View of tropical Cooktown shortly after takeoff; named after Captain Cook, who beached the HMS Endeavor there in 1770 after it was nearly destroyed on the Great Barrier Reef. Cooktown is the jumping-off spot for the famous Daintree Rainforest.
People exchange all kinds of things on the Web. You can swap your house, timeshare, antiques and collectibles. So why not swap airplanes? As owner of a 1969 Piper Arrow, my fixed costs (tie-down, insurance, annual, etc.) remain roughly constant whether I fly 100 or 200 hours a year, so why not leverage that potential into an international flying adventure?
The germ of this idea was sown while browsing exhibits with my wife at the AOPA Summit a couple of years back. Sue and I were enchanted by the booths promoting guided aerial tours of exotic, far-off lands.
However, a couple of weeks in a 172 flying around Southern Africa, for example, was upward of $20,000 for the two of us, without even factoring in international airfares. For some, guided tours are a great hassle-free solution to fly in a foreign country, but for us, the cost placed it squarely in the realm of a happy lottery outcome.
Still, the encounter awakened a longstanding dream of circumnavigating Australia by air. Although firmly planted in Los Angeles, I’ve spent 10 years on that island continent since first pitching up as a teenaged backpacker and have never gotten the outback out of my system.
Flying in Australia is notoriously expensive—an Arrow typically rents for about $300 an hour. As a result, the cost of circumnavigating Australia would approach that of a guided African aerial safari once you throw in the ubiquitous landing and navigation charges. While the thought of combining our dual loves of flying and the Oz landscape seemed irresistible, our budget proved an effective resistor until the idea of a plane swap hit.
The writer’s Australian counterparts enjoyed criss-crossing the Grand Canyon in Five Seven November enroute to Sedona.
Arranging The Swap
Figuring out how to execute a trans-Pacific airplane exchange didn’t come instantly. While you might see giving your house keys to a stranger as a big step, most homes have a familiar layout and don’t require, for example, federal certification and operating permits. How would one deal with the vast differences in aircraft type and required experience? For example, my insurance policy’s open pilot coverage is restricted to those with at least 750 hours, including 150 hours retract and 25 hours make and model. So, while an ad for a generic airplane swap posted on Craigslist is unlikely to be fruitful, a direct approach to the Aussie owners of my make and model aircraft just might.
The Australian Civilian Aviation Safety Authority (CASA)—the Aussie FAA—supports an open-access database of aircraft owners that can be sorted by aircraft type and ultimately led me to the 38 PA28R-200 owners on that continent. Since all I had were mailing addresses, I worked up a letter that I sent to the 33 owners who weren’t obviously aircraft rental agencies.
It began: “I write as a U.S.-based, fellow Piper Arrow owner exploring the possibility of an aircraft exchange. My wife and I share a longstanding dream to see Australia from the air—below the jet routes—and it occurs to us that you might harbor a similar wish to see the western U.S.
So, in much the same way that homes are mutually exchanged on the Web for essentially cost-free international vacations, I’m proposing an aircraft swap.” Then I provided a brief bio to introduce myself, including flight experience and details of Five Seven November: “a low- time (320 SMOH, 3200 TT), well-equipped (Garmin 430W, GTX330, 340; S-TEC 30 A/P with GPSS; JPI 700) Piper Arrow II.” (Later, I learned the string of avionics was somewhat obscure to your average outback pilot.)
Wayne and Faye Burrows, posing with VH-MWH in Shepparton, wondering if the Yank will return their airplane.
Swapping planes with fellow owners of well-maintained Arrows seemed a bombproof idea as: 1)They’re experienced pilots in my make and model; 2)They either do, or eventually will, meet my “open pilot” clause; 3)They’ve demonstrated a commitment to keeping their planes airworthy, and 4)They ultimately have an incentive to treat my airplane as if it were their own.
The first reply came from a recently- retired chap in north central Victoria. During a business trip to Australia last year, I drove up from Melbourne with our pilot son Matt to meet Wayne and Faye Burrows, who put on a classic Sunday roast lunch with all the trimmings.
Afterward, we got a tour of their Arrow II—VH-MWH—and an agreement that we’d start with baby steps to build mutual trust; Sue and I would begin by flying MWH to the neighboring state of South Australia for a wine tour. And so they offered us the plane for a long weekend at the cost of a good bottle of Barossa Valley red.
