Episode 2: Featureless terrain, bush strips and aerial mustering

Flying our outback is one of the great joys and privileges that comes with an Australian pilot's licence. 

Flying in, around, and out of unsealed strip operations does present unique challenges. Unlike most city airstrips, many strips in the outback don't have bitumen, a windsock or a centreline.

That’s why you should come prepared and consider key factors to operate on bush strips with safety front of mind.

This will not only help you for your current trip but prepares you for your future operations across regional Australia.

Pre-flight bush strip preparation

Before you turn up in the circuit of a bush strip, you need to have done your homework.

The only way to know if a strip is suitable for your aircraft and your level of competence is to pick up the phone. Call the owner and have your list of questions ready.

You can ask:

  • Is it the strip long enough? Any slope to be aware of?
  • Is the surface clay, grass, or stony? When was it last graded?
  • What’s the surrounding terrain like? (The owner will be a lot more enthusiastic about that healthy line of trees on the fence line than you are, let me tell you).

Check to see if the owner is planning to open the gates and let his prize stock graze that day. You’re going to want the strip all to yourself (that always makes for a fun surprise on late final).

Owners of a bush strip are often also pilots themselves and will understand the need for your probing questions.

Always remember when asking questions that the owner may also have been landing there for decades. They know every inch of the strip and circuit area and are comfortable with its various challenges.

Also remember that you may also be speaking to a farmer. He may love all the recent rain, but long wavy grass in lovely moist soil is not ideal. This is especially true when you’re trying to get your aircraft off the ground in 500 metres.

If you can, talk to a pilot who has landed there recently to get a better idea of the conditions.

Sheep on a bush strip
Sheep on a bush strip

Wildlife and mechanical turbulence

Once you've got an idea your strip is suitable for a landing and take-off it’s time for the flight.

When you arrive in the circuit area of an unfamiliar strip, take the time to overfly it.

Check the surface and for any wildlife that may be waiting to meet you halfway down the strip.

Kangaroos are particularly fickle and can be hard to see amongst any bushes on either side of the strip. Without notice, they can bound out in front of you, often with family in tow.

Kangaroos and emus are a constant problem. Even sheep. Sheep are going to run in front of you before they run away. So, you do your low 50 ft inspection land in the wind as you would normally but just be very, very watchful make sure there's no other stock.

Barry Turner from Polpah Station, NSW 

If you see any wildlife on arrival, fly low and loud along the length of the strip to encourage them to scamper off.

Be aware of the surroundings. If you’re coming into a strip on a windy day, look for any trees or cause of rotor wash that will disturb airflow. This will affect your approach and landing.

Don’t just look at the approach end of the strip. Check the other end in case of a go-around and see if there are any high branches, posts or powerlines.

Taxiing

In preparation for take-off at any bush strip, have a look around and plan your taxiing.

If you're in any doubt as to the surface condition, walk it first, or get the farmer to drive you down the strip. Make sure there are no unexpected holes or logs hiding in the grass or soft wet patches in the clay.

Pay special attention to your prop care on any bush strip. Some tips include:

  • Use minimum power and always taxi with the stick held back to keep weight off the nose wheel. This will help maximise the clearance between the ground and the turning prop.
  • Never do your run-ups whilst stationary on a gravel strip. The spinning prop creates a vortex that sucks up stray little stones. This may turn your prop into a pin cushion, or worse, nick a leading edge. Do your run-ups while taxiing, using a lower RPM than normal with sensible use of brakes.
  • Be aware of prop wash dishing up a blast of dirt over any aircraft behind you.
Planes parked on a bush strip
Aircraft parked near a bush strip

Take-off

Before you get to the point of take-off, you need to have done your homework on your aircraft's documented speeds.

Some key things you need to know include:

  • best angle of climb speed
  • best rate of climb
  • stall speed with or without flaps.

This information will help if there are obstacles to clear when you're departing a short strip.

Look after your prop and apply power smoothly on take-off. Pull the stick back to lift the nose wheel off the ground so that you're doing the take-off roll on the main wheels only. At the same time keep a constant attitude, until the aircraft is 'ready to fly'.

There’s no such thing as being too prepared.

Another great tip is to ask an instructor next time you've got a free day and spend some time off the bitumen.

Brush up on your short and soft field landing techniques. Also take the opportunity to talk to your instructor about anything you’re unsure of in the aeroplane. It’s up to you to get as much out of the session as you can.

Ask questions and don't worry if it sounds trivial. It's far more intelligent than wishing you had the answer when you really need it.

Published date: 18 October 2022
Online version available at: https://www.casa.gov.au//resources-and-education/education-and-training/out-n-back/episode-2-featureless-terrain-bush-strips-and-aerial-mustering
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