Flying Memories – Chapter 10 (the final chapter)

WA trip in VH-MWL with Liz.

As I reach the end of this record of my flying memories I want to record in some detail an account of at least one trip that I remember as being simply a great trip in an aeroplane. There were of course many candidates. But a standout trip was definitely the two weeks of flying I did with Liz to south-west WA in September-August 2007 in a favourite aeroplane.

I hired VH-MWL, a Cessna 182RG, from my friend Chris for a five week period in 2007, between August and September.

We departed from Moorabbin. This aircraft has retractable undercarriage and a constant speed propeller and at higher altitudes can cruise at 150 kts (277kph). It is fuel efficient and very comfortable. With only the two of us on board we were easily able to take all the luggage we needed. I logged 27 flying hours on this trip.

Cessna 182RG ready for our WA trip

Liz and Chris (the owner of the aircraft) at Moorabbin when we collected the aeroplane. Chris is a highly experienced airline captain.

Map showing route plan for WA light aircraft flying trip

Broad brush overview of the WA trip in the Cessna 182. We hired a car in Albany for some of our touring along the coast south of Perth.

By way of illustration of the convenience of a light aircraft such as the Cessna 182RG, on the first day of this trip we left Moorabbin at a sensible hour in the morning and arrived at Ceduna mid-afternoon. We flew a total distance of 707 nautical miles (1309kms) in 5.4 hours that day. We had an average speed of 135knots (242kph) across the ground between Moorabbin and Ceduna. Our groundspeed (135 knots) was lower than our airspeed(150 knots) due to a light headwind. Having driven to all these places in a car, and ridden to most of them on my motorbike, road travel simply cannot compare to the effortless reach of a light aircraft over such distances.

Climbing out over Moorabbin and Port Melbourne for direct track to Mildura via overhead Tullamarine

There are two basic choices for a VFR (visual flight rules) light aircraft wanting to track north-west from Melbourne after taking off from Moorabbin. One involves avoiding controlled airspace and the other involves flying through controlled airspace. Controlled airspace (airspace where traffic is actively managed and monitored by air traffic controllers) exists as an added measure of protection for heavy jets and other aircraft flying into Tullamarine.

Our plan for the day was to fly from Moorabbin to Mildura to refuel the aircraft and have morning tea, then on to Ceduna.

Staying out of controlled airspace entails skirting initially around the coast in VFR lanes where a clearance is not required, being careful to remain beneath the lower limit of controlled airspace immediately above these lanes, and within the confined lateral limits of the lanes. Great care is also required to keep a lookout for oncoming aircraft using the same lanes. Traffic separation procedures in the lanes contribute to safety but they are not a guarantee of successfully avoiding other traffic. Eventually such routes take you far enough west to be able to take up a heading to track direct to the north-west, and to climb to your preferred cruise altitude. But this climb must sometimes be done in steps if that is necessary to remain outside the progressively higher lower limits of the arcs of controlled airspace surrounding Tullamarine. These controlled airspace steps are often likened to an inverted wedding cake.

The controlled airspace alternative, which I prefer, is to file a flight plan from Moorabbin to overhead Tullamarine then on to Mildura in a straight line at the cruising height of your choice. It knew it would help matters to depart Moorabbin close to the time I nominated on the flight plan I had filed because air traffic control would most likely be ready for my initial clearance request and in a position to issue the required clearances without any or much delay for the planned climb in and the transit of controlled airspace. Moorabbin tower was able to provide our initial clearance before takeoff which was to fly north, remain clear of controlled airspace and orbit not above 2000 feet pending ongoing clearance. After takeoff we commenced our climb and as anticipated the ongoing clearance was issued before we needed it and we were quickly transferred to the Melbourne tower frequency and entered controlled airspace on our climb to 8,500 feet. We reached that altitude before reaching Melbourne airport. It was an interesting sight looking straight down from that height on the Melbourne Airport runways, terminals, hangars and car parks and it was not an everyday experience in a Cessna 182 to have heavy jets flying below us. We remained at 8,500 feet all the way to our descent point inbound to Mildura. There was only one heading change once we entered controlled airspace, and that was directly overhead Melbourne Airport where we were cleared to set heading for Mildura.

