Solo Flight. Chapter 9. By Owen Zupp.

 

 

9.
Founding Fathers.

QANTAS Hangar

The original QANTAS hangar.

 

Day One. Emerald to Longreach.

 

 

Nine decades in two hours, give or take. That is the equation.

No I haven’t found the elusive answer to ‘warp speed’, however I am now setting course for the origins of Australia’s national carrier ninety years earlier. The destination is the outback city of Longreach and the airline is the Queensland And Northern Territory Aerial Services, or QANTAS.

 

Emerald falls away behind me as the Jabiru and I set course to the north-west over yet more expansive plains. There is a green tinge to the earth below that provides sound evidence of the rains that have fallen in recent months after years of drought. Even now, a few towering Cumulus clouds water random paddocks and I nudge to the left and right to remain clear of these downpours. Little havens like Alpha and Jericho pass by beneath the nose of the aircraft as the miles to Longreach and the first day’s flying counts down.

 

The Jabiru hums along as I tick off waypoints on my chart and flight plan. It is only the first day, but already I am making better time and using less fuel than I had planned. Preparing for the worst and being pleasantly surprised is always a sound philosophy in aviation. Glancing at my panel-mounted GPS and its multi-coloured wealth of information I can’t help but think of the pioneer aviators. They were exposed to the elements and so often unsure where their next supply of food or fuel was coming from.

 

Even below me, the roads are a far cry from the muddy tracks that the pioneers traversed. It was along these muddy lines in the scrub that two of the founders of QANTAS had driven a Model T-Ford in 1919 to survey the route for an air race. At the end of the arduous 51 day journey, Hudson Fysh and Paul McGinness were left with no doubt of the aeroplane’s future in such territory. The two veterans of World War One then combined with another veteran and wealthy grazier Fergus McMaster to found QANTAS in 1920. Along with the engineering expertise of Arthur Baird, the foundations were laid for one of the world’s greatest airlines.

QANTAS Model-T Ford

The QANTAS Model T Ford. (Photo: State Library of Queensland)

 

Their first aircraft had been an open cockpit biplane from World War One, an Avro 504K. Now my Jabiru is scooting through the skies at nearly twice the speed of a ‘504’ and weighing 200kg less than the Avro. Furthermore, the trusty little J230D has the ability to fly three times as far as the biplane in a heated cabin with every radio, instrument, bell and whistle you could desire. My luxury further emphasises the enormity of the challenges they faced in those pioneering times.

 

Back in the present, Barcaldine passes by right on time and I have another thirty minutes until I arrive at Longreach. I run through my checks and ready my cockpit for the end of the first day. Reaching back, I adjust the camera to film the landing out of the passenger’s side window in an attempt to change the angles from time to time. Now I just have to remember to turn it on.

 

 QANTAS Longreach

Longreach Ahead.

 

Roads converge from the left and right and then Longreach looms through the spinning disc of the Jabiru’s propeller. I pitch the aircraft slightly nose-down and begin the descent to the airport which sits a few miles from the town. Even at a distance it is obvious that this is not your typical country airport as the gigantic form of a Boeing 747 sits to one side, surrounded by other airframes that are twinkling in the afternoon sun.

 

As I sweep overhead I see that the 747 is flanked by a DC-3 and a Boeing 707. Three of the all-time great aircraft of civil aviation have gathered together once more in a space about the size of a football field. I shelve the pleasant distraction until I land and focus on flying the aeroplane. I appear to be the only aircraft in the area as I line up for my final approach, now with the flaps fully extended and the camera running to capture any embarrassing moments. As if to appease the camera, the Jabiru sits smoothly ‘in the slot’ as the grass-edged asphalt grows ever closer. I ease the throttle and the yoke back and the aircraft responds gently. Her nose a little higher and the engine a little quieter, and then the wheels make contact.

