Bush flying in South Australia in the 1970s

On 11 June 1978 I was pilot in command of a light aircraft for a routine cross-country flight in South Australia, which turned into an unforgettable flight.

I penned an account of this flight many years later, and it was published in an Australian flying magazine. The text of that article is reproduced below under the heading, ‘A Memorable Flying Lesson’.

In providing a little background to the flight in question, I confess readily to indulging in rambling reminiscences of the years I flew around South Australia, of which I have very fond memories. If you’re not a pilot or you don’t have any interest in aviation, you might prefer to jump straight to my account of the 11 June 1978 flight.

Prior to commencing this public blog, for some years I published a private blog accessible only to a family and a few friends. This post appeared in that blog in 2017. I thought it a story worth re-telling to the growing number of people who view the content of ‘South’. In this post I have included the comments made by readers on the original post, as in some ways their content adds to the story in the post. To the few who have already read this post on my previous blog, I apologise for its reappearance here.

Please forgive the poor quality of the photos in this post. They are mostly copies of prints created from 35mm slides which weren’t much in the first place, and which are now over 40 years old.

A few memories from my early days of bush flying in southern Australia

Just over 40 years ago, the young bloke in this picture (concentrating hard on the task at hand by the look of things) was doing a fair bit of flying around the  Eyre Peninsula and the west coast of South Australia in a Cherokee 180 registered VH-WIL.

I arrived in Port Lincoln in February 1978 and immediately became a member of the Port Lincoln Flying Club. I had only flown Cessna 150, 172 and 182 models prior to my move to South Australia, with a grand total (including all training flights) of around 150 hours. I had an unrestricted private pilot licence and an aerobatics endorsement covering spins, stall turns, loops, barrel rolls, aileron rolls, Immellman turns, half-loop and roll and half-roll and half -loop. I had no training in night flying and no training in instrument flying save for the most basic introduction to flight solely by reference to instruments as part of my private pilot training.
Lizzie came to Pt Lincoln in early 1978 to take up a job as a midwife at the local hospital. She bravely did a lot of flying in light aircraft with me from that point on. This was an era when Lizzie and I both had curly hair. Mine was natural.
Typical bush landing strip on farmland north of the Eyre Peninsula. Door of VH-WIL open before starting up, letting the heat out and the flies in.
This was the pride of the fleet of two aircraft at the Pt Lincoln Flying club – an ageing Piper Cherokee 180 registered Whiskey India Lima (VH-WIL). Barry Firth, the chief flying instructor gave me a 30 minute ‘endorsement’ on WIL in March 1978, after which I was all good to head off and fly it whenever I felt like it (subject to the aircraft not being flown by another club member). It was even easier to fly the Piper than the Cessna models I had trained on. In this picture, the aircraft is parked in a paddock near Coorabie, which is on the edge of the Nullarbor Plains west of Penong. This was one of my regular stops. As you head west from Ceduna Coorabie is the last district which has arable land.  It’s hard country.  The vegetation and ground surface on which the aircraft is shown was uniform over the whole strip. The dirt road on the right was not used as it was too rough. In very dry times (the default setting in Coorabie) the soil in this paddock would erode away from between the durable grass tussocks, creating a surface about as smooth as a paddock full of short white posts of varying heights and not too close together.
WIL took me many places. This photo was taken on Three Hummock Island in Bass Strait, when Noel (my brother) and I flew over there to see my friend Rob Alliston (who was brought up on the island). A side story of that trip is that when I inquired about the airstrip (a grass strip in those days) I was confidently informed by Rob that it was 1000m in length and entirely suitable for my planned visit. Upon arrival after flying over Bass Strait in this single engine aeroplane, direct track from Cape Otway, and after overflying the paddock deemed an airstrip it became immediately apparent that while Rob had gone metric in recent years, the strip had not. It was 1000 feet long. We landed without incident (short field landings were a regular part of my SA flying, even at that early stage).  For the takeoff, according to the aircraft’s performance charts, with the weight carried I would need the air temp to be below 10C and to have a headwind component on takeoff of above 20kts. Fortunately, Bass Strait produces such conditions daily, so the departure was uneventful.
Ceduna was a regular destination and/or refuelling stop on trips further afield.  It holds many fond flying memories for me.   I have landed at Ceduna in dust storms, driving rain, strong winds, thunderstorms, and at night with kerosene flares lined up down both sides of the runway. 

