Flying Memories – Chapter 4 (of 10)

Forced down by thunderstorms on the Yorke Peninsula

Thunderstorms generally.

Thunderstorms are a great force of nature to be treated with absolute respect by all pilots. The strong turbulence associated with a thunderstorm can destroy an aircraft, large or small. Thunderstorms generate powerful updrafts and downdrafts which operate from the lowest levels to the tops of the cloud. Thunderstorms in the temperate latitudes typically build to 30,000 to 40,000 feet. In tropical zones they can be as high as 60,000 feet. Updrafts and downdrafts up to around 6,000 feet per minute can exist in or near a thunderstorm.

One experience I had with a thunderstorm was in VH-WIL in the late 1970s en route from Pt Lincoln to Adelaide. The last leg was 35 nautical miles over water from the Yorke Peninsula to Adelaide. I flew past a thunderstorm on my descent for Adelaide in clear air with a couple of miles lateral separation. I was enjoying sunny conditions just north of the rapidly developing cumulonimbus cloud when I encountered a sudden updraft which quickly caused the aircraft to stop descending and start gaining altitude from the 1500 feet or so I was passing through on the descent for which I had a clearance. I put the nose down which increased the airspeed but the aircraft was still going up. As I had departed from my cleared descent and was in fact climbing, I called the tower and said I was gaining altitude rapidly in an updraft and required a clearance. The reply was calm and quick. I was cleared to ‘navigate as required.’ I realised that there could be severe turbulence at the boundary between this updraft and adjacent still air or perhaps even an adjacent equally strong downdraft so I reduced my power and airspeed to near stall speed to protect the airframe in the event such turbulence was encountered. Fortunately it wasn’t and once in smooth air again I continued my descent into Adelaide. It was a salutary lesson in the powerful forces at play in the air even when only near a thunderstorm. I learned later that this small but powerful thunderstorm put a 60 knot gust across the ground during its transit of Adelaide airport.

A friend of mine in western Victoria was caught in an updraft in similar conditions in his Cessna 210, and he was taken from below 5,000 to over 10,000 feet altitude before the lift ceased.

A German paraglider pilot flying in a competition near Manilla NSW in February 2007 was taken to an altitude above 30,000 feet in a thunderstorm. She survived. Google ‘Ewa Wiśnierska’ and select any of the Youtube or other accounts of her incredible flight and miraculous survival.

This is a photo of paragliders flying towards the thunderstorm cloud on the day Ewa Wiśnierska flew and was carried to an altitude above 30,000 feet. (Photo taken by Jonny Durand).

Suffice to say that as a pilot I have great respect for thunderstorms, both from the experience of others and from my own experiences.

The thunderstorm that forced me down

On 13 September 1978 late in the day I took off in VH-WIL from Adelaide airport for Port Lincoln. My ETA for Port Lincoln was a little after last light. Thunderstorms and rain associated with a cold front were forecast en route. I had successfully completed flights with such forecast conditions, and I have also had to divert from my planned track or return to my point of departure due to bad weather of various types.

My flight route would take me across St Vincent’s Gulf to Stansbury on the east coast of the Yorke Peninsula, then to Corny Point, then across Spencer Gulf via Spilsby Island to Port Lincoln. The weather to the west was looking pretty black as I took off. Immediately after departure I had to settle for an amended low cruise altitude due to rain and reduced visibility and to stay clear of cloud. The sea state indicated clearly that the wind was increasing in strength with every mile. Turbulence was increasing as I approached the coast of Yorke Peninsula.

