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


Monday, December 16, 2013

Hangar House

During Ausfly, a gentleman by the name of Bradley approached me at the AOPA stand and declared I must visit his new bed and breakfast, Hangar House, in Mudgee. He left me a card, said, “you’ll love it” and went on his way.

A week later, I received an email saying, “Are you coming to visit?” 

I was, of course, intrigued. With weather too blustery for me to fly, I engaged a more experienced pilot - my friend Andrew, with his trusty C182S - and embarked on the 50 minute flight from Bankstown to Mudgee.

Upon landing on runway 22, I spied a fabulous looking building, which I quickly deduced must be the bed and breakfast. It turns out Hangar House is as minimalist and intriguing as Bradley himself. 

After collecting us in a luxury 4WD, Bradley introduced us to his partner, Alex, and we began the tour of the dream project they have dedicated three years to building. 

Alex and Bradley
“In Australia, the concept of an airpark has been fairly limited,” explains Bradley. “The pioneers were developments at Narromine and Temora Airports, where you could hangar your prized aeroplane and live basically alongside it or attached to it. These types of airport developments are common in the United States and have proved very popular with the general aviation enthusiasts there. A notable example is John Travolta, although his house is more airline than general aviation!” 

The hangar is the integral focus of Hangar House, with magnificent curved beams, covering an area suitable for four to five light aircraft. The hangar space makes a unique, attractive venue for a variety of aviation themed events, and has already been home to an AirTourer convention and an Australian Women’s Pilots’ Association social event.

 “Hangar House is situated on a small subdivision tendered out by the Mid Western Regional Council.  When the opportunity presented on the proposed subdivision, Brad and I jumped at the idea of setting up their dream,” said Alex.

The house itself is a two story steel structure designed by  Sydney based architect, Maurice Patten of Patten Design - (www.pattendesign.com.au).

The hangar is accessable from the western end of the living area, where the first suite, The Skymaster, is located. The Skymaster suite consists of an intimate lounge with Jetmaster fireplace joining a large open kitchen and dining area flowing to an informal TV/lounge area.  The first floor is the home of the Airtourer, Bonanza, Baron And Constellation suites, where is a tea/coffee station at the top of the stairs for guests.

The layout is spacious and airy, with an impeccable eye for detail. The furniture is a wonderful blend of modern, antique and exotic (as Alex hails from Cuba), with the d├ęcor having a distinct aviation focus. A giant mural of the sky, onto which each visitor’s aircraft is laminated, fills an entire wall. Alex is in the process of organising an aviation themed bar, and of course, each suite is named after an iconic aircraft type.

Were I to offer three superlatives to describe this remarkable living work of art they would be: Fabulous, stylish and cutting edge.

Hangar House also offers accommodation for students; conference facilities and a private chef for dinner parties, functions or corporate events. A courtesy car is available for fly-in guests and as well as hangarage for up to five aircraft, allowing you to taxi right up to the hotel.

Located on the northern apron of picturesque Mudgee Airport and only less than a 5km drive north of the town centre, the Hangar House is an ideal location to explore the area’s 35 plus vineyards as well as Mudgee’s cafes, restaurants, pubs and nearby historic villages such as Gulgong and Rylstone.

The Chief Pilot of Observair, Brad Welch learnt to fly way back in the early 1970s with the Hazelton clan at Orange and Cudal Airports and has always loved the Central Tablelands of NSW. Mudgee is relatively close to the large coastal population bases and is an ideal base to conduct the specialised aerial services that takes Observair Australia wide. In the last couple of years, it has completed major aerial surveys for Flinders University , Murdoch University and  International Wildlife Foundation, in the research of dolphins and whales breeding grounds and Blue Whales migratory patterns.

To host your avation event here, please visit www.hangarhouse.com.au

For the aviators, location YMDG - S32 33.7 E149 36.7


Tuesday, December 10, 2013

A Whole New Attitude

Since my very first TIF, back in 2010, I've dreamt of learning to fly helicopters. Even though I would have to grow another limb to gain the coordination necessary to fly a chopper, I've salivated over helicopters ever since, even going as far as applying for a conversion scholarship.

Although sometimes even an optimist has to put dreams in the 'save for much later' basket, it doesn't stop one seeking out time in other peoples' magnificent machines. Imagine my good luck, then, when the lovely Bas Scheffers of OzRunways 'broke the news' that I would be returning to Bankstown from Ausfly in an R44. Poor me.

Neil Weste is part of the OZRunways success team,  a Cirrus AND R44 owner, and extremely generous to boot. A helicopter pilot before he was fixed wing, I sense Neil's real passion is with chopper flying and as we begin the start ups for departure from Narromine, he has that look I know so well.

A Whole New Attitude
As I sit there, transfixed while Neil speaks the language of chopper, watching gauges unfamiliar to me and twisting levers I don't have, we begin the magic (or the magimix, as an old instructor used to call helicopters) of hovering. I've said it before, and I'll say it again, it really does feel like magic. I realise this illustrates my scant knowledge of helicopter aerodynamics, but I'm going to risk looking light-headed (again) and simply say - "wow!" You don't know you're flying until you're taking off vertically and floating along to the runway - look no taxiways for me! - to take off in a glass bubble.  It really is the most sophisticated form of flight. It is, however, a little slower, but in my mind, certainly on this trip, a 100 knot cruise only furthered my enjoyment of the scenery, above which we remained low enough to see people's washing on their lines. Thankfully, Neil only had one set of controls fitted, so he wasn't obliged to give me any 'hands on time' which was (frankly) a bit of a relief, as I remembered the 'pat your head and rub your stomach' technique of keeping everything upright and stable from my TIF.

