A Surprise Dash: Skippers Aviation to Ravensthorpe
Christmas approached and I received an invitation to join my sister in Ravensthorpe. It's a pleasant enough six-hour drive from my house but why not fly? Virgin Australia Regional used to serve the town on a triangular route via Esperance and I flew down with them once. They proved unable to make money using their tired and grubby Fokker 50s, so they pulled out at the end of January, 2016. Regional Express(Rex) jumped in to serve Esperance - increasing frequencies with the Saab 340B - but dropping the Ravensthorpe leg. Fortunately Western Australian regional carrier Skippers Aviation put in a tender and now serve the town twice weekly, on Tuesday and Wednesday. Flights commenced on Tuesday the 29th of November.
Skippers Aviation has come a long way since it started out with a fleet of a fleet of three Cessna Conquest turbo prop aircraft and one Cessna 402C in 1990. By 1995 they were able to buy 3 new Fairchild Metro 23s, adding a couple of more later. Four years later it acquired a couple of 36-seater Dash-8s and opened its own passenger terminal. Over the subsequent years, the fleet has grown to include more Dash-8 100 and 300, six Embraers 120ER Brasilia, and two Fokkers 100.
Booking flights on line is simple enough. Choose your preferred dates and available flights will be shown. For my dates, no special or saver fares were available, perhaps not surprising given the time of year. They were all showing as "Sold Out" but I sometimes wonder if "sold out" simply means "not offered".
Next up the page where you input passenger information and payment details. At the top the flight times are shown, together with the aircraft type. In this case, it is a Metroliner. But before payment, let's read the terms.
Once payment has been processed an confirmation screen appears, offering the option of printing the itinerary. Either way, an email will appear in your in-box.
One oddity was that when my e-ticket arrived there was no indication of what the baggage allowance would be. A search of Skippers' web site wasn't any more revealing: the FAQs pages listed allowances for the Northern Goldfields and Kimberley flights as 15kg and the flights to Shark Bay/ Monkey Mia and Carnarvon are allowed 23kg. But Ravensthorpe wasn't shown at all.
An email to Reservations cleared things up. Alison (the Reservations Manager) wrote back saying, "We are still in the process of determining a baggage limit for the Ravensthorpe flight as it is a fairly new flight for us but with that said we are working with a limit of 15 kgs at the moment."
All to the good as I was only planning on taking a soft-sided bag weighing about 6kg anyway as I guessed that the aircraft type would prescribe the lower limit.
As the taxi pulled-up outside Skippers Terminal in Valentine Road, I could see the tails of several of the fleet.
Check-in was performed by welcoming and friendly staff. The terminal was busy as passengers waited boarding announcements to the several mine sites that Skippers provide charter flights to. There are some vending machines for drinks and snacks but I noted that there was a van outside that was attracting business selling warm food and hot coffees.
Through the large,clear windows of the terminal I could see several of the aircraft in the fleet, including this Dash-8-100, an Embraer 120 Brasilia and the Metro 23, originally scheduled to fly the Ravensthorpe route.
Over at Qantas Domestic some work was being on VH-NXG, a Boeing 717 that was at one time with Impulse Airlines. Passengers going to Sunrise Dam (a gold mine near Laverton) had been called to board in two groups and their aircraft, VH-XKM, a Fokker 100, was pushed back for departure.
On the apron, the Dash that was previously beside the terminal had been moved to another stand and was being fuelled. There had been an equipment swap and now this aircraft would be taking me down to my destination.
The flight down to Ravensthorpe was operated by VH-XFP, De Havilland Canada DHC-8-102. This is a twin engine turboprop airliner with a pressurised, air-conditioned cabin and an on-board toilet. Having first flown with the registration C-GDIU on the 29th of November, 1992, the aeroplane spent a few years with Measaba Airlines, flying for NorthWest Airlink as N848MA. It subsequently passed into the hands of Eastern Australia Airlines in June 1999, registered as VH-TQU before being acquired by Skippers Aviation on the 25th of August, 2008.
In August, 2016, this aircraft suffered a depressurisation event while en-route to Shark Bay. As the aircraft approached the cruising altitude FL 180, the master warning activated and the cabin pressure warning light illuminated. The crew observed that the cabin altitude indicated about 12,600ft with an excessive rate of climb, where the rate of climb indicator had gone to its maximum indicated reading.
The flight crew donned oxygen masks and the Captain relayed a message to the cabin but, due to muffling, this was not properly understood. The cabin crew tried to contact the flight deck but received no response so acted on the basis of carrying out an emergency descent but not supplying supplementary oxygen. Drop down masks are not fitted to the aircraft. The first officer declared an emergency (Pan Pan) and the aircraft returned to Perth. The aircraft landed undamaged and there were no injuries to the crew or the thirty passengers on board.
Skippers Aviation HK1937
Perth to Ravensthorpe
Aircraft ID: VH-XFP
Type: DHC-8-102 Seat: 7A
STD: 07:00 ATD: 07:00
STA: 08:15 ATA: 08:15
Boarding was called and Katie waited to escort the passengers across the apron to the awaiting aeroplane. I was surprised that there were only three passengers, equalling the three crew. One of the other passengers also expressed surprise, mentioning that he had flown up to Perth in a Metro a few days earlier.
Taking my seat, I noticed that the cabin appeared to be clean and tidy, despite the age of the aircraft.
From seat 7A it was possible to see the landing gear and read the various warnings attached to the engine housing.
