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‘Potential to scare tourists away’: Bitter dispute engulfs Katoomba airfield

But there is significant community unrest over the proposal, which garnered more than 1500 responses to the state government’s public submission process and a petition with over 12,000 signatures that was delivered to NSW Parliament.

Last week the Blue Mountains City Council formally passed a submission to oppose the airfield’s lease. Mayor Mark Greenhill said the debate was beyond NIMBYism and anti-development because of the area’s protected status.

I think there’s potential to scare more tourists away than it brings in.

Blue Mountains mayor Mark Greenhill

“There’s a battle on at the moment. This is one of the most iconic destinations in Australia. We get five million tourists a year. The Three Sisters is the second-most visited site after the Opera House.

“If suddenly you’re visiting this beautiful place and you’ve got aircraft flying overhead, then the reason you’ve visited the Blue Mountains has been undermined. I think there’s potential to scare more tourists away than it brings in.”

Local Denise Thompson is leading the campaign to stop helicopters “whizzing people in and out”.

She fears the impact of a commercial hub will impact bushwalkers and those seeking solitude in the mountains. The worst-case scenario is that “people stop coming up because the lookouts are getting crowded by helicopters”.

But Mr Larsen dismissed these concerns, saying thousands of trucks pass through the National Park along the Great Western Highway every day.

Derek and Floyd Larsen of FlyBlue inspect an old hangar at Katoomba airfield.

Derek and Floyd Larsen of FlyBlue inspect an old hangar at Katoomba airfield.Credit:David Hill, Deep Hill Media

“To suggest the noise of a few aircraft who fly over and away from any built-up areas is going to stop tourists coming to the Blue Mountains is a complete falsehood and cannot be justified as an argument.”

Mr Larsen said the airfield is already operational and brings extra visitors to the region, with more than 100 helicopters landing from Sydney Airport in the past year. But he said the landing fees he receives as the licensee are not enough to make his business commercially viable. If the long-term lease is secured, he plans to upgrade the site and offer his own helicopter charters and light plane flights.

“A flight landing there is $35. You don’t invest long-term on that basis,” he said.

“We pay commercial rates to council. We pay a licence fee to the state government. We spent considerable sums of money cleaning the site up and making it presentable. None of the revenue stream goes remotely close to covering those costs.”

The old Katoomba Airfield now under the care of FlyBlue Management.

The old Katoomba Airfield now under the care of FlyBlue Management.Credit:David Hill, Deep Hill Media

Whatever the outcome, Mr Larsen said he would respect the government process.

“We’re not personalising this, it’s a business opportunity. We responded to an open tender for an airfield.”

The ongoing controversy is set against the backdrop of a region fighting to retain its prized UNESCO World Heritage status. Along with this latest battle, Cr Greenhill cites the new Western Sydney Airport and the proposed raising of the Warragamba dam wall as threats to the Blue Mountains.

A UNESCO spokesman confirmed these issues “are subjects of concern”.

While declining to speculate about the possible loss of the area’s World Heritage status, the spokesman said it would “depend on the actions of the Australian authorities in charge of managing the site”.

Cr Greenhill said commercialising the airfield was simply “inconsistent with our identity”.


“I’m deeply concerned if we don’t continue to safeguard what’s unique about the Blue Mountains we could lose not only environmental values but we could undermine our reputation as a destination of tranquillity.

“I am the mayor of a city within a World Heritage National Park. It’s my job to protect that area. It seems to me that other levels of government don’t take that seriously.”

A spokesperson for the Department of Planning, Industry and Environment said it was considering all submissions from the community before it made a decision.

“The public consultation period was undertaken to ensure the community was fully aware of the lease proposal and had the opportunity to provide any feedback so that the Department has a clear understanding of how the lease might benefit or affect the community,” the spokesperson said.

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