Our Katoomba Airfield Journey
Katoomba Airfield (YKAT) was opened in 1968 by three aviation pioneers for the express purpose of general aviation, tourism and emergency services. It was approved by some 17 Local, State and Federal departments and agencies.
It has operated since 1968 on the basis of commercial lease, although at times in a reduced capacity due to the ongoing maintenance needs. It is widely acknowledged as an asset of real strategic significance not only to the Blue Mountains community, but more broadly to the aviation sector and emergency services.
In September 2017, NSW Crown Lands & Water (the Dept) published an open tender (EOI) for YKAT following the previous lessees untimely passing.
The Dept advised that all necessary internal and external ministerial and departmental approvals and processes had been completed to enable the EOI to proceed.
The directors of FlyBlue take this opportunity to share their journey since October 2017 to inform all those that have a keen interest in the future of YKAT.
The Tender (EOI)
The EOI was for an ‘active airfield’ that operated under ‘existing use rights’
- Prior to lodging a tender for YKAT, FlyBlue directors met with Blue Mountains City Council (BMCC ) Mayor Mark Greenhill, Clr Don McGregor and then GM Luke Nicholls in Council offices on the 6 October 2017. The sole purpose of the meeting was to seek the support of BMCC with respect to the airfield and our plans to support the ‘economic sustainability’ with a sensitive commercial helicharter operation.
- Our position was clear, without BMCC’s full support we would not proceed. Full support was provided by all three BMCC representatives including Mayor Mark Greenhill.
- At about the same time BMCC provided a ‘Letter of Support’ to the Blue Mountains Aviator Club (members being for both fixed wing and helicopter aviators) for their tender submission (ref doc 1 & ref doc 2).
- This BMCC support continues previous commitments to YKAT’s importance and future as stated in Feb 2014 by Mayor Mark Greenhill (ref doc 3)
- FlyBlue’s vision and tender consisted of (4) four key pillars: economic sustainability, community, emergency services and the environment.
- Our commitment was to invest in and remediate YKAT in line with its original approval and purpose i.e. general aviation, tourism and emergency services. www.flyblue.com.au
- On the 27 November 2017 we were advised by the Dept that we had been successful and were the ‘preferred proponents’ and an interim 3 year Licence commencing 1 February 2018, for ‘aerodrome and land management’ purposes, would be immediately provided to allow lawful access to the site and further develop our Business Plan, prior to negotiating a long term Lease.
- Correspondence from the Dept confirmed that ‘an offer of a lease has been approved in principle’.
- We were committed to taking the community and key stakeholders including BMCC on the journey and arranged numerous meetings with BMCC staff and Councillors, culminating in a full presentation to BMCC on the 30 October 2018 in Springwood. Two Dept representatives joined us at this BMCC meeting in support.
- At the completion of our presentation it was announced by Deputy Mayor Chris Van der Kley as spokesperson, that BMCC were ‘excited and supportive’ of our plans.
- Meetings were subsequently held with Hon. Trish Doyle, Hon. Susan Templeman, Hon. Shane Mallard, Medlow Bath Residents Association, Blue Mountains Conservation Society, Blackheath Rotary, Katoomba Chamber of Commerce and business groups including BMATA (Blue Mountains Accommodation & Tourism Association) and BMEE (Blue Mountains Economic Enterprise), to share FlyBlue’s vision for YKAT.
- In developing our infrastructure investment plan, FlyBlue met onsite with Blue Mountains Area Command for Police, RFS and National Parks to better understand their needs and priorities. All were supportive of the FlyBlue vision.
- During this period we have undertaken significant rehabilitation and removal of waste from the airfield.
We have continued to maintain, invest and enhance the airfield including installing aviation infrastructure, weather stations and cameras, general facilities and onsite security www.katoomba.skycam.net.au.
With the approval of the Dept we have deposited 1,500 tonnes of certified Virgin Excavated Natural Material (VENM) on the airfield in preparation for repairing the main unsealed runway 06/24.
- FlyBlue has facilitated and supported major aerial firefighting operations during the fires in 2018 to 2020 providing the safe and secure environment for aircraft re-fuelling.
