Flight of a lifetime—my 8,000-mile trip around Australia

To fly around Australia was not an idea that happened upon me overnight. It was an idea hatched in childhood, and ultimately flown solo decades later. Eight months in planning and eighteen days in execution, I suspect the planning would have been somewhat quicker if it had not grown into such a public exercise with such a genuine, interested following.

The Australian centenary of flight was an appropriate milestone to commemorate, but it also provided an excellent baseline to highlight just how far aviation had come in one hundred years. True, I covered around 13,000 kilometres across both remote and overwater segments, but the task was nothing beyond the level of an appropriately licensed and experienced private pilot. With all of the modern infrastructure, technology and support at our fingertips, what would have been a major undertaking even fifty years ago, is now relatively straightforward.

Over Canberra
That Jabiru would take the author all around Australia, including Canberra. (Photo: Paul Sadler)

With planning complete and the all-Australian Jabiru J230D aircraft assembled and decked out in her “There and Back” scheme, the planets aligned to promise an on-schedule departure on May 5. In the days preceding, there were numerous media commitments to attend to, but more importantly, technical matters to become familiar with, from spark plugs to changing a wheel. There is no substitute for “hands-on” time with your aeroplane and fortunately, I was never called upon to repeat the tasks in the field as the Jabiru happily hummed its way around the country.

The day before departure saw low, grey, and wet skies over Bundaberg. However, the synoptic weather chart suggested that the trough may move out to sea and a big, happy high pressure system would dominate at least the first few days of my flight. The chart was right, and May 5 dawned without a cloud in the sky and my departure from Bert Hinkler’s hometown was set for 10am.

After a few final formalities, I departed Bundaberg right on time and watched the country town fall away to my left as I initially set course to dawdle along the picturesque coastline. It was only when the aircraft was established in level flight and the “housekeeping” had been attended to that I actually realised that the “There and Back” journey was finally underway. It was a great sense of elation with a twinge of, “Wow, it’s a long way to go!,: when I thought of my wife and kids. Yet as I scanned the crystal skies above, I just knew that this would be a flight to remember.

The route was loosely based upon points of Australian aviation significance: from Longreach, the home of QANTAS, to Minlaton, home to the oft overlooked pioneer, Harry Butler. Yet there were places of personal significance too. From Kununurra and the Kimberleys, where I had flown as a young charter pilot, to Toowoomba, where my father was laid to rest twenty years ago. The selection of these waypoints made each leg interesting and offered a carrot at the end of each day’s flying. Rather than being merely a long-distance flight, it was more akin to unravelling a scroll, with each new page introducing fascinating words, images and people.

WA dawn
Dawn over Western Australia, just one of dozens of memorable views.

In fact, it was in this way that the flight most readily exceeded expectations. After such thorough planning, there were very few surprises in terms of aircraft performance, airspace or procedures. However, no matter how imaginative I may have been, I could never have grasped the intangible beauty of the land and the warmth of people that I encountered. For this reason alone, I would encourage pilots, one and all, to set course far beyond their regular boundaries at least once.

Along the way I transited most forms of airspace, varying from civil to military and strictly controlled to the wide-open spaces. Occasionally an air traffic controller would hesitate in response to the RA-Aus call-sign, but even so there is an ease about traversing this great country by air that is joyful. And at the end of the sector, the little Jabiru could be found parked beside a towering Boeing 747 or an air force F/A-18 Hornet fighter. The company it kept was as wide-ranging as the country over which it flew.

Over the course of such a flight, it is the diversity of the scenery that can leave an overwhelming impression. That is not to say that there are not individual sights that take the breath away. The majestic Lake Argyle in the Kimberley region or the serene endlessness of the Nullarbor Plain are both very moving in their own special way. However, when you can depart the coastal port of Broome over pristine aqua waters and track along pure white beaches before striking the rustic reds of the Pilbara within an hour, it is nothing short of inspiring. This diversity of colour, wildlife, and inhabitation essentially captures both ends of the Australian scenic spectrum.

