Melbourne to Perth
On 7 April 1984 the Cessna 206 Echo Papa Lima (EPL) took off from Canberra to Essendon in Melbourne. It was the first leg of a one month flying trip. We intended to circumnavigate Australia in a clockwise direction. On this first leg, three people were on board, Antony, Bill and myself. We were collecting two others in Melbourne, Jacquetta (Jick) and Anne.
The plane had just come through its 100-hourly maintenance service. The owner knew we were going to do some 60 -70 hours. Facilities in those early days were not great. We flew it for the month but with no headsets or a yoke ‘talk-button’. Each time I wanted to transmit I had to bend down and pick up the mic. All radio chat received was heard by everyone in the plane courtesy of the overhead speaker. Sometimes I would have to call “Be quiet”, so I could hear the radio.
Our flight to Melbourne was as near to direct as I could make it. We tracked over real tiger country in the Australian Snowy Mountains. Antony was sitting with me up front. It was a beautiful still day. Flying up there that day was like driving on a new freeway, smooth as. We were at 8,500 looking out over the world admiring the visibility and smooth conditions when the aircraft starting vibrating in an odd manner. Vibration is a concern but having nowhere to land puts an edge on it. I said to Antony “Can you feel that?” He could. I checked all the engine instruments. Everything was in order. I said to Antony “Damned if I know what it is. I’ll ask Bill if he can feel it.” I turned around to speak with Bill who was sitting behind me. There he was, stereo head phones on, tapping his feet to the music! Vibration identified.
We spent that night with a long-standing friend, Damian Murphy. Regrettably we met up with Jick and Anne at the Botanical Hotel otherwise then known as “The Bot.” I say regrettably as too much Carlton Draught was there consumed. The next morning, we planned to meet at the Essendon departure terminal at 8.30am. This was the old Melbourne Domestic Terminal before Tullamarine opened. I remember Damian pulling up late at the curbside outside the main entrance. It was not his fault we were late. The girls and their parents were waiting. Jick’s father Robert Chirnside, was almost next to us when we pulled up. I removed myself from the front seat only to promptly stumble on the gutter. Robert said “That’s just lovely Chris.”
In those days pilots had to physically submit flight plans to be approved by the briefing officer. In those days there was no over the phone filing of plans at these major airports. I excused myself from the others and walked a short distance outside up to the briefing office. After taking in the actual and forecast weather from the Met Briefing Officer (they really knew their stuff), and manually doing the winds and writing up the adjusted headings, I lined up with commercial pilots doing the same thing. Notice to Airmen (NOTAMS) were in a tray close to the briefing officer. Sadly, I was known to my passengers for taking a lot longer than what I would say.
Fortunately, the terminal had facilities to make things comfortable while they waited. There was no rush. The flight that day was only a bit over two hours, to Adelaide.
The weather was excellent for our planned flight to Adelaide’s main airport near the beach. I walked back to the terminal. We all then walked out to the plane. I’ll never forget the parents of the girls. I’m sure when they saw our plane, they thought they would never see their daughters again. There was a look of shock and mutterings of “Is it safe to fly this - let alone around Australia for a month?”
Having consumed more than I should have the night before and having had spaghetti marinara, it was not a comfortable flight. I had planned to fly at 8,500. We passed 6,000 when things became too uncomfortable. I radioed Flight Service that a change to our cruising altitude was required.
We leveled off at 6,500. Our landing on Adelaide’s runway 23 was everything but perfect.
After a night of no socialising and a good sleep, the flying standard improved. We flew first to Ceduna for fuel. When flying over the York Peninsula we flew over my sister’s house close to the town of Maitland. She lived there with her husband on a farming property. I remember seeing people outside near the clothes line waving towels at us as we circled.
After fuelling at Ceduna, we flew to Eucla. We planned to camp here. We had food, water and sleeping gear. The flight to Eucla was beautiful. The Great Australian Bight occupied our view for what seemed hours. The sheer cliffs and flat frying pan like Nullarbor Plain, stretched as far as the eye could see.
