The Pilatus PC-21. By Owen Zupp.

Owen Zupp - Friday, September 29, 2017
 

 

RAAF PC-21 

 

 

This week I was very privileged to be the first 'civilian' to fly the RAAF's new Pilatus PC-21.

 

My most sincere thanks to everyone that made this possible.

 

 

RAAF PC-21

Solo Flight. Chapter 2. By Owen Zupp

Owen Zupp - Thursday, September 28, 2017

 

 

Chapter 2. Solo Around the World?

 

 

They say that a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. My journey began sitting down.

 

The credits were still running on the documentary about Ewan MacGregor’s motorcycle trek when I turned to my wife and suggested that I should fly around the world solo. Yes, alone. Unstartled, her measured reply was that maybe I should start with flying around Australia. And so the deal was struck.

 

This exchange with my wife occurred many months before my wheels would leave the ground, however the genesis of such a flight was even more deeply rooted in my past. As a young charter pilot I had driven with my father to the far side of Australia to a new job in the Kimberley township of Kununurra. Each day as we set out on that week-long drive, I was increasingly overwhelmed by the raw, expansive beauty of the land. Horizons too far away on which to focus and bounding kangaroos too close to my car for comfort.

 

Unloading freight in the Kimberleys

 

To this raw, red dirt backdrop, my Dad and I agreed to fly across Australia together one day. We had already shared a cockpit many times over the years, including those hours when he had taught me to fly. There had been many memorable moments: words of wisdom aloft, informal lunches in the shade of a wing and the odd quiet word between a father and son. Aviation had been the common thread between us from the time I was a boy when he had hoisted me up to peer into cockpits through cupped hands. It had been a common language throughout my teenage years that had meant our communication never suffered. He then mentored me until I could fly in my own right, and now it seemed like it was time for us to share the sky across Australia as peers. But that day never came.

 

Within a year, cancer had my father in its vile grip. The old warrior who had never walked away from a fight had finally met an enemy that he could not best. He fought each battle with the knowledge that ultimately his war was lost. He was a hero to the end, until that dark morning when his chest rose for the final time. He gasped, and then relaxed into the longest slumber.

 

Dad in his fighter jet during the Korean War

 

Twenty years later, his loss seemed so far away and yet still so vivid. I now sat in my own home with the fire warming the room and my own children beside me. Part of me felt selfish for wanting to disappear for a few weeks and soar through the skies without them, but something had been stirred inside me and I knew the time for the flight had come.

 

It was 2009 and the following year would mark the centenary of powered flight in Australia, when the visiting American escape artist Harry Houdini had slipped the handcuffs of gravity and taken his frail flying machine into the skies. So, 2010 seemed to be an ideal time to celebrate the event by flying around Australia. The first box was ticked. However, other boxes started to emerge at a startling rate. Accommodation, fuel availability, route selection, emergency equipment, and so on. Not to mention that I might also need an aeroplane.

 

As I looked at the sea of charts unfolded on my dining table, I sought to select the most appropriate route for May the following year. That month presented the best chance of favourable weather and advantageous winds. Geographically, there were certain aviation-significant places I wanted to visit, as well as landmarks from my own life and career. In the time frame available, I wouldn’t be able to crawl around the entire coastal strip of this island continent and anyway, so much aviation history was connected to the remote inland. I circled towns, drew lines and measured distances.

 

Piece by piece, the flight began to take shape. Now I stepped back and looked at the pencil lines that circled my nation, and for the first time it struck me that this was quite a journey, even for someone with thirty years experience. I was acutely aware of safety as my first priority and considered the route in terms of terrain, water crossings and what equipment I would need to cater for all contingencies. If I couldn’t execute the flight safely, then it couldn’t be done at all. As they say, “Mission First. Safety Always.”

 

Charts, flight plans and crumpled paper

 

My head began to spin. Would there be media coverage? Should I have a website? Should I give the flight a name? There were so many secondary issues beyond the act of flight. In fact, taking to the skies seemed like it would be the easiest aspect of the undertaking. I knew that preparation was paramount, and I had to focus on the core priorities. I set about a strategy to have everything in order from the ground up, for the success of the flight operationally would hinge upon the work in these months before departure.

