Vintage air

By Erica Harrison 16 June 2009
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Eleven classic planes, countless classic views – an extraordinary safari through Australia’s outback skies.

THE ENGINE JUDDERS. The propeller slows, stops. There’s a moment of stillness, of quietly whistling air and warm bright light. Then we’re spinning wing over wing, nose over tail, rolling like a broken bird towards the mine-pocked earth.

The instrument panel in front of me is engraved with instructions on how to deal with this situation. I’ve read it before and laughed at the absurdity: “Spin recovery. Full forward stick till rotation stops. Also see flight manual.” Right now it doesn’t appear quite so funny.

But then the engine kicks into life and the ground seems to find its natural place below us. We make an easy, teasing arc back to horizontal, and I feel foolish for worrying. In the seat in front of me is Jim Whalley, an F-18 fighter test pilot whose job entails stalling planes and bringing them back from the brink. But now we’re in his two-seater, 8m long, 1952 De Havilland Chipmunk on day 10 of the Great Circle Air Safari – an attempt to fly 11 vintage planes in a 6500km loop over the Australian mainland in just 12 days.

Among our 31-strong group of pilots, passengers and support crew are a cardiothoracic surgeon, a Harley-Davidson motorcycle technician, the engineer who designed Christopher Reeve’s respirator and a grazier who once flew from London to Sydney in a Tiger Moth. Our goals are to raise funds for the Royal Flying Doctor Service (RFDS) and improve awareness of what RFDS founder the Reverend John Flynn described as the service’s “mantle of safety” over the inland. We’re also planning to have planeloads of fun.

DIY plane for the Royal Flying Doctors Service

Day one. I’m in the open cockpit of a brilliant-blue-and-yellow biplane – a 1942 Boeing Stearman designed as a trainer for US pilots in WW II. In the pilot’s seat behind me is Tom Smillie, a burly helicopter pilot with the Royal Australian Navy. He’s a man of few words, but as Camden Airport, 50km south-west of Sydney, retreats and the sky looms large, he volunteers a few I find less than encouraging: “I’ve just got so much more experience with helicopters…”

Our group tracks east towards Victor One, the flight lane for private aircraft that runs 500 feet (150m) above Sydney’s beaches. Wind hums through 28 bracing wires, bringing a scent of eucalypt as we sweep out over the heath of the Royal National Park.

“I bought her as a basket case,” says Tom, his voice crackling across the radio above the 220-horsepower (164kW) hum. “Just an airframe on a couple of wheels and two boxes of bits and pieces.” That was four years ago. Three and a half years of love’s labour later, she was reborn.

I soon learn that passion-filled love stories are common currency among vintage-plane restorers. Forty-two hours before the start of the air safari, Doug DeVries’ Stearman had been nothing more than a dismembered bundle of panels, rivets and screws. The US-based engineer (a self-described mix of scientist and cowboy) had spent months preparing and paid a fortune in flights and shipping. But his precious cargo had been delayed at a Taiwan port for two frustrating weeks.

His load of plane parts arrived in Camden two days before take-off. A frenzy of activity followed as Doug, his passenger Rob Richey (an aeroplane mechanic from Seattle) and three Dent Aviation engineers assembled the plane from scratch. With only four hours of light to spare on the day before the air safari, they pushed the plane out of the hangar, ready for test flights.

Suddenly the radio blares with whoops and cheers, and the earth drops out from underneath us. Magnificent plunging cliffs border the sea near the point we bank north, a world of blue off our starboard wing. The coast stretches out in long lazy sweeps of pink sand and turquoise water, with licks of white foam at the wave break.

We pass over sunbathers gawking from their towels, swimmers and jewel-like board-riders. In the late afternoon we loop around Cape Byron Lighthouse and over Australia’s easternmost mainland point. Then, after a glorious 690km, we turn into the sun towards Tyagarah, our final destination for day one.

A right royal necessity for the Flying Doctors

Three days later, in a red-earth amphitheatre behind the Australian Stockman’s Hall of Fame at Longreach, central Queensland, I meet Rusty Frame. His eyes sparkle from the shade of a black Akubra, and his sun-worn hands grip the stockwhip at his belt. “I’ve got frequent flyer points with the Royal Flying Doctor,” he says. At first I assume it’s because of his 35-year occupation as a rodeo clown. But it turns out he’s been airlifted three times with anaphylactic shock from insect bites. And over a lifetime working on outback stations, he’s often waited for the RFDS with sick and injured workers and guided RFDS planes into makeshift airstrips at night using vehicle lights. “The Flying Doctor’s always there,” Rusty says. “They’re an absolute necessity in the bush.”

