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STORY

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—  STORY  —

The Southern Sun Story.
 

On the 12th April 2015, it was a calm Melbourne Spring morning, as I quietly said goodbye to my family for "a few months,” bound for London. There was no fanfare, no press releases, no sponsors - it was to be a personal journey - just me and my little amphibious Flying Boat, Southern Sun. She is a "Searey", a two seat single engine plane, that can land on runways or water, a modern plane built in the style of the old flying boats of the prewar era. There are around 500 flying around the world, produced by the Progressive Aerodyne company in Florida, with most home built from their kit, but now available as a factory LSA. (www.searey.com) Southern Sun was specially built by the owner of the company for me with this trip in mind.

I had spent the better part of 10 years researching the late 1930's Qantas Empire Imperial flying boat route from Rose Bay, Sydney through to Southampton, England; via Asia, India, the Middle East and Europe. It was the Golden Age of flying, luxurious and romantic, I wished I could have done the trip back in 1938; but I was born in 1968. At least 30 or so years too late. I either needed a time machine, or a pilots licence and a flying boat. I looked at second hand planes available, all decades old with great names such as Gooses, Widgeons and Albatrosses; Buccaneers and Renegades; even the Seabee. In the end, I was realistic about my experience and budget and bought a second hand Searey to build some hours and lots of water landing experience. 10 years later and with only 450 hours under my belt, I had a new Searey, the Southern Sun, built with this trip in mind, with 13 hours worth of fuel tanks built in, and up to 21 hours range in maximum ferry mode, utilising a large fuel bag on the passenger seat - we were ready for an adventure.

The route closely followed the 1930's cities, making changes mainly for political reasons; for example refuelling was once done on Lake Basra in Iraq, but permission to land there for this journey was denied. In fact, not so much denied as derided! The path chosen was Melbourne - Sydney - Longreach - Karumba - Groote Eyelandt - Darwin - Timor - Indonesia - Singapore - Penang, Malaysia - Thailand - (Over Myanmar) - Bangladesh - Patna, Gwalior & Ahmedabad, India - Pakistan - Dubai - Abu Dhabi - Saudi Arabia - Aqaba, Jordan - Israel - Crete - Croatia - Italy -Marseille & St.Nazaire, France - Southampton & London, England.

The plan wasn't just to fly the route, but to explore the cities and towns. To seek out not just the landing spots of the old route, but the hotels where guests used to overnight on that romantic journey - 10 days from Sydney to London, staying at the worlds most luxurious hotels along the way, such as Raffles in Singapore. I would stay two or three days in each place exploring. I was also conducting research for my Masters thesis into the perceived value of cinema by the community, which would see me visit 70 cinemas. So yes, I was packing a fair bit into this trip of a life time.

The plan wasn't to fly around the world, it started just as a trip from Sydney to London; to retrace the old 1938 Qantas flying boat route. It was very much an international journey: I am a pilot with dual British / Australian citizenship, with an USA FAA land and sea licence, in a US registered experimental Flying Boat.

On the 12th April 2015, it was a calm Melbourne Spring morning, as I quietly said goodbye to my family for "a few months,” bound for London. There was no fanfare, no press releases, no sponsors - it was to be a personal journey - just me and my little amphibious Flying Boat, Southern Sun. She is a "Searey", a two seat single engine plane, that can land on runways or water, a modern plane built in the style of the old flying boats of the prewar era. There are around 500 flying around the world, produced by the Progressive Aerodyne company in Florida, with most home built from their kit, but now available as a factory LSA. (www.searey.com) Southern Sun was specially built by the owner of the company for me with this trip in mind.

I had spent the better part of 10 years researching the late 1930's Qantas Empire Imperial flying boat route from Rose Bay, Sydney through to Southampton, England; via Asia, India, the Middle East and Europe. It was the Golden Age of flying, luxurious and romantic, I wished I could have done the trip back in 1938; but I was born in 1968. At least 30 or so years too late. I either needed a time machine, or a pilots licence and a flying boat. I looked at second hand planes available, all decades old with great names such as Gooses, Widgeons and Albatrosses; Buccaneers and Renegades; even the Seabee. In the end, I was realistic about my experience and budget and bought a second hand Searey to build some hours and lots of water landing experience. 10 years later and with only 450 hours under my belt, I had a new Searey, the Southern Sun, built with this trip in mind, with 13 hours worth of fuel tanks built in, and up to 21 hours range in maximum ferry mode, utilising a large fuel bag on the passenger seat - we were ready for an adventure.

