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Propelling our outback skies

From flying water bombing choppers during catastrophic bushfires, to mustering sheep on his family’s outback station, Tom Murray has certainly been clocking up the hours in the cockpit. He tells how a family history in aviation and agriculture helped shape his interest in taking this flight path and gives an insight into being a part of fire and rescue teams at the forefront of some of the most devastating natural disasters and emergency situations Australia has experienced.

As landholders surrounding Dunedoo scrambled to evacuate their properties as fast moving bushfires ferociously ripped through the area in February this year, Tom Murray was part of a rapid aerial response team, taking to the skies in extreme heat and smoke-filled air with minimal visibility.

He recalls getting the emergency call up as the blaze flared up throughout the central western NSW region, now being reported to have resulted in more than 55,000 hectares of land being burned, 30 homes destroyed and thousands of livestock killed, with his being the first helicopter on the scene.

“There were planes water bombing but we were the first helicopter, quickly alerting the landholders that they should move stock out of the way and when they were all a reasonable distance I started water bombing…

“It got to the point at Kains Flat I stopped putting water on it and went into evacuation mode, telling people on properties ahead of the fire to just get out, not to stand with a hose, and when we were doing that we saw a bloke mustering cattle. The fire was just bearing down on him and I ended up giving him a hand mustering his herd of cattle out into another paddock on some other country he had.”

Tom mentions the extreme heat and challenging conditions during the firefighting operations, and the importance of wearing fire suits, gloves, skull protectors, leather boots and helmets, and that as soon as the call is made, they need to be airborne and on their way to the job within 15 minutes.

“When they call for the helicopter, everything has usually gone pretty pear-shaped and it all happens very quickly. We have very limited details, more comes when you’re actually flying on your way to the job.

“Putting all that gear on and getting into a helicopter when it’s 45 degrees, we have to be careful to stay hydrated… The weather conditions are just atrocious, you’re flying around in a fire with heavy winds and smoke. You’ve got to be careful of power lines because they are impossible to see in fires, look out for other aircraft and any towers…

“We’ve had a lot of wins and that’s really satisfying when you can save houses and sheds, but it’s also just so disheartening when you see people’s houses burning down – the worst one I have been to was at Springwood in the Blue Mountains in October 2013.

There were 196 homes destroyed and 132 others were significantly damaged. The Blue Mountains City Council described the event as the worst disaster in Blue Mountains history. The fire was driven by wind gusts of over 100km/h and was virtually uncontrollable, so the pilots that day really had their work cut out for them.

“Going to other fast running grass fires amongst farmland and seeing sheep and cattle being lost in those conditions is very difficult as well.

“Most of the time we don’t meet the people we help, but we do get school kids drawing us pictures and often when our base overnight is on the ground on sporting fields or school ovals in these communities, families will come over for a chat or to get some photos…”

After working for other rescue/firefighting companies, Tom is now contracted through family managed operation Helitreck (which provides helicopters for the Rural Fire Service) and is based in Sydney on a roster basis during the summer months to fly their aircraft – usually a state-of-the-art BK117 helicopter.

“We’re trying to keep ahead of the new technologies and we have the most modern gear in the helicopters so we can be more precise when we go to a job. The main area I’ve seen the biggest change is in the navigation equipment. Everyone might have been carrying up to 5kg in paper maps and charts, now it’s all electronic and we’re using mobile apps on iPads. The GPS systems are rapidly evolving too.”

He says a large focus of the company’s operations now is to put the fires out before they get too uncontrollable and winching Rapid Aerial Response Teams into very difficult to reach country is often a technique used by the RFS. Winching is always a last resort on the fire ground due to its inherent dangers however if no other way of accessing the fire can be obtained quickly then that’s what they go with.

“If they know there’s a big storm coming they will send us the evening before and the RFS weather department can see lightning strikes as they hit the ground and identify possible fire ignitions to deploy us to. We can then winch a remote area team down (we can use up to 245 foot of cable for extremely steep and difficult to reach locations) and put the water bucket on to get water down there from above while the ground crews utilise ground firefighting tactics to get around it. It stops the fires before they get too massive.”

It was at the age of three that Tom Murray declared he was going to be a helicopter pilot.

Growing up on the Darling River on outback “Trilby Station” which covers an expansive 500 square miles, aerial operations have always played a major role in the day-to-day farm management, and with his father, grandfather and great grandfather, (even uncles) having flown aircraft, it’s little wonder Tom Murray set his sights on it from an early age.

“(The aircraft) is really used like a Toyota out here. With 320,000 acres, to try and cover that amount of ground with a motorbike or a horse – you’d be here all week!” Tom explains the scope of the property which is located 20km southwest of Louth and 125km from Bourke.

After what he reminisces was a childhood spent “harassing Dad for helicopter rides”, he officially obtained his commercial pilot’s licence in 2006 after having been home-schooled and completing his secondary schooling boarding at Armidale. He then started flying helicopters 11 years ago, and he says his two younger brothers have now just achieved their licenses to fly too.

