Bid to bring back Illawarra’s shark-spotting aerial patrol

Duncan Leadbitter remembers watching the aerial patrol aircraft flying overhead as a boy, and is leading efforts to resurrect the service. Picture: ROBERT PEET
Duncan Leadbitter remembers watching the aerial patrol aircraft flying overhead as a boy, and is leading efforts to resurrect the service. Picture: ROBERT PEET

A new board will attempt to resurrect the region’s shark-spotting Australian Aerial Patrol, almost a year after infighting and allegations of fraud grounded the service. 

The board, made up of five men with pre-existing ties to the patrol, will meet on February 18 as part of efforts to win back financial support and free the service of debt, said secretary Duncan Leadbitter.

Area councils have suspended payments to the 60-year-old patrol and its naming rights sponsor, Bendigo Bank, has pulled out. The patrol’s Cessna 182 also remains grounded, in need of a new engine costing $40,000. 

Mr Leadbitter, a fisheries management consultant and a volunteer spotter with the patrol for four years, said the service’s second, twin engine aircraft may be sold to pay down debt.

The volunteer-run service was also in the process of severing financial ties with its commercial arms – the pilot training school NSW Air and the aircraft maintenance-focused Aero V – but all three would share hangar space.

“One of the things that contributed to all the drama which went on last year was some pretty poor cost controls, and that generated some debts,” Mr Leadbitter said.

“The patrol, NSW Air and Aero V were spread over three  hangars. We have [since] consolidated to one hangar. That saved us quite a bit of money in terms of rent and other costs.”

Former AAP general manager and president Harry Mitchell remains director of both NSW Air and Aero V. Mr Mitchell came under scrutiny in a forensic accounting report commissioned by warring board members who allege fraud and misappropriation of funds intended for the charitable patrol. 

One year on, Mr Leadbitter said the new board had found no evidence of impropriety. 

“The basis allegation [of the forensic accounting report] was that there was some significant fraud going on, but the report also recognised that the accounts, the books, were pretty woeful,” he said.

“There was a lot of stuff missing and they didn’t know how to interpret that.

“Where you’ve got some poor accounting you can interpret it two ways. A few of the board members decided to interpret it [as fraud].”

“We got in the auditors and also a new accountant and did audits for 2013, 2014, 2015 and we just can’t find any evidence of the sort of scale of fraud that has been put forward. Having spent about a year now looking at this, we really don’t feel there’s any evidence to support these claims.” 

Bill Quintal (CEO), Darryl Schlodder (vice-president), Atila Zearo (treasurer) and Bill Williamson (public officer) make up the remainder of the board.