Solo Flight. Chapter 12. By Owen Zupp.

Owen Zupp - Monday, January 01, 2018


A Hornet's Nest.


Day Three. Barkly Homestead - Katherine - Darwin. 


I rise early once again having slept deeply for every minute. My memories have never haunted me or stirred me from sleep. Even as a nineteen-year-old paramedic I was able to stow those images best forgotten and carry on with life as I knew it and my recollections of my father at Barkly that night were no exception.


I consume some cereal and fruit, sling my kit bag over my shoulder and make my way by torchlight across Barkly to the waiting Jabiru. Cool, dark and quiet. These moments before dawn are magical. I unlash the aircraft from its lodgings and load my gear on board. Getting creative, I set up my tripod and camera to record my preflight routine once the sun has risen. Slowly as the daylight arrived, it became obvious that I was no actor.


First my attempts to film my preflight inspection are thwarted by poor camera positioning and then pushing the aircraft into the clearing takes four attempts as it was sitting in slight gully. All I captured up to that point was some quality footage of me acquiring a hernia. Finally the filming starts to take shape and once again the crowd has gathered to watch the lone pilot and his little aeroplane. Once again I pull the Jabiru a few hundred yards through the fine dirt and eroded ridges to a safe place to start the engine and get underway.


As I creep back along the dirt track to the runway, the Jabiru’s elongated shadow keeps me company and I pass the shredded wind-sock one more time. It doesn’t matter now as the early morning is without the slightest puff of a breeze. The long trek has given the engine more than adequate time to warm up, so after the final pre-take-off checks, I open the throttle and get day three underway.  As I depart overhead I can still see the small gathering of folks below waving goodbye. I waggled the wings in recognition of their good wishes and head for the Royal Australian Air Force base at Katherine; RAAF Tindal.


With the sun and wind at my back, it is a four-hour sector across to Tindal. After the first hour I chew on another muesli bar and turn the Jabiru from west to a more northerly heading over Tennant Creek. Here, just out of town there is a memorial to the late Reverend John Flynn, the founder of the RFDS, but other than that there is very little to interrupt the endless scenery ahead. Lake Woods passes down the left-hand side boasting a substantial amount of water, while the hamlet of Elliott and its mandatory airstrip sits to the north. Onwards I fly with the highway never very distant, passing through Daly Waters, Mataranka and Elsey Station where the book, “We of the Never Never” was set and many of its characters are now at rest.


Elliott. Northern Territory.

Out of radio range to receive the latest weather reports, the marvel of modern technology of the iPhone allows me to still access the conditions and runway in use at Tindal. I had organised my arrival at the RAAF base well in advance as a special clearance was required at this joint military-civil installation. The air force has been very helpful throughout the process and we even exchanged some photos in the preceding weeks. For RAAF Tindal is home to Australia’s No. 75 Squadron, flying the FA-18 Hornet fighter jet. By coincidence, yet again, my father had served with 75 Squadron for a period flying somewhat older fighters than those that now tear up the skies over Katherine.



While the weather is fine, my descent into Tindal provides me with the first real turbulence of the trip. It is now late morning and as the day warms up, invisible heated parcels of air begin to rise into the atmosphere. These rising bubbles bump and bounce the Jabiru around unkindly so I slow down to minimise the jolting on the airframe. Even so, the buffeting continues as I manoeuvre to land with one eye on the runway and the other enviously surveying the impressive line-up of Hornet fighters.


Over the fence at Tindal.


On the ground, my first port of call is the fuel bowser and then a group of sixty school-children who have come to see the Jabiru and hear a little about the history of flight in Australia. They already know a great deal about the Flying Doctors. It is an enjoyable hour chatting with the kids, even if they throw me questions out of left-field such as, “Where’s the toilet?” Taking time to spread the word of aviation among potential pilots of the future is an important part of the flight, but as the minutes ticked away, I still have another appointment with the RAAF and the rest of the day’s flying to Darwin.

A great group of kids at Tindal.

