In my last post I wrote that there are many influences and experiences from various stages in my life that inform my interest in aviation and how I feel about it. As I’m finally within a few months of starting my training, I’m finding myself casting my mind back to how I got so engaged with flying in the first place. In this post I’ll talk about my childhood influences and memories, and in coming posts about some of the influences from my adult life and experiences. Alert – long post follows.
In terms of love of aviation and aircraft, my earliest influence is probably my dad. He’s always been pretty keen on aircraft. As early as I can remember, he would talk to me with interest about the large civil aircraft we saw in the sky or he’d flown on in the 60’s and 70’s or seen as a kid – classics like DC3’s and DC9’s, and Boeing 727’s and 737’s. So I’ve probably got fond paternal memories linked to aviation.
Add to this the fact that both of my grandfathers were, in various ways, connected with flying during the war (WWII, that is). Mum’s dad – my grandpa – was a RAAF navigator on the Catalina flying boats during the Pacific campaign. From the limited amount he told me directly, I gather most of the missions he flew on involved aerial mining and reconaissance. He was also involved with ferrying aircraft from the USA to Australia at the end of the war. I still have some of the artefacts from his flying days – his log books, military records (sourced from the Australian War Memorial) and campaign medals.
Dad’s dad – my poppa – was (I think) an automotive mechanic in the RAAF, and though he never left Australian shores, I find his aviation connections equally resonant. I mean, flying’s not just about the people in the air, it’s also about the many, many people who work in support of the direct aviation activities. I have his military records also, and there are one or two bits of hardware still at my dad’s place that I think poppa might have “borrowed” from the RAAF – a large, heavy, grease-lubricated car jack for example.
The first flight I can remember was when I was 10. Our family moved to California for a year when dad had a sabbatical appointment to UC Davis. We flew on a Pan Am 747 from Sydney to LA, and I can clearly remember my sense of excitement and awe walking down the boarding ramp and onto the aircraft. The plane seemed so huge to my young eyes! And the excitements of airline food (remember, I was 10) and the activity packs they gave kids in those days made the whole trip memorable. I can still hear the rumble of the aircraft on takeoff and feel the vibration as the plane moved forward under the power of those 4 mighty engines …
A few years later, I experienced a quite different flight, but equally special. My parents put me on a plane from Sydney, by myself, to go visit my grandparents in Toowoomba. It was a little East West Airlines (now defunct, of course) Fokker Friendship F-27, which flew from Sydney to Coolangatta, then on to Oakey, from where my poppa picked me up at the aerodrome. The flight was nearly empty. I lapped it up – I was by myself, I got special attention from the stewardess, and because we only flew at around 15,000 feet altitude, I had a very clear view of the landscape beneath us. The F-27’s had a very distinct, slightly “whining” sound with their twin turboprop engines – that sound used to be very common in Sydney skies until F-27’s were phased out.
Sometime when I was about 11 or 12, my parents must have noted my burgeoning interest in aviation and I found myself joining the Australian Air League – formed many years ago to encourage “air-mindedness” amoung the youth of the Commonwealth. I recall spending only 18 months or so in the Air League – the “Ryde Squadron” of which I was a member was well-intentioned, but not particularly well run and in particular not well set up to really develop my aviation knowledge. You used to do various aviation theory study courses – like the scouts, when you passed a course you got a badge – but the only training materials were some very dry printed manuals not particularly accessible to my young mind. And there were no other forms of learning support (eg classroom), nor were you particularly encouraged to ask questions. I remember doing one exam which I passed only by the skin of my teeth, the very kindly 2IC bringing back all my wrong answers and gently suggesting that I “check them again” …
But we did do some cool stuff of a practical nature. One weekend we went down to a dusty little community hall in Sutherland in Sydney’s south to have a go on an old ANT-18 Link Trainer that had survived the war and was in the custodianship of the Australian Air Force Cadets. This was a WWII-era flight simulator designed to train pilots to fly on instruments. Again, the learning support was not great – some gruff bloke planted me in the cockpit for 5 minutes, barked some instructions at me and exhorted me repeatedly to “keep your eyes on that three”. I had no idea what he was talking about, was too timid to ask him what he meant, and proceeded to repeatedly put the simulator into a simulated stall – whereupon he gave up on me and unceremoniously turfed me out of the trainer to give someone else a turn. It was a bit disappointing, but it was still cool to have had a go in a real “live” cockpit environment.
Of course, we went out to Richmond RAAF air base for one of the flying shows they used to put on periodically – huge fun. We got to climb around all sorts of cool aircraft like the C-130 Hercules, USAF C-5 Galaxies and Royal Australian Navy Sea King helicopters. What’s not to like? Plus there was the obligatory fly-past of the RAAF’s strike force fighter aircraft, at the time these were the Dassault Mirages. I can remember my ears being assaulted by the noise of the Mirages’ jet blasts as they screamed past the crowd at low level …
Probably the coolest memory, though, is a flight we took one day out at Bankstown – my first flight in a light aircraft. It was a Cessna 172. We went for an hour’s joy flight, must have been around the Bankstown training area. I was overwhelmed – everything seemed so immediate. In a large passenger aircraft, you’re removed from the sky and enclosed in a large metal cylinder, but in a light aircraft, the sky is yours – it’s all around you! I remember the feel of the aircraft moving with changes in wind direction and air pressure, and I particularly recall the pilot putting it into a moderate bank – looking “straight down” to the earth below and thinking “I gotta do this one day”. This, more than any other of my childhood experiences, was the point at which I really and truly caught the bug.
The last of the early memories I have is from when I was in high school. I was a member of the Australian Army Cadet Corps and one day we made a trip to Richmond Air Base for a look around and for a flight. We looked over a C-130 Hercules and also a DHC4 Caribou (just recently decommissioned by the RAAF), and then took a flight in the Caribou down to Wollongong and back. Those of us in the Caribou were fortunate enough to experience the thrill of strapping ourselves in as they opened up the back of the aircraft during the flight – as happened when, for example, aerial supplies were dropped or paratroopers were dropped down to a landing point. I thought this was pretty damn cool.
So, lots of poignant aviation memories and images from when I was growing up. I’ll talk in the next post about some of my adult influences.