‘It’s a bit comical, actually’: Quiet runways at Sydney Airport offer pilots a bucket list take-off

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Private pilot Mark Keech has flown in and out of Sydney Airport as a passenger many times, but he never thought one day he would do it from the cockpit.

That changed recently when he flew a Piper Cherokee 140 four-seater aircraft onto one of Sydney’s main runways, which stretches nearly four kilometres.

“I can land this thing in about 250 metres and they told me to get off the first taxiway as quickly as I could [because another plane was coming],” he said.

Mark Keech stands in front of a red and white Cherokee 140 aeroplane with his hand resting on a wing.
Pilot Mark Keech flew this Cherokee 140 aeroplane into Sydney airport recently while the airport was unusually quiet.(ABC Illawarra: Justin Huntsdale)

Mr Keech is one of many small aircraft pilots taking advantage of Sydney’s eerily-quiet airport during COVID-19.

Ordinarily, Australia’s largest airport sees at least 800 plane movements per day.

Amid the coronavirus pandemic, that number has been reduced to about 60 movements, mainly of freight jets.

Three small planes in the air over a runway at Sydney Airport with jets in the background.
Private pilots use a rare opportunity to use Sydney Airport’s runways during coronavirus restrictions on air travel.(Supplied: Kurt Ams/Sydney Airport)

Planes that ‘don’t make a lot of noise’

Sydney Airport airfield supervisor Nigel Coghlan has watched the airport recover from the events of September 11 and the global financial crisis.

Neither had an impact like that of coronavirus.

Nigel Coghlan at the Shep's Mound plane spotting spot site at Sydney Airport holding a clipboard with planes behind him.
Sydney Airport airfield supervisor Nigel Coghlan said it was a rare opportunity for a hobby pilot to land there.(ABC Illawarra: Justin Huntsdale)

“We’re used to dealing with the larger aircraft, but we’re now seeing something small that doesn’t make a lot of noise, so it’s something we have to keep on our toes with.

“Apart from that, we’re happy to give them a helping hand on the layout and guide them around if need be.”

Touched down with no issues

Mark Keech said to be permitted fly into Sydney Airport he needed to submit a flight plan and book a landing slot.

During usual operations, every landing spot is booked by commercial airlines, but the current climate offers surprising flexibility.

“They asked me what time I wanted and I said ‘1500 local’, and they said ‘that will be fine’, no question of it,” he said.

Mark Keech stands with arms folded in front of a small red and white plane.
Mr Keech said at one point he realised “this is serious, it’s an international airport”.(ABC Illawarra: Justin Huntsdale)

Despite having to negotiate a strong crosswind while approaching the runway, he touched down without issue alongside his daughter in the passenger seat.

Mr Keech said he had to try and manage the excitement of the occasion with making sure he followed all the necessary protocols.

“It became surreal because on one hand it was the same as landing at any other airport, but then I thought ‘this is serious, it’s an international airport and I’ve got a 777 up my arse’,” he said.

“I’m really glad I did it.”

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