 

With a basic route drafted, I could now grasp what was required of an aircraft to undertake the journey. My own little Piper Tomahawk was sitting in the hangar, but it didn’t seem to be suited for the task. It was 30 years old and only cruised at about 95 knots, or 175 kilometres an hour. Furthermore, its endurance was such that the longest sector it could manage would only be about 4 hours before a fuel stop would be necessary. On a 7,500 nautical mile-journey, all of these operational constraints excluded the Tomahawk from being considered.  

 

My trusty little Piper Tomahawk

 

In choosing an aeroplane, firstly I assessed what I wanted the aircraft to be capable of. Ideally it would cover at least 2 miles each minute; that’s a speed of 120 knots. It would be able to fly for more than 4 hours at that speed and land with reserve fuel still safely in the tanks. That would give me 500-mile legs if I needed them, which was at least 100 miles more than the Tomahawk could offer and at a higher speed. I would not always land at major airfields on sealed runways, so the aircraft had to be capable of outback operations. Philosophically, I also wanted the aircraft to send a positive message about aviation in Australia.

 

Rather than a rich man’s hobby, I wanted to demonstrate the affordability and accessibility of aviation in Australia. A business jet might make the flight a breeze, but it wouldn’t send the message that I wanted folks to receive. I needed an affordable, light aircraft with suitable performance that could carry the banner for Australia’s centenary of flight. But which aircraft would do that?


 

 Read the full story of 'Solo Flight' here.

 

 

Solo Flight. Chapter 1. by Owen Zupp

Owen Zupp - Monday, September 18, 2017

 

 

Chapter 1. Solo Flight. 

 

Another mile and another minute passes. Uneventful and yet awe-inspiring.

Perched at altitude in my small two-seat aeroplane, the canvas below me is the vast Australian landscape. Beautifully remote, I sit in isolation with nothing but my thoughts and the task of flight to distract me from the view outside the cockpit. The instruments in front of me and the gentle hum of the controls beneath my hands assure me that all is right with the trusty little Jabiru as it cuts through air that is so very still.

 

It is too early in the day for the bubbles of warm air to rise and buffet me about the sky. So cool and calm, with the coastline behind me and the raw, rich reds of the inland ahead. Amidst this barren beauty a lone patch of white seems to be wafting above the terrain like a ghostly quilt. I tilt my head and alter my focus, trying to define the sight ahead, below and to my left. I nudge the Jabiru like a trusty horse and she moves her nose towards the alabaster carpet, gaining on it at an impressive rate.

 

Now closer, my eyes focus and see the faults in the stitching. For rather than a massive blanket, it is made up of many miniscule moving parts. Wings, like mine, but very much smaller. Waving gracefully in tight formation, this is not a renegade paddock or field, but a massive flock of birds moving south. Their graceful harmony of flight makes my man-made attempt look relatively primitive and I admire the ease with which they wheel to the left as one and continue on their way.

 

Geographically I am as far from home as I can be and still be flying over Australian soil. Surrounded by the country’s majesty it’s hard to decide if I am half way from my origin, or half way to my destination. I long for the familiarity of family and yet what I have witnessed as Australia has passed by will be with me forever. There have been sights as varied as the crashing waves on rocky shores to the remote stock routes threading like capillaries across this nation. Military jet fighters have rested a wing tip away and retired giants of the sky towered over me, never to fly again. Thriving cities and isolated ghost towns. Colours, sounds, sights and smells that change with every new horizon.

 

There is still a way to go and yet already this journey has changed me forever. This wide brown land that I call home has spoken to me in a way that can only be heard amongst the clouds and clear blue skies. And I have had to listen carefully, not distracted by the voices of others or the pressures of the day-to-day grind. To truly hear the land and understand the magic that is all around me I have had to be alone; all alone, on this solo flight.

 Listen to the Podcast of 'Solo Flight' here.

The View From Up There.

Owen Zupp - Sunday, September 17, 2017

 

 

 

Flying allows us mere mortals to tread lightly about the threshold of another world. The sky is a vast expanse that shrouds our planet in alternating shades of blue and darkness. By night, it is peppered with a billion shards of starlight and by day the solitary sun burns with the same heat that melted the wings of Icarus. Still we fortunate few venture forth into this rarefied atmosphere to cast our eyes back in wonder at planet earth.

 

Still, this same sky constantly changes. Its canvas is subjected to the extremes of night and day and the subtleties of water vapour that combine into clouds. These white whisps can be inches thick or tower into the heavens, raining down hail and lightning. These same clouds can buffet our vehicles of flight or offer us a rare glimpse of our relative speed as we skim along their tops, our wheels seemingly tracing tracks amongst the droplets.

