A look inside the hazard-rich world of mustering from the air reveals safety is improving.
Chasing animals with helicopters, aeroplanes or gyrocopters is a distinctively Australian form of aviation. Aerial mustering is also practised in the US in Texas and the country’s south-west but nowhere on earth is better suited to this farming method than the huge cattle stations of Northern Australia.
‘If the choppers were to stop, this industry wouldn’t move,’ Western Australian cattle station manager Keith Anderson told SBS TV’s The Feed. ‘The old-style stockman is nearly a dead art … you can’t shift the numbers of cattle without the helicopter.’
Mustering is at the intersection of aviation and agriculture and, culturally, in the shadow of both activities. Experienced aerial musterers say it’s easier training an experienced cattle hand to fly a helicopter than teaching a helicopter pilot the ways of livestock. The implication is that an expert mustering pilot is a jackeroo first, who just happens to have a helicopter licence. ‘If you have that experience from being a young person handling cattle on the ground, when you get in the air it’s the same kind of thing,’ one cattleman turned pilot told Flight Safety Australia.
The downside is that training cattle wranglers to fly can create a pilot group that is both physically and culturally isolated from the disciplined and procedural world that the rest of commercial aviation flies in.
CASA’s 2015 sector risk profile of the industry summarised the danger. ‘Mustering, by definition involves low-level flying and is a hazard rich activity with the inherent danger of being only a few seconds away from impact in the case of an emergency or pilot distraction.’
In 2000 the aerial mustering sector accident rate was 154.6 accidents per million hours. However, between 2008 and 2017, the sector logged an average 60.6 accidents per million hours. The rate is markedly lower than that of aerial application (crop spraying) and is declining.
Fifteen people were killed in mustering crashes over 2008–17, an admittedly much smaller number than the 134 who died in private, business and sport aviation over the same period. But aerial mustering took its toll of deaths from a much smaller group of people.
In the 10 years ending 2012, only 16 aerial mustering incidents and serious incidents were reported to the Australian Transport Safety Bureau’s database, a superficially impressive record which, if true, would have made animal wrangling by helicopter significantly less incident prone than airline transport. If only. Serious accidents are harder to disguise—the period saw 66 aircraft involved in commercial aerial mustering accidents and six people killed.
This under-reporting of incidents is a problem because keeping incidents and minor accidents secret prevents awareness of accident trends, and leaves mustering pilots blissfully unaware of potentially serious issues which might in some cases have simple solutions. As CASA’s sector risk profile says, ‘it may impede the sector’s ability to identify and address safety issues’.
Isolation has other effects. The innovative and improvisational culture of keeping machinery going in the bush is not always a good fit with the precise, disciplined and, yes, costly, needs of aircraft maintenance. ‘The industry knows who are the people who cheat on their hours. The maintenance industry knows it because when they bring aircraft in they can tell by the wear in pitch links, bores,’ a commercial operator says.
No need to stress: cultural change from the ground up
Is cattle culture part of aerial mustering’s safety issue or could it be part of the cure? In 2018 Sir Angus Houston, former Chief of Air Force and later Chief of the Defence Force, gave a no-holds-barred speech to the Northern Territory Cattlemen’s Association (see breakout) where he emphasised the importance of building a robust safety culture. But some experienced mustering pilots say taking a livestock-centred approach to mustering can also deliver safety benefits.
‘No matter what animal, whether it’s cattle, buffalo, horses or goats, it’s all about understanding how that animal reacts,’ pilot for Central Queensland-based Roam Aviation Matthew Mollard says.
‘If you can keep your animals calm and relaxed, you will be calm and relaxed yourself,’ he says.
Rockhampton-based mustering contractor Cameron Parker says the culture has changed to emphasise being a good cattle person. ‘When I started 20 years ago, the whole culture was how well you could fly and throw a helicopter around,’ he says. ‘We soon worked out that we couldn’t outfly the cattle, we had to out-think them, handle them better.’
Low-stress mustering is an accepted industry practice. You won’t see it on TV because it doesn’t provide for the kind of action shots that television producers love. ‘It makes for spectacular footage but really it’s just showing off,’ Mollard says.
Parker says a typical day of low-stress mustering is ‘go to a paddock, fly across the back of it and the cattle will start going. With good mobs of cattle, probably 90 per cent of our mustering is done between 500 to 600 feet, at 50 or 60 knots, well above the height/velocity curve. We keep high, keep a little bit of speed and stay safe.
‘As soon as the cattle do the right thing we fly away, so that the mental and physical demands on them are gone. That’s their reward.’
Parker says effective mustering is about conditioning animals to think rather than react.
‘If we keep the cattle calm, helicopter mustering is very easy. If you don’t enjoy working with the mental side of animals, you’ll probably get bored with it,’ he says.
‘It also produces better eating quality in the animals, because they aren’t stressed. It ticks the animal welfare box and those are the reasons why the industry is going that way.’
Mollard says, ‘When you’re doing it right, mustering is a bit like mowing your lawn, going one way then another. At the end of the day, it’s a business and you want it to be relaxed.’
There are still mustering jobs where cattle have to be flushed out of scrubby wooded country with low flying. In these situations, the pilot has to monitor the animals, the terrain, the aerodynamic limitations of the helicopter and be aware of its limitations when dealing with recalcitrant half-wild animals.
‘Once cattle learn to ignore you, there’s nothing you can do,’ Parker says. ‘A dog or a horse or a bike can cause them some sort of discomfort. That’s why we’ve got to be careful using helicopters.’
