Plane & Pilot
Tuesday, February 8, 2011

There And Back

Around Australia, solo in a Jabiru

I had long aspired to circumnavigate Australia, but time and opportunity had proved evasive until recently. An airline pilot by trade, I was acutely aware of the beauty of Australia, but longed to revisit my early days of flying and the intimacy of the lower altitudes. To this end, I planned a lap of the country, visiting significant points of Australian aviation history along the way.

The year 2010 marked a century of powered flight in Australia, and in recognition of the centenary, I chose an all-Australian-designed and -built single-engine Jabiru J230, which was kindly provided to me by the manufacturer from their home base in Bundaberg, Queensland. This location was doubly significant as it was also the hometown of famed solo flier Bert Hinkler and naturally was the perfect location to start and finish the flight.

In the final days of preparation, gray skies and passing showers threatened to rain on the parade. Unlike Hinkler, I had the benefit of four-day forecasts and synoptic charts, and was confident that the weather would be seaward by the morning of departure. Fortunately, this proved to be the case.

By the time the earth fell away from the wheels at Bundaberg, I could confidently say that there was little else left to do but fly the airplane. The job ahead now was to safely and efficiently execute the flight, and as I made a left turn to leave the coastline for the interior, I did so with a deep breath and a large grin.

At the end of the first day, the spiritual home of Qantas Airways at Long-reach loomed ahead, and I was greeted by the unmistakable forms of a DC-3 and two mighty Boeings, the 707 and 747. The presence of these aircraft at the Founders Museum reflected something that I would witness throughout the entire flight: the many different ways remote Australia commemorates its ties with aviation, overcoming the tyranny of distance.

As I worked my way counterclockwise around the country, it wasn’t just the aviation of past eras that was evident. The nation continues to find its lifeline in the skies as evidenced by the aeromedical, charter and RPT services that crisscrossed my route each day. Yet, the perception remained that flight is somewhat intangible to many folks. However, the sight of my fully loaded two-seat airplane weighing less than 1,400 pounds seemed to tilt the scales a little. From curious commercial pilots to hangars full of schoolchildren, the sight of the Jabiru and a lone pilot flying around Australia brought aviation back to earth for many. With an array of modern equipment, low running costs and a price tag around those of some four-wheel-drive motor vehicles, the skies seemed to be not so far away.

Over the course of such a flight, it’s the diversity of the scenery that can leave an overwhelming impression. That isn’t to say that there aren’t individual sights that take the breath away. The majestic Lake Argyle in the Kimberley region or the serene endlessness of the Nullarbor Plain are both very moving in their own particular way. However, when you can depart the coastal port of Broome over pristine aqua waters and track along pure white beaches before striking the rustic, red dirt of the Pilbara within an hour, it’s nothing short of inspiring. This diversity of color, wildlife and inhabitation essentially demonstrated the full spectrum of scenic Australia.

To take in such a view from between 500 and 5,000 feet enables one to really embrace the richness of the terrain. The land below has real detail, and the passage of the shadows as the day develops provides yet another perspective on the rich canvas below. There are long-abandoned ruins of long-forgotten towns and flocks of birds that give the impression of a vast blanket skimming from paddock to paddock. Even the so-called “remote” regions stimulate the senses with their jagged, jutting ridges and gun-barrel roads between distant settlements. It’s a truly amazing land.

By journey’s end 18 days later, I had covered over 7,500 nm at an average true airspeed of 117 knots, while the Jabiru sipped around 6 U.S. gallons per hour. A great deal of satisfaction came from the fact that the flight had gone precisely to plan and I had raised over $10,000 for the Royal Flying Doctors outback medical service. However, it was the diversity and beauty of the people and places along the way that left the most indelible mark.


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