After a blissful hour's flight, peppered with my shortfire questions to the very patient Neil, we landed at Cessnock for fuel. Although the aerodrome was as busy as a fly-in day (who says General Aviation is dead?) we didn't have to worry about joining circuits at 1000ft. Helicopters have their own circuit height, and as we were the only one there, it was straight down onto the grass for us. As Neil shut down, I offered to go and fetch coffee. Upon my return, I spied a fabulous old Bonanza (which the owner wouldn't sell, alas) as well as SkyThrills pilots Jodie and Jeremy, in their Decathlon and newly acquired Nanchang.

After refuelling, with both coffee and Avgas, we departed and headed coastal for the most scenic and stunning part of the trip. Neil resides on Lake Macquarie - an area I've visited by road, but is most certainly best seen by air. As we did a touch-and-go on his front lawn (which was really no bigger than a handkerchief!) I realised this amazing area, with houses perched on the side of the lake, is something of a residential secret (until now!) You really wouldn't know it was here, in all its hidden magnificence, unless you were looking for it.

As we continued coastal at 500 ft, we spotted a whale. I sighed in perfect contentment, and started mentally selling my shoes and frocks to save up for chopper lessons. Neil, however, had saved the piece de resistance for last. "How'd you fancy a harbour scenic?" he asked. Nodding furiously, he took my 'yes' and went on to say, "this will be quite different from a fixed wing scenic."

It turns out, to my utter astonishment, that choppers don't need clearance into the harbour. Not only THAT, they get to fly at 500ft, just skimming the harbour bridge AND are allowed west of the bridge, down the Parramatta river all the way to Bankstown. I don't know what kind of special place helicopter pilots have in the 'can do' drawer at CASA, but this was beyond amazing. No wonder Sydney chopper pilots look so damn smug!
Our landing at Bankstown was an eye-opener, too, with the chopper circuit being quite busy. "Choppers West" and other inbound points I'd heard on the radio, but never really acknowledged, became a reality as we headed for 'the main pad'. After the pad, we danced over to Andrew's hangar, where he and his son came out to gush over the R44. As I alighted the fabulous machine, I felt like a movie-star, giddy with excitement, privileged in experiencing something only a very few are allowed. 

Once again, I reminded myself that while I may not have fallen into the most well-paid profession in the world, I get to fly in (and on) the most amazing machines in the world and am lucky to meet the most fabulous people.

And, this time, when asked if I enjoyed the flight, I didn't answer, "oh my! The EARTH moved!"
Which is progress.

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

A Good Old Dose of Optimism

I have had the most incredible two months, and as tempting as it is to use this space to tell you all about the wonders of flying in the USA, the thrill of landing at Oshkosh and the fabulousness of flying in an R44 through Sydney Harbour (thanks Neil Weste!) upon my return, I felt I needed to bring to your attention something a little less exciting: our industry’s apathy.

A year ago, when I became editor of Australian Pilot and implemented an ‘anti-whingeing’ policy in this magazine. I vowed I would not carp on about restrictive regulations, the red plastic ASIC which we all loathe, or the frustratingly poor customer service that is indicative of so many flying schools. I promised I would be the go-to publication for positive stories, to promote progressive businesses and share the excitement of flying. And yet, after returning from the USA, I no longer felt like the Doris Day of Aviation.

After a month of American FBOs providing me with $10 per hour hire cars, aircraft hired for $103 per hour and airstrips every ten nautical miles in every direction, I could be forgiven for not being a Pollyanna pilot. After receiving over 25 emails detailing increases in landing fees, airport closures and wrestles with AvMed, I felt like hanging up the headset and applying for the green card lottery.

And then, something fabulous happened: I attended Ausfly. After four days with the nation’s most enthusiastic aviators, I realised all is not lost. Not at all. We might be smaller than the USA, we may well be over-regulated and we might just have a twentieth century attitude to flight training, but we are a nation of determined individuals who are prepared to continue to fly against some very tricky odds.
Among the fine aviators—and aviatrixes—of Ausfly, I met: a young couple with a flying school so progressive, the bulk of their students are under thirty; a remarkable young man who flew solo around the world despite a significant lack of sponsorship and no donor aircraft; an aircraft distributor who had taken a punt on a new aeroplane because they really, really believe it’s the best trainer on the market, and a man who sold his house to buy his dream machine. I chatted with scores of people who flew in every kind of aircraft, from every corner of the country, to be with like-minded people. I saw children staring open mouthed at the flying displays, and wallets opening at the speed of light to fly in a Pitts.

photo by Phil Buckley

At the Ausfly dinner, I listened with interest to SAAA President, Martin Ongley’s speech about the importance of joining organisations and supporting the industry, and I joined the crowd in a standing ovation for Ryan Campbell. I calculated the average age of my table’s diners to be around 50 (which is lower than the average pilot population—or maybe it was just the mood lighting!) and felt positive that Ausfly is succeeding in the very thing our industry needs—a good old dose of optimism.

photo: Phil Buckley

Everybody I spoke to agreed we have a long way to go, yet each had a personal story about flying and how it had enriched their life; journeys one could never have without having flown; marriage proposals in Tiger Moths and beautiful picnics at coastal airports. Tales of aircraft built, rivet by rivet, year by year, were shared among stories of lives saved by pilots, apps designed to make lives safer and friendships formed at aero club sausage sizzles.

