It had been several years since I last visited Albany so I thought, "why not fly down for the day?"
The city of Albany on Western Australia's southern coast is served by Regional Express (Rex), Australia’s largest independent regional airline. Rex operates a fleet of more than 50 Saab 340 aircraft on some 1,500 weekly flights to 58 destinations. Albany sees four rotations a day Monday to Friday, two flights from Albany to Perth on Saturdays and two flights from Perth to Albany on Sundays.
Rex's website is easy enough to navigate, although it looks somewhat old-fashioned compared to their mobile site. Nevertheless, it offers all the information that you'll likely need about flights and other offerings and allows online check-in.
The taxi arrived on time and soon was pulling up outside Terminal 2 Domestic. A number of mining charters operated by Virgin Australia Regional and Alliance Airlines depart from here. The Rex counters were open for passengers travelling to Esperance and Albany.
Beyond security, the style is basic. There are a number of eateries and a newsagent-cum-travel store; plenty of rowed seating; and a desk at which you can charge electronic devices.
While the modular design allows for easy expansion, it does not offer ideal photo opportunities for aviation enthusiasts. Nevertheless, I could see that there were a couple of Fokker 100s and an Airbus A320 present, both types operated by Virgin Australia Regional. I couldn't make out the registration of the latter but VH-FZH has been with Virgin Australia since October 2014, having previously flown for USAir (became US Airways), Germania and Mexicana Click.
For travellers connecting to an interstate flight operated by Virgin or travelling internationally, there is a covered walkway through to Terminal 1. The time for my flight had been pushed back to 09:00am. In the meantime, gates were prepared for Virgin flights to Argyle (a diamond mine in the Kimberley) and Onslow (a town in the north west).
Eventually, with an apology for the delay, boarding of Regional Express flight 2113 to Albany was announced. After my boarding pass and drivers licence were checked by the Gate Agent, I was wished a pleasant flight. A member of the ground crew led the way to the awaiting Saab 340 at Gate 14 (Stand 214). At the end of the pier was a Fokker 100 from Alliance Airlines, VH-XWT. This is another aircraft that flew for USAir (later US Airways) and Germania, operating for a while with Air Berlin.
Boarding involved a short walk across the apron and using the aircraft steps (something that I always enjoy). My seat was on the single side, offering both views out of two windows and easy access to the aisle.
In the cabin was Megan, over from Adelaide and attending a fitness competition. She welcomed back frequent flyers and extended a welcome to those flying Regional Express for the first time. A flight time of fifty minutes was announced, during which a light snack would be served, together with tea and coffee.
While the Captain and Flight Officer completed their checks and started the engines - first right, then left - Megan conducted the safety briefing, reminding everyone to read the safety card in the seatback pocket.
Final checks completed, chocks away and the aircraft began to move forward, turning about to approach the runway. It held briefly for an incoming A330-200, VH-EBC arriving from Sydney as QF565.
As we turned into the runway, the sky to the east looked far less threatening than that to the west. The engines groaned and after a short run the aircraft lifted, the landing gear was retracted, and we passed over industrial areas before ascending through the cloud. Once level, the engines quietened down to a steady hum.
Registered as VH-ZLH, this aircraft first flew on the 31 October 1995 as SE-C376. It operated for several years with American Eagle as N376AE before coming to Rex on the 26 October, 2007.
Through a break in the cloud, I could spot Wungong Dam. Part of the water supply for the Perth Metropolitan Area, the dam holds some 60 million kilolitres, covers more than 30 hectares in a catchment of 132 square kilometres, and stretches 5.8 kilometres. The dam wall is 205 metres high.
Megan began the refreshment run. On offer were a sweet or savoury snack, tea, coffee and water. I chose the "sweet" which turned out to be a muesli bar. The coffee was brought on a separate tray a few minutes later, but something else was missing. Can you see what it was?"
While I drank the coffee, the aircraft passed over mine sites near Boddington, where gold and bauxite are mined. A look around the cabin showed how light the load was on this morning's flight.
The flight continued, passing over the town of Kojonup. The town is named after the kodja, a stone axe used by the Kaneang Noongar people, the traditional owners of the area. The surrounding country supports sheep, wheat and canola production.
The cloud had thickened as the Captain announced that we were at the top of descent and that he expected to have us disembarking at shortly after ten. He apologised for the late departure this morning which was due to the late arrival into Perth from Esperance, where there had been a couple of "hold ups."
As the Saab descended through the cloud, passing over verdant country following good summer rains, Megan made the announcement about stowing large electronic devices and baggage, directed that the tray tables be securely fastened and that the window shades be completely raised.
A quick pass through the cabin followed, offering Mintos from a tray, and then a final rubbish collection run before sitting down and fitting her own seat belt.
Another change in the sound of the engines as the plane passed the airstrip to come in from the south-east and land on Runway 32. The landing was smooth and along the way to the terminal we passed a parked-up Air Tractor and the ambulance transfer station, used when it is necessary to air-lift a patient to Perth with the Flying Doctor.
The aircraft came to a stop at the position marker still showing the Fokker 50, previously operated by Skywest (XR), later Virgin Australia Regional, until they gave up the route as uneconomic. While the Captain finalised the "paperwork" for the flight and the return to Perth, the Flight Officer secured the propeller. Once passengers were able to deplane, I took the opportunity to take a shot of the now silent Saab.
The terminal is large enough for the number of passengers that use it. It houses the usual car hire tenants and features a café, accessed through the departure lounge. After I had signed on the dotted line and collected the keys, I was able to take a parting photo of Lima Hotel on my way to the car.
