For the 300,000 people who visit Uluru each year, the 2009 plan to stop tourists climbing the rock spelt the beginning of the end of an iconic Australian climb.But for a group of enterprising Sydney businessmen, it presented an opportunity that just months after its inaugural liftoff has now landed in the NSW Supreme Court.
Source: Fairfax Media
Battle to bring back controversial Uluru blimp flies into court
The group, including David Adler and Malcolm Beville, a former Macquarie Banker and son of wealthy developer John Beville dreamt up SkyShip Uluru.
The giant blimp – the first of its kind in the world – would allow visitors to again enjoy stunning panoramic views as it hovered 150 metres above the ground.
It took seven years, millions of dollars and a two-month sea and rail journey from Europe to get the blimp off the ground.
August last year was the SkyShip’s first flight, but by October its remains were lying in tatters on the red dirt.
The tumultuous months in between and the “catastrophic” demise of the SkyShip have been combed over in NSW Supreme Court this week, as Mr Adler and Mr Beville battle to resurrect the blimp.
Their contract was terminated in February by Voyages Indigenous Tourism Australia, an organisation owned by the Indigenous Land Corporation that manages the tourism and resort facilities at Uluru. Voyages also rejected their suggestions of an alternative attraction known as “Aerobar”.
From when he became Voyage’s chief executive in September 2018, Grant Hunt admitted he privately held reservations about the blimp.
Voyages was fielding complaints from tourists who had booked a $225-a-head outdoor bush tucker dining experience near Uluru.
Visitors to Uluru complained their view of the rock was being obscured by a giant white blimp. Credit:James Brickwood
A “white object in the distance” was blocking the tourists’ view of the sun setting over the rock, as they sipped champagne and ate canapes on the viewing platform.
“I believed it was a fait accompli that we would have to move the [dining] site because of the negative feedback,” Mr Hunt told the court.
Voyages was investigating the relocation, at an estimated cost of $700,000, when disaster struck in October.
A violent storm rolled through the area, bringing wind gusts of up to 69 kilometres an hour. The SkyShip was destroyed.
What Voyages didn’t know at the time, Mr Hunt told the court, was that a mechanical flaw meant the SkyShip had been in jeopardy when tethered.
Weathervaning – where the blimp was meant to protect itself by automatically turning in the direction of the wind – was not occurring, meaning the blimp had to be manually turned by SkyShip employees whenever it was not in use.
At the time of the storm, the 24-hour crew responsible were called off due to the risks posed by lightning.
Mr Adler told the court that the defect was the manufacturer’s responsibility and only posed a problem when the blimp was docked, meaning there was no safety risk to passengers.
But Mr Adler was quizzed about an email he sent to the manfuacturer in which he expressed concerns about an incident where an employee stood on the blimp’s handrail and a section of welding gave way.
Mr Adler also admitted the shape of the SkyShip was affecting the stability of passengers, with the risk they may fall over in the wind if they were not holding on and following safety instructions.
The SkyShip had not been capable of taking 15 passengers, as anticipated, and Mr Adler complained of the manufacturer’s “extreme unreliability”.
The counsel for Voyages, Allan Myers QC, argued the organisation had “perfectly legitimate” reputational and safety concerns about the blimp and its destruction could have prevented by its owners.
“What happened in the loosest sense could be described as an accident,” Mr Myers said. “It was a … forseeable outcome of continuing of having the balloon tethered without the automated [turning] system working.”
The counsel for the SkyShip, Gregory Sirtes SC, hit back that the supposed safety and reputational concerns were “phantom issues” because the balloon had the safety regulator’s approval and was only at risk when docked.
His clients should not lose their contract for discontinuing the business after what was essentially “an act of God”.
“If the SkyShip was anchored inadvertently over a sinkhole and was swallowed up it would not be appropriate to find my client discontinued the business,” he said.
“If for whatever reason someone thought the SkyShip lacked cultural sensitivity… and decided to blow a hole in the side of it with a high powered rifle … it would be difficult to see the operator discontinued the business.”
Mr Sirtes argued the safety of employees needed to be prioritised during the storm and it would have been unreasonable to deflate the balloon at a cost of many tens of thousands of dollars.
Voyages has asked the court to uphold its termination of the contracts. SkyShip Uluru argued it should be allowed to repossess its former site and Voyages should be restrained from interfering with its operations.
Justice Rowan Darke reserved his decision.