To coincide with the announcement that the 2021 Outback Air Race has filled its quota of competitors in just two weeks, Australian Aviation is republishing Steve Gibbons’ behind-the-scenes look at the last event.
This article originally appeared in the November 2018 magazine edition of Australian Aviation. To subscribe, click here.
Flying an amphibian across 2,120 nautical miles of the driest continent on the planet might seem like a recipe for madness, but then John Daley is well used to pushing the envelope when it comes to water-capable aircraft – and good causes.
The retired Qantas long-haul pilot is well known in aviation circles as a key member of the Seaplane Pilots Association of Australia, and for his role in the dedicated team that restored and delivered a Catalina flying boat from its graveyard in Spain to the Qantas Founders Museum in Longreach.
The project represented a six-year labour of love (and some tears) to salvage the 1944 model and honour the Qantas Catalina crews of wartime Operation Sunrise – the secret supply-line between Australia and England via Perth and Ceylon.
So it came as no surprise when Daley and his co-pilot Marcus Grealy (also a retired ‘heavy’ pilot) embraced the chance to contribute to another cause dear to Australian hearts: a role in raising more than half a million dollars for the Royal Flying Doctor Service through the triennial Outback Air Race.
What’s more, it gave them the chance to indulge in their passion for flying as well as (literally) making a splash, thanks to some of the more unlikely landing spots in remote Australia.
The cockpit of a Lake LA-4-200 Buccaneer is about as far as you can get from the flightdeck of Daley and Grealy’s former office, the Boeing 747-400.
But 2018 Outback Air Race manager and race competitor, Stuart Payne, said the hours the duo had racked up – from their early professional lives as pilots in 1970s PNG to the left-hand seat of a 747 – were on full display in what he described as an “airshow-quality performance” on Lake Argyle near Kununurra.
The town, an eastern bookend to the Kimberley region of Western Australia, was the penultimate stop on the air race 2018 route from Archerfield in Queensland to Broome in the west, a 2,125 nautical mile journey over 12 nights from August 19 to 31 and encompassing eight airfields.
The nearby Lake Argyle, the so-called Jewel of the Kimberley, is WA’s largest and Australia’s second largest freshwater man-made reservoir by volume. The reservoir is part of the Ord River Irrigation Scheme.
“It was ridiculous,” Payne said. “You fly in across some of the most arid areas in the country and suddenly you come across this magnificent lake and greenery.
“We organised a boat tour on the lake and then suddenly this Lake Buccaneer amphibian came in and did a splash and go, and then came alongside the boat.
“There are hills all around the lake, and you really need to know what you are doing taking off from there. The skill level of the crew was very evident, it was a fabulous display of airmanship.”
For Daley, the Lake Argyle experience achieved an ambition he had spelled out when seeking sponsorship for his team effort in the 2018 race, he was candid in wanting to be the first pilot to take off from Lake Argyle.
Later, in speaking with Australian Aviation, modesty prevailed and he admitted that he could not claim to be the first. “Who knows?” he asked.
“Yes,” he said, the Lake Argyle experience was special. But his particular highlight came after the race destination days before at Longreach.
“The Thomson River was enormous fun.
“I went out on a cruise boat with the rest of the air race people so had the opportunity to survey it from water level. It was surprisingly wide and surprisingly straight in a lot of areas and so I thought, gee, I might come over here tomorrow and have a splash in the water.”
So he did.
“And then we had a splash in the dam at Mount Isa as well.”
At the time of writing. Daley was on the final leg of a trip home to NSW, close to three weeks after the end of the event, after spending time making the most of the trip home from Broome.
The Outback Air Race 2018 is on the way to registering an event record for the RFDS, the world’s largest aeromedical organisation, with $516,647 already in the kitty.
The OAR is described as a “unique triennial aeronautical challenge held across the remote Australian Outback, guaranteed to cover some of the most scenic, rugged and spectacular geography and iconic townships in Australia”. The inaugural Mobil Outback Air Race was held from August 10-24 1996. Twenty-nine teams raised $130,000 for the Royal Flying Doctor Service before leaving Jandakot, with further funds raised along the way.
‘Flynn’s Flyers’ were crowned Charity Queens at a gala ball in Geraldton after a fantastic effort to raise over $23,000. The team was made up of Ken Doncon, Peter Bennett, Len Morton and Ray Ness.
This year, the race with 38 aircraft and more than 85 crew, is forecast to earn around $550,000. Overall, to date, the race has raised more than $2.5 million for the RFDS.
Contemporary teams, with inventive team names, raise money via sponsorship through the Every Day Hero charitable contribution access point. And to make it fair for all, the race is based more on navigational prowess and accuracy rather than speed.
That delivers a level playing field for the slowest amateur-built or vintage aircraft as well as the fastest.
As the race instructions point out it “is not strictly a race but rather a time trial and navigation exercise”. Competitors accrue points by correctly estimating the time it will take to fly from a designated visual start point to a designated visual endpoint as well as the accuracy in locating and flying over each point.
“Waypoints are identified with a visual description, distance and bearing from the aerodromes and are always selected within 10 nautical miles of each aerodrome.
“This scoring method ensures that crews of slower aircraft are not disadvantaged.”
