With insensitive timing, some voices being heard in the debate about Essendon Airport’s future after yesterday’s disastrous plane crash into the adjacent DFO shopping centre have in effect been saying nearby residents should just toughen up and cop the odd plane plunging in their homes or retail precincts.

Crash investigators have spent all night trying to find the mandatory cockpit voice recorder required for the Raytheon B200 high-performance twin engine turboprop, which had a pilot and four US golf tourists on board for a flight to King Island.

There are fears it could have been destroyed by the intense fire that followed the King Air B200 experiencing engine failure shortly after becoming airborne. The plane veered out of control, collided with the roof of part of the DFO centre and then crashed into a parking area beside it, showering some wreckage onto the Tullamarine Freeway.

The fatal crash quickly invoked memories of another take-off from Essendon that led to a plane crashing into a house in Airport West, killing six people, and an incident in 1993 when another flight struck five houses in the suburb of Essendon without causing fatalities.

After its closure to large scheduled domestic flights in 1971 in favour of the nearby major Melbourne Airport, which had opened for international flights in 1970, Essendon became a general aviation, small freight, corporate jet and emergency services airport.

The opposing arguments about the fate of Essendon Airport that jostled for media attention yesterday, even while the wreckage was still on fire, are a legacy of the planning vacuums and failures that followed the full opening of Melbourne Airport some seven or eight kilometres further up the Tullamarine freeway.

Airport West, as in west of Essendon Airport, didn’t even get a post office until 1976, and its subsequent development is a monument to the ruthless stupidity of Victoria’s town planning policy settings for having brought substantial housing developments there and in other nearby new suburbs so close to Melbourne Airport’s flight paths that residents’ eardrums would be imperiled by the noisy jets of those times. 

The moment Melbourne Airport was designed as a 24-hour, curfew-free airport to cater for massive expansion in the 21st century, fools in successive Victorian governments bent over for the real estate developers and threw the pristine grasslands open to housing estates.

A lawsuit brought to impose a housing-friendly jet curfew on Melbourne Airport some years after it had opened was thrown out of court. The twin Melbourne airports were there much longer than most of the residents of nearby suburbs have been alive.

It should be evident that Essendon Airport isn’t going to be closed, and DFO isn’t going to be bulldozed to make a safe place for stricken aircraft to attempt to land.

But it ought to be just as apparent that the well-run and delightful DFO centre should have been built elsewhere, further from the centre line of approach and departure paths for aircraft.

There are opposing views: the public “close Essendon” view, and the general aviation lobby argument that the airport should stay open but that the space not occupied by runways and taxiways should be developed for aviation activities.

Had this been done, yesterday’s crash would have been into an aviation hangar or related facility and airport employees could have been killed, since aviation is an around-the-clock activity, and those in the B200 were going to die of blunt force trauma regardless of the land use.

The obvious public policy failing in the DFO shopping centre crash is to leave all the decisions about airport real estate usage to the buyers or lease holders.

There are some regulations and policies supposed to apply to safe non-aviation activities at airports. But since the turn of the century, publicly owned airports were privatised, and the fashion was for “light-handed regulation”, weasel words for “the public can bugger off”. 

When the only real restraints on real estate development at private airports is the availability of capital and a grudging recognition that shops can’t actually be built in the middle of runways and taxiways, the DFO tragedy and the risks it posed to the non-flying public are just part of the price paid for socially irresponsible airport developments by private investors.

If there are no enforced or sensible rules, private enterprise will screw every last atom of advantage out of the space available, and to hell with the consequences because the chance is nothing will ever go wrong.   

Yesterday at DFO Essendon, everything went wrong.

Peter Fray

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