To take in such a view from between 500 and 5,000 feet enables one to really embrace the richness of the terrain. The land below has real detail and the passage of the shadows as the day develops provides yet another perspective on the rich canvas below. There are long abandoned ruins of long forgotten towns and flocks of birds that give the impression of a vast blanket skimming from paddock to paddock.

Australian outback
Some towns almost seemed to be vanishing into the outback.

The ruins of towns would pique my interest and I would wheel the Jabiru around and look down along the line of the wing which seemed to point at the structures below me. I would ponder how it was once a thriving community of miners or farmers, now long gone. The buildings remain, blending back into the outback sands out of which they grew. Corrugated tin roofing flapped in the breeze and empty door frames, open to the drifting sands. Only the stone walls seemed to offer any resistance to the onslaught of time and nature.

From above they stood so alone and yet undoubtedly once played host to hilarity, hope, and heartache in grander times. All around the eye can see nothing but the horizon; still these pioneers staked their claim in this very spot. Now many undoubtedly lay in tiny graves on the small ridge a few miles up the road. I could not help but wonder what stories these walls once told, now fallen silent and their words lost in time.

Yet even the so-called “remote” regions stimulate the senses with their jagged, jutting ridges and gun-barrel roads between distant settlements. And within these towns are people so unaffected by the frantic pace of urban reality. Calm and content, inhabiting settlements that have changed little over recent times, yet generous beyond compare. At Murchison Station near Kalbarri in Western Australia I had one such experience.

Over 150 years old, the station had once played host to the famed aviator Sir Charles Kingsford Smith, while I spent the night in shearing sheds of convict vintage. It was a small room with a tiny single window and locks on the outside of the door to contain the convicts who had constructed the dwelling. Nearby, two fallen aviators from 90 years ago are buried and the experience of visiting their graves will not soon be forgotten. My hosts were more like old friends, free of false pretension but long on sincerity and warmth. Their manner reflected the very honest nature of the land on which they dwell.

The next morning too was special. Woken in the pre-dawn hours by the wind rattling the tin roof, the world was still asleep as we came to a halt at the tiny country airport. The night was moonless, and the only illumination was the receding red taillights of the departing truck back to Murchison and the torch in my right hand. The aircraft was still at rest, its wings tethered against the wind and its tail jutting into the undergrowth. And then the wind stopped.

Great Australian Bight
The colors of Australia never disappoint.

There I stood, alone and miles from anywhere as the first tinges of dawn teased at the horizon. I lowered down and sat on my canvas kitbag, a lone audience to the greatest show on earth. Gradually the shards of light became a glowing arc, silhouetting the Jabiru, sparse vegetation and occasional grazing kangaroo against the backdrop. Void of sound, my senses were overwhelmed by the developing canvas in front of me.

Yet beyond the beauty, I always maintained the aviator’s sense of respect. The terrain below can at any time become a landing field for the pilot of a single-engined aeroplane. To this end, the land and the nearest water were endlessly assessed in case the untoward occur. Conversely, flying over Bass Strait or the Spencer Gulf, I was continually aware of the distance to my next landfall. While hypothermia was the greatest threat over the Strait, it was the mammoth sharks that provided the challenge if I ditched in the Gulf.

As part of my preparation, the Jabiru was stocked with supplies to cater for these contingencies. From emergency rations and fresh water, to space blankets, waterproof matches and life jackets. Survival gear was packed for minimum weight, but maximum effect. Certain essential items were also very close at hand in a bright red “grab bag” should egress from the aircraft be particularly rapid for some reason. Furthermore, the aircraft was equipped with a satellite tracking system with an alert mode, dual VHF radios, transponder, and an emergency beacon. In conjunction with the submission of detailed flight plans, I was always confident that I would not perish under the wing like so many pioneer aviators had done decades before. And yet, it is sound airmanship to cater for the worst and be thankful for the best.

Along the way I was struck by the warmth of the people everywhere that I landed. They were interested in where I had been and where I was going and extended a generous hand in friendship to often help me on the way in the form of a meal or a bed for the night. Many lived far from the cities and relied on a weekly delivery of stores for their supplies and yet they still welcomed a stranger like me at their table. And everywhere the work of the Royal Flying Doctor Service was spoken of with the highest praise, always providing a common thread between me and my hosts.

