Aussie pilots jobless as QLD hires foreigners to fight fires

Queensland pilots put out of work by COVID-19 say they have been left on the unemployment scrapheap while governments allow foreign pilots into Australia to fight bushfires this summer.

Hundreds of commercial pilots put out of work by the COVID-forced shutdown of the aviation industry are now demanding they fly waterbombing aircraft ahead of foreign pilots on temporary visas.

Tigerair Captain Richard Ohlrich, 46, represents one of about 200 pilots to lose their jobs in April due to Virgin Australia's cuts and a widespread aviation industry downturn.

Mr Ohlrich's disappointment at the state of the sector was magnified last week with the Queensland Government revealed foreign pilots had arrived in Australia to fly the state's waterbombing aircraft this fire.

Tigerair pilot Richard Ohlrich lost his job in April and now wants the government to focus on employing Australian pilots.
Tigerair pilot Richard Ohlrich lost his job in April and now wants the government to focus on employing Australian pilots.

A heavily converted Dash-8 aircraft arrived in Bundaberg on August 24 as part of a $15m, five-year contract with Canadian aerial firefighting company Conair Group.

The two pilots who flew the aircraft to Australia are responsible for flying and servicing the aircraft while it is in Australia, according to the contract.

The aircraft will be based in Bundaberg and, with a cruising speed of 670km/h, can be quickly deployed to other parts of the state.

The two Canadian pilots brought to Australia to fly the 10,000L Dash-8 have served their two weeks of quarantine, and can now be activated.

Mr Ohlrich, a 15-year veteran of commercial aviation, said there were thousands of skilled pilots in Australia who could fly the aircraft.

"We have a country full of Australian pilots who are the best and safest in the world," he said.

"These aircraft are commonly used in Australia and it's a simple conversion, we're ready to fly.

"There's heaps of us, highly trained pilots waiting and wanting to serve our country."

When questioned this week on whether Australian pilots could fly the aircraft, Queensland Fire and Emergency Services Commissioner Greg Leach, however, said there was significant "training and skill" required to pilot a heavily-converted aircraft for firefighting operations.

"There is only a limited number of pilots to fly the Dash-8 in the world, and so we are talking with the company about how we increase that capability," he said.

Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk, Treasurer Cameron Dick and QFES Commissioner Greg Leach are shown the inside of the aerial tanker.
Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk, Treasurer Cameron Dick and QFES Commissioner Greg Leach are shown the inside of the aerial tanker.

Mr Ohlrich fears more foreign pilots will be granted permission to work in Australia and has written to Prime Minister Scott Morrison calling for him to remove 'aeroplane pilot' from the list of occupations eligible under the Commonwealth's skills shortage visa scheme.

"There are many, many Australian pilots like myself who are trained, qualified and licences on particular aircraft and we are ready to go up and operate," he said.

Mr Ohlrich has called for the Queensland Government to invest in its own aerial firefighting appliances instead of leasing from an overseas company.

He said Queensland could create its own "sovereign industry" by converting idle Dash-8 passenger planes into waterbombers and using them to fight fires here and overseas.

"We should be exporting our talent, not offshoring it," he said.

Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk said the state had investigated owning its own firefighting aircraft, rather than leasing, but said the costs "are just too much".

"I'd written to the Federal Government about providing some extra resources, I was knocked back, but now we have our own and Queenslanders can feel satisfied that if anything does happen we can deploy this aircraft at moment's notice," she said of Conair's Dash-8.

LNP Leader Deb Frecklington said it was disappointing the firefighting aircraft wouldn't be flown by Australians.

"Nearly 200,000 Queenslanders are unemployed right now and Annastacia Palaszczuk is giving job opportunities to Canadians.

"This is an insult by Labor to every Queensland pilot screaming out for a job to support their family right now.

"I would back a Queenslander to pilot this plane any day."

The aircraft and its crew will remain in Bundaberg and be deployed across the state, or interstate, this fire season.



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