The flying padre
Take to the air with the Uniting Church pastor whose Central Australian parish – at more than half a million square kilometres – is bigger than many countries.
SCATTERED CLOUD PROVIDES an unusual backdrop to the Alice Springs Airport, where blue skies usually reign. With the new day barely 30 minutes old, the desert glows a soft straw colour thanks to parched, introduced buffel grass that now supplants natives over much of Central Australia’s red plains and ranges.
With a resonant grunt, the Reverend Colin Gordon drops a shoulder towards the tarmac to lift a fuel hose as thick as his forearm. Dressed in jeans, boots and a light jacket, he hauls the black hose from the avgas bowser to a four-seater Cessna 182Q, which bears the Frontier Services logo on its fuselage. The pastor climbs onto the starboard wing, feeds the fat nozzle into a reservoir there and pulls the trigger, releasing a flow of fuel.
“Every day is different,” he calls from the ladder, taking a moment to adjust his spectacles. “Getting out and seeing people. Feeling fresh. I just enjoy it.” As becomes evident during the day ahead, the Reverend grins as readily as he breathes. This time it comes with a hearty laugh.
Levelling out at 5500 feet gives Colin an unforgettable view of Australia’s Red Centre. (Image: Barry Skipsey)
Officially, Colin Gordon is a Patrol Minister of the Uniting Church’s Frontier Services, an outback mission charged with providing spiritual, emotional and pastoral support to those living in Australia’s remote heart. After almost five years serving the Red Centre, however, the 55-year-old is better known as the ‘flying padre’. His flock is scattered over some 640,000sq.km of arid and semi-arid land bounded by Marla in South Australia, Barrow Creek in the north and stretching east and west beyond state borders. Although his mission is spiritual, the padre is just as likely to be found atop a windmill grasping a pipe wrench, as he is in the pulpit brandishing a Bible.
Perhaps it’s his early days as a fitter and turner that are responsible, or his time counselling troops in Afghanistan for the Royal New Zealand Navy. Or maybe a no-fuss world view comes with the territory for Patrol Ministers, for whom multi-skilling is unofficially part of the job description.
In this regard, Colin agrees he is like his famed early predecessor, the Presbyterian minister Reverend John Flynn. Via a long history of name changes, Flynn is considered the grandfather of Frontier Services, which began as the Australian Inland Mission in 1912. Development of the pedal radio later spawned Alice Springs School of the Air, which today broadcasts classes to pupils across 1.3 million square kilometres of the inland (see AG 70). Flynn’s mission also founded the Aerial Medical Service in 1928, which was destined to become the familiar Royal Flying Doctor Service. But it was not until 1977 that a fledgling Uniting Church adopted the name Frontier Services for its outback missions.
At Kings Canyon, Colin visits a team building an exclusion fence. Ranger Pete Beddows, centre, talks with the padre as Conrad Bray tightens the fence. (Image: Barry Skipsey)
Raised with three older brothers and a younger sister on a dairy farm in chardonnay country on the east coast of New Zealand’s North Island, the young Colin Gordon harboured a dream to fly. Today, strong family ties remain significant for the padre, who displays considerable people skills, a trait he attributes to his mother. “She would see a stranger at a local cafe and crack a conversation with them,” he recalls. “Next thing you know, they’re having lunch with us.”
At age 30, Colin turned from engineering to chaplaincy, a move he now sees as a natural progression. “It meant freedom and scope to be with people. If you are a social worker, you’re a bit restricted,” he explains. “Yesterday, for example, I wanted to stay another hour to talk and I could; I didn’t have to justify it to anyone.”
After eight years as a navy chaplain, Colin sought a new challenge and in 2011 answered a job advertisement by Frontier Services. Halfway through the interview, as he tells it, they “asked if I’d like to learn to fly”.
Now the padre flies with teachers, students and others to stations, remote communities and far-flung outposts. Occasionally, he even takes volunteer playgroup coordinators. “Parents from stations around the district come together and have a chit-chat while playgroup goes on,” Colin says. “They tell me they’ve been waiting for someone to do this for years.”