The groundsman at the airport back in the late 1970s was a young fellow with a family, who used to get overtime if he had to put out the kero flares for a night landing (there being no electric lighting at that time). So on my fortnightly flying trip to Yalata (west of Ceduna) I would defer my departure from Yalata to dusk to ensure a night landing at Ceduna, which kept me current at night flying, and the groundsman with a bit of overtime pay. He generally gave me a lift into town to my motel after he had collected the flares and stacked them away.
On one occasion (some years later after I obtained a commercial pilot licence and an instructor rating) I landed at Ceduna airport with two student pilots in a C172 and the wind was blowing 40 knots right up the strip shown in the photo above. There was a flight service unit at the airport (the official presence of the regulator, the Civil Aviation Authority), and they informed us by radio that 40 knots was the steady wind strength – no gusts, just 40 knots. The sky was blue.

We landed and stopped short of the first taxiway to the right in the above photo (just before the three white cone markers on the edge of the strip), and were faced with the dilemma of taxying with a 40 kt side wind. An aircraft on the ground in such a situation gets much more lift from the wing into wind than from the partially shielded wing on the downwind side of the aircraft. Net result, the aircraft wants to flip. My two student pilots were rather large lads off the land, and at my request they exited the aircraft while it was still pointing into wind and one got hold of the left wing tip while the other leant his considerable mass over the left wing strut. This was our best effort to keep the aircraft right way up. As it turned out it was successful. I then taxied at less than normal walking pace to the square of bitumen outside the flight service office, and parked into wind. That square was no more than 30 or 40 paces wide.

When we were ready for departure, the wind was every bit as strong as when we landed. I deemed the crosswind taxying option more hazardous than taking off directly into wind straight across the bit of tarmac outside the flight safety office which was for aircraft parking only. So the three of us climbed aboard. The airspeed indicator was showing 40 knots before I had started the engine. I fired up the engine, did the pre-takeoff checks, applied full power and we were airborne in the remarkably short distance before the edge of the tarmac. I was relieved that I never heard any more about that takeoff from the Civil Aviation Safety Authority. While it was the best safe option available for the departure, it might not have conformed precisely to all relevant rules and regs. But the silence of the regulator thereafter was a win for common sense.
My job in SA as a wandering minstrel, required regular flying trips to Mudamuckla on the northern Eyre Peninsula and not too far south of the Gawler Ranges. I was the beneficiary of the generous hospitality of a farmer called Doug Marchant who flew his old Cessna 170 tail dragger out of a paddock beside his farm. He not only made his strip/paddock available to me, but also lent me his FJ ute to drive myself into town and back. This was very flat wheat and sheep country. Doug’s landing paddock was slightly concave with the middle of the paddock being slightly lower than all the fences. He had two strips mown across the diagonals from corner to corner. So each strip started with a slight downhill, which from mid-paddock became a slight uphill.

 I recall a particular takeoff from this strip early one afternoon in mid-summer where the OAT (outside air temperature) gauge on the aircraft was reading around 50C.  There was no wind to speak of, and only occasional thermal activity (willy willys were very visible over the dry stubble paddocks). No matter how I held them the PA-28 performance charts refused to confirm that I could safely clear the fence in my chosen direction of takeoff, even though I was the only person on board (i.e. the aircraft was lightly loaded). Indeed, the implied prediction of those charts was that if I attempted a takeoff I would wrap the aircraft up in Doug’s fencing wire. Unlike most Cessna singles, WIL has manual flaps operated by a handle between the front seats. It looks something like a handbrake lever in a car. The beauty of manual flaps is that they can be lowered to any of the three stages on offer virtually instantaneously (in a Cessna, the electric flaps come down and retract quite slowly).

