The Great Circle Air Safari

Flying Australia's sunburned Outback

September 1, 2007

I'm at 29 degrees south latitude, 134 degrees east longitude, at 3,500 feet above sea level, traveling southeast at an airspeed of 90 mph, and I'm cold, very cold. These coordinates place me roughly in the middle of the great Australian Outback, in the open cockpit of a 1942 Stearman biplane. Cold air tumbles over the windscreen, buffeting my head and shoulders, convecting away what little metabolic energy remains in my upper body. My craft and I are bucking a 25-mph headwind, and the resulting low-level turbulence acting on the voluminous Stearman wing area requires continuous control-stick inputs to keep us straight and level.

Looking below, I see a surreal expanse of red dirt and rock punctuated by hundreds of white sand anthills. If I were an alien, a galactic scout sent to reconnoiter planet Earth, I might conclude that life cannot be supported in this place. But, since I am only an alien to the country, not the planet, and since I spent last night on the surface, I know I am departing Coober Pedy, the self-proclaimed opal capital of the world. The anthills are mine tailings, the only evidence of the humans laboring - and sometimes living - down below, willing to subject themselves to this inhospitable landscape for a chance at financial immortality. Hollywood loves this place whenever a desolate setting is called for; much of the footage for the films Mad Max and Red Planet was shot here.

Strong crosswinds

"Stearman November-One-Three-One-Five-November, Cessna Papa-Joliet-Echo, currently at one thousand five hundred over Olympic Dam."

"Is that Steve?" I ask my co-pilot and "mate," Rob Richey, through the intercom. Richey's head has been periodically ducking up and down in the forward cockpit, and my question springs him to the Up position.

"Not sure, but I think so," he crackles back on the intercom. Once again, we are confounded by the ongoing communication problem; is this really an English-speaking country? The combination of slightly different aviation phraseologies, the Australian accent, and distortion inherent in an open cockpit has affected our air-to-air communication with our mates. Richey and I also are sharing a chuckle over Steve Barlow's radio communication protocol. Barlow is one of those larger-than-life characters, literally, at 6 feet 2 inches tall and 225 pounds, with a big booming voice and a biting Aussie wit. Here we are in the middle of the Australian Outback, on the designated pilot-to-pilot chat frequency, having heard no other radio traffic on this frequency outside our group for the past week, and still Barlow just cannot bring himself to converse in anything other than professional pilotspeak.

"Go ahead, Steve," I mumble after keying the mic.

"Stearman One-Five-November, we are currently overhead Olympic Dam aerodrome and can confirm that the windsock is straight out, perpendicular to Runway 24/06."

If there is one phrase that gets the attention of a Stearman pilot, it's strong crosswind. The Stearman's unique arrangement of a narrow landing gear, high center of gravity, large wing area, limited rudder authority, and poor forward visibility all combine with the normal tailwheel landing characteristics to occasionally humble even the most experienced pilot, particularly when landing in a crosswind. As a primary trainer during World War II, the Stearman was nicknamed the "Yellow Peril" and the "Washing Machine" by the young cadets for "washing" the aspiring young pilots out of flight training. So, in addition to the cold, and the headwind, which is causing some fuel concerns, I have a couple of hours to think about landing N1315N in a crosswind beyond the aircraft's demonstrated capability. But anxiety is not my friend, so I choose instead to reflect on the events that have transpired to bring me to this unique place and time.

Making plans

The Royal Flying Doctor Service

The Great Circle Air Safari took place from October 1 through 13, 2005. The 10 participating aircraft raised $16,000 for the Royal Flying Doctor Service. The RFDS was established by the Rev. John Flynn in Australia in 1928 to provide emergency medical aid to remote areas of Australia. The responsibilities of the flying doctor were to fly to urgent cases, render first aid, transport patients to the hospital if necessary, give advice by radio, fly a regular clinic circuit to areas without doctors, and consult with rural and remotely located doctors. Over the years, the service has developed and expanded to take along on clinic flights medical specialists, dentists, and various other health-related professionals. Today, the RFDS serves the entire continent from 20 bases, 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. For more information, visit the Web site.

Author Douglas DeVries has produced a video of the 2005 air safari. Profit from the sale of the DVDs will go to the RFDS. For more information visit the Web site or e-mail the author.

At first glance, John Tabone, a computer guru; Bruce Willan, a business owner and sometime vintner; Chris Fletcher, a business consultant; and Amanda Jones, a marketing specialist, would appear to have little in common. But that great second melting pot, aviation, seasoned with a liberal dose of fate, brought these energetic Australians together to plan this aviation adventure. The air tour, dubbed the Great Circle Air Safari, was a fundraiser for the Royal Flying Doctor Service of Australia. The plan consisted of a 4,000-mile flight of 10 vintage aircraft, originating on the east coast of Australia near Sydney, and then flying a roughly circular route from the coast into the vast Australian Outback.

