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?