So I chose my takeoff direction, did my pre-takeoff checks while taxying, then without stopping at the very start of the strip to stand on the brakes while I applied full power (stopping thus is standard short field takeoff technique) I did a U-turn keeping the taxying speed up which meant that as soon as I was pointing down the strip I already had 5 knots or so of speed over the ground. I applied full power as I came out of the U-turn and accelerated across the paddock towards the well maintained 5 strand fence which was rapidly looming larger. I would normally put one or two stages of flap down for takeoff from the start of the takeoff roll. But flap causes drag, and slows acceleration. So I started my takeoff roll with zero flap. Then as I got quite close to the fence with gravity still firmly in charge, I quickly pulled on two stages of flap which increased the apparent camber and effective angle of attack of the wings thereby creating more lift (for a short time only, because flap also increases drag) which with the help of a little back pressure on the control column allowed the aircraft to pop into the air to about fence height, just long enough for me to clear the fence before the aircraftt began to settle back towards earth. But by the time it was doing that I was over the fence with at least a couple of kms of flat unfenced stubble ahead of me. My wheels might’ve just grazed the stubble, but by staying just above the ground (a couple of feet) in ground effect, I was able to accelerate sufficiently in level flight to eventually gain the required airspeed to climb out with the two stages of flap set. I was then able to retract the flap in stages in the normal way and climb out at the usual airspeed.

This is a variation on a useful but not always taught technique of the soft field takeoff.
WIL carried Lizzie and me over many many miles of ocean during my three years in Port Lincoln. It was a 135NM flight to Adelaide from Pt Lincoln, via Spilsby Island and Corny Point. Most of this was over water. We did the trip many times at night. One of the landmarks and emergency landing options en route was Wedge Island, shown in this photo. There was a rough landing strip on it which was actually just part of a dirt road on the island.

In 1981 I obtained my commercial pilot licence, and until the end of 1982 when I left Adelaide and moved to Melbourne to study, I flew regular charters from West Beach (Adelaide’s main airport) to and from Wedge Island with tourist groups, consisting mostly of divers and fishermen. The strip was outside normal legal landing parameters (the aircraft performance charts said it was way too short). But the operators had a dispensation from the regulator (the Civil Aviation Authority, which in 1995 became the Civil Aviation Safety Authority) for a handful of nominated pilots to conduct commercial operations in and out of there. This required special training on the island airstrip (with Barry Firth, then CFI of the Pt Lincoln Aero Club) in a variety of conditions. Apart from the short and narrow track with a curve in it for takeoff, the approach to the south was towards rising terrain, which meant there was no overshoot option. I was pretty proud to be one of the limited group of pilots authorised to conduct commercial operations in and out of this strip. There were only four pilots who did charter flights in and out of this very poor but very interesting strip. We flew in marginal weather at times with very strong winds (often across the strip), heavy rain, and decidedly marginal visibility en route from Adelaide to the island. I recall the welcome sight of its distinctive shape suddenly appearing through grey curtains of rain on many a trip (see photo in the header of this post showing Wedge Island coming in to sight with a heavy rain shower coming in from the south).

That strip has long been replaced with a proper large safe airstrip. But during all those years of conducting charters on and off the dirt road, there was never an incident or accident. I was proud to have contributed to that record. The aircraft type we flew in and out of Wedge Island was the wonderful Cherokee Six (PA-32). We were often near max weight with 5 passengers in addition to the pilot, and their luggage.
A pilot’s log book is an interesting document. There is a legal requirement to keep a log book and to record the details of each flight on the same day as the flight occurred.  But a pilot’s log is so much more than merely a legally required record. Pilots are justifiably proud of the record of their flying careers and the hard won gradual accumulation of flying hours. A pilot never throws a log book away.  That said, agricultural pilots who, legend has it, traditionally exceed the duty time limits, seem to have trouble locating their log books when the regulator comes knocking.  Either that, or they keep a log book for the regulator, and another for the grandchildren and posterity.