The challenge seemed simple enough: Take my Seattle-based Stearman to Australia and go flying. Reality was a bit different, though, as we found ourselves spending hundreds of hours on a variety of tasks from meticulously inspecting the aircraft, to compiling a travel kit of spare parts and tools, to making customs arrangements for importation into Australia. As we were to learn, getting through AQIS - Australian Quarantine and Inspection Service - was no small undertaking.

The AQIS motto is "Nature made Australia unique; quarantine keeps it that way," and its mission is: "AQIS is Australia's first line of defense, protecting our unique environment against exotic pests and diseases. We inspect incoming luggage, cargo, mail, animals, and plants and their products, and provide inspection and certification for a range of exports."

While pondering the meaning of "unique environment," consider this: The world's 10 most poisonous snakes all call Australia home. Several other indigenous creatures, including a couple of my favorites - the paralysis tick and the funnel web spider - are the most lethal of their type in the world. The list goes on, but you get the idea; there are a lot of critters here that can kill you.

In the Land of Oz

Fast-forward to 8 a.m., Saturday, October 1, 2005, Camden Airport, New South Wales, Australia. Having imported and reassembled the Stearman, loaded our gear and survival supplies, reviewed the flight plan, and double- and triple-checked everything, we were rolling down Runway 6 for a left downwind departure. As we achieved the requisite airspeed, I pushed the stick forward to raise the tail, with no response. Getting the tail up and the aircraft in proper pitch for liftoff required considerably more airspeed and forward stick input than normal. As we staggered off the runway, I realized that this heavy aircraft, although within gross weight limits, was going to be a difficult animal to tame.

From Camden, we flew eastward, and were now headed north at 500 feet above the coastal waters of eastern Australia. Ahead and to the left was Botany Bay, reportedly named by Capt. James Cook in 1770 for the dense array of flora his botanist, Joseph Banks, observed upon sailing into this place.

The deep azure sea transitioned to emerald hues as the swells broke on the white sand beaches. As we moved up the coast, the beaches were interrupted by rocky-cliffed peninsulas, providing us with the opportunity to hone our terrain-avoidance skills. At times we flew alone; at other times we flew in formation, sharing the sights with our mates.

Uluru

On the ninth day of our journey we first sighted the highlight of our safari, a rust-colored pebble on the distant horizon that swelled to a large red monolith as we approached. This was Ayers Rock, now known by its Aboriginal name, Uluru. Geologically, this is a bornhardt, a hunk of weather-resistant stone left standing after centuries of erosion. It seemed that we never tired of flying around it. Even my wife, Robbi, who joined us here, and is at times a reluctant aviator, thoroughly enjoyed our flights and hikes around this ever-changing mound of undulating stone.

Our stay at Uluru was accompanied by mild sunny days, a welcome change after the blistering Outback heat we had endured over the previous few days. We made the most of the good weather by taking side trips to The Olgas (a series of nearby mini-Ulurus) and Lake Amadeus, a vast salt flat to the north peppered by islands of red dirt.

After spending two days in Uluru, we departed that enchanted place, and for the first time our circuitous route through the Outback turned generally south and east.

Refueling

Our first refueling stop after Uluru was Kulgera Railhead, an unpaved strip with no facilities. Our procedure here was typical of our procedure at many refueling stops at unattended dirt strips. The first airplane to reach the destination overflies the strip and reports any observable relevant information, such as wind direction. The pilot then "buzzes" the nearest roadhouse, signaling our arrival. If all goes according to plan, the fuel guy loads up his ute (Australian for "flatbed pickup," a utility vehicle) with 200-liter fuel drums, and bounces out to the airstrip, where the airplanes are touching down.

If avgas is available, then all of the aircraft can take on fuel. If only autogas is available, then the Stearmans, having the shortest range and the ability to run on autogas, take on fuel. The ute backs up to the aircraft, a long hose is handed up to a guy standing on the front engine cowling, and the gas is hand pumped up to the center section fuel tank. Each revolution of the hand pump represents one liter. Fuel can run as high as about $2 per liter, or about $8 per gallon! You pay the fuel guy, happily, in cash, and go on your way.

Checking the tanks

The radio sputters to life: "Hey, Doug, how ya going, mate? My fuel gauge is dropping pretty fast; you think we can make it?"

This is Peter Anderson, a Sydney-based developer flying his Royal Australian Air Force Stearman about 15 miles behind us. Anderson is reacting to a particular annoying nonlinear characteristic of the Stearman "float type" fuel gauge, whereby the first quarter tank appears to burn much quicker than the second and third quarter tanks. So if you're expecting about three and a half hours of total fuel duration, it is likely that the first quarter tank will appear to disappear in about 35 minutes.