Windsock
Some airports were large and modern; some were not.

The weather was one variable beyond my control and planning, other than the month of May historically providing fine weather and favourable winds. However, in this area I was absolutely blessed. The high-pressure system loitered over the inland for so long, I thought it had been tethered there and not only provided fair weather, but tailwinds across the Top End of the country. From the flight’s mid-point at Perth in Western Australia, I always seemed to be a couple of days ahead of troughs, fronts and poor weather.

There was a little weather to dodge over the stretch of water between the mainland and Tasmania, but nothing significant. Low cloud near the nation’s capital, Canberra, and storms near Gunnedah provided the only real hindrance, but otherwise it was stress-free visual flying. I’d like to take credit for those clear, blue skies, but that area is well beyond my expertise.

The other variable that lay beyond my scope of influence was aircraft reliability. Like the weather, the Jabiru J230 did not miss a beat and performed at better than book figures for the entire trip. Sipping around 23 litres per hour to achieve nearly two miles per minute, the Jabiru made an efficient vehicle in which to circumnavigate the nation. Its high wing both afforded shade and an ideal view of the grand display below. With two seats, the space to the rear provided ample room for all of my equipment and never presented a weight issue that allowed for anything less than full tanks for every departure. It was like a well finished utility vehicle that never had to deal with the bumps in the road when venturing cross country.

Aside from an oil change, filters, and the tyre pressures being topped up in Perth, there was no need for additional maintenance for the entire flight. Each day I would remove the cowls for a closer look and each day I found an incredibly clean engine ready for another day’s work. From icy frosts to sweltering heat, the little machine kept on performing and I played my part by always treating the aircraft and its engine with due respect.

Kids with signs
What a welcoming committee.

When Runway 14 loomed large in the windscreen at Bundaberg for the final landing, I reminded myself that the flight wasn’t over yet. However, when the aircraft was parked and the propeller stopped, I allowed myself a sigh of mixed relief and reflection. Beyond that there were family and friends there to greet me and media to speak with. A reception was held at the Hinkler Hall of Aviation and in the shadow of my hero’s memorabilia I enjoyed a wonderful afternoon of catching up with one and all. Along the way the flight had reached its target of $10,000 for the Royal Flying Doctor Service and for me that was a personal goal that meant so much.

Once the dust had settled and I had retired to a house on the coast with my family, I had the first real chance to absorb what had transpired over the preceding weeks. I seemed to have endless tales and humorous anecdotes of the people and places I had encountered. My family listened intently and ultimately, they drew the same conclusions as the media and enquired, “Where are you off to next?” With all honesty, I replied that I really couldn’t say, although I would dearly enjoy stretching the borders once again.

The freedom of flight is something that is so accessible to us in this modern day. To take the road less travelled amongst the cumulus and share the experience with those along the way is something I cannot recommend highly enough. It is an experience that I would dearly love to pursue again. Yet, whatever future flights and adventures may rise above the horizon and wherever those journeys may subsequently take me, I will never forget the month of May when I decided to simply fly “There and Back.”

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5 Comments

  • I have truly enjoyed the Tales of Flight from Owen Zupp. Get his books online very reasonably (like $1.99?). One has more detail on this adventure.

  • I fly an RV-6 here in the USA but I would love to go down and fly VFR around Australia. How does that work? Do you rent a plane with an instructor or can you rent one on your own? Do you have to get some sort of Australian license? Are there companies that facilitate this? I think US pilots would be interested in knowing if it is possible and how things work.

    • More than 30 years ago, I hired a plane and my wife and I flew from Bankstown (reliever airport for Sydney) to Brampton Island and back. It was quite an adventure and I highly recommend it. Just be sure you pay attention to some of the differences in aviation rules between the US and Australia.

      Unlike most Americans who visit Australia, I know where Bundaberg is because we ended up spending a night there, although I’m also sure I wouldn’t recognize the place.

      Come to think of it, we’re overdue for a return trip to the great land Down Under.

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