Our Aviation Story

Way back in 1981 Steve started training for his private pilot's licence.  It was something that had simmered in the back of his mind for a long time.  We don't know quite where this came from, as there was no history of flying in his family.  His father was in the air force during WW2, but in a technical maintenance role, not as a pilot.  Progress was fairly slow, as flying has always been expensive and getting out more than about once a week was not financially feasible.  But at the end of 1982, he was an unrestricted private pilot.  Like most fresh pilots, he went on to add further qualifications over the next few years.  He added endorsements for complex aircraft (these are planes with adjustable-pitch propellors and retractable landing gear), tailwheel aircraft, and night flying.  The training for the night flying endorsement  was some of the most fun flying ever.  It's really the first rung on the ladder to full instrument flying.

During all this, the idea of owning our own aircraft was also simmering. This was financially impossible too, until in 1990 we sold our share of a piece of land in the country which we had owned for a long time and almost forgotten about. Suddenly we could think about aircraft ownership.  Steve was well aware of the home-built aircraft movement, and had strong interest in several of the designs available at the time.  He had always thought that he would love to build his own aircraft, but when he sat down and thought about it, it came down to the question - did he want to spend the next 3, 4, 5 or more years building, or did he want to be out flying?  He opted for the latter, and started looking at what was around.

We ended up buying a lovely old Beechcraft Debonair - "Debbie" as she was affectionately known.  This was a far better aircraft than we ever expected to own - very fast with retractable gear and constant-speed prop, spacious and comfortable for 4, and able to carry almost anything you could get through the baggage door.  She was a delight to fly - very gentle and forgiving flight characteristics, and almost landed herself.  It felt like sitting back and driving a big old Cadillac around!  She was built in 1967, so already about 23 years old when we became her owners.  She was looking a bit unloved at the time, but part of the purchase deal was a full strip and repaint, so Steve went to work and designed the new look, two colours of blue stripes and highlights over a white base.  Here are the before and after pictures:

Before

After

The aircraft's registration was VH-DYD, and she looked fabulous with the new paint job.  We couldn't afford to rent hangar space so she had to be parked outdoors, but the climate here is fairly benign and we started to enjoy the ability to just "jump in and go flying" almost whenever we wanted.  She was based at Jandakot, the main general aviation airport for Perth, which is only a few minutes away from where we live.  Steve did all of his night flying training in our Debbie, some of the most challenging but enjoyable flying he ever did.

In August-September 1992 we did our biggest-ever trip, flying ourselves to the holiday town of Broome way up in the north of Western Australia.  We had never been to Broome before, but it had been on our list for a while.  The straight-line distance from Perth to Broome is about 930 nautical miles, and a line drawn on the map from one to the other passes almost exactly over the major centres of Meekatharra and Newman, so they are perfect stopping/refuelling points.  Meekatharra is an alternate airport for Perth, so it has a huge runway which can take the large passenger jets.  Newman is a mining centre, so also has quite a big paved runway.  So on a cold but clear winter morning we climbed out of Jandakot, heading for our first rest and refuel stop at Meekatharra.  With the required clearances we went through the controlled airspace around Perth airport, and the airforce base at Pearce a bit further north.  After the "resume own navigation" instruction from the Pearce controller, we were on our own.  We were quite impressed at Meekatharra - the refueller was walking out towards the aircraft even before the propeller had stopped spinning, and the tanks were topped up in minutes.

We could probably have made it to Broome with just the one stop at Meekatharra, but we stopped and filled up the tanks again at Newman, just in case.  Steve was still a fairly inexperienced pilot and we were flying over very remote regions, so wanted to make sure we minimised risk.  We descended over Roebuck Bay into Broome late in the day, and landed into the sunset.  In 1992 it was an uncontrolled airport, so just required a general radio call to any other traffic.  These days it has a control tower and controlled airspace around it, so things are much more formal.  With the short tropical twilights there, it was almost dark by the time we found a place to park and tidied up the cabin.  It had been quite cold when we left home but when we opened the door, the beautiful warm seaside air wafted in, and in no time we were enjoying a magnificent dinner next to a pool at the resort where we stayed.  We almost instantly fell in love with Broome!

