SAM McCabe began learning to fly while sitting on his father Bob’s knee in the cockpit as a young boy in the 1970s.
He then spent many nights marking out fields in South Australia’s South East with torches and lanterns so Bob knew which crop to spray.
Bob and Pam McCabe started air services company Aerotech in 1958 with a small fixed-wing plane and a handful of contracts to spray crops for local farmers in the Tintinara region of South Australia.
The company moved into aerial fire fighting in the 1980s and expanded in 1990 with the launch of its 1st Response team, which still provides specialised aerial fire fighting and marine oil spill control services continues to Federal and State Government Emergency Service agencies.
Sam, an experienced pilot, took over the reins 10 years ago and has led the expansion of the company into diverse areas such as aquaculture, lighthouse inspection and executive charter that has allowed it to bolster its core business.
“It’s spreading the risk but also enhancing what we’re already doing,” the 45-year-old said.
“If you stand still, people will catch up and everything’s evolving all the time so we’re certainly always looking for ways we can do things better.”
Since Sam became Managing Director, Aerotech has increased revenue by 156 per cent and increased the number of staff it employs from 35 to more than 50.
Its fleet has also grown by 50 per cent to 21 – 17 fixed-wing aircraft and 4 helicopters.
Aerotech opened its $2 million Claremont Aerial Firefighting base in the heart of the Adelaide Hills in December as a focal point for its contract with the South Australian Country Fire Service (CFS).
It has also acquired several agriculture businesses in recent years to offset its growing fire fighting responsibilities.
Sam said combining agricultural services such as spraying fertilisers, fungicides and pesticides onto cereal and legume crops provided a good balance for the business because the fire fighting work was in summer while the agriculture work was generally in winter and spring.
“It means we’ve got more admin staff, more pilots, more engineers and it keeps more consistency of work year round.”
“It gives us much better utilisation of our equipment, which is the big ticket item, so it does work well.
“If we have a wet winter and spring we generally have a good agriculture season but we may have a late start to summer. But if we have a dry spring we normally start the fire season early so it’s kind of like swings and roundabouts.”
In October 2015 Aerotech purchased Australian Helicopters Charter to branch out into new areas.
The purchase came with four helicopters – two BA Squirrels (Airbus AS350B3), one B3 Squirrel and one B3 Jetranger. As well as introducing executive charter to its range of services, the helicopters have been used to add many other strings to its bow.
“It’s opened up a few new income streams but it’s also another challenge that’s come along for us,” Sam said.
Last month, Aerotech used one of its Squirrels – among the most powerful single engine helicopters available worldwide – to transfer 3 million Yellowtail Kingfish fingerlings from a land-based hatchery at Arno Bay to sea pens about 3.7kms (2 nautical miles) in South Australia’s Spencer Gulf.
The Clean Seas operation is the largest commercial Yellowtail Kingfish farm in Australia. The Aerotech helicopter made almost 30 trips carrying a specially designed “bucket” on a sling to transfer the 25-gram fingerlings. The fish in the bucket were kept alive for the 3-4 minute journey with a small amount of oxygen-enriched water before being lowered into the Spencer Gulf pens.
Aerotech’s helicopters have also recently completed an inspection and maintenance run for Australian Maritime Systems of lighthouses in remote parts of Victoria and South Australia.
Over summer, two of the helicopters have been based at the new airfield 45km east of Adelaide alongside 15 staff, 11 fixed-wing bombers and three fixed-wing Cessnas.
Among the fleet is an Air Tractor-802F, the world’s largest single-engine air tanker.
The bombers can respond quickly and can be in the air in three minutes with a reload time of just two minutes. But their reach is not limited to the Adelaide Hills as the company either owns or has access to more than 100 satellite strips around the state.
“The final product is great – it’s given us a base, it’s given us our own home up there and it’s given us real security of tenure,” Sam said of the new airbase.
Aerotech has been a leader in aerial fire fighting since it launched its 1st Response team in 1990.
Bob McCabe helped develop the Rapid Initial Attack strategy for aerial fire fighting in the 1980s and ‘90s. He was so confident in his method of sending planes to drop suppressants on a bush fire as soon as it was reported that he initially offered the first flight to a fire for free.
“The thinking back then was that when a fire broke out they’d send the ground crews in first and they’d wait until the fire was basically out of control before they sent in the planes and of course the planes didn’t look that good because the fire was at the point where nothing was going to stop it,” Sam said.
“So they went to the agency and said ‘we’ll give you the first flight of any fire within the Adelaide Hills for free’ and what they found was they were able to get to the fires so quick that they stopped them from getting out of control.”
Sam and Jessica McCabe with their children Airlie, Izzy and April and Sam's parents Bob and Pam. Picture: Russell Millard.
The Rapid Initial Attack strategy has now been adopted around Australia.
Sam said keeping debt levels relatively low and constantly looking for new opportunities had been keys to the company’s success.
He said working to shore up its fire contract with the CFS beyond 2017/18, building a new maintenance facility at Parafield Airport in Adelaide’s northern suburbs and lobbying for a helipad in the Adelaide CBD were among the more immediate plans for Aerotech.
“We’ve tried to pace our growth and our debt with our major contracts – by 2018 we’re hoping to have all but one of our fixed-wing aircraft paid off.
“We’re also looking to do surveillance work and move into building firefighting equipment for the aircraft – we believe there’s quite a big market there.”