Golden Days

Hi All, with the recent release of “50 Tales of Flight”, I thought I would include a favourite to give new visitors to the website a glimpse of the book’s purpose and meaning.

Owen Zupp, Golden Days

Thumbing through a folder some years back in another futile attempt to organise my filing cabinet, I came across a carefully stored certificate. It had not seen the light of day for some time, but it was instantly recognisable by the wings that adorned its upper edge as my ‘First Solo Certificate’. With a rope-like border and an instructor’s signature penned across its face, one particular feature leapt out at me; the date. Whilst the day and month were just around the corner, the year was another matter. After some quick arithmetic, the significance of the date became more substantial, it was nearly twenty five years since I had gone ‘solo’.

Could that be right? A quarter of a century? I pondered the concept for a moment. Twenty five years can mean many things to many people. It can be a landmark of marriage for a happy couple or an inconceivable eon to a school student in their final year. As a parent, it’s a blink. To a pilot it can be just another coincidence of numbers, volumes of which have already been carefully inked into a series of treasured log books.

For some reason this alignment of the calendar had struck a sentimental chord in me. Certificate in hand, I sat at my desk and reflected on where the time might have gone. It wasn’t long before the blanks were filled in with a sea of memories and the trace of a grin gathered at the corner of my mouth.
In my mind’s eye I can still see the ground at Camden Airport falling away from as the Cessna 152 leapt into the air, unburdened by my absent mentor in the right hand seat. Climbing away from runway 06, I was squinting into the morning sun as 17 year-olds didn’t generally wear sunglasses back then. Wheeling ‘Mike Alpha Whisky’ onto the downwind leg and having time to realise that I was all alone. And loving it. With the checks complete, the base turn came too soon and it was time to ready the aeroplane for the approach. Managing the intricacies of speed, flap, power and trim, I rolled onto final to be greeted by the welcoming runway. The clearance to land crackled through the overhead speaker and I reached down to quickly acknowledge with the hand microphone. (Headsets were for airline pilots!) Down to earth again, but my life was changed forever. As a schoolboy, excitement overwhelmed any sense of significance.

Since that clear and calm summer morning, I have been very fortunate to fly a variety of machines and meet an even wider array of interesting people, some of whom have unfortunately not survived the aviator’s journey. Flight offers so much to we mere mortals, from simple pleasures to immense exhilaration and the darkest nights to the most remarkable dawns. Sometimes we take it for granted as complacency walks hand in hand with the human condition.

For my part, I was always going to fly. My Dad had flown all manner of aircraft from Mustangs and Meteors to Cessnas and Super Connies. He’d flown in combat over 200 times and later in life spent numerous midnight hours relaying the sick and injured in the NSW Air Ambulance ‘Queen Airs’. The warbling of ‘out of synch’ propellers overhead was our signal that Dad would be home soon. As a kid, I would loiter around airports at every opportunity, scrounging rides where possible. There was no barbed wire or security fence to stop curious kids like me clambering up onto wing roots and gawking at cockpits through cupped hands. We were hangar rats and the hangars were full of cheese. Back at home, I would perch on our garage roof with binoculars and scan above for all and sundry as they criss-crossed the sky.

When it came my turn to learn to fly, I found a job as a paramedic that paid relatively well and afforded me enough time off to fly and study. At the time it felt like the Department of Health should simply directly credit my pay to the flying school accounts. Believe it or not, $47/hour private hire for a Tomahawk was quite an amount. With Dad as my instructor, my first school was the now-defunct Sydney Airways before moving to the now-defunct Royal Aero Club of NSW. Early starts and frost-covered windscreens were preceded by briefings in our garage at home. My working week revolved around my flying and when navigation exercises came into play, the anticipation was almost unbearable. Mum would pack us up with sandwiches and a Thermos of tea and we would venture to exotic locations like Coolah, Taree or Tamworth, navigating by charts that back then didn’t cost a cent and landing without incurring an invoice. As I shared my sandwich and Dad his wisdom, I didn’t realise how golden these days were. He would die of cancer within five years.

