that got awfully close to me as I made my turn to 11C. Again you need to get down fairly fast, so I had fun getting in the 30 degrees of flaps (manually on the Piper). We got a clearance to land on final at about 300′. The glide down went fairly well but there was a strong crosswind from the left. It all went terribly wrong in the flare. The plane ballooned up badly, Jamie called for full power (I thought to go around), but he then proceeded to land the plane. It wasn’t pretty, I think the crosswind, the unfamiliar low wing plane and the unfamiliar airport all contributed to the poor landing, still we got down in one piece thanks to Jamie. He let me taxi back to Chieftain as we both made excuses for the landing.
So my first flight in Australia, 1.7hours logged as dual. The area is beautiful. The air was a bit bumpy and I’m not fond of spending so long so close to the ground. I didn’t get a lot of spare time to look at the scenery, but I’m going to repeat the flight with my partner once I get the CoV. Jamie was a fine instructor to fly with, he did a lot of the radio work and was invaluable identifying the various landmarks for me. I booked another flight for tomorrow, this time in the Cessna Skyhawk. I going to do pattern work to practice some crosswind landings (you don’t get much chance in RHV) and anything else required for the CoV.