With its central location and ideal weather patterns, Strathbogie Shire has proven the perfect place to train and base Victoria’s top firefighting helicopter pilots.
Just ask Avenel local and one of Australia’s most decorated helicopter pilots, Captain Ray Cronin from the Mangalore-based Kestrel Aviation.
Kestrel has evolved over the past three decades to become a key asset in Victoria’s bushfire response. In addition to offering training and resource support, Kestrel boasts an impressive fleet of helicopters located strategically throughout the State to provide rapid firefighting assistance.
Their broad cross-section of fleet includes two Erickson S-64 Air Crane® helicopters, like the giant orange ‘Elvis’ which has become a popular symbol of hope during the bushfire season.
Captain Cronin, the Founder and Managing Director of Kestrel, said Strathbogie Shire provides a wonderful blend of lifestyle, location and community support, which are essential to operating a world-class aviation company.
“We moved here in 1989 primarily because of the district, but also because it’s the perfect location for our firefighting fleet,” Captain Cronin said.
“We employ many locals and there is a mutual benefit for Kestrel to operate here. Fires in the Strathbogie Shire region typically occur in the hills, which poses difficulties for fire trucks.
But we can get to inaccessible points, which makes a big difference to firefighters on the ground. We’ve had some really big, aggressive events here over the years.”
Kestrel started in 1985 with a flying school at Moorabbin Airport, but Captain Cronin felt Australia lacked in helicopter flying capabilities. So, they started international training programs in Mangalore, before the Victorian Government sought their assistance to improve the State’s bushfire response through greater air-power.
Since then, they have grown to become Australia’s largest operator of Bell Medium helicopters, part of its impressive line-up of 15 domestically based aircraft. During the fire season, this grows, with Air Crane® and Blackhawk helicopters added to the fleet through strategic partnerships with US based operators. So too does their workforce, with over 100 people working under Kestrel’s banner during the peak parts of the season.
Eyes always on the sky
While Captain Cronin started his career as an airplane pilot, he switched after determining that “helicopter pilots looked like they were having more fun”. Captain Cronin is now one of the most experienced helicopter pilots in Australia, logging more than 10,000 flying hours during his 40-plus year career. In addition, his contributions to the industry have been profound.
“A love of flying is in your DNA. If you want to fly, you’ve picked it up early on in your life and you’ll do anything to achieve it,” Captain Cronin said.
“My background is flying (planes) in Queensland, going out to cattle stations and doing tour runs. But I kept seeing helicopters and I thought they were having more fun … so, I jumped ship. Flying a helicopter is the ultimate freedom – like a magic carpet with controls.”
COVID-19 and preparations for the fire season
Captain Cronin said while logistical challenges associated with the COVID-19 pandemic had proven difficult for Kestrel, he feels staff have them well-prepared for the upcoming fire season.
“In the beginning, we started with split shifts because we have heavy maintenance programs in the winter months. We’ve segregated work areas, which has limitations … but I’m really pleased with the way our people have taken to the plan,” Captain Cronin said.
He said the outlook for the coming fire season is what is considered ‘expected’ for this region, but they are always prepared for the unexpected. He said heavy spring rainfalls could result in more grassfires, rather than fires in heavily timbered areas.
“The advice is to keep your yards clean, keep grasses down around your gardens and sheds, and you won’t need us,” Captain Cronin said.
One of the Shire’s finest
Strathbogie Shire Mayor, Cr Chris Raeburn, said the team at Kestrel Aviation display the ingenuity, character and professionalism that is a feature of life in Strathbogie Shire.
“While we are blessed with incredible landscapes and amazing towns with rural character, Kestrel Aviation shows there are no bounds to the size and scope of companies that can operate and thrive here,” Cr Raeburn said.
“This organisation has grown to become an incredible asset, not only for our communities but others throughout Victoria. I commend Captain Cronin and his dedicated team for all their work to help keep us safe.”
This feature on Kestrel Aviation forms part of the Strathbogie Story. The initiative is designed to keep the community connected as it navigates the ongoing impacts of the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic. Strathbogie Story is also part of the Shire’s RE3 campaign, which provides the community with the capacity to ‘Reset, Reboot and Revitalise’.
For more Strathbogie Story, visit www.strathbogiestory.com