 

For all of this brute force and beauty, dawn and dusk remains a special time. As day and night creep further into the sky, the world can sometimes be seen carving its own shadow against the stars. However, it is the rich oranges blending into the darkest of blues that so often produce the most drama as nature’s ‘time lapse’ marks the day’s mid-points with a light show fit for the Gods.

 

As I took flight this last morning, I headed east towards the sun erupting above the waves in the east. Its molten rays bounced off the ceiling of stratus cloud creating a channel of fire trapped between earth and sky. As I wheeled back to the west, that same blaze slipped quickly into my periphery, replaced by the darkness of the retreating night. Below, the coastal lights dotted the shore while above the stars dotted the night’s final act.

 

As I raced towards the night it was obvious that there was no escaping the day. Like fishing net being cast by the lone fisherman it gradually overwhelmed the darkness overhead until it had me firmly within its grasp. In all directions, the light blue tones of day swallowed the last tinkling stars and the black earth below came into view. The mountain ranges now cast long shadows and the frost in the fields gave them a greyish hue.

Another day had arrived and the sky readied itself once again for the subtleties of wind and weather before the day once again became night. We that fly are privileged to see this majestic display that is repeated every day with military precision and yet differing with every dawn at the hand of nature’s chaos. For some the sky is the limit, to others it is the pilot’s theatre.

How Kim Jong-un helped me...and he didn't even know it. By Owen Zupp.

Owen Zupp - Sunday, September 17, 2017

 

(A Silk 'Escape Map' carried on 201 missions over North Korea.) 

 

How Kim Jong-un helped me…and he didn’t even know it.

 

For a long time, I have been grateful for and recognised the service of our veterans from the Korean War. Caught between the enormity of World War Two and the controversy of the Vietnam War, Korea came to be known by many as ‘The Forgotten War’. In fact, I even had a school teacher once try and tell me that I was mistaken – there was no war in Korea. I knew better.

My father had served in Korea, flying 201 missions as a fighter pilot. He had been decorated and wounded, not that he was one to mention it. Consequently, every time I spoke of my father’s service, people knew of World War Two, where he’d served as an Army commando, and his post-war stint based out of Hiroshima. However, Korea was always met with a quizzical expression. Thanks to Kim Jong-un, that is no longer the case.

Invariably news reports are now relating the history of the conflict on the Korean Peninsula as they describe the current events and missile launches taking place. They relate how tension had been brewing on the Korean Peninsula since 1945 when Japan surrendered the territory they had previously occupied for thirty-five years. Initially, the United Nations moved towards re-unification, however, just as Berlin had been split into ‘East and West’ in the wake of World War Two, Korea became divided into North and South along the 38th parallel of latitude.

To the north of the 38th parallel existed Stalin-backed communist rule, while to the south, President Truman of the United States supported a democratic republic. The two world powers stared each other down and the Korean Peninsula was the stage. Stalin bet that Truman wouldn’t risk nuclear war over such a remote peninsula and before sunrise on the 25th of June 1950, the North invaded the South. Stalin was wrong.

My father served there through 1951 and 1952 and was stationed not far from Seoul at an air base in Kimpo. I have detailed his service in my book, ‘Without Precedent’ and until now, many have told me that it was their first glimpse into the Korean War.

While we all hold out that peace will prevail on the Korean Peninsula, at least now the efforts of our veterans of the Korean War may not be as forgotten, thanks to Kim-Jong-un.

Lest We Forget.

 

Ansett Revisited by Owen Zupp

Owen Zupp - Saturday, September 16, 2017

 

 

 Ansett Revisited.

 

By Owen Zupp

 

Unbelievably, sixteen years have passed since Ansett Australia closed both its doors and a significant chapter in Australian aviation history. Yet beneath the headlines and industry fallout, the collapse of the airline had a very real personal toll. The individual experiences that followed ranged from suicide to success, but universally there was some degree of scar tissue.

 

The End.

The demise of Ansett Australia was unfortunately a little like watching a train wreck in slow motion. It was approaching ever closer and everyone was just hoping that the signal would switch from red to green; but it didn’t. Much has been written about the Air New Zealand factor, ageing fleets and News Limited’s apparent disinterest in the airline industry. You know, the old “great airline, lousy business” quote.