At about this time the weather ahead on my planned track was deteriorating rapidly. It was also deteriorating behind me making a retreat back to Adelaide an unattractive option. Not long after this I heard on the radio that Adelaide was now closed to VFR traffic (me!). There were very heavy squall lines and I was in and out of them. So I needed to land, even if it meant sleeping in the aeroplane, and fly on to Port Lincoln the next day. I had overnight gear with me. The problem was that by this time visibility had reduced to probably only 1-2 nautical miles, which in an aeroplane is a lot less than it sounds. I notified Adelaide that I planned to land and was currently considering options. But in fact, there were none that were obvious as the weather worsened. I was now down to about 500 feet above ground level and the turbulence over the land in the strengthening wind was giving me a bumpy ride. On the area VHF frequency the flight service operator asked if I would like details of landing strips nearby. By this stage I had flown north of my planned route to stay out of the worst of the weather. I accepted his offer and he gave me the latitude and longitude of a private airstrip on a farm south-east of Maitland. Using one hand to mark a precise lat/long position on my 1:1,000,000 WAC (World Aeronautical Chart) in heavy rain, near gale force winds and continual moderate turbulence while using the other to fly the aeroplane was a bit of a challenge. I had to keep looking up from my attempts as I was below 500 feet above ground level by this stage due to cloud and visibility issues. Eventually I placed a pencil mark on the map where I understood the strip to be located. Shortly after that the flight services officer gave me a distance and bearing of the strip from Maitland. This tallied pretty closely with my mark which identified a location beside a road which tracked NW/SE. I was given details of the strip and conveniently, it was oriented at right angles to the road I was following. This meant I would at some point be looking straight down the strip, which if it was anything other than a stubble paddock with no mowing or markings identifying it as a strip, would make it easier to identify. I intercepted the road south of where the airstrip should be, and started flying north west along it with a large crab angle due to the wind strength from the west. I lowered one stage of flap and reduced power/airspeed as I had a better chance of spotting the strip at a slow speed. I also had a better chance of spotting any obstacles at low altitude. I guessed at my groundspeed and had a very approximate ETA for the strip. The vis was now such that I would only get a brief chance to see the strip, as I wouldn’t see it ahead or behind. The light was also starting to fade, much earlier than the published time of last light due to the heavy cloud and rain to the west of my position.

I planned to fly all the way to Maitland if I didn’t spot the strip on the first pass then do a 180° turn and repeat the search in the opposite direction. That way I could track back the 5 nautical miles given to me as the distance of the strip from Maitland. I could calculate a more accurate groundspeed and ETA for that short leg.

Then suddenly there it was out to my right. Quite clearly an airstrip. Farm sheds and possibly a hangar nearby, and a homestead a short distance away. I peeled off to the right and did a curving tight descending circuit at low level then lined up on final which was pretty much directly into wind. I stayed above my best guess at high tension power line height until nearing my turn on to final. But I didn’t think this was the circumstance for a two or three-circuit precautionary landing procedure. The landing was smooth and very short thanks to the low groundspeed at touchdown in a wind that was close to gale force.

I taxied slowly towards the farm sheds with the aircraft moving a lot in the buffeting wind. The control surfaces moving in the wind gave me a lot of feedback through the control column, and the airspeed indicator was very much alive with the needle moving back and forth but touching airspeeds of over 30 knots at times.

Even though the Piper has a higher wing loading than the Cessna, with one wing into wind and the other completely shielded by the fuselage I had no doubt the aircraft could flip in this wind. So I taxied close to a fence pointing directly into wind, and shut the aircraft down. I didn’t get out as I felt that staying there with my hands on the control column was the safest thing for the aircraft until the storm passed. Also, inside the aircraft was warmer and dry compared to outside or in the lee of one of the sheds. I left the foot brakes off, because an aircraft that could roll back a little in a big gust might have a better chance of staying upright than one with the wheel brakes locked. While I had a tie down kit on board, in less than the time required to hammer stakes in the ground and tie the aircraft to them the aircraft could be upside down a short distance away.

But my wait was cut short by the arrival of a vehicle. The occupant who turned out to be the farmer and owner of the land on which I had landed came across to the storm window and asked if everything was OK. I said it was. Between us we quickly secured the aircraft. We had a chat about the circumstances of my arrival on his strip. He was obviously a pilot and understood my situation. He seemed pleased his strip had provided a safe haven from the storm for me. Gordon was a very genial and down to earth man. He invited me in for a cuppa and said I might as well bring my bags. It was nearly dark by this time.

