The state of the Tenterfield airstrip is again on the radar, with moves to upgrade the strip to accommodate the transfer of non-acute hospital patients by air rather than road.
A group of concerned citizens came together at Stannum House on Thursday, February 16 at the request of Presbyterian Church pastor Jim Seymour, keen to explore ways to upgrade the airstrip to Royal Flying Doctor Service (RFDS) standards.
NSW Ambulance’s Tenterfield station officer Ian Crouch was on hand to clarify that such fixed-wing patient transfers are quite distinct and would have no impact on emergency transfers undertaken by the Westpac Life Saver Rescue Helicopter. The helicopter – staffed with a doctor – is solely for the transfer of acute patients to a larger facility for emergency treatment.
A fixed-wing service – crewed with a pilot and flight nurse who is a qualified critical care paramedic – is used to transfer non-acute patients. Such cases are currently taken by road, sometimes necessitating many hours of travel and often handing over from one ambulance crew to another along the way.
“It doesn’t mean every patient transfer is done by air, but it becomes an option,” Mr Crouch said.
Mr Seymour assembled the meeting due the church’s connection to RFDS founder John Flynn, and Mr Seymour’s desire to see the service aid the local community. He brought in friend and former federal politician John Bradford from the Gold Coast to spearhead the project with the intention of securing a federal Building Better Regions Fund grant.
Problem is the deadline for applications for the infrastructure component of the fund is next week and there is a lot of information to gather before then, including cost estimates.
Mr Bradford came armed with RFDS specifications for the airstrip, which include what he interprets as a 1400 x 100 metre landing strip, a 50x50 metre hard stand for loading/unloading, and amenities. Lighting would be required for night landings.
The main obstacle to meeting these specifications – apart from money – is a hump in the middle of the airstrip, estimated by former councillor Laurie West to be 3-4 metres high. The hump obscures vision to the far end, creating a safety hazard at takeoff.
Alternatives offered at the meeting ranged from a fully-specified sealed tarmac with lighting, co-funded by grants and council, down to a community drive to raise money for local contractors to scrape off the hump, at least as an initial phase, allowing an RFDS plane to land in daylight.
Mr West estimated a ballpark figure of around $500,000 for scraping, lighting and the hard stand, gathered from when he brought the issue of an airstrip upgrade to council back in 2012. While there is no money in council’s budget to co-fund the project should a grant be successful, council’s business development manager (and Tenterfield Rotary president) Harry Bolton said the Tenterfield community has a good reputation for raising money for worthy causes.
“The community raised the money to build Millrace and Haddington,” Mr Bolton said.
He suggested starting a community fund and not making the project harder than it need be, especially with local contractors willing to support the initiative.
Although some of the planes used by the service are quite large, a ‘touch-and-go’ performed by the RFDS some time ago confirmed that the airstrip surface is acceptable, apart from the hump. Three important questions posed by James Kelly (representing Member for New England Barnaby Joyce, who sent his apologies) was whether the RFDS would be willing to come to Tenterfield (yes, according to Mr Bradford), can the service come in now (yes, probably, according to Mr West), and how far away is the nearest RFDS base (Dubbo).
Mr Joyce said in a statement that he commended the many people within the local community who are getting behind the proposal.
“The importance of infrastructure such as airports in regional town like Tenterfield cannot be overstated.”
He said he is keenly aware of the need to upgrade the Tenterfield airport to provide the capacity for larger aircraft to use the facility, such as those operated by the RFDS, and to open up important business, freight, passenger travel and future growth and job opportunities in the local region.
With the grant application’s emphasis on demonstrable ongoing economic benefits to the town, the chances of securing a grant are much improved by these non-medical uses of the aerodrome.
Mr Bradford and helpers are now in the process of gathering information from local earthmoving contractors and an airstrip designer and engineer to move the project forward. Others present at the meeting included David Thomson from Regional Development Australia, Councillor John Martin, Keith Butler, Graham Foan, host Dr Mohan Siridaddana and several church members.
Below is a video of the view from an RFDS pilot's perspective as he or she comes in to land, potentially in Tenterfield but without have to dodge Mt Mackenzie and other landmarks.