Welcome to my blog.

In 2008, I received a trial flight in a light aircraft - a flight which changed my life. After a mere thirty minutes in an asthmatic old Cessna, I decided I would become a pilot. It was love at first flight. As Leonardo Da Vinci famously said - Once you have tasted flight, you will forever walk the earth with your eyes turned skyward, for there you have been, and there you will always long to return.”

However, like any relationship, there were highs (and there were puns!) and there were many moments where I thought I would never grasp this new skill.

After fifteen instructors, six flying schools and enough tears to fill a dam, I became a private pilot. And, because of a strong masochistic streak, I decided to study for my Commercial Pilot's Licence.

This blog is a working narrative of my time as a pilot, through my personal writing, my round Australia trip and my career as an aviation journalist, magazine editor, customer engagement manager for AvPlan EFB and aircraft salesperson for Cirrus Sydney.

Aviation has changed my life: through learning to fly I have discovered a part of myself that is resilient, organised and capable of great joy as a result of hard work, setbacks and learning.

In the words of Socrates, “Man must rise above the Earth – to the top of the atmosphere and beyond – for only thus will he fully understand the world in which he lives.”

Thanks for reading, and please feel free to email me with advice and suggestions on


Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Day Four

After a bottle of wine the night before, and some pink fizzy stuff for Robbs, we declared it a rest day.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Day Three

 Aha! I get to utter the sentence I loathe most in magazine submissions:

"after a hearty breakfast with mine hosts, Arthur and Marie-Laure, we set off to the airport under blue skies"

Actually, first the gorgeous Marie-Laure gave us a short tour of Brissy, showing us its oft-ignored splendid side. Poor Brissy (aka BrisVegas due to its proximity to the Gold Coast) gets a terrible rep as an ugly city, but I think its rather wonderful; always have. ML took us to the lookout, and from atop we saw a fairly dense city (population around 1.7m, I think), set on a river. The coastline is white beaches as far as one can see. It's not that Brissy is an ugly city; it isn't. It's just that it has to compete with Sydney, Melbourne and Perth (oh, and Adelaide, of course.) So for fun, I turned our major cities into girls, to see if I could make sense of them. Apologies for the departure from av-talk, but here's what I found:

Sydney is a glossy blonde - tall, slim, ambitious and well dressed
Melbourne is an arty brunette - curvy, funky clothes, black glasses, works in publishing
Brissy is a brassy blonde - slightly orange tan but a good ole traditional gal at heart
Adelaide - a frizzy redhead with slightly wonky teeth and glasses, mismatched clothes
Perth - a capable mousy brunette with sensible shoes
Hobart - the single, unmarried cousin made to sit at the children's table at weddings.

And now, it was time to leave Brassy Blonde's turf - where she has many civilized friends, and jazz clubs - and head up to her pretty, but slightly chavvy sister's territory - Maroochydore. Of course, the Sunshine coast has perhaps some of the most striking coastline on the east - it houses Noosa, playground of the cities' polo shirt/khaki short wearers, with some of the best restaurants in the country - and miles and miles of gorgeous beaches, dotted with holiday towns and, sometimes, palm trees.

As the day was forecast to be 35 degrees, we were airborne early - nothing worst than a portly man and a slightly chubby gal in a tin can in the midday heat. On the ground at Archie, in their fab deco terminal, I had a chance to discuss the departure with a flying school instructor. He told me I had no chance of clearance from the ground to depart over Brissy, so I decided to take the scenic VFR route, via Stradbroke island. It was gorgeous, but has a 12 miles stretch over water at 3500 ft, inspiring us to call ATC and ask for 5500, which we got.

The landing at Maroochy was peachy (although it was a little difficult to see the active runway, they did ask us which one we wanted) and already thirty two degrees. We tied down, and whilst Robbs visited some pals at Blue Tongue Helicopters, I went to hire a car.

In attempting to cross the ramp, I got told off by security, and told I had to go through the gate and round the back of the terminal. As I was wearing my ASIC ($182 of red plastic that I intend to get the USE out of, dammit) I claimed the same right as the airline pilot, who gets to cross the tarmac. Sheesh, flying a titchy little single engine aircraft surely doesn't make me a second class pilot, does it? Turns out it does.

