If you were offered an all-expenses paid trip to the red centre of Australia, I’ll bet you’d jump at the chance like we did! Castle Rock productions wanted to use our Stearman in a film called “Down & Under” and they were offering money to use our talents and skills to boot. What an opportunity – getting a paid flying holiday in a STEARMAN!!!
We started out from Noarlunga south of Adelaide, South Australia, and got clearance from the control tower in Adelaide to go along the coast to Port Augusta. This was special for me because we usually don’t have a radio in the Stearman and cannot go into controlled airspace. The radio was required on this expedition for several reasons, so we took advantage and enjoyed the thrill of going all the way along the coast of Adelaide. There are miles of beaches and mangrove swamps that allowed us to do some low flying on the first leg of our journey.
Ivor, my partner in life and in the Stearman, complained that he was hungry when we landed, and there was no place to buy food at the airfield. Thank goodness his mother’s cookies were packed just for this type of emergency! Our next stop was Andamooka, an opal-mining town on the bottom of the Great Artesian Basin. Water is scarce in Andamooka and the Basin’s water is only good for showers and laundry, you can’t drink it because it is too brackish. The Basin is a vast natural underground resource that underlies 1.78 million square kilometres and contains reserves of water which allows people to live, work and mine for opals in one of the driest conditions in Australia.
It started to rain when we were there and the people were sitting outside enjoying the sound and feel of the raindrops that they hoped to capture in their tanks for drinking. But the rain posed a threat to us – if the red earth at the airfield got too wet, it would be too slippery to take off, so we didn’t enjoy the rain like the locals did.
The stakes were high at that stage of our venture. If we didn’t make our destination, Alice Springs, then we wouldn’t get paid. Another concern for us was the fuel gauge. It worked intermittently which meant we possibly had a fuel leak and that meant we could have been forced to land in the middle of nowhere with no help within miles. We had water packed for such emergencies, but there were all the other possibilities of being injured, wrecking the aircraft and being stranded for days, not being found in the middle of the desolate red centre of Australia.
Sunday 28th April, 2001 – Andamooka to Coober Pedy – 2 hours of boredom over god forsaken country – only 1 homestead!! It was a relief to reach the only sealed highway and follow it to Coober where we met a typical airport bum who knew everyone I did (going back 35 years!) Small world. He was mining for opals there, trying to recover from bad investments.
Coober Pedy to Cadney Park – 1 hour – followed the road and then railway line. Piece of cake – but Mary seemed to crack when I flew below 50 feet along the road – I was trying to gauge the distance between roadside posts in case we had to land on the road – I decided it would be better to land on the access road beside the railway line (with no posts). We saw no trains and only a few motor vehicles – a real lonely wasteland!
From Cadney Park to Kulgera on Monday 30th April 2001. We landed on a remote airstrip and had to walk to the petrol station to get 4 jerry cans of fuel. Refuelling this way is back breaking and Ivor felt the pain begin!!!
At the next stop, Erldunda, we buzzed the roadhouse motel where we had reservations for the night and we landed on an airstrip about 2 miles away. We tied down the Stearman and waited about an hour for someone to come and pick us up as we had previously arranged. We started to walk to the roadhouse motel without our luggage but it was hot and we were tired. We had another plan – if we rushed, we could fly on to Alice Springs before it got dark! So, we hurried to remove the tie downs, repack the Stearman and get suited up. We started the engine and as we were taxiing out the motel manager came rushing down the road in his utility truck. He ran over to the plane and explained that the other workers at the motel had forgotten to tell him to pick us up! It was too late – he lost our custom – we were off to Alice.
Actually noticed the country turning green and pools of water left from a recent rain. Welcome changes from the brown dustbowl further south. It was a beautiful trip to Alice following the Sturt Highway. The country was green but still desolate. We managed to raise the tower on the radio and were scheduled in between all the heavies! It felt strange landing on bitumen (we had only dirt strips previously) and when the wheels squealed on, I could just imagine how much rubber I had removed from the tyres. We tied down and thankfully turned in at the Production Unit’s motel.
