AirVenture at the Hunter Valley

Towards the end of September 2018 Sigi, Mike and I flew down to Cessnock in the Hunter Valley for the AirVenture, a couple of days of exhibitions, seminars and displays promoting general aviation, followed by a series of aerobatic displays. AirVenture had been an annual event for some years. It started as a gathering for sport aircraft enthusiasts but more recently had grown to include all manner of general aviation. The idea was to connect aviation enthusiasts with each other and also with suppliers of aircraft and associated hardware and software who showcase their products. It also included a series of seminars and presentations about a variety of aviation related topics. The presenters were pilots, instructors, salespeople or representatives of organisations who have interests in general aviation. As a result of its success, the event outgrew its original base at Narromine near Dubbo and in 2018 was held at Cessnock Airport in the Hunter Valley.

I had no preconceptions of AirVenture but I’d wanted to fly to Cessnock for some time, and Mike was keen to attend AirVenture, so I agreed to fly down there with him in MSF. I managed to persuade Sigi to come with us by not mentioning the fact that it was in fact an aviation event until she’d already committed to go. She thought it was just a flyaway to the Hunter to do some wine tasting!

Our plan was to fly down on the Thursday morning, attend AirVenture on Friday and Saturday and then return on Sunday. Four seminars ran in parallel all day Friday and on Saturday morning while an air show filled out Saturday afternoon. A gala dinner was held on Saturday evening.

I elected to fly down, with Mike manning the radios and Sigi acting as time keeper. Good division of labour among the crew. The trip down started well, flying IFR in blue skies.

Climbing past The Gap and Enoggera Dam

We were cleared to climb pretty well straight away and were at 9000ft over Amberley, then tracked via Armidale down the western edge of the great divide.

The overall trip was just over 2 hours in the Cirrus and by the time we were about 45 minutes out of Cessnock some cloud was gathering ahead of us. The weather forecast had mentioned showers and low cloud close to Cessnock that was due to clear by 2pm. Although we’d taken our time departing it was still only midday by this time. No worries though, we’re IFR. A bit of IMC (Instrument Meteorological Conditions = in cloud) practice is good. Then Mike received a text from Rebecca Penny, the Cirrus sales rep from Sunny Coast who had flown down the day before that said basically: “Are you still expecting to fly in today? Nil visibility here right now!” There is no RNAV approach into Cessnock so Mike checked the BOM radar while I checked our Plan B: head out west of the Hunter to Scone and land there to wait out the weather that was due to clear to the north east of Cessnock. Scone was CAVOK and we could see that there was no cloud out to our right hand side. All good!

We decided to continue on our flight planned track and enter IMC, checking our lowest safe against the topography before we entered cloud. With just over 30 minutes to run we entered IMC at 9000ft and pretty quickly noticed the temperature drop. Mike asked “Did you check the freezing levels”. I said “Yeeeees! And then remembered that it did say 7500 ft at the southern end of our planned track. “Let’s descend to 7000ft!” I suggested, knowing that LSALT was 6600ft. Mike contacted ATC who confirmed “no IFR traffic” and down we went. As we descended the temperature rose a bit but as we levelled out it started to decrease yet again.

We were still in IMC with occasional breaks in the cloud when the temperature dropped to 2°C and Mike noticed some ice forming on the right wing. Knowing we couldn’t descend any further until we’d passed the Barrington Tops we debated quickly whether to head west out of the IMC as Sigi remained focussed on her knitting in the back seat. Then there were a couple of breaks in the cloud and the temperature rose again. We maintained our track and Mike advised ATC that we’d delay top of descent due to weather. Once we’d passed Brumlow Top (5204ft) and Mt Royal (3885ft) we descended to 5000ft and broke out of the cloud. We could see Singleton ahead and off to our right but low cloud to the left where we knew Cessnock had to be. Being visual we descended to 3000ft so we were below the cloud base. Passing Singleton we headed straight for Cessnock and kept a good lookout for the aerodrome. There were showers around so we dodged a couple as we approached and spotted the runway, joined downwind on RWY35, and landed, just as the weather cleared away to the north east. It had been another good IFR experience – we’d negotiated some tricky IMC but had a Plan B at all times. The lesson of the day was: Take good note of freezing levels in the GAF before you fly!