I realised I was hot and grumpy and my coffee-o-meter was low. I hired a car, and declared tomorrow a dedicated no flying day. We then found an apartment overlooking the beach at Maloolaaba (or thereabouts), went for a swim in the 25 degree sea, and cracked open a bottle of wine.

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Day Two (cont'd)

Day Two (cont'd)

After alighting the glider and gulping a whole can of full fat coke, I began to think of our departure. The wind was still from the north east, and mostly down the strip, but had certainly picked up (the sock was still at a key party). Mr Bigg started to look worried. Mimi weighs under 300kgs and the upwind leg of the strip contained a stretch of trees that screamed turbulence. He suggested I go first, as the guinea pig. Even though I was flying an aircraft at twice the weight and almost double the horsepower, I was still trepidacious, having experienced strips like these in late arvo on my Biggus Trippus. With too large a tailwind to take the other side, it just had to be suffered. And suffered it was. I began with a short field take off, with the intention of gaining plenty of height to clear the worst of the burbly, but it just wasn't enough. You'd've needed a chopper to get out without aerial breakdancing.

Reader, I swore. With a Christian passenger on board, I took the name of his saviour and combined it with words rhyming with 'cluck' 'pit' and 'farce'. No pilot likes turbulence so close to the ground, but nonetheless, I am ashamed of myself. Imagine passing seven exams, a knowledge deficiency test and countless practice forced landings only to fail your Commercial Pilot's test for having potty mouth. It's a far worse habit than approaching too high, flaring too early or taxing on the brakes....

After finding still air - and apologising to Robbs, who took it pretty well, considering - we made tracks for Archerfield. We were cleared to transit the Gold Coast at 1500 ft, which out us at the height of some of the buildings! Apart from being unable to find the VFR point (Target, on top of a shopping centre - the award winner for most stupid inbound point, given the visible landmarks in the area) the approach and landing were uneventful. Apart from my surprise at the runway being grass, which turned to delight on landing as the grass is always more 'forgiving', everything was fairly straightforward.

At Archerfield we were to be met by one of Sport Pilot's most faithful contributors, Arthur Marcel. Arthur had kindly offered to put us up for the night and take us dancing. We'd arranged to meet at four, and it was only later I remembered there is a time difference of an hour.

Arthur is a keen and passionate dancer, as well as a pilot and owner of a Sapphire (single seater in the RA category). He and his gorgeous wife took us to the Brisbane Jazz Club, on the river, right in the city. There, a big band played, people swung (as in swing dancing) and poor Arthur tried to pretend he was not pushing a plank of wood across the floor when I danced with him. Under endowed in the co-ordination department is an understatement! I had warned him I couldn't dance, and he had the decency not to look too appalled, but I had to drink two G&Ts before I was game to try again. Nonetheless, it was a fab night. In one day I'd experienced gliding, profane turbulence and twirling....

Friday, January 13, 2012

Day Two

I glid, I did...

Today promised a new experience - motor gliding.

A month or so ago, I received a letter at Sport Pilot in response to an article I wrote about an engine-off as part of my flight test. I called it something like a 'brown trousers moment' and the CFI of The Byron Gliding Club was inspired to write to me, suggesting all students should first glide in order to familiarize themselves with engine off (or, engine absent!) ops. Immediately, I wrote back suggesting he show me. And straight away, he responded, saying 'sure! Come glide with me!'

The man is the legend, Norm Sanders - he has a entire Wiki page devoted to him, and is surely the finest glide teacher in the land. I was quite bubbly with excitement and nerves.

But first, I had to get there. The flight from Ballina to Tyagarah (which I nicknamed Viagra - the hardest strip in NSW) is only fifteen minutes, inspiring Mr Bigg to follow us in Mimi. We refuelled and took off (remembering the right hand circuits) to look for the aerodrome, of which Norm had kindly sent a photo. Sure enough, fifteen minutes later, we spied the 1000m grass strip. I was relieved and delighted to see the wind favouring 05, allowing me to approach on the non tree side facing out to the sea. The landing was peachy, the wind being only about six or so knots. Greeted immediately by Norm and his dog, we were then taken to the club to meet the other glider pilots. It was decided I would join the Glider Federation and have a full, hands on lesson. Mr Bigg landed in Mimi and settled down to watch me receive my punishment for showing him up at his home strip.

