Chapter 6. Coming Together.
The departure date of May 5th had once seemed an epoch away. Now it was closing in with the speed of a missile and I was squarely in its path. And as the date grew closer, so did the media interest and the requests for interviews. Kirrily compiled a growing list of confirmed accommodation and contact details as I communicated with the various bodies I was to deal with and the growing list of folks I would address along the way.
In the midst of the preparations my wife and I stole away for a few days of relative rest and recreation. However, rather than an island escape, we travelled to Victoria where the centenary of Harry Houdini’s first powered flight in Australia was being celebrated. At a place called Digger’s Rest in 1910, Houdini had taken his frail Voisin biplane into the skies and astutely had the event recorded and photographed. Thus installing his effort as the first documented powered flight in Australia.
Now in March, a century later, Kirrily and I drove towards the air show being held in honour of the event. Our arrival was greeted in the first instance by a little Cessna making a very low approach to the airfield at Melton and all but having a collision with the tour bus ahead of us! Having survived the near roadside mid-air collision, we spent the day wandering about the aircraft on display while others roared and soared overhead. Our friend Guy Bourke even made a flying visit in a P-40 Kittyhawk.
Guy Bourke makes a pass in the Kittyhawk.
But for all the fanfare, my thoughts were elsewhere. There was a plot of land far from the madding crowd that I needed to visit. It was the actual pasture where Houdini’s flight had taken place at Digger’s Rest and despite the power of the internet and Google Maps, it was not easy to find. After a series of false directions and wrong turns and the day growing older, we finally located a small inconspicuous stone cairn by the roadside with a plaque on top. This was it.
We brought the car to a halt and stepped onto the verge. The little monument sat alone and uncared for with rotting boxes and an empty bottle of Jack Daniels lying up against its side. The plaque explained what had taken place nearby one hundred years before and directed my gaze to look up and towards a thicket of trees a few hundred yards away. For it was just beyond these trees that Houdini leapt into our history books.
A forgotten landmark of Australia’s first powered flight.
I was caught with mixed emotions. I was in awe that I was only metres away from the site of a major piece of Australian history and that the patch of air just over the way was where it all began. And then I was torn by this small forgotten, neglected memorial. Even in the centenary year, no one had bothered to clean around this plinth in its serene little setting. We contemplated the scene for quite some time until the wind picked up. A wind far too strong for the Voisin to ever cope with I suspect.
We moved back to the car and went on our way. I was now even more determined to remind people of Australia’s proud aviation heritage and how this island continent had fought well above its weight in this field of endeavour. This sad little marker on the side of the road deserved better, as did the memories of all those who have gone before in the pursuit of the skies. If not inspired, my resolve was definitely reinforced.
Meanwhile, inspiration was not in short supply at Bundaberg. While we had been contemplating the events at Digger’s Rest, the Jabiru factory had continued with their task of building the ‘There and Back’ Jabiru 230D with astounding speed. At each stage of construction Sue would send me a photograph of the aircraft and together they would have made an amazing piece of time-lapse photography. In twenty days, the Airfix kit had grown into an aircraft waiting to take to the skies.
The Jabiru J230D grew from this.....
...in just twenty days!
The next stage of the aeroplane’s development was the test flying schedule. Again the weather intervened and prevented the Jabiru from escaping the confines of the factory and Mother Earth except for a brief engine run. Having experienced weather delays during my own Jabiru training, I wondered if this was to become the Achilles heel for my solo flight. Finally, the weather cleared and Jamie Cook was able to start seeing just how well the aircraft had come together and by all indications it was a winner.
Now that the Jabiru had assumed its full form, it also gained an identity. It was now entered on the Recreational Aviation Australia registry as 24-7381, or as I was to transmit many times over the radio, “Jabiru-73-81”. From the photographs it looked fantastic and I couldn’t wait to see 73-81 up close. As it turned out, I wouldn’t have to wait too long. In the meantime I pencilled a scheme for the aircraft and the Jabiru factory set about creating the required decals in-house, although the unveiling would have to wait until much closer to the day.
My first draft of the Jabiru’s ‘There and Back scheme’.
Seeing the aeroplane for the first time at a gathering at Temora Airport was a thrill. It was a very tangible link to the journey that I was preparing to embark upon. As it sat in the Jabiru chalet at Temora I paused at a distance and surveyed the J230’s lines and pinched myself that this was the very aircraft in which I would circumnavigate Australia. This composite form with its wings, engine and instruments was to become my constant companion and most trusted friend for three weeks and yet we were still effectively strangers.
I wandered closer and viewed 73-81 from different perspectives as interested buyers lined up to sit inside her and feel the controls beneath their hands. I was also very keen to slide into the pilot’s seat, but was equally aware that I had to wait my turn. Patiently, I wandered over and chatted to Sue Woods who I had also taken by surprise. She quickly informed me how well the Jabiru had performed on the flight down from Bundaberg; fuel efficient and fast. It was a well-built machine.
The ‘There and Back’ Jabiru 230D before donning her new scheme.
In a brief pause between potential customers Jamie Cook confirmed everything that Sue had told me and encouraged me to take a seat inside. I slipped into the left seat and felt at home straight away. Knowing what lay ahead they had kindly doubled-up on the seat cushioning and my backside appreciated the forethought immediately. My eyes skipped around the cockpit and all the toys that lived therein. Dynon digital multi-function displays, Garmin GPS, standby instruments, digital transponder and so on and so on. My mind also drifted back to Bert Hinkler and the Spartan open cockpit of his Avro Avian. We had come a long way in a relatively short time.
My first look inside 73-81.
With throttle in my left hand and my right on the yoke, I could almost see the miles ahead. There was no sense of trepidation in the slightest, only impatient anticipation. I knew that the preparation had been thorough and I had good equipment, good support and a good team. If the weather played the game, there was no reason why I couldn’t execute this flight just as it was planned. Sitting in the cockpit gave me an added sense of confidence, but not a single ounce of complacency. The job was still to be done.
The aircraft’s metamorphosis from a series of disconnected pieces in many ways paralleled the progress of the project. What had started as an idea consisting of varied strands had come so far to become a consolidated unit. Each component relied upon the others to work in unison for the entire project to function successfully. With the help of a wonderful wife, a great team and supportive sponsors, we had reached that point.
Everyone had done all that they could to ensure that we were ready when May 2010 arrived. Now it was here, it was up to me to do ‘that flying thing’ and not put all of their good work to waste. This wasn’t a burden, it was a reminder that this flight was to be flown by me, but about everything else. It was about raising funds for the RFDS. It was about making people aware of our aviation heritage and that all children can still dream of the wonder of flight. It was about the beauty of endless miles over an incredible country. It was about Bert Hinkler. It was about a small neglected plaque on a Victorian roadside.There was a major aviation gathering to take place in New South Wales over Easter and the plan was to fly the Jabiru down for the event. It would not only serve to showcase the Jabiru, but also provide a wonderful proving flight for both the airframe and engine. It was a three hour drive from my home, but a significantly longer flight from Bundaberg to Temora, NSW.
Read the full story of 'Solo Flight' here.
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