 

QANTAS Founders Museum

The Longreach Fleet. (Photo: QANTAS Founders Museum)

 

I roll out to the far end of the runway and taxi to the apron where a Dash-8 airliner is parked awaiting its passengers. I transmit my arrival to ‘Brisbane Radio’ and reverently pass the giant QANTAS airliners of yesteryear who form the most impressive welcoming committee I could ask for. Bringing the aircraft to a halt, I park the brakes, confirm all of my engine indications are normal, check the magnetos and then shut the engine down. The Jabiru’s propeller comes to a halt and my first sector of flying solo around Australia is over, but the day is still far from done. Across the way sits the QANTAS Founders Museum and while time is short, I must at least make a flying pass through its hallowed halls.

 

QANTAS Founders Museum

The QANTAS Founders Museum.

The sun is getting lower as I refuel and tie down the Jabiru in what is to become a daily ritual. Safe and secure, I remove my ‘nav bag’, overnight gear, camera equipment, laptop computer, GPS and headsets. All up the weight of the large black kitbag is substantial as I sling it over my shoulder and lift my ‘nav bag’ in my free hand. At this moment, I am thankful that all of my accommodation has generally provided transport or is within a reasonable walking distance from the airfield.

 

I enter the QANTAS Founders Museum to find mementos from every era of the QANTAS story. The history of those first pioneers is outlined, recounting their war service in Palestine and how the great airline ever came to be. Posters and plates from another bygone era relate to when air travel was more akin to a cruise-liner with extended layovers in exotic ports of call. Uniforms, engines, film and photographs, it is all here. And that’s not forgetting the fleet of aeroplanes now at rest outside.

 

It seems incongruous that such a modern museum is located relatively remotely, but then again, it makes perfect sense. For these are the lands that QANTAS first sought to cross and these are the communities that they first sought to serve. And while the very first home base was Winton, it was only a matter of months before Longreach became the thriving headquarters for the fledgling airline and even the site where they built their own aeroplanes. Yes, Longreach oozes the history of QANTAS and to locate it in some urban hub may place it near the populous, but would it really capture the airline’s spirit?

 

After a little more pondering I hitch a ride with the owner of the Jumbuck Motor Inn where I am to spend the night. I am more than a little exhausted by the time I make it to my room and unpack to sit down and write my blog for the newspaper, website and all of the media following the flight. I type away and download images before sending off the long line of emails and phone calls from radio stations. My head is spinning as I write the dot points of the day in my diary and ready my gear for the next day. Then there is one last review of tomorrow’s flight plan and the weather forecast; it looks good. All done!

 

I soak under the shower for quite a while, staring at the frog doing laps of the toilet bowl. My brain is numb as music from across the way at the Jumbuck’s bar pumps out tune after tune into my subconscious. I darken the room and lie down, thankful for such a clock-work departure and first day, but equally thankful for the chance to sleep. My mind bounces between reflecting upon what has been and conjuring what is to come. I do my utmost to hose down the synapses that are at war in my head as the alarm clock will be buzzing all too soon.

 

Finally, I begin to settle. The music outside has almost reduced to a hypnotic bass beat, drumming me to sleep as my breathing slows to the rhythm. And then the beat changes, half-stirring me from my slumber as it is a song I knew from many, many years before. As a mere boy, the 7-inch black disc with its blue and white paper centre would spin on our record player at 45 rpm. I can hear it now and see my family at our little fibro home in Guildford. The words recount the exploits of ‘Snoopy’ and the ‘Bloody Red Baron of Germany’ to a boisterous tune. I think of my Dad’s boisterous version of his personal favourite 40 years before and a smile once again creeps over my face.

Jabiru Aircraft

Snoopy Versus The Red Baron.

It is four decades since I have heard Dad’s song and here I am on the flight we promised to complete together. Perhaps he has decided to make this journey with me after all. In my mind I can see him standing there, my smile widens and I fall to sleep.

 

 

 

 Read the full story of 'Solo Flight' here.

 

 


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