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Flying Small Planes


At some point in 2015, in a strange fit of madness, I was convinced of the need to learn to fly planes.


My partner, Lyn, had been working up in far north Queensland, recording material for an ABC RN radio program about the Queensland Music Festival. It involved flying around in a small plane, with professional musicians, delivering workshops and concerts to remote indigenous communities. The Festival Director, renowned jazz trumpeter James Morrison, and his drummer brother John, are also fully active commercial pilots, which made these sorts of trips that much easier. On this journey, the pilot was John Morrison, and the co-pilot was classical violinist Ian Cooper, also a pilot. Making up the contingent was classical pianist Ambre Hammond. And so, as well as all the activity on the ground at their various destinations, Lyn was plugged into the plane’s communications, listening to the amazing mix of cockpit chatter and radio transmission.

Part way through this epic journey, Lyn rang me and said she wanted to learn to fly. I was duly startled by this, but she explained that she understood the value of the skill, in a huge country full of barely accessible communities, as a way for someone, like her, to reach hidden stories. She felt that this trip had overturned the stereotype that said only wealthy, self-interested people owned and flew planes. As a fellow storyteller, I understood this implicitly. As someone who has always been intrigued by the idea of flying, I was captivated by the idea.


And so it began. Barely a month later, I had my first flight in a tiny Jabiru at Tooradin airport in South Gippsland. Only a few weeks after that, we both started lessons at our closest airport, at Leongatha. Starting with a small two-seater Cessna 150, I moved onto the larger four-seater Cessna 172. Lyn got the hang of it very quickly and went solo after only five months. I, on the other hand, struggled with the Cessna 172, feeling like I was in mortal combat with the machine, and struggling to get it to land properly.

Michael taxiing after his first solo flight
Michael's first solo take-off

However, when our instructor left the airport to take up work elsewhere, we had to find an alternative flying school and new instructors. This took us to Lilydale Airport, a far less convenient 8 hour round trip by car, but a fabulous place to learn. And, for me, the big difference was the planes we were flying. Instead of the high wing Cessnas, we were instead flying low wing Piper Warriors. For some reason, everything clicked for me. After only two flights, I went solo. The plane felt balanced and ‘obedient’, doing everything I wanted it to do, and going exactly where I wanted it to go. Landing suddenly felt easy … which is kind of important. As the aviation adage goes, taking off is voluntary, but landing is compulsory.


Another sobering truism goes:

Question: How do you make a small fortune in aviation?
Answer: You start with a large fortune.


So, maybe the wealthy part of the aviation cliche is true.

Many things mitigate against staying airborne. Money is probably the greatest obstacle. But for us, distance is a major factor. Driving an eight hour round trip, just top get in a plane for an hour or two, is not especially sane. It’s exhausting and detracts from the experience. Part and parcel of that is the time it takes—not necessarily problematic, except when you arrive after a four hour drive, only to discover the weather’s turned nasty, or the wind is dangerously strong. For all the impediments, however, I managed to get my Recreational Pilot’s Licence (RPL), and very nearly jumping the next hurdle—going for my Private Pilot’s Licence (PPL). I watched Lyn turn into a really accomplished pilot. Two things got in the way. One was the fact that I was at the pointy end of a PhD. The other, was COVID-19. The combination of these two things was enough to cause me to lose all momentum with my flying.


This said, I miss flying very much, and I particularly miss the people, the communities of pilots that embrace you and teach you extraordinary things. A lot of people have been amazingly generous with their knowledge and skills. They’ve given me the confidence to do things that, in my wildest imagination, I never thought I’d attempt.


Everything about flying is extraordinary and alluring, despite all these obstacles. I still look up every time a plane passes. I still love the sight, sound and feel of an airfield, full of small planes and people ascending and descending from the heavens. I still talk about planes and aviation as a live and important part of my life. And I may well get back to it. We’ll just have to see what happens …

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