Low-flying planes raise concerns among farmers near Australian military training area

An RSAF Super Puma helicopter during Exercise Wallaby 2017. Farmers living near the Shoalwater Bay area in Queensland have made complaints about low-flying planes in the area, which includes military aircraft from Singapore.
An RSAF Super Puma helicopter during Exercise Wallaby 2017. Farmers living near the Shoalwater Bay area in Queensland have made complaints about low-flying planes in the area, which includes military aircraft from Singapore.PHOTO: LIANHE ZAOBAO

SYDNEY - Farmers who live near a military training area in Australia have raised concerns about low-flying planes - including military aircraft from Australia, Singapore and the United States - which they say have been causing dangerous cattle stampedes.

The complaints were made by graziers near the Shoalwater Bay training area, a huge facility spanning some 453,700 ha in the state of Queensland. The area is used for annual training by Singaporean troops as well as major 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 which operates the base.

The surrounding Fitzroy region is the beef farming centre of Australia, with a population of 2.6 million cattle.

The farmers say that low-flying planes from the militaries using the base have caused herds of cattle to stampede, which could lead to the injury or death of farmers. They say these planes have breached no-fly zones set up by the Australian Defence Force in the area to prevent low flights over farming operations.

Local landowners can apply for a "no fly area" at least 48 hours before mustering cattle.

A farmer representing the graziers, Mr Roger Toole, said:"If you have an aircraft at 500ft (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," he told The Straits Times.

"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, along with about 20 to 25 farmers, met in November with the Federal MP for the area, Ms Michelle Landry, and gave her a list of concerns.

Her spokesman told The Straits Times that "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 dialoguewith local communities, including graziers and farmers, 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 Straits 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," said the spokesman.

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

Exercise Wallaby, the annual training of the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) troops at Shoalwater Bay, has been conducted for 27 years. The most recent exercise in 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."

The concerns about low-flying planes during the Wallaby exercise and during the Australian-US exercise last July come amid continued tensions in the area over the impact of the military base on local farmers.

Farmers previously protested 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 backed down and announced that no farmers will be forced to sell.

Mr Toole insisted the farmers were not opposed to the use of the base by Singaporean or other troops.

"We don't want anyone to stop doing their exercises," he said. "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 general situation is not getting better - it is getting worse, said Mr Tool. "These situations have been badly handled by the Australian government," he added.