For many years now I have dreamt of flying a biplane again. In the early years of my flying experience I hired Tiger Moths from Mackenzie Flying School located at Moorabbin Airfield in Victoria, a southern state of Australia. My initial flying training, in 1954, was on Austers while I was working in the midlands of England. I was glad of the enclosed cockpit in that climate. Upon returning to the city of Melbourne, capital of Victoria, I set about gaining my Australian restricted private pilots license. Then I embarked on my cross-country training in the faithful Tiger in order to have the restriction lifted. Flying in an open cockpit is an experience one never forgets. It is the most basic of all powered aviation.
Once my license restriction was removed I sought faster aircraft that would take me to my destination in the shortest possible time. As the years passed I gained considerable experience flying the wonderful Mooney 201 and then the F33A Bonanza, which was my first love and has taken me safely to my chosen destination, through some atrocious weather.
For forty-two years the memory of open cockpit flying lay dormant in my mind. It however surfaced briefly each time I attended the Queensland Vintage Aeroplane Group fly-ins at Watts Bridge and other antique aircraft events. This memory grew to a strong desire in January of this year when I happened to see a Stearman advertised in the Aviation Trader.
A phone call started my serious pursuit of the aircraft. Inspection was not easily accomplished, as it was located at Tindal. Tindal is a military/civil airport in Australia’s Northern Territory. It is located 250 kilometers south of Darwin our northern most capital. Caboolture is located 50 kilometers north of Brisbane, the capital of Queensland. There are 1500 nautical miles between these places. Inspecting the Stearman would be difficult for me, and I was not the pilot to fly it home. A number of phone calls were made and while it sounded good I decided to look for an alternative aircraft closer to home. I found one and flew in it. It was nice, but not quite what I wanted. Over Easter some friends of mine had arranged a fishing trip in the Gulf of Carpentaria. In relative terms we would be close to Tindal. Here was my chance to inspect the Stearman that first caught my eye. Taking a couple of days off from fishing I flew to Tindal. The owner, Geoff Browne, is Lloyd Helicopters base manager at RAAF Base Tindal. He is a search and rescue chopper pilot and controls the search and rescue service when the RAAF F18s are operating. He also is a Stearman devotee. He let me fly in the aircraft and liked it immediately. It was tidy and the engine didn’t leak oil.
When I expressed my serious interest, Geoff loaned me a quantity of documents.
Armed with these I flew to Sweers Island in the Gulf to join my friends and do more fishing. In the days that followed there were lots of plans made to ferry the Stearman to Caboolture and none of them worked. Finally I was able to obtain the assistance of my friend Guy Kendall to conduct the ferry flight. Guy is an airline captain and the ferry flight had to be worked into his roster. We needed four consecutive days. It was first thought that Geoff Browne would fly the Stearman to Mount Isa and that Guy would complete the ferry flight from there. However as time moved on Geoff was called to Darwin during the week that suited Guy. It appeared that the simplest method would be to have one pilot ferry the Stearman from Tindal to Caboolture. Block leave came up for Guy from Friday 8th to Monday 11th May 1998. So that was it. We had determined that without a ferry tank in the Stearman the most suitable way to ferry it was by having the Bonanza carry additional fuel in jerry cans and refuel at strategic airfields. The Stearman stands nine feet above the ground and the only fuel tank is located in the center section of the upper wing. The refueler stands seven feet from the ground on a narrow perch when pouring fuel into the tank. Lifting a 20 liter jerry, weighing approximately 16kg, is very hard work for two men. Fortunately a Caboolture Aero Club member who had heard of the ferrying plans expressed an interest to be part of the exercise. Peter Rosenfeld’s assistance proved to be invaluable in the refueling exercise as he is a tall man and could shove a jerry up within easy reach of the refueler.
By early May all preparations were complete and the equipment tested. At dawn on Friday morning 8th May the Bonanza was airborne at Caboolture and we were heading for Tindal via Longreach and Mount Isa. We made good time, as we were pushed by a tail wind, an ominous sign for the return trip. We arrived at the Tindal airport at 1600 CST. Geoff was there to greet us and following introductions he started explaining to Guy the particular points of the aircraft. Refueling was next. Geoff had taken good care of the Stearman and had kept it covered when it was not being used. The covers were once parachutes and they did an excellent job of blocking ultra violet rays and Northern Territory dust. We loaded the Bonanza with all ancillary articles in the light of the evening. The next morning it would be dark when we arrived to pre flight both aircraft and commence the return trip.