It was a full and tiring day though - nearly 8 hours of flying time, all hand flying as DYD did not have an autopilot.  And in 1992 GPS was in its infancy and still very expensive, so only commercial aircraft had it. It had certainly not filtered down to consumer level like nowadays.  I did borrow a primitive Sony GPS device for the trip, from a pilot acquaintance who hired DYD occasionally - it chewed through AA batteries at a ferocious rate, and all it displayed was latitude and longitude, in numbers!  But it was comforting to be able to turn it on every hour or so, to confirm our estimated position plotted on the paper charts.  Debbie was a great touring aircraft - we could flight plan for 145 knots cruise, and she burned about 50 litres per hour, not bad for that speed and a fairly heavy 4-seater.  The Debonair is basically a slightly scaled-down version of the Beechcraft Bonanza, with 4 seats instead of the Bonanza's 6, so structurally it is very similar.  And they both share a lot of components with the much heavier twin-engine Baron, so they are very solidly built.

It's one of the quirks of Broome that the airport is more or less right in the middle of the town - aircraft landing to the west descend over the main shopping area at only one or two hundred feet above the ground.  It's quite a busy airport - large helicopters servicing offshore oil and gas rigs are coming and going regularly, and there is quite a bit of fixed-wing traffic too, both tourism and industry related. There is a very old and famous open-air movie theatre in town called Sun Pictures, and when an aircraft lands to the west it goes right overhead - the landing lights shine onto the screen and you can look up and almost see the tread on the tyres as it goes over!

After a delightful week or so in and around Broome, we prepared for the flight back to wintry Perth.  We landed at Newman again and topped up the fuel, then headed for Meekatharra.  There was some low cloud about and it gradually increased, requiring us to fly lower to maintain visual conditions.  We made Meekatharra OK but only just, so we decided to stay there overnight and have another look in the morning.

Next day was similar, but there were plenty of gaps in the cloud so we took off, hoping to make it back home.  But the clouds were thicker than we thought, and we were getting forced lower and lower.  We spotted an airstrip, so did a quick U-turn and landed, on the dirt runway at the tiny mining town of Cue.  It had looked like the cloud should burn off as the day progressed, and that was indeed the case and we were only on the ground for an hour or so.  We took off again, and although we were still fairly low, we made it into Jandakot - just.  There is a line of low hills to the east, and we just managed to squeeze in through the entry lane, between the clouds and the hills, and got down safely - home again.  Our timing was good because later in the day, the weather closed in and we could not even see the hills from Jandakot!  One of the most memorable things about the flight was the wildflowers - because we were low, we could see the huge carpets of colour across the landscape, looking like handfuls of pink, white and yellow chalk had been scattered across the land.

That was by far our biggest adventure in our Debbie, but there were other great trips - 2 or 3 to Esperance on the south coast, a couple to Geraldton, north of Perth on the west coast, and a few to other smaller towns in the south-west.  They were great times.  Western Australia is a great place for flying - no serious hills for thousands of kilometres, and very flying-friendly weather for most of the year.

By the middle of 1994 a few changes in our life patterns meant we were not flying so much, so we decided it was time to sell Debbie.  Unfortunately, when it was being checked out for sale, it was discovered that there was some corrosion, in places where it was absolutely not OK to have corrosion.  It could have been repaired of course, but nobody was prepared to quote a fixed price, and it would have meant taking the wings off, etc etc etc, so the cost would have been very high.  We had already learnet that with aircraft, any thing can cost anything!  We simply could not effectively sign a blank cheque, so sadly, Debbie was broken up and sold for spares and scrap, for a fraction of what we had paid for her.  The VH-DYD registration now belongs to a different aircraft.  The financial loss meant that Steve was out of flying overnight, pretty much permanently.  It was a very hard life lesson, but owning our Debbie was still a fantastic experience.  If a windfall ever came our way, Steve would love to get up into the air again, somehow.