Chapter 7. The Final Countdown.
So it all came down to this. A few carefully packed kit bags on the floor of my study and one more sleep left in my own bed. The last six months had been so intense from a planning perspective that I now simply wanted to go flying. I wanted to replace preparation and speculation with outback airstrips and golden coastlines.
My journey north to the starting line began as a passenger in a QANTAS Boeing 767 to Brisbane. As the early morning fog was replaced by drizzling rain, I waited to board the flight at a gloomy Sydney Airport. My four children buzzed around with excitement and a tinge of sadness that echoed my own emotions. I reassured them that I’d see them again in a couple of weeks on my way around and I promised Ruby that I would be back for her birthday. Meanwhile my baby boy stared through the glass windows at the row of parked airliners, teetering there and threatening to take his first steps. Would that happen while I was away?
I reassured my kids with the fact that I was away for more time and at a greater distance in the days when I flew internationally, but that seemed cold consolation as the announcement was made to board the aircraft. I kissed the little ones, my gorgeous wife and slung my camera gear over my shoulder and headed down the aerobridge. From my seat I could still see little Hayden leaning against the glass as the Boeing pushed away from the terminal and started its engines. Minutes later I was on my way and the only view outside was that of more aeroplanes, taxiways and the persistent rain.
My kids wave goodbye at Sydney Airport.
During the flight I intentionally switched off for an hour and endeavoured to rest my mind amidst a sea of spinning thoughts. I was partially successful, but my slumber was broken by the familiar sound of the wheels being lowered into the airflow on the approach to land. I was travelling with minimal baggage, having ferried equipment to Queensland over the previous weeks and Kirrily’s parents had assembled a range of emergency gear and rations at my destination. The balance of my supplies was already loaded in their car when they met me at Brisbane Airport for the drive to Bundaberg.
The drive was relaxing with the conversation complementing mile after mile. Outside the rain continued to fall in dribs and drabs and I flicked up the latest weather chart on my phone. A high pressure system was threatening to push this coastal weather out to sea and my fingers were crossed that it would. That would mean fantastic weather for my departure and the first few days at least, but if the ‘High’ failed to gain the upper hand it could see me grounded at Bundaberg.
Sure enough, my arrival at Bundaberg was greeted with sporadic rain showers as I moved my gear into my hotel room. I laid everything out on the benches, charged up my array of electronic devices and bid a grateful farewell to Kirrily’s parents. After a room service meal, I completed my diary for the day, answered emails and called an early night for I knew that the next few days were destined to be very busy. And so they were.
The morning dawned with clear skies, although the gloomy weather system still loitered off the coast. I took a taxi to the airfield early the next day and on arrival ‘Jabiru Aircraft’ promptly supplied me with a car. The greeting from Sue Woods and the staff was one of excited, enthusiastic warmth. I felt right at home with these good people and knew that my choice of aeroplane had been correct on so many levels. Without delay, I was taken to see the J230D which was parked outside the hangar, waiting for me to take her flying.
There she sat. Adorned in her ‘There and Back’ markings, the Jabiru looked immaculate. From the boomerang logo to the RFDS crest and route map on her flanks, the aeroplane looked ready to set course for the far side of the great southern land, there and then. I couldn’t wait to set off, but for the moment the two of us needed to get to know each other better.
Jabiru 73-81 in all her ‘There and Back’ finery.
The morning was interspersed with media commitments ranging from television’s Channel Ten to the Bundaberg ‘News Mail’ newspaper. Having answered a series of questions about the aircraft, the flight and the cause, I was able to at last take to the skies in 73-81. Before I started the engine I carefully scanned my checklists and every switch and control. All was in order and now the sky beckoned as the wooden propeller flicked over and the engine burst into life.
It was just me, the Jabiru and the camera gear sitting behind my right shoulder as we rolled along the taxiway and out to the runway’s end. I ran the engine up to near full power and she purred as I checked the temperatures, pressures, magnetos and all manner of items. I briefed myself on the emergency procedures and critical airspeeds for the take-off, but now there was nothing left to do.....except fly.
That first take-off was magical. The Jabiru tracked along the centreline under the gentle squeeze of my rudder pedals as she accelerated with just a subtle kick in my pants. As the runway lights whizzed by in my peripheral vision, I eased back on the control column and for the first time, 73-81 and I were airborne together. It was a wonderful sense of freedom as I wheeled the Jabiru onto the downwind leg for a series of take-offs and landings with Bundaberg township sitting just outside my window. There were checks to complete and attention to be paid, but this flight was an absolute pleasure and captured on the digital video camera that sat beside me. However, ominous clouds were brewing on the horizon.
All too soon the flight was over, but I taxied back with absolutely nothing to report and nothing needing adjustment. The aeroplane was ready to go and my subsequent short flights in the next 24 hours were purely for my familiarisation and for an airborne reprieve from the non-stop phone calls. Many of those calls came from the media as Hayley Dean did her best to co-ordinate interviews between my flights and other tasks. She did an incredible job as the interest seemed to be growing exponentially as the countdown to departure grew closer. The ABC, Courier Mail, Channel Ten and radio stations from Mount Isa to Launceston were all fascinated by the flight ahead. Their interest was also converting into donations for the Royal Flying Doctor Service as I watched the total rise on the dedicated fund-raising website.
Practise makes perfect. I run through a wheel change on the Jabiru.
The day prior to departure now dawned wet and grey. Those clouds had rolled back in overnight and the dripping outside my hotel room was persistent from about 3am. Back at the airfield I ran through a number of fundamental maintenance procedures with Jamie Cook and the engineers at Jabiru Aircraft. From wheel changes to battery replacement, oil and filter changes and the removal of the cowling for the daily inspection I would perform each morning. It was educational and reassuring to run through these tasks one by one, even though I hoped there would be no need to perform them in anger. They increased my level of knowledge and confidence in the aeroplane. I felt that I had prepared for as many contingencies mechanical, meteorological and otherwise over the preceding months, so now I just had to concentrate on flying.
A few more interviews, a few more phone calls. I loaded the aeroplane with my gear and a series of spare parts, jumper leads, emergency rations, water and remote area survival equipment. Flight plans were completed and there was nothing to do but go back to my hotel room and sleep.
The rain continued to fall, but I was confident that the high pressure system and fine weather would ultimately win out. As I lay down that night the excitement level was at its peak and yet I was still able to sleep soundly. The combination of my mental checklist being ticked off as complete and the drum of the rain gave me an inner peace. My breathing grew slower and my eyes were heavy. Sleep came easily. As easily as the rain running down the roof above.