His name is Blair Howe, and if he were any more Australian, he’d hop or eat eucalyptus leaves. Though he’s only about five feet and 11 inches, he’s a giant of a man—probably 270 pounds—all muscle and attitude and fiercely proud of his country and accomplishments.
Howe had been a hard-rock gold miner for 35 years in Western Australia, swinging a pick and hoping for the big strike. One day in 1993, he found it. The tough Aussie sold his claim to a giant gold-processing company and became an instant millionaire.
Shortly after Howe struck it rich, he decided to start an air cargo service to shuttle gold-mining equipment from Perth to the outlying mines that dot the half-million square miles of desert in Western Australia. Incredibly, when a digging machine went down, most companies had replacement parts trucked the 500 to 1,000 miles from Perth while everyone stood around wringing their hands at several thousand dollars an hour.
Despite the lack of airports, Howe saw an opportunity to make money flying people and parts out to the desert in a fraction of the time. Australia is about the size of the United States with the population of New York City. Utility airplanes are popular but not that readily available. Howe found a local Cessna 206 to start his service, but demand made it obvious he needed a second airplane.
Howe got my name from the Mooney distributor in Sydney and called to inquire if I might be willing to ferry a 1968 Cessna Skymaster to Mount Magnet. “Sure,” I said cautiously. “Where’s Mount Magnet?”
It turned out to be slightly south of the Great Sandy Desert, hunkered on the fierce, dry, mostly uninhabited left side of the land Down Under. Great place for gold, not so great for humans. Most of Australia’s population lives along the beautiful and fertile coast, and for good reason.
I picked up Howe’s Skymaster in South Carolina, ferried it across the States, and promptly discovered the rear engine had three cracked cylinders (not a big surprise, since the 337’s large, overhead cooling scoop has a tough time keeping the aft engine cool). Time for a new rear engine.
Four months later, with a fresh factory reman on the rear and 25 hours of break-in along the West Coast, I was ready for the Pacific crossing to Australia, or so I thought. The 337 still had a slight problem—range. At a burn of 12 gallons per engine per hour, the airplane used 24 gph and only cruised about 145 knots heavy, 155 knots light. To make the first 2,100 nm leg from Oakland, Calif., to Honolulu, Hawaii, I needed at least 14 hours plus a two-hour reserve—almost 400 gallons of fuel. With 130 gallons in the wings, the airplane required 270 gallons of supplemental fuel in the cabin, and that was exactly all the room there was. This meant the entire rear compartment and the copilot seat from floor to roof was taken up with fuel.
In other words, I couldn’t afford any headwind and a tailwind was preferable. I watched the weather for another three weeks before encountering an unusual +11 overall component, then leaped off for Hawaii, fingers crossed and pilot relief bottle in hand.
The Skymaster is a reasonably comfortable ride, provided you don’t have to sit in it for five or six hours straight, much less 14. Almost predictably, I had to leave the rear cowl flap open and run the rear engine about 1.5 gph rich to keep the CHT from creeping into the red. I stopped the clock at 14:15 when the green hills of Oahu appeared beneath the nose.
Two days of butt recovery later, the nearly perpetual trade winds pushed me along on the 2,250 nm leg to Pago Pago, American Samoa, in a mere 13:33. From there, weather edged me far west to Honiera, Solomon Islands; 1,750 nm in another 11:31. My final overwater leg into Cairns, Australia—a piddly 950 miles—raced by in only 6:27.
Now comes the fun part, I mused the following morning as I pushed the throttles up for a diagonal crossing of essentially the entire island/continent. I’d made several deliveries to Australia, but this was my first across the center of the country. I punched in a GPS route from Cairns to Alice Springs and Ayers Rock, then slightly southwest to Mount Magnet. I was looking forward to witnessing the infamous outback.
I departed tropical Cairns at 06:30, cleared the plush, verdant, coastal mountains, then dropped back down to 500 feet AGL over the desert for the 1,700 nm flight to Mount Magnet. Fortunately, it was mid-August, and the temperatures in the outback were moderate. Don’t even think about such a trip at low level in January, when desert temps sometimes top 45 or even 50 degrees C (113 to 122 degrees F).
(Several opal mines in the center of the country have all their housing and administrative facilities underground, and half the population of super-warm Coober Pedy, South Australia—some 1,500 people—live below ground.)
I’ve flown above some unpopulated sections of desert, tundra and ice cap before, but I wasn’t prepared for the outback. I flew for as much as an hour at a time without seeing a road, power line, railroad track or even a fence.
That’s partially because cattle and sheep ranches in Australia are the largest in the world, and it would be practically impossible to fence them in. While we measure ranches in thousands of acres here in the States, Aussies measure the size of “stations” in thousands of square kilometers. It’s not uncommon to find Australian stations measuring 10,000 square kilometers. (That’s 2.5 million acres for all you Texans.)
As I drifted along above the scrub brush and termite mounds, there seemed little evidence of life below. I’d occasionally spot the telltale bobbing gait of a kangaroo hopping through the desert, but there were few of the thousands of sheep and cattle I’d read about. Still, my Discovery Channel education suggested there were thousands of dangerous creatures below. Anything that didn’t sting or bite could probably stab or poison. Not a good place to go down.
Provided you have plenty of water and survival gear, however, flying in Australia is extremely simple and relatively safe. Weather in the outback is nearly always CAVU, though the distances can be a little intimidating. A few years back, while delivering a Bonanza A36 to Perth, I followed a straight-as-an-arrow railroad track in South Australia for nearly 900 miles to Kalgoorlie with nary a wiggle. Lacking such convenient manmade or natural guideposts, there are some conventional VHF navaids available, but practically everyone navigates by GPS.
My trip to Mount Magnet went without a hitch. I overflew Alice Springs, made the obligatory orbit of Uluru, more popularly known as Ayers Rock, and finally touched down at the small strip only 11 hours after departure.
Howe met me at the airport in his Rolls-Royce and was all smiles at the thought of flying his newly acquired Skymaster into the mining strips of the Gibson Desert. As we tied down the airplane, I asked him about possible damage to the rear prop from rocks and gravel kicked up by the nose and main gear, or thrown back by the front prop.
Cessna hadn’t exactly been unaware of the problem, and accordingly, they had mounted a two-inch-shorter propeller on the rear engine and raised the thrust line by six inches in back. Still, I couldn’t help thinking that dirt strips could be disastrous for the rear prop.
Howe was way ahead of me. He led me over to a small shed near his tiedowns, removed the padlock and opened the door to reveal a quartet of shiny, overhauled McCauley props, waiting to be put into service.
Maybe you can’t beat Australia, but if you’re Blair Howe, at least you can be ready for it.
Bill Cox is entering his third decade as a senior contributor to Plane & Pilot. He provides consulting for media, entertainment and aviation concerns worldwide. E-mail him at [email protected].