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Archive for the ‘Aviation Stories’ Category

The Sydney Harbour Bridge is a well known Australian landmark; I have driven my car over it, taken a train daily to school over it, been a passenger on a ship underneath it, yet I have never flown a small plane near it.  That was to change on my great Australian Air Trip in 2006. One of the highlights of my trip was getting clearance to fly at 1500 feet above Sydney Harbour in circular orbits near Sydney City, Harbour Bridge and the Opera House.  The one hour flight took weeks of planning, reading maps and understanding what the procedures were since this was so close to Sydney International Airport. One of the local pilots even told me sometimes Air Traffic Control (ATC) will deny clearance if they are too busy handling jets that always take priority.

Well the day came and after submitting a flight plan and convincing a couple of passengers to trust me with their life in a small plane I departing Warnervale Airfield north of Sydney towards the city. My first hurdle was at Sydney’s Northern Beaches just outside of controlled airspace where I needed to get clearance to fly any closer to the city. ATC made me circle here for about 15 minutes which felt like forever and after identifying me on radar gave me clearance to orbit on the city side of the Harbour Bridge and to maintain 1500 feet at all times.  It was a surreal experience as below 1000 feet I could see helicopters operating and further in the distance above 2500 feet I could see large jets approaching Sydney Airport. Not to mention the constant background noise of Airline Pilots communicating to ATC as I was on the same frequency as them. We saw some Harbour Bridge climbers wave at us and I even managed to take some pictures of the landmarks before my allocated time was up. I flew back to Warnervale Airfield and landed safely to the relief of one of my passengers who told me that he had never been in a small plane before yet really enjoyed the view of Sydney!

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I love exploring country Australia.  There seems to be something  deeply nostalgic about hanging out in small Australian country towns and the journey getting to them.  It is almost like time stands still, locals say hello to you when you walk in the street and generally there is a relaxed feeling being there.  Albury is one of those places on the NSW/VIC border.

From Hobart, Albury is approximately a 6 hour flight in a light aircraft. It is an early morning start preparing the plane and then departing Hobart Airport for the most north eastern tip of Tasmania, then a turn north to fly over Flinders Island (maybe a stop depending on time) and then a track north west across Bass Strait towards Moorabbin Airport (Melbourne).  If all has gone to plan it is time for lunch around 1pm, a short break and a refuelling of the plane before departing Melbourne for Albury which is under 2 hours away.

Approaching Albury close to 4pm flying the light aircraft starts to get tiresome, there is no autopilot, no GPS, air traffic control is barking specific instructions; it is very easy to get lost if you do not stay ahead of the aircraft when navigating with just a map, compass and clock.  Finally I arrive over Albury and join the circuit pattern and land on runway 25 as the sun starts to set.  I taxi the aircraft to the parking area, tie it up and then start making some calls to work out where I can stay for the night.

Having sorted out some accommodation I head towards the main terminal and find a taxi and make my way into town.  Being driven into town by taxi feels a little strange as I have been flying a plane for pretty much the whole day and it is hard not doing anything.  I arrive at the hotel and now start to feel really tired.  It has been a long day, nevertheless after a short rest I head out for a good steak and beer at the pub. The locals are friendly there seems to be some good local entertainment.  I really like Albury and while many people just drive past it without much thought I think it is a worthwhile town to spend a day or two in, maybe even exploring the Albury Art Gallery in the iconic, heritage listed Town Hall.

Stories from 2006…

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One of the questions one thinks about when crossing Bass Strait in a single engine light aircraft is what if the engine fails? Does the aeroplane have a mind of its own, knowing when you are flying over water and going to play a cruel trick on you?  Here are a few reflections of my first trip across Bass Strait in the year 2005.

To put things into perspective this trip from Hobart to Melbourne involves two over water segments;  one is relatively short between the most north eastern tip of Tasmania to Flinders Island. The second segment is the big one; 80 nautical miles of pure Bass Strait from Blyth Point (Flinders Island) to Wilsons Promontory (VIC). The only glimpse of land for an hour is Deal Island and various smaller rocky islands that are unsuitable for an emergency landing. Most days visibility is poor and flying under the Visual Flight Rules (VFR) means pilots are not permitted to fly into clouds.  It is not that uncommon to fly the trip from as low as 2000 feet above the sea which means if the engine fails at a decent rate of 500 feet a minute you have less than 4 minutes to get a mayday call out and prepare for an icy cold ditching into Bass Strait.   Simply put you are screwed; the possibility of dying is very real!

As young trainee pilot I never really thought about the consequences of what I was actually doing when I strapped on a lifejacket  back in Hobart.   Just part of the training I assumed as another student and myself set of with the flying instructor on a navigational exercise to mainland Australia.  As we approached Blyth Point it started to hit me that we are about to go over water with no land in sight.  The instructor instructed us to radio Air Traffic Control (ATC) and let them know we were about to cross Bass Strait.  ATC radioed back and told us to report our position every 10 minutes while doing the crossing.  At the time I did not really understand the significance of reporting our position over the sea as I was a bit mesmerised with the whole experience of crossing Bass Strait from such a low altitude, however 14 minutes later I got a scolding from ATC for not reporting our position.  My instructor also gave me a wrap around the knuckles telling me if we did not report our position search and rescue would have started looking for us shortly.  That got me thinking does the plane know when you are flying over water?  The instructor laughed and said “only the pilot knows they are flying over water.”  “Planes only do what they are told to do so make sure you look after the plane and it will look after you.”  I guess the instructor was right as the engine purred along nicely as if it were flying over land. Nevertheless I was happy to sight Wilsons Promontory some 30 minutes later which meant we only had another 15-20 minutes of flying over Bass Strait left.  Finally we crossed the Australian coastline and the remainder of the trip to Moorabbin Airport (Melbourne) was uneventful.  I survived my first Bass Strait crossing!

That was my first trip over the ditch however  it was not the first time I flew  Bass Strait solo; that came a few months later and was an exciting time yet a little scary as there was no instructor sitting beside me to make things right if I screwed up.   Since my first couple of trips across the ditch I have passed my Commercial Pilot flight test and crossed Bass Strait so many times to count.  The trip these days is a breeze and a great opportunity to reflect and take in the great view when weather permits flying higher.  Although in the back of my mind I always think about how I would react if the engine fails. Initially I think I would feel a sinking feeling in my belly followed by adrenalin kicking in for the fight for survival;  the truth is none of us really know how we would react in a dire situation.  I guess when your time is up it is up,  I’m still very much alive so I was not destined to die in Bass Strait.

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