Great Australian Bight and Nullarbor Plain
It was five hours five minutes flying to Eucla. The Eucla strips are dirt. There were any number of them covering the various wind directions. I cancelled our Search and Rescue (SAR) on the HF radio when overhead the runways. We needed fuel. I had organised to buy a drum of fuel from the service station up on the shallow escarpment. On landing we walked up to organise it. I prefer to put fuel in the tanks the night before and particularly if it is from a drum. This gives any water contamination time to settle at the bottom of the tanks to be then drained. We refuelled from the back of the fuel man’s ute using a manual pump.
We lit a fire and cooked a pleasant meal. While not a perfect night’s sleep it was adequate as was breakfast. Rubber mats or inflatable mattresses under the wings sleeping in sleeping bags was the scene. Our next camping was going to be at a very different temperature (Mitchell Plateau).
There were no mobile phones in those days. I had to use a public phone to get the weather and NOTAMs before filing a plan with Flight Services. The flight plan took us along the coast to Esperance, for fuel only, then on to Albany for the night.
That morning, a couple of us walked up the escarpment to the public phone box. In those days a pilot could ring the operator and ask for an ‘Air Priority’ call. This would put you through to the nearest Flight Services office for no charge anywhere in Australia. We were lucky enough to get a lift back to the plane with a so-called bounty hunter. He was employed by the Western Australian Government to shoot or trap Starling birds as they flew west along the Bight. I understand Western Australia was said to be free of Starlings. Apparently, this area was a frontier to engage them as they came west across the Bight.
Flight plan filed, aircraft checked and maintenance release signed, we were set to fly. The passengers rotated seats each take off to experience the different views offered from the seats on the 206. It was Jick’s turn up front with me. The duty strip that morning (into the wind) took us straight out over the water. Being into the wind, this strip was preferable even though it was the shortest and thinnest. Our first dirt take-off was uneventful. One has to be careful not to open the engine too quickly, this would suck stones up into the prop. It’s sometimes an interesting trade- off between the prop and the remaining runway.
After cleaning the aircraft up (flaps in, manifold pressure and revs back to a cruise setting) I usually hand over to the front passenger to hold it straight and level while I write down the time of departure and worked out the ETA for our next way point. Jick had not been up front before. This is no big deal - I simply had to show her the basics of the controls. She put her hands on the yoke while I showed her a gentle left then a right bank, followed by a gentle movement back for climb and forward for descent. Once done and back in the straight and level cruise, I removed my hands and attended to my paper work. Jick was noticeably quiet. Not the usual ever speaking bright and bubbly girl. I then felt and saw that the plane was banking to the left and moving towards the South Pole away from the coast. “Put your right hand down Jick” I said. There was no response verbal or physical.
I reached over and tapped her right hand to indicate push it down a bit. No response. The level of bank was now getting very noticeable. There was no getting away from it - I had to put my left hand on the yoke to straighten the plane up. At the precise moment my hand touched the controls, Jick quickly lifted her hands off. Then without any warning Jick calmly reached down into the grove box and removed a sick bag and use it immediately. I had failed to appreciate that someone could find the experience of this very basic controlling of a plane, so terrifying.
Apparently, it was the concept of having everyone’s lives in her hands which was too much for
her. She soon returned to her usual talkative persona but dictating that she would never fly up front if she had to take the controls. For the record, now days someone not qualified, is prohibited from manipulating the flight controls.
We landed at Esperance for fuel before flying on to Albany, a flight of five and half hours. This was a lovely flight along the coast line in beautiful weather. Perfectly white beaches. The landing at Esperance was less than perfect. The weight in the luggage area weighed down the tail as the main wheels touched down. On landing we unintentionally floated back into the air. Clearly my speed was no correct and/or the touchdown was not gentle. In any event I did a go round.
After a pleasant night in a hotel at Albany, the next day we tracked further west along the coast to Cape Leeuwin. On turning north, we encountered a terrible thunder storm. By staying very low over the beach and reducing our speed along with 10 degrees of flap set, we progressed through the heavy rain, watching lighting striking the ground. Clear of the storm, which only took minutes, the weather was absolutely beautiful.
We were flying for the main Perth airport. We were instructed to track via the Swan River. It was a lovely flight, save for the fact a 747 was still sitting on our runway getting ready to take off. The tower requested me to slow down given the 747 sitting there. That done, I additionally executed some dog legs on final, just to lengthen our approach. When the 747 moved, it upped and disappeared. It surely must have been near empty - it took no time to leave the runway.
© C McKeown 2021