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


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....


  1. "Permit me to gush for a moment". That's like asking for permission to wear high-heels! :-)

    Sir Jimmy


  2. Who got to be a part time member of the Cessna Pilots Club?

  3. Love this write up friend! Thanks for the kind words. It has become one of my most memorable flights to date! :-)