In which Hitch and co-aviators head inland.
Every now and then you have a fly-away that works so well regardless of the challenges that you just can’t stop thinking about it ... and don’t really want to. Our flight to Lake Eyre and back on the long weekend in June will remain our benchmark fly-away for some years, and we are already wondering how we are ever going to top the experience; it was just a wonderful trip.
It commenced on Saturday morning with somewhat confused emotions. Good weather in the valleys in the lee of Mt Dandenong was quickly negated by fog on the hills. I went from confidant to miserable in less time than it took to drive out of town. Lilydale Airport, scene of many a foggy delay, was uncharacteristically clear, and the tanks in Bonanza BFB had been topped-off the night before. There was little left to do but strap in and blast off. What a great start!
In our plane were the owner Bruce, veteran back-seater Bert, my magnificent partner Sonya, and me. Ahead of us were two other Bonanzas, an Archer and C150, the latter two had departed Friday and over-nighted on the way. We were due in William Creek before dark, and with the half hour gained at Broken Hill, last light was not going to come into play. All this was looking so easy, despite an iffy forecast that was obviously wrong given the severe clear in the Yarra Valley.
Remarkably, at the top of the Kilmore Gap we were making a decision to return to Lilydale. A rapid cloud build-up from the ground to about 4500 may as well have been a brick wall! As we turned to head home, a brick fell out of the wall and gave us the chance to get on top. We took it. BFB burst out into sunlight between the layers, showing us some very ordinary looking weather across the ground. No doubt the trip to Swan Hill was going to be challenging. Getting up to 8500 to punch into the 30 kt headwind was clearly out of the question; even the Bonanzas ahead couldn’t get up there. The cloud also disallowed us to search levels for the best GS. It was going to be a long slog to Swan Hill.
But it was VMC, and we remained thankful for that at least. By SWH we were down to 2500 and dodging low muck and showers. The viz was marginal but we could see cyan sky the other side of the Murray. By Boundary Bend the cloud had evaporated and we knew that getting to Broken Hill was now a monty. After only a couple of diversions around rain curtains, the flight to BHI was what it always was: a long slog across some of the most boring ground in Australia. At 145 GS, it was also quite painful.
BHI was what BHI always is: clear but bouncy. Refuel, eat, dunny and catch-up with the other pilots then blast out across the Mundi Mundi and Lake Frome. Time was still on our side, but the wind was definitely batting for the other team. Now more into it, the GS plummeted to 130 kt. As we approached the northern Flinders Ranges, the cloud began to give us more food for thought. We were up at 8500 at this time, contemplating going lower when the overcast rolled under us, making the decision somewhat redundant–there was no going down now.
In hindsight, our desire to get lower to reduce the headwind probably blinded us to the most sensible course of action. We grabbed a convenient hole and nosed our way down, to find the base was about 2500, not good when you’re facing the peak of the range at 3500. D’oh! Now more sensible thought took over and we diverted north and found another hole to get us up to 6500. There we sat for awhile as the overcast collecting over the Flinders gave us virtually nothing to go by. Once the range was off our tail, we curiously found the GS increasing again to about 145. We took that quite happily, but knew that William Creek was 6200 feet below us and the only way to get there was down, a route currently blocked by broken overcast. Still, we were confident that a hole would come our way, which it did abeam Lake Eyre South.
As we sunk beneath the layer, we got our first view of the azure-coloured water that spread over the crisp white of the salt lake. We were too far south to really be awestruck, but it had us salivating at the thought of what the next day’s trip across the lake would bring.
WMC was proving elusive: the strip is pretty much the same colour as the surrounding plain and the sun was at our 11 o’clock level. A bit of mid-level scud blotted the sun long enough for us to eyeball our home for the night. Rather than make a straight-in approach to 29, we flew an upwind leg that gave us a good look at the sock. Fat lot of good that did! It was not until we were on final that it became obvious that what looked like a steady crosswind was actually blustery and the pilot in command (me) bounced her on arrival (I am loathe to call that a landing).
Still, we were down in one piece, a task which a J230 failed to do a few minutes later. Arriving with the sun in a critical spot, the Jab pilot was flying straight into a flaring orange disk, which caused him to misjudge the landing and she nosed in, smashing the front spat and tearing the ends off the fibreglass prop. I felt so much for the pilot. But for the grace of the low cloud, I might have done the same thing.
Two of our group, the C150 and the Archer were already in. The other two Bonanzas and their crews were late out of BHI, having laid-up at Silverton pub for awhile. Both pilots were IFR and William Creek has lights. No reason why those already there shouldn’t hit the bar ... the others could catch-up after they got in.
A curious place is our William Creek. There is a pub, a charter operator, a caravan park, a petrol station, an airport and the Oodnadatta Track. Sometimes on approach the latter two can look very similar. In days past, the track formed part of the airport as planes had to be taxied along it to the park, which was in front of the pub. Nowadays there is a dedicated park near the bowser–more sensible but less fun.
And when there is water in Lake Eyre, all airways lead to WMC. WrightsAir were doing a ripper trade with their fleet of big Cessnas and come nightfall on the Saturday, the aircraft park was completely full. People were coming from everywhere to see the inland sea that John MacDouall Stuart failed (quite rightly) to find. Spotted at dinner that night was aviator, former Formula One driver and six-time Bathurst winner Larry Perkins. If you fill it, they will come.
Tomorrow: the race for Arkaroola