Private Airfield Operations

Australia is a vast country. It's no wonder then that a large number of our pilots operate out of rural airfields, privately operated, sometimes known as aircraft landing areas (ALAs). Unfortunately, however, a number of serious and fatal accidents also occur at ALAs due to hazards specific to private airfields.

There are thousands of private airfields across the country. Some of these are large, flat airfields, similar to certified aerodromes, whilst some are small farm strips on undulating terrain with obstacles on the approach path and lengths which require specific short take-off and landing (STOL) aircraft to operate from safely. 

One key difference from operating at a private airfield (or ALA) compared to a certified aerodrome is that ALAs are not certified. This means that they do not have to adhere to the same standards of a certified aerodrome, including obstacle clearance requirements.

Ultimately, it is the responsibility of the pilot in command to ensure that any ALA is safe and appropriate, prior to operating.

One of the most common causes of serious and fatal accidents at ALAs occurs due to collision with terrain. In most cases, this is due to obstacles, most commonly trees, on the threshold of the runway or extended centreline. Due to the often shortened landing distance available, pilots often reduce their margins, narrowly scraping over trees or other obstacles on final approach to ensure they can touch down as soon as possible. This offers little margin for the effects of environmental conditions or poor judgement of clearances which could result in the aircraft impacting these obstacles. 

Another common cause of collision with terrain from private airfields is due to a failure of the pilot to confirm take-off calculations prior to flight. Whilst an aircraft may be capable of taking off in several hundred meters from a seal runway, this may be greatly increased due to a number of factors at ALAs including runway surface condition, slope, shape and surface type. Of course, other factors relevant to all airfields must be taken into account, including elevation, wind strength and direction and density altitude as a result of temperature and pressure.

All pilots should carry out specific training in strip flying with a qualified instructor, prior to operating from challenging ALAs. 

Prior to operating from an ALA it is important to understand the local hazards, specific to that airfield. Where possible, pilots should review the location from the ground prior to attempting to take-off or land, and pilots should receive a briefing (and permission to operate) from the landowner. 

A few key considerations prior to operating into an ALA include:

  • OBSTACLES - Are there any obstacles in the undershoot, overshoot or on the runway? What obstacles exist on the extended centreline and how will this impact the approach/departure path? Are there trees, wires, fences, or other obstacles?
  • WIND - Is there a windsock? What is the wind strength and direction and how will this impact take-off or landing performance?
  • SIZE & SHAPE - Is the runway suitable for use based on the aircraft being flown?
  • SLOPE - Is there a slope and if so, how will this impact take-off and landing performance? Slope may be difficult to detect from above.
  • SURFACE - Is the surface suitable for use? Is it wet or rocky? Is it too rough for the aircraft type being flown?
  • ELEVATION - High altitude will increase density altitude calculations and reduce performance.
  • TERRAIN - Will the surrounding terrain affect your flight path or affect your ability to conduct a safe go-around?
These are all elements that should be considered prior to operating into or out of an ALA.

In addition to additional hazards that may exist at ALAs, pilots should avoid the temptation to fly unusual, or non-standard circuit procedures, just because they are operating from a private airfield, regardless of whether there is any other traffic. Previous fatal accidents have occurred within RAAus operations due to manoeuvring at low-level when operating at private airfields. These may have been avoided by ensuring a standard, stabilised approach to the runway from above 500ft. 

Pilots must avoid the temptation to fly non-standard procedures which may increase the likelihood of encountering a collision with terrain! 

When operating from a private ALA, weight and balance and performance calculations are essential in ensuring sufficient distance is available for take-off or landing. A number of fatal accidents have occurred due to collision with terrain during take-off due to failing to clear obstacles at the end of the runway.

Remember, just because your aircraft was capable of taking off from a particular location on one day, does not mean it will be capable the next. Weight, temperature, wind, surface, pressure and other factors may impact aircraft performance.



Below is a video with information on Bush Flying from National Safety Month 2021 with experienced bush flyers Tim Howes and Dan Compton.

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