- On the 22 March 2019 FlyBlue collaborated with 6 local and highly qualified experienced aviators to develop:
- Noise sensitive flight paths
- General noise abatement procedures
- Enforceable ‘Fly Neighbourly’ Policy (as opposed to an Advice)
- Strict ‘Conditions of Entry’
- These were published on the FlyBlue website and provided to both the Dept and BMCC.
- FlyBlue advised the Dept that these could be part of the ‘essential terms’ of any lease negotiations.
- In June 2019, the Dept replaced the Project Manager (with aviation experience) and appointed a new Project Manager (with no aviation experience).
- Those opposing FlyBlue’s vision for YKAT, relatively small in number but loud in voice, took the opportunity to hijack the Dept’s Community Consultation (CES) process.
- Blue Mountains Conservation Society (BMCS) who represent less than 1% of the Blue Mountains community and who were disappointed following their failure to stop the Western Sydney Airport from proceeding, turned their attention to YKAT.
- A campaign of FEAR underpinned by deliberate lies and misinformation was activated and amplified through traditional and digital channels including social media, letterbox drops and public meetings.
- A couple of local residents of Grand Canyon Road seized leading roles in the fear campaign, and within the previous three years, had both purchased new homes circa 1klm from YKAT. It would appear they missed the sign at the end of their street ‘Katoomba Airfield 4kms’
- Despite being clearly signed as “NO ENTRY Authorised Persons Only” the airfield was being used by local residents as a private dog walking park, even though this meant illegally walking dogs through the Blue Mountains National Park to access YKAT.
- Having relentlessly pursued their negative FEAR campaign around ‘joy flights’ and associated noise, the opponents continued to harass and vilify anyone within the community who dared support FlyBlue’s vision for YKAT.
- Some local businesses were afraid to speak out, fearing that their businesses would be targeted.
- Opponents continued to:
- harass pilots and tourists alike arriving at YKAT
- Complained to the Environmental Protection Authority (EPA) about helicopters undertaking pre fire season power line inspections
- Instructed Google maps to show Katoomba Airfield ‘Permanently Closed’
- They went to extraordinary lengths to portray the directors of FlyBlue as ‘unfit’ to hold a Crown Land lease.
- A petition was organised by the opponents based on FEAR and misinformation:
“The petition of Blue Mountains residents and other concerned citizens of NSW brings to the attention of the House plans to develop a commercial airport at Katoomba Airfield and proposed intrusive helicopter joy flights over the Greater Blue Mountains World Heritage Area and its associated wild rivers. We object to the issuing of such a commercial license, associated joy flights and other commercial aircraft activity. The undersigned petitioners therefore ask the Legislative Assembly to incorporate the Katoomba Airfield into the Greater Blue Mountains World Heritage Area, to be managed by the National Parks and Wildlife Service as an emergency airfield.”
- The use of the term ‘commercial airport’ and ‘intrusive helicopter joy flights’ supported this fear campaign together with:
- Their estimated 5,000 helicopter joy flights a year,
- Meditation centres closing due to aircraft noise, despite being well inside FlyBlue’s proposed ‘no fly zone’,
- Migratory patterns of birds would be impacted, and native animals were in danger of extinction,
- Horse riders in the Megalong Valley would fall off their horses because of helicopters flying 3,000ft overhead and
- Bushwalking, rock climbing & canyoning would be threatened
- Foreign students, backpackers and unemployed locals were hired to solicit petition signatures using questionable tactics: standing outside supermarkets, electoral voting lines at both Federal and State elections, walking up and down the trains to the Royal Easter Show and approaching tourists at Echo Point. If people refused to sign, or questioned the petition, they were often verbally abused.
- Tens of thousands of leaflets were distributed within the upper and lower Blue Mountains and adverts placed in the Blue Mountains Gazette:
- On 1 August 2019 the Hon Trish Doyle tabled the petition with 12,000 (unvalidated) signatures in the NSW Parliament.