Photo: Phil Buckley

We may not have courtesy cars at our airport, our CPL may still require the passing of seven exams and we might have to dangle an expensive piece of red plastic from our shirts for a long while yet, but while there is fuel in the bowser and gable markers on the runway, we will fly. And while I’m editor of this magazine, I will not whinge. Instead, I will take my lovely new Bose headset with me into the sky and visit the remarkable pilots who keep this industry the only one to which I am happy to belong.

Photo: Phil Buckley

Friday, November 15, 2013

Cirrus Factory Tour

It’s early on a Tuesday morning of the Oshkosh week and I’m sitting in the FBO of Wittman Regional Airport trying to contain my excitement. With me is Dave, an Aussie commercial pilot and instructor, and Robbie, a retired airline captain. Together, we’ve been invited to tour the Cirrus factory in Duluth, Minnesota and we’re here this morning awaiting our Cirrus for the one-hour flight to the factory.

Having always been fascinated by the Cirrus approach to design, marketing and safety, I’m delighted by the opportunity to visit the manufacturing plant; here’s a chance to see, first hand, whether the ‘Cirrus Vision’ begins from the ground up. Having toured Diamond and Rotax last year, I believe that the manufacturers’ ethos and identity is most alive on the factory floor: the attitude of the production team, the assembly systems and the interaction of the staff tell their own unique story about the company and its culture.

Our adventure begins with the arrival of our pilot, Bradley DeGusseme who leads us to one of the many Cirruses for factory tours.

While we were hoping to score a ride in the new Gen 5, Bradley apologised and said we’d have to ‘make do’ with the Gen 4 SR22T – hardly slumming it, I can assure you! While Bradley prepared the aircraft and safety brief, we were invited inside to begin what would be an hour of fabulous comfort and luxury. In a class of its own, Cirrus does things differently, with the pilot’s comfort and safety designed into every aspect of the aircraft. For instance, in addition to the CAPS (Cirrus Airframe Parachute System) for which the company is well-known, other safety features include hypoxia protection, electronic stability protection and a fail-safe system for recovery from unusual attitudes (known as ‘the blue button’) which will level the aircraft and hold altitude when activated. In terms of comfort the SR22T is air conditioned, roomy with impressive visibility. And boy, it’s fast too!

Added to the excitement of the day was a departure from Wittman during Oshkosh week, where Osh tower becomes the busiest control tower in the world. As I had flown-in a day before the show in a Bonanza formation of 108 aircraft, I had some idea of the well-timed dance that is arrival at Oshkosh. What I had forgotten is that arrivals and departures continue throughout the week in tight slots designed to fit around the aerial displays. We departed on Special Procedures, with radio work faster than a dj’s patter – it was head-spinningly quick. Bradley, as cool as a cucumber in a cocktail, handled it with grace and ease and before long we were airborne, IFR and heading to Duluth. With its 315hp, six-cylinder Continental working its magic, we climbed out at around 100 knots with the single lever control (both power and propeller, which is governed to 2500RPM) set to 36 inches of manifold pressure, and mixture full rich. We climbed to 6000ft for our one-hour flight to Duluth.

What impressed me most, after the 1700fpm climb, was the clean and sensibly laid out cockpit. The Cirrus Perspective avionics suite is so streamlined and uncluttered that even for a pilot with limited glass experience, the panel is intuitive. The layout - with the FMS keyboard, auto pilot and audio controls placed in a centre console, and only the CAPS system and lights above – create an ergonomic easy to scan cockpit, which reduces the chance of disorientation. Cirrus worked alongside Garmin to develop a Cirrus-specific integrated suite, which includes Garmin's innovative Synthetic Vision Technology (SVT).


With the autopilot engaged and the radio work completed Bradley and I chatted about Cirrus’ company values. “It’s a great company to work for and I see myself with long term prospects here,” he says of his already-dream-job. A young pilot not heading to the airlines? My curiosity was piqued. “There are plenty of opportunities in the company, to go in all sorts of directions: flight planning and ops, training, and later on, perhaps time in the Vision Jet. Cirrus is a diverse company, and I think the opportunities here are more exciting and more suitable to me than those offered by the airlines.”

Bringing the Outside In

With a cruise of 180kts, it seemed we were airborne for only minutes when Bradley began preparing for the approach into Duluth. As the ILS was u/s, we flew the approach on the localizer. However, the Cirrus Synthetic Vision made the approach appear exactly like an ILS, as Bradley flew through the pink boxes, known as the flight path marker, or ‘highway in the sky’.

“I love the flight path marker,” declared Bradley. “It’s been a hugely popular inclusion. You can tell at a glance whether you are on course and at altitude. The green flightpath marker will tell you where the aircraft is going with consideration of crosswinds, and the magenta rectangular pathways will guide you with increased precision en route or on approach. Anything that makes flying safer in potentially high stress situations, like short final in low visibility, wins my vote.”

Another vote for safety is the autopilot coupled go-around option.

“The autopilot remains connected and the aircraft automatically pitches up to a normal climb attitude and the missed approach segment is automatically activated. All you have to do is monitor and apply power as necessary,” explains Bradley.

At Duluth HQ, we’re introduced to Program Manager Marlene Grand, a Cirrus employee of fifteen years, whose enthusiasm and passion for the company is an asset. As in previous factory tours, safety spectacles were donned and photography forbidden (with a few exceptions at the start of the tour).

