This morning the conditions were perfect for one of my favourite things – flying. Specifically, flying in a small single-engine plane. The skies were clear, the wind a light north-easter. It was a rare thing in the wet season – a perfect morning for flying.
Well, that was true over the sea. Rising hot air inland would make for a rough ride, and thunderstorms were already developing on the western Tablelands. But along the coast, it was glorious so that’s where I went this morning at the controls of Cessna 172 VH-LIO.
I’ve been in love with aircraft and flying since the first time I flew in 1965. Sydney to Coolangatta on a TAA Viscount. The view through the Viscount’s big windows was amazing as we climbed over Botany Bay. The acceleration, slipping free of gravity, the sensations of flight, it was all amazing and I was hooked.
And I’ve stayed hooked on flying ever since. I always wanted to learn how to fly. At age nine, I wrote to Qantas applying for a pilot job. They wrote back suggesting I wait a few years and do well in maths and science. Uh-oh. I did poorly in both, went off to Uni and drifted into journalism. Thankfully, it’s a line of work that has involved a lot of flying as a passenger. Here in Australia, around the Pacific, all over the world in all kinds of aircraft.
When I arrived in Cairns ten years ago, I was driving to work at the ABC when I passed a sign on the Cook Highway. “Learn to fly today” was what it said. I doubled back to the North Queensland Aero Club and started lessons within a few days. Ten years later I have almost 100 hours in my log-book and I’ve seen some magnificent sights, met some great folks, all through flying.
Learning to fly has been expensive, but immensely rewarding. It requires practice, study, and the cost means you’ll have to budget. But the basic skills are not that hard to pick up. Flying straight and level, turning, climbing and descending – they all come together quite easily. Even taking off. As for landings, well that’s another story. Things get very busy as you head down towards the runway, the wind starts to mess with your intentions. Getting my landings right was a long and frustrating business but I’m pleased to say today’s landing was pretty good.
With chief instructor Sally Scott supervising and taking the pictures, we took off from Cairns runway 33, turned right over the Barron River and tracked out across Trinity Inlet on climb to 1500 ft. We turned right after False Cape, passed east of Yarrabah and out over the Coral sea, heading south parallel to the coast. The hillsides, beaches and islands look beautiful. The sea is like glass, a stunning tropical blue. We do some orbits around High Island, hoping to spot the sometimes elusive manta ray who lives in area. No sighting, but the view is breath-taking.
We head across to Russell Heads and then to Bramston Beach, before turning north towards Cape Grafton. That’s when we call Cairns Approach on the air traffic control radio for permission to enter the busy Cairns control zone. We’re cleared to track along the southern shore of Trinity Inlet, pointing roughly at the Cairns Base Hospital. It’s a great view of the city on this approach. We descend and make the right turn to line up with the runway, flying along above north Cairns, the big Captain Cook statue looming out the left window and seeming to be telling us to stop.
That’s when the pilot gets busy. The hot air rising from the mangroves creates turbulence, the cross-wind wants to push us too far left of the approach path. We’re slowing down, trying to judge the descent profile and correct for the cross-wind while making sure the turbulence doesn’t send us climbing again. Lots of work on the controls, juggling the speed, telling the plane what I want it to do.
We cross the airport access road at about 300 ft and then we’re over the runway. I’m grappling with the controls, pushing against the unhelpful wind and get it down to about 20 feet over the centre line and flare the aircraft. The 172 loves to climb and fly. It’s less fond of landing, but slowly the speed washes off, the plane sinks gently onto the runway and we’re home. All up, about one hour 20 minutes of sheer delight.
If you’ve ever dreamed of learning to fly, here’s a tip. It’s way better than you’ve ever imagined. You’ll learn a lot, as much about yourself as about aeroplanes and meteorology. You’ll feel a profound sense of accomplishment, you’ll enjoy FNQ’s wonderful community of aviators. And you’ll look out the window, on mornings like today, and see from up high the best sights this country has to offer.
Listen to Sally and I flying the Cessna 152 on one of my early lessons.