- Despite knowing the petition was based on misrepresentations and did not represent the business plans submitted by FlyBlue, the Dept went on to acknowledge this petition as influential in its decision to cancel FlyBlue’s licence and reject FlyBlue’s Lease Application.
The Community Consultation
- This was the first Community Engagement Strategy (CES) conducted under the new Crown Land Management Act 2016 with its principles clearly articulated:
- Regrettably the Dept had no aviation experienced representatives involved in the CES process and declined an offer by FlyBlue to attend and/or brief the community consultation facilitators.
- At all four community consultation sessions the venue was filled with protestors, placards and banners opposing the airfield.
- From attendees’ accounts it was an intimidating and unpleasant environment.
- This was the opponents’ opportunity to voice their long-held agenda of having YKAT put into the National Park and for the airfield to be permanently closed to general aviation and only available for emergency services.
- We were advised by government representatives to ‘not engage’ with the opponents and to ‘trust the process’, that the Minister responsible would only make an ‘evidence based’ decision.
- Following the community consultation sessions written submissions were called for.
- The Blue Mountains Conservation Society put forward its template for submissions to its 800+ members and then provided its own submission (ref doc 4).
- BMCC lodged a submission opposing FlyBlue’s vision for YKAT despite having provided full support to FlyBlue during meetings on the 11 October 2017 and the 30 October 2018 (ref doc 5).
- On completion of the CES process, FlyBlue received NO correspondence or engagement from the Dept relating to the outcomes, nor was an opportunity provided to FlyBlue for community concerns to be addressed in our Lease Application.
- On 10 January 2020, many months after the CES process was completed FlyBlue was informed that a total 1,582 submissions were received during the public exhibition period of which 85% were opposed to the granting of a new lease, despite there being 80,000 residents in the City of the Blue Mountains.
- FlyBlue has not been provided with any evidence relating to how the Dept validated the submissions, specifically the process employed to determine what were relevant considerations, reasonableness of issues raised and weighting given to factual evidence versus fears, assumptions and opinions. (View the Dept’s summary report)
- It would appear the Dept simply used a quantitative not qualitative review process.
- We have received messages from many of you with respect to how disappointed you are with the Dept’s decision. By not having provided a positive submission during the CES process, it allowed the opponents to Katoomba Airfield who were busy providing negative submissions, to sway the Dept’s decision.
Cancellation of FlyBlue’s Aerodrome and Land Management Licence
- The current licence for use as an ‘aerodrome’ was cancelled on 28 Feb 2020
- A new licence was issued on 29 February 2020 for ‘access & investigation purposes only’ with all helicopter and fixed wing aircraft prohibited except for emergency services.
- Aircraft flying over this inhospitable terrain and encountering mechanical failure or poor weather, are also impacted by this decision.
- A delegation of local tourism and aviation representatives along with FlyBlue met with the Dept on the 18 February to express their concerns at the outcome. Each representative gave testimony of their experience of the CES process and the negative impact of the decision on their businesses, to no avail.
- Blue Mountains Gazette (20th January):
Lease on Katoomba airfield knocked back, community celebrates
“….. campaigners also admitted they needed big guns and deep pockets to fight the project with Megalong Valley Community and Landowners Association president and a spokesman for the Katoomba Airfield Community Group Max Horn, getting his own small community to kick in $7000 to “hire a lobbyist”. In the end they had three meetings with senior ministerial advisors to the NSW government, he said.
Mr Horn said some members of the group also had concerns about the raising of the Warragamba Dam wall and the Western Sydney Airport but had chosen to concentrate their efforts on the Medlow airfield issue…”
FlyBlue Petition & Call to Action
We have been overwhelmed by the incredible support we have received from the aviation, tourism, business and local communities. Many of you have also signed our petition and liked our “Save Katoomba Airfield” Facebook page and for this we are sincerely grateful.
We are pleased to share that Mr Jim Betts, Secretary of the Department of Planning, Industry and Environment has instructed the Crown Lands Commissioner to carry out a review of the process in relation to the Katoomba Airfield lease application.
We welcome this independent review and look forward to the findings of the Commissioner and we wish to thank the Secretary for instructing this review.
Derek & Floyd Larsen