The next fellow to respond was a 20,000-plus-hour owner of a crop-dusting/aerial fire suppression service in Northern Queensland who holds an FAA certificate (to fly U.S. registered fire suppression aircraft that migrate to Australia during the northern winter).
Don described his Arrow II as a “work- hack” used to shift ground crew to work sites, although he noted that it was in the process of being repainted. Although having no immediate intention to visit the U.S., he agreed that we could borrow the plane in the off season for a week or so if he “liked the way I fly” and we offered him reciprocal privileges down the road. Imagine a flight down the length of the Great Barrier Reef!
While in Australia early last year, I cobbled together the two applications I’d need to submit to be legal to fly: one for a security clearance and the other for pilot’s privileges. I knew I was in for a double dose of Aussie-style bureaucracy when I found that both forms required an Aviation Reference Number—that is, I needed to apply for a number in order to apply for more numbers.
The security clearances come in two flavors—ASICs and AVIDs. I chose the AVID as it was valid for five years instead of two and I felt I didn’t need “frequent access to security-controlled airports,” thinking that meant I could only wander unattended through the Sydney airport control tower once a year or so.
Well, not exactly. I subsequently learned that the list of security-controlled airports includes not only Sydney but Birdsville—a town that’s an actual Australian metaphor for the middle of nowhere. So, it looked like my AVID would only authorize me to fly from East Woop Woop to a flatish spot on the Canning Stock Route and little else.
The writer (left) getting checked out by owner Don Blanch (right) in VH-DWG. She flew great despite the rich collection of INOP stickers.
The paperwork for getting actual pilot privileges was less onerous than the security clearance but complicated by the assortment of ways to go about it. The straight conversion of an overseas license required both written and flight tests. The Certificate of Validation, which authorizes pilot privileges for up to three months, would be more appropriate if I were planning only a single flying tour of Australia instead of developing ongoing relationships with multiple pilot-owners there. So, I opted for the $140 Special Pilot License which, although restricted to day visual flight rules (VFR), remains valid indefinitely.
I was about to submit my multifarious applications when I noticed the Language Proficiency subheading on the CASA website. I was pretty confident that this wouldn’t be an issue, not because I’m fluent in spoken English, mind you, but because my FAA certificate actually says “English Language Proficient” on it.
Well, that doesn’t count, as CASA has adopted the International Civil Aviation Organization’s (ICAO) six levels of English language proficiency (ELP), where only the top three levels are acceptable for flight crew.
Unlike the FAA (which was starting to seem like a finely tuned, stakeholder-friendly organization), there’s nowhere in Australia where you can walk in off the street and interact with a CASA officer. CASA recommended on the phone that I find an Approved Testing Officer at my local airport to administer the ELP exam, and so I found my way to Gary Smyth at Melbourne’s Moorabbin Airport and completed the application process.
Back in Los Angeles three weeks later, it was with considerable anticipation that I opened a letter from CASA, which read in part: “Your application is being returned to you because it is incomplete and CASA is unable to process it. The application is now considered closed.” It explained that my failure to provide evidence of ELP and certified copies of my aviation medical and foreign license was at the root of their decision. Many phone calls later, it was resolved—they had misplaced my documentation.
Our plans for the wine tour of Barossa Valley were further complicated by CASA’s refusal to send my license and AVID directly to Los Angeles. Instead, I needed to first enter Australian immigration to trigger their issuance, followed by mail delivery to a local address. With that resolved, we headed up country to overnight with Wayne and Faye. The next morning they drove us to the local aerodrome, reacquainted us with VH-MWH, and, after a couple of circuits, handed us the keys and we were off.
Flying Down Under
As in Canada, the Aussies built their national airspace system around NDBs rather than VORs, reflecting the economics of their similarly small population bases coupled with large empty spaces. So, although their small GA craft seem avionically challenged relative to the U.S. legacy fleet, a functioning GPS gets you around pretty well. We relied almost exclusively on our iPad loaded with OzRunways, an antipodean version of ForeFlight without a lot of the bells and whistles you’d associate with that fine product.
Flying VFR in Australia feels very different than in the U.S. There isn’t the equivalent of Flight Following, but instead, the use of search and rescue (SAR) times is strongly emphasized. If you’re not where you said you’d be at the designated hour, they (fortunately) start looking for you asap. However, local lore suggests that, less fortunately, the meter starts running almost immediately and that you should anticipate a big bill in the mail. So, you’d better be truly lost and not just forgetful. If you need to amend your SAR time, you can contact Air Traffic Control (ATC) en route but, in our experience, expect them to treat your request with low priority and in an abrupt fashion.
