The Call Up.
“Last Minute” and “Aviation” aren’t terms that normally rest comfortably together. So when Tom Lockley contacted me about flying a re-enactment flight to mark the centenary of air mail, I was initially hesitant. However, it soon became apparent that this was not a last minute undertaking but an exercise more than twelve months in the making. I was the only last minute element.
The team at the Aviation Historical Society already had sponsors, aircraft, printed material and schedules down to the minute when their pilot was forced to withdraw. Along with Tom, Judy Rainsford, Aminta Hennessy and Tony Coleiro and their team had put in place a plan to retrace the flight of the French pilot Maurice Guillaux in 1914 when he flew the first air mail and air freight in Australia. At the time, it was also the longest flight of its type anywhere in the world and it was a significant act of aviation. Unfortunately it faded quickly into the annals of history when an assassin’s shots rang out in Sarajevo and the war spiralled down into the maelstrom of World War One.
That flight had left Melbourne at 9:12am on July 16th carrying 1,785 commemorative postcards and a cargo load of juice and tea. Over the next three days he would defy wind and weather in a Bleriot XI monoplane, making 8 stops to deliver the mail to Sydney. It was a feat of courage and vision with the very barest of support and infrastructure to call upon. It was an act of a true pioneer.
A Waiting Game.
I sat in my Melbourne hotel room on a July evening preparing to fly the route that Guillaux had made famous 100 years before. In stark contrast the weather radar continually updated on my iPad, showing the approaching front. The latest forecasts were digitally uploaded and my flight plan track lay across an electronic screen rather than a paper chart. I had a wealth of information at my fingertips and a cellular phone at my ear.
The weather was not promising. The forecasts predicted gloom and I could hear the rain pelting down on the roof above my head. The cloud was on the ground to the north and I confided in my wife that a departure the next morning was unlikely unless the cold front moved through at pace. The next afternoon, or the day after that was more likely. Still, I packed my kit bag, stowed my flight gear and settled in for an early night...just in case.
I stirred in the darkness and the green glowing numbers on the clock confirmed that it was 1am. I rolled back and stared at the invisible ceiling as the drops continued to patter, but not pelt, upon the roof. I drew out my iPad and checked the weather yet again, but the prediction remained the same. Although the jagged blue line of cloud and rain was speeding across the map of the region and offered more hope than the endless lines of meteorological text. Maybe, just maybe.
It was still dark when I rose to shower, shave and get on my way. There was no rain outside my window, although the roads were glassy. Above the sky was dark, but no stars were to be seen either. Perhaps the worst was over? I called a taxi and together with Tony Coleiro we made our way out to Essendon Airport ahead of the other members of our team. We loaded our bags and precious air mail into the boot of the taxi before strapping in and heading off down the slowly drying roads. The sun began to glow in the east.
Jacqui was already at the airport when our taxi arrived and together we wheeled our gear through the security gate towards the aircraft. Jacqui was also a pilot and would fly ‘support’ in a Cessna 172 along with Aminta in a Cessna 182. I would fly solo in the lead aircraft, a two-seat Jabiru J230D, with the markings ‘24-8503’. The aircraft had been tied down through the night, but the strong winds had never really eventuated and the low cloud and torrential rain was also a non-event.
Now the sun was more than a glow, it was distinct rays breaking the horizon and cutting into the blue above us. Far from gloomy, the sky looked inviting and for the first time I allowed myself to entertain an on-time departure. I turned to Jacqui and Tony and smiled, “we might just get away with this”.....