Students at the Flight Training Centre here in Mareeba get a unique opportunity as part of the training programme; to go on a remote area safari and visit a MAF operational programme. These safari’s give students exposure to flying in remote, isolated, hot conditions and to navigate over often featureless terrain. It takes them beyond the comforts of their local area and forces them to safely plan their flights with changes in weather conditions and limited access to fuel and outback accommodation.
The latest safari was in October (2017), when flight instructor David Curtis, flew with two students, in two Cessna 172 aircraft (VH-MIS and VH-WMC) on a ten-day trip to Arnhem Land. Lukas Schmid who was nearing the end of his CPL training, described it as a whole new experience. It was longer than his usual training flights, visiting new places, more fuel critical and complex with the need to change plans. He said, “I think the flying on the safari was closer to flying as a MAF pilot in programme … Things like fuel planning, weather considerations, changing plans, a passenger on board … it all came together in real.” For the other student, Joël, it was right at the beginning of his CPL training. Reflecting on this experience he said, “It stretched me a lot to fly, think and plan as a commercial pilot. I learnt to plan safely and to always have safety-margin options.”
Gaining around 20 flying hours each over the trip, they departed from Mareeba on 12th October, stopping in Normanton, Karumba, Domadgee and Borroloola, before reaching Gove two days later. On arrival in Gove, they were met by MAF pilot, David Graf, one of the first students to start and complete the full integrated pilot training course in Mareeba.
One of the other pilots based in Arnhem Land, was also pleased to see the aircraft VH-MIS when they flew in, as it was the same one he had trained in years before with MAF at Coldstream, in Victoria. He described it as a real testament to the MAF engineering team, that the aircraft was still in such good condition and continuing to train future generations of MAF pilots. The other Cessna 172 they used, VH-WMC, is a much newer aircraft to MAF. Instructor David Curtis explained the particular benefits of using VH-WMC for this trip, as it provided a solid learning platform for both students to practice their Instrument Flying along the way and to become familiar with glass cockpits and automation in an isolated environment. Both students gained experience in each aircraft and changing between them, involved them loading and unloading the planes, recalculating over and over the weight and balance of the aircraft, however they did both comment on the comfort of the newer aircraft!
Part of the safari experience was to join the current serving MAF pilots in Arnhem Land on their usual operational flights and visit a couple of the indigenous communities. This gave the students a firsthand insight into what life will look for them once they complete their training and move to a programme. One thing that impressed Lukas while observing how the programme pilots fly, was how quick they were. Joël experienced some on-the-job changes due to weather, when a line of thunderstorms blocked the way of the flight he joined. They tried to fly around it but ultimately had to turn around in the heavy rain, to remain safe.
The return journey to Mareeba, arriving back on October 20th (stopping in Numbulwar, Borroloola, Adels Grove, Burktown, Normanton and Georgetown), also involved a change of plan for the students. While the sky in Normanton on their final leg was beautiful, the satellite picture showed the first sign of the summer monsoon season arriving in Mareeba. Joël explained that they had to consider legal requirements, maximum crosswind performance of the aircraft and recalculate their fuel reserves, an unexpected but beneficial addition to their safari experience. According to both students, the landscapes between Mareeba and Arnhem Land were amazing, from isolated bushfires that were so intense they formed cumulus clouds, to being able to observe the impact that water has on nature with all the green areas around the rivers and creeks in an otherwise dry environment. Joël said that, ‘Flying solo along the endless and untouched shores of the Gulf of Carpentaria was breathtaking, seeing all the beauty that God has laid in the nature of Australia.’
The extent of knowledge and understanding that the Mareeba flight training students gain through this safari experience is immeasurable … and the instructors themselves enjoy seeing their students start to put all the pieces of their training together in a much more authentic setting.