How I experienced the gunman shooting at Canberra airport

I spend the Sunday morning in Canberra walking around the government precinct. Unfortunately, the weather is not very nice and not really ideal for walking. It’s cold, windy and wet. Canberra is meticulously clean and very well kept. But perhaps precisely for that reason it also seems a bit artificial.

My flight back to Sydney is not until 15h35. I’m rather looking forward to this one, because I booked the flight with Virgin Australia, who has Link Air operate the flight on their behalf with a Sabb 340. I haven’t been on one of those in years!

But considering the crappy weather, at around noon I give up and decide I might as well return to the airport and do some work on the Phd somewhere in a quiet corner. I catch the R3 bus from in front of the Sebel hotel, which makes the journey in less than thirty minutes. I arrive at the airport at around 13h00.

One half of the terminal is for QANTAS only, while the other half is shared by REX, Link Air and Virgin Australia. And there’s even an old aircraft on display at the departures level!

I head straight through security, which is again a very hassle free and quick process. In Canberra there is no need to take anything out of your bag. Not even your laptop. You just have to empty your pockets.

I do a quick walkaround and take some photos of the lovely B 717 – let’s face it, it’s really a DC-9 and we all know it – and of what I think will be my ride to Sydney.

I park myself at a table and grab a coffee and a cinnamon roll. I’m still getting used to sizes here in Australia. I order a medium sized flat white and end up with what looks like half a litre of milky coffee! From where I’m sitting I can watch gate 8, where a Jetstar flight is in the process of boarding. At some point I hear a popping sound off in the distance. When I was a kid and we used to visit my grandparents at their restaurant, we would sometimes – if we were very lucky – get a packet of crisps to share. Part of the fun of course, was to pop open the packet by giving it a good squeeze. That’s what the pop sounds like, and I wonder why I even noticed it. Then suddenly there’s a huge commotion, I hear people screaming in terror and what sounds like a stampede heading in my direction. In the queue for the Jetstart flight I see a woman turn pale. Her face contorts into absolute panic. “Oh my God, what’s happening” she yells and people start running everywhere, trying to get out. I hear somebody yelling “he’s got a gun”. And that’s when my senses kick into gear. We have to run. Because we have to survive. The alternative is not an option. And so we make a run for it. There is an elderly lady running in front of me, she must be in her seventies. She is going as fast as she can, which isn’t very much because she’d guiding her blind daughter who has lost her walking stick in the scrum to get out.

I reach the exit of the terminal at the lower level, and that’s when I am gripped with a complete and utter sense of terror as I become aware that I have lost my partner. I don’t know where he went and I don’t know if he made it out. I push down the rising panic boiling in my stomach. I’m trying to stay calm, but as I start looking for his face in the crowd, I can feel myself becoming increasingly frantic. But eventually, after about twenty minutes, I finally spot his pullover in the crowd and I’m flooded with relief. And that’s when I realise the full extent of just how very cold I’m feeling.

A few minutes later, the police start arriving. The airport is cordonnned off and cars are not allowed to pull up to the terminal. All arrivals and departures have been stopped. The old lady with her blind daughter made it out, they’re being looked after by the paramedics.

After the emergency and rescue team, the press arrive and start interviewing people, hoping for an eye witness’ testimonial.

There’s an Asian guy standing there barefoot in his socks. When the evacuation started, his shoes were just going through the x-ray machine and he just left them to get out with his young wife and their eight months old baby. Eventually, we end up spending nearly three hours standing outside in the cold and wet. The flight to Sydney has been cancelled and we’ve been rebooked onto the flight the next day at 07h50. But I just want to go home by this stage. So I quickly log in to the airport network and book us two tickets on the QANTAS flight back to Syndey that same evening at 17h40.

Our belongings have been retrieved by the police and placed on the floor behind security for passengers to find. And I’m really grateful to the police officer who tries to lighten the mood. As I put on my yellow rain jacket to get warm again he gives me this funny look and tells me that “oh mate, yellow’s really your colour. Good on’ya”. And then he laughs. Good on’ya yourself and your colleagues, and thank you for taking care of us!

We park ourselves at gate 14 and then we just wait. Things are still a bit chaotic as the aiport slowly reopens, so it’s hardly surprsing that eventually, our flight departs from Canberra with a delay of nearly two hours. But you know what, I so couldn’t care less, because things today could have gone much, much worse.

I trust you’ll understand that after such a day I really didn’t have any energy left to pay attention to anything much that happened on the flight. So, I think I’ll just leave you with some pictures of the gorgeous B 717, aka the DC-9.

QantasLink, B 717 – Economy Class: Ayers Rock to Alice Springs


Airline: QantasLink (National Jet Systems)
Aircraft: Boeing B 717
Cabin: Economy Class
Alice Springs
18. August 2013


Getting to the Airport

I leave the Longitude at 09:00. Today we are travelling by multipurpose Bush vehicle to the airport.  The journey takes about 15 minutes to complete.



Uluru airport is a fairly small building on one level. As you enter there are arrivals to the right and the check-in counters to the left. There are separate counters for QantasLink, Virgin and for Jetstar. The concierge at the hotel checked me in the evening before.



Well, there very simply is none. The departures area is relatively small. But then again the facility only has two gates anyway. In the departures area there is a bar and a souvenir shop selling Uluru memorabilia. But the views are good!



Boarding starts on time. I exit the building and head towards our aircraft, looking forward to the opportunity to take some photos of my aircraft before I get on board. But alas, some gentleman doing I’m not quite sure what job takes it upon himself to inform me of just how bad a safety hazard I am to the aircraft by my intention to take pictures…Fair enough, I’ll take pictures in Alice, where I’m sure they probably won’t be quite so anal.


By the way, it turns out that the gate agent scanning the boarding passes as we board is also one of the cabin crew on the flight. I don’t think I’ve ever seen that before!

The Cabin

The cabin on this bird is in fairly good shape, although it’s quite apparent that it is well used. There are stains on the seat (Do I want to know of what?) but other than that everything seems in working order.


The engines start up and we backtrack to the end of runway 13. It’s really quite amazing just how quiet the B717 is when you’re sitting on row two. Even when the aircraft accelerates for take-off the engines are barely audible.


The Meal

The meal service on this flight is probably the biggest surprise, especially considering that the flight has an expected block time of only 40 minutes. Every passenger receives a packet with two soft biscuits – dark chocolate and white chocolate with nuts – a cup of water, crackers and a slice of cheese which tastes mostly like a cheddar.



I’m just swallowing the last of the crackers and cheese when the throttles are pushed back and our aircraft dips its nose for the descent into Alice Springs. And shortly thereafter we land.

Like in Uluru, we have to backtrack to reach the entrance to the apron. I disembark and take a few pictures of my aircraft. As expected, nobody really seems to mind. Next stop: Adelaide.