The route closely followed the 1930's cities, making changes mainly for political reasons; for example refuelling was once done on Lake Basra in Iraq, but permission to land there for this journey was denied. In fact, not so much denied as derided! The path chosen was Melbourne - Sydney - Longreach - Karumba - Groote Eyelandt - Darwin - Timor - Indonesia - Singapore - Penang, Malaysia - Thailand - (Over Myanmar) - Bangladesh - Patna, Gwalior & Ahmedabad, India - Pakistan - Dubai - Abu Dhabi - Saudi Arabia - Aqaba, Jordan - Israel - Crete - Croatia - Italy -Marseille & St.Nazaire, France - Southampton & London, England.

The plan wasn't just to fly the route, but to explore the cities and towns. To seek out not just the landing spots of the old route, but the hotels where guests used to overnight on that romantic journey - 10 days from Sydney to London, staying at the worlds most luxurious hotels along the way, such as Raffles in Singapore. I would stay two or three days in each place exploring. I was also conducting research for my Masters thesis into the perceived value of cinema by the community, which would see me visit 70 cinemas. So yes, I was packing a fair bit into this trip of a life time.

Having crossed Australia, landing at Darwin airport was my first ever operation at an International airport, and I must say I was nervous. I had spent most of my years flying at uncontrolled fields and water ways, so mixing it with Boeings was all new to me, but something I knew I was going to have to get used to. Where I could I landed at secondary airports with international flight capabilities, but there were times, like at Dubai International, where I was landing with the big boys, and saw no less than 8 wide body passenger jets lining up waiting for me to land. I was also getting used to hearing "you'll be number 2 to the Airbus." As nearly every flight was crossing international boundaries, I needed to land at the major airports to clear customs and immigration.

But it wasn't all about big airports. I landed on the water where I could, often just touch'n'go's, so that I splashed where they did back in the 30's, other times, such as Lake Como in Italy I was able to have customs/immigration meet me lake-side.

My first international landing was in Dili, Timor-Leste. This had double importance for me. Timor had been a refuelling stop back in the 30's, either in Dili or Kupang, but East Timor is also where we run our Cinema Loro sa'e free outdoor cinema program. (www.cinemalorosae.com) Now in it's sixth year, during the dry season of May to December we have a team of local staff who go from village to village in a 4wd, setting up an inflatable screen each night and showing a series of educational and entertaining shorts before a choice of feature films, all of which we have dubbed into the local language, Tetum. Funding comes from my families popular Melbourne cinema, the “Sun Theatre” in Yarraville (www.suntheatre.com.au) and sponsors.

The staff in Timor thought my little plane was kind of hilarious! They'd never seen such a small plane, and when one of our staff, Lou, asked to try sitting in it, it seemed like a great photo opportunity. I stood back, and motioned to the control stick between her knees and as I lifted up my camera said "pretend you're flying", to which she flapped her arms!

On crossing the equator between Indonesia and Singapore I was nerdily excited by my first Equatorial crossing to see the GPS click over from S to N in the air. Then, as someone who had grown up sailing and for whom the first crossing of the equator holds great significance, turned back south to then land on the ocean and taxi across the imaginary line as a boat. Buono! But then I'd had this other idea and question gnawing away at me...

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If the water goes down the sink clockwise in the northern hemisphere and anti-clockwise at home in Australia, then what happens on the equator? So, the night before I went to the hardware store, the genuine sinks were all a bit heavy and cumbersome, so I bought a plastic laundry tub, and cut a drain hole in the centre bottom. Upon landing I took advantage of the Searey's magnificent sliding window, leant out, filled my "sink" with water and lifted it up. Voila! No turning effect at all - the water just slowly went down, glug glug glug. Thank goodness I never have to wonder about that again... Ah such discoveries...

Flying around the tropics was tough work in a small slow plane, but I always flight planned with 3 hours spare fuel, which gave great piece of mind when flying around lots of afternoon weather systems. I had planned to fly between 5 to 8 hours a day, with departures at 7am to try and avoid the worst of the afternoon daily rain, and being April I was at the tail end of the season. This cleared up as I passed over to the Indian region, but now we had some serious heat to deal with. By mid morning the temp's were regularly reaching the mid 30’s (mid 90’s F), and by lunchtime low 40's (low 100’s F) was common.