It was a great start to the trip to be in clear skies climbing in a straight line higher and higher over Melbourne CBD until we reached 8,500 feet with views of Geelong, Port Phillip Heads, the Dandenongs and Mount Macedon all visible on our horizon. We tracked direct to Mildura and then to Ceduna which took us over Port Pirie and the northern waters of Spencer Gulf, then south of the Gawler Ranges and across the north of the Eyre Peninsula to Ceduna on the edge of the Great Australian Bight. There was no intermediate landing on the Mildura to Ceduna leg.

Moorabbin to Mildura (268 nautical miles)

Cessna wing and strut flying over cloud and under blue skies

Conversing by intercom was quiet and convenient. Noise is a great contributor to fatigue, in a light aeroplane as well as on a motorbike. When I rode my motorbike around Australia some years ago (18,000kms in 7 weeks) if I’d had to choose between sunglasses and earplugs I would have taken the latter.

The old school GPS on the right was a portable unit attached to my control column by velcro. It did the job.

L: The mighty Murray River (with an oxbow lake, if I remember my school geography correctly) and the riverland. R: Approach to land at Mildura.


Clockwise from top left: Mid final on approach to land on runway 17 at Ceduna; aircraft refuelled, oil checked – another effortless long leg done by this comfortable and reliable aeroplane; signpost in the middle of Ceduna; Lizzie on the Ceduna jetty which extends out into Murat Bay.

There is a flying story I should tell right here in relation to Ceduna airport. In the late 1970s I was doing regular flights around the west coast with a lot of takeoffs and landings (and overnights) at Ceduna. I got to know some of the airport staff. While I was refuelling one afternoon the refueller told me that an inbound aircraft had called ahead to announce that his aircraft may have sustained damage to its undercarriage en route (a mystery already) and that he would like some emergency services on standby for his arrival. He was due to arrive and land any moment. Anybody and everybody around the airport who had learned of this, was going nowhere until after he landed. It wasn’t exactly a crowd, but there were significantly more people loitering and keeping an eye to the north east (the direction from which he would arrive) than the number who worked full time at the airport. I was one of them. I saw a fire engine on standby. If there was an ambulance parked in readiness, I didn’t see it.

The aircraft eventually arrived overhead and did a low and slow fly-past over the airport to enable an inspection from ground with binoculars to assess the damage. The aircraft was a low wing single-engine agricultural aircraft flown by an agricultural pilot, on a ferry flight as it turned out from Sydney to Perth. It had a tail wheel and fixed undercarriage (non-retractable). The main landing wheels did not have fairings. Binoculars were not needed to see the damage. All the onlookers could clearly see the left main landing gear strut (curved spring steel) with the wheel still attached rotated 90° from its original position by impact with something, and the left main landing wheel was aligned at right angles to its undamaged counterpart on the starboard side. The aircraft was clearly going to have to land into wind on the right main wheel first at the lowest safe speed, with the left wing (and wheel) raised for as long there was sufficient speed to aerodynamically create lift, on the lowest friction surface available. Ceduna offered gravel or grass.

The pilot chose grass and proceeded to land as described above. When the damaged left wheel finally lowered to the ground as the aircraft slowed down the aeroplane did a non-violent ground loop and stopped. I have never seen a pilot exit an aircraft cockpit with such speed. He did have the presence of mind to shut down the engine (and presumably switch off the electrics) before jumping out. I think ag pilots are more conscious of the risk and consequences of fire than most pilots. But the finale was nothing more than the dust settling. The interested onlookers including me went to the aircraft and examined it. The pilot was there too, and his story was that he had hit a kangaroo with the left landing gear during the cross country ferry flight. For a short time after this statement nobody present spoke.

