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Dan Webster

Dan Webster – Man with a Vision

Well, strap yourself in – former soldier Dan Webster is bringing the flying boat to the Northern Territory. Amphibian Aerospace Industries is planning to manufacture the Albatross in Darwin.

The factory and supply chain will create about 1000 jobs, several hundred of them in the Territory.

It will also lead to highly-skilled migrants from overseas settling in Darwin and becoming new Territorians.

Dan, who won the $1 million first prize at the Darwin Innovation Hub’s Croc Pitch competition last year, says: “This is an incredibly exciting industry.”

The Albatross, which was originally built for the United States Navy and Airforce in the 1950s, will be manufactured at a factory in the grounds of Darwin International Airport.

A flight training centre will be set up at Batchelor, 100 kilometres south of Darwin, and water training will be carried out at Bynoe Harbour.

Independent market analysis shows there is a massive global demand for flying boats, especially in South-East Asia and the Pacific, but also in North America and the Mediterranean.

The 28-seater plane is used to carry cargo and passengers, for fire-fighting and for search and rescue.

Dan, who has enjoyed a successful corporate career after 24 years in the regular army, says the Albatross is in demand from remote riverside, coastal and island communities, particularly when a runway is not practical.

“The Albatross can be landed on the water and then, if necessary, driven up a boat ramp,” he says.

Amphibian Aerospace Industries originally planned to open the aircraft manufacturing plant in Queensland.

But the Territory Government “did an Inpex” – persuading the company to set up in the NT instead, just as it lured the multi-billion-dollar Inpex gas project away from Western Australia.

“The hardest thing was finding somewhere to set up,” Dan says. “We needed a large airport with sufficient available land for the factory and close to water.

“We had originally discounted the NT and were investigating locations in Queensland and New South Wales when the Territory Government invited us to take a closer look at the NT.

“After visiting Darwin and listening to the Government’s pitch we realised the Territory was actually ideal.”

He says the Government’s can-do attitude and support from the Airport Development Group, which owns Darwin, Alice Springs and Tennant Creek airports, was “fantastic”

The Government promised an in-principle approval for support from the Local Jobs Fund within 90 days – and delivered.

“They carried out detailed due diligence and really put us through the ringer, including bringing in an independent aviation expert,” Dan says. “But they did what they said they were going to do.

“I can’t fault them. This Government really wants to generate economic activity. They are very progressive.”

Another key attraction is the Territory having a Designated Area Migration Agreement, which makes it easier for business to recruit skilled and semi-skilled workers from overseas. 

“This will be essential in building the workforce needed as many of the skills are simply not available in Australia in the numbers needed,” says Dan.

“We will employ as many local people as possible, but there will be a need to bring in skilled workers. that won’t be through FLY-IN-FLY-OUT they will settle in darwin.”

Dan says he would prefer the whole operation – from supply to manufacture – to be based in the Territory.

“Our aim is to attract suppliers to come and set up in Darwin” he says. “We won’t get all of them, but two suppliers have already committed to come.”

The company will spend up to two years modifying an old Albatross before manufacturing new aircraft.

Dan envisages early orders will be secured soon and full production will start in about four years.

“We’re getting a lot of inquiries from potential customers.”

Dan, 59, was born in Brisbane.

His parents had both been in the services – his mother, Enid, in the Women’s Royal Australian Airforce, and his father, Syd, in the Army.

The family moved several times before settling in Toowoomba, where Dan finished his schooling.

After finishing pre-vocational trade training, Dan joined the Army and trained as an electronics technician. He was later selected for officer training, graduating from the Royal Military College, Duntroon.

Dan, who specialised in electronic communications, completed deployments in the Western Sahara with the United Nations Mission MINURSO in 1991-2, in Kosovo with NATO in 2000 while serving as an exchange officer with the British Army and then on the Australian commitment to the Tsunami relief in Banda Aceh in 2004.

He was awarded the Conspicuous Service Cross in 1993 for his work with the United Nations.

The Lieutenant Colonel finished his Army career as the commanding officer of the 1st Signal Regiment, retiring to create some stability for his family.

He went on to spend 16 years in industry in a range of management and executive appointments, including Boeing Australia, Thales Australia and Elbit Systems of Australia.

Dan, who has a Masters degrees in defence studies and a Masters in science (operations, research and statistics), joined Amphibian Aerospace after meeting Khoa Hoang, an Australian entrepreneur of Vietnamese heritage.

It’s appropriate that the Albatross will be built in Darwin because the Territory has an interesting history with flying boats.

Australian-operated Catalinas were stationed in the Top End during the Second World War – their service included flying medical supplies to prisoners of war after the Japanese surrender and bringing survivors home.The motto of the Catalina squadrons would appeal to the soldier in Dan Webster: First and Furthest.