I met Gordon’s wife May at their very comfortable farm house. A cup of tea was provided as promised, then a wonderful hot meal with a lot of conversation, much of it about flying. I was then provided with a very comfortable bed. Breakfast was just as hearty, made all the better by the blue skies and light winds outside.

I packed my bag and walked out to WIL, still tied down where we left it, and did a daily inspection on the aircraft ready to complete my flight to Port Lincoln. I knew from the dinner table conversation that Gordon had a Tiger Moth in his shed which he loved to fly, and that it was currently grounded for some reason he had not elaborated on. Gordon suggested we should at least have a look at the Tiger Moth even if we couldn’t fly it. So we entered the hangar and there it was. Even in 1978 this was a legendary old flying machine dating back to the 1930s. With the outbreak of World War 2 the Tiger Moth was the primary flight trainer in all the Commonwealth countries.

Gordon said that it was a pity we couldn’t go for a fly. We both noted what a great day it was for flying. He rolled the hangar door wide open as I walked admiringly around his aircraft. He said something about being able to see it better in the light. That progressed to him taking it out of the hangar to sit in the sunshine. Yes, I could certainly see it much better there. He then mumbled half speaking to me and half thinking aloud that the reason it was grounded perhaps didn’t apply if he only flew it over his farm. And so Gordon inspected (pre-flighted) the aeroplane, then I climbed in and strapped in. He swung started the engine (rotated the propeller by hand) then climbed in to the rear cockpit, pulled the chocks out from in front of the wheels with a rope attached for that purpose, and we taxied off and went for a fly. I was in the front seat. The solo seat has always been the back seat to keep the centre of gravity within specified limits. Student pilots also sat in the back seat (so they would become familiar with flying from that seat when solo) with the instructor in the front seat. There were dual controls and the aircraft could be flown from the front or back seat.

It was a glorious flight in bright sunshine and cool fresh air ‘over his farm.’ We were flying for the pure joy of it in a machine with a four cylinder Gypsy Major engine, a fuselage of steel tubing covered with a combination of fabric and thin plywood, and wings and tail plane made of timber and covered with fabric. Wire bracing joined the diagonals between the vertical struts between the wings and the fuselage. The main spar I later learned was made of laminated wood.

Gordon didn’t know I was taking a photo of him in the rear vision mirror on the side of the front cockpit (see below). I loved that I captured the smile that flying his Tiger Moth brought to Gordon’s face, when he thought nobody was watching him. The flight put a smile on my face too. Gordon landed smoothly, the same way he flew. It was a pleasure to help him push it into the hangar.

My flying log book records that I re-visited the Hastings for social visits on 4 August 1979 and 22 December 1979. The same very warm welcome was received on both occasions. Gordon and May died some years ago. I understand that one of their sons is a pilot.

Tiger moth on the ground

Gordon inspecting the Tiger before flight.

Tiger moth on the ground

Lifting the engine cowl to examine the engine as part of the pre-flight inspection.

Tiger moth front cockpit

Basic instruments. The funnel and tube arrangement is called a Gosport tube. It’s used for communications between pilot and passenger using only the air vibrations in the plastic tube and an ear piece mounted in the leather helmet. Most modern aircraft have quite an array of important airspeeds to remember. Some years later another Tiger Moth owner took me for an extended flight in his Tiger Moth (in which he let me fly most of the time), and the briefing on important airspeeds consisted of, “60 knots”. In flight that single airspeed did seem to cover most circumstances.

Pilot of Tiger Moth

Gordon Hastings, totally content at the controls of his Tiger Moth flying ‘over his farm.’

Visits to aboriginal communities

Guitar playing with aboriginal lads on red dirt in central Australia

A wild dingo near the foothills of the Musgrave Ranges on the track from the airstrip to the community.

Pitjantjatjara Land Grant 1981

After four years of campaigning and negotations with government and mining groups, the Pitjantjatjara Land Rights Act 1981 was passed on 19 March 1981, granting inalienable freehold title over 103,000 km2 (40,000 square miles) of land in the northwestern corner of South Australia to the traditional owners. This Act at the time it was passed, and to the current time, is unprecedented in Australian land rights history.

