Recalling that Solo Flight by Owen Zupp

Owen Zupp - Thursday, April 27, 2017


Recalling that 'Solo Flight'. 


Each year when May rolls around my mind is cast back to my 'There and Back' flight around Australia. It was an amazing journey that was set to the backdrop of Australia's centenary of powered flight and along the way raised funds for the very deserving Royal Flying Doctor Service. The adventure became the book 'Solo Flight' and I still flick through the pages from time to time to rekindle the emotions that the flight stirred in me. So, as May 2017 dawns, I thought I would share with you some thoughts that I penned once the flight was complete. Cheers.


From its earliest conception, my flight around Australia titled ‘There and Back’ was destined to be memorable. However, the degree to which it would exceed expectations could never have been fathomed when I first decided to celebrate the centenary of powered flight in Australia. One can always plan for contingencies, but it is far more difficult to anticipate the majestic range of people and places that this country has on offer.

In Hinkler’s Wake.

When Bert Hinkler arrived home in Bundaberg after his triumphant solo flight from England in 1928, it was a somewhat smaller town that greeted him to than the one that exists today. The modern city is home not only to the Hinkler Hall of Aviation, but a veritable aerospace heartland. Aside from flight training, Bundaberg is home to the development of everything from avionics to entire aeroplanes.

The single-engined J230 that Jabiru Aircraft provided me with for the flight represents only one of around 2,000 airframes and 6,500 engines the company has built. Even before departure it was apparent that this flight was to be as much a wake-up call as a centenary celebration as the greater public is unaware of the work being done in Australia by companies such as Jabiru.

In the days preceding the flight, grey skies and rain showers threatened to rain on the parade as I attended to a number of tasks from practising wheel changes to conducting media interviews. Unlike Hinkler, I had the benefit of 4-day forecasts and synoptic charts and was confident that the weather would be seaward by the morning of departure and fortunately this proved to be the case.

By the time the earth fell away from the wheels at Bundaberg I could confidently say that there was little else left to do but fly the aeroplane. The planning and preparation had been extensive and I had the support of wonderful people in Sydney fielding calls, updating the website and providing a second set of eyes upon my NOTAMS, weather forecasts and flight plans. The job ahead now was to safely and efficiently execute the flight and as I made a left turn south of Rockhampton to leave the coastline for the interior, I did so with a deep breath and a very large grin.

Around We Go.

The trough of low pressure that had loitered over Bundaberg had been pushed off the map by a dominant ‘High’ right over central Australia. The weather was one variable over which I had no control, yet this current situation offered days of clear skies and occasional tailwinds. To such a backdrop I settled into my combined routine of aircraft monitoring, navigation and sightseeing.

The presence of recent rains was immediately reflected below in the green-tinged outback and running creeks. The route had been based upon points of aviation significance and when Longreach loomed in the window at the end of the first day, I was greeted by the unmistakeable forms of a DC-3 and two mighty Boeings, the 707 and 747. Whilst an obvious example, the presence of these aircraft reflected something that I would witness throughout the entire flight, the many different ways remote Australia commemorates its ties with aviation overcoming the tyranny of distance.

Western Australia’s Murchison Station is home to the graves of the early aviators, Ted Broad and Bob Fawcett, who died there in 1921 and the Yorke Peninsula township of Minlaton houses pioneer airman Harry Butler’s scarlet Bristol monoplane in the main street. At every turn there seemed to be a link with our aviation heritage and the brave individuals who forged the frontiers. For a small island nation we had fought well above our weight in the emerging days of aviation and the reminders are everywhere for those who choose to seek them.

As I worked my way anticlockwise around the country, it was not just our aviation past that was evident. The nation continues to find its lifeline in the skies as evidenced by the aeromedical, charter and RPT services that criss-crossed my route each day. Yet the perception remains that flight is somewhat intangible to many folks. However, the sight of a fully loaded two-seat aeroplane weighing less than 600kg seemed to tilt the scales a little. From curious commercial pilots to hangars full of schoolchildren, the sight of a Jabiru and a lone pilot flying around Australia brought aviation back to earth for many. With an array of modern equipment, low running costs and a price tag around those of some four-wheel drive motor vehicles, the skies seemed to be not so far away.

The fact that flight in Australia is quite accessible, feasible and affordable began to register with many of those I encountered. One hundred years in a country strong on distance and rich in aviation had made my remarkable journey, relatively unremarkable. The likes of Hinkler and Kingsford Smith deserve our gratitude making it so.

The Generosity of Strangers.

‘There and Back’ was closely tied to 100 years of flight, but within that century there are precious few years that haven’t featured the amazing work of the Royal Flying Doctor Service. RFDS came into being three months after Hinkler landed in Darwin following his epic flight from England and has saved countless lives over the subsequent eight decades. Through pioneering spirit and resourcefulness, it has grown to over 50 modern aircraft caring for around 750 patients each day and flying over 70,000 hours each year.

It is quite literally the outback’s lifeline, yet it continues to rely upon the support of the broader community to revamp and replace its specialised equipment. As such, my journey grew to have another purpose in raising the awareness of the wonderful work of the RFDS while endeavouring to raise funds for this very worthy cause. At every port of call, someone had a ‘Flying Doctor’ tale and I often held short of the runway as one of their King Airs or PC-12s taxied in to move their priceless payload. I would speak at lunches or evening barbeques and an ice cooler would be passed around or a cheque handed over to pass onto this great Australian institution. And all the while my online donation facility continued to tick towards its fundraising goal of $10,000.