Tougher than Nails

The manufacturing of the composite parts and main structures occurs at the Grand Forks, North Dakota plant. The Duluth facility houses the company’s headquarters and main manufacturing and assembly. Using a wall mounted display, Marlene was able to show us how the carbon and glass fibre composite parts are produced using the rigorous Cirrus manufacturing techniques.

It takes over 10,000 samples to qualify a new material and process.

Upon arrival from Grand Forks, the composite parts arrive at the inventory section of the factory, where they are transferred to a grit blast booth prior to bonding. This prepares the composite for the next stage of manufacture. The parts are broken down into groups and delivered to the relevant sections of the floor.

Parts are cured after each bonding operation in order for the adhesive to attain the strength required for handling and movement through the facility. A final Post Cure later will ensure the material reaches its maximum strength. Bonded composite parts result in very light-weight, yet very strong, assemblies.

Waste not, Want not

Efficiency and effective waste management are the focus of the factory’s systems. Transport carts are used rather than boxes, which save time and packaging and allow the aircraft and parts to be wheeled around the factory with ease. “In our early days, we would use 14lbs of packaging for one prop!” comments Marlene. “Now, with this cart system, our parts are easily stackable and there is no waste – in time or product in the unpacking process – and we’re able to set an example as an environmentally conscious company.”

A two bin parts-in-parts-out system is in place to ensure the parts inventory system is at its most effective.

“We conducted lean manufacturing studies throughout the facility to determine where our largest bottlenecks and worst waste were occurring. Not having parts required, in each station, on time and on a consistent basis, was our biggest problem. The two bin system – where two bins of each part needed are stored in each station where they are used – provides many benefits. Parts are stored where they are required for use. An empty bin triggers a reorder so more parts are stocked before the second bin is empty. Rotation of bins drives First In First Out (FIFO) inventory control. Most importantly, technicians don’t have to leave their work stations or waste time looking for materials. Everything is on hand when needed and nothing is wasted!”

The entire floor is modelled on the same vision for efficiency and waste reduction. Staff vending machines are accessible with a staff badge, but rather than providing coffee or muesli bars, the machines provide office supplies, consumable materials and basic tools. “The office supplies being continually ordered by admin staff wereas taking up a huge chunk of time, in inventory and management. This way, each machine keeps track of what’s been taken via a central computer and we refill accordingly. The staff badge will allow access to all office supplies and production items such as paint brushes, cable ties, etc. Once again, this assures no waste and we don’t run out of needed items.”

Streamlined Materials; Maximum Efficiency

The fuselage is made in two halves and then joined together. The composite is so tough, technicians use diamond drill bits. Two sets of aircraft composite assemblies are placed in a specially configured oven and are ‘cured’ for seven hours at 200-210 degrees F.

Aluminium mesh is used to help dissipate lightning strikes and prevent damage to the composite structure. A Cirrus specific bonding adhesive is used. This custom formulation was developed jointly with the manufacturer after no product on the market met their requirements.

The main spar is made of carbon fibre and weighs around 60lbs, providing a considerable reduction in weight compared to the previous fiberglass spars. The main landing gear is manufactured from glass fibre. The fuel tanks are wet and sealed with epoxy resin and fuel tank sealant and are positioned around the main spar. Titanium panels are used for the ice protection system. The composite material is very durable and can withstand many minor impacts with no damage.

The first generation of Cirruses were built with homemade tools, but the second generation’s fuselage redesign prompted a new process, whereby a new uniform approach was introduced. Ceiling mounted winches were installed across the factory, allowing aircraft to be transported with ease. Bonding fixtures now allow parts to be cured in place, saving time and movement of parts and tools and increasing part quality. The company has also invested in a custom made drill and trim robot.

“Since the second generation, we can’t build aircraft fast enough,” commented Marlene. “We’ve streamlined all materials and processes for maximum efficiency. We are now building aircraft in 1575 hours, down from 3000 hours, due to implementation of lean manufacturing efforts throughout the facility.”

At the time of our tour, Cirrus was filling an order for the Royal Saudi Air Force (RSAF), who had ordered 25 custom-build aircraft for training. Due to harsh desert heat, the RSAF requested the aircraft be customised without rear windows, which Cirrus accepted. However, the demand for trainers from the Middle East has also inspired the company to research 100% UV resistant Perspex windows.

The console is made on a separate assembly line and each is custom built. After paint, engine and avionics are installed, the aircraft is ground run and tested. Then there is a full inspection, followed by sign-off for flight verification with a Cirrus-approved test pilot. The whole process takes eight weeks.

Chute Happens

The parachute straps of the trademark Cirrus aircraft recovery parachute system, or CAPS, are laid out in the fuselage skins (Marlene noted here that Cirrus had to construct larger tables to lay out the new chute for the Gen 5 Cirrus, as weight changes in the aircraft dictated a larger, stronger chute). The parachute system straps are designed to ‘unzip’ from the fuselage skins when deployed. Due to this design, when the chute is deployed, it minimises damage to the fuselage, supporting the possibility of repairing the aircraft after deployment of the parachute. Having said this, the landing after the deployment of CAPS doesn’t guarantee re-serviceability of the aircraft. “At the end of the day,” maintains Marlene, “Cirrus’ number one commitment is to saving lives. Machines can be replaced, Human lives cannot.”

When the chute is packed, it is compressed with a force of 23 tons, and then heated to ensure it remains compressed.

As of August 2013, there have been 50 known CAPS activations. Thirty seven of those have saved 77 lives; there have been no fatalities when CAPS has been activated within its demonstrated parameters.