Upon examining the damaged strut and wheel, I saw a small amount of fresh meat, fur and blood on the brake disc and caliper. I saw the rotated strut and wheel. I had to accept his explanation. When someone near the aircraft asked how that happened en route, the pilot ceased answering questions. The minimum legal height in cruise flight above land that is not a built up area is 500 feet. Somebody should’ve warned this bloke about those big red roos around the Flinders Ranges and Western NSW that can apparently jump to that sort of height…

The theory that the onlookers (mostly pilots) and I favoured was that boredom was setting in on the long ferry flight at the slow cruising speed agricultural aircraft (crop dusters) typically have, when he spotted a mob of roos below. Then, perhaps with a spirited steep descending turn, he would have dived to near ground level to wake himself and the roos up with some low level steep turns and manoeuvring to break the monotony of long distance cross-country flying. The margins are fine in ag flying, and perhaps even finer in spontaneous wild-roo mustering.

An agricultural pilot’s typical work day consists of many hours of takeoffs and landings, having product loaded into the aircraft with the engine running, dropping product on the paddocks from a metre or two above the crops, steep climbs and 180° turns at the end of every run, all the while ducking around trees and over or under power lines, as well as accommodating changes in topography such as hills and gullies. I have heard it said that short ferry flights conducted by ag pilots to other farms or airstrips are often done unnecessarily and illegally just a bit above tree height simply out of habit. So the tedium for such a pilot in flying a constant heading and airspeed at 500 feet above the ground on a long trip for 3-4 hours at a time is obvious. The temptation to break the monotony by rounding up a few roos miles from anywhere and enjoying throwing the aeroplane around at low level for a few minutes is obvious.

Fowlers Bay on the great australian bight, from the air

Fowlers Bay on the left, and Scott Bay on the right, between Ceduna and the Head of the Bight. Just inland is Coorabie, the district in which the last of the arable land is farmed east of the Nullarbor Plain. The next point east of this is where the famous surf break Cactus Beach is located.

Southern right whales in the Great Australian Bight whale nursery

The head of the Great Australian Bight is an established nursery for southern right whales, where the mothers gather after migrating from sub-Antarctic waters in the southern ocean to warmer waters to the north. Breeding occurs between June and October, and significant numbers of mothers and calves can be seen from the cliff tops. East of the principal nursery area mothers and calves were visible in numerous bays along this beautiful coast. There have been occasions when scores of whales have been visible at one time in this area. We spotted this mother and small calf in a secluded bay some distance from the Head of the Bight.

Southern right whale and white calf in the great Australian bight

This mother and her white calf were taking it easy close to shore in another quiet bay. White calves are rare, and it is possible this calf appeared white but was in fact brindle. Either way, it was a very special sighting for us. One of the many privileges and joys of travelling in a light aircraft. Once again, we found this pair well away from the cliffs where the tourists gather at the main nursery area.

I cropped both whale photos to better show the whales. We were considerably higher above them than the photos suggests.

My log book records that we saw dozens of whales between Ceduna and the Head of the Bight where we landed at Nullarbor roadhouse.

On short final approach to land at Nullarbor Roadhouse on the Eyre Highway at the edge of the Nullarbor Plain

Landing strip at Nullarbor roadhouse on the Eyre Highway

The Nullarbor Roadhouse is on the Eyre Highway just west of where the north-south rabbit proof fence ends at the coast. This photo was taken on short final on our approach to land on the dirt strip beside the roadhouse. The strip and taxiways were very smooth. But operating on any dirt or gravel surface requires great care, especially at low speed, to protect the leading edges of the propeller blades.

Cessna 182 VH-MWL parked at Nullarbor Roadhouse on the Eyre Highway

The ever-reliable 182 parked on the aircraft movement area beside the Nullarbor roadhouse. There wasn’t a cloud in the sky, the air was clear and the sunlight was outback-bright. I have had a framed print of this image hanging in my house for many years. It brings back great memories.

Nullarbor Roadhouse to Eucla (Western Australia)

Eucla is in WA just over the WA/SA state border. We stopped there for lunch then flew on to Caiguna for the night.

