Ivor promised me that if we took the journey in our Stearman to Uluru to raise funds for the Australian Royal Flying Doctor Service we would follow the roads for safety sake!  If we had to come down with a forced landing then we could land on the road and get some help!

 Since it was for a good cause (the Royal Flying Doctor Service) I agreed.

When we landed at Olympic Dam, about 300 miles north of Adelaide, South Australia, to meet the others who had come all the way from Sydney, I was worried that they might not think “safety first”.  Some were not pilots.  There were 12 others and most seemed to be photographers.  Ivor and I had learned that photographers put photos first and will risk their lives getting a good shot!  So the minute we met up with the others they were ready to go out on a photo shoot before sunset – there were storm clouds brewing and the wind was getting stronger.  The pilots were all tired from flying all day but they were persuaded to go and get some photos of formation flying.  I decided instantly to stay on the ground but Ivor agreed to take one of the photographers in our Stearman!  But in the end, it was safer that they didn’t go up; the weather threatened to a point where the pilots decided to stay on the ground and do the photographing at a later stage of the trip!

So the next day we were off to Coober Pedy.  Now this stretch meant that we wouldn’t be following a road but we would be in company with other Stearmans who travelled at the same speed. So, as the saying goes, there is safety in numbers!  On hindsight, this was probably a foolish illusion because the other two Stearmans couldn’t have helped us if we were in trouble other than to mark the position on the GPS for a rescue attempt.

IVOR’S comment:  “The country between Olympic Dam and Coober makes the Lunar surface look positively attractive!

From the Coober Pedy airport we flew over the town and then we looked for the road to follow.  No one knew for sure where

the road was so we chose the compass heading and followed that (a safe strategy?).  Now this is where I started to pout.  Ivor promised we would follow the road for safety sake!  So, when it was my turn to take the stick and do the flying, I headed towards the road until I found it.  I then followed it to our next stop.  Now you can just imagine what kind of words were exchanged to get my way, but I got it.  When we landed the photographers came over to ask us how we enjoyed our last leg of the journey.  I just replied, “It’s not a good time to ask us that question”.  My motto (and reputation) from then on became “safety first”.

IVOR’S comment:  See earlier comment re Lunar surface!

When we reached Uluru the Stearman pilots flew near the Rock in loose formation, but in our excitement to look at the rock we lost sight of each other!  “What happened to the comfort of safety in numbers,” I thought.  I was glad when we had our feet on the ground at Ayers Rock airport. 

The next day the formation flight around Uluru was well planned and it all went very well – I was really happy about that.  When I saw the photos, I was even happier – fantastic!!!  Ivor and I both think that that experience was a definite “one-off”!  Very special indeed!  BEAUTIFUL! EXCITING! UNIQUE!

But the trip was not over at Uluru.  We headed towards Alice, low flying through Palm Valley, which probably was more frightening for the other two Stearman pilots than for Ivor and me because we had done it before and on this occasion we were with company, so all was familiar and comfortable.

It was on the way home from Alice that safety became the issue once again.  When we landed at Kulgera the winds became gusting and strong.  And it was hot!  The Stearmans had been staying together and following the road so we were as safe as we could be in these desolate areas. 

But the next scheduled stop (Cadney Park) had only one strip running north and south which meant that we would have to do a cross wind landing.  The way the winds were blowing, it meant that we would exceed the limitations of the Stearmans if we landed at Cadney.  So what were we to do?  Here were our choices:

  • Wait until later that day when the winds might shift in a more favourable direction (but then risk a cross wind take off)
  • Land at the next scheduled stop (Coober Pedy) where there was a choice of runways in all four directions.

The disadvantages of waiting for the wind to shift or drop were that the winds might not behave and then we would be grounded and separated from the rest of the group who were flying in the support planes.  That meant they had all our heavy gear which we needed for staying overnight!  There were no hotels at Kulgera, just a petrol station.

The disadvantages of going to Coober Pedy included flying 3 hours in a direct route (to ensure that we had enough fuel) and this meant – NOT FOLLOWING THE ROAD!!!   Now this was where I had to let the majority rule.  The safest way had to be chosen but things could go wrong – like the winds could shift to head winds and then we wouldn’t have enough fuel to make it to Coober Pedy and we wouldn’t have a road to land near.  I think I was the unhappiest of all when we finally made the decision – it was – stop following the road and go direct to Coober Pedy across “no man’s land”, or if we are to be politically correct, “no person’s land”.

IVOR’S comment:  See earlier comment re Lunar surface!

Now this was when things started to get hairy.  It was hot and bumpy and thermals were everywhere.  One minute we were flying at 3000 feet and the next minute we are at 2000 feet!!    Trying to get height was an ongoing struggle.  Height was important – it was cooler higher up – and the oil was running hot – we wanted the oil to stay at cooler temperatures for safety sake!  Also cooler temperatures were important for leaning the fuel – engines don’t like to be leaned when they are hot – and we needed to lean the fuel to have sufficient to get to Coober.

So, in all of our efforts to climb, the Stearmans lost sight of each other and lost radio contact with each other.  So Ivor and I were out in the middle of Australia, miles away from any kind of landing strip, civilisation, shelter, water, food, or even Royal Flying Doctors!!!  I wasn’t a happy little vegemite.  This was exactly what I didn’t want.  Nothing looked safe to me. 

Flying to Coober Pedy was probably the longest 3 hours I have had in my life.  It was all arid, rocky land we were flying over.  I kept looking for salt pans to land on, in case of engine failure; but they were few and really far between.  Even if we had landed on one of those salt pans, and we were safe from injury, it would have been hours before we would have been found (if ever) and then it would have been sooooooooooooo hot (40 degrees Celceous and up) – dehydration was a real possibility.

IVOR’S comment:  See earlier comment re Lunar surface!

Ivor and I were working every inch of this leg, checking with the GPS, the map, the time, the compass, the oil temperature, the heading, the airspeed, the oil pressure, the altimeter and especially the fuel gauge.

When Coober Pedy came in sight it was like seeing safety in colour!  We were so happy to see everyone else in safety as well. 

When we finally got home (safe and sound) I thought of the comedy show called Kath and Kym.  I could see myself as Kath and Ivor as Kym, saying –  “Look at me, look at me, look at me –  I just have one word to say – SAFETY”.

IVOR’S comment:  Piece of cake.  No worries.

MARY’s last comment:  He’s soooooooo Australian!

Post Script
by John Tabone

 We are all back safely  from our trip to the Outback – see website www.bridge2uluru.com . It was a magic trip. My head is still in  the clouds. I met wonderfull people and the flying was unreal. It was a lot of flying – one day we were in the air for over 8 hours. It was hot on the ground and the only way we could get altitude was to find a thermal.

   John “twobones” Tabone SRA 3535  …my aboriginal name… the luckiest Stearman pilot in the world!!!  Well depending how you look at it….