I was privileged to be at Ernabella on the day of the ‘hand back’ ceremony by the then Premier of SA David Tonkin, and to witness the ceremony. I travelled to Ernabella in Cherokee Six VH-STV on one of the music tours that went further afield than the Eyre Peninsula and west coast. The brass from Canberra arrived at Ernabella in a Royal Australian Air Force HS748 (Hawker Siddeley pressurised turbo prop passenger aircraft).

Pitjantjatjara land grant 1981

The then premier of SA, David Tonkin, at the ‘hand back’ ceremony as some called it.

Pitjantjatjara land grant 1981

Pitjantjatjara elders attending the ceremony.

Flight across Bass Strait to Three Hummock Island in VH-WIL

Three Hummock Island landing strip andVH-WIL parked into wind.

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. The flight on 31 January 1978 was from Grovedale (near Geelong) coastal to Cape Otway, then direct track to overfly King Island then on to Three Hummock Island. The strip was short and rough. We stayed a couple of days and flew back on the same route. From Cape Otway (on the Victorian west coast) to the northern tip of King Island is a distance of 47 nautical miles over water. From that point it is a 67 nautical mile flight to the south east to Three Hummock Island. I was used to flying over water in single-engine aeroplanes by this stage, but I think my father had some misgivings about the planned flight. He didn’t express them directly, but Noel commented to me once we were airborne and climbing out that it was the only time he can ever recall Dad giving each of us a lengthy handshake and farewell on our departure for a two night trip.

The purpose of the trip was to see my friend Rob Alliston and his family. I shared a house for a year with Rob Alliston in 1973 when we were both undergraduates at the University of New England in Armidale NSW. Rob was tall and thin with red hair and a red beard. He was a natural long distance runner who excelled in cross country running events while we were at uni. He was always full of energy and ideas. He was raised from the age of four on Three Hummock Island off the north-west corner of Tasmania. His father, Commander John Alliston, was a highly decorated British naval commander during WW2. After his retirement from the navy he and his wife Eleanor, in 1952, started a new life as the sole leaseholders and occupants on Three Hummock Island where they brought up their four children, one of whom was Robert. Three Hummock Island is a remote, wild and pristine place. The story of the Alliston family on the island is a wonderful story, which Eleanor recorded in her book, ‘Escape to an Island.’ I heartily recommend it. Eleanor Alliston died in 2003 at the age of 90. John Alliston died the following year, at the age of 94. Sadly, Robert died in 2018.

Rob and Ros Allison and children on Three Hummock Island airstrip

Ros (married to Rob), my brother Noel (centre) and Rob Alliston, with Rob and Ros’s children on Three Hummock Island. The aircraft in the distance is not the one Noel and I arrived in.

I had a previous visit to Three Hummock Island in the early 1970s when I was at Armidale University. My girlfriend Susie and I were travelling around Tasmania during the summer vacation and we found our way to Smithton on the north west coast. We located a local pilot who agreed to fly us out to the island, to see Rob who was spending his summer there. The pilot’s name was Billy Vincent who was, even then, a legendary bush pilot. His story has been published in a book, ‘Billy Vincent: Bush Pilot’, by Guy Nicholson. Billy died in 2016 at the age of 84. Ros (Rob’s wife) recalls seeing Billy delivering newspapers and mail to the Allistons on Three Hummock Island in a Bass Strait gale, without landing. He did this by flying very low just in front of the house at an airspeed which matched the wind speed. By doing this, he was able to ‘hover’ in his fixed wing aircraft over a single point on the ground, open the pilot-side window, and drop the newspapers and mail to those on the ground.

At the time Susie and I visited the island, the Allistons were living in a house not far from the bay where the jetty was located. A little further away on a small hill was a much older unoccupied house with a wonderful view over the island and Bass Strait which is where we stayed. We had a very interesting evening of conversation with John and Eleanor during that stay.

