Flying High

Host: Wooroona Grazing Co.

The following is an article from the Graziher blog. Claire Dunne of Wooroona Grazing Co. created the Graziher blog before developing it into a magazine, which is available here.

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Talia (Tay) Sheppard has a high flying job. She is the Chief Pilot for Wrightsair – conducting charter and scenic flights, aerial mustering and aerial baiting.

Flying over the South Australian landscape is part of her day-to-day job. It is a career that is filled with new and exciting experiences; from landing a plane when the engine failed to mustering hundreds of cattle. Such is the life of a bush pilot.

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How did you get into flying?
I was always interested in flying as a child and my parents surprised me with a flight for my 11th birthday in a C152 on a farm in South Africa. I was hooked from that moment onwards and went on to do my Fixed Wing Commercial Pilot licence in Adelaide and my Helicopter licence in Sydney.

Where is your home base?
I am based in William Creek in Outback South Australia, the tiny town that sits on Anna Creek Station with a population of about 10 when we are busy!

Where do you work?
All throughout South Australia and interstate but predominantly mustering in South Australia. I have flown mostly for Anna Creek Station, Macumba Station, Nilpinna Station, The Twins Station, McDouall Peak Station, Billa Kalina Station, Dulkaninna Station and a few others.

What might be a typical day for you?
A typical mustering day would be breakfast at 5am, discuss the paddock and plan for the days mustering over the map. Do a preflight inspection on the plane and refuel it from drums. Then takeoff as soon as there is enough light and fly the paddock to get an idea of where the cattle are and where to send the bikes to start off. Usually find a spot to land near the ground crew for smoko and lunch if time permits and refuelling during the day. Once the aerial mustering is done and the mobs are together and walking along, land and jump in a Land Cruiser/bike/4 wheeler and help get on the tail of the mob and yard up for the day. Fly back to the camp or the homestead, have a wash and a beer (or two) and tea and bed!

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Where did you grow up?
I was born in South Africa where I grew up until I was 12 yrs old and then moved to the Gold Coast in QLD for high school. I then moved to Adelaide to study and do my flying training and worked as a Shark Patrol pilot there. I have now been in William Creek for over 5 yrs.

To what level do you relate to the country – born and raised?
I have always had a close affiliation with the country, I was born on a farm in South Africa and have enjoyed every minute of my 5 years in Outback SA.

What attracts you to flying?
The freedom of being able to go almost anywhere and see the country from above. Also, the challenge of always improving your skills and not sitting behind a desk for a living!

Have you had any hairy situations up in the air?
I had an engine failure taking off from a station with a vet and dingo researcher onboard! I managed to put the aircraft back down on the remaining airstrip safely though!

The best thing about aerial mustering?
The challenge of doing the job right and the satisfaction that comes from helping the ringers on the ground and making their job easier. Low flying and aerial mustering in particular is physically and mentally stimulating and something that really develops the hands on flying skills of pilots and is always different from day to day and paddock to paddock.

Could you explain the whole mustering process in depth?
Mustering is the term used for rounding up cattle, usually to get them into yards or smaller paddocks for various reasons like branding or selling. Aerial mustering is using an aircraft to manoeuvre and help round up the cattle from the air. When mustering with a plane, the idea is to fly behind the cattle and use both the physical presence of the plane and the noise of the engine to get the cattle moving and to help the ground crew locate the cattle on their motorbikes or horses which is particularly helpful in scrubby or hilly terrain. We usually fly quite low and conduct a series of passes behind the cattle at an angle that will push them the direction we want them to travel, once the cattle are moving the way we want, we can generally take the pressure of them a bit and fly orbits at a slightly higher altitude to keep the noise behind the cattle and keep them moving along steadily. It’s important to know how cattle think and move for aerial mustering to be successful and mustering on the ground before becoming a mustering pilot is the best way to gain this knowledge. Another important part of aerial mustering is the ground crew and having good and proper communication with them so we can help each other out. The pilot usually has the best picture of the paddock and location of the cattle and needs to be able to plan the muster and run it from the air and relay the information to the ground crew to be successful.

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What type of numbers do you muster on the various stations?
It all depends on the country and the paddock sizes, some paddocks on the bigger stations are bigger than some whole stations! I muster on Anna Creek Station a lot which is 6.5 million acres (24000 square km) so the paddocks are quite large and it might take up to a week to muster the whole paddock. Generally where I muster, its desert country so the cattle are pretty spread out so we can get about 600 head or so together at a time for a days muster.

Can you see advantages/disadvantages with using a plane opposed to a helicopter for mustering?
There are definitely advantages and disadvantages of both fixed wing and helicopter mustering. In the country I muster, its more financially viable to use a plane, it’s pretty open country and quite large paddocks so the speed of the plane makes getting around a bit quicker, not to mention the cheaper running costs of a plane. In scrubbier country, helicopters can definitely be a lot more useful to manoeuvre around trees and push cattle out of the scrub. I have my helicopter licence too so I’m not biased! In fact, I’m trying to talk the boss into getting a chopper too!

What’s your ideal plane to fly?
Mustering is my favourite type of flying and that’s in a Cessna 172 but I do also enjoy flying charter in our Twin Engine Aerostar which is more of an executive style aircraft with leather seats and air-conditioning and gets along quite fast at about 205 kts. Alternatively, I love flying the R44!

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When do things start to get a little bit dangerous in the air?
Things can start to get dangerous in the air when it’s hot, windy, dusty and you’re getting tired which can all happen at once in the outback! For a pilot, it’s important to recognise these issues and alter your flying to deal with it. It can also get a bit intense if the cattle just aren’t doing what everyone wants and the ground crew struggle to control the cattle alone, that’s generally when you start to push yourself and your aircraft but need to keep your cool and do it safely. Obstacles can make it dangerous too, like mustering around repeater towers or down in amongst the trees and sandhills.

Where do you see yourself in the next 5 years with flying?
I am hoping to do a bit more chopper flying in the near future and particularly chopper mustering but I think ultimately if I don’t own my own contract mustering business in the future, I would like to get into the RFDS as a pilot.

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