At Mount Isa we’re greeted by Fred Declerk, a baby-faced 30-year-old from Belgium who’s one of only five doctors employed by the RFDS to service an area the size of the UK. “Some of the stations out here are bigger than the country I grew up in,” he says, laughing. And despite the vastness of his responsibility, he’s positive about the work. “In the bush, people are always happy to see you, they’re so hospitable, so grateful. It’s one of the best jobs I’ve ever done.”

Aerial views of Uluru

Tension lurks at the edge of our briefing on the eve of the longest stage of the air safari: 1060km to Alice Springs. A few pilots suggest that flight planning hasn’t taken into account the fuel and speed limitations of their vintage aircraft. “In a Stearman you have to watch out for bird-strike from behind,” says John Tabone, an IT consultant turned seaplane tour operator. John’s joking reference points to the Stearman’s cruising speed, a humble 75 knots (140km/h). Stearmans are also fuel-limited. A full tank lasts around 250 nautical miles (460km) – three hours’ flying without a headwind.

So in a night-before flurry of beer and maps, most pilots resolve to cut the corner that takes in Tennant Creek – the northernmost point of the ‘Great Circle’ – and instead track directly south-west to Alice Springs.

The next day, we’re counting down the kilometres when the radio crackles and I hear Beaver pilot Sy Allsep’s voice: “I’m losing fuel, mate. I’m turning around.” Later, Sy discovers the problem is a faulty gauge. Our group gathers on the tarmac at Alice Springs, exhausted, windburned, sunstruck and dehydrated. No-one complains when blustery 20-knot winds keep the planes grounded the following day.

But two days later, two bright Stearmans with a Chipmunk on their tails sweep brilliant colours across the face of Uluru. The Rock is an etching of ochre ridges and deep shadowed crevasses, and the vintage planes are trivialised: made modern against the 600-million-year-old stone.

To the west, Kata Tjuta lifts gentle domed shoulders into the air. Paper daisies shimmer across lower slopes: the golden gift of recent rains. For the first time on the trip, I stop asking questions and stop taking pictures. It’s taken 36 ancient domes of conglomerate and a mammoth, iron-oxide-covered sandstone rock to put things in perspective.

Close call for the flight

Day 10. I’m in the front cockpit of Tigeroo, John Fisher’s 1942 De Havilland Tiger Moth, named for a couple of bouncy landings. A map painted on her starboard wing charts out John’s 1996 solo flight from London to Sydney. “That’s how I really learned to fly,” says the Nowra, NSW, farmer of his 42-day trip through 15 countries. He describes sandstorms in the Middle East and monsoons in Asia, emergency landings in Italy and Saudi Arabia, and laying out his underwear on the tarmac in India to prove he wasn’t smuggling guns.

Disaster almost strikes at Cadney Homestead, our first fuel stop in SA, when a gust of wind rocks the plane as our wheels hit the dirt, sending us sliding across the runway towards the spinifex. As John heaves the plane in the other direction, our starboard wing tips towards the earth. But fortune shines on the Tigeroo and she swerves away unscathed. “Not one of my better landings,” John mutters sheepishly, as a group of relieved spectators mobs the plane.

The next day, for the 750km leg from Coober Pedy to Broken Hill, I ride with silver-haired Sy in the kombi-sized belly of his 1955 De Havilland Beaver. The rear door is off for photography and at 6000 ft (1830m) it’s 5°C: my hands and face are numb, and the windrush and roar of the motor are deafening. But as we pass over the abstract canvas of Lake Torrens, the Flinders Ranges and Lake Frome, I lean out against the harness, taking in some of the most beautiful scenery I’ve ever seen.

Some have left the trip for work commitments, and others are heading home in the morning. So there’s no great celebration on our final night. Instead, we share a few quiet drinks, and draw aeroplanes on coasters with our eyes closed.

Source: Australian Geographic Jul – Sep 2006