IT’S one of the most valuable tools in the kit of the northern cattle industry and becoming more and more relied on as the supply of ringers and stockmen tightens further.
Yet because arial cattle mustering is conducted under one-of-a-kind conditions and in some of the most remote and dangerous environments, and typically under pressure, it is also a massive farm safety issue.
Aerial cattle mustering has 53.3 accidents per million hours logged to its name, the highest of any sector in the Australian aviation community.
It recorded five accidents last year alone and 15 fatalities between 2007 and 2016.
With that in mind, progressive producers and aerial musterers, along with industry leaders, are pushing for new systems, changes in attitude and perhaps even different regulations - basically an overhaul of the culture of aerial mustering game.
One of those in the driving seat is life member of the Northern Territory Cattlemen’s Association Tracey Hayes, who lost the father of her children to a helicopter crash during mustering two years ago.
NTCA well recognises the need for the beef industry to have a conversation about aviation safety, she said.
“Given it's such an important part of our industry right across the north, it is an area that requires a concerted effort,” Ms Hayes said.
To take the first steps, it invited the man credited with reforming the aviation safety record of the Australian Defence Force, decorated helicopter pilot and retired Air Chief Marshal Sir Angus Houston, to speak at its annual conference this year.
In stark contrast to the cattle business, the ADF has lost no aircrew in flying at all in the past 19 years.
But it comes from pilots having a one-in-three chance of being killed in training and then a two-in-three chance of being killed in combat if you joined the airforce in the days of WWII.
New ways, where risk is intently managed in every operation conducted, turned things around.
There were clear consistencies and parallels between the two aviation sectors - one was that safety was fundamentally a human - and cultural - factor, Ms Hayes said.
Sir Angus advised the beef industry to consider setting up an aviation safety group, with a large number of cattlemen on it but also bringing in safety expertise, and inviting CASA (civil aviation safety authority) and the air transportation safety board.
“Every four to six months, have a look at what is happening operationally, what incidents have occurred and what lessons have been learned and then provide initiatives to apply safety and risk management.
“Perhaps employ one flying safety expert and build a secretariat around that individual.”
The idea has won widespread support and will now be high on the agenda for the new boss at NTCA, with recruitment currently underway for a chief executive officer.
“Sir Angus’ commentary was very much about recognising that decisions you make can lead to either catastrophic events or to coming home safely to your family,” Ms Hayes said.
“Taking the time to make the right decision through a lense of safety first and foremost - at a time when a lot of other pressures on you - and to having good frameworks in place to start with will be the answer.”
Western Australian aerial mustering contractor Weldon Percy sees advancements in safety as a “massive opportunity, rather than a problem.”
The opportunity to make both the aerial mustering sector and cattle production more sustainable was enormous, he said.
“If it wasn’t for aerial mustering the northern beef industry wouldn’t be able to be what it is today,” he said.
“While we in the trade are in the best position to identify the issues and lead the way for improvements, any major change has to be driven by the client - the beef industry,” he said.
“Ultimately, this will come with increased costs to the producer so they will be the ones who need to support the shift.”
Safety in aerial mustering was not just a single issue, rather it’s part of a bigger puzzle, Mr Percy said.
For example, it’s inherently tied to good animal welfare as well, he said.
Investment in aerial safety pays at MDH
FOR one of Australia’s largest cattle operations, the McDonald family owned MDH in Queensland, helicopters are the second highest input cost, behind wages.
MDH runs 175,000 head across breeding country in the gulf and backgrounding properties around the Cloncurry area and Channel Country, along with operating a feedlot on the Darling Downs.
It owns four Robinson R22 helicopters, the industry standard for aerial mustering, and clocks up at least 300 flying hours per year, with four full time pilots and general manager Al McDonald and two station managers also having a licence.
If not done properly, aerial mustering can be costly on three main fronts, according to Mr McDonald.
First and foremost of course is pilot safety.
But alongside that efficiency losses can add up to be significant - cattle being missed and more hours being flown than necessary are just two examples.
“And finally, helicopters are an expensive machine. Risk to damage to that investment is high,” Mr McDonald said.
So for those reasons, MDH has put together it’s own pilot induction and ongoing safety program which involves measures well in excess of basic regulations.
“We’ve operated our own helicopters since 1985 and we knew if we wanted to continue we had to have a solid safety/training system in place,” Mr McDonald said.
“We employed a consultant, someone who had been in the industry his whole life, to help write the program and he, along with other local experienced pilots, were employed to train and mentor our pilots.”
The program starts with a policy of aiming to train up existing employees as a first priority.
“It’s far more successful to teach someone who knows how to work cattle to fly than it is to teach a pilot to work cattle,” Mr McDonald.
“It means the pilot is familiar with our operation and how it functions.”
Once a private licence is obtained, MDH pilots are put in to do basic flying ferrying machines back and forth from services and various properties.
After undergoing their mustering endorsement they then move onto mustering under the supervision of a senior pilot in a dual flying situation with the experienced pilots, where they complete at least 100 hours until they are deemed competent to undertake single chopper mustering activities.
Under Civil Aviation Safety Authority guidelines, only 10 hours with an instructor is required after a licence is obtained to gain mustering endorsement.
MDH has found the highest risk points are when pilots are fresh and then when they reach the 1000 hour mark.
“I think that is around when they start getting comfortable and complacency can set in,” Mr McDonald said.
“So at that point we do more check flights with an instructor, often tying in with their biannual flight review, to reiterate safety measures.”
MDH has never experienced an engine failure, which Mr McDonald believes demonstrates the best pathway to aerial mustering safety is pilot training and a good safety framework.