UNSUNG HEROES: At the Finch Hatton airstrip (from left) helicopter pilot Ben Geaney, spotter helicopter operator Don Wilkie, Finch Hatton airfield association's Bill Cross, water bomber pilot Richard McDonald and Central Highlands Air Services' Craig Crossingham and Adriano Nacho.
UNSUNG HEROES: At the Finch Hatton airstrip (from left) helicopter pilot Ben Geaney, spotter helicopter operator Don Wilkie, Finch Hatton airfield association's Bill Cross, water bomber pilot Richard McDonald and Central Highlands Air Services' Craig Crossingham and Adriano Nacho. Marty Strecker Photography

Quick-thinking and hard work prepares airstrip for fires

THE sight of a plane in the sky filled fire-ravaged communities with relief as fixed-wing small planes operated from the Finch Hatton airstrip were used to waterbomb the raging bushfires.

But only a week ago, the airstrip in Finch Hatton was not even operational.

Finch Hatton Airfield Association member Bill Cross said the airstrip was out of commission and had not been maintained for 15 years.

He said it was a lucky coincidence that he was at the Finch Hatton pub when Rockhampton-based father-son water-bombing team Richard and Peter McDonald called on Monday evening (November 26) inquiring about the airstrip.

Within hours a team was assembled to prepare the airstrip for the planes' arrival.

"From daybreak to 11 o'clock we went from zero airstrip to a 700-metre usable length airstrip that we could start doing air operations off," Mr Cross said.

By daybreak on Tuesday morning Mr Cross, alongside grader-operator Phil Koch and using equipment donated by Joe Scriha, started clearing the airstrip.

"Monday night there was nothing there. By tuesday morning we were operational," Mr Cross said.

After fixing the airstrip, Mr Cross said the team encountered a significant problem.

At 700m, the airstrip was less than half the length of the 1500m airstrip the fixed wing water bombers normally operate on.

Some quick-thinking and farming ingenuity lead the team to construct a ramp to assist the planes to take off.

"We basically made them a little ski jump," Mr Cross said.

This ramp enabled the planes to take on larger water loads.

Mr Cross said each flight could dump a minimum of two tonnes of water onto the fires.

He estimates the water bombers went through 14,000 litres every half-hour.

"Those blokes in one day delivered probably four times as much water as the 737 did," he said.

The air-support operations were maintained by crews on the ground, which included watercart drivers and ground crews.

Two-man crews were able to conduct maintenance, refuel the planes, as well as refill the water tanks within three minutes.

At its peak on the weekend, the airstrip was coordinating four planes and one helitack from its runway.

"As you can imagine with a three to four-minute turnaround for those aircraft, they were just running continuously."

Mr Cross said the water bomber pilots did not stop flying from "daylight to dark".

"The boys were putting in 10 to 12-hour days in the cockpit," he said.

"They would only get out to relieve themselves and then jump back in"

Mr Cross said ground crews would pass drinks and sandwiches to the pilots in the cockpit as they prepared the aircrafts.

"Those boys are the real heroes, I'll tell you that. They just didn't stop."



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