With all three passengers seated in rows 7 and 8, Katie didn't bother with the speaker but came down the aisle to carry out the safety demonstration. The passenger in row 8 asked it he could move to another seat up front. Katie said that it would be OK but to remain in his assigned seat until after take-off and the seat-belt sign being extinguished.
The aircraft taxied to the active runway, its PWC PW120A power plant spinning the four-bladed propellers. Along the way, it passed a number of Qantas passenger and freight aircraft, including a Network Aviation Fokker 100 and a Toll 737 Freighter.
Take-off was to the north-east from runway 06. After a short run-up, the aeroplane lifted off the ground and the landing gear was retracted.
As the Dash gained height, it passed over Bellevue and Midvale, with views towards Midland, with its new hospital and shopping centres.
It was slightly bumpy as we passed over the scarp but generally the flight was smooth. Below us were the BGC Quarries at Redhill and further on, Lake Leschenaultia and Chidlow. The lake was originally formed by the construction of a dam to provide water for the steam trains that operated between the 1880s and 1960s. Today, it is a popular picnic spot.
Katie came through the cabin taking orders for refreshments. The usual tea, coffee, fruit juice or water were offered, so I requested a water and some coffee. I was also given a packet of biscuits. While drinking the coffee, I passed some time reading the in-flight magazine. This promoted a very different type of drink and included a page depicting the several types of aircraft in the fleet.
The flight path took us past the town of York, situated on the Avon River at the foot of Mount Bakewell, continuing in the direction of Quairading over mixed wheat and sheep country.
Once the passengers had been served with their drinks, it was the turn of the flight crew. I decided to move back a couple of rows so that I had a better view. The photo shows just how empty the plane looks with just three passengers on board.
229km by road from Perth lies the town of Corrigin. On the outskirts of town is a dog cemetery that has attracted attention of those wishing to bury the family pet or working dog. The town also hosts a regular "dog in the ute" competition and currently holds the record for the greatest number of dogs in utes in a single procession. I'm not knocking it but in the country, you have to make your own entertainment and it helps to bring the community together. People have been known to travel from as far as Queensland to join in the fun day.
The country below was broken up by salt lakes, some of which were freshwater but as a result of clearing for agriculture became saline as the water table rose. Looking out over their varied colours reminded me of an artist's palette or, in one place in particular, the leather tanneries in the Moroccan city of Fes.
Gazetted in 1925, the small wheatbelt town of Newdegate has for the past 45 years hosted a Machinery Field Day. This features not just agricultural machinery, sheep shearing competitions and other events associated with farming but also wine tasting, art competitions and live entertainment.
The bell rang to warn Katie that we were about to commence descent and the seat-belt sign came on. Katie walked through the cabin, offering some mints, before making the announcement regarding tables and tablets being stowed, seats being in the upright position and seat-belts fastened. As we descended areas of country that I had previously only driven through, some of which 4WD accessible only, looked so easy to travel from the air.
Much of the Shire of Ravensthorpe remains natural bushland, including the World Biosphere Reserve known as the Fitzgerald River National Park. This stretches down to the Southern Ocean and, had I been seated on the other side of the aircraft, I would have been rewarded with fantastic views over the Barrens Ranges, coastal inlets and bays.
We passed over the Phillips River on approach. This ephemeral river looked pretty dry but in flood it can carry quite a bit of water. Earlier this year the waters were strong enough to undermine the culvert over Culham Inlet, causing the road to be closed until a by-pass could be built.
Crossing the road linking Ravensthorpe with the former port of Hopetoun (named after Australia's first Governor General) the Dash lined up with the runway. The runway markers and wind-sock were visible as the aircraft came down.
The moment just before and just on touch-down is recorded for posterity and the aircraft decelerated before turning into the stand in front of the terminal.
The apron marking shows positions for both the Fokker 50 and the Fokker 100. I far as I am aware, the Fokker 50 no longer calls in since Virgin Australia ended its service to the airport. But the Fokker 100 is used for a weekly mining charter, on Mondays, if I'm not mistaken. In the distance is the Ambulance transfer station that is used when it is necessary to call in the Royal Flying Doctor Service to evacuate someone to Perth.
While the other passengers left the plane, I asked whether I could visit the flight deck. There I had a brief chat with the Captain, who told me that he was expecting about thirty passengers on the flight back to Perth. That would explain the equipment swap. Thirty passengers would never fit in a Metro. It was good to see that Skippers has the flexibility to allow for equipment changes in response to passenger demand. I'll just have to try another time to get on that Metro 23.
Well, I couldn't hang around all day, so I thanked the Captain for his hospitality and left via the aircraft steps. The co-pilot was at the gate and was kind enough to hold it open so that I could take a parting shot of the Dash.
The flight proved to be pleasant and it was interesting to see the little extras offered: the daily newspaper, beverages and biscuits, as well as the mint before landing. The aircraft might have been showing signs of age (and use) but the cabin was spotlessly clean. The friendly crew made for an enjoyable journey.Previous Trip Reports:Getting into the Spirit: Qantas A332 Perth to SydneyYour Personal Airline: AirLink Beech 1900D to DubboOur Heart is in the Country: Regional Express Saab 340BMotorcycles Galore: QantasLink Dash-8 300Q to TamworthDjawannasnack: Virgin Australia ATR 72 to SydneyNow You're Flying: Virgin Australia A332 Sydney to Perth
Necessity is the plea for every infringement of human freedom. It is the argument of tyrants; it is the creed of slaves. - William Pitt Speech, 1783