He estimates he’s now probably spent about 6,000 hours in the air and hasn’t just worked in Australia, he’s taken to the skies throughout the Pacific region too. Tom progressed from being a junior pilot mustering cattle and undertaking mining work in the Fitzroy Crossing region in the Kimberley area of Western Australia, and surveying for iron ore and diamonds in the vast landscape surrounding Pilbara.

He continued in Western Australia, before starting work with government departments, mostly involved in rescue operations of livestock during the floods in 2010/11.

He then worked in Indonesia moving drilling rigs in the jungle amongst wild animals like elephants, tigers and monkeys, villages that hadn’t even seen a helicopter before, in areas like Borneo, Sumatra and Java.

He recalls one interesting encounter: “During the first tour I was in Indonesia, I was working on a gold project down the bottom of Java near the Bali Straight. As I began to move the gold drill from one prospecting area to another I noticed the entire jungle canopy start to shake and was wondering what the hell was going on. I thought I was witnessing an earthquake from above!

As I peered out the pilot’s door I couldn’t believe my eyes when what seemed like the entire population of Indonesia’s monkeys were swinging through the jungle canopy right below me and that’s why the jungle canopy was shaking so badly. The helicopter noise and rotor wash must have upset them enough that they decided to move to a quieter location to spend their morning. I had only seen a couple of monkeys in the zoo prior to that day!

“I then moved onto the Solomon Islands, working for companies drilling holes for nickel… but as I got older I was missing the farm more and the long weeks of the rosters were tough on the home life, so I concentrated on the domestic work here in Australia and that’s how I really started fighting bushfires.”

He’s working towards a tight deadline when we speak to him from the family’s outback property, Trilby Station.

Busy working on the footings for new shearers’ huts being constructed in time for four weeks of shearing operations in May, he says the property will be a hive of activity as 1,000 purebred Merino sheep will be mustered and shorn each day.

It’s always been the biggest activity on the farm, and Tom even recalls trying to fit in an extra month’s worth of study into the day when he was home-schooled, just so he could help with mustering, shearing, or on the motorbike helping out with repairs.

“We have traditionally found the Merino sheep are a robust animal and well suited out here with our black soil flood plains on the Darling River and then moving through to red loamy soils. With an average rainfall of 10 to 12 inches we do find they thrive here,” Tom says.

“We’re mainstream Merino woolgrowers and our wether lambs are sold off as well. We’ll shear around 500 bales with fleece weights of around 5.5kg average from what we are cutting.

“We have really put a lot of work into the sheep operations and our rams come from Haddon Rig stud at Warren and we’re really focused on ensuring we have quality genetics. We have also been trying to get proactive in sitting down and looking at the science behind Merino breeding and how to increase production while decreasing production costs. It’s about really getting the most out of your sheep, getting lambing numbers up and wool clip where you want it, rather than just doing the same thing for 100 years because Dad and Grandpa always did it like that. The technology is really good in those areas and if you don’t pay attention you’re definitely going to do yourself out of a dollar.”

Tom explains that his family has been in the Louth area since 1860 and have been farming all their lives. His parents Gary and Liz Murray have lived at Trilby Station (which was originally part of the historic Dunlop Station that once spanned 1 million acres) since 1981 and went on to purchase the land a few years later.

Tom explains that the years gone by haven’t been without their challenges, especially during dry times.

“When I was about six we went through a tough few years and we packed up and moved to the Kimberleys in Western Australia where Dad was mustering. We had cattle for several years too, but having gone through a period when it didn’t rain for 10 years we really focused our business strategy on Merino sheep,” Tom explains there were 14,500 breeders joined this year.

“Water availability has been an issue here, especially during our savage summer months. We really keep on top of our water and making sure the pumps are pumping and troughs are running. We check all our waters from the air. We’ve also replaced a lot of windmills with solar pumps so they are more reliable and easier for us to work from.”

And, Liz also manages a successful farm stay business from Trilby Station. More than 3,000 visitors are welcomed each year so they can gain a hands on insight into life in the outback, from the vast open spaces to the red earthy landscape.

“I think it’s an experience that’s really growing with tourists. People are really keen to see their own backyard now, rather than travelling overseas. More people are bringing their kids here from the cities so they can learn where their food comes from,” Tom says.

Whilst flying still remains a firm passion, and like Trilby Station’s farmstay venture, also offers an alternative off-farm income, Tom concedes it has been tricky at times to juggle his commitments, and even chuckles that in the early days it probably wasn’t expected he would be away working in Western Australia and the Pacific region for as long as he was.

And now, “I always did say that when I turned 30 I would stop flying and come home to the farm full-time, but I just didn’t realise that would happen as quickly as it has!” he laughs.

So, it seems he might not be coming in to land just yet.

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