This peaked when landing in Saudi Arabia and I saw 53 (127 F) on my OAT (outside air temperature) - yikes, luckily I was descending at this point... But when I was at 100' above the runway and ATC were surprised to see that "I wasn't a helicopter" they made me do a go around and boy did those temps skyrocket... As annoying as this was, it was also a godsend - it made me realise how hard it would be to take off with 12 hours of fuel in a few days time in this heat. It occurred to me after a day that the best thing to do was leave at 10pm at night when it was 20 degrees cooler. A long, lonely night flying over the desert, with a few lights and stars to keep me company through the evening til Aqaba, Jordan appeared in the morning. I was reading Lawrence's Seven Pillars of Wisdom while on the trip, so arriving across the desert into Aqaba seemed like a very special arrival.

Once through the Middle East, a felt a huge sigh of relief... The knowledge that Southern Sun uses the same Rotax 914 petrol engine in pusher mode as a Predator Drone certainly had me wondering about my sound signature, more than once nervously pondering "I wonder what call I make if someone starts shooting at me?". From Dubai, to Saudi then Jordan, I then stopped in Israel for 5 days, to visit Haifa, Tel Aviv and Jerusalem and catch up with film industry friends who visit each year after Cannes. My long winded security clearance was generously arranged by Yigal from AOPA Israel, and I made some great friends as well, especially Tecnam flying Amir, in the local flying community.

Most of the paperwork for the trip was handled by a specialist agent, Mike at White Rose in the UK, and while there was a year of planning in the paperwork, it all went smoothly. There was a plethora of paperwork at each port, usually requiring multiple rubber stamps and signatures, but I used ground handlers in each country which made this much easier. They were all very jovial and happy to see Southern Sun, and not once did I feel taken advantage of or asked to pay any cash on the side.

In fact one of the greatest discoveries of my trip was the fabulous Generosity of Strangers. No matter where in the world I went, and how supposedly hostile our governments may be with each other, the people on the ground went out of their way to be helpful, giving up time and hospitality for the “perhaps crazy" guy who had turned up in this little plane that looks like a boat…

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A stop at Lake Como was not part of the original flying boat route, they stopped in Brindisi and Rome in Italy, but how could I pass up the chance to land on Lake Como and visit the Aero Club di Como - Bellissimo! My wife flew in from Australia (commercially…) and met me there for a week long break. Just one of the most romantic weeks ever, it was a lovely reunion and felt like a second honeymoon.

From here it was all getting close to the end and easier flying; while my entire trip was VFR, through Asia and the Middle East I had been controlled along airways like a commercial IFR flight, but from Italy onwards once cleared from controlled airspace it was much like flying in the US or Australia. Finally after crossing France and a quick splash’n’go on the Loire River, I departed for Southampton Water, where I had been given permission to do a touch and go on the water before proceeding to Southampton International to clear customs and immigration. Later that day I flew on up over the Thames and into Daymans Hall, a lovely grass airfield on the eastern outskirts of London. The flying club looked after me very well, especially Deepak and Alan.

Well... there I was. Trip over. Wow, I made it. My wife had joined me again, and we had a few weeks break planned in the UK. I had to work out how to pack up the plane and send it home. After only a few days of discussion, with my quiet yearning to keep going, and my wife saying "you've been talking about a circumnavigation all your life, maybe you'd been planning it on a yacht, but it's still a boat, so why not keep going." Oh, ok!

So having spent 10 years planning to fly to London, I now arranged in just a few weeks to fly at least to the US. Southern Sun would follow the Flying Boat route where possible, from Southampton to Foynes, Ireland and Botwood, Canada en route to New York. But range limitations would mean including Iceland and Greenland in the route as well, which I was most pleased about! I really had a pretty good run with great weather over Greenland. I had some delays in Ireland due low cloud, then a couple of hours at a few hundred feet over the ocean approaching Iceland to remain clear of cloud, but none of it scary. But there was one incident involving fog and low cloud on the coast of Canada, that lasted only a few minutes but scared the living daylights out of me… by virtue of me being here to write this, I came through ok - but a tad wary. Iceland and Greenland where spectacular beyond mere words available here, while Ireland is both the greenest and friendliest place on this wee planet. John Brennan and the rest of the folks in Limerick and Sligo were some of the most hospitable of the whole trip, some life long friends made for sure.