I was strangely nervous, but Norm was fabulous in putting me at my ease, explaining each facet of the strange looking flying machine with the extraordinary wings.

"Now, I know you can already fly, but this is something a little bit different. It's not just about pressing buttons, and sometimes GA pilots take a little time to unlearn some of their training that's not necessary useful for gliding. Some people think gliding is a step down, but it is in fact quite a different skill. Sully, of the Hudson river incident, credits that landing to his training as a glider pilot, you know."

The first massive difference - apart from the size of the wings, the canopy, and the strange wheel on the low-lying fuselage - was the fact that the stick is operated with the right hand, leaving the left hand free for the airbrakes. It took me ages to undo the habit of holding the stick with the left. The cockpit panel was mostly the same, except for the "liftometer" (not the correct name; I can't remember what Norm called it) which is kinda like a VSI.

Norm started the motor (a Jabiru engine) and taxied out to the strip where we took off in what felt like 50m. We climbed to 2000ft, and Norm demonstrated the characteristics of the powered glider. The first thing that struck me was how much rudder input was necessary; we turned on the rudders alone and noticed that a left hand turn saw a nose drop and a right a nose climb. Norm then demonstrated a stall, which was so sedate it was barely noticeable. Ditto the climbing stall (the most dangerous and likely stall for a glider pilot) - again a very polite little shudder. And then, Norm turned off the engine.

"let's glide!" he beamed.

Turning off the engine is a slow process, bringing back the power little by little and checking the cylinder head temp until the numbers are suitable. And then - total silence, apart from maybe the sound of my beating heart, and throbbing veins. Funnily enough, once I realised we weren't going to plummet to the earth (yes, yes, I knew we weren't; I know it's not only the engine keeping us aloft; I can see I have allowed myself to become "engine dependent") I soon got used to it. There'd be moments where I suddenly say 'no engine!' and Norm would beam. Only when we flew quite low over the ridges, to ride 'ridge lift' did I feel a little freaked. But once again, I chilled and dug the feeling. It really is quite awesome. Until of course your instructor turns to you and says,
"boy, the wind has really picked up. Brace yourself for a rough landing"

A GA pilot always, always, has a go around in his/her back pocket. With gliding, there are no second goes. Admittedly, we had an engine, and it could have been powered up if absolutely necessary, but the Byron Gliding Club have a 'no engine landings' policy, feeling that engine landings are not in the spirit of gliding. I rather got the impression that turning on the engine for landing would be the social equivalent of bursting into a Mariah Carey tune, or scratching your armpit at the table, or perhaps admitting you'd voted for Howard.

Towards the ground it was bumpy. The sock was swinging like a suburban couple as we joined a close downwind. Norm never let the strip out of his sight, and remained high saying, "with height and speed, you have a full bank account. As you get slower and lower you start to withdraw from that account. The only time that account is to be empty is when you're on the ground, tied down"

As we neared the strip, on short final, Norm pulled the airbrakes and hung out all the washing. The drag was phenomenal. By now it was so bumpy Norm was dancing on the rudders. Unlike me on such landings, he was neither swearing nor drenched in sweat. It sure looked like he was working hard, but he certainly didn't seem phased. The ground roll was much smoother than I had expected, and as we taxiied back to the club he just said,

"phew! Quite a crosswind"

Norm Sanders
I was charmed by his humility; had I taken a crosswind like that, I would have been yelling "whoooop! I am the crosswind queen!". But, of course, I am still a Baby Pilot, and a bit of a prat at the best of times, whereas Norm (it turns out, unbelievably) is almost eighty, and a man of wisdom and dignity.

As we alighted the glider, Norm commented I'd taken to it "like tape to a duct" and wished I could have tried a few landings on my own (gah!). I'd already decided I'd like to try again. And again. And maybe again. All my (Australian) life, I'd watched surfers and wondered what was so magical about waves that would motivate people to get up with the lark, don an unflattering rubber outfit and plunge themselves into a cold sea. I think perhaps for them, it's the very same buzz as catching a thermal, or riding ridge lift, or managing a cross wind landing without power. Except, apart from the sweating, we get to stay completely dry.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

 Day One (cont'd)