Colin also covers about 20,000km by road, much of it along dusty outback routes. (Image: Barry Skipsey)
It is part of a strategy for pastoral care. Similar to Flynn before him (who had a knack for fixing sewing machines), Colin is more pragmatic than religious. “I need a fridge magnet,” he jokes. “A picture from the front of my plane with a twinkle from my teeth: ‘Got a problem, see the padre!’”
Being practical has advantages. It means respite for the overworked and provides an ‘in’ with outback men and women. Nevertheless, men, in particular, remain challenging. “In the navy, when you wanted to talk to a bloke you played sport,” Colin says. “Ask him to come to your office to talk about life, and he’d likely turn you down.”
That lesson now serves him well. “I’ll jump on a tractor or bike, go mustering, sharpen chainsaws. People respond because they trust you,” he explains. “One bloke told me ‘When I see your car coming I relax – you’re not going to sell me something.’ A padre never wants much; maybe a cup of tea.”
Colin stows a final item – a chainsaw – in the rear of the Cessna before take-off and bangs shut the hatch. Our destination is the remote Aboriginal community of Kaltukatjara in the Northern Territory’s south-western corner – 495km (and two hours) by air from Alice Springs and about 10km from the Western Australia border. There we’ll cut firewood for the aged care centre and spend time with staff. As the runway rushes beneath, the aircraft hits 40 knots and the real-time aircraft tracking device on the console blinks. It notes our departure as a safety precaution and also sends an automated text to Colin’s wife, Kim, in New Zealand.
Colin, left, has a quiet chat with good friend and Centralian artist Bob Kessing, who created this sculpture using reclaimed bottles. (Image: Barry Skipsey)
The couple met at a wedding – he was officiating, she was the photographer – and they married in November last year, each for the second time. Now they meet every six weeks with Kim occasionally joining Colin on his travels. “Every time I take her with me, the pastoral visit is enhanced,” he says.
From an altitude of 6500 feet, the West MacDonnell Ranges seem to snake westward like a fractured spine, disappearing into a blue mist on the horizon. The temperature outside the aircraft registers on a windscreen gauge at a surprisingly warm 13oC. Tnorala, known also as Gosse Bluff, soon appears below – the remnants of a crater produced by a meteor strike 142 million years ago. Long ridges give way to giant bubbles of stone over Kings Canyon, where Colin fondly recalls another recent wedding and two park rangers he married there. It is as if the Cessna has rendered the outback the flying padre’s backyard.
Salt and sand at Lake Amadeus fall away until Docker River’s notoriously windy airstrip emerges from the tumbled intersection of the Petermann and Bloods ranges and we set down.
Our day is long: almost 12 hours in total. We refuel at Yulara – officially known as Ayers Rock Airport – near Uluru, leaving at sunset with the surrounding desert lit like a coral-encrusted seabed. By the time the padre sets the Cessna smoothly down at Alice Springs once more, it is evening.
Station-owner Angus McKay, left, and Colin have a yarn as they collect firewood to cook steaks for lunch. (Image: Barry Skipsey)
During the day we cut nearly a tonne of firewood, talked at length to staff and patrons at an aged care centre and responded to a pickup request from a School of the Air teacher for the next day. Colin flies about 200 hours each year, and drives another 20,000km by road. At $268 for each aircraft hour, the service is not cheap. But the time saved over road travel is enormous.
The padre points out that with remote health being a constant worry in the bush, the value of his service is not easily measured in dollars. But dollars are increasingly pressing for Frontier Services, which receives no government funding and is financed entirely through private sponsorship. While their loss would be tragic, it remains to be seen how many of the nation’s 14 remaining patrol ministers might still be operational by next year.
Until then, weather permitting, the flying padre will continue to roam the skies over Australia’s Red Centre.
This article was originally published in AG128 (Sep-Oct 2015)