For every airborne adventure experienced by pilots since there have been log books, there has been a single or at most a double line entry in a log book. Such entries may not reveal at all that a life-threatening or life-changing experience occurred on a particular flight, or it may make the briefest of allusions to the fact that it was no ordinary flight. Pilots are masters at understatement in their log books, with at most a bland abbreviated and often cryptic addendum to an entry which tells nothing of the real story.  This propensity for understatement is not a quality which carries through to social gatherings where pilots need no encouragement to wax lyrical and at length about their flying experiences.

Thus I come to the log book entry of a flight which is the real subject matter of this post. The entry is for 11 June 1978, in VH-WIL, it had a duration of 2 hours and 37 minutes of flying with me as pilot in command,  the time being entered in the ‘Day’ column (which as you will learn, was not entirely accurate). On that flight I took off from Murray Bridge, overflew Victor Harbour, Cape Jervis, Lake Fowler (near Edithburgh on the Yorke Peninsula), Wedge Island and Thistle Island (both in the southern waters of Spencer Gulf), for a landing at Port Lincoln. The meandering departure track we flew on departure from Murray Bridge was a scenic route chosen to overfly a few places my passengers wanted to see from the air. The only hint that this flight had some elements which created indelible memories, is the afterthought entry “Landed after last light. Heavy Cb activity”. A Cb is a cumulo-nimbus cloud –  a thunderstorm cloud.  This addendum  was an afterthought – my original decision as to the content of the log book entry was to simply record it as just another flight.  Now to the detail behind the log book entry. The departure from Murray Bridge was in fine weather. The arrival at Pt Lincoln was not.
The story begins the previous day, 10 June 1978. It was a Saturday. I had been asked to fly a couple of friends of ours together with their infant daughter from Pt Lincoln to Victor Harbour for a slap up dinner they were attending on a nearby rural property.  Lizzie and I were also invited to the dinner. It was a most enjoyable banquet at the extravagant home of a vet, on a country block not too far from Victor Harbour.  

As for flying logistics for the trip, Murray Bridge was the most convenient strip to land at, not the least because fuel (avgas) could be purchased there. I had arranged this with the MB flying club. The account below is exactly as it was reproduced in the magazine ‘Australian Flying’. I have resisted the urge to edit. The rather uninformative map in the above photo was inserted with my article by the editorial staff without my knowledge or approval.

The 11 June 1978 Flight


“In 1978 I had flown 180 hours since first solo. A couple of lengthy cross-country trips had enhanced my view of myself as an accomplished navigator. Soon, the glory of being a ‘200 hour pilot’ would be mine. I liked to think that at 180 hours I was already flying like a 200 hour pilot.

A weekend trip was planned in the flying club’s trusty Cherokee 180, across the Gulfs from Port Lincoln to a small airfield east of the Adelaide hills and back. I was the aero club’s newest member, and a newcomer to South Australia. The trusting passengers were my girlfriend and a married couple with babe in arms. Meticulous planning and preparation were undertaken, including the fully prepared log on the back of the old flight plan form which was enough to keep a team of navigators writing constantly for the duration of the flight. All maps were pre-folded, all frequency plans were drawn, both mains and confidence were fully topped up, and off we went.

The trip over via a scenic route went exactly according to plan. An enjoyable weekend was had by all, and I extracted the passengers from the party mid Sunday afternoon. I had plenty of time to check the aircraft and make it home before last light. I had doubled the ’10 minutes before last light’ planning requirement for my ETA. The weather forecast was unexceptional.

I planned to top up the tanks to full fuel at the airstrip where the aircraft had been parked. A knowledgeable looking instructor there reluctantly agreed to sell me some drum stock. He wheeled the drum over, and wound the pump handle for a while then put the fuel caps back on. I checked the contents myself, and noted that the fuel level in both tanks was beneath the tabs. I told him I’d prefer it filled up, but as he explained, he was short on fuel and had given me “enough to get back to Port Lincoln”. That was re-assuring. After all, he was presumably well past the 200 hour pinnacle, and he wore epaulettes.

