Safety topic from Episode 6

Coral Coast cruising

Cooktown to Cairns

The coastal route between Cooktown and Cairns, and further south to Ingham, is one of Australia’s most celebrated stretches of coastline. Apart from these two Bucket List destinations, major tourist attractions along the way include Cape Tribulation, Port Douglas, Mission Beach, and the resort islands of Dunk, Hinchinbrook and Bedarra.  

With the relaxed tropical lifestyle these destinations offer, and all serving as step-off points to the Great Barrier Reef, international and local tourist numbers are consistently high. Not surprisingly, many of them want to see this grand spectacle from the air. That means the potential for us all to be sharing the skies with considerable heli and fixed-wing traffic, flying at various levels on local scenic flights. In particular, keep a good lookout for heli traffic at 500ft AMSL, in both directions.  

Departing southbound from Cooktown, make sure you are carrying the current Cairns VNC. Note there are ALAs at Cow Bay and Wonga Beach, just north of the airspace step at 36nm from Cairns. At the step, note there is a frequency change to Cairns Approach 126.1. 

In between Port Douglas and Double Island, look out for hang-glider activity on the coast at Wangetti.

Cairns is a busy international airport so pay particular attention to the airspace steps, and do not enter Cairns controlled airspace without a clearance. Arriving from any direction, give ATC plenty of time to process your clearance, and always submit a flight notification prior to your flight. Make sure you’ve read the ERSA and, for a step-by-step guide to all the inbound and outbound procedures at Cairns, have a thorough look through CASA’s OnTrack Cairns program.

Within OnTrack, there’s a particularly useful section for Cairns “Overview & Class C Procedures” which is really worth a read before you get there – lots of good tips from local instructors and air traffic controllers about what to expect. 

If you have any queries whatsoever about procedures at Cairns, call ATC for assistance prior to your flight on 07 4050 5380. 

To the west and south

If you are approaching Cairns from the west, and low cloud is evident on the hills to the west of Cairns, remember that the friendly (read more relaxed and cheaper landing fees!) aerodrome of Mareeba is an easy alternative to Cairns for you to land and leave your aircraft. 

To the south, expect parachute operations in Danger Area 762, which is just to the north of Gordonvale. If parachutists are operating, you will frequently be given a clearance via the Eastern VFR Corridor when leaving Cairns, so plan ahead. If you are approaching from the south and there are parachutists in the area, you are likely to be cleared via the Western VFR Corridor.

To the south and south-west of Cairns, you’ll note there’s some seriously high terrain, including Bellenden Ker at 5322ft AMSL (with a 328ft tower on top),  Mt Bartle Frere at 5299ft and the Atherton Tableland with a peak of 4544ft, so routes via these locations are often unpassable in inclement weather. The coastal route is often a safer VFR route in times of low cloud. 

Always remember this is tropical Queensland, renowned for its sunshine, but unfortunately also for its unpredictable monsoonal weather patterns, so pay particular attention to the forecast and make sure you have a clear picture in your mind of what the weather is expected to do during the time frame it may impact your flight. Have a Plan B up your sleeve in case of deterioration in VFR conditions.

Watch out for parachute and ultralight operations at several locations up and down this coast. Our Out-n-Back crews encountered robust activity at Port Douglas, Innisfail, Tully, Ingham and inland at Mareeba. Make sure you’re on the correct VHF frequency and listen carefully for traffic calls.

A tip for flying near Hinchinbrook Island: this is a dugong protected area and, as such, there is some Fly Neighbourly advice for pilots. Check out ERSA GEN-SP, Point 16 Great Barrier Reef Marine Park (GBRMP). As you’ll read in this section, care needs to be taken along the whole length of the GBRMP coastline. The GBRMP contains nearly 1,000 rocky islands and cays, many being sensitive seabird breeding sites of national and international significance. Pilots are requested to not fly below 1,500ft within one nautical mile of sites occupied by nesting seabirds. Nesting sites are listed in ERSA. 

Southbound from Ingham, it’s time to get ready for Townsville’s Class C airspace and its military restricted areas. Once again, check out OnTrack for advice on operating within Townsville’s airspace, and make sure you’ve read all the relevant NOTAMs.