By the time I arrive on the air force’s side of the airfield I am running late. Sadly, the Chief of the Air Force, Air Marshall Mark Binskin had just departed but there is still a tremendous turn-out by the RAAF. Not only have they conveniently parked a Hornet for a photo opportunity, but these central Australian service personnel have passed the hat around at the front gate and raised $500 for the RFDS. As a farewell gift, I am given an official 75 Squadron ‘Magpie’ patch and a drink cooler that I will undoubtedly use when the day is over. I am overwhelmed by both the reception and the generosity at Tindal, but it is time to go. With the day growing older, the turbulence will also be growing in strength.


The Jabiru is in fine company with this 75 Squadron Hornet.


Once again the road winds its way northward and so do I. The flight is not as rough as I had anticipated as I settle in for the run into Darwin. Thirsty as always, I continually hydrate by drinking copious amounts of water and yet the Katherine’s schoolchildren’s fears never eventuate and a toilet isn’t needed in flight. The township of Batchelor comes and goes, but not without notice. During World War Two it had been a major air force base and a strategic element in the defence of Australia. In fact, the further north I fly, the more old airstrips became apparent. Scratched into the scrub and generally not far from the road, these forgotten runways had once provided a place to land for aircraft ranging from bombers to the classic Spitfire fighters. Now I overfly them in far more peaceful skies.


Further north, the state’s capital of Darwin is my rich in even more distant aviation history. For Darwin was Australia’s northern outpost where those first pioneer aviators first made landfall on their flights from Mother England. Sir Ross and Keith Smith, Bert Hinkler and even Amelia Earhart transited the Northern Territory’s capital. I ponder that thought for the moment and check my top pocket where Hinkler’s autograph is carefully stowed.


The turbulence I anticipated may not have been forthcoming, but now the visibility begins to decrease as the air about me fills with smoke. May is a prime month for controlled ‘burn-offs’ in the Northern Territory and now that smoke is all around me. Between the GPS and good old-fashioned map reading, I carefully steer my course and ready to enter the Darwin’s controlled airspace. With so many people following the flight on the internet I am very careful to fly by-the-book and I don’t want to inadvertently penetrate airspace without permission, even if the visibility was poor.


From Batchelor, I track via Manton Dam and fifteen minutes later the air is clear and Darwin lies dead ahead. Like Mount Isa, Darwin was no stranger to me as I often fly the Boeing there, but the approach to land is far tighter when you’re in a two-seat Jabiru. In a matter of minutes, I am on the ground after nearly six hours of flight time. As always, I refuel and unpack the Jabiru only this time I am met by the Lord Mayor of Darwin, Mr. Graeme Sawyer. Not a small man, he is keen to try the Jabiru on for size and climbs aboard to get a feel for the cockpit.


The Lord Mayor of Darwin tries on the Jabiru for size.

We chatted for quite some time before I finally make my way beyond the airport fence where I meet John Zupp for the first time. He has kindly offered to drive me to my hotel room which wasn’t far away, but it would be a long-haul with my gear at the end of a taxing day. We speak about the flight and work out how we are related. It turns out that his grandfather was my father’s uncle and had lost his leg in France during World War One.

Bert relaxing at the end of a long day.

Back in my room the daily routine of flight planning, blogging and phone interviews is supplemented by a load of laundry. I send a photo of Bert to the kids and call them before a good meal of Chinese food and still even more iced water. My day is over and I lie down, falling straight into a deep sleep.


Then my world erupts when the phone rings beside my head. Thinking it was a wake-up call, I sit bolt upright before realising that it was not the hotel phone, but my mobile phone. My heart racing with the surge of adrenalin, I answer the incoming call from a number I don’t recognise. It is Flight Service, querying a detail on the next day’s flight plan. I gather my thoughts and provide them with the information they require before hanging up and looking at the clock. It wasn’t wake-up was midnight. Ugh!


    Owen Zupp is a father of four, published author and commercial airline pilot.


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