Cirrus Communication

As Marlene concluded our tour, I mentioned that in addition to efficiency, morale in the factory appeared very buoyant. “Each staff member is an expert in their area,” explained Marlene. “We encourage very open channels of communication between staff and management and welcome suggestions for improvement in every area of the workplace. A lot of the practices you see on the factory floor have been born from ideas by the staff in that particular area. We always make staff’s ergonomic comfort a priority, and have constructed the factory with that in mind.”

As we waited for Bradley to pre-flight the SR22T for the return leg, I had a chat with a young staff member who was learning to fly in an SR20. Astonished that anyone would have the opportunity to learn to fly in such a sophisticated aircraft, I asked her how she was enjoying the glass cockpit. “It’s all I’ve ever known,” she said, “so I don’t have a point of comparison. All I know is that my future is with Cirrus, and therefore it’s a Cirrus I intend to fly. The staff rate to learn to fly an SR20 is $50 an hour, and I know I’m extremely privileged to have such an opportunity, so I’m certainly not going to waste it!” Dave and I looked at each other and said, “Crikey! Where are the application forms?”

To watch a short you-tube video of our trip to and from the factory in an SR22T, please visit www.aopa.com.au

Saturday, September 7, 2013

Bonanzas to Osh, my gosh

“How would you fancy flying into Oshkosh in a formation of Bonanzas?” Bas Scheffers, of OzRunways, asked me. Knowing my penchant for the beautiful Beech, the answer was obvious: it would be the aeronautical equivalent of winning a luxury holiday; it would be the most stylish and exciting way to begin the greatest show on earth! Before I drowned him in enthusiasm, Bas gave me the address of Larry Gaines, coordinator of B2Osh – a group of around 120 Bonanzas and Barons who make the trip from Rockford, Illinois every year.

Within days I’d heard back from Larry – who is a big fan of Australians – inviting me to join the aerial caravan that formally invented the formation fly in to AirVenture. Larry was instantly likeable, boasting the most fabulous combination of enthusiasm, determination, leadership and seriousness about flight safety. He filled me in with the group’s history, operations and schedules, as well as forwarding the NOTAMs for Oshkosh (about the size of the Yellow Pages) and a list of parties (most of which were compulsory and would not be a problem for any self-respecting Aussie).

Bonanzas to Osh made its first flight as a group in 1990 and have flown in every year since. I was to participate in the 24th fly-in (and the 23rd flight, with 2010 being known as Sploshkosh when it was too wet to land) and one that promised to be a biggie. This year, Larry would be leading the first element with Wayne Collins and Larry’s predecessor, Elliott Schiffman.

However, before the event, there is months of training, culminating in a clinic at Porterville. The clinic co-hosted by B2OSH's Stephen Blythe and the Mooney Caravan's Director of Training Dave Marten, active duty USAF, and an instructor at Edwards Air Force Base's Test Pilot School. "I doubt there is a better training scenario anywhere in the world where a civilian pilot can learn how to fly in formation with other aircraft," said Gaines. And with that, I felt confident that I would be taking part in one of the most exciting and well-organised events of the year.


And at last, the day arrived. Alighting the bus at Rockford, Illinois, we (I’d tacked on another Aussie and a Scotsman) arrived in time for the meet and greet hangar party, where I spotted Larry straight away. He was just as I expected: dashing, humorous and in control. I gave him a gift of an Akubra hat and he, in exchange, gave us the compulsory B2Osh t-shirts (green this year), and off we went to bed ahead of the imminent big day.

The next morning, weather was overcast, but not problematically so. The mass briefing took place in the morning, where attendance was compulsory and it was hear that altitudes and procedures were discussed and finalised, along with probable runways at Wittman, go-around procedures and radio etiquette (all calls to be kept to an absolute minimum, with each element leader responsible for their element’s calls).

Looking around the room of around 250 green-shirted pilots and co-pilots, I could actually feel the buzz: the camaraderie, the excitement and the obvious life long friendship, which had been formed over the years. There were children, babies, elderly men and women and teenagers. I noted I was the only co-pilot in green t-shirt and heels. Everyone was smiling, taking photographs, introducing themselves to the newcomers. And finally, the remaining passengers were paired with their pilots. I scored Glenn Wimbish, a southern gentleman from Burlington North Carolina, with a serious expression and a voice that could read me a bedtime story every night for the rest of my life. “Ahhh, y’all be safe with Glenn,” remarked the gentleman next to me. “As long as you don’t try and drink beer in his cockpit. He’s very serious, but an excellent, excellent pilot.”
After introducing myself, Glenn and the element leaders had a final brief, and I walked out to the aircraft. And there she was; my dream bird – an immaculately maintained 1973 V35B – just begging me to take her home. Upon Glenn’s return, I asked about her history, “She’s the only airplane ah’ve ever owned. One wife and one bird is enough for me,” Glenn drawled. “I’ll sell her to you, if you like,” he teased, before we climbed in and waved goodbye to the other 107 aircraft waiting to taxi. As absolute luck would have it, we were in the fourth element (although I was in my complete element!) and so would take off right near the beginning of the formation. Glenn, as element leader, would be taking the lead and the radio calls, and I promised him I wouldn’t prattle on, or drink beer in his cockpit. “You can do what you liiiiike, ah don’t mand at awl,” he smiled, and I could see the others had been pulling my leg about his taciturnity.

