5 September 2022

Canberra's first charter flights in more than a decade are now boarding

| James Coleman
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Learn2Fly

Looking down on everyone from inside one of Learn2Fly’s training aircraft. Photo: James Coleman.

The controls are razor-sharp, responding to the subtlest of my inputs. It’s a little bumpy at times, but very stable. And the g-force it pulls in the corners is enough to make you feel like you’ve ingested an entire sack of potatoes. With a little accompanying nausea too.

“It’s basically a sports car.”

It’s clearly a metaphor. Andrew Scheiffers is sitting beside me, delivering calm instruction, while I’m flying his plane.

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This is a quarter-of-a-million-dollar, Bristell single-engine light aircraft, specifically, and one of five planes Andrew keeps at Canberra Airport. He heads up a flight training school and the first flight charter service to call Canberra home in more than a decade.

Previous charters have been driven away by the costs of living at the local airport but Andrew says the time is right for a return.

“Canberra has a lot of government, defence and private businesses with satellite arms in the region, such as Albury, Wagga, Young and Merimbula, as well as other offices in the cities,” he says.

Learn2Fly

Planes lined up ready to go at Canberra Airport. Photo: James Coleman.

“These sorts of places are a two- to five-hour drive away, but we can be there in 35 minutes. There’s no standing around, there’s no security check, there’s no checking in luggage, or other delays. It makes for a very short day.”

Factor in fuel and hotel accommodation, or four people on board, and he says the price of a charter flight can quickly level peg it pricewise with either a road trip or Qantas flight.

“I can’t give you a quote to the dollar, but get in contact with what you want and I can pretty quickly give you a ballpark quote, factoring in the day and time,” he says.

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The service only started last week, with most of the work falling to a red, white and gold Cessna 414 Andrew showed me earlier, equipped with two propellor engines and five passenger seats, plus plenty of hidey holes for luggage (even a set of skis).

It hails back to the 1970s, but Andrew is hopeful more business will roll in and they’ll be able to upgrade the fleet with larger and faster aircraft. In the meantime, the Cessna might not look like much next to an airliner, but Andrew assures me it is “incredibly safe and reliable”.

“If you exclude crashes by learner and provisional drivers, you’ll find driving statistically becomes a lot safer,” he says. “It’s the same with light aircraft. And flying is already much safer than driving.”

Besides, Andrew is also a certified flight instructor with Learn2Fly, a flight training service based in Bathurst but brought to Canberra over the COVID-19 lockdown.

“There are very few airlines, particularly in Australia, that will take someone straight out of the training simulator and put them in the pilot seat,” he says.

Andrew himself started in something very similar to the Cessna 414.

“Everyone cuts their teeth in a single-engine, piston-powered light aeroplane,” he says.

He grew up in Adelaide, watching “a lot of Top Gun” and deciding from a young age to be a fighter pilot. But when he applied to the air force at the age of 17, he was told they weren’t taking pilots at the time “unless they were basically ‘Top Guns'”. So he joined the army instead, and ended up at the joystick of attack helicopters in Afghanistan.

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“It was the best decision I ever made,” he says.

“I went all over the world, flying helicopters. It was an amazing experience to grow up in aviation in the military way.”

By 37, Andrew was ready for a change of direction. It so happened a former business partner had bought a flight training business in Bathurst.

“I joined him and we’ve now got five full-time staff, seven aircraft on the books and two more on the way,” he says.

Learn2Fly

In the sports car’s cockpit. Photo: James Coleman.

He says the cross-section of current trainees spans 17- to 70-year-olds, many for recreational or business reasons. But he has taken a rigorous military approach to Learn2fly – “structured, organised and theory-focused”.

“The whole flight training structure is not so much about getting people a licence as getting people a job, because there is definitely a need for more pilots and quality flight training that delivers these pilots,” he says.

From the Cessna, Andrew introduced me to his pride and joy, the Bristell “sports car”, and the one that does a fair share of the training.

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The training and licence cost a total of $21,000, then there is the cost of fuel (about $3 per litre), storage and insurance. Not to mention the cost of the plane itself, which in this case, is a quarter of a million dollars.

“It’s not bushwalking, but it’s also not bushwalking,” he says.

“Others spend more than $100,000 on a caravan or thousands for motorbikes. You can pick up a plane for $40,000 and a pilot licence is with you for life. It doesn’t have to be the rich man’s sport people make out.”

Learn2Fly

Canberra from the air. Photo: James Coleman.

We climb aboard about as gracefully as balletic elephants, don headsets – so we can still hear each other – close the lid and start the engine. A few radio calls with the control tower and some taxiing later, we’re airborne.

We arrive near Black Mountain, and Andrew tasks me with turning towards Parliament House while maintaining the altitude cleared with Canberra Airport.

Can’t be too expensive if a green journalist is in control.

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