The scarcity of commercial flights landing at Sydney Airport has been a disaster for airlines and workers, but for hobby pilots the COVID-19 pandemic has provided the opportunity of a lifetime.
The quieter-than-usual runways mean that private pilots have been given the chance to land at the international airport for the first time.
When Sydney Flight College club captain Tim Lindley put out a call, he received an overwhelming response. He eventually organized for 14 light aircraft to fly into Sydney airport on Sunday.
“For a lot of the pilots involved, including myself, it was a childhood dream to land in a big international airport like that — like the airliners,” Lindley said.
His group took off from Bankstown Airport, where many private pilots usually fly from, and flew the about 17km to Sydney Airport. Although the runways were not busy, Lindley and his crew still had to navigate some huge aircraft.
“Lots of the pilots had passenger jets waiting on the side of the runway, which must have been really funny to watch, with these small little planes coming in,” he said. “When I was taxiing, I had a Jetstar Airbus in front of me and an Air China 767 behind us, and we were all waiting for another one of the club’s aircraft to land.”
Lindley — who was flying a Cessna 182 with three passengers on board — had worked with airport staff to make sure the pilots knew what to expect and how to approach an airport of such size.
“Coming in to land at an airport like that? There are lots of optical illusions because it’s such a long runway, and because it’s so wide,” he said.
“The airport is designed to have the pilot sitting 30 feet in the air, so we’re sitting in a little aircraft, and you’re sitting maybe one foot off the ground, none of the signs are aimed at you, so it’s actually incredibly disorientating,” Lindley added.
The main runway stretches for almost 4km — far longer than smaller aircraft need to land.
Australia’s largest airport usually has a packed schedule, making it almost impossible for private pilots and hobbyists to land. Some private planes have landed there in the past, but the airport’s Airfield Operations supervisor Nigel Coghlan said that the pandemic had allowed the runways to be opened up like never before.
“As our airfield is much quieter than usual due to COVID, we’ve been able to review each request and grant access, which for a lot of hobby pilots is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” Coghlan said. “We’ve been able to open up conversations with light aircraft pilots because our airspace is much quieter than usual.”
The airport is currently experiencing 60 to 90 plane movements a day, a huge drop from the 800 to 900 that ordinarily use the runways. That “significant drop” has had a huge impact on the aviation industry, Coghlan said.
For Lindley, it was about making the most of a difficult period.
“It was really about turning lemons into lemonade,” he said. “It’s such a horrible situation with COVID, and it’s a really challenging time in aviation, and I just wanted to turn that into something a little bit positive, to keep people flying and keep their dreams alive.”
Pilots had to submit a flight plan and book a landing spot. Coghlan and his team then had to adapt to the smaller aircraft and guide them in unfamiliar territory.
“We’re certainly not used to the smaller aircraft, so they really keep us on our toes when they arrive,” he said. “Being smaller means they’re harder to see than the jets and turboprops, and they don’t make as much noise. It creates a positive challenge for all of us on the airfield.”
For some of the hobbyists, he acknowledged, “we’re literally making their dreams come true.”
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