With Larry taking the lead at the first element, we were cleared to start up and taxi, element by element, three by three. It was a sight of great awesomeness to see 108 Bonanzas and Barons (the Barons at the back) of all ages and models, taxiing en masse to the runway. Next to us, on the left was a super splendid 1962 Beech P35, owned by Mr Kevin Smith, and on the right a mint 2001 A36 and her proud owner Mr Clarence Lambe. We were in fine company as we rolled out of Rockford and into the sky for our cruising altitude of 2000ft.

Oshkosh, my gosh!
It was a flawless flight of a little over an hour, with Larry keeping check of the formation from the front, and the Baron at the back holding up the tail end. Glenn concentrated furiously and flew seamlessly, this being his twenty-third (and final, he claims, although someone told me he says that every year!) B2Osh trip.
For me, as lookout, it was over so quickly; it seemed only minutes before Larry was making contact with Osh tower (the world’s busiest control tower for one week a year) informing them of our imminent arrival. The reception from the tower was unexpectedly enthusiastic, after Larry announced the arrival of a formation of 109 aircraft, inbound: “Welcome to Oshkosh. You guys rock!” declared the controller, who then went ahead and made an announcement to everyone on frequency that we were coming.

The rule is that each element leader would call ‘gear down’ and visually check their element’s gear. I cannot put into words the sound of 36 pilots, one after another, minute by minute, calling their gear is down and they’re ready. And then, the famous Osh tower monologue began: “Bonanza formation, element one, cleared runway 36 left and 36 right, land on the purple dot and keep it rolling.” 
As we were fourth in to land, we were treated to the marvellous sight of the aircraft ahead of us landing on the purple dot, while we were cleared for the yellow dot, which of course Glenn made with great elegance. As we rolled off the runway and were marshalled onto the taxiway, I caught sight of the crowd gathered to welcome us. Waving and gesticulating, I had to remind myself that the flight is not over until the wheels are chocked, and that we may be at the greatest show on earth, but we still had some distance to our final field.
When Glenn killed the engine and shut down, a marshal came running up and said, “Welcome to Oshkosh, can I help you with anything?” to which I was, for once, speechless, as rows and rows of Beech aircraft lined up, tied down and started setting up camp. “Whaale, we’re here. Welcome to Oshkosh,” declared Glenn. “Y’all wanna come do it again next year?” he asked with the sardonic smile of a man who knows he will be doing this every year for the rest of his life. “You betcha!” I retorted, in my new American vernacular, as I skipped off to find the media tent, before returning for the after-flight pizza party and speeches. 

 And with that, I acknowledged that Glenn Wimbish would not be the only pilot to return, year after year, in a beautiful Bonanza. Who knows, maybe after eight years or so, I might be brave enough to fly one in myself.

And, if miracles work, there will also be a video - but I'll probably have to wake up Clay for it to actually work...

Thursday, August 8, 2013

Cactus Mountain and Hercules Canyon

....and the Yankee life continued, with a short hop to Tuscon - where I met a very interesting lady called Barb, a traveller who considers herself 'home free' rather than homeless - before rocking up at the car hire counter to discover I'd be upgraded - to a convertible Mustang!!

I drove (gingerly, in the rain and the dark, at about 30mph) to Loews, the lovely hotel I'd booked in the canyon and managed to get myself so completely lost trying to find the front entrance that I had to be rescued by a young man who was on his way back to staff HQ. Curious as to why a 41 year old woman was wondering around a staff carpark towing a lurid suitcase, he guided me to front desk and sent someone to retrieve my car (which I had parked over two spaces). I was kindly upgraded to a suite, and repaired to bed straight away.

In the morning, as I drew back the thick, luscious curtains, I saw immediately that I was in Arizona 'proper'. Ahead of me was a spectacular mountain, embedded with cacti. It looked exactly like a Roadrunner cartoon. With the day shaping up to be 'scorchio' (that's over 40 on my barometer) I threw open the roof of the Stang, and made for the air-conditioned bliss of the PIMA Air and Space Museum.

At the museum, I was (very kindly) given a tour by the museum's Director of Marketing and Visitor Services, Mary Emich, a woman with a vision for this non-government funded museum. With the enthusiasm and passion I so love to see in aviation, Mary showed me around the main hangar, introducing me to some of the volunteers who form the backbone of the museum, as guides, tour operators and restorers.

I can't go into too much detail here, as I intend to compile a feature for Australian Pilot, but suffice to say, a wonderful, wonderful day was spent. First, among the hangars, where I quickly found my very favourite aircraft! Secondly, I embarked on a tour, led by the most fabulous tour guide who was an ex-fighter pilot in Nam. His sparkling and unique commentary kept me riveted for the entire one hour tour,

where we visited every aircraft outside the museum by open-top bus. After the tour, I revelled in the aviation themed cafe before touring WWII hangars, the nose art and the Space Center.

Of course, everyone knows the highlight of a visit to PIMA is the tour of the boneyard: the military controlled ground where over 4,000 aircraft go to die. I cannot express my awe (and sense of sadness) in seeing rows upon rows of defunct aircraft, groaning in the sun and rotting to death. However, our tour guide, one of the many fabulous military men with moustaches, pointed out that many of the aircraft are donors, there to provide parts to allied countries who are still flying some of the fabulous ancient birds. It reminded me very much of Ishiguru's story of the orphans who are cloned for their organs, until I was made to remember that these aircraft had had full and exotic lives.

With that, I visited the gift shop, threw back the roof of the Stang again, and went to admire the boneyard from the road. With the sun setting on rows and rows and rows of C130s, backdropped by the cactus-y mountain, I felt perfectly content. And very much ready to eat a whole plate of Quesadillas.