The takeoff and climb-out were uneventful. Blue skies were the backdrop to sharply defined cumuliform clouds, some of spectacular vertical extent. A photographer’s delight. As soon as we levelled out in cruise, operational matters were all well under control and I took the opportunity to make a brief captain’s address to the passengers, and to fire off a few frames on the Nikon. Smiles and ease prevailed in the cosy cockpit as we left the coast behind and headed out over the sea.

About half way back, the blue skies ahead were progressively overtaken by cloud. Visibility was still fine. The sky ahead was all cloud, and the sky behind was all blue. I did a groundspeed check and noted that we had an unexpected head wind of about 30 knots. So I descended to try for a better groundspeed. Just as well too, because some of that cloud was a bit lower than it looked at first. The sea was as I had never seen it. We were now down to about 1000 feet. Rolling and breaking surf with huge trails of streaking foam covered the sea from horizon to horizon.

There was now some blackness beneath the clouds ahead, with dark purple-green pendulous formations in the lowering base, the likes of which I had not seen before. Failing to understand the significance of what I was observing, I merely registered idle curiosity at the spectacle. Our greatly reduced groundspeed was now visible to even the untrained eye. A check revealed a headwind component of 45 knots. As I lifted my head from this groundspeed calculation, my poise was disturbed by the odd wisp of cloud rushing past the cockpit. I responded by descending to 500 feet above the sea.

By now there were a few heavy and very noisy drops of rain hitting the windscreen, and the black and grey columns of rain ahead did not augur well. I reached for the microphone and tried to radio Adelaide for a weather update on Port Lincoln. I was too low for the VHF to work, and the old HF proved, as usual, to be about as reliable as mental telepathy. There was a lot of static and interference on the radio.

Wedge Island slowly appeared ahead and the 45 knot headwind was confirmed by another groundspeed calculation. I did not know there was a strip there. Eventually Thistle Island loomed out of the murk, but took an uncomfortably long time to get any closer. By the time we flew abeam its eastern tip, the rain was constant and heavy and made conversation below a shout impossible. I didn’t know there was a strip on Thistle Island. I didn’t think to look.

But I did realise that the black curtain ahead dragging its hem in the seething sea was no place for a VFR (visual flight rules) Cherokee 180, even with a ‘nearly 200 hour’ pilot at the controls. I descended further to remain clear of cloud, and at about 300 feet above sea level, finally realised that the dark maelstrom ahead was not for me. I then recalled having flown a few weeks earlier to Spilsby Island, north of my present position. So a quick free-hand pencil line on the WAC chart and off we headed, laying off 30 degrees of drift on the diversion track. The forces from the northwest reached Spilsby Island before I did. Retreat back to Thistle Island was required.

By this time daylight was all but gone. I did a 180 and applied 30 degrees of drift into wind again, and headed back to Thistle Island. At this point it occurred to me that Adelaide should be in the clear, and that with the 45 knot tail wind the trip would be quick. But then the penny dropped. The amount of fuel I had on board was precisely ah, well approximately……ummm……let’s see those gauges …… E to F and fluctuating all over the place.…..ah ……took off at ……but that ATD didn’t really help, because I had no idea how much fuel I had on board at departure, except that it was ‘enough to get back to Port Lincoln’. The fuel calculation ignoring the recently added fuel was a bit tight for comfort. So I concluded that even with a tail wind of 45 knots, running the risk of fuel exhaustion over the sea in the dark was not the best option. I was not aware of any strips on the Yorke Peninsula, much less any strips with runway lighting.

So once again, from the northwest tip of Thistle Island I set heading for Port Lincoln only to fly into a dark wall of rain. The rain which had been merely very loud now became deafening. It combined with the turbulence and the just visible chaos of the sea 200-300 feet below to lead me very belatedly to the conclusion that an immediate tactical retreat was called for. I turned up the cabin lights, and went onto the instruments. I held the wings level for a moment, noted the heading and then started a tentative shallow banked 180 degree turn. No instrument observed in the course of my somewhat random scan revealed anything constant. After a minute or so of turning with entirely unsatisfactory deviations in all axes, I levelled the wings on a very approximate reciprocal track and looked hopefully out the windscreen. I was rewarded by the sight of the dark outline of Thistle Island looming up at a frightening rate. As I later learned, I must have flown over the quite adequate grass landing strip there three or four times that evening.