Cliffs of the Great Australian Bight and the Eyre highway from 5000 feet or so in a light aircraft

The Eyre Highway crossing the Nullarbor Plain, which stretches north to the vast Great Victorian Desert. When flying a light aircraft it is always good practice to continually identify potential landing areas in the event that the engine fails or some other emergency requires an immediate landing. The Eyre Highway is the obvious first choice in the photo above, But an interesting complication was that the density of traffic on this highway, while not heavy, was such that stretches of road without a vehicle on it or about to be on it were certainly not always available. A successful landing on the road would of course entail having no conflicting road traffic from either direction! The wing span of the aircraft would require the whole width of the road. The treeless plains are not the smooth landing option they may appear to be from this altitude. Most of the Nullarbor plain had sufficient vegetation and uneven terrain to virtually guaranteee damage to an aircraft landing on it. But our engine never missed a beat.

Preparing to join the circuit pattern to land at Eucla airstrip. Not far east of Eucla are sheer cliffs which stretch across the coast of the Great Australian Bight continue then veer away from the coast to inland where they continue as an escarpment with flatlands between the escarpment and the shoreline. The airport is located between that escarpment and the coast at Eucla.

Hang glider pilots return repeatedly to Eucla and the mighty cliffs of the Great Australian Bight for a week or longer of flying, the likes of which is not offered anywhere else in the world. With onshore winds the coastal dunes near Eucla and the escarpment with flat land between it and the coast offer some easy flying. But the challenge that brings pilots to this area is to fly the sheer coastal cliffs of the Great Australian Bight, which rise vertically out of the southern ocean. Bottom landing is not an option. Distance and speed records have been set at this location. But if the wind drops out while you are over the cliffs and the southern ocean and a long way from anywhere friendly to land, your only practical option is to fly back over the land while you have sufficient height to clear the cliffs and take your chances landing in the turbulence near the cliff edge. I understand the worst of the turbulence might be avoided if you land some distance inland from the cliff edge. The alternative is to land in the southern ocean at the foot of the cliffs which would most likely be fatal.

On 28 January 2014 champion Australian hang glider pilot Jonny Durand created two records which totally eclipsed the previous records. The conditions were described as “perfect and rare.” The new records he set were:

1. Speed over 300km out-and-return record of 71.28km/h

2. Speed over 100km out-and-return of 90.41km/h

Cross Country magazine published an article online about these record setting flights. The link to this article is:

Project Boomerang: Jonny Durand goes there-and-back to claim two world records

A factor not to be ignored in flying in this area is that in the event of injury, help is a long way away. This is a very remote location.

Hang glider flying over the Great Australian Bight

Jonny Durand flying over the Great Australian Bight. (Red Bull photo)


After lunch in Eucla we flew on to Caiguna for the night. This highway settlement is 176 nautical miles (325kms) from Eucla. It took us an hour and half in the Cessna 182. We landed in the golden light of the last hour of daylight on a rough track closely surrounded by scrub which served as an airstrip behind the roadhouse. Caiguna is 430 nautical miles (796kms) from Ceduna.

'Taxiway' at Caiguna WA

Back-tracking on the dirt road we landed on (which did not deserve the title ‘airstrip’) to park the aeroplane near the camping ground and our motel unit.

Caiguna roadhouse at sunset

Caiguna roadhouse. Never buy a roadhouse at sunset. The accommodation here was very basic, more like a prison cell without a lock than a motel room. We had an extra night here as there was a significant cold front moving across the south of the state between us and our next refuelling point at Esperance. Once the weather cleared we were off, and flew to Esperance in clear weather. Seeing the transition from arid plains to arable land beneath us was a feature of that leg.

The aeroplane securely tied down for the night at Caiguna.

We greeted some of the campers who were sitting around a fire in the campground behind the roadhouse after dinner on the evening of our arrival, but only for a brief time as it turned out. It seemed the camaraderie of the road did not necessarily extend to those travelling by air. Their talk was of long road distances, fatigue, non-stop driving, hitting and missing roos and the like. If there is a ‘highway myth’ companion genre to that of the ‘urban myth’, I’m sure a few of the classics were enjoyed that evening. But I sensed that the wonderful convenience and comfort of the Cessna 182 was a topic that would not have been received warmly. If sharing common experience is the essence of such gatherings, talk of an average speed of 190 kilometres per hour (102 knots – we had a headwind) for the trip from Ceduna to Caiguna on day two of our trip would not have been well received by anyone who had towed a caravan for a couple of days over that distance. The reception would not have been improved had we mentioned that the 430 nautical miles (796kms) from Ceduna took us a total of 4.2 hours of sitting on lambswool seat covers with 360° panoramic views and cool air on our faces at 6,500 feet above the dust and flies. We had stories of our trip to tell, but not around that fire on that night.


