Delivering Christmas Cheer to Melbourne

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For many, Christmas is a time of family and gift giving/receiving. While that is important, my favourite thing about Christmas is that I get to go & distribute some “Christmas Cheer” to various aviation related groups in Melbourne :)

My “day job” with Picture This Ballooning has me very involved in the day-to-day operations of a commercial hot air balloon company that operates in Melbourne, the Yarra Valley and other locations. Our flights over Melbourne are very dependent on information from the Bureau of Meteorology‘s aviation section and the air traffic controllers at Tullamarine (YMML), Essendon (YMEN) and Moorabbin (YMMB). While we work closely with these various groups, we also try to give them a chance to see how we operate (eg: come & fly with us) and also take the time at Christmas to say thanks for the help they’ve given us all year.

Andy gets shown the information sources & models used when forecasting the weather

Andy gets shown the information sources & models used when forecasting the weather

As a true Aviation Geek with a chronic case of aeroneurophycosis, I leap at the chance to spend half a day or so visiting the groups and handing out some Christmas gifts (usually some bottles of champagne & such). This year was no exception and I also got to take Andy (our visiting pilot from the UK) with me on the run.

We started off at the Bureau of Meteorology where we got to chat with the team about the weather. No, really: it’s been rather unpredictable of late & we’ve not had a great season so far for ballooning. We also had a look at their various sources of information and the models they use to prepare our forecasts. I’m a bit of a weather geek (in training) so a visit to the BoM is always fascinating & informative.

Airspace in the Melbourne basin area has 4 large airports to deal with (plus lots of smaller airstrips)

Airspace in the Melbourne basin area has 4 large airports to deal with (plus 27 smaller airstrips)

From the city we drove out to Essendon Airport (YMEN) to visit the folks at Essendon Tower. Usually our pilots are chatting with this tower during our flights over Melbourne unless we’re in the air before they open. They can see us & on a good day will visually direct traffic around us. The Essendon team also have to work closely with the Approach & Departure controllers at Melbourne airport (aka the Melbourne Terminal Control Unit) as the Essendon Class C is tucked into the south-eastern corner of Melbourne’s airspace. It’s not uncommon for aircraft to pass over Essendon on approach to Melbourne while sometimes aircraft will be routed over the Albert Park Lake area just south of the city which makes for “fun” if our balloons are in the area trying to land.

For a great overview of the issues associated with Melbourne’s airspace, check out this Aeronautical Study of Melbourne from 2011. Very interesting reading.

Controllers at Essendon Tower (YMEN) performing a hand-over at shift-change

Controllers at Essendon Tower (YMEN) performing a hand-over at shift-change

All three companies that fly balloons over Melbourne work closely with Air Traffic Control and we’ve established procedures & information to ensure that we’re all helping each other as much as possible. I suspect it’s going to get “interesting” in a few years time when the third runway at Melbourne opens for business. It’s parallel to the existing 09/27 and will put more traffic closer to the northern end of Essendon which may make it tricky for us to get clearance to launch from CT Barling Reserve up near Bundoora. At least that’s a few years away yet :)

A helicopter that's big enough to carry my fat butt! :)

A helicopter that’s big enough to carry my fat butt! :)

While at Essendon we noticed an Erickson S64 Aircrane on the ramp & went to check it out. As we got closer we saw that this Aircrane is “Delilah” and Dave (its pilot) was there along with Chris from Parks Vic doing a test on a radio for comms with Parks Vic staff. Dave answered our questions & gave us a run down on the aircraft’s features and let us climb into the cockpit. It’s an amazing aircraft and I’m going to see if I can arrange an official interview for a future episode of PCDU.

I took a few more photos of the Aircrane including a few inside the cockpit. You can see them in the “2013-12 Christmas Cheer” set on my Flickr stream.

After Essendon we continued down the highway to Melbourne International Airport at Tullamarine. Rather than going to the terminals, we headed around the back past the Qantas maintenance base (pretty empty now but soon to be Jetstar’s main 787 maintenance base) and continued around to the AirServices Australia buildings at the control tower. After clearing security we dropped off our gifts with the Melbourne TCU team and spent some time with them to discuss the work they do. This was great for Andy as he hadn’t had been walked through how the Australian airspace system is managed from two main centres in Brisbane & Melbourne.

NOTE: For those of you living in Brisbane, Melbourne or Sydney you can get a tour of the ATC stations and a briefing on the history of Australia’s ATC system by attending one of the AirServices Pilot Information Nights. You’ll need to book in with AirServices and may need to try a month or two in advance but I highly recommend them for pilots of all aircraft, even balloons & ultralights :)

Controller operating a typical Eurocat ATC workstation (image from AirServices Australia)

Controller operating a typical Eurocat ATC workstation (image from AirServices Australia)

While Andy was getting a run down on Australia’s ATC system, I sat beside one of the operators & plugged in to monitor his frequency. He ran me through his airspace and the hand-offs with other controllers. He also stepped through all the different information on the main screen & secondary screens and how he used that to manage his flow.

We deal with the Melbourne TCU team when we lodge our flight plans and if we’re taking off prior to Essendon Tower opening. It’s good for our pilots to get an understanding of the operating environment TCU work in while it’s also good for their controllers to get an appreciation for the finer points of operating balloons over a city. Being able to see the consoles and how our formation is a blip in amongst so many others helps our pilots appreciate why some requests can’t be met and how to best utilise the airspace & ATC resources available to them.

As ever, it was a fascinating session and a lot of fun :)

Moorabbin Tower (once used as the logo for PCDU :) )

Moorabbin Tower (once used as the logo for PCDU :) )

After Melbourne airport, I dropped Andy back at his place & headed into the office to get some admin work out of the way. From there I headed down to Moorabbin Airport to visit their tower team. On days with northerly winds it’s not uncommon for us to wind up landing at or near Moorabbin. Some days we’re flying early in the morning and arriving just as the tower opens but as we get more towards the middle of the year and winter, our later start times mean we’re flying into their airspace while the tower is open. So while we’re not interacting with Moorabbin as much as we do Essendon or Melbourne TCU, their assistance is appreciated and we enjoy working with them.

With Moorabbin being close to my home, this was the last stop for the day. It really is one of the high-points of the year as I get to indulge my aviation & weather geekdom and the only thing that could make it better would be if I were flying from venue to venue rather than driving :)

So, how long until next Christmas? :)

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