To be paid to fly was unfathomable, yet that’s just what the Royal Aero Club did for me as a lowly Grade 3 Instructor. Pulling out six Piper Tomahawks in early morning darkness and fuelling them one by one was a small price to pay to be allowed to fly for a living. Paid a salary and flying around ninety hours a month of single-hour lessons, my fellow instructor, Roland Parker, and I thought we’d died and gone to heaven. To simply get a slot in the training circuit, you’d await the control tower’s call to the office to tell you when to start up and taxi, before shutting down in the run-up bay and waiting again, this time for a ‘green light’ from the tower. Finally, you’d get in the air. To see the veritable ghost town that Bankstown has now become borders on heart-breaking. Today we drive around a cyclone-fenced perimeter and where a sea of aeroplanes once sat, now only grass grows. The social hub of the old Aero Club where engineers and pilots would gather has been demolished. These are indeed very different times.

From instructing at Bankstown I went wandering to the north-west, to the Kimberleys and the beautiful land that is the Australian outback. There were scenic flight swarms over the Bungle Bungles and lone charters to all corners of the Northern Territory and Western Australia. Pre-dawn pre-flights were performed to the amazing backdrop of vast electrical storms over the Timor Sea and torrential downpours that changed the face of the scenery from wasteland to waterfalls in minutes. Along with the other young pilots, we made mistakes and learnt valuable lessons each day before retiring to the Argyle Tavern; it was paradise.

The beautiful Australian outback is only one of nature’s canvases that I’ve been privileged to experience. New Guinea’s lush highlands and interesting airstrips, some still covered in World War II Pierced-Steel-Planking made up only part of the challenge; the rapidly changing weather being the other. Drinking from coconuts and boiling rice and fresh eel on the water’s edge near Balimo. Ferrying an Islander aircraft to the tiny island of Yap in Micronesia and passing the numerous shallow atolls, complete with wrecked and rusting vessels caught on their barbs. Clambering over bullet-riddled Japanese Zeros and ferreting out an inverted Grumman Hellcat, now overgrown by vines.
From the flight levels there has been the rugged, war-torn landscape of Afghanistan and the frozen earth around Stalingrad where farmers somehow eke out a harvest each year. At 60 degrees south, icebergs float by day and the Southern Lights dance by night like an electric green curtain. Descending over Europe at dawn to break clear over the Thames and the city of London cannot help but remind one of those brave crews who limped home along the same route over sixty years ago with no Flight Management System to guide them. The lava flows of the Hawaiian Islands glowing by night and the US west coast illuminated by the spectacular efflux of a rocket launched out of Vandenberg.

Excitedly watching the world rocket by on my first flight in a 737, or the world spin around through the bubble canopy of a Mustang. Thoughtfully waltzing my Tiger Moth around the Glasshouse Mountains on the way to Toowoomba, my Dad’s hometown and final resting place. Flight can be as diverse as the scenery we gaze down upon and the people we meet.

There have been less than picturesque moments too; a magneto blowing off my Cessna 310 before diverting into Meekatharra, a cylinder-head separating on a Cessna 210 and limping home to Kununurra, a forced landing near Kanangra Walls in the Blue Mountains and a free ride home in the Careflight helicopter. Watching the demise of institutions like the Royal Aero Club of NSW and Ansett Airlines, whose pilot’s wings and memories I still treasure. These hurdles along the way were the pot-holes on what has predominantly been a great road and has added character to the journey. They are also reminders that the road should be driven with due respect. That degree of respect should always be the same, be it a Beechcraft or a Boeing. It’s a small price to pay for such a great privilege.
Twenty five years may sound like an eon; but it’s a snapshot. There is still so much to see and do and there is no vantage point superior to that of the cockpit. It is a viewpoint for all of us to cherish. In the years to come, it is a world I will share with my children, as my father did with me.

So how did I celebrate the anniversary? I went flying. Away from home, I dawdled into a flying school in Queensland and became the student once more. My competency on the Piper Tomahawk was checked out over the scenic Sunshine Coast and in the rather gusty circuit. The instructor beside me wasn’t born when my aviation trek began at Camden, but his youth offered a sense of continuity to the whole process. It was all ahead of him still and I envied that a little. As he climbed out, locked the door and gave me the ‘thumbs up’, it was reminiscent of a scene I had been lucky enough to offer my students many times before.

Solo once again, I lapped the circuit and looked at the world with eyes of that eager 17 year-old, briefly pondering the 25 years still to come. The crackle of the headset, the straining windsock and the welcoming strip of asphalt blend into the challenge of landing that has not faded with time. A challenge that is always relished by those who fly.

The joy of flying has lost none of its charm for me. The sights, sounds and sense of freedom; it is hard imagining life without it. We who aviate are very fortunate and flight is something we should always share and treasure. It doesn’t matter which aircraft, weather or setting, when the earth falls away from the wheels, life is good.