Low-flying aircraft upset farmers near Aussie military training base

An RSAF Super Puma helicopter during last year's Exercise Wallaby held at the Shoalwater Bay Training Area in Australia.
An RSAF Super Puma helicopter during last year's Exercise Wallaby held at the Shoalwater Bay Training Area in Australia.ST FILE PHOTO

Cattle farmers say planes have caused their herds to stampede, which could prove fatal

Farmers living near a military training area in Australia have raised concerns about low-flying aircraft - including military planes from their own country, Singapore and the US - which they say have been causing dangerous cattle stampedes.

The complaints were made by graziers near the Shoalwater Bay Training Area, a facility spanning some 453,700ha in the state of Queensland. The area is used for annual training by Singapore troops as well as joint biennial exercises involving Australian and US troops.

But the training base, near the city of Rockhampton, sits alongside prime farmland and has been the source of occasional tensions between farmers and the Australian Defence Department.

The surrounding Fitzroy region is Australia's beef-farming centre, with 2.6 million heads of cattle.

The farmers say low-flying aircraft from the militaries have caused their herds to stampede, which could lead to injury or death of farmers. They add that these planes have breached no-fly zones set up by the Australian Defence Force in the area to prevent low flights over farming operations. Landowners can apply for a "no fly area" at least 48 hours before mustering cattle.

A farmer representing the graziers, Mr Roger Toole, told The Sunday Times: "If you have an aircraft at 152m doing about 500km an hour, with a downdraft and an incredible noise footprint, the cattle are going to bolt away from that sound very quickly.

"If you are anywhere near there on a horse or bike, the cattle will run straight over the top of you. There have been people knocked off horses, and horses bolting off and getting ripped on fences and barbs."

Mr Toole and about 25 farmers met the area's federal MP Michelle Landry last November and gave her a list of concerns. Her spokesman told The Sunday Times: "The complaints revolve around low-flying aircraft and planes that were flying in areas considered to be no-fly zones.

"Michelle Landry has passed it on and has been assured it will be investigated… We are not making judgment without a full investigation."

The Department of Defence said the military maintained a regular dialogue with local communities to try to minimise any disruptions. "The use of airspace outside of the training areas is planned by Defence to manage disruptions to the local community and aircraft safety issues," a spokesman told The Sunday Times.

"Local land-holders are informed of training activities through public notices prior to commencement. Defence will continue to discuss with landowners and their representatives any concerns they may have regarding activities by military aircraft in the areas around the Shoalwater Bay Training Area," the spokesman added.

Exercise Wallaby, the annual training manoeuvres of Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) troops at Shoalwater Bay, has been conducted for 27 years. The most recent exercise, last September and October, involved about 4,000 troops.

The Australian Defence spokesman said: "The Singapore Armed Forces have worked with the local community to support its training activities, including for activities such as Exercise Wallaby."

Singapore's Ministry of Defence said queries about the issue should be handled by the Australian Department of Defence.

The concerns about low-flying aircraft during the Wallaby exercise as well as during the Australian-United States exercise last July come amid continued tensions over the impact of the military base on local farmers.

Farmers have previously protested against plans by Canberra to force them to sell their land for the expansion of training areas at Shoalwater Bay and Townsville under a A$2.25 billion (S$2.4 billion) 25-year deal between Singapore and Australia. The expansion will enable up to 14,000 SAF personnel to train for 18 weeks a year.

Following the outcry, the federal government announced that no farmers will be forced to sell land.

Mr Toole has insisted that the farmers are not opposed to the use of the base by Singaporean or other troops. "We don't want anyone to stop doing their exercises... We want a balance where they can do their exercises and the farmers outside the military training area can continue to operate without fear of injury to stock or people on the ground."

The situation is not getting better, it is getting worse, said Mr Tool. "These situations have been badly handled by the Australian government," he added.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on January 07, 2018, with the headline 'Low-flying aircraft upset farmers near Aussie military training base'. Print Edition | Subscribe