The challenges in maintaining an airstrip or 6 in the bush

Host: Kilcowera Station

Written by Toni Sherwin, Station Owner

Kilcowera is a working cattle station that offers accommodation, camping and guided tours.

Now this is a job that not too many people ever really give a second thought to. But never the less it is a never ending job and crucial to the safe operation of our plane and for the visitors who fly into the station.

Kilcowera airstrips.

Not long after Greg and I tied the knot in 1980 we did the prudent thing and put an airstrip in – it was about 900 meters long, wide enough and did us well enough for the first 10 years or so. Then we decided to learn to fly and buy a plane, so a second strip was put in – a cross strip for the first one. This one was 1200 meters long and very wide, to really comply with Royal Flying Doctor standards. Now both of these airstrips are in the most mongrely sandy country and 10 mms of rain renders them unusable, but that’s where they are and that’s where the hangar is so we’ve got to live with it! We have put another airstrip in about 10 kilometers from the house on much better country and so far I have used it a couple of times and visitors have used it as well.  It runs east – west and is about 1300 meters long. This one has been in use for 2 years now and Greg has nearly completed a cross strip there as well. He clears the land with his D4 dozer then grades it with his ancient grader. It’s looking good but we can’t do anything else to it until we get some rain to settle the dust so to speak. We’ll build another hanger there and use the old hanger for a hay shed and to store all sorts of little gems.

Greg and his machines.

But back to the original airstrips, when we put the second strip in I had this 1200 meters by about 30 or 40m wide to pick up sticks from! So every day I would put an hour or two in marching up and down with a rake and buckets doing the stick trick.  Our two girls were aged about 8 and 6 and woe betide them if they ever said they were bored or had nothing to do! Off we would go to the airstrip, picking up sticks, telling stories and making up riddles to jolly them along!

Also our flying instructor seemed to have a hatie on the big long strip and even if the wind favoured it, he would often insist we land on the shorter one. I think it was because it was so long we really didn’t have to try too hard to land the plane in the first quarter of the strip and pull up in a timely manner. We could just plonk her down halfway along and still have stacks of room in front of us. Instructors like to make things hard for the poor little trainee! But still my first solo flight ranks right up there in my top 4 life experiences! NEVER forget your first solo, do you? On the downwind leg, just looking over at that seat next to you – that is empty, makes you feel very, very alone!

Taxying at Kilcowera.

But the maintenance of our airstrips is never ending. We very rarely grade them as the country is too sandy and we would just end up with an enormous gully, but we do drag them with an assortment of things – old steel wagon wheel rims are the best thing. Or big sheets of weldmesh tied behind the Toyota. We try to do this just before it rains, so that they “set” nice and hard. But as often as not it doesn’t rain and all we get is wind and then it’s heartbreaking to see the airstrips just blowing away and the more this happens the lower they get compared to the surrounding country. Erosion by both wind and water is a very real problem. Also during very dry times we can’t let visitors use the strip as they would more than likely bog their planes in the dust and dirt. I still use it but my plane is very light and I know just where to go and where not to go on the airstrips!

After we get rain the woody weeds and the paddy melons come up all over both of them, so I’m out there with axe, shovel, and poison trying to control them (kill them!!!).  And that’s the job of the moment, there are gazillions of little woody weeds out there that I have to eliminate. The smaller they are the less poison I’ve got to use (it’s very expensive), and finding the time to do the enormous job is difficult. At one stage we did have 8 airstrips on the property, now we are down to 4 useable ones.

Sandy airstrips.