A Pilot’s New Year
An Excerpt from ’50 Tales of Flight’
Unbelievably, the year is now down to its final hours. It has passed by leaving my children a little older and me none the wiser it would seem. The skies have again been kind to me these past twelve months, so as the champagne pops and the fireworks illuminate Sydney Harbour, my thoughts will again drift to an aviator now passed, who set me on my journey amongst the clouds.
He was a quiet man, short in stature but with arms made strong by a youth of combat and cane-cutting. He was predominantly self-educated, for drought and the Great Depression had stolen much of his childhood and any chance of a formal education. As a commando in the jungles of New Guinea, his kit-bag had been crammed with books on aerodynamics and aircraft while his dreams were of a life free of the earth’s muddy bonds. But it was merely a dream for a lad with a big heart and no apparent claim to the elevated world of aviation. At the war’s end, he traded the humidity of the jungle for the nuclear devastation of Hiroshima before finally wending his way home to Australia after years away at war.
Out of uniform, he found it hard to settle down, drifting from one sugar-cane field to another with a few belongings strapped to the rear of his motorcycle. It was hard, hot labour to bring the mighty cane down by hand with snakes underfoot and insects clinging to the raw nectar running down his bare back. At the end of the sugar season, ultimately the road once again led him to the military, but this time as a mechanic in the Royal Australian Air Force. Finally surrounded by the machines he loved, he flourished in the hands-on application of his newly discovered knowledge. With money in his pocket and a home on the air base, he would spend his free hours studying aviation and paying for private flying lessons at the civilian school just across the tarmac. His dream was coming true, although his stunted education continued to form a barrier to any career in the sky; until fate dealt its hand.
With the outbreak of the Korean War in 1950, the air force was now depleted in its supply of post-war pilots. It called for volunteers from amongst its ranks and when a kindly commanding officer countersigned the young mechanic’s application, his world was changed forever. Within 18 months he had transitioned from repairing airframes to flying fighter combat missions over North Korea. As a Sergeant Pilot he would fly over two hundred sorties at the helm of a Gloster Meteor in the lethal ground attack role which saw many of his squadron mates killed in action. On one occasion, his own canopy was blown off by enemy fire and shrapnel was embedded in his face. Even so, he limped the damaged jet home and flew two missions the next day. He returned home a decorated veteran and finally completed his formal education at night school.
He married an air force corporal who he had met prior to leaving for Korea when she had processed his departure paperwork. Together they moved from base to base before a civil career ultimately called. From international airlines to cloud-seeding, flight instruction to target-towing, there was very little that the short boy from the Australian bush didn’t fly at some stage in the next forty years. Yet in the 23,000 hours aloft and countless aircraft types, training always held a special place for him. The chance to mentor the next generation of pilots was something he valued as he always recalled how close his dream had come to never eventuating. If he saw a desire to fly in a young set of eyes, he would go the extra mile to make it happen.
He saw that desire in me from a young age and set an example that I still aspire to achieve. As an instructor, he was unsurpassed and held in the highest regard by his peers. He had the knack of explaining complex concepts in simple terms with a million ‘rules of thumb’ to match. For him, flight was always magnificent, but never elite. He cringed at the brash, slicked-back, sunglasses brigade but had endless patience for the struggling student who was trying their very best. He had fought in the jungle and stared down the tracer bullets that struck his jet, yet he never swore in front of women and always stood when they entered the room; he was old school.
To me, he passed down so much more than the manipulative skills needed to fly an aeroplane. He instilled airmanship, a sense of command and an ultimate respect for the aircraft and the environment in which it operates. He loathed complacency and arrogance and highlighted that disciplined flying presented the greatest challenge and the most satisfaction. He set the bar very high and I was privileged to have such an outstanding mentor.
So as another year draws to a close, spare a thought for that special person who inspired you or guided you in your fledgling hours aloft. Revisit their lessons and strengths and give thanks for their patience and knowledge. Recount some of their anecdotes and share them with friends and family this New Year’s Eve. It is a real gift to take to the sky, but without a steady guiding hand along the way, the journey can be fraught with potential dangers and self-doubt.
If it’s possible, make contact with your mentor and thank them for their effort. It will mean the world to them and offer a chance to share the hours that have been logged since you last spoke. I would dearly love to speak with the man from the bush who taught me all that I know today and hear more of his pearls of wisdom. However, for me, that is no longer an option as cancer took him nearly twenty years ago when I was still a young bush pilot taking my own first steps. Even so, as I sit around this New Years Eve I will spare him a thought and a silent word of thanks. He was the best pilot I ever met. He was my Dad.
Flying Officer Phillip Zupp M.I.D. AM (US) 1925-1991