Geoff dropped us to a motel and then returned and ate dinner with us. He and Guy, both professional pilots, discussed commercial flying topics and touched on events and people they had both known. The Stearman frequently came up in conversation; Geoff assuring us that she was a good aircraft and how he regretted not being able to ferry it part way. After dinner we collected our continental breakfasts, paid our bill and retired. We were up at four thirty and before we had finished packing Geoff tapped on our door and we were off to the airport. The morning was calm and about 20 degrees C. The northern territory region of Australia is known as a dry tropical rain forest. As such it has two distinct seasons one wet and the other dry. Humidity is there at all times as is the heat and there was that tropical scent on the air. There was powerful light in the hangar where the Stearman was parked assisting our preparations considerably. A twin Otter, owned by the military was parked in the middle of the hangar and had to be shunted out and then returned to its parking position once the Stearman was in the open. We had made good time and now had to wait for the sky to reflect the early light before firing up the Stearman.
The moment soon arrived and that great and very distinctive sound made only by a radial engine filled our ears. At the first flight of the day twenty minutes to half an hour must be spent warming the oil. This done, run up was next and Guy taxied out to the threshold of runway 14 and departed into the dawn sky. We had established a chatter channel, and emergency procedures. There was no way that the Bonanza could fly with the Stearman, as cruising speeds were incompatible. We had at least ninety minutes to lose on this first leg to Ngukurr. After about thirty minutes we said farewell to Geoff and departed.
We wanted to have adequate time to prepare for the first jerry can refueling. We had estimated each refueling needed to be accomplished in the maximum of forty minutes if we were to make Cloncurry before last light. At this time of year large high-pressure systems develop over our continent and as a result prevailing winds from the east blow across the top end. Our track was southeast and the Stearmans ground speed would be only in the sixties.
Peter and I parked the Bonanza in a convenient place for the Stearman to draw up along side and waited. This part of Australia is still very much frontier. There are many indigenous settlements; all have airstrips, but no fuel available. It is rugged land predominantly red in color, with deep gorges infested with Crocodiles. It is spinifex and stunted eucalyptus trees. Primary production, raising cattle, is the economy.
The morning had developed into a beautifully clear day. The squeak from the windsock bearing was the only sound to be heard. It indicated that the breeze was from the east and we knew that flying at fifteen hundred feet AGL, Guy would be bucking at least a 15 knot head wind. We waited and became more tense by the minute visualizing the worst. I had turned on my hand held VHF radio and it had remained silent. Then came the transmission we wanted to hear, “all stations Ngukurr, Yankee Delta Foxtrot five miles west in bound from one thousand” as the transmission ended we heard that unmistakable sound of a radial engine and saw a silhouette of four wings in the sky. He had made it to Ngukurr.
Guy taxied toward us and shutdown, rolling to a stop beside the jerrys. I decided to be the gofer and climbed up the side of the Stearman using the foot hold pegs provided for the purpose. My first impression was this is a dangerous thing to do, as I was now perched 2.5 meters above the ground, steadied only by leaning on the leading edge of the upper wing. Peter Rosenfeld being the tallest took the position of jerry lifter, passing each jerry up to me with a powerful shove.
Guy climbed up on the sides of the front cockpit and leant across the trailing edge of the upper wing to assist me in pouring each Jerry into the fuel tank. While this was being done a man, his wife and two children drove to the airport to look and ask what sort of aeroplane it was. This reminded me of what Geoff Browne had told me in one of our early conversations. “It will attract people wherever it lands”. Sure enough even at remote Ngukurr we had some onlookers.
By this time we were an hour and a half behind our plan and this first refueling was taking much longer and was more difficult than expected. Once the contents of the four jerries had been transferred we cleared the area and Guy taxied out and departed for Borroloola. Peter and I repacked the Bonanza and also departed, planning to refuel the jerries and the Bonanza before Guy arrived.
It always amazes me how hard it is to see another aircraft in the air. We knew the course that Guy would be tracking and his approximate altitude. I kept the Bonanza low thinking that we would spot the Stearman more easily. Peter and I looked and looked to no avail. Then all at once Peter called “There he is!” The yellow wings of the Stearman stood out against the reddish-green of the terrain. We flew up to him and took some photos before passing all too quickly. It was great sight.