Wednesday, July 31, 2013

A Yankee Life for Me

...Sedona was nothing short of fabulous.

The whole town is orange with the glow of the mountains, and nestled in every nook and cranny is an arty little shop. Kevin, a man of Christian faith, drove me up a mountain to see the most magnificent and unusual church. It was truly mind blowing to see, and perched up there on a mountain peak, looking down into a canyon, I momentarily wished I felt faith in something greater than the mere random hotpotch that I consider life to be.  

We lunched at The Hideaway, an Italian cafe overlooking the canyons, where once more I became overwhelmed by the choice available in American restaurants - fourteen different salad dressings; twelve different sodas!

Having rented the car for only two hours, we headed back to Sedona airport - and the cowboys, Jason and Jay - constantly looking up at the towering clouds and congratulating ourselves, in that way all pilots do, for not going. I recited the ole, 'it's better to be down here wishing you were up there, than up there wishing you were down here' adage to Kevin, who claimed not to have heard it before (but he might have been being polite!)

Sedona airport - scarily perched on a mountain

Having refuelled at Sedona (the FBO filled her up for us. Did I mention I love America?) we were ready to depart pretty much straight away. With Sedona being a CTAF, we taxied out without any holdup. Upon the taxi call, Kevin said, "Cessna N5068E, holding short runway 21, any traffic on base or final, please make yourself known," which I thought was brilliant. I'd never thought to ask any traffic at a CTAF to speak up, and appreciated immediately how much safer Kevin's method was, than mine, of just looking for traffic.

After take off, we climbed straight into the burbly. We were hot, high (density altitude pushing 7500ft) and turbulent, but able to climb quickly and ascend past the worst. The journey back was spectacular; my words fail in doing justice to the magnificence of the scenery, and I'm afraid my photos aren't even close in illustrating how stunning the area is. We flew to Mount Superstition (there's a legend about gold on the top) and then home, towards Chandler, all the while chatting and comparing the difference in terminology between flying here and back in Australia.

Upon our return, I mentioned to Kevin that I would like to fly some circuits (or 'shoot some laps') to acquaint myself with Mr Floaty the 172, so he called inbound for circuits. Kevin was utterly convinced he could teach me to land the 172 without any float, and convinced me to pull to idle on base and apply absolutely no power unless necessary. Blow me down, it worked. I flew four very successful (although far from perfect) circuits, with the pesky Cessna behaving like a mild-manner Cherokee on every landing.

As we flew the final circuit, I said, "call the tower and request a glide approach. Let's see if I can land Mr Floaty from downwind!" Kevin declared a glide approach doesn't need tower approval in the US, so I pulled back to idle and made for the field. "Whatcha doing?!" asked Kevin, slightly ruffled. "A glide approach," I declared. "Ohhhh. That's not a glide approach! That's a short approach! That requires tower approval!"

There, right on base, was a fabulous example of an aeronautical language barrier! As I'd pretty much started, Kevin let me fly the approach, which ended in a successful landing, and I taxied back, triumphant. Not only had I had one of the most splendid days of the year, but I'd landed a 172, repeatedly, without any float. To say I was stoked would be an understatement.

After a long chat with Kevin, Jason (the school owner) and a very sardonic LAME, I asked for my bill, with baited breath. We'd flown nearly four hours, which in Australia, with an instructor, would exceed $1,200. When Jason printed out my account, I nearly fainted. $560!!!

There and then, and not for the last time, I declared I am not going back to Australia. At those prices, I could afford to rent a Bonanza - or maybe even, dream of dreams, afford to own one. I drove home (on the right side of the road, all the way) to a musical rendition of It's a Yankee Life for Me...

Friday, July 26, 2013

Keep Right and Keep your Feet off the Brakes

The plan was: fly the Grand Canyon; simple as that. After a quick google, I found a school I liked the vibe of, and went ahead and booked an aircraft and instructor for the whole day. Shortly after that, I found a hotel promising to be the American Experience after which I was hankering. Arizona, for me, had always been on the horizon. Something about red earth, and cacti and cities surrounded by mountains – not to mention the hometown of one of my favourite novelists, Barbara Kingsolver – had drawn me to Arizona on this trip.

After LA, a city to which I think I would struggle to belong, it was fantastic to see a horizon again. As I landed in Phoenix, I was amazed by how flat it was, although flanked by mountains. As I wheeled my luggage out of the terminal, I was hit by a ghastly heat. I’d be told Arizona was a dry heat, like Adelaide, but it felt as muggy as Queensland. My taxi driver was from Yemen (like Sydney, American cities seem to have exotic drivers from all over the world) who had moved here eight years ago and was converting his engineering degree. After a short history of Yemen, he assured me that my hotel, Hotel Valley Ho, was the funkiest in the state. And boy, he was not wrong.

Permit me to gush for a moment: staying at the Valley Ho is like stepping into the past (the 50s and the 70s) and into the future (space age) simultaneously. The colour scheme is bright blue and orange and my bedroom had a bath tub right in the middle. I was in motel heaven, tempted not to leave at all. Ever.

The Amazing Ho

Ahh, but then, of course, I had an aircraft booked. I realized that the airport from which I was flying was in Chandler, and I was staying in Scottsdale (which had its own airport, barely a mile a way. It was time to face my demons; time to hire a car. Having already spent over $300 on cabs, the writing was on the wall. Time to embrace my fear of driving on the other side of the road. Judy, the concierge of great fabulousness at the Ho, organized a car for me, and arranged for the company to come and pick me up. A young gentleman by the name of Nate drove me into town, all the while seeming very entertained by my growing hysteria about changing sides (of the road). “Oh! I would have turned that way, into the oncoming traffic!” I kept declaring, until I decided to shut up, lest he decline me the car.