Arrival overhead Esperance; refuelling at Esperance; aircraft tied down for a couple of days as bad weather came through; the sunshine eventually returned and our next destination (Albany) was in the opposite direction to the dark clouds in the picture above. At Albany we hired a car for four days and toured Bunbury, Margaret River, Cape Leeuwin, Denmark (where there was an earth tremor) and back to Albany.

Esperance to Forrest via Albany and Kalgoorlie

Cessna 182 wing and strut over clouds

Above a cloud layer en route from Albany to Kalgoorlie (315 nautical miles / 583kms) where we refuelled.

Cessna wing and pitot tube over scattered cloud and desert

Over dry and remote country again between Kalgoorlie and Forrest. (265 nautical miles / 490kms).

The dash panel of VH-MWL. Cruising at 9,500 feet, all temps and pressures in the green and everything else exactly as it should be too.

Forrests runway top right.

Forrest is a tiny settlement in the middle of the Nullarbor plain. A full-time manager lives there. There are well kept but dusty and worn weatherboard houses which once housed meteorologists and other public servants. We rented one for the night and it was very clean and comfortable. Three or four other aircraft had landed at Forrest and their crew and passengers also stayed the night in the other houses. The manager and his wife, for a very modest charge, put on a barbecue on their front verandah. It was the only place to be in Forrest that evening.

The meal on the verandah was good, and the conversation with other pilots and passengers about aeroplanes and flying was much more lively and welcoming than the conversation about road travel with the weary caravanners at Caiguna. Pilots love the company of other pilots, and when meeting, whether for the first or the one hundredth time, enjoy talking flying. But the flying stories are deferred until after they have identified pilots they both know, which never takes more than about 45 seconds. Aviation is a small world.

Some readers may wonder why I have identified aircraft in this series of posts by their registration. The reason is that aircraft registrations are meaningful to pilots. Some aeroplanes are flown only once by a particular pilot. Others (eg VH-WIL in my case) are flown for hundreds or thousands of hours by that pilot or are remembered for other reasons. Some of the pilots reading these flying memories of mine are likely to recognise and have some connection with at least a few of the aircraft registrations I have mentioned. That is all part of keeping aviation a small world.

One of the other aircraft visiting Forrest was a homebuilt aircraft known as Rutan VariEze. This was an innovative sporty design with a single pusher engine (prop at the back) and distinctive canards near the nose. They reportedly cruised at or near 170 knots. This particular aircraft was being ferried by two young fellows right across the continent to deliver it to its purchaser. Forrest was an essential refuellling stop for them. I understood both occupants were pilots. They were enthusiastic and spirited young fellows who loved talking about aviation and their flying.

Next morning, just after dawn, I heard the distinctive sound the VariEze engine at the airstrip starting up and being put through its warmup and pre-takeoff checks. On a vague hunch, I invited Liz out to our front verandah to witness what I anticipated would be a fast and low flypast over the main street in Forrest. Liz declined. She should have joined me. I heard the aircraft takeoff to the north, and knew its departure heading would be to the east without any need to overfly the settlement. So I knew my hunch about the low pass was about to be confirmed when I heard then saw the aircraft climb a little and turn south towards Forrest. In a steep descending turn with a high power setting they dived to a height of 40-50 feet above the ground to align with the main street which they flew down, waggling their wings for any onlookers, before pulling up steeply and setting heading for their next landing point. Such conduct has been part of flying since the Wright brothers unlocked the key to manned powered flight at Kitthyawk in 1903. All part of the joy of flying. Of course I’m not suggesting for a moment that I approve of such conduct. Our departure in the Cessna 182 was much more sedate.

