Solo Flight. Chapter 10. By Owen Zupp.



The Real Outback.

Solo Flight Zupp Jabiru Aircraft


Day Two. Longreach - Mount Isa - Barkly Homestead. 



The alarm clock buzzes right on time as one expects but secretly hopes otherwise.

I throw my legs over the side of the bed, start the laptop and ‘flick’ on the kettle. Everything from the cup of tea to my clothes is in order from the night before; ready and set to go. The weather still looks faultless along my route, so I send through the flight details over the wonder of the internet and begin to get my gear together. I have organised an early breakfast and a lift to the airport with the good folks at the Jumbuck and I’m on my way before I know it. The sun is only just breaking the horizon although it seems to rise more quickly in this part of the world.


Despite the early hour, I call my sister Pamela and recount the incredible coincidence of Dad’s ‘Red Baron’ song being played the night before. We agree that neither of us have heard it since about 1969 and recall Dad’s out-of-tune gusto in singing the song and his emphasis on the word, “Bloody”. She wishes me luck and I hang up with a smile on my face, ready for the day ahead.


The Dash-8 is still parked on the tarmac from the night before as I pre-flight the Jabiru. I had fuelled the aircraft the night before, but a thorough going over is still needed at the beginning of each day’s flying. I remove the engine cowling and what lies beneath is as clean as a whistle. The engineers have fitted a small bottle to catch any oil that vents overboard to both keep the aircraft clean and monitor my oil usage. That container is empty and the oil quantity dip-stick confirms the fact that the Jabiru hasn’t used a drop on the first day. A reassuring thought as I am about to set course over the remote reaches of western Queensland and the Northern Territory.


Solo Flight Zupp Jabiru Aircraft

Preflight Inspection.

I farewell Longreach and the bloody Red Baron to an escort of birds emerging from the grass just as I lift off and set course to the north-west. Mount Isa, my first port of call, is about three hours away but a great deal of history lies between here and there. This region was the early stomping grounds of both QANTAS and the Royal Flying Doctor Service and I will be retracing many of the air routes of those early days as the Jabiru skips along its way.


The aircraft cruises along smoothly and I cannot help but smile to the point of singing. There is not a single cloud in the sky or a ripple of turbulence. My calculations have me benefiting from a tailwind and destined to be ahead of schedule. It is absolute perfection in the context of light aircraft ‘visual’ flight. As a consequence, I am relaxed and enjoying every minute and mile as they pass. I stretch over, grab a Muesli Bar and enjoy some fine dining in the skies. This is living!


My first turning point is Winton. I was once told that QANTAS was conceived in Cloncurry, born in Winton, but grew up in Longreach. If that was the case, the airline’s maternity ward now lies dead ahead. I had visited there once before when my Dad and I had driven to Kununurra together. My strongest memory was of the humble monument on the site of the first QANTAS office, so significant to our aviation history, but so easily passed without notice. For a moment I recalled standing at the edge of the paddock where Houdini had first flown and another moment in history oft overlooked.


Similarly Winton passes beneath my nose at two-miles-per-minute and is gone in a moment, but not forgotten. An hour later I overfly Julia Creek and another forty minutes Cloncurry is ticked off the flight plan. In my modern cockpit they are mere waypoints, but in reality Julia Creek was the destination and Cloncurry the origin of the first official flight of the Royal Flying Doctor Service.


John Flynn had previously experimented with the concept of an aerial inland mission having witnessed the tragedies that had befallen the outback’s pioneers for lack of medical care. In time his experiment grew and in 1928 he had the finances to launch the entity that would ultimately become the globally-renowned Royal Flying Doctor Service. One of his supporters was the QANTAS founder, Hudson Fysh, and the first aircraft was also supplied by the airline. These two quintessentially Australian organisations were linked from birth and even today the QANTAS Foundation supports the work of the RFDS.