On the 2nd of May we met with Chris Sperou (famous stunt pilot from Adelaide) and I flew with him – aeros, aeros and aeros!!! He wanted to become familiar with the Stearman to prepare for the filming. It was also a strange worrying feeling watching from the ground our JLA doing rolls at 300 feet!!!
On the 3rd of May we removed panels from JLA for camera mounts. Later that day we visited the site where a full size replica of the JLA Stearman had crashed. There was amazing attention to detail on the replica and with site preparations. There were false rocks, buildings and earthworks. Money was not an issue – whatever was required, was purchased!
We visited the local aviation museum and showed Chris the wreckage of the “Kookaburra”. The curator was impressed to meet Chris Sperou – Mary and I introduced ourselves as “also rans”- (that’s Australian for peripheral nobodies).
On the 4th of May I started to check out all the happenings in Alice – restaurants, museums, shops and cassino. Ivor spent the day at the hangar watching the painter prepare our Stearman – I had not seen JLA look so clean and shiny since we first restored it!! JLA was going to be painted but we were assured the paint would peal off easily after the filming had been completed.
5th May – we visited the old telegraph office – opened approximately 1870. A single iron wire was used with a range of 150 miles, so plenty of repeater stations were required. How were the batteries charged? Our tour guide was a delightful “half caste”
who was brought up with a lot of other half-caste children at the telegraph station that was used as a school and hostel in the 1930’s. It was refreshing to meet such a charming guide who freely talked about his happy childhood.
Later we went to a “Desert Park” which had been raved about by David Attenborough. Quite a place. We discovered about 300 ways you can die in central Australia – if the snakes don’t get to you, then there are a hundred bugs which will! And if they aren’t interested in you, then they are flat out killing each other. We saw a snake whose tail had an end that simulates food for the spindly-legged yellow-breasted mattress thrasher and the snake then zaps this bird when it falls for the trap! Then there was the bird of prey which hurls rocks at an emu egg so it can break it and get to the contents. Actually saw this happen in action, but the bird’s aim wasn’t too good and it took several attempts. Glad to get out of there alive!!!
6th May – Sunday – We visited the railway museum and went for a ride on an Old Ghan train. Made friends with the driver and Mary and I ended up riding on the loco while it shunted and turned around. The place was still in the pre-litigation era and the driver/guard let us participate without worrying about accidents or suing. Wonderful atmosphere. I offered to help the two volunteer engineers, if we had nothing better to do at the weekend following. The volunteers did everything themselves, ie track maintenance, driving, loco maintenance – the works! They had one working steam engine that was fuelled by old sleepers as they
I spent the following days mostly swimming, shopping, reading, watching the sunsets and sunrises, visiting museums and gorges. On the following Saturday Ivor and I drove to Ellery Creek Big Hole, Serpentine Gorge, Ochre Pits, Ormiston Gorge and Pond and Glen Helen Gorge. These are beautiful examples of how the red centre can offer so much scenery for enjoyment and relaxation – I had a wonderful day. Ivor, however, thought that once you’ve seen one gorge, you’ve seen them all. Never mind, he said he enjoyed them anyway, even if he did so for my sake!!
On the following Wednesday (16th May) I had the great opportunity to practice with Chris Sperou in the Stearman, low flying through Palm Valley and flying closely through huge rock formations. Then we looped and rolled through the Palm Valley Amphitheatre. I had to control myself to keep from screaming or grabbing the stick to save my life – really exhilarating! Ask me if I’d do it again – NEVER – my knees and hands were shaking when I got on the ground. But ask me if I would have missed the thrill – NEVER!! A once in a lifetime experience!
The following days were early starts (5am) to dusk (6pm) and lots of waiting around for camera mounts on the Stearman and helicopter, refuelling and filming strategy meetings.