Varieze light aircraft

An example of the Rutan VariEze (but not the particular aircraft we saw at Forrest).

Forrest, on the Nullarbor plain. In this Google Earth image the transcontinental railway can be seen crossing the top of the image. The sealed 1519 x 45m runway can be seen in the clearing between Forrest and the railway line. The small dark points with tracks radiating in all directions are waterholes. The tracks are made by stock seeking water.

Salt Lake in the Gawler Ranges, South Australia

From Forrest, we flew to Ceduna, Waikerie (overnight with Barb and Colin), then Horsham (refuelling stop) and on to Apollo Bay. This photo shows the shoreline of a salt lake in the Gawler Ranges north of the Eyre Peninsula. Years of differing water levels had left this colourful record of the changing high water marks over time.

Tidal patterns on shore of salt lake in the Gawler Ranges South Australia

Apollo Bay

Liz and Cessna on the ground at Apollo Bay

Late afternoon landing at Apollo Bay. The trip done and dusted, save for returning the aircraft to Tyabb which I did the next day.

Mike Whiskey Lima is returned to its home in Tyabb

Cessna 182RG back in its hangar at Tyabb

The aircraft safe and sound in its hangar at Tyabb. It’s difficult not to feel affection and gratitude for an aeroplane that has reliably and comfortably carried you long distances in all kinds of weather, and taken you to remarkable and memorable places. It is simply a machine of course, but after flying it every day for a few weeks or longer it feels so much more than that.

My final flight

An expert witness I had used in a major aviation-related inquest hearing where I was counsel assisting the coroner, inquired if I’d be interested in ferrying a C172 from Ballarat to Darwin, taking the owner’s young son with me (as he was about to learn to fly).

On 10-12 April 2012 I flew from Ballarat to Darwin, via Leigh Creek, William Creek, Oodnadatta, Alice Springs and Tennant Creek. The young fellow came with me. To navigate I used dead reckoning, WAC charts and all the old-school stuff for the whole trip. My passenger was amazed that accurate navigation could be achieved without a GPS. I logged 17.2 hours of very enjoyable flying and outback navigating. The distance straight-line was around 1680 nautical miles. The approximate average airspeed was 97 knots (179kph). Not bad for an old Cessna 172. But I wasn’t in a hurry.

Dead reckoning navigation in action en route Ballarat to Darwin in 2012.

WAC chart, 1 in 60 rule, ATA +/- 2 mins ETA, protractor, ruler, compass, pencil, mental arithmetic, track errors and closing angles, and no GPS, just the trusty Kane Dead Reckoning circular calculator (made from sheet aluminium). Those to whom this means anything at all will remember DR nav with fondness.

It is said that all pilots eventually walk across an airfield to pilot an aircraft for what will be their last flight. Some pilots are aware it is to be their last flight, and some are not (for varying reasons). I was in the latter category when on 12 April 2012 I walked across the Tennant Creek airfield in the Northern Territory and climbed aboard Cessna 172 registered VH-DYM for my final flight as pilot in command – 2.0 hours Tennant Creek to Darwin. I was unaware that in the very near future the Civil Aviation Authority would refuse to reissue my medical certificate, which grounded me permanently. I thought I had plenty of aeroplane flying ahead of me. But I didn’t. I miss it.

Since then I have taken up / returned to some activities which occupy but do not fill the space left by the removal of my entitlement to fly aeroplanes.

That I flew aeroplanes for many years will always be one of the defining features of my life.

2 thoughts on “Flying Memories – Chapter 10 (the final chapter)

  1. That was an epic tale John . Even though I’ve never been even close to being a pilot, I think I’ve got the hang of it now. I enjoyed your experiences and you are an excellent journo. Kind regards, R

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’m delighted you read right through to the end Reg. I reckon you’d be a good pilot. As I said in one of the ten posts, I always enjoyed teaching farmers to fly. Thanks for letting me know you enjoyed reading about my flying experiences. I enjoyed writing them and sharing them.
      Regards, John


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