For decades, pilots have camped under the wings of their planes on the Birdsville airstrip over the weekend of the town’s iconic outback races event.

Key points:

  • The Diamantina Shire Council has banned camping under aircraft wings at the 2021 Birdsville Races
  • The council says safety conditions haven’t changed, but it has become “more risk-averse”
  • The owner of Birdsville Hotel has written to the council asking it to reconsider the ban

It’s a tradition that goes hand in hand with the Birdsville Races experience.

But this year, the Diamantina Shire Council has banned the practice, citing safety regulations and costs involved in complying with them.

“Part of the make-up of the races is people flying in and camping under the wings,” the owner of the Birdsville Hotel, Courtney Ellis, said.

“It’s a feature of it.

Aerial view of dozens of light planes lined up on the red dirt.

The Diamantina Shire Council says the number of private planes flying to the races has dropped in recent years, from a few hundred to only 68 in 2019.(

Supplied: Birdsville Races

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The council’s chief executive officer, Leon Love, said the council had to apply for a “special event zone” from the Civil Aviation Safety Authority in order to allow the under-wing camping.

He said the safety conditions had not changed, but the council had become “more risk-averse”.

He said complying with safety regulations came at “considerable cost” to the council, which paid for air traffic control, marshalling, 24-hour security, cleaning amenities and rubbish services.

In 2019, the council engaged Platinum Aviation Consulting at a cost of $55,243 to provide those services.

“For the 2019 races, that would have come at a net loss of about $30,000,” Mr Love said.

Aerial view of tents and campervans on the grass.

The local council says there are other free camping options for racegoers.(

Supplied: Birdsville Races

)

Pilots and punters outraged

Anger over the ban is growing.

A petition by the Aircraft and Owners and Pilots Association of Australia demanding the ban’s reversal has garnered more than 2,500 signatures in six days.

Mr Ellis said he had also written to the council, urging it to reconsider the ban.

He said it was bizarre to make the decision this year, when interest in the Birdsville Races was likely to surge after a year of no outback events in 2020.

“I’ve had calls from people who were driving out, who’ve got nothing to do with airplanes, who are a bit annoyed about it.”

Mr Ellis rejected the council’s explanation about safety concerns.

“There’s never been, as far as I’m aware, a problem with people camping under the wings,” he said.

An aerial view of jockeys in colourful jerseys racing horses around the dirt racecourse at the Birdsville races.

The Birdsville Races is expected to be a hit with travellers this year, after no outback events were held in 2020.(

Supplied: Birdsville Races

)

Council offers free camping sites

Some locals have suggested the ban is a money-making scheme, designed to push people into paid accommodation, including an area known as Tent City.

The Diamantina Shire Council has dismissed the claim.

It said while the races brought revenue to the town’s businesses, the council operated the event at a loss.

Diamantina Shire Mayor Robbie Dare said while the council received $10,000 commission for Tent City, it had to provide shower and toilet facilities at a cost of $14,000.

Cr Dare said travellers were welcome to camp on the town common and the council was also looking into setting aside a camping area on the football field.

Mr Ellis, however, said that suggestion was impractical.

“[It’s] a beautiful area, but it’s to the east of the town. You can’t walk that far with all your gear.”

Birdsville Races outcry as council bans under-wing camping tradition
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