The payoff was watching what they call the “rushes”. These are the processed results of the days’ filming which was set up at the end of the day for the director, film crews, producers and all to see. Well, watching Chris, low flying between the trees and through the cliffs, chasms and gorges, had everyone ooohing and aaaahing and even applauding (which I was told later had never been done before). The scenes were really impressive and the Stearman made it all. The yellow painted JLA against the ochre, oranges, and reds of the rocks and sand, the blues of the ski and the greens of the spinifex, palm trees and scrub with the contrasts formed by moving in and out of the shadows and the sunlight, were breathtaking. I actually heard the director say “this is trillion dollar footage”. The long hours of work and effort paid off before we even got the pay cheque!
I’ve been promised a videotape of the scenes which will be great to show our friends back home. I wonder if Ivor’s mother will approve? She’s 90 years old and is often frightened to know that we fly straight and level – this might tip her over the edge – perhaps we won’t show it to her, we might have to limit it for just our flying friends!
There were a few low passes with the Stearman that looked too close for comfort and a trip through a gorge which had no exit other than up – and this made us realise all the money in the world wouldn’t pay for any real disasters. Chris Sperou was the stunt pilot but he was also a friend of ours and we made sure Chris was fully aware that we thought safety was the paramount issue.
The most anxious moments I had were on the evening when I was due to pick up Ivor and Chris from the Alice Springs airfield after they had been on a film location airfield some 60 miles due west. I arrived ten minutes before sunset, feeling sure they would have beat me there. Sunset came and still no Stearman in sight. I started pacing back and forth in front of the hangar not knowing what may have happened. There were grey clouds which brought the darkness on more quickly. I kept pacing and imagining the worst. Did Chris have an accident and the whole film crew and Ivor were out there looking for him? Chris was scheduled for filming with camera mounts and Ivor was due to fly the Stearman to the location and return with Chris. The film crew drove in separate cars. I didn’t go with them that day because I wanted to stay in Alice Springs. No one came back to Alice Springs airfield as planned. Where were they?????
I waited until it was pitch black and felt sure they would not return. I left a note for Ivor telling him I would go directly to the production office if we missed each other and he came there looking for me.
The airfield and the locations were out of mobile telephone range but I felt sure that someone would have been informed at the production office about what was happening. There were some 400 people involved on the production and the unit we worked numbered about 50. They included the painters, the film crew, and the directors, producers, mechanics, office clerks, wardrobe, sound effects, artists and runners!
Part of my worries were not knowing if Ivor and Chris had started to return to Alice Springs but when it got dark, landed somewhere in the middle of nowhere. Were they OK? Why didn’t anyone come to Alice Springs airfield to tell me? I was almost frantic with thinking about the possible disasters which could have occurred. The plan had been for me to pick up Ivor and Chris, so they knew I would be waiting for them. Wouldn’t they know I would be worried????
When I got to the production office I was greeted with apologies from someone I didn’t even know. He started explaining excitedly that they were so busy they didn’t have a chance to get someone out to tell me what had happened. They left messages at my hotel and tried to reach me on Chris’s mobile phone which I kept, but I did not get any of those messages. I just stopped him with the only question on my mind “Is everyone OK?”
The answer was “yes”! “So, what happened?” I begged.
Well, the filming went longer than they had hoped, so they left the Stearman at the location airfield with one of the film crew to guard it overnight. All the others were driving back and were on their way!!!
I went to the bar and had a good stiff drink to calm my nerves.
When Ivor and Chris finally arrived at the hotel they were surprised that I didn’t scold them for worrying me (the drink had a positive effect, I assume) – but Ivor knew
I’d be worried and he left messages to keep me informed – what more could he do? As far as the production crew were concerned, this was just another change of plans – it was just par for the course!
When the filming was over and the Stearman was washed clean of its temporary paint, we waved good-bye to everyone and set off on our long, cold journey home. I insisted we followed the sealed road all the way (I wanted the security of getting help if we needed it) so the trip was a bit longer going home. But all went very safely and when we arrived back at our Noarlunga strip we were greeted by friends with congratulations.
Well, Ivor can now finally claim to be rich and famous – he always told me he would be one day – but I’m proud to say it was our Stearman that really made us rich and it was the Stearman which brought us fame. Unfortunately, neither will last very long (there are lots of bills to pay and fame is always fleeting and fickle), but our love for flying and the memories of our Stearman in the outback of Australia will linger forever.