We tied down the plane and headed off to the Crowne Plaza Hotel, located next to the aerodrome. It’d be home for the next 3 days. The weather cleared away and it was a wonderful fine, albeit chilly, evening.

Friday dawned with clear blue skies. We caught a shuttle bus over to the AirVenture site at 8:30 so we could take part in the first seminars at 9am. The range of seminars was impressive. I went to a different one every hour until 4pm. I didn’t have time to check out any of the planes on display or the stands of the suppliers. I even managed to miss out on lunch because there was so much happening. Topics included An Introduction to Angel Flight, GAF Forecasts, What to expect from your BFR, OzRunways Q&A, ATC with confidence, AvPlan Introduction and Emergency Handling. It was a great day with a lot of things to learn.

Friday evening was dinner at one of the many fine restaurants in the Cessnock area.

On Saturday the seminars commenced at 9am with an OzRunways tutorial, a Matt Hall talk on safety, one pilot’s experience of the Outback Air Race, an explanation of the technology behind Dynon glass panels and some history of Spitfires over Normandy in WW2.

By 1pm we were seminared out and ready for the air show. Matt Hall and his fellow aerobatics aviators didn’t disappoint. It was quite a show. I managed to check out a few of the supplier stalls and some of the range of aircraft on display in between acts and even managed to get some lunch for a change. By 4pm the show was over and the displays were starting to be dismantled and we headed back to the Crowne Plaza to get ready for the gala dinner.

This was a great event with a speech by Matt Hall with excerpts from his life story and how he morphed from teenage glider pilot to sport aviator to RAAF fighter jet pilot and then to Red Bull Race champion. And many of the lessons learned along the way, including how to work in a team and get the most out of yourself and those you work with while remembering the real aim of it all is to arrive home safely to your loved ones at the end of the day. Impressive. Scholarships were presented to a couple of young aviators who admitted they would love to follow in Matt’s footsteps one day. It ended up with some rather late chatter and banter in the hotel bar with new friends.

With Matt Hall

On Sunday morning it was time to up stumps and head home. The weather was picture perfect and forecast to be so all the way back to Redcliffe. We decided to take the coastal route. Mike was PIC and I was radio operator. Sigi was timer again. We said our goodbyes then taxied out and joined the small queue of aircraft waiting to leave.  We had a rather slow one in front of us and as he rolled down RWY 17 and an inbound aircraft turned base, we entered and lined up. The plane in front of us climbed painfully slowly and we waited for him to turn, knowing that at the speed the Cirrus climbs we could easily catch him if he didn’t turn first. The incoming aircraft turned final and we waited. And waited. For the plane ahead to turn. The incoming pilot asked whether we could vacate the runway as soon as possible. The departing aircraft turned. Mike applied full power, we rolled and rotated. We were off.

Departing the Hunter Valley on climb to 10,000 ft

We departed to the northwest initially to avoid flying though the restricted airspace around Williamtown airbase. Mike had planned at 9000ft as we were heading north east for most of our route but ATC asked us to choose between nonstandard 8000 or 10,000ft so we chose the latter. The auto pilot turned us over our first way point and we climbed to 10,000ft, tracking via the IFR route north east to Taree, then followed the coast, tracking over Kempsey, Coffs, Evans Head and Ballina.

Our navigator taking a break from her knitting to check we’re still on track with help from OzRunways
Evans Head

Approaching Ballina a Q-Link Dash 8 was departing and we saw him climb across our path as he headed to GAMBL (the IFR waypoint overhead Casino). Then it was on towards the Gold Coast. ATC vectored us (gave us a heading to fly) out to sea to avoid traffic south of the Gold Coast and then we were vectored over the top of the Gold Coast airport and on into the southern part of Moreton Bay where we reached our top of descent. ATC then vectored us on various headings so that we descended through 6000ft as we passed Brisbane CBD on our left and Brisbane International on our right. How cool was that!

Soon we were approaching the Redcliffe Peninsula but we were too high to do a normal approach so we requested one orbit over water to allow us to descend to circuit height. It was midday on Sunday, a perfect blue sky day and surprisingly no traffic in the circuit at Redcliffe! Criminal but it made life easy for us. Mike joined downwind for RWY 07 and did a great landing. A perfect end to a great trip.

Redcliffe Peninsula

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