Just after sunrise, we make our way to the Ayers Rock airport for departure. Because it’s an air carrier airport and we don’t have Australian airport security credentials, the very pleasant security guard escorts us through the gate to our aircraft. We ask whether we’re the first departure, and she explains that several helicopters have already flown sunrise sightseeing flights. As if to reinforce her point, a yellow-and-blue PHC Jet Ranger arrives and lands as Mike Laver is still preflighting N50ET. Sunrise apparently is big business in the Ayers Rock area; at the hotel there were signs offering sunrise bus tours, sunrise helicopter rides–and, yes, even a sunrise camel ride if you were so inclined. I wasn’t, and I don’t think Mike was, either.
Mike has been here many times before, and even climbed the rock on previous visits. Our shuttle driver yesterday said climbing the rock was “discouraged,” but the security guard said this morning it still was a common and popular activity. Mike recalled that there used to be a chain attached to the rock, to help climbers navigate difficult sections. She assured him that not only is it still there, but it’s still used.
Immediately upon takeoff it’s obvious how big–and desolate–this region is. A few resorts are clustered between the airport and the rock, and that’s about the only signs of civilization you can see. We climb to the east-southeast and bid Ayers Rock farewell. We’re cleared to climb to FL250, about 25,000 feet–our preferred cruise altitude for most legs of this journey so far–and told to fly direct to the first navaid on our route: Leigh Creek, a VOR some 523 nautical miles away, that will take us more than an hour and a half to reach.
About 40 nautical miles east-southeast of Ayers Rock, a larger cluster of smaller rocks juts from the desert. Further east there are still more, but from cruise altitude, they don’t seem to have the color–or the fame–of Ayers Rock and the nearby Olgas.
It’s nice to be wearing civilian clothes again as we fly, and fly, and fly; the pilot uniforms will come back out when we leave Australia and we’ll probably have to wear them until we get back to the United States. A couple of brush flies have stowed away aboard the airplane today. They’re not nearly as annoying as they were last night, when we went out to photograph Ayers Rock at sunset; maybe they somehow realize that they’re out of their element.
“Oh, we just got tailwinds!” Mike exclaimed as we flew. Tailwinds had been forecast for the past couple of days, but we had experienced relatively light headwinds instead. The flight plan for this 1,150-nautical-mile leg called for 3 hours, 30 minutes of flying; the tailwind makes that a possibility now. We’ve crossed into South Australia and will traverse the state almost diagonally. This is still a nonradar envinronment so it’s airway flying and position reports to air traffic control.
The scenery changes little; there are sand dunes, and for a while we parallel a feature that’s somewhere between a large ridge and a small mountain range; its height, I’m sure, is being exaggerated by the low morning sunlight. Gulleys and occasionally rivers can be seen snaking through the landscape, so we must be transitioning to an area with more moisture. Mike takes advantage of the quiet flight to enter the rest of our flight plans into the Garmin navigation system–all the way back to Frederick, Md., and Aiken, S.C.
Our tailwind increases to 18 knots, boosting our groundspeed to 305 kt, as we fly over Lake Cadibarrawirricama, which is near Koolkootinnie Lake. I wonder about the origins of these names until we pass abeam the larger, and more traditionally named, Lake Torrens. We pass over Coober Pedy, in an area known for its underground opal mines, and about 100 miles northeast of Adelaide, but see neither because of cloud cover. We cross into New South Wales and then into Victoria as Mike reflects on the trip so far. He estimates we’ve flown about 53 hours to get to this point, while the fastest airline option to get him to Australia from his South Carolina home would take about 21 hours–he figures we haven’t done too badly.
We’re in and out of the cloud tops at FL250, and in some light turbulence; the wings pick up a little ice. Over Melborne, about 80 miles out, we begin our descent. There’s a sigmet for possible severe icing between FL120 and FL185; we turn on the ice protection equipment but do not encounter any ice. We break out of the clouds at 8,000 feet, although the clouds are lower toward the coast. Mike first learned to fly at the Latrobe Valley airport. “It’s hard to believe I soloed here–I was sixteen. Now I’m 61. That was 45 years ago,” he says as we fly a left traffic pattern in preparation for landing.
We touch down, park, and in a few minutes Mike is met by his mother and brother. A light rain begins to fall as we refuel the airplane. I’ll spend Friday doing a story on a local aircraft manufacturer, and Saturday is my only day off of the trip (I won’t kid you, much of it will be spent doing laundry. Anyone know how to get the kerosene smell out of clothing?). Sunday we head north up the coast.
For the nonpilots
Navaid: Short for navigational aid, this term generally refers to a ground-based radio beacon, or transmitter, providing electronic signals that help pilots navigate.
Sigmet: A sigmet is a statement of significant meteorological information that has the potential to adversely affect a flight.