A publication of the Centre for Advancing Journalism, University of Melbourne

Gyrocopters flying under the radar in outback mustering

Gyrocopters are being used illegally for commercial mustering on outback stations, despite aviation groups saying the practice could easily be legitimised by giving pilots access to a new class of licence.

Words by Jackson Graham
 

The light craft, also known as gyroplanes, can be used legally to muster on a pilot’s own property or on another property with the permission of the landowner, but the service cannot be rented out for commercial gain.

Helicopters are the aircraft most commonly used to muster livestock in Australia, with their operations overseen by the Civil Aviation Safety Authority. But the operators of gyrocopters cannot access the same licences and certifications that would enable the lighter craft to be used more widely.

A CASA spokesman told The Citizen that “theoretically, it may be possible for someone to get an approval through CASA to carry out commercial mustering in a gyroplane, but it has never been done and there would be a number of issues to resolve.”

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These included the fact that training for gyrocopter pilots was currently administered through the sports aviation sector, which had no capacity to grant the CASA approved qualifications needed to operate the aircraft for commercial mustering.

The president of the Australian Sports Rotorcraft Association, Paul Campbell, said he was aware that some of the association’s members used gyrocopters illegally for commercial mustering.

“CASA don’t have the manpower to be out there doing any sort of enforcement,” Dr Campbell said.

“Gyros are much cheaper to run [than helicopters], they do the same job and therefore there is a demand for the services.”

A gyrocopter costs between $150 and $200 an hour to hire for mustering, whereas a helicopter can cost as much as $450 an hour.

Aviation statistics show gyrocopters to be more dangerous than most recreational aircraft. An Australian Transport Safety Bureau report on accidents between 2004 and 2013 found half of all gyrocopter accidents to be fatal, with the aircraft responsible for the worst fatality rate per hours flown.

However, a bureau spokesperson told The Citizen that the under reporting of non-fatal gyrocopter accidents was likely to have skewed that figure.  

Dr Campbell agreed the figures were unreliable adding that the sports association struggled to get pilots to report their hours because there was no method for doing so and little reason.

“Our safest pilots are our musterers, because they are flying everyday and they are flying large numbers of hours per year,” he added.

“I don’t see any legal impediment to CASA granting an air operator’s certificate and then allowing air work or commercial type activities to be undertaken in recreational aircraft.” — Mark Regan, the Australian Sports Rotorcraft Association

Lawyer Mark Regan, who is a member of the association’s board, said the group had been lobbying for several years to have commercial mustering in gyrocopters made lawful.

“I don’t see any legal impediment to CASA granting an air operator’s certificate and then allowing air work or commercial type activities to be undertaken in recreational aircraft.”

Mr Regan said negotiations with CASA were not helped by some gyrocopter pilots having no desire to obtain commercial certifications.

“I think what you’re dealing with here is a type of person who does the activity, without being too concerned about the ins and outs of the law.

“Many musterers act outside of the legal framework because they are a long distance from anywhere.”

Bobby, who declined to give his full name for publication, said he had been mustering commercially for the past four years, flying nearly 2000 hours in a gyrocopter on more than 30 properties located mainly in western NSW.

He had been contract mustering on the ground before he took to the air.

“I had work booked up before I even went down and [obtained] my licence,” he said.

Bobby, who had also worked as a truck driver, said commercial mustering in a gyrocopter was now his main source of income. “This is a much better lifestyle than trucks,” he added.

He said he was aware of half a dozen other pilots currently involved in commercial mustering.

“[Helicopter pilots] couldn’t afford to spend the time [rounding up] one animal. Whereas a gyro, running on the smell of an oily rag, you can sit on it out there all day.” — cattle station owner David Bird

Bobby said he did not record the hours he flew in a logbook.

“We’ll do anything between 500 to a thousand hours a year,” he added.

He said he was not concerned that he may be uninsured for commercial mustering on properties.

“I’m confident in myself. I’ve flown in good weather; I’ve flown in bad weather. You see a lot when you’re mustering.”

David Bird, who owns a cattle station approximately 160 kilometres east of Alice Springs, said he now only flew his gyrocopter legally on his own property.

He said there had been a decline in the number of people engaged in commercial gyrocopter mustering in recent years.

“If you could do it legally, without having that hang over your head all the time, then it would certainly be a comfortable life for someone,” he said.  

Mr Bird said that because gyrocopters were less expensive than helicopters, they could ultimately do a better job.

“[Helicopter pilots] couldn’t afford to spend the time [rounding up] one animal. Whereas a gyro, running on the smell of an oily rag, you can sit on it out there all day.”

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Mr Bird, who had flown up to 6000 hours in a gyrocopter, said many of his hours had gone unrecorded because his logbook had been destroyed in a mouse plague in 2000.

He said his gyrocopter was one of the most valuable assets on his station, which runs about 5000 head of cattle and which he had been known to muster single-handedly using the aircraft.

“A successful musterer is 99 per cent stockman, one per cent pilot,” Mr Bird added.

Mr Bird was not convinced the law would change in the near future for gyrocopter pilots mustering commercially.

“Don’t hold your breath,” he said. “Why would [the pilots] stick their head out now just to get the law changed?

“People who are doing it are under the radar and they want to keep it that way.” 

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THE CITIZEN is a publication of the Centre for Advancing Journalism. It has several aims. Foremost, it is a teaching tool that showcases the work of the students in the University of Melbourne’s Master of Journalism and Master of International Journalism programs, giving them real-world experience in working for publication and to deadline. Find out more →

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