Safety topic: Coral Coast cruising

The coastal route between Cooktown, Cairns, and further south to Ingham, is one of Australia's most celebrated stretches of coastline.

Apart from these two bucket list destinations, major tourist attractions along the way include:

  • Daintree
  • Cape Tribulation
  • Port Douglas
  • Mission Beach
  • the resort islands of Orpheus, Hinchinbrook and Bedarra.

Sharing the skies

These relaxed, tropical destinations all serve as step-off points to the Great Barrier Reef, making international and local tourist numbers consistently high.

Many tourists also want to see this grand spectacle from the air.

This means sharing the skies with a high volume of helicopter and fixed-wing traffic, flying at various levels on local scenic flights. Keep a good lookout for helicopter traffic at 500 ft AMSL in both directions.

Be aware of high terrain tracking south from Cooktown and west of Cape Tribulation.

Be wary of taking a short-cut via the Bloomfield River down the picturesque valley to Daintree. You are in the lee of these mountains if a south-easterly is blowing and may encounter considerable turbulence.

For much of the year, the region's prevailing sea breeze is robust and reliable. Like any sea breeze, it picks up in the afternoon as temperatures rise.

Aerial view of Coral Coast Hamilton
Aerial view of Coral Coast Hamilton

Cairns International Airport

Cairns is a busy international airport so pay particular attention to the airspace steps.

The current Cairns VTC is a must.

Also look out for hang-glider activity on the coast at Wangetti in between Port Douglas and Double Island.

Do not enter Cairns controlled airspace without a clearance. Arriving from any direction, give ATC plenty of time to process your clearance, and always submit a flight notification prior to your flight. Make sure you've read the ERSA and, in particular, note Flight Procedures, Section 5 Special Procedures – VFR Corridors.

If you have any queries about procedures at Cairns, call ATC for help before your flight.

Approaching Cairns from the west and south

If you are approaching Cairns from the west, and you can see low cloud on the hills, there is an alternative place to land. Mareeba aerodromes is a friendly and easy alternative to Cairns for you to land and leave your aircraft. Cheaper landing fees too.

To the south, expect parachute operations in Danger Area 762. This is just to the north of Gordonvale.

If parachutists are operating, you will frequently be given a clearance through the Eastern VFR Corridor when leaving Cairns. Consult your VTC and plan ahead.

If you are approaching from the south with parachutists in the area, you are likely to be given clearance through the Western VFR Corridor.

To the south and south-west of Cairns, you'll note there's some high terrain. This includes

  • Bellenden Ker at 5,322 ft AMSL (with a 328 ft tower on top)
  • Mt Bartle Frere at 5,299 ft
  • Atherton Tableland with a peak of 4,544 ft

Routes via these locations are often unpassable in inclement weather. The coastal route is often a safer VFR route in times of low cloud.

Remember: this is tropical Queensland. Renowned for its sunshine, but also for its unpredictable monsoonal weather patterns. Pay attention to the forecast and make sure you have a clear idea of expected weather.

Have a Plan B up your sleeve in case of deterioration in VFR conditions.

Aerial view of Whitehaven

Parachute and ultralight operations

Watch out for parachute and ultralight operations at locations up and down this coast. Our Out-n-Back crews encountered a lot of activity at:

  • Port Douglas
  • Innisfail
  • Tully
  • Ingham
  • inland at Mareeba.

Make sure you're on the correct VHF frequency and listen for traffic calls.

Great Barrier Reef Marine Park

Hinchinbrook Island is a dugong protected area and has some Fly Neighbourly advice for pilots.

Check out ERSA GEN-SP, Point 19: Great Barrier Reef Marine Park (GBRMP). Take care along the whole length of the GBRMP coastline.

The GBRMP contains almost 1,000 rocky islands and cays, many being sensitive seabird breeding sites of national and international significance.

You must not fly below 1,500 ft within one nautical mile of sites occupied by nesting seabirds. You can find nesting sites listed in ERSA.

Southbound from Ingham, it's time to get ready for Townsville's class C airspace and its military restricted areas.

Make sure you are carrying the Townsville VTC and have familiarised yourself with relevant waypoints, approach points, published VFR Routes, and all relevant NOTAMs.

Published date: 17 October 2022
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