El Presidente

When we arrived at the ‘rental center’, Nate showed me the cars and said I could have my pick. No convertibles. I requested a small car, and the smallest he could find was a Chevvy Cruse, which was large enough for me to lie down in. I immediately christened it El Presidente, as it looked like a corporate CEO’s wagon. And off I went, keeping more to the right than I had ever done in my life. I missed the mall entirely, forgetting that a right turn is like our left turn, by which I mean you don’t have to cross the traffic. I ended up in the Walmart parking lot and decided to go inside and see if it was true what they say about Walmart. And indeed it was. It’s massive, it’s cheap (I bought a curling iron for $5) and it’s full of badly dressed ‘wide’ people.

To the mantra of ‘keep right’, I made it back to the Ho, where I had a phone call from my instructor from Chandler, Mr Kevin Benhke.

I liked Kevin instantly. Over the phone he told me not to set my heart on the Canyon; there were embedded storm cells forecast, due to this hot, muggy weather, and it wasn’t looking good. He reassured me that he had a fab day planned, whether we made it to the canyon or not, and that he’d be looking forward to this for ages. With Kevin’s passion for aviation apparent over the phone, I felt certain I would have a fab day.

But first, of course, I had to get there. I fired up El Presidente, drove the wrong way round the carpark and then managed to get myself on the correct side of the highway heading south. Driving at 35mph and ignoring the beeps behind me (oh, the LEFT lane is the fast lane!) I made it to Chandler in a little over 30 mins. Kevin was there to greet me, as was Jason, the owner of Wings 270, a fabulous little school with the atmosphere of a club.

The Fabulous Kevin

Kevin is an independent instructor (something I’m pretty sure we don’t have in Oz) who works from Wings 270, splitting the instructor fee with Jason. He is also that very very rare breed of instructor – a career instructor, one with no intention of going to the airlines (for which he would take a pay cut, at a regional level!!) Although currently working part time in his day job as a banker, Kevin is not long off being able to work from his own company, Genesis Fliers, full time. All I can say is, if I could pack him up and take him back to Australia, I would.

Our bird for the day was a 172, a machine with which I have never had an affinity. Next to the 172 was a lovely old Cherry 140, with the “Hershey Bar” wings, but sadly she was too old to climb to the height we required for the canyon. Despite Kevin’s prayer the night before for the storms cells to go away, and my Dance of the CAVOK, the clouds were building up. After a thorough walkaround, we departed Chandler, with Kevin taking care of the radio, and me flying. “Feet off the brakes” became Kevin’s mantra as I taxied the 172 for what seemed like miles to the run up bay. I laughed, as I was reminded of The Coach, and how he used to touch the brake pads after my taxi back to Curtis and get very cross if they were hot. It’s my worst habit, and Kevin was utterly determined to ‘brake’ it. I explained it came from my castoring nose wheel days, but he was having none of it.

C172P 68E

As we took off, I was pleased to see the 172 climbed really well. We navigated Phoenix’s control zone, tracking directly over Sky Harbor International Airport (I love it how they let us track over giant airports!) and set a course for Sedona. One of my objectives was to land at a high altitude airport, and when I heard from Robbs that Sedona was my kinda town (arty farty) I was delighted to be going. Kevin assured me landing there would be an experience, and he certainly wasn’t lying.

overhead Sky Harbor

Although long (over 3000ft) the runway is perched on the top of the mountain. With the temperature already soaring, despite it being early morning, the density altitude for the strip was 7200ft! Due to the hillocks on final, we had to make a high approach and then slip off the height (something I’d never done in a 172, but as SideSlippin Queen, I was in my element!) and we still landed three quarters of the way down the runway (although that was largely due to my ballooning the stupid floaty Cessna).

Beautiful red Sedona

We taxied to the FBO, and as Kevin tied down, I stood there, mouth open, in awe of the beauty of Sedona, perched high in the sky and surrounded by fabulously shaped bright orange mountains. We went inside to check the wx, met the wonderful FBO staff – Cowboy J and Jason, who kept me very entertained – and refuelled the aircraft. Upon checking the weather, Kevin prepared me for the fact that we probably wouldn’t make it, and we made a plan.

The plan was, take off, climb out up to 10,500 and see if we could get over the clouds. Going under wasn’t an option as the terrain was high and the cloud bases low. Kevin discussed the possibility of scud running, but I said I was dead set against, and he looked mightly relieved.

As we took off from Sedona, I commented I wouldn’t want to land here on a windy day, and Kevin told me about the time he did, and how frightful it was, whilst we began the almighty climb to 10,500ft. The first 7,500 were easy, but then the 172 started to tire, and by 8,500 we were barely getting 200fpm. The clouds were rising faster than we could climb and by the time we made it to 10,5000ft it was clear we weren’t going to make it. When Kevin picked up Flagstaff’s ATIS and we heard lightening on the forecast, we made up our minds to land and have lunch at Sedona instead.

With the wind having swung, we took the southern end to land and were greeted by a rather high hillock on final, necessitating another big slip, and another half-way-down-the-strip landing. We tied up, rented a car (a pilot’s special, $10 per hour. I love America) and drove into town to explore....

...to be continued....