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
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