Row over Gracetown chopper flights

Wild Blue Helicopters' Brett Campany loads up for another "Gracetown Blast" joyflight this week.

Wild Blue Helicopters' Brett Campany loads up for another "Gracetown Blast" joyflight this week.

A GROUP of Gracetown residents are in a spin over helicopter joy flights they say are ruining the relaxed vibe of Cowaramup Bay.

Both sides are facing off over the issue with residents threatening to approach the civilian airspace control agency, Air Services Australia, while Cowaramup's Wild Blue Helicopters is seeking legal advice over a Facebook page it says slandered his business exclusively.

Creators of the Facebook group page, titled Margaret River Helicopter Flight Path Forum, shut the page down within 24 hours of starting at the weekend, citing a "barrage" of hostile posts.

Gracetown resident Marc Tomlinson is leading the campaign to re-route Wild Blue's Cowaramup Bay tourist jaunts, saying he and others were no longer prepared to live with noise and privacy intrusion from flights directly over homes.

During Sunday's good weather, Mr Tomlinson complained of four flights before lunch.

Wild Blue pilot and director Brett Campany confirmed Sunday had been his busiest day since February, with eight Gracetown flights between 9.30 and 5 pm.

"All were over 1500 feet above ground level and all varying flight paths of 1.5 kilometres either side of the intersection of Caves and Cowaramup Bay roads," he said.

Mr Campany said the region must learn to live with its growing acclaim, likening Margaret River's rising popularity and related social issues to that of the Gold Coast.

Cowaramup Bay Rd resident Suzy Melville – who says her home is directly under the flight path of the “Gracetown Blast” trip offered by Wild Blue – set up the Facebook page as a “discussion and action group”.

Although the page aimed to gauge the extent of impact from joyflights in the area and to develop a community response, Ms Melville said she was forced to shut it down after the debate got out of hand. She said she then had a reasoned individual discussion with Mr Campany, who had since averted her property.

But Mr Campany said he had been blindsided by the campaign, having already addressed the only direct complaint he had received – from Mr Tomlinson.

“I have done my best to look after the individual who has made the complaint. The Civil Aviation Safety Authority requires us to fly at 1000 feet, but when Marc contacted me in January, I increased my flying height to 1500 feet,” Mr Campany told the Mail.

“He hasn’t contacted me since so I was under the impression everything was alright.”

The residents denied they were trying to shut Mr Campany’s business down, saying they want the flight path deviated over adjacent national park and to routinely “mix up” the 22-kilometre coastal flight to avoid constantly flying over the same homes.

However Wild Blue said broadening the flight path would push up the cost of joyflights, which were aimed at the “average wage earner”. The 10-minute “Gracetown Blast” costs about $90.

Mr Campany said while CASA governed safety issues, use of local airspace was unrestricted.

Augusta Margaret River Shire’s only jurisdiction over his business related to the use of land at his leased Bussell Highway base, just south of Cowaramup.

He invited any concerned residents to visit his office for an open discussion.

“We can only do so much. I am guided by the CASA regulations and we never breach them. I have a 100 per cent safety record.”

Wild Blue has invested hundreds of thousands of dollars in set-up costs and, despite its seasonal popularity, has yet to turn a profit since opening last year.

Mr Campany said he appreciated residents enjoyed the bay for its beauty and serenity, but the same qualities had helped create demand for a broader range of tourism products.

“As its popularity increases Margaret River is becoming more like the Gold Coast, with more tourism operators coming in to service the market.”

As a community service, Mr Campany said he had conducted regular shark patrols, fire-spotting flights, medi-vacs and missing person searches.

Mr Tomlinson said there were already several operators offering Margaret River flights and the situation needed attention.

“It is an issue that can only get worse over time and needs to be addressed for the sake of residents in the region,” he said.

“It would appear that our only option is to form a cohesive group so that we can approach the authorities that control airspace… it may be possible to get a “Fly Neighbourly Advice” implemented.”

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