I’ve traveled a bit, and never experienced a mishap (flying is indeed safer than driving, especially if you live in the middle east)… except once, on one of my first ever flights, on the smallest plane I’ve ever boarded.
I sat in the front next to the pilot and my then partner and her colleague sat in the back as we took off from the outback Queensland town of Longreach (incidentally the operational birthplace of QANTAS), headed for the remote desert outpost of Birdsville on business for the Education Department.
The four-seater plane was very loud, and the only way to communicate was via headphones and mics. The pilot was visibly excited having finally secured a contract with the Queensland Department of Education. This was his first flight for the government; a tremendous boon for his one-man small business. Half way through our 700km flight however, no microphones were required to hear a tremendous explosion just behind the tiny cabin.
The girls in the back seat screamed. I looked out the window and felt rather relieved. Whatever the explosion had been, it hadn’t thrown us immediately out of the sky. This sense of calm lasted about two seconds however, when the pilot looked across at me and yelled… ‘What the FUCK was that!?’
‘Hey, this is your plane mate! I’m not a fucking pilot!!’
I started taking photos. The screaming from the back seat continued, now slightly more coherent, with profanity-laden enquiries as to why I was taking photos when we were all about to die.
‘Little black box… just in case’, I joked. This was long before smart phones, when cameras were, well… little black boxes. The plane was still in the air. The pilot yelled that he could probably get us to Windorah… and he did.
Having flown a lot in the years since that day, this remains the bumpiest, dustiest landing I ever wish to experience. Standing on the dirt airstrip there was jubilation, shaking… I found it all rather exhilarating, though not sure why.
The pilot was fighting tears. Having lobbied for years to get the Education Department contract, his trusty plane had thrown a tantrum on his first job. He already sensed it was over, the day it began.
He told me to go and see Merv at the servo (gas station) and borrow a wrench and a screwdriver. I tried to keep the mood light and asked if he needed any band-aids or duct tape to go along with that. He laughed a sad laugh and told me small planes are surprisingly simple machines, and he’d have it right in no time.
I trudged off through the dust to the servo. I’d driven this road a few times to the remote outback schools, and had chatted with Merv a couple of times, but I was surprised and impressed that he recognised me immediately. Merv Ploger is blind. He’d been running the Windorah servo for decades and was as sharp as ever. Once I had asked him how he stops people from ripping him off when paying for their petrol, and he’d shown me the metal ruler bolted to his counter. He’d carved notches into it, denoting the different sized Australian banknotes. Merv could take cash and deliver change as fast as any sighted person.
He knew the pilot (everyone knows everyone in the outback) and sent his best wishes. In a flash he located the tools required and told me to bring them back when the job was done.
Back at the airstrip the pilot went to work. The girls and I went to the pub.
Less than an hour later the pilot joined us at the pub, saying the plane was good as new, and we could continue to Birdsville whenever ready. He immediately knew the answer though, and his head dropped. In his absence, the girls had steadfastly declared that there was no way on Earth they would ever set foot in that plane again.
He tried to explain that the plane and engine were fine. The explosion had just been a backfire from the manifold, and sounded much worse than it was due to the lack of sound insulation in the little aircraft.
I tried to reassure the girls. After all, the pilot had gotten us safely to Windorah, and was confident of his plane. This was his job… his first gig on a new contract. They were unswayed though and he knew it. It was over. He shook my hand and wished us well for the rest of our journey to Birdsville, just 100 miles away. Then he walked back to the strip, and flew back to Longreach alone.
He was a nice guy. I never saw the pilot again, and don’t even remember his name. I hope he got another gig.