Fatigue really does affect performance

I recall a flight in VH-WIL in winter when I needed to fly from Port Lincoln to Ceduna, with a requirement for an early arrival. So I departed an hour before first light for a flight that would be completed in daylight. I remember thinking how convenient it was to have a night flying rating. As I loaded the aeroplane there were a few stars intermittently visible directly above the airport with cloud scudding over them from time to time. The weather forecast looked good for night VFR flying and Ceduna forecast was clear skies and fine weather. A bit of cloud in the south and clearing in the north was a typical weather pattern on and north of the Eyre Peninsula.

I took off with the runway lights on as there was no visible horizon in any direction. As soon as the aircraft was airborne, I transitioned to the instruments and confirmed that I had a positive rate of climb with wings level. I stayed on the instruments through my first turn at 500 feet and the subsequent turns as I set heading and trimmed the aircraft for a cruise climb. I then looked outside the aircraft for the first time after takeoff and saw the lights of Port Lincoln township receding behind my left wing. As I cleared the coastal hills I flew through some scattered cloud. I expcted to leave the cloud below me very shortly and to be flying in clear air under the stars from where I could watch the sunrise out to my right.

Despite having less sleep than usual the night before this flight, due to getting up before 4am, I felt on the ball and invigorated by the joy of flying in the dark in stable weather. I didn’t clear the cloud quite as quickly as I had anticipated, and it was thicker than it had been nearer the coast. So I settled back to my instrument scan as the aircraft continued to climb, and turned the cabin heater up as the outside air temperature steadily decreased as I climbed.

With all temperatures and pressures in the green, the reliable constant note of the engine was suddenly interrupted with a bit of rough running, a bit of a cough. I immediately suspected carburettor ice (the formation of ice in the venturi in the carburettor in certain atmospheric conditions) given the moist air outside and the outside air temperature. Formation of carburettor ice at full throttle is not as common as at lower power settings but it is still possible in certain conditions. The fix is simple – pull out the carburettor heat control which redirects warm air from the exhaust manifold into the carburettor where it melts the ice. I did not hesitate to do this, as I was in cloud, it was dark and if I had to do a forced landing, even after descending below the cloud base I would not be able to see the land below to select a suitable forced landing site. I expected the engine to continue to run rough for a very short time as the ice cleared following which it would return to normal operation.

There was an immediate response in the sound of the engine when I pulled the carb heat control out – the rough running stopped, but alarmingly so did the engine. The control I had pulled out was the immediately adjacent not-dissimilar mixture control. Pulling it right out put it in the idle cutoff position, which stopped fuel flowing to the engine. It is the control used to shut the engine down on the ground after a flight. I had mistakenly shut the engine down in flight. I instantly pushed the mixture control back in to full rich and pulled the carb heat control right out. As the prop had been windmilling for the moments after I shut the engine down, the resumption of fuel and the application of carb heat quickly restored power. I left the carb heat out until I climbed above the cloud which was about the same time as the cloud below me began to dissipate and thin, and the eastern horizon was starting to glow. I had flown from night into day. All was well and the rest of the flight and my day proceeded as planned.

I had never made that mistake before, and I never repeated it. I attribute it entirely to the fact that I was tired, and that despite feeling on the ball and having my eyes wide open, my performance level was reduced. More modern aircraft have throttle and mixture controles unequivocally differentiated in colour, design and location. But I don’t blame the old aircaft design. I flew when tired and did not take any steps to avoid or compensate for the possibility of a fatigue-induced error.

Reduced performance due to tiredness is real.

Top End tour with friends in 1980

In May 1980 I took four friends from Port Lincoln on a 12 day holiday flight up through the centre and around the top end. We took my favourite Piper Cherokee Six, VH-WCJ. This was a relatively new aeroplane, very well maintained and equipped, and very comfortably fitted out inside. The trip involved just over 39 hours of flying. The general route was: Alice Springs – Mataranka Homestead – Darwin – Dum in Mirrie Island (west of Darwin) – Kununurra – Lake Argyle – Victoria River Downs Station – Hooker Creek – Alice Springs – Ayers Rock – Indulkana – Coober Pedy – Tarcoola – Port Lincoln.