Note to Self: Beware of Complacency

An hour or so later we were in Ballina, but not before I'd made a stupid and potentially dangerous stuff up. I'd heard the five hundred hour mark was the point where pilots become complacent; I just didn't think it would apply to me. I'd failed to check the circuit direction in the ERSA, and assumed left hand circuits. It was right hand. As I joined a left downwind, another aircraft joined right (rightly). Luckily, a third aircraft had heard my joining call and informed the war bird in the right place of my position. I hopped on the radio to apologise and rectify, and it turned out he was one of those rare gentlemen aviators, who said, "you go ahead. I'll go in after"

Well, with all that talking, I was a bit high (in terms of height, and airheadedness). I landed half way down the runway (and it's nearly 2km at Ballina) and rolled through to take the exit at the end only to discover there IS no exit at the end. I had to backtrack, causing the Gentleman Aviator to go around.

And then, face burning with shame, I see my editor, Mr Bigg, waiting for me at the taxiway. Ballina is his home aerodrome. Of all the aerodromes in this immense country, why did I have to stuff up at his??

After shutting down (and almost breaking down in tears!) I located the Gentleman Aviator to apologise. He was as gallant on the ground as in the sky, and even mentioned he'd enjoyed reading my column.

Luckily, Mr Bigg is a forgiving kinda guy and soon all was forgotten as he'd promised to take me for a spin in his Mimi, a Atec Zephyr.

Ahhh, what a lovely aircraft! Smooth, gentle, low wing, t-tailed and sporty looking, she was a joy to fly. A polite, but not timid, little bird. I could have stayed up for hours, flying around the gorgeous Byron coast line, but once again the wind was picking up, and the time was approaching wine o'clock. So we joined the (right hand) circuit and came in to land. Mimi is so light, but yet so well behaved, Mr Bigg danced her onto the runway, tied her down and led me (and Robbs, and Mr Bigg's son - Little Bigg) to the pub for a steak and a wine.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Five day trip with a Scotty

Day One

At last the weather is gorgeous and I have my very favourite flying chariot booked for a whole week.
My friend Robbs, with whom I travelled the States in a Grumman Tiger two years ago, is accompanying me on a trip up the coast. What started as a holiday has quickly morphed into work - with offers to fly all sorts of aircraft.

First stop Taree where we visited Ole Hartman's Australian Aircraft Kits factory (http://www.aircraftkits.com.au/). Ole custom makes every single aircraft in his workshop in Taree, aided by Brian, a former employee of deHavilland. Ole builds only all metal aircraft - the Rivet Ranger of Taree - mostly for the bush/outback market. I'd flown up to meet Bruce Scott - a truck drivin, pipe smokin cowboy - who'd ordered and assisted in the build of his very own Hornet. Today, Ole would take me flying in it.

After a tour of the factory, a cuppa and a yarn, I was introduced to Bruce's gal - the Hornet. She's a beaut - yellow, sturdy and very much the insect to look at, and, just like a hornet, she has a tail. Only this one has a wheel on it. Flashbacks of my tail wheel endorsement experiences - my taxiing like the product of a cut snake mating with a shopping trolley - ran through my mind, until I looked up and saw the calm Germanic face of Ole, who assured me he'd take the taxi (as the wind was picking up). Phew.

The Hornet is very comfy, and the massive Tundra tyres make entry easier. The first thing that amazed me was the forward visibility upon taxi. I've had to taxi tailwheels by looking out of the side window, but this had been taken into account by Ole who'd created in the Hornet an aircraft in which you could actually see over the nose on the ground!

Ole took the take off, thankfully (that wind really had picked up) and then handed over the controls. I was surprised at the low nose attitude in flight, and then very surprised by the aircraft's sedate nature. Bruce, a relatively low hour pilot with a trike background, requested a polite aircraft which would not lead him into any trouble. Ole delivered just that. With a 100hp Rotax, she's no slug, but is extremely well behaved and stable, just like a good woman should be.

Even more thankfully, Ole took the landing, as the wind was blowing right across the strip and the shear was shaking us around like milk. Ole didn't even frown, never mind break sweat or swear, as I do on a crosswind landing. He merely landed her long, to avoid the burbly from the hangars half way down the strip, and then pulled up neatly. No sweat at all.

On the ground Bruce was grinning as if his sweetheart had returned from a long holiday. I thanked him for letting me loose in his baby, and gushed over her sweet nature.

The wind had picked up enough to have me frowning, so Robbs and I made a swift refuelling and departed for Ballina.