Joining the circuit at Borroloola I noticed that the grounds man had recently mown the runway strips. This was a welcome sight for I knew that with a crosswind blowing, Guy would land on the grass making it little easier. By the time we had unloaded the jerries the refueler arrived. He looked at them and said, ”I can’t fill those”, we said, “you must be joking”. Cautioned by previous litigation experience, Mobil will put avgas in aircraft tanks only. We were momentarily frustrated, and then he asked what the fuel was for. We told him of the ferrying adventure and that the Stearman was due in half an hour or so. The refueler said “of course if you wanted the fuel for your racing car I could fill the jerries”. We immediately remembered that we did have a racing car needing fuel. The jerries were filled and not long after Guy landed beautifully and we filled the Stearman.
It was now after midday and with the pub within walking distance of the airport we decided to have a counter lunch. Borroloola is no resort town, but it does have some lovely shade trees, many of which are in the grounds of the hotel. With lots of water sprinkling on the grass to keep it green and cool, the beer garden is a bit of an oasis. There is a tiled swimming pool also, which I suppose is for the residents’ use. The saloon bar had just been reconstructed and was almost complete. It was unusual to see a caged enclosure around the area. Things must get pretty fired up there on occasions. The steak sandwiches took a while to cook, but were tasty and tender when they arrived. Finishing first Guy set off for the airport to get cranked up for the next stop, Wollogorang Station.
With the heat of the day the wind had increased in speed and was blowing from the direction we had to travel. Ground speeds were reduced by more than 20 knots. Peter and I passed Guy without sighting him. We circled the homestead and landed on the long Wollogorang strip. As we deplaned a four-wheel drive Ute drove up to us.
Paul Zlotkowski introduced himself as the owner and as we had some time to wait for Guy to arrive he invited us to go with him to the homestead for a cup of tea. Paul was an outback aviator and owned a hard working Cessna 182. He used it for hauling supplies from Cloncurry and Mount Isa. Home stays camping and provisioning are offered at Woologerang Station. The Cessna is also used to fly some of the customers around sight seeing. The time passed quickly and we realized that on this long strip Guy must have come straight in and touched down at the distant end without us hearing him. Paul drove us back to the strip and sure enough poor old Guy had unloaded some of the jerries while waiting for us to show up. Peter and I felt embarrassed for we had let him down not being on hand for his arrival.
We were now more than two hours behind our plan and we knew we could not make Cloncurry before last light. We would have to overnight at Gregory Downs. As we would need all the jerries for that refueling we decided to buy a 200-liter drum from Paul. We filled the Stearman and the Bonanza and left Paul with a few liters that I am sure found their way into the Cessna 182. Paul had accommodation available and was encouraging us to stop the night there. Tempting as it was, Guy felt that we needed to cover as much distance as we could each day, as the wind seemed destined to be on our nose the whole trip. At 0620 Zulu Guy was heading for Gregory Downs. I paid Paul for the fuel, hopped in the Bonanza with Peter and followed the Stearman. In spite of our keen search we again missed seeing that plane as we went by.
There are two strips at Gregory Downs. One is a few kilometers from the settlement and used in most weather conditions. With the construction of a major road to the Century Zinc mine currently under way this strip is used quite a bit, but if you are wanting to get a cool drink or overnight accommodation the strip outside the pub is the place to land. Knowing this we landed on the latter and taxied up to a parking spot opposite the pub. We were greeted by a number of indigenous men asking if we had brought their pay. Apparently the pilot, responsible for delivering their government payment, had been delayed or something. These fellows were on a forced dry out and were not too pleased about it.
While Peter reorganized the Bonanza I walked over to the public bar and asked the barman if he had a room for three fellows. He said “ no mate! If you want to stay here you have to book in advance.” in a ‘I couldn’t care less’ manner. Shut out by this reply I asked about a counter tea and he said that was possible. I walked back to the Bonanza and told Peter the bad news. He was concerned as he has a weak back and a disc in his spine had been acting up. He was also concerned about security as the indigenous people who felt sure we must have their pay were hanging around. Massive trucks and road building equipment were moving along the 50 meter wide road. There were two construction camps with scores of dongas (portable accommodation structures). I suggested to Peter that we might be able to rent one and planned to find out to whom we should apply after Guy arrived. The sun was sinking low in the western sky as we saw this black speck sprout four wings and utter that unmistakable sound of a radial engine at work. With one precautionary circuit Guy came in over the pub and landed out of the sun.
To retrieve some of our lost progress a dawn departure was planned and it was decided to refuel the Stearman from the jerries while we still had some light from the setting sun. It took every liter and we then knew that a landing at Kamileroi would be necessary. Fuel would also need to be syphoned from the Bonanza tanks there in order for the Stearman to make Cloncurry.