The generosity was extended beyond donations in countless gestures along the way. From the refueller at Carnarvon to the caravan park at Port Lincoln, everyone wanted to make this journey a success and highlight the work of RFDS. The warmth of the community and the evenings spent chatting over a meal from Forrest on the Nullarbor to Tasmania’s Tamar Valley was a very pleasant reminder of this great country’s heart. It is always a joy to fly beyond one’s regular boundaries, but so often it is the people as much as the places that make the experience unforgettable.

Keep on Keeping On.

Irrespective of the sector length, preflight preparation is paramount in safely undertaking any flight. For ‘There and Back’, in the event of adverse weather, alternate routes had been planned and, on occasions, utilised. To cater for enroute emergencies, I carried food rations and water, life jackets and beacons, space blankets and first aid kits. Yet, aside from the weather, the other variable was aircraft reliability.

To this end, my equipment included a spare wheel, tool kit, oil and filters amongst other items. However, besides a small crack to a wheel spat from a wayward rock at Barkly Homestead, the Jabiru did not miss a beat. For over 7,000 nautical miles the Australian built airframe and engine averaged 117 knots TAS and sipped around 24 litres per hour. It was called upon to climb out in 32 degrees of humid Territorian heat and cold start at Launceston in near freezing temperatures. It was asked to keep humming along over the remote Kimberley, Bass Strait and the ‘shark-rich’ waters of the Spencer Gulf.

Virtually all categories of airspace were encountered along the way as well and while the RA-Aus call-sign of “Jabiru 7381” occasionally necessitated a repeat call, the transponder-equipped Jabiru J230 encountered no procedural issues at all. In fact, everyone from airport managers to ATC and Airservices were extremely helpful in every State and Territory. The marvel of the iPhone and the ability to access such facilities as NAIPS and weather radars further reminded me of how far we had come since the pioneers flew with an atlas and a strip map on their laps.

Yet, for all the technology, there is still no substitute for sound airmanship principles. Reminiscent of my days as a young outback charter pilot, I religiously kept in-flight logs and navigated with reference to my visual charts. GPS is a tremendous tool, but it is just one spanner, not the entire tool-kit. Adhering to the fundamentals of flight management and incorporating the new technology can lead to tremendous situational awareness; conversely, blindly following a GPS is fraught with potential danger.

The Lucky Country Below.

A question frequently posed by the media was whether I was ever bored. Aside from managing the aircraft and its flight path, the scenery below was absolutely captivating and boredom never entered my mind. Over the course of such a flight, it is the diversity of the scenery that can leave the overwhelming impression. That is not to say that there are individual sights that take the breath away. The majestic Lake Argyle in the Kimberley region or the serene endlessness of the Nullarbor Plain are both very moving in their own particular ways. However, when you can depart the coastal port of Broome over pristine aqua waters and track along pure white beaches before striking the rustic, red of the Pilbara within an hour, it is nothing short of inspiring. This diversity of colour, wildlife and inhabitation essentially demonstrated the full spectrum of scenic Australia.

To take in such a view from between 500 and 5,000 feet, enables one to really embrace the richness of the terrain. The land below has real detail and the passage of the shadows as the day develops provides yet another perspective on the rich canvas below. There are long abandoned ruins of long forgotten towns and flocks of birds that give the impression of a vast blanket skimming from paddock to paddock. Even the so-called ‘remote’ regions stimulate the senses with their jagged, jutting ridges and gun-barrel roads between distant settlements. It is a truly amazing land.

Specifically I will always recall, parking the Jabiru beside a 75 Squadron FA-18 Hornet at Tindal and the warmth of a luncheon with the folks at Minlaton in South Australia where they performed a song to remember their local aviation hero, Harry Butler. The silence of my verandah at Forrest as I breathed in the stillness of the Nullarbor and the drama of the cliffs where the land meets the crashing waves of the Great Australian Bight. Visiting my father’s grave at Toowoomba and Point Cook where his own aviation journey had begun so many years ago, while the ‘welcome home’ hugs of my wife and kids were to be cherished. This list goes on as one would expect after such a tremendous expedition.

Back From There.

With the flight safely completed and the last of the media commitments met, I stayed on in Bundaberg with my family for a few days to gather my thoughts. In a busy schedule, it was the first real opportunity to reflect and absorb the events of the wonderful weeks that had passed. With each day another anecdote was recalled from my diary or one of 700 photographs and 30 hours of footage.

I was truly fortunate to have the opportunity to see this great land so intimately, yet it is something within the reach of most appropriately experienced pilots. It need not be solo, although there is a deal of satisfaction and time for thought that only lone flight can offer. Whatever a pilots boundaries may be, there is much to be said for safely extending them in every sense.

Personally I was able to celebrate a landmark of Australian aviation and share that with countless people along the way, while the Jabiru’s form reminded them of the grass roots of flight. To raise awareness of the Royal Flying Doctor’s contribution not only to an industry, but a nation was very satisfying and the ability to reach my target of raising $10,000 was the icing on the cake.

I am sure that this journey and the people and places will remain with me for many years to come. It was an opportunity to combine a lifelong dream and passion with a commemoration and a cause far beyond the magnitude of any individual. Australia’s proud aviation heritage is something to cherish and build upon in the finest traditions of innovation and safety. For now, I count myself as being truly fortunate and will never again view a map of Australia in the same way. Nor will I forget the month of May when I was able to take to the skies from Bundaberg and fly There and Back’.



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