Three Kiwis are set to enter an elite club this week as they each pilot a hand-built single-engine aircraft all the way from New Zealand to Australia and back.
Sitting in an aircraft no larger than a car for nine hours might not be everyone’s idea of a bucket-list adventure, but for these three pilots, the 1265-mile (2300km) Tasman crossing is the flight of a lifetime.
Making the long journey over water and outside radio and radar coverage can be quite a dangerous undertaking, but thanks to the satellite technology of New Zealand company Spidertracks, friends, family, and emergency services will be able to watch their progress live and communicate with them the entire time.
One of the pilots, Wellingtonian Peter Merwood, knows firsthand how difficult a journey like this can be, having called off a similar trip in 2014 due to bad weather.
This time around, Peter joins Aucklander David Wilkinson and western Bay of Plenty native Bill Luther on what they’ve dubbed the “Great Aussie Flying Adventure.”
The trio, with over 90 years of flying experience between them, will leave from Kerikeri on Monday and fly the 482-mile (890km) leg direct to Norfolk Island before taking off again for Lord Howe Island — leaving only the remaining 300 miles (555km) to mainland Australia at Port Macquarie.
The idea of the Great Aussie Flying Adventure was born in late 2015 when David and Bill contacted Peter to get help planning a trans-Tasman crossing of their own. Peter agreed to assist on the condition that he could try again, too.
“I wasn't able to cross the ditch last time, but I’ve flown extensively in Australia on private flying trips and love the Outback. While Dave and Bill have plenty of experience in NZ, they haven’t flown in Australia before, so I’m looking forward to explaining the differences to them and introducing them to some iconic Outback locations,” says Peter.
He adds that the long flight over water will be the most dangerous part, but having the Spidertracks device onboard means that if anything goes wrong, people will know exactly where they are and what was happening the whole time.
“We’re required to carry a device called an emergency locator transmitter (ELT), but they have a notorious failure rate when it comes to alerting people of an accident on land and simply do not work in water. With the Spider onboard, we know that emergency services will automatically be alerted right away if anything happens during the trip, and they’ll know exactly where to look,” says Peter.
For David Wilkinson, who is bringing his father along with him for the adventure, the flight is extra special.
“It’s been a dream of my father’s to cross the ditch for a long time, but his aircraft isn't able to carry enough fuel, so it’s nice we get to do it together.”
He adds that while the flying hasn't changed much from his father’s time, having a Spidertracks device onboard has changed the whole idea of long-distance flying, as it provides peace of mind for his wife and three young children who will be following the flight in real-time.
“I remember as a kid having to actually pick up the phone and call the control tower to find out where my dad was on his cross-country flights. Now my kids just have to look at an app on their phone or laptop to see where I am anywhere in the world. It’s amazingly simple.
“It’s also nice to know that if something does goes wrong, it doesn't matter if you’re sitting in the bush, or floating in a raft somewhere in the ocean; if you had a Spider onboard, then someone will know where you are,” says David.
Bill Luther, the most experienced pilot of the group, says the “Vans” aircraft they are taking are perfectly suited for such a long flight, as they do not require any modifications.
“It’s going to be a great adventure. It’ll be a wonderful opportunity to test ourselves over open ocean and open desert, where everything looks the same. But that’s part of the fun.
“The Vans RV6, RV7, and RV8 that we’re taking across are perfect for this type of flight as they’re relatively quick. We’ll be cruising at around 150kts (277km/h), around a third as fast as a Boeing 737, but at least we’ll get a better view.”