The proven ability of the BAE Systems BAe 146/Avro RJ regional jetliner to operate from unpaved runways has given Cobham Aviation Services in Australia an important competitive edge in the fiercely contested market to supply airline services to the mining resource industry.
Cobham is a leading provider of high capacity air transport services supporting fly-in; fly-out (FIFO) operations for blue-chip mining resource clients throughout Australia, and the unpaved runway capability of the BAe 146/Avro RJ has allowed the company to win business from top tier mining companies that wish to access mines in remote areas where the nearest runways are normally unpaved gravel.
Five unpaved runway destinations in Western Australia are now served by Cobham on a regular basis and this unrivalled capability of the aircraft has opened up other gravel airstrips in Australia to commercial passenger jet aircraft for the first time.
A key boost to the economics of such operations was when European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) approval was given in January 2015 for a significant increase in payload/range for the BAe 146 operating, as a trial, from the Kambalda unpaved runway in Western Australia (WA). This followed a two-year project carried out by BAE Systems Regional Aircraft technical specialists in collaboration with Cobham.
The increase could be as much as four tonnes in payload (or up to 40 passengers or extra freight), an additional 700 nautical miles range, or a mix of the two
As a result of the EASA approval Cobham has been carrying out further tests for other variants of the BAe 146/Avro RJ operating to more unpaved runways across Australia on a case by case basis and this has led to securing new business.
Cobham is the only aviation service provider in Australia operating jet aircraft (BAe 146/Avro RJ) to gravel runways, opening up a new market opportunity to bid for work at remote mine sites. This enables mining resource companies to upgrade to jet aircraft services – significantly reducing travel time to site and with a superior passenger experience compared to current turboprop aircraft.
Peter Nottage, President of Cobham Aviation Services, said: “We have worked hard to ensure our customers realise the value in changing from traditional turboprop aircraft to the faster more efficient BAe 146/Avro RJ – the only regional jet aircraft capable of operating on remote gravel runways.”
Five aircraft (three BAe 146s and two Avro RJ85s) out of the Cobham fleet total of 12 BAe 146/Avro RJs used on FIFO work are now dedicated to unpaved operations and are equipped with a BAE Systems-supplied gravel protection kit and low-pressure tyres.
The latest unpaved runway FIFO contract won by Cobham is from Northern Star Resources to fly mine workers in 82-seat RJ85s from Perth to the runways at Jundee, in the northern goldfields region of WA and the Plutonic mine, east of Meekatharra, also in WA.
Earlier, a four-year contract awarded by one of Australia’s largest gold producers – Gold Fields Australia – means that an RJ85 operates seven return flights a week from Perth to its Granny Smith and Darlot mining sites in WA.
Stephen Morrison, Head of Flight Operations Support at BAE Systems Regional Aircraft stated that his team has collaborated closely with Cobham to support BAe 146/Avro RJ operations into Kambalda, Granny Smith and Darlot and will commence work on the Jundee and Putonic operations in January.
He explained: “Prior to the EASA approval unpaved runway operations had been payload and range restricted historically due to limited flight testing of operations from such runways with fully instrumented aircraft, as market demand at the time had not materialised.”
“We have come up with an innovative method of collecting data on ‘g’ accelerations at both paved and unpaved runways using accelerometers placed on the aircraft. From the measurements collected we can statistically compare operations from paved and unpaved runways. So far these have showed no difference, a view verified by EASA for Kambalda, and so supporting the removal of the restriction”.
He added; “With Cobham seeking to fly to more unpaved runway destinations, we are delighted to work alongside our customer to help them realise the full potential of the aircraft’s design capability”.
In addition to the unpaved runway operations with the BAe 146/Avro RJ Cobham also operates significant paved runway FIFO services on behalf of mining resource companies with a fleet of RJ100s and BAe 146-300s.
It uses these aircraft to service long-term transport contracts with blue-chip mining companies such as Chevron, Santos, Minara Resources and most recently Metals X. Destinations served are mostly in Western Australia, but also South Australia and Queensland.
Stephen concluded: “We are aware of other unpaved runway scheduled operations around the world, notably in northern Canada and from Chile into Antarctica, and there are also a number of private operations using VIP configured aircraft. As the BAe 146/Avro RJ enters its second life this is an exciting development for operators to capitalise on the proven design attributes of the aircraft”.
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