The construction crews were coming in from their work places and many stopped by to ask what sort of plane it was; some took photos with flash. Only when walking to the pub did I tell Guy we didn’t have beds for the night. At the bar we ordered three beers and wondered how we would be spending the uncomfortable and cold night. The barman who had given me the bad news earlier served the second round. This time he said, “are you the flying blokes?” We said “yes” and then he told us that as a Telstra crew had not been able to make it we could have their room for the night. As the evening wore on that barman came over to our side of the bar and started talking about the Stearman. He informed us that he liked old things and in fact was an antique dealer with a shop in Townsville (a city on the coast of Queensland). The pub on the other hand was a business run by his wife and a partner. The chef had left and his wife was in charge of meal preparation. We were offered a choice of meat or fish. We all ordered fish and when it came it was a large fillet of Barramundi surrounded by salad and chips. The lady was a good cook and the meal was enjoyed.
It was Saturday night and the whole pub was jumping. There were more questions about the Stearman as we waited in line for a chance at one of the two public phone boxes in constant use. No mobile net at Gregory Downs! Our antique dealing publican said his wife would show us to our room when she was done in the kitchen. This took longer than was expected and in the end he was trusted to show us the way. The room was large with an en-suite attached. It had a double bed, a single bed and two bunk beds. We took turns to shower and retired comfortably thinking how lucky we were to have the Telstra crew drop out.
We did not get a continental breakfast so made cups of coffee and tea to wash down our emergency rations of museli bars and headed over the road to the aircraft. It takes at least forty minutes to warm the oil in the Stearman to 40 degrees C and by that time Guy was well chilled just sitting in the cockpit. Another crowd gathered and we answered lots more questions about the plane. Before the sun had risen above the horizon the Stearman had lifted off and set course for Kamileroi only sixty-one nautical miles away. Once again we passed Guy without sighting him. Kamileroi is a cattle station with a long strip (not all usable due to scrub re-growth). After a slow precautionary pass I landed with care and taxied to the homestead end of the strip. Knowing the transfer of fuel from the Bonanza tanks would be a slow process Peter and I set about siphoning the fuel at once hoping to be ready for Guy when he landed. Some of the Kamileroi staff came out to see what we wanted. When we told them what we were doing they kindly offered us fuel from their supplies if we found there was not enough available from the Bonanza. After the Stearman landed more staff came out to take pictures and watch the activity. Forty liters were transferred. Cloncurry was only eighty-two nautical miles up wind and this would be sufficient. We asked for a jump-start from one of their vehicles to conserve the Stearman battery. After Guy took off, Peter and I thanked the Kamileroi people for their help and departed also.
On landing at Cloncurry airport I was pleased to see that BP had a keycard pump for this meant we would avoid the Sunday callout fee. We filled the jerries and the Bonanza. While waiting for Guy to arrive I noticed the Shell dealers hangar was open. I asked if I could buy some mineral oil and he obliged. This would replenish our stock that was being consumed faster than I had anticipated. Refueling the Stearman from the keycard pump was a snap as we had our routine worked out by now.
We had hoped to make Winton nonstop however the wind was blowing with the same velocity as before and we therefore knew that MacKinlay was the next stop. The MacKinlay strip is merely a scratch in a paddock running slightly up hill. A jerry refueling was necessary there so Peter and I decided to set full cruise power and be well set up for Guy’s arrival. At the MacKinlay strip a strong crosswind was blowing giving me concern for what Guy would do. I touched down at the up hill end as it was slightly into wind and decided to move to one side as I approached the lower threshold. This proved to be a mistake for as I neared my proposed parking position I could feel the Bonanza sinking into the soft surface. Rather than pull her further into the broken surface I shut down and asked Peter to get out fast. We were bogged, but fortunately not deeply. Now we were losing valuable time and would be in Guys way when he approached to land. Having unloaded the Bonanza completely I asked Peter to push on the port wing tip as I revved the engine, It took a few agonizing seconds and we were out. The repacking process was just about completed as we heard the Stearman approaching.
Guy made a beautifully executed crosswind landing and we were into the jerry refueling procedure once again. We were making slightly better time today but getting to Emerald for the night was not an option. Without delay Guy set off for Winton and once we packed the jerries and other items we followed.