 

From the inside, the issues seemed quite apparent to many of the staff and yet the train continued to rattle along. Unfortunately, for staff much of the ‘inside information’ was to be gleaned from the Financial Review, rather than official company communiqués and the news was rarely good. In the final weeks, you would walk through the terminal with the newsagent billboards constantly reminding you of the airline’s dilemma and imminent collapse. It took a degree of discipline and a healthy sense of humour to maintain the focus on flying the aeroplane and preserve safety as the top priority amidst the media barrage. Yet for me, the most telling report did come from the company in the form of a memo advising crews that meals would no longer be provided on board the aeroplane. We were reminded to not only maintain an adequate level of sustenance while on duty, but to avoid delaying flights if we stopped for take-away food in the terminal. Actually, when I think about it, a sense of humour was mandatory.

 

The phone rang in the middle of the night on September 11th and I switched on the television to witness the surreal events unfolding in New York. The sight of Boeing airliners plunging into skyscrapers like daggers and the collapsing goliaths of the Twin Towers are images that will remain with us all forever. My wife and I had been at the top of those towers only weeks before and my thoughts flashed immediately to the character-filled lady that had sold me a donut; what was her fate? Closer to home I knew that this meant the end for Ansett.

 

Three days later I was scheduled for an early morning start to crew the first service of the day, Flight One to Melbourne. The news the previous evening had not been good as the TV related the airline’s impending death. In the wee hours, I called the crewing officers to verify the company’s ongoing existence and was advised the operations were normal. However, when I stood outside the Ansett terminal at Sydney, unable to open the automatic doors, I sensed that all was not right. Standing with stranded passengers, I was embarrassingly directed to Valet Parking by a security guard on the other side of the glass, where I accessed the terminal by the back door. I was escorted to the crew room and emptied my pigeon hole of mail before being escorted off the premises once again. There were no water cannons from fire trucks or final parking of the brakes for Ansett pilots; just an ignominious administrative process.

 

Across the network, the scene was played out in varying forms. I was fortunately stranded in my home base, but for hundreds they were abandoned in ports near and far. There were tales of generosity by hire car companies that ferried crews free of charge while conversely others were being bailed up in foyers by hotel staff demanding the payment of room tariffs. Most disturbingly, some received the news from the company in flight by ACARS and had to fly on knowing that they were now unemployed. By whichever means the word was received, it was not good.

 

Where to from here?

The immediate fallout from the collapse was really a blend of false hope and confusion. Ansett Mk. II was mooted as an option, but the reality was that the odds were always stacked against it. Employees gathered together in mutual consolation and endeavoured to call information ‘hot-lines’ that were always engaged. Resumes and log books were hurriedly updated and job applications were already underway.

 

For some pilots, the limbo was filled by the offer of contract work by other airlines and this covered the breach in the short term, yet unbelievably some Ansett management moved to block this process claiming that the pilots were still employed by the now defunct entity. Similarly, some refused to provide references to their pilots who now faced a very uncertain future. They were days of chaos and the individuals were best advised to carve their own path and see if anything positive emerged from the ruins; waiting for that as a lone hope was fraught with frustration.

 

To this backdrop there were very sad instances of suicide. I don’t know if it can necessarily be claimed that they were the direct result of the airline’s failure, but undoubtedly the growing confusion and pressure would not have helped anyone in a fragile state of mind. Personally, when I was offered a contract position, I rang a manager directly to discuss my options. I received a very disinterested response which included, “I’ve never heard of you” and “Are you new?” An interesting answer considering that I’d been with the company for the best part of a decade and Ansett hadn’t recruited for many years. More to the point, I have reflected how such an inept, callous reply would have affected me if I was teetering on the brink.

 

Amidst the disarray, pilots scattered far and wide. Ansett had not required its pilots to necessarily hold a pass in Year 12 Physics and this proved a bizarre stumbling block for many highly experienced pilots seeking employment elsewhere. In the early days, many migrated abroad by fleet; 737 pilots to New Zealand, the UK and Japan and 767 pilots to Europe, while the Ansett Mark II carrot was dangled for the Airbus A320 crews. Meanwhile, the aircraft started disappearing almost overnight, returned to lessors or ferried to Melbourne where they awaited sale or the scrapper’s guillotine.

 

Ultimately, the company entered administration under the mantle of Mentha and Korda. Financial uncertainty was the major element of many employees’ distress and the wait to sell of assets was destined to be a slow process. There was some initial relief provided by the Federal Government in covering the eight weeks redundancy pay that was owed to employees. This was made available through a loan which was subsequently repaid by the travelling public in the form of a “ticket levy”. However, accusations continue that the ticket levy was prolonged unnecessarily and ultimately raised far more money than the employees ever saw.

