2 December 2013 © David Eyre
Catalina Airlines is edging closer to its ambition of commencing seaplane operations from the Swan River in Perth, after obtaining more of the necessary regulatory approvals.
Seaplane operations have been part of Perth’s aviation history since the 1920s. During World War Two, Qantas flew Consolidated Catalina seaplanes from Crawley Bay to Sri Lanka, to break the Japanese blockade of Australia.
Later, a number of other operators have tried to make seaplane operations on the river viable. In the late 1980s, a Lake Buccaneer seaplane operated from a jetty near Sir James Mitchell Park in South Perth. Repacholi Aviation also acquired a Cessna 206 floatplane with plans to operate from the river, but the operation never started and the aircraft remained moored on the Canning River near Mount Pleasant, until it was sold.
In March 2012, Catalina Airlines, founded by former SAS mountaineering and Arctic survival warfare instructor Mack McCormack, acquired N42MY, a 22-seat Grumman G-111 Albatross amphibian seaplane (the last Albatross produced). The aircraft was shipped to Newcastle from Florida, USA in April 2012 and then flown to Perth. Upon arriving in Perth on 27 April 2012, N42MY took off from Perth Airport, landed and took off from the water at Matilda Bay, and in Thomson Bay at Rottnest Island and later to Jandakot Airport. At the time the aircraft was acquired, the plan was for the aircraft to be based in Broome and used to fly tourist and charter flights in and around the Kimberley region of Western Australia, including the Horizontal Waterfalls, Montgomery Reef, Prince Region and off the coast at Rowley Shoals. However, nothing eventuated and the aircraft remained parked at Jandakot.
In February 2013, N42MY flew from Jandakot to Geraldton and conducted some promotional flights from Geraldton to the Abrolhos Islands, and it was reported in the Geraldton Guardian newspaper that Catalina Airlines was to begin seaplane flights departing from Perth’s Swan River on daily fishing and snorkelling trips to the Abrolhos Islands off the coast of Geraldton, commencing from April 2013. Flight time from Perth to the Abrolhos Islands is 80 minutes. Costing was estimated to be around A$1000 per person, and operations were to be expanded into the Kimberley region later. After the February 2013 flights, the Albatross returned to Jandakot and was parked again, and on 16 April 2013, N42MY was registered as VH-NMO to Catalina Airlines Pty Ltd.
In April 2013, Catalina Airlines also acquired a Cessna 208 Caravan floatplane, VH-OPH, which is also parked at Jandakot.
In August 2013, the airline obtained an initial Civil Aviation Safety Authority (CASA) acceptance certificate and the airline is now awaiting final CASA approval.
An application to operate from the Swan River at South Perth (east of the Narrows Bridge) was lodged with the Swan River Trust (soon to be absorbed into the new Department of Parks and Wildlife) in 2012, but during the consultation phase, South Perth Liberal MP John McGrath suggested that the operation instead operate from the river at a site near the old Swan Brewery, west of the Narrows Bridge. The airline complied, but in October 2013, the Swan River Trust ordered Catalina Airlines to reapply for permission to land seaplanes on the river. This was because the proposed landing site had been shifted, which was a significant amendment to the initial application, and the various agencies involved had to be re-consulted about the new location. The Swan River Trust also asked for more information on seaplane noise before approving a training run in mid-October 2013, and the training flight also required a separate application. Mack McCormack threatened legal action after nearly two years of waiting for the Trust to approve his original application, stating that the delays had potentially cost him $4 million in turnover and put at risk what he considers to be a major WA tourism attraction.
The Trust commented that it had received a number of similar applications in the past, each one refused due to “amenity and conflict with other river and foreshore activities”. Mr McCormack noted that other states also allow floatplane operations.
Approval for 12-month trial
Finally, at the end of November 2013, the Catalina Airlines was granted approval by the Swan River Trust to operate a 12-month trial using the 11-passenger Cessna 208 Caravan floatplane, flying twice daily, seven days a week between 8am and 5.30pm from the Swan River to Rottnest Island, Mandurah and Margaret River. Other planned seaplane routes include weekend flights through Mandurah to Dunsborough, so that scuba divers could access the sunken HMAS Perth. Subject to approval from Mandurah Council, the airline would like to fly between Mandurah and Rottnest Island.
The trial was only approved after Mr McCormack changed his application from landings near South Perth foreshore, and replaced his larger Grumman Albatross with the Cessna 208 Caravan seaplane on the services.
The seaplane will operate from a base on the Swan River near the Mill Point Road turnoff from the Kwinana Freeway, taking off and landing between the South Perth jet-ski freestyle area and the Milyu Marine Park and Nature Reserve (opposite Royal Perth Golf Course). The approval was given subject to a number of strict conditions, including an exclusion zone covering the Milyu Marine Park and an area up to 300 metres from the Como foreshore. The exclusion zone is to protect migratory wading birds and to reduce noise impacts on people living nearby, and the seaplane and its support vessel are not permitted to enter the area.
The trust will be inviting public comment on the seaplane operation throughout the trial period. Following the 12-month trial, an environmental and community impact assessment will be undertaken to determine whether the trial will be permitted to continue for an additional six months. If it is found that the aircraft operations are causing an impact, the trial will cease. The trial is important as it will inform decisions on the future use of the river by commercial seaplanes.
Final approval from CASA and the WA Department of Transport is yet to be received, but the airline hopes to start operating joy flights in early-2014.
Mr McCormack hopes to still use the Albatross for Abrolhos Island flights, but for the time being, the aircraft will remain parked at Jandakot Airport.