Throughout the whole ferry flight we had been below four thousand feet AGL and I was amazed to see countryside that I had flown over many times before from this perspective. So much more detail was evident and I felt we were lucky to see all the properties looking so green, a rare sight. Good rains had fallen along our whole track. We arrived to another cross wind and not a living soul at Winton. Once we had selected a parking spot I shut down and went looking for a phone to call the refueler. None of the numbers I tried worked and some connected me with a motel that turned out to be helpful in the end. There was a new home close by and I walked over hoping to get some help from the resident. There was no one home. I returned to the troublesome phone and decided to try an 1800 number. Brisbane flight service answered. I explained my predicament to the guy and he offered to ring the refueler on another line if I would wait. I was happy to do so. Soon he confirmed that a refueler would bring a 200 liter drum out to the airport. Winton and Longreach are rivals for recognition as the birthplace of Qantas. As far as I am concerned Longreach is more convincing for it has the Qantas founders museum, is far more general aviation friendly and above all has a keycard refueling installation. The refueler arrived and we filled the jerries. I told him we wished to wait for another plane to arrive and fill it before the remainder was put in the Bonanza’s tanks. While we waited we talked of planes and when the refueler heard how old the Stearman was he nearly flipped.
He told us he didn’t like planes least of all old ones. I’d say this man was in the wrong job. We emptied the drum and I wrote a cheque for the fuel and let him go. This was a costly over sight, the battery in the Stearman had not been charged at any time on this trip. It was our intention to put the battery on a charger over night. But this had not been possible at Gregory Downs. We had also intended to conserve the battery by jump starting the Stearman whenever we could and now we had missed the essential service by dismissing the refueler. Guy tried to start with the battery, but it had lost a considerable amount of energy and he could not get fired up. The day was moving into mid afternoon and it seemed we might have to make Winton our over night stop. I went to the phone again trying to find the number of a taxi on the phone booth wall, but there was none. I dialed the number listed in the AOPA airfield directory I was carrying and it turned out to be the motel I had spoken to earlier. I apologized to him and asked for his help in getting the phone number of a taxi company.
The one he gave me worked, and a short time later a taxi drove onto the apron and we placed him near the Stearman. With the power lead connected Guy tried to start. The engine turned over but would not fire. In our confusion maybe we had flooded it. We waited for a while and tried again to no avail. It appeared something had broken and if an engineer was required then things could start to get expensive and the Stearman would be left in the weather. This thought panicked me and I urged Guy to let me prime the Continental once more and for him to try another start. I don’t know what was the Toowoomba. We talked Bonanzas until the Stearman was heard. It then got the attention. Taxiing in Guy wondered why we had the jerries out when he could see the refueling installation. He could not see the JetA1 labels on the pipes. This was the last jerry refueling and David helped us making it easy. Next stop Kingaroy about an hour away and the time was only 0420 Zulu, we would make it home today.
At last a hint of a tail wind, good time was being made and the grass glider strip 16/34 at Kingaroy would make the landing for Guy a comfortable one. The quality of the countryside gradually improved as we traveled south with evidence of heavier red soil appearing. As we parked the Bonanza the refueler was about to leave for a late lunch in town. We asked if he could wait until the Stearman arrived as it would require fuel. It turned out that Tony Pratt was a friend of Guys and when he heard Guy was flying the Stearman he said, “I bet he will need a cuppa” and went inside to put the kettle on. Peter and I refueled as Guy thawed out. It was about 1600 hrs and there were only sixty-eight nautical miles left, about forty-eight minutes flying. We would make it easily.
This map will give some idea of the track and distance we covered. The area from Katherine to Wollogorang is considered very remote and from Wollogorang to Barcaldine sparsely populated. The population of our country increases as you approach the east coast. On arrival at Caboolture Peter and I put the Bonanza in my hangar and closed the doors. It was still doubtful if both planes would fit into it, and I didn’t want to juggle them around then for I knew Guy and Peter would want to get away as soon as possible.
I had arranged with my friend Roy Molyneux to temporarily store the Stearman in his hangar. I phoned him to let him know we had arrived and that Guy was not far away. I had a set of keys for the hangar and so I opened it up ready for the Stearman. Guy was getting a good tail wind on this last leg and soon arrived. He landed and taxied in before Roy arrived. The Stearman fitted in the hangar with the other two planes already stored there. It looked enormous along side a J 3 Cub and a Karatoo.
I was glad to have the Stearman safely locked away and at the same time sorry that our adventure was over. Guy had conducted a wonderful flight and Peter, with his height and strength had made the jerry refueling a smooth operation. As we left the field I had the feeling that if I said we had to return the Stearman to Tindal my friends would have said “You’re on”.
I had grave doubts that the Stearman would fit in my hangar with the Bonanza, however a few days later, with Roy’s help we proved it just did.