 

For the employees who were owed over $750 million in entitlements, the administrator’s payments have continued to trickle in over the last ten years, but budgeting on one cent of this money was never really an option. The final superannuation and entitlement payments are now looming and will represent a return of 95 cents in the dollar, which is a good effort in terms of collapsed companies. Even so, many employees never regained the career footing they once held and their family and financial lives were changed forever.

 

 

 

The Road Less Travelled.

The demise of Ansett forced the pilot body to face the reality that an airline job in Australia was no longer necessarily a job for life. In 2001, this was quite a mindset to overcome and the speed with which many adapted is a critical lesson in coping with such a setback.

 

For many, their careers have flourished in the wake of Ansett. They have flown aircraft they never would have operated and seen ports they would never have previously imagined. While many set sail for foreign shores, a good number simply side-stepped to other Australian carriers. Some have risen to hold Chief Pilot positions with major airlines, while others have bounced back to managerial roles of a training, technical, or developmental nature. A few also joined the ATSB and CASA in Flight Operations roles and now cast a watchful eye over the industry. Others have left aviation altogether and pursued careers as varied as property developers and university lecturers to successful coffee chain owners. There was indeed life after Ansett.

 

The Comfort Zone.

 

Unfortunately, not all of the employees have shared the fruitful gains of their former workmates. For many, they were unable to subsequently find gainful employment in aviation, while others who did watched their careers stall or go backwards. The shift to foreign soil was advantageous for some, but for others the move or the nomadic nature of contract flying and commuting proved wearing on the family environment. A large number have found their way home to Australia through the airlines that have been born in the aftermath of Ansett.

 

Whichever path was chosen or thrust upon the Ansett employees, there were some core, unassailable truths learnt with devastating effect. Primarily, that in the modern world, very little is forever. Airline employees like their corporate cousins are now critically susceptible to the ebb and flow of global economies and re-structuring. Airlines in Australia were once a ‘job for life’, but that falsehood came crashing down around our ears in 2001. It was a lesson that most other professions, and several American airlines, had learnt in the preceding decades. Those employees saw a number of career changes on their horizon and learnt to plan a fall-back position. Many Ansett employees have never felt secure, or expected security, in their employment ever since. This is part of their legacy and also one of their scars.

 

This insecurity need not be a negative as evidenced by the array of staff that has gone onto bigger and better things. In many instances, employees were forced off the treadmill and out of their comfort zone and it actually proved to have a positive effect on their life, if not necessarily their career. Additionally, as other professions already knew, the pursuit of ongoing education is an insurance policy and an escape clause should things go to the wall once again. I realised this very early on after the collapse when a Centrelink consultant advised me that I was “highly skilled, but totally unemployable”. My past life as a Paramedic was far more relevant to the real world than the thousands of hours of flight experience I had accrued, so I headed off to university to attain some recognised qualifications.

 

Ansett Revisited.

Anyone who lived through the Ansett collapse was changed in some way; whether it was a true watershed moment, or simply the infusion of some healthy suspicion. Regardless, things had definitely not gone to plan, so some re-adjustments on the run were required by one and all.

 

Personally, I was very fortunate. My line in the sand was to fly professionally and remain in the family home we had built. I have intentionally accumulated qualifications independent of my flying and created a buffer zone for my career, but harbour no degree of complacency about future job security. Equally, I recognise that not all of my fellow Ansett pilots have been so lucky, while others have blown me out of the water in the career stakes. Such is the nature of any major upheaval on a workforce.

 

What Ansett’s passing reinforced is one’s world can change significantly overnight. Childhood aspirations can be dashed and life’s plans changed irreversibly by elements that are effectively out of the individual’s hands. A confronting concept for pilot’s who live in a world of relative order and planning. Nor does this mean that it must always be a negative experience, but it should be a scenario considered just as one caters for an alternate airport.

 

The aviation climate in Australia has changed incredibly over the last decade, from 9/11 to low cost carriers and beyond. The human face of that change is often glossed over, but for former Ansett employees there will always be a level of wariness borne of experience. If asked, would they wish to go through it all again? Definitely not! Are they proud to have been associated with a great airline, but a lousy business? Absolutely!

 

 

 

 

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