I then circled for a while in the closest thing to VMC (visual meteorological conditions) on offer in a small area of rapidly fading gloom. I could just see the white highlights on the sea by looking straight down. On each orbit as the nose passed through a north-westerly heading, I peered hopefully in the direction of Port Lincoln township, until eventually I vaguely discerned or possibly just imagined a dull glow through the curtains of rain and darkness in that general direction. So I set heading for home again only to fly into the horizonless rain and turbulence once more, forced to retreat with yet another lucky 180 on the instruments. Three times this occurred, as thunder and lightning now added further drama to the situation. Caught between the seemingly impenetrable weather and the prospect of an over-water flight to Adelaide with fuel exhaustion a possibility, I responded by circling in the orb of gloomy visibility near Thistle Island simply because it was better than the other two options.

During the fourth or fifth orbit I spotted a red marine light in the general direction of Port Lincoln township and headed for it. We were about 200 feet above sea level by this stage. The driving rain intensified as if to force us back, but that red light remained visible. I flew towards it and eventually over it and was gratified to then see the faint glow of the township lights through the rain. It was by now pitch black. I had no night VFR training, and had never even been airborne at night.

As the solid rain and turbulence, the disorienting darkness and the thunderstorm threatened to end the flight short of our destination, the reliable little Cherokee plugged on until it was over the wharves of Port Lincoln. I then tracked coastal to the north at low altitude on the lee side of the hills where the thunderstorm and wind from the north west were violently spilling over. I searched for the rotating airport beacon and the lights of the airstrip and could not see either. I grabbed the microphone and dialled up the HF and made several unanswered calls to Adelaide for the lights. I tried to replace the mike on its clip but could not do so in the turbulence. I let the mike drop to the floor, abandoned radio communications and kept one hand on the control column, the other on the throttle. We were in the lee turbulence of the coastal hills being battered and bashed by a once-a-decade thunderstorm, like nothing I had ever seen. Last light had arrived about an hour before normal last light. I had to lean away from the perspex to my left after my head was banged into it a couple of times. The baby was crying. Her parents were silent. So was my girlfriend.

I knew by a rough estimate of elapsed time since overflying the township that the airport must be nearby. But even though I could follow the coast by the crawling headlights of cars on the highway and those parked on the side of the highway with headlights on, there was no airport beacon and there were no runway lights. I flew on because I had absolutely no other option. I learned later that a priest had looked out of the Port Lincoln hospital window and seen us, and offered up a prayer for our survival.

Then through the rain I intermittently saw the faintest outline of the runway lights on runway 01 dead ahead. There was no airport beacon to be seen but it was definitely Port Lincoln airport. My joy however was short-lived, because even though I could see about one third of the runway lights, we were tracking towards them laying off more drift than seemed consistent with the aircraft being re-useable after landing. I did not fancy doing a cross wind landing in conditions such as this, but overshooting into the black void beyond the runway was something I fancied even less. I was not going to do that. So I continued the approach, reduced the power and lowered some flap. With large and repeated control inputs I managed to occasionally achieve an approximation of the desired attitude and approach path. The successful outcome of the imminent landing or arrival was not assured, but whatever that outcome I had no doubt it was the lesser of two evils. The only certainty was that we were going to be on the ground shortly.

Perhaps the priest did me a favour with his prayer after all – and me not even a Catholic. Because just as I was approaching 50 feet or so over the runway, the undercarriage mere seconds away from some unauthorised modification, a flash of lightning accompanied by a simultaneous crack of thunder illuminated the terrible stage for a fleeting fraction of a second. It cast its white reflection off the water lying on the otherwise unilluminated cross runway, which was grass and puddles and directly into wind. The aircraft was virtually pointing straight up it. I cut the throttle, banked a little and straightened up, flared and touched down gently.