I visited the Flying Boat museums in both Foynes and Botwood, and was warmly welcomed by the locals. I both enjoyed and now highly recommend these museums of the Golden Age of flying. After clearing Customs and Immigration in Bangor, Maine I jumped down the coast to New York, where I excitedly landed at Port Washington, Long Island, right where Pan Am and Imperial once landed having crossed the Atlantic. Of course, next I simply had to fly the Hudson, and having seen the Statue of Liberty, Manhattan and flown over the aircraft carrier Intrepid, I dropped down for a water landing splash’n’go on the Hudson River. Gold!

After a few days in New York I planned for my longest leg of the trip so far - a non stop flight from New York to the Searey aeroplane factory in Orlando, Florida. A magical flight, tracking coastal all the way, not only did I get to enjoy the myriad of coastal waterways but I heard the broad range of accents changing from North to South throughout the day - fascinating!

Annual maintenance and a few upgrades were made to the plane while at the factory, while I worked on plans to get back home to Australia. The route could not go via Hawaii due to range, so we would need to go up to Alaska, follow the Aleutians to Russia, then Japan, Philippines and Indonesia back to Australia. A long way around. All of that seemed achievable, except Russian clearances were proving difficult. Without it, I really wasn't comfortable flying the Pacific. But I figured I'd come this far, and even if I couldn't fly all the way home, I could enjoy some time flying around America. When I got to Seattle I'd make a final decision - keep going, or pack the plane into a container and ship her home.

Having spent so much of my trip under the control of Air Traffic Control and following my expansive excel spreadsheet of destinations with set dates for clearances, the chance to fly across the US with only a loose plan was very enticing. I decided this was my chance to go Huck Finn, and even if not on a raft, I was going to follow the entire length of the Mississippi; following every turn of the river, all the way from New Orleans up to its source at Lake Itaska. It was heaven. Each morning I left not knowing where I'd stop that night. Twice I stayed on the river, sleeping in the plane, getting eaten by insects but having the childhood revisited time of my life. I pulled into Hannibal, Missouri, birthplace of Mark Twain, taxied up a boat ramp and explored the town and museums and was made very welcome. After a glorious week, I landed on Lake Itaska, shut down the motor and just drifted while I ate my lunch. Couldn't have been happier.

But now I needed to get my skates on, for as I hear so many folks say these days, ‘Winter is Coming’, and that's no time to be in Alaska let alone out in the Aleutians... I did a mighty 12 hour non stop flight from Minnesota to Washington, then the next day a short flight up to Seattle. It was the first of October. This was crunch time. Everyone was telling me that "it wasn't safe to fly in Alaska after September." I was spooked.

I stopped in Seattle for a few days, caught up with Steve and other Searey pilots and spent time with Walter, Ross and Ben to discuss, inspect and fly the Gweduck, which may just be the ultimate adventure plane. (www.gweduck.com) After so much time in my little Searey, she hadn't let me down and we'd done some great things together, even looking at another plane seemed like cheating on her! But one thing I've decided on this trip is I will not upgrade or change planes until a diesel/JetA1 solution is available, international travel on Avgas is just too hard. Through Asia and the Middle East my average time to refuel was 4 hours of ferrying fuel from petrol stations to inside airfields, sometimes even being made to X-ray the petrol going through security! But I digress...

I couldn't help but think I'd come as far as I should. The Russian permission still wasn't forthcoming and I was nervous about the Aleutians. But then a turning point happened. I met local commercial seaplane pilot Capt. Karen Stemco and she said "you really need to talk to Burke." So I did. A couple of times. He has been a commercial seaplane pilot flying the Alaskan islands for many many years.

He pointed out that he had for years flown out along the Aleutians all year round. It was possible to do, but there was one key ingredient for success. Patience. Yes there will be bad weather. There will be average weather. But in between, there will be glorious days. But if you take your time, accept getting stuck here and there for a few days, then you can make it. But remember he cautioned "There isn't a crashed plane in the Aleutians that doesn't have sun shining on it soon after." Wow. Gulp. Ok.

