Flying Memories – Chapter 3 (of 10)

Encounter with a thunderstorm at night

On 11 June 1978 I landed VH-WIL (a single engine four seat Piper Cherokee 180) after dark with four passengers (one was a babe in her parents’ arms, another was Liz who later married me) in gale force winds and driving rain at the peak of a heavy thunderstorm. I had never before flown at night nor had I ever flown in such weather conditions. I was an inexperienced pilot with a total of 170 hours in my log.

A pilot’s log book is an interesting document. It 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 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 all 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.

Pilot's log book

Ever since pilots have kept log books, for every airborne adventure experienced 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 an 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.

Pilot's log book entry

Thus I come to one such log book entry and the story behind it. The entry is for 11 June 1978, in VH-WIL. I was a month off turning 30. It records that the flight duration was 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 in the log book that this flight had some elements which created indelible memories are the words, “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.  It didn’t take much reflection to conclude that it was not 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.

Map of the south-eastern Eyre Peninsula

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.  This map is from Google Earth. The Port Lincoln airport is located 7 nautical miles north of the township at North Shields.

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 was written by me and is exactly as it was reproduced in the Jan/Feb 2002 edition of the Australian Flying magazine.

My account of this flight appeared in an earlier post on this blog in January 2020.

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 37 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.”


During my three years of flying to to aboriginal communities and remote schools, on my last flight to each place in December I would do a lolly drop for the children on their local footy oval or an adjacent paddock. Research has yet to be finalised confirming the benefit of this to music education and the development of young minds more generally. But from all accounts I heard from eye witnesses, it was a hit.

This lolly drop would of course be on notice and the children were kept clear of the drop zone during the bombing run. VH-WIL was not an ideal aircraft for this as the pilot’s window was a small storm window just big enough to poke fingers or a clenched fist through. My technique was to fill a long football sock with the lollies, and by holding the toe end and poking the sock packed with lollies out the wind and shaking it, all lollies could be dropped quickly. They still seemed to spread themselves over a fair area on the ground, but this was all part of the fun. As soon as I was clear of the lolly drop zone the excited children lined up along the edges would be released to go and help themselves to as many as they could find. I was told by teachers that on the morning of the anticipated lolly run, the children would be listening carefully for my aircraft. Yalata in particular has a lot of light aircraft flying over head en route between WA and the eastern states. So the children would get excited and jump up ready to go outside each time they heard an aeroplane engine. But it only happened once a year and was a tolerated distraction.

Yalata community was home to Pitjantjatjara people who some years earlier had been removed from their traditional homeland near Ooldea to facilitate the British atomic bomb testing at Maralinga. This was an appalling episode in our country’s history.

I recall a group of men inviting me during one of my visits to go fishing with them one afternoon. I climbed into the back of a ute loaded high with boxes, which I was told were for the fish. I was sceptical about the volume of the anticipated catch and wondered if they were taking the mickey out of me. They weren’t. They took me to a beach beneath cliffs at the Head of the Bight. Rods and reels were provided with shiny lures, no bait and a light sinker. It was stressed that we would not catch fish after sunset. From the cliff tops they pointed out circular schools of countless milling salmon not far offshore. I had often seen these from the air. From the beach we cast into such schools. Every cast caught at least one salmon, and many casts caught two. As fast as we could cast, reel in, remove the fish and bleed it and recast, we were catching large salmon. We filled the boxes in the back of the ute. As promised, when the sun went down the fish stopped biting because the sunlight was no longer sparkling off the shiny lures.

Upon our return to the community after dark, the ute visited many houses and campsites delivering fresh fish to all who wanted some. English was very much a second language at Yalata and I didn’t understand everything that was said on the delivery run through the community. But I did understand the smiles and the laughter as abundant and free fresh fish was delivered. There was plenty for everybody. I’m not a fisherman, but that was a very enjoyable afternoon and evening.