Our Friday flight across northwestern Victoria took us from orchard country through a wheat belt and then into an uninhabited desert stretch. At the border with South Australia, the cycle reverses and we re-established radar contact with ATC for a smooth approach to Parafield, Adelaide’s GA airport.
This transition was aided by a rather special feature on CASA’s website—a sequence of aerial photos taken at the preferred altitude of each reporting point along established VFR corridors. Arriving at the Warren Reservoir waypoint after a three-hour flight felt like we were coming home.
The post-flight routine in Australia feels different, too. Despite a high level of activity at Parafield, the convenience of a rental car waiting at your destination FBO is essentially unknown, but a short taxi ride got us to our agency, and we were off to the Barossa.
The challenge of finding an appropriate bottle of wine inspired the whole weekend as we focused almost exclusively on top-end offerings from the legends of Barossa winemaking: Penfold’s, Yalumba, Henschke. We ended up with two wonderful reds for Wayne and Faye and a couple of cases of more pedestrian grog for ourselves.
On Sunday, we hopped over to a nearby GA airfield for lunch with another respondent to our mass mailing, and then returned MWB to her home base via a route that took us by the dramatic Grampian Range. We declared the experiment a success and were particularly touched when, bidding us farewell, Wayne and Faye offered us open use of their airplane in typically blunt Aussie fashion: “The keys are above the stove…and you’re free to use the house, too.”
Almost exactly a year later, we were again bound for Australia, this time drawn by a couple of professional meetings in tropical Queensland. The second of those conferences was in Cairns, only 100 nm from where the Queensland crop duster that had responded to our mass mailing is based. We took this coincidence as a sign that it was time for a return to Aussie airspace and got an encouraging invitation from Don and his wife Bobbie to take their Arrow II on a week-long jaunt around their very big state (it measures 1,300 miles from north to south).
Don had worked hard to lower my expectations of VH-DWG, so I was pleasantly surprised to discover a well-preserved and freshly painted Arrow II, albeit with pretty rudimentary avionics. How rudimentary? Don had just the previous week installed a single VHF COM.
Armed again with our trusty iPad, we headed off inland reaching as far north as Thursday Island in the Torres Straight, the narrow body of water that separates Australia from New Guinea. We had a fun time wandering through the aboriginal settlement and yakking with the local pearl and crayfish divers.
Then we flew south along the coast, taking in the vastness of the Great Barrier Reef, stopping in Cooktown—the site where Captain Cook beached H.M.S. Endeavor in 1770 after it was seriously damaged on the nearby reef. After a low- level flyover of the astonishing Daintree rainforest and Atherton Tablelands next day, we returned to the coast, eventually making it as far south as the Whitsunday Islands before turning back.
Perhaps the best surprise from these flying exchanges has been how much we’ve enjoyed getting to know our new friends. In hindsight, it should have been obvious that bringing together aviation nuts with a love of Piper retractables would almost certainly lead to friendship.
Add to that the droll wit of the rural Aussie, and you’ve got the makings of good mates for life. Wayne and Faye made it to Los Angeles and after spending three months touring in an RV, they toured the Grand Canyon and Sedona area in our Arrow. We haven’t yet reciprocated Don and Bobbie’s generosity, but he’s talking about flying our Arrow up to the Reno Air Races next year.
Social benefits aside, let’s consider the simple economics of plane swapping. Assuming that each party eventually flies an equal number of hours, the cost of flying an Arrow in Australia drops from $300/hour to the price of avgas (about $75/hour). Each additional hour on my engine is exactly compensated for by the time I spend enjoying the Aussie countryside from the air and there’s no additional insurance cost. So that 7,000-mile circumnavigation of Australia drops to about $3,000 in fuel.
In essence, every moment your airplane sits unused represents an asset you could leverage to trim 75 cents on the dollar off an overseas caper. And why does it have to be overseas? Why don’t we routinely exchange airplanes across the two coasts of North America and points in between?
Mark Harrison is a 1,000-plus-hour pilot based at Santa Monica Airport. He holds private and commercial certificates with instrument and multi-engine ratings.