Anderson is flying long days, solo, in an out-of-rig aircraft, through some very rough air, a surefire way to test one's endurance to Lindberghian levels. Fatigue is not our ally, and so it was that earlier in the trip, after turning westward from the coast into the Outback, Anderson, Bruce Willan in his Piper Dakota, and Richey and I made an unscheduled overnight stop in Blackall, a small town some 600 miles west of Brisbane. Willan's "Uncle Bill," aka Bill Whel, runs a sheep and cattle station about 30 miles southwest of the town. After extricating my bruised hand from his vigorous grip, and retrieving my sheep-dung-encrusted bag from the back of his ute, I had no doubt that this tough leathery man was the real deal. We headed for the pub, where we proceeded to "bog in" and "hit the piss," also known as eating and drinking for those of us who reside "up over."

Dining out

A word here about dining in an Outback pub: There are, undoubtedly, many foreign travelers here who have died from thirst and starvation while waiting for table service, as there is no such thing. To initiate the dining experience, you walk up to the bar and wait for the proprietor to sling some phrase your way, begrudgingly acknowledging your presence, usually ending with "mate." At this point you place your order, my favorite being "crumbed rump steak," a battered and breaded beefsteak. After you and your compatriots have ordered, noting that none of the orders has been committed to the written word - a practice that will have ramifications later in your dining experience - you amble over to the "veggie bar" for your daily dose of vitamins, minerals, and essential fiber. The veggie bar plays host to various forms of withered produce, said items being somewhat reduced in moisture content after some days of sweating under a heat lamp in the arid Outback.

Upon returning to your table, you and your mates proceed with the beer consumption process, when, in an hour or so, a stout cook appears by the table and shouts out, "Rump steak!" The Aussies, with local knowledge, and a bit unsportingly, I might add, immediately shoot up their hands, whereupon the fastest draw is rewarded with dinner. The lucky winner dines, while the rest await the cook's next showing. This process continues until most of your merry band has received dinner, whereupon the cook shouts out, "Which of you blokes forgot to order?" I'm slow on the uptake, so this was usually me, and I meekly reordered the highly acclaimed rump steak. Not to worry; we're getting soused with our mates, the tales of our flying bravado are getting bolder, and life is good.

Kangaroos

Anyway, as the evening in Blackall wore on, Richey and I were holding forth with some exuberance over our first sighting of Australia's most famous marsupial, the kangaroo. After having been foiled for several days in our attempts to sight the ubiquitous hopper, we were advised to fly low over the trees in order to rouse them. Sure enough, our efforts were rewarded as mobs of kangaroos were spotted hopping obliquely away from our flight path.

As we pontificated on this grand achievement, I noticed a puzzled, even incredulous look on Uncle Bill's face. After some time, he allowed that, "If you want to see kangaroos, I'll drive you out to the station, and collect several on our 'roo bar' during the trip." The roo bar, a uniquely Australian invention, consists of a rather barbaric-looking collection of pipes welded together on the front of a vehicle, as a means of protection from the kangaroos. Kangaroos are considered vermin, as they are prolific and compete with livestock for grazing lands. In one of those great ironies of life, the kangaroo, arguably Australia's most recognizable icon, is loved everywhere except in its homeland, where it is regularly hunted. Naturally, most Aussies consider the meat inedible, preferring to export it to Europe, where, according to the Australian government Web site, "the well-flavored, slightly gamey meat" is considered a delicacy. Who knew?

Crosswind landing

"All stations, Olympic Dam. Stearman November-One-Three-One-Five-November, one-zero miles north for left-hand traffic, Runway 24," I announce over the local CTAF VHF frequency.

This long cold leg is nearly finished. As we transit the landing pattern, I silently give myself a pep talk. I move the stick and rudder in small rapid movements to wake up my hands and feet. And suddenly we're on final approach and I'm talking myself in.

After refueling and warming up, we're once again on our way, finishing the last arc of our safari, eventually arriving at Camden on October 13, 12 days after our departure. There is much to accomplish before 15N is safely back to roost in Seattle, but the real adventure is over.

On October 18, having completed the 13-day safari and having spent nearly a month down under, as we were jetting over the South Pacific at 35,000 feet, I reflected on the Great Circle Air Safari. I was reminded of a verse from one of Australia's most beloved poems, recited to me during the trip by our Australian cameraman, Gavin:

"I love a sunburnt country,
A land of sweeping plains,
Of ragged mountain ranges,
Of droughts and flooding rains."

How better to have explored this "sunburnt country" than flying in a vintage biplane, seeing and hearing through the eyes and ears of my fellow aviators? On some level, this adventure was a microcosm of my life: some tough times, some wonderful times, and most important, a process best enjoyed in the company of my mates.

Douglas DeVries has accumulated more than 1,500 hours in 23 years of flying.