Ceduna Airport

Ceduna was a regular destination and/or refuelling stop on my west coast flying trips.  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 Ceduna 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 (103 nautical miles west of Ceduna) I would defer my departure from Yalata to dusk (taking off by reference to the fading horizon and the tail lights of a vehicle at the far end of the runway) to ensure a landing after dark at Ceduna, which kept me current at night flying, and provided 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.

Runway at Ceduna airport, South Australia

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 weather station at the airport which measured wind strength and direction for the benefit of pilots using the field. 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 as we approached that 40 knots was the steady wind strength – no gusts, just 40 knots. The sky was blue.

We landed directly into wind 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 wing on the downwind side of the aircraft which is partially shielded by the fuselage. 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. I advised the flight service officer on duty of my intentions. It seemed to make him a little nervous but he took no steps to interfere. The three of us climbed aboard and belted in. The airspeed indicator was showing gusts to 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 between where we had parked and the edge of the tarmac. I was relieved that I never heard any more about that takeoff from the Civil Aviation 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.

I always stayed in the Community Hotel when in Ceduna, and without fail I would breakfast on fresh King George whiting caught locally and cooked in butter. I have never eaten better fish.

Landing at Koonibba in a 40 knot cross wind

Koonibba aboriginal community, not far west of Ceduna on the Eyre Highway, had a long and wide north-south airstrip. It was a dirt strip with a partial covering of grass. It was in good condition, and there were no obstacles at either end of the strip. It had a windsock, and the runoff areas either side of the strip were longer grass, with a five-strand wire fence right around the perimeter of the strip.

I recall flying from Ceduna (where I had refuelled) to Koonibba one afternoon. The wind was blowing from the west at around 30-35 knots when I took off from Ceduna. As the short flight progressed it became evident from my groundspeed, and from the amount of dust and other matter being blown into the air that the wind had increased substantially in strength.

Upon arrival I overflew the strip by crabbing along one side of it to gauge the strength of the cross wind. The windscock had blown off its pole, and I needed a crab angle of around 40° to track north up the side fence of the strip. As I flew around without landing someone from the community came out in a ute and attempted valiantly but unsuccessfuly to shin up the windsock pole and re-attach the sock. But I certainly didn’t need the windsock to tell me what the wind was doing. It was a 90° crosswind in the vicinity of 40 knots in strength. I was in VH-WIL which is a single engine low-wing Piper. There were no passengers on board, The cross wind was well in excess of the 17 knot max cross wind component permitted by the flight manual. But more importantly, being a low wing aircraft, the into-wind wing could not be lowered to the extent required while side-slipping without contacting the ground. Further, even if the aircraft was landed successfully in such a wind, it would be in danger of blowing over once the wheels were on the ground as the into-wind wing would be creating significant lift while the other wing would be completely shielded from the wind by the fuselage and creating no lift at all. It is doubtful that into-wind aileron would be sufficient to hold the left wing down in this circumstance.

There was only one option. Land directly across the strip. I did a circuit and came in low over the eastern fence and touched down directly into wind. I was completely stopped before I had gone even half the width of the strip. I parked into wind on the western side of the strip, put my tiedown stakes in the ground and tied the aircraft securely to them. My departure much later in the day was fine as the wind had dropped significantly permitting safe taxying and a normal crosswind takeoff.

Bush flying cameos

Cessna 182 parked at end of the main street in Tarcoola.

On tour in South Australia with Arts Council-sponsored performers in May 1981. Cessna R182 (retractable) VH-SMV parked at Tarcoola close to the hotel where we stayed. The airstrip was a short distance away and close to the golf course. To park as shown required taxying up and down a few fairways and through gates (the high wing aircraft had very good clearance of fence posts) to the edge of town.

Final approach to Ernabella airstrip

On final approach for a landing to the east at Ernabella aboriginal community in the Musgrave Ranges in northern South Australia.

Piper Cherokee 180 parked on the stubble at Coorabie

VH-WIL parked in a paddock at Coorabie, on the very edge of the last of the arable land as you go west from Ceduna towards the Nullarbor Plains and WA.

