The story of Bass Strait is as epic as the people who reside there. About 40 million years ago the sea first rolled across the land, before time gave way to a series of ice ages. There have been periods where the Strait became dry land and people, plants and animals moved freely between Victoria and Tasmania. The last ice age ended approximately 15 000 years ago, and not long after, Tasmania finally was separated by the waterway we know today.
In far more recent times, flight has emerged as an important backdrop to the Flinders Island story. Isolated by the tumultuous seas that endlessly lash its granite core, the population turned to aviation almost 100 years ago to support their wild and untamed lifestyle. Small and reliable aircraft have quickly become a mainstay of life in Bass Strait.
Noel Bowland has witnessed first-hand the last 51 years of this remarkable journey. “Ansett approached me as a 15 year old when I was in Year 10,” begins Noel, gazing out over the tarmac and casting his mind back to how his remarkable service began. “I guess they asked the headmaster at the local school if there was anyone there that might be suited to the role. I grabbed the opportunity and the next thing I knew I was on a flight to Launceston for training. I certainly didn’t think it was the start of over 50 years in the job.”
The course of next five decades saw Noel work for multiple airline companies serving the largest island in the Furneaux Group. Ansett, Executive Airlines, HC Sleigh Aviation, Airlines of Tasmania…the list paints a picture of Tasmania’s regional aviation history. “Over the years, different operators have vied for the Flinders routes, all bringing slightly different approaches to the challenges we face here,” reflects Noel. “For example, trying different routes or changing the frequency of their services. Variations in freight verses passenger runs too. Government subsidies have played a big role in success over the years, as has the fluctuating population of the island.”
For the past 11 years Noel has lent his experience to Sharp Airlines, continuing to serve as the Flinders Island Base Manager. “Sharp started service here in 2010,” nods Noel. “They operate a very stable service. It’s key to bringing in lots of essential items to the island…fruit and veg, bakery products, Toll and TNT freight. We deliver all that from here too.”
The small but efficient team at Flinders are multiskilled. “The four of us do everything here,” continues Noel. “From passenger reservations and check-ins through to ground handling and freight deliveries. At larger airports there are crews dedicated to certain roles, but out here it’s all about variety…we do a bit of everything. Noel pauses before adding, “It’s nice to have the ongoing connection with the community too. The locals like to call us direct and book their trips and they’re often dropping in to pick up their parcels.” A cheeky grin creeps over his face, “Of course, there’s always some tongue-in-cheek banter going on. It’s just how things have always been done here.”
Noel’s is symbolic of the greater Flinders attitude. He’s all about community and playing his part to quietly get things done. He’s a gentle soul focussed on the task at hand, friendly service, safety and efficiency. Nothing is too much trouble.
Flinders Island Airport sits on an open expanse of flat land sandwiched between the ocean and the striking mountain range that forms the backbone of the island. Slammed by ferocious westerlies, the typography funnels the wind across the tarmac and up over the hillsides beyond. Low growing coastal scrub shelters the eclectic collection of vehicles waiting patiently in the carpark for their owners to return. Dusty utes and four wheel drives provide an interesting commentary on island life. On a calm day the only sound is the veritable birdsong chorus – this is their territory. If the winds are up though, one is quick to take shelter in the low slung building that services the airport’s arrival and departure needs.
One would think the wild weather would dictate the Flinders flight schedule. “But it’s not often that it happens,” Noel says, with a shake of the head. “People forget that although the winds are up, the planes are usually travelling at a far greater speed anyway. There could be 40 knots of wind but the plane’s doing 180 anyway. At the end of the day wind never causes us too many issues, maybe just a bit of turbulence over the mountains every so often.” Laughing he adds, “Back in the old days the sick bags got plenty of use in the Ansett Fokker Friendships. But these Fairchild Metro 23’s Sharp have today are very good.”
However there are instances where Mother Nature throws down unexpected challenges. “I do recall one time when we were shut down for three days though and that was due to sea fog,” says Noel. “It had rolled right in off the ocean and the visibility was next to nothing. That’s one event that can halt operations pretty quickly.”
Like many locals today, Noel’s family is inextricably linked to life in Bass Strait. “My grandfather was born in Tasmania,” he starts. “But after his parents died when he was a young boy, he was taken in by a Christian mission church and placed with a family on East Kangaroo Island. That family tragically had three sons drown in a boating mishap, and they went on to adopt three boys who were in desperate need of homes. In the early 1900s, he met my grandmother. She worked in the general store that serviced the whole of the Furneaux Group at the time.”
Noel’s own father came to the island during World War 2 working with the RAAF base. “Mum was a local girl of course,” he nods. “That whole period – after the war and throughout the soldier settlement scheme – saw Flinders really boom. It was a defining point in the island’s history,” says Noel. “Lots of families arrived, farming was huge and so was the fishing industry.”