Victoria River Downs Station

Victoria River Downs from the air

Victoria River Downs station settlement and runway, on the banks of the Victoria River.

Mustering helicopters at VRD

Cattle mustering helicopters at VRD.

Cherokee Six refulling at VRD

VH-WCJ refuelling at VRD.

Mustering chopper at sunset

Chopper rotors silhouetted against the western horizon after sunset at VRD.

Our early morning departure from VRD was in nil wind, clear blue skies and cool air. The strip was beside the Victoria River. We were loaded close to our maximum takeoff weight as we had just refuelled. I warmed the engine up and did the pre-takeoff checks, then aimed down the middle of the runway and applied full power. The aircraft accelerated well in the cool air on the smooth dirt strip. As we accelerated I saw a roo hop casually on to the left of the strip some distance ahead. There is no doubt about what should have occurred at this point – I should have stopped, turned around and taxied back to the end of the strip to start the takeoff run again once the roo was well off the strip. But I didn’t do that.

Ever the optimist, I continued with the takeoff run keeping an eye on the roo. As we got closer, the roo took a few more hops, then stopped about a quarter of the way across the runway. The airspeed was approaching the value required for a clean and safe liftoff and we were not on a collision course while he stayed there. But before reaching takeoff speed, the roo did a few more hops and stopped dead ahead of us. This time we were on a collision course unless he moved. We were too close to brake and stop, and too close to effectively swerve using the steerable nosewheel. So the only option left was to pull the control column back to raise the nose and hopefully the rest of the aircraft momentarily high enough to clear the roo. We would still be in ground effect at the low height we needed to clear the roo. The aeroplane sagged into the air with a couple of faint beeps from the stall warning, we cleared the roo, and the aircraft settled back on to the ground. I had sufficient airspeed, power and elevator-up control left to cushion the aircraft’s return to the runway. Because this strip was so long, even though we had lost a few knots of airspeed by becoming momentarily and prematurely airborne, we were still moving at a fair pace. So I continued the takeoff run and we were safely airborne quite quickly with a lot of unused airstrip ahead of us.

Alice Springs to Ayers Rock

On this leg of the tour I persuaded the passengers that it would be worth departing from Alice Springs in the pre-dawn darkness to arrive at Ayers Rock in time to see the sun rise there. The distance was 180 nautical miles which is 90 minutes flying in the Cherokee Six in nil wind.

We loaded the aeroplane in the dark (and cold) at a very quiet Alice Springs airport, strapped everyone in and closed the doors. After startup we received our taxi clearance without delay. It is an international airport with a very long airstrip catering for large civil and military aircraft. Very high summer temperatures extend the distance required for aircraft to takeoff and land. The main strip there is 2,438m in length. VH-WCJ, even with 5 persons on board, plus luggage and full fuel, in the cool air before dawn required only a fraction of that distance to become airborne.

Even fully loaded as we were, we could have become airborne, touched down, become airborne again etc many times on a sealed strip 2438m in length. But we taxied right to the threshold of the airstrip and after getting our takeoff clearance became airborne in a relatively short distance, and had significant height by the time we flew over the far end of the strip.

We set heading for Ayers Rock as the lights of the edge of the town thinned then disappeared below us. There was no moon and the stars were brilliant. All else was black, including everything below us save for the occasional homestead lighting where there must have been some early risers. It felt both lonely and exhilarating climbing in this still cold blackness over the harsh remote terrain below with sunrise an hour and a half away. The VHF radio on which we would hear of any other aircraft in our vicinity was silent. I levelled into the cruise at 8,000 feet, reduced power from climb to cruise settings, and trimmed the aircraft for level flight as it accelerated to its cruise speed. The temperatures and pressures of the 300hp engine were steady and satisfactory, the airspeed indicator was exactly where it was expected to be, and the altimeter was steady on 8,000 feet. All four passengers were asleep. I turned the autopilot on while I attended to navigation, fuel management and continuous monitoring of the engine and flight instruments, and a bit of gazing at the stars.