For a lover of aviation and history, these miles beneath me are golden. I can almost see the ancient DH50 biplane leaving its trail of dust below as it lumbers into the sky on another selfless mission of mercy. I can hear the roar of the engine and see the pilot in his open cockpit weathering the elements while his precious human cargo remained shelter within the cabin ahead of him. I tip my hat to those who had the courage to see their vision through to reality without any of the creature comforts that we enjoy today.


From Cloncurry I set a westerly course to Mount Isa. For a while I share the company of a mining train that is seemingly endless with its carriages full of ore. ‘The Isa’ is far more familiar to me having flown here only weeks before, albeit in a Boeing 737. From a good distance out I sight the chimneys and the ridge line to the west of the airport. Isa is a thriving mining town with regular jet services and all manner of light aircraft launching for smaller outback stations. I monitor the radio carefully and co-ordinate my arrival with the comings and goings of this busy airport.


Solo Flight Zupp Jabiru Aircraft

The Jabiru with my other ‘office’ in the background at Mount Isa.

A strong wind is blowing down Runway 16 as I line up for the landing. There is a little convective turbulence bouncing me around as the day warms up, but mostly I am struck by my slow speed over the ground as I approach to land. Gradually the runway draws closer and finally I arrive over the bitumen where I hover onto the surface with just a trickle of forward speed. I keep the power on a touch and accelerate towards the next turn-off to clear the runway for the inbound aeroplanes I can hear chattering on the radio.


Solo Flight Zupp Jabiru Aircraft

Friendly folks and family at ‘The Isa’.

As I pull the Jabiru up to the fuel bowser there is a small gathering of people. Most are from the local base of the RFDS, on hand to give me a welcome, and the other is a reporter from the ABC. It is always touching to be met by welcoming faces no matter how far from home you may be. My website and the media tells me that people are following the flight, but the chance to stop and chat and put faces to the ISP addresses is so much more. After a brief conversation, it emerges that I am related to one of the RFDS staff; my father and her grandfather were cousins!


They had shared a rather ‘Tom Sawyer’ upbringing on the Darling Downs during the 1930s. It was the hard times of the Great Depression and drought on the land and yet these young boys made the most of their childhood. Undoubtedly their tough upbringing served them well as their manhood was destined to be overshadowed by a world at war hurling them to all corners of the globe. Here I was, miles from anywhere and yet again Dad has poked his nose into this flight around Australia.


I am given the grand tour of the RFDS facility and their Super King Airs, whose interior aeromedical kit-out is particularly interesting to me as both a pilot and a former paramedic. The good people even have a cake to mark my visit to Mount Isa and I could spend a lot more time here chatting about family and flying. However, by the time I have completed the media interviews, the clock is ticking loudly and the trusty Jabiru is ready to take me across my first state border.


For the first time a real sense of isolation struck me. With Mount Isa’s chimneys shrinking to matchsticks behind me, very little lies ahead. The road and rail line roughly parallel my route to serve as a comforting back-up to my navigation, but otherwise there is only mile upon mile of vast expanse. One by one the bars indicating the signal strength of my mobile phone drop away until the phone is little more than a camera and an inert box of circuitry. Still it continues to hunt for some trace of communication with the outside world. Searching, searching....


The towering clouds ahead begin to dump their watery contents in a series of rain showers that are too opaque to penetrate. As I skirt the edges, the occasional spray reaches the Jabiru as if to wipe its face and quench its thirst with the temperature climbing into the thirties. All around me the green tinge continues to colour the outback and usually dry creek beds boast water and billabongs. This rain is obviously not the first of the year.


Solo Flight Zupp Jabiru Aircraft

Downtown Camooweal.

Camooweal and its population of a few hundred people emerge from behind a shower with the Barkly Highway running into it like a yellow brick road. My GPS, map and the world outside are in total agreement as the clock ticks over right on time. I had mentioned Camooweal in my live radio interview back at Mount Isa, so I take a few moments to lazily circle the town in a gentle arc. Sure enough people emerge from their homes and looked skyward at the little Jabiru overhead, waving the occasional tea towel. It was a heart-warming moment that didn’t end when I rolled the aircraft level and continued on my way to Barkly Homestead.




 Read the full story of 'Solo Flight' here.




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