As the aircraft stopped in what felt like little more than its own length, I peered through the near horizontal rain at the illuminated windsock some 100 metres away. It was alternating between being rigidly horizontal and flapping wildly as the storm whipped it. Then as I watched it, the rain came down in a solid mass. Conversation was impossible. The windsock was now totally obscured from view, and the limited visibility which had permitted us to land moments before had gone.

I taxied off the strip in the general direction of the hangar, the control column rolled fully into wind. Water was driven into the cockpit between the door seal and the fuselage. I felt a hand alight on my shoulder, and give a brief comforting squeeze. I still don’t know which passenger did that. I taxied gingerly across the grass at a snail’s pace until the flying club hangar came into view.

Silhouetted against the club room lights were the still forms of a few club members standing in the open doorway of the hangar. They had waited for the last hour or more for either the start of the search, or against the odds as they saw it, the return of their beloved club aircraft. I learned that a SAR (search and rescue) phase had been declared.

I broke the club rule, and taxied out of the elements and the dark onto the smooth dry concrete floor of the hangar. The disc of the rotating prop was now visible in the fluorescent light. I eased the mixture back to idle cut-off and the engine and the noise ceased. I turned the master switch off. I opened the door and climbed out after my passengers. I turned and looked back at dear old WIL, water dripping off her white and red paint and forming small pools on the dry hangar floor. The odd hiss escaped as a drop found its way through the cowling onto something hot.

The club members helped us unload the aircraft, with hardly a word spoken. The downpour intensified forcing deferral of even a run to a parked car. The hangar doors were then closed and locked. I cancelled my SARWATCH (search and rescue watch) by telephone, filled out the maintenance release and the club docket, farewelled my passengers and went home with my girlfriend. The passengers seemed uncertain whether to respond to the situation from which I had delivered them, or the situation into which I had taken them.

My log book entry for that flight records the name of the airfield of departure, the route to Port Lincoln via Wedge Island and Thistle Island, and the flight time of 2 hours and 45 minutes.

So many lessons concealed in so few words.

The lessons include:

  • Have a known quantity of fuel in the aircraft before start up.
  • Know what a cumulo-nimbus cloud can do. Also know what one looks like from a distance, as well as from up close. The latter experience is to be reserved for those who are not airborne.
  • Confidence needs to be actively monitored and managed.
  • Official predictions of weather conditions and the time of last light are merely a starting point in making decisions dependent upon those events.
  • Timely retreats can save your life.
  • There is no correlation between the wearing of epaulettes and the quality of advice which comes from between them.
  • A bit of luck doesn’t do you any harm.”

In the Jan/Feb 2002 edition of the Australian Flying magazine, my account of this flight appeared.  I submitted it and consented to its publication on the basis that there be no editorial change whatsoever. The editors initially baulked then agreed. But this didn’t stop them changing the title without reference to me. The title I chose was ‘A Memorable Flying Lesson’. The editors of the magazine went for a title with the more tabloid-press ring, of ‘Flight to Hell & Back’, which misrepresented the whole experience. Whatever. Even though more than 40 years have passed since this flight, I continue to remember it very clearly. So does Liz.  For what it’s worth, I thought I’d share it with you.

The thunderstorms, torrential rain and gale force winds we flew through that night were declared in the local newspaper to be a once in a decade weather event. Apparently it was also a memorable storm for those on the ground in houses or cars.

9 thoughts on “Bush flying in South Australia in the 1970s


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    1. I recall you being cool, calm and collected throughout Lizzie – exactly what was required on such a flight. They say calm is contagious and I believe our guest passengers took their cue in this regard from us. I recall that there was no conversation, save for Brenton asking me abeam Point Donnington why we had turned back and circled for a few minutes on more than one occasion. I told him, accurately, it was to keep us out of the worst of the weather. He seemed satisfied with that. As we neared Pt Lincoln the noise of the storm and the rain made hearing anything else impossible. The severe turbulence in the lee of those hills between Pt Lincoln township and the airport also served as a distraction from conversation. Otherwise, I had things to do and you three had a possibly ‘never to be forgotten’ weather show to watch from a unique vantage point. We all stepped out of the aeroplane in the hangar that night with a life-enhancing experience under our belts. I recall feeling energised and very pleased later that evening. The flight remains a detailed and vivid memory all these years later. It is not at all an unpleasant memory.