I slept on it. Then a day later I pushed on. Jumping over Canada straight to Ketchikan, Alaska -  then to Anchorage for a few days of final preparations. On leaving westwards for Cold Bay I soon had to divert to Homer (where else would you go while on an Odyssey?) when I found a wall of cloud to the sea en route. My initial instinct was to fly along the cloud looking for a break, then I heard Burke's words... Yes, just go and land somewhere, soon enough this cloud will pass. In these situations I always remind myself I really want to be at my sons 21st (he's 19). The next day it was lovely as I tracked to Cold Bay, where I then got stuck for 3 dreary days, before making the leap all the way to Adak. Where I spent the next 3 weeks!

There was plenty of nice weather in this time, but I was still waiting for Russian permission, and Japanese permission. After a week it wasn't looking good, so I had to come up with a plan B. Luckily in Anchorage I'd seen The Martian, and I knew I just had to go back to the basics and try a new plan. What did I have to work with? I tried to get permission for Midway. But no go. Could I get straight to Japan? No, it would take 22 hours, at around 1800 miles, and I could carry just on 21 hours of fuel.

But there was one option other than returning to the mainland and booking a shipping container.

Attu. The last of the Aleutian Islands. The most westerly point of the US of A. Not quite directly on the way, but if I could refuel at Attu, that would break the leg into a 6 hour and an 18 hour flight to get me to Japan.

But Attu is abandoned; no people, no power, no water, let alone fuel - just rats, big rats, lot’s of them. My Google Earth searching suggested the runway was still there and in OK condition. I decided I could ferry 6 hours of fuel in fuel cans, leave it by the runway, fly back to Adak, wait for the next weather window, then make one really big passage to Japan.

So we did. Flew out at dawn, with 6 fuel containers on the passenger seat and foot well, and 5.5 hours later arrived overhead a wet and rainy Attu. I could see that 2/3 of the cross runway into the wind was usable, and the full length of the main runway was ok. Despite there being no one to listen I made my radio calls, then landed, left the fuel in a small shed by the runway, disturbed lots of rats and took off again to make it back to Adak before sunset. So far so good.

A week later the weather was looking good again, well, as good as weather is out there come late October. The freezing level was down to 2500', and with so much moisture in the air ice was forming quickly, so I decided to just stick at 1500'. The plan was to leave Adak during the day, arrive at Attu, refuel, then take off just before sunset and fly all night; in the dark for 15-16 hours, and arrive into Japan in daylight, after 18 hours non stop and 23 hours flying for the day... What could go wrong?

Well, let's just say I'm here today to write about it, so while it was a very tough flight, it all worked out ok.

I needed a few days rest once in Japan, and the weather continued to be difficult on the way home, but I made it down through Japan in a week, then on to the Philippines over a few days then a pit stop in Ambon, Indonesia before making it back to Australia. Landing in Longreach, the first place in Australia I returned to that I flown through on the way out, and also the birthplace of Qantas, in Outback Queensland marked the completion of the circumnavigation, and two days later I was back in Melbourne on Saturday November 14th. Feeling very pleased to be reunited with my family, and chuffed to have been aboard the Southern Sun as she became the first Flying Boat and/or Amphibian to complete a solo circumnavigation. She did really well.

I must thank Kerry Richter, the Searey designer and builder of Southern Sun, she resolutely made it around the world when I knew it was way beyond what she was ever designed to do, and to Russell Brown who did so much to help prepare her and keep her going. There are so many others to thank, from aviation folks at flying clubs and airports, to members of the public I met along the way, the Generosity of Strangers was a constant pleasure to behold. Regardless of the politics of our nations, it seems we are all just trying to live good lives within our communities, care for our families and educate our children so they have a better time here than we did. As a solo pilot and traveller, I couldn’t have made it without all of your help and encouragement.

In the end it turned into a 7 month journey, but with the pre-trip lead up preparations, and being on Cloud 9 through to Christmas having returned, it was pretty much a whole years adventure. 210 days, 25 countries, 80 stops, 480 hours flying, 70 cinemas visited. I somehow doubt I will ever top this trip, and I've been enjoying giving photo / video presentation talks over the last few months. It turns out a few records were set, including first Solo Circumnavigation in an Amphibian and/or Flying Boat. I'm now back at work running our cinemas, a community focussed business I run with my family and love dearly. I've completed my Masters. Life is good.

Southern Sun, standing by.