The temptation to get closer can be fatal, he says. ‘As soon as you touch an animal with a skid, you’re so light that it throws you. The animal hits the skid and rolls the helicopter. The animal runs away and there’s a pile of dust and someone dead.’
These occasional and difficult jobs occur because aerial mustering hovers over a cluster of cultures. Operators identify at least five.
‘What this means is that when any one of these cultures changes it affects the other, for better or worse,’ Mollard says. Parker says the insight coming from thinking of many cultures is the need for communication. ‘Safe cattle mustering is about all those cultures working together, everybody sitting down, talking and working towards the same thing.’
Bunch of five: the cultures of mustering
Animal culture. This comes from the way they’ve been worked and conditioned, and from what type of animal they are. Mustering pilots who have attempted to muster wild goats say cattle are easy by comparison. ‘It varies from property to property,’ Parker says. ‘Any animal that gets in with a herd will change just by running with them and this gets passed onto the culture of the younger animals. In some animal cultures the sound of a helicopter means it’s time to start walking, for others it means run and hide.’
Ground crew culture. ‘The way they treat the cattle determines how that herd will behave,’ Parker says. ‘You can end up taking five or six hours to muster cattle that used to be no trouble to muster in half the time, just because the ground crew culture has changed and affected the mental conditioning of the animals.’
Regional culture. ‘They are very different in the NT, that’s for sure. It’s more of a hard-flying culture,’ Parker says. Mollard says the smaller properties of Central Queensland ‘create an expectation that the mob will be walked into the yards low and relaxed’.
Pilot culture. Parker asks, ‘Are they hard chasers or gentle herders?’ Mollard says flying non-mustering jobs improves airmanship by focusing on planning. “In a day of mustering you might be planning for 10 minutes, but if you’ve got a sling load job, you’ll spend up to an hour in flight planning. That focus makes you better.’
Workplace health and safety/animal welfare cultures. The emphasis on risk management and mitigation and avoiding stress on animals combine to place less emphasis on hard flying. This trend is stronger in corporate-owned cattle properties.
It takes a hero: the day Sir Angus Houston spoke his mind
Convention speeches are often, to be frank, conventional. Often they take place over a low buzz of conversation as delegates socialise, sleep or display the height of modern rudeness by looking at their phones.
Sir Angus Houston’s address to last year’s Northern Territory Cattlemen’s Association annual conference was different. And Sir Angus was well qualified to give it. He had been chief of the Royal Australian Air Force, before that a skilled and decorated helicopter pilot and, as a youthful migrant to Australia, had worked on a cattle station.
In his defence career Sir Angus had developed a reputation for fearlessly telling unpopular truths, and in retirement he did it again. The speech was at the behest of former Cattlemen’s Association chief executive Tracey Hayes, whose husband, Billy, was killed in a fixed-wing mustering crash in 2016.
While praising the skill of its pilots, Sir Angus said aerial mustering needed a cultural change if it was to significantly reduce its accident and death rates. Change was possible, he said, because the RAAF had undergone one.
In the mid-1990s then RAAF chief, Air Marshal Les Fisher, had set out a vision for zero fatal accidents.
‘Everybody in the audience said that is impossible, “we fly on the edge all the time, we have to, we have to prepare for combat”,’ Sir Angus said. ‘But despite the sceptics, that vision was achieved.’
Between 1980 and 1991 the RAAF lost 54 aircraft and 42 people in flying accidents. But it has not had a fatal crash since 1999, despite operational flying in Iraq and Afghanistan.
This had been the result of cultural change, and Sir Angus said there were five steps that could be taken to produce such change.
1. Establish an aerial mustering safety group:
Sir Angus proposed an aviation safety group involving cattle producers, pilots, safety experts and CASA and ATSB representatives.
‘Every four to six months, look at what has happened operationally, what sort of incidents might have occurred, what sort of lessons learned are out there, and then provide the necessary direction down to all of your membership as to the best way to avoid some
of these things that have happened,’ he said.
2. Set standards:
‘You need to have a training and preparation system where you set the standards that you want pilots to adhere to,’ Sir Angus said.
‘You need to set the limits: how close will you let them go to cattle, for example. Do you want them on the cattle’s backs? No, you want them some distance away so the operation is completely safe,’ he said. Part of setting standards was to recognise and reward professional, safe and compliant performance by pilots.
3. Round up the cowboys:
Not everyone who worked with cattle was a cowboy, Sir Angus said. He used the term to describe impulsive pilots, often highly skilled, but who took risks without thinking of consequences.
‘Who wants to get in an aircraft that is flown by a cowboy?’ he asked.
4. Prioritise risk avoidance:
Sir Angus quoted a hallowed aviation proverb: ‘a superior pilot was a pilot who used superior judgement to avoid circumstances that required the use of superior skill’.
‘That is what it is all about—risk avoidance—and only having to use those really well-developed skills when you get into trouble, not all the time,’ he said.
This approach had to be embraced by leaders with a signed statement or compact, he said. ‘Once you sign something like that, you are signing on to a particular way of doing business.’
5. Wear helmets:
Sir Angus knew many pilots thought helmets were too hot but he had flown more than 3000 hours in helicopters in hot climates, including PNG and north Queensland, always wearing a helmet.
‘I never flew without a helmet, because in a helicopter, if the worst happens and the thing rolls over, you are going to need that helmet.’