The 2018 route started in Archerfield (YBAF) on Sunday, August 19 and finished in Broome (YBRM) on 31 August. Stops along the way were Bundaberg (YBUD), Longreach (YLRE), Mount Isa (YBMA), Adels Grove (YALG), Daly Waters (YDLW), Katherine / Tindal (YPTN), Kununurra (YPKU) and Broome (YBRM).
According to the race instructions: “A typical leg distance of 300 nautical miles gives a flight time of two to three hours. Despite the distance, passing each waypoint at 200km/h and more than 500 metres in altitude, and taking into consideration all wind and weather influences, racers must still arrive within seconds of their nominated time and within metres of the waypoints to place well.
“The event provides a unique and exciting flying holiday for pilots and their friends from throughout Australia and overseas. Racers come from diverse backgrounds – farmers, doctors, engineers, business owners – and compete alongside professional pilots from commercial and military.”
Aircraft of choice for this year’s entrants included everything from Vans amateur-builts to Cessnas, Pipers, Mooneys, a Sling, the Buccaneer, a Savannah, and a Bristell, piloted solo by none other than Alex Kingsford Smith, great, great-nephew of Charles Kingsford Smith.
For the record, Kingsford Smith (Soar Aviation team) came 23rd out of 37 official finishers, which was a fantastic effort in his first race and as a solo pilot. Equally, for the record, veterans Daley and Grealy (Where’s Ya Buccaneers) came in 10th.
It was a superb contribution from both given it was their first foray into the air race and at both ends of the age spectrum: Kingsford Smith the learner and Daley and Grealy the senior pilots and experts.
But at the end of the day it was the Mooney teams that dominated the first three places.
First was Show me the Mooney – a 1977 M20J, VH-CAI, skippered by John Martindale with the support of Tim Alexander while third went to Bad Mooney Rising (M20J VH-SJT) skippered by Rowan Hill with support from race manager Stuart Payne and his son Jeremy. The Mooney trifecta was split by The Race Villains in their Vans RV-7 (Phil Hines and Doctor Jacques Scholtz).
The Bad Mooney Rising team also made the top three of the Outback Air Race fundraisers, which was a particular achievement for Payne who, after years with key roles in the event, found himself designated 2018 event manager.
At the time of going to press, the top three RFDS Outback Air Race 2018 fundraising teams were Tait Auto Group $62,552.19, Mittagong 210’ers $28,011.26 and Bad Mooney Rising $23,940.94.
For Payne, the event proved a balancing act between his desire to compete and the reality of management. And his favourite spot – before the Buccaneer performance at Lake Argyle – was the lush oasis of Adels Grove in far north-western Queensland.
“It is a fantastic place; an oasis in a place where you don’t expect it. Spectacular gorges and scenery with really nice people running the accommodation village. The event has been there every second race in about the last six. Competitors keep putting it in because everyone comes away saying how nice it is,” Payne said.
Overall, he said the event was a success while giving an insight into the marshalling of both numerous aircraft and numerous competitors across some of the harshest country in Australia.
“I am happy with the way things transpired. We are a volunteer organisation and as the event gets bigger it gets more challenging,” Payne said.
“Effectively over 12 days this event becomes something like an organised vacation. It’s not just the race, we are organising the meals, the accommodation, the logistics and even the entertainment in terms of tours around the towns and places that we stop at.
“If you think about doing that for a group of around 100 people times nine locations over two weeks from beginning to end, you start to get the picture that it’s quite an organisational event.”
Payne said that planning for the race starts about two years in advance, with potential competitors making suggestions about possible routes and stops along the way. This is then balanced against accommodation and sight-seeing potential as well as, more importantly, the capacity of a venue to cater for multiple aircraft arrivals and parking and refuelling.
“If places pass muster, you mark them on a map and then, when you have eight or 10, start to join the dots,” he said.
“We do have a tradition of always making a different route, usually traversing most of the country either east to west, west to east, north to south or south to north.”
Payne said that within Australia, the Outback flyers found themselves spoiled for choice: “There are so many places with so many different types of appeal.”
That said, he recognised the growing popularity of the race poses its own problems:
“One of the things we grapple with is that the bigger it gets the more restrictive it gets in terms of where you can go.
“We want it to keep its integrity as an outback air race rather than an urban air race, so we don’t just want to go to big centres – that is not in the spirit of the event.”
Did this year’s event pose particular challenges?
Payne pointed to the final leg between Kununurra and Broome with an option to fly direct overland or take the scenic route: west, then flying down the coast over some of the most spectacular scenery in the nation.
“It would be a waste not to do that,” he said.
“However, that does mean quite a long flight.”
To make sure the competitors were kept safe, his volunteer team ensured there was a fuel stop on the way.
“We had a contact through the Bishop of Broome who administers the Aboriginal village of Kalumburu, so we organised a fuel stop there,” Payne said.
“They don’t normally provide, but one of the sponsor companies, Recharge petroleum, organised to get the fuel to them while the community organised for the people there to hand pump the fuel.
“You can imagine hand pumping 20-odd aircraft. They really went to a lot of effort to make sure we got through there safely.”
The next Outback Air Race in favour of the RFDS is scheduled for 2021.
Watch this space.