“I remember vividly that we’d often have trucks lined up outside here,” says Noel, motioning to the road leading up to the airport carpark. “And before long we’d have three large aircraft choc-a-bloc full of crays,” reflects Noel. “Each one would have about 200 bags of crayfish on board. Back then there were around 30 crayboats on the island, compared to just one now. It’s an industry that’s changed a lot.”
In recent years, tourism has emerged as the focus for the Flinders Island community. “There’s a lot starting to happen here on Flinders,” agrees Noel. “New businesses springing up, and with that comes young families. It’s great to see the school growing in numbers once again.” And then, “The locals are very encouraging of new businesses that are emerging, just as long as they’re done sustainably and well. I think we all know that tourism is key to the island’s future.”
“Growing up here was just fantastic,” explains Noel. “Things were really social and there was always a party in a woolshed happening or a few beers to be had down on the beach. It’s certainly been a great place to raise our daughters too and I think it shaped them into being friendly, genuine people with a sense of community spirit. These days I think young people are more online and we’ve lost that a bit. I’d really like to see them out and about a bit more – what we have here is just too good not to be enjoying.”
With over five decades of service to the community under his belt, Noel is a mainstay of airport life. He’s seen it all and is happy to share his stories. “One of the funny things I recall harks back to when one of the airlines were operating De-Havilland aircraft. These had a rear passenger entrance door,” describes Noel. “The captain had started the aircraft engines while the 1st officer was completing a passenger briefing in the rear of the cabin. Upon realising that he had forgotten to remove the tailstand from the aircraft, he jumped out and as he did so the captain took off – not realising the 1st officer was not in the aircraft. The plane was taxiing done the runway at some speed.”
“All I could do was watch in hysterics as the poor first officer took off at full stride with the speed that any 100m Olympic athlete would be proud of. He finally caught up with departing aircraft and with the dexterity of a high jumper, leapt back on board.” Noel pauses before adding, “The aircraft continued on and departed as if nothing had happened. God only knows what the passengers were thinking.”
Reflecting on more recent times, Noel explains, “Our Tasmanian services have been busier since COVID with Tasmanians increasingly being unable to holiday on the mainland. That’s seen more locals taking the opportunity to holiday here on Flinders. In the past 18 months Sharp added three direct flights to and from Hobart three days a week,” explains Noel. “That’s been really well received. Having more Tasmanians over here lately has been great and has supported our local business community.”
“I can easily pick the Tasmanians from the Victorians,” he jokes. “They tend to be a lot more relaxed and they easily fit in. We appreciate people that just want to enjoy the place for what it is and not try and change things too much. We love it just how it is.”
“That bit of water between us and Victoria and Tassie is the best thing we’ve got going for us,” continues Noel. “The remoteness of the island is its crowning glory.”
“Sharp are now the largest metro operator in Australia,” explains Noel. “The last decade has been fantastic and I’ve been lucky enough to meet some great people. It’s nice that we all get together once a year too. The annual Sharp Christmas party usually sees everyone fly in and spend time catching up. To have that opportunity to put a face to the voice you speak to on the phone every week is really good.”
Speaking from his vast experience in regional aviation, Noel is quick to point to the challenges for airline operators. “With smaller airports like this one, there are always things like landing fees and passenger taxes to consider. It costs a lot to maintain an airport and most people just don’t think of everything that the airline has to build in to the price of the ticket. It might cost a little more to come to Flinders than other locations, but I’d say it’s well worth it. In some ways it protects the island too.”
Noel’s down time is spent doing what most islanders love most – fishing, boating and time with family. “Yeah, we load up the ute with the barbeque, the fishing gear and the dog…that’s our life really. It’s what I love the most about Flinders. You don’t have to go far to find a magic spot. It’s all right here on the doorstep. Often the young pilots will comment to me, ‘You’ve got it made over here mate’, and I can’t do much but agree. We keep things quiet and simple on the island.”
“You live for those days when the water is like glass,” continues Noel. “There’s nothing nicer than throwing the line in. Often there’s not another soul to be seen. There’s simply nothing better.”
“Quality of life here is all encompassing,” nods Noel, his eyes wandering out to the mountains beyond. “It’s easy to take all this for granted, the secluded bays and pristine beaches, so sometimes I have to remind myself how good I have it. It’s not cheap to live here, but weighing it all up, I wouldn’t have it any other way.”
Living just around the back of the airport, Noel’s always at hand if needed. A trip to the beach is always on the cards and Basil the Labrador doesn’t need reminding to take his place in the back of the ute. “There’s no need to ask him twice,” remarks Noel. “He loves going out.”
“People often don’t realise that Flinders was settled before Hobart,” says Noel, before adding with a keen glint in his eye, “I joke often that if Tasmania is like a good wine, then Flinders is a fine port – so much stronger.”
If you’re passing through Flinders airport and Noel’s shock of silver hair catches your eye, be sure to give him a wave. You’ll be rewarded with a warm smile and the knowledge that you’re in very safe hands.
Sharp Airlines will land you safely on Flinders Island – book your trip via Hobart, Launceston or Melbourne (Essendon).