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  2. Great account of that trip John, I could feel myself tensing up as I read it and greatly relieved at the end to know you survived it. Many a lesson there for the relatively new, and even not so new pilot. Your recollection of our Three Hummock Island trip also brought back some great memories.
    I recall I may have introduced you to ocean swimming on that trip. I have always been a great believer in pushing the envelope, if not jumping completely outside of it.
    I remember flying over Bass Straight in wild weather tucking into a pre packed lunch, perhaps by Mum (I can’t imagine how else it would have happened) guitar in the cockpit singing songs that drifted towards Hyms as the weather worsened and returned to country classics when land was in sight again. I remember our ridiculously steep, side slipping approach to the ridiculously short runway with the plane feeling like it was descending in a lift and wondering how could it be possible to land on the strip just in front of us with so much height. Yes, I can still recall that very clearly.
    I have great memories of that weekend, one that no travel agent could arrange. I also rember many other flying trips with you, and here we are nearly half a century later doing the same thing on motorbikes.

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    1. I do recall that after landing, Rob met us at the airstrip and took us straight to the pier on the southern side of the island, which jutted out into Bass Strait. Rob suggested a swim to the shore from the end of the pier to cool off. He promptly jumped off the pier and I followed him in. To my great surprise, as I surfaced I heard a third splash, which was you leaping into the rolling clear green swells of Bass Strait. I was impressed that you had learned to swim since we were last in the water, and even more so that you hadn’t considered it a matter worthy of even mentioning to me. But then I heard your voice across the waves, “Johno, I still can’t swim”, followed by a laugh. Amusing indeed. And so it was that I towed you the couple of hundred metres to shore, with you cooling off and apparently enjoying your immersion (as distinct from enjoying a swim). It’s only proper that I now inform you that had we ditched midway between Cape Otway and Three Hummock Island, my plan was to swim for help, while you waited until I returned with help.

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  3. Wow, what an amazing story, well played. It makes getting caught out in inclement condition on the GS or Triumph seem pretty lame. Cheers Mike

    Liked by 2 people

  4. John, I really enjoyed reading this, maybe I’d have enjoyed it less had I not known the outcome….you have a great gift for the written word and I felt like I was in that plane with you and like Liz, my knuckles would have been white until terra firma met the soles of my shoes…a great read, thanks for sharing it! Love H x

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  5. Hi John, a great read, what an adventure, I think we’ve all had moments in aeroplanes where we can honestly say luck has played a significant part in being able to use the aeroplane again and walk away. I think we can all take something away from this story, regardless of experience. An exceptional read and thoroughly enjoyed.


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  6. Brilliantly written!
    As someone who has taken a total of 3 flying lessons in my life this took me right inside the claustrophobic box that is a small aircraft. The tension is palpable together with the fear of making a wrong decision in the circumstances.
    Thanks for sharing it!

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  7. John, bravo, you made it. And so I got to meet you. And Liz.

    A fair night here at Waratah, Welch & Rawlings on the airwaves, and you safe on the ground. All your old photos have loaded and the adventure read as a study of self-possession under siege.

    So much to say along the way. The lumps of lads deployed to best counter-weighting effect. A win-win with the Ceduna groundsman. Flat wheat and sheep country perspiring through my pores. A pilot’s log book a perfunctory precursor to the barrister’s fee book. And then the journey through a meteorological cauldron brewed by Shakespeare’s witches. A riveting account replete with dramatic nuance and modesty. Saint-Ex would be roaring approval from his preternatural club rooms.

    Footnote: I met your father, once. I recall his hair was straight and parted. Noel has straight hair. I reckon you and Lizzie shared a Port Lincoln hairdresser.


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