L-R: East Gippsland Shire Council Aerodromes Coordinator Jason Connelly with council CEO Gary Gaffney,
Mayor Joe Rettino and Aerosweep sales manager Rod Carey.
When Jason Connelly arrived at Bairnsdale Airport just over 12 months ago, what he saw was not another fading regional aerodrome but an opportunity.
The airport had been looked after for more than two decades by a sub-contractor and Connelly could see room for making improvements even with a limited budget.
It is one of three airports operated by the East Gippsland Shire Council and Connelly used his new role as aerodromes co-ordinator to kick off a program to spruce it up.
Bairnsdale was founded during World War II as RAAF Station Bairnsdale, housing the No. 1 Operation Training Unit and the General Reconnaissance School.
This bequeathed it four Bellcamp hangars that are still in use today as well as two code 2b non-precision runways — 04/22 and 13/31 — capable of handling a Dash 8-300 type aircraft.
Other facilities include a 250 square metre terminal building, pilot activated low intensity lighting, an automated weather station and 24/7 refuelling facility offering AVGAS and JET A1.
Situated about 282km east of Melbourne with a population of around 15,000, traffic at the airport includes air ambulance King Air and emergency medical helicopter flights, local charters and smaller private planes such as Cessnas, Pipers and Jabirus.
Originally a butcher by trade, Connelly began his aviation career with Broome International Airport, where he ended up as ground handling and airlines operations manager. He has also worked with QantasLink.
One of his first moves on taking up his new role was to make Bairnsdale’s airside areas more secure.
“People from off the street could access the runways and taxiways freely,’’ he says.
“They could walk through the terminal and were suddenly directly in the airside space.”
Connelly installed a secure fence with a pin-coded gate to delineate the landside and airside precincts to improve security. He also erected signs around the airport advising the public there was no unauthorised entry and secured existing access gates around the airport’s perimeter.
“That seems to have worked extremely well, ‘’ he says, noting he has also used the change to educate the public.
“We are a registered aerodrome and we do comply with certain standards. It’s about trying to change the culture of the community, so they start treating this airport as an airport so we can start attracting some major business here.’’
Other projects included the removal of overgrown shrubbery and dilapidated farm fencing as well as the provision of new line markings on the runways, aprons, windsock/signal circle and car parking.
There was also the application of illuminated paint on passenger walkways to increase visibility and rerouted fencing and access gates to make life easier for fuel trucks.
At the terminal, there is now CCTV coverage, new seating, a vending machine and a split-system air conditioner to warm up the terminal at night.
“I do a lot of work outside of hours where I come in and do night inspections and it is quite a cold place around here,’’ he says.
“So just little initiatives like a split system air conditioning unit so people can have the ability to warm up the terminal at night and get some snacks and nibbles have paid off in spades.”
The changes not only produced good feedback from airport regulars and the Civil Aviation Safety Authority but they were also, says Connelly, instrumental in attracting new offshore oil rig fly in, fly out business from Bristow Helicopters.
The operations are currently suspended while the rig is repositioned but are expected to re-start shortly.
“It was averaging three or four flights a day with the AW139s, which is bringing 30 or 40 people through our terminal each day,’’ he says.
“That’s just unheard of for Bairnsdale and to see those types of helicopters coming in here has been really rewarding.”
He concedes some people see him as ambitious but says he sees big potential for Bairnsdale and says a second fuel operator has already shown interest in the airport.
“If we can get things right and stage things correctly, there’s no reason why we can’t start attracting some major business here,’’ he says, adding that targets include charter operators and smaller airlines that could connect locals to Melbourne.
“That’s what I’d like to do but it’s highly dependent on getting the funds and the money available for me to continue doing what I’m trying to do here.”
Connelly says new standards being introduced by CASA will have implications for smaller aerodromes.
“We’re a free-charge airport at the moment so we don’t have landing fees,’’ he said.
“That’s more to attract other businesses to come to our area and start using our facilities.
“That’s certainly one of the challenges that we have but if we really put our mind to it and do everything right and set standards, the business is going to come to you.”
He also been actively engaging with the community to foster understanding of the industry.
“I’ve tried to engage with the community as positively as possible by trying to get people to understand the importance of our industry, the importance of the airfield, what it means to the pilots and how we manage that,’’ he says.
This included working with Bairnsdale Regional Hospital to provide tours of the airport for elderly patients whose relatives may have been based at the airport during the war.
“They got to relive something that was very close to them and they appreciate that the airport’s still in very good condition,’’ he says.
“To be able to see that we’re getting the traffic coming through and at a larger volume than we used to get is really positive.”
Connelly is now looking at the possibility of school excursions as a way of educating young people about the industry.
“Aircraft fascinate them, but they never get the opportunity to go out airside to have a look and get that understanding,’’ he says.
“So this is something I also want to try and encourage though schools and the Education Department.”
An award-winning journalist, Steve began covering aviation in the United States in the early nineties before returning to Australia later that decade and editing The Australian’s aviation section for 17 years. He is editor of Airline Ratings and has co-authored books on industry initiatives aimed at reducing greenhouse emissions.
Steve has joined the AAA to write interesting and informative editorial on the aviation industry.