Although the first British settlement in Albany occurred on 26 December 1826, whaling activity had taken place in the area since the late 1780s. Indeed, activity by both "Yankee Whalers" and the French had prompted the establishment of a British presence. Whatever the history, the location could not be more beautiful. I drove out to Frenchmans Bay, stopping along the way to take in some of the wonderful coastal scenery. There are many attractions, including The Gap, Natural Bridge and the Blowholes.
At the end of Frenchman Bay Road, overlooking the clear waters of King George Sound, is the location of the old Cheynes Beach Whaling Station. Whaling, flensing and processing took place here from the late 1940s until 1978. Today the buildings house a museum with interactive displays. The tanks have been fitted out as small viewing rooms where one can watch 3D movies describing the life cycle of whales, as well as the history of whaling. There is also a very impressive collection of sea shells, some of which have been decorated but others are naturally beautiful, with intricate patterns and shapes.
In one of the old sheds is a collection of whale skeletons. Featured are the sperm whale, the gigantic blue whale, a hump back and several smaller types, including orcas, minke and narwhals. Meanwhile, outside there is abundant marine life.
After lunch in the Whalers' Galley, I visited the Royal Forts overlooking the city and Princess Royal Harbour. Built in the days when Albany was the first port of call into Australia on the run from London to Melbourne, the Forts are on the oldest surviving military site in Western Australia. Various restored buildings house articles related to the history of the Forts. One of the buildings is dedicated to HMAS Perth and HMAS Sydney.
Albany has seen major congregations of shipping in the past — including the Russian White Fleet in 1905 — and was the assembly point for the first and second convoy of ships carrying troops to the middle east in World War One. A lookout over King George Sound, with sweeping views from Oyster Harbour, past Vancouver Peninsula to Flinders Bay, has charts showing the anchorage positions of the ships that made up the two convoys.
Given its strategic location, it is not surprising that the area approaching the harbour was defended by several gun emplacements, featuring batteries, ammunition stores and accommodation for the gunners.
The history of the ANZACs is commemorated in a centre completed in 2010. Visitors can follow the life of an individual person who was part of Gallipoli campaign. I was given a card for Private John 'Jack' Dunn and was able to learn about his enlistment in the 17th (Ruahine) Company, Wellington Infantry Battalion, NZEF, his journey to Albany and beyond to Gallipoli. Unfortunately, he was killed in action. But other cards follow the lives of some who survived and what became of them once they returned.
The National ANZAC Centre offers clear views over the bays and inlets, including Atatürk Channel, named as part of a reciprocal agreement in which the Government of Turkey renamed the landing ground at Gallipoli "Anzac Cove". Overlooking the channel is a statue of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, who was President of Turkey from 1923 to 1938. In the ANZAC Centre is a gold cigarette case given by Atatürk to Stanley Bruce, Prime Minister of Australia from 1923 to 1929. Both men had fought at Gallipoli and later became friends.
After a day of wonderment at scenic beauty and reflection on the misery and sacrifice of war, it was time to make my way back to the airport. Albany Airport (YABA/ALH) is located about 11km out of town on Albany Highway. It has two runways, 14/32 at 1800m long and a cross runway 05/23 at 1096m.
The first plane built in Albany never flew. Built by a syndicate in 1915, the motor was started, it ran for a few seconds before the propeller splintered into little pieces. Another aircraft was built, but shortly after taking off it crashed into the sea. Norman Brearley is credited with being the first one to fly successfully in Albany. He had an Avro 504K in which he would take passengers up at five pounds for ten minutes. A hefty sum in 1919.
Today flying is a lot safer and more comfortable. As I had checked-in on line there was no need for me to wait for the check-in desks to open, so I went straight through to the café. The incoming flight approached on Runway 14 and turned about to reach the terminal via Taxiway A.
Joining Rex on the 20 October, 2009 as VH-ZRJ, this aircraft had spent its previous service life with American Eagle as N396AE. It first flew as SE-C96 on the 14 May, 1996.
On the ground the man with the sticks guided the Saab 340 to its stand, after the engines were turned off the flight officer emerged to secure the propeller to the aircraft steps.
Meanwhile, arriving passengers deplaned, bags were unloaded and boarding for the flight to Perth could commence. The loading on this flight was much higher than on this morning's flight down. In the cabin was Kylie who welcomed everyone aboard, assisting some passengers to find space for their carry-on baggage. After the usual safety briefing, the aircraft got under way. I could feel the force in my back as Romeo Juliet sped along the runway and lifted off the ground.
The Flight Officer addressed the cabin, advising a flight time of about fifty minutes and (depending on ATC) hoped to have us on the ground shortly after ten to seven. Outside the sun retreated to the west, producing vivid colours in the sky.
Shortly after, Kylie commenced the refreshment run. The same offerings as this morning were available. But as this was an evening flight, the bar was open with beers being available at six dollars a can and soft drinks for five. I opted to stick with a muesli bar, some coffee and water.
A second cup of coffee was offered, which is excellent on such a short flight. Soon the Flight Offcer was back, announcing that we had commenced descent. Kylie cleared away the rubbish before walking through the cabin with the tray of Mintos. Passengers were reminded to have their bags and large electronic devices stowed, the tables put away and the window shades completely up.
Moments later we were passing over the lights of the city and approaching the runway. A short taxi brought us to stand 213 where the engines were switched off. Alongside was an Alliance Airlines Fokker 100, VH-FKC, also originally with USAir but which had also spent some time with Air Niugini.
On the ground the propeller was made safe while Kylie retrieved the bags for some passengers, then we were free to leave. Thanking Kylie and the Flight Officer at the bottom of the steps, I made my way across the apron and into the terminal. Along the way I passed another ex-USAir Fokker, this one now flying as VH-XWP after previously being with Germania and OLT.
And as my excursion came to an end, so too, the day had ended for a number of aircraft. Good night and sleep tight, boys and girls.