On landing approach short final to rough paddock with sheep ahead

About to land in VH-WIL at Coorabie, having already done a low pass to chase the sheep up to the far end of the paddock. It was rough paddock for a light aircraft.

Dirt strp on a hot day and light aircraft parked

VH-WIL on a hot dusty airstrip in the northern Eyre Peninsula, with the door open to keep the temp down and the flies out (and in). Part of the routine of getting into a light aircraft in this country was to swipe your hand up and down your back just before entering the cabin to force the black mass of flies inevitably parked there to abandon their stowaway aspirations and do their own flying.

Cessna parked on farm paddock

Cessna 172 VH-MCJ parked in a paddock somewhere on the Eyre Peninsula.

Bill Tasker, Liz and me ready for departure on a trip to remote communities in outback South Australia. Aircraft wheeled out of the hangar, luggage ready to load, VH-WIL ready and waiting, crew and passengers already enjoying themselves.

Pilot and passenger and luggage besdie Cherokee 180

Lizzie accompanying me on one of my flying minstrel tours. Curls and flares were all the go.

On one occasion I was pilot and tour manager for a concert tour by three musician friends of mine from Melbourne (Paul Wookey, Greg O’Leary and Greg Hildebrand), which I had organised. They are very talented musicians and were well received everywhere they played. They had generously and happily accepted the terms of my original offer to take them on the tour. Those terms were: it will be an outback performing tour and flying adventure, inclusive of meals and accommodation, in return for nothing but the experience.

On separate occasions I took children’s authors Mem fox and Christobel Mattingley on flying tours of the Eyre Peninsula remote schools. My daughter Jess still has her first edition copy of ‘Possum Magic’ with a lovely inscription from Mem Fox on the title page. It was a gift from Mary Dawe, a friend of mine who was a reading adviser to schools on the Eyre Peninusla, and a friend of Mem Fox.

On one of my Eyre Peninsula flying tours I landed on a dirt track (narrower than the wingspan of VH-WIL) on a farm which I had used before. But when overflying the strip I could see that there was crop growing either side of it right up to the side of the track, and that the track had been graded with a 9-12 inch ridge of loose gravel on both sides of the track. I did a low pass and ascertained that the crop appeared to be just lower than the height of my wings above the ground, but the useable track between the gravel buildups either side appeared only marginally wider than the wheel base of the aircraft. To land and then have a wheel go into the gravel would undoubtedly retard that wheel and turn the aircraft over the gravel and into the crop which would be less than ideal. The only other complication was that there was a light but steady cross wind from the left in the required landing direction. Applying the cross wind technique I had practiced in VH-RIV at Port Lincoln, I crabbed in, then sideslipped directly over the centre of the track which in the light wind did not require a large dip of the left wing, and landed with the wheels on the track clear of the gravel and neither wing making contact with the crop. A satisfying landing.

Another flight I recall was late on new year’s eve in 1981 in Port Lincoln, when I was persuaded at a party to take a few friends for a midnight flight on New Year’s eve. My log records a 20 minute flight in Cessna 172 VH-MCJ on the night I took off in 1981 and landed in 1982.

Mudamuckla operations

Mucamuckla farm house, with Cherokee 1800 parked beside FJ ute.

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. Doug’s 170 was immaculately maintained and hangared. I recall seeing the concrete floor in his hangar with three old car tyres cut in half and filled with water. Each of the three wheels of the aircraft was parked inside a tyre. This farming area has seen remarkable mouse plagues associated with big droughts. Doug experienced a drought where the mice climbed up over the wheels and got into all sorts of nooks and crannies in the aircraft creating havoc by chewing anything they could bite into, including electrical wiring. But the water barriers proved effective to keep mice out of the aircraft.

Doug 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 which way 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 conclusion these charts offered 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 as required virtually instantaneously. In a Cessna, the electrically operated flaps extend 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 reducing the stalling speed and 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 the main landing gear to clear the fence before the aircraft 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 in that paddock, 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.

Mudamuckla post office in a lull between quiet periods.

To be continued

2 thoughts on “Flying Memories – Chapter 3 (of 10)

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