I calculated a descent point based on arriving at Ayers Rock at 5,000 feet, to maximise the view of the sunrise over Ayers Rock and the Olgas. The actual appearance of the sun at dawn comes after a couple of support acts. The first signs that sunrise is on the way are hints of dim lighting on the eastern horizon. Then gradually, in the absence of cloud, an orange glow appears and intensifies right up to the moment when the sun is first visible above the horizon. Even at the altitude of 8,000 feet, the contrast between the eastern and western horizons approaching dawn can be dramatic viewed from a light aircraft. Because the visible horizons are so far away in every direction, the pilot sees the approaching dawn to the east, and at the same time dark skies with stars still shining brightly in the western sky. I always enjoyed this aspect of high flights which started in early evening and flew through dusk to full darkness in all directions.

I woke the passengers as we approached overhead Ayers Rock at 5,000 feet. The terrain below was fully visible but everything was uniformly dim and colourless. At 5,000 feet we saw the sun rise before it had risen on the land 5,000 below us. Then when the sun rose at ground level, in an instant the whole landscape became a spectacle of bright orange features of every shape and size casting long black shadows. I had delivered my passengers to the best seats in the house from which to view the full glory of Ayers Rock at dawn. The show even commenced right on time. At least, those were my thoughts as I throttled back a little and we lazily circled Ayers Rock and the Olgas in the smooth air. But this unparalleled view had apparently not enthralled my passengers to the same extent it had thrilled me; or perhaps more accurately, it had not enthralled them at all.

Later that morning when we all climbed Ayers Rock, a mere 1,142 feet above the surrounding desert in all directions, my passengers were ecstatic at everything about the view from this hard-won vantage point!! The climb up Ayers Rock is dangerous and demanding, as the sign at the bottom of the roped track states. But really, the view was nothing compared with the view captured in the photo immediately below.

This demonstrated very clearly the following rule of scenic views: the pleasure to be derived from any view is directly proportionate to the effort expended in accessing that view.

Ayers Rock at dawn

The effort I made to plan and conduct a 90 minute flight in a single engine aeroplane in the dark to arrive at this scene right on time, was certainly an important contributor to my pleasure in witnessing this view from 5,000 feet. For my passengers, the arduous and risky rock climb to achieve a lesser elevation above surrounding terrain (and a lesser view if one considers the area witnessed), was perhaps the principle source of their elation at the view from a mere 1,142 feet above the surrounding desert.

Olgas at dawn

The Olgas.

The old Ayers Rock airstrip

The Rock is still in this location, but the airstrip in the photo is not. It was closed when Yulara settlement and a new sealed runway were built nearby in the early 1980s. An interesting feature of landing on the old dirt strip, is that winds of any strength from the south or thereabouts would wrap around both ends of Ayers Rock creating a tail wind at both ends of the airstrip. I have seen the windsocks at either end pointing towards each other. Fortunately it was a long strip.

Footnote: At the time these photos were taken and up until 1993 this landmark was widely known as Ayers Rock. Accordingly, I have used that name in this blog post. In 1993 that name was changed to Ayers Rock/Uluru. It has retained its dual names to this day, but in 2002 the order of the two names was changed to Uluru/Ayers Rock. Either name can properly be used.

Rain and cloud on Ayers Rock.

On a different flying trip through the centre in the late 1970s, I visited Ayers Rock in very different weather. Small waterfalls were running down many of the crevices in the sides of the Rock, and large pools had formed around its base. It was even capped with low stratus cloud. A scene I never thought I would see at this location.

To be continued

2 thoughts on “Flying Memories – Chapter 4 (of 10)

  1. Another great read John. It’s easy for non pilots such as myself to consider weather in Australia an insignificant event in terms of flying given our mild climate and flat terrain, this is obviously not the case.
    I remember every part of that trip to Three Hummock Island in great detail, the flight, the Ellistons, the ruggedness, the big seas and skies the like of which I’ve only seen once since, it was all round a great trip.


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