Tuesday, 02 June 2020


Flying to Australia in a small aeroplane

By Jack Biddle

When you next look up to the sky and spot a small recreational type aeroplane overhead, ask yourself if you would dare to strap yourself and a couple of close friends in and attempt to fly the plane to Australia? If the answer is yes, then ask yourself if you would turn around a few weeks later and fly the same plane back to New Zealand?

No prizes for guessing what the answer would be for the majority of people.

But for experienced Whitianga pharmacist and flying enthusiast, John Stephenson, piloting his Cessna 185 to Australia and back was something he and close mates, Len Beilby (who sadly passed away earlier this month) and well-known Whitianga local, Harold Abrahamson had talked about doing for a long time. 

“After several years of ‘talk’ we decided it was time to go,” said John who, along with Harold, retold to The Informer the story of the epic trip, which took place almost exactly 10 years ago.

John and Harold were saddened that Len couldn’t be with them to share his thoughts about the adventure. Suffice to say he was a great mate and travelling companion to both of them. "Harold and I feel very privileged to have shared a long-lasting friendship and a number of different adventures with Len - including our flight across to Australia," John said. "We will miss him terribly, but we have many great memories of our adventures together, this one in particular."

Once the decision to fly to Australia and back was made, the flight took three months of careful planning. When you are travelling a total of 38 hours in a single-engine four-seater aeroplane, and close on 20 of those hours are over water, no stone can be left unturned.

Ask any pilot and they will tell you that preparation and leaving little to chance is the golden rule when it comes to flying, regardless of distance. For this particular mission, extra considerations had to be taken into account. The 185 had just undergone an engine overhaul and had a new prop fitted, so that critical box was quickly ticked off. John then carried out some speed/height/power and fuel consumption test flights to get the best combinations for the trip. Going solely by book figures wasn’t accurate enough in John’s eyes, he much preferred to carry out his own tests and prepare accordingly.

Fuel consumption was calculated at close to 48l per hour, with an endurance of just over six hours flying time. With a "prepare for the worst but hope for the best attitude," a marine survival kit was packed on-board, comprising a four-man life raft and portable emergency position indication radio beacon plus waterproof survival packs. The crew also carried out a water ditching evacuation drill as part of their preparation.    

“Flying in a plane of this size and travelling this far, is all about having total faith in both the machine and pilot,” said Harold - the unofficial, but very experienced, co-pilot. “John’s plane was at the time, and still is, in immaculate condition and he is such a competent pilot. Plus, we had the very latest on-board navigation and communication equipment available at the time. So really, pilot error was our only potential downfall and that was never going to happen with John at the controls. To cover all bases and as the only non-swimmer amongst us, the life raft was attached to Len's wrist at all times when we were flying."  

The journey began with the trio clearing customs and flying out of Kerikeri in Norhland and heading for Norfolk Island for a refuel and one-night stopover. Flight time was three hours 45 minutes at heights ranging from 400ft initially to up to 7,000ft.

“Norfolk has a huge runway courtesy of the Americans in WW11, excellent facilities and very welcoming staff," said John. "In spite of checking and confirming the availability of Avgas, our refuelling was still not straight forward. Fuel was only available in 200l drums and with the airport fuel pump out of action, we had to rely on the good nature of the Royal Australian Air Force, who were happy to lend us their hand pump.

"We duly departed from Norfolk Island and made our way to Lord Howe Island. This turned out to be our longest leg at four hours. One of our first sightings was the two peaks of Lord Howe. The airstrip on the island is around 800ms long and we landed on grass towards the east.

"Landing towards the west in strong crosswind conditions should be avoided due to turbulence created by the two high peaks. Sometimes however, this is unavoidable as we found out on the return trip. But I had taken the precaution of getting a good briefing from a mainland pilot before our departure. At the time Lord Howe Island had a permanent population of around 300 and about 400 extra beds for visitors. As all the beds were booked up and the forecast was not good for the next few days, we decided to just gas up and keep going. Two and a half hours later we were on mainland Australia managing to dodge some thunderstorms and rain, although it was quite dark.

"We flew into Yamba in northern New South Wales and spent the next two weeks flying to places such as Tamworth, Dubbo, Narraomine, Cobar, Nyngan, Temora, Woolongong, Caloundra and back to Yamba. Many of the places were quite remote and relied on their local airstrips for air ambulance and flying doctor services. Nyngan was particularly satisfying as I was able to reunite with old friends and my old boss whom I worked for back in the mid-1970s.” 

For Harold, the adventure was a great way to see another view of the vast Australian outback. “The outback farms are huge, while much of the landscape is so rugged I often thought about how tough life must have been for those early settlers," he said. "And when we flew over the coast of Newcastle, we counted close to 100 ships anchored in the outer harbour waiting their turn to dock and load up with coal.”

Departing from Yamba back to New Zealand, John, Harold and Len flew to Lord Howe Island and on to Norfolk Island with no overnight break. They spent three days on Norfolk Island before heading home. Due to favourable winds, an hour of flying time was saved on the return journey.

Harold summed up the trip perfectly. “Yes, flying to Australia may sound pretty heroic, but those early aviation pioneers, particularly people who flew record-breaking long distance flights, are the true heroes of the sky. To be the first ever person to fly solo from England to New Zealand in 1936 with only the very basics of navigation equipment, like Jean Batten did, is a truly remarkable effort. We had it easy in comparison, plus we had a very good pilot. Also, I think we had a lot more fun.”  


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