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You'll never make a pilot

Old 19th May 2021, 15:41
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You'll never make a pilot


Many years ago I logged twenty minutes in a scruffy little Cessna. With me was a quiet little boy about seven years old and his bubbly blonde mother. She had seen a card that I had pinned on the local supermarket notice board which had stated that for a few dollars, I would do joy flights over Melbourne. On the telephone, I explained that a lovely view could be had of the Melbourne Cricket Ground, the yachts on Port Philip Bay and the wooded parklands surrounding the city. Sometimes you can see the lions and tigers at the zoo.

ATC were very patient with a foreign student pilot solo in the zone, and having trouble understanding the difference between north and south. I had to orbit the city for a few more precious minutes while the controller coaxed the bewildered pilot back to Essendon. My small profit was now a loss, but it didn't really matter because mother and child were enjoying the flight - especially as I had let the boy fly the Cessna while his mother snapped his photo. Back on the ground, I told the little boy that he flew very well and that one day he would make a fine pilot. He was clearly delighted with the compliment, as was his mother.

I remember my own first flight. The year was 1948 and I was sixteen. The aircraft, a Lockheed Hudson, was flown by the famous Australian airman Harry Purvis AFC. Harry had been a pilot and engineer with Sir Charles Kingsford Smith, more popularly known as “Smithy”. The Hudson was on a test flight from Camden in NSW, where it was one of several aircraft used by the Sydney Morning Herald newspaper company to airlift newspapers to northern NSW. Harry believed in giving his ground crews a ride whenever there was a test flight, and so there were several technicians, cleaners and clerks aboard. The Hudson had been stripped of all padding and was a bare bones freighter. There were no seats, so we all sat on the floor. The noise of the engines at take off power was shattering and a few people were airsick. No one told me how to clear my ears on descent, and they hurt badly after we had landed. I thought that this must be normal! If that what flying was all about, then I thought forget it, I'm not interested.

I soon changed my mind after seeing the life style of the rest of the pilots who flew the Hudsons and the two Dakotas. But first I should explain what I was doing at Camden in 1948. After the end of the war, there were hundreds of surplus RAAF aircraft available at knock down prices. The going price for a Hudson was 200 pounds sterling and 10 pounds for each spare engine! The Sydney Morning Herald bought a few Hudsons and two Dakotas. These aircraft were then used for air dropping bundles of newspapers into fields at Muswellbrook, Glen Innes, and Grafton while larger loads were landed at Tamworth, Casino, Coffs Harbour and Evans Head. Aircraft would leave Camden before dawn and arrive at the drop zone at first light. The drop zone was usually a large field where the local newsagent was waiting to collect the papers. Approaching the zone, the co-pilot would leave the cockpit and load the bundles of papers that were inside hessian bags on to a ramp situated at the rear exit. The captain would slow the aircraft to 95 knots and descend to 200 feet above the field.

A green light would come on, the co-pilot would tilt the ramp, and the bundles of papers would slide overboard. A similar technique had been used to airdrop supplies to troops during the war. The Dakota flew with its cargo door open, and for the Hudson, the bundles were dropped through a hatch in the cabin floor. Commercial pressures to get the papers delivered inevitably meant that risks were taken, especially when low cloud and fog obscured the drop zones. Over the five years of operations there were four crashes with eight pilots killed. Of these, two were attributed to the crew failing to maintain VMC in low cloud. One Hudson accident near Muswellbrook was caused when the aircraft stalled while positioning for the drop, and another Hudson crashed shortly after lift off at Camden.

My father was an intrepid adventurer who never really settled down to civilian life following his wartime experiences in the British army. After the Sydney Morning Herald offered him a job in Australia, we sailed from Olde England's shores in 1947. He yearned for adventure, and after a short time in Sydney, he left to become a roving correspondent for Reuters News Agency in the Dutch East Indies (now Indonesia). His problem was what to do with a 16 year old son who was a cricket mad dunce at school? Back in England I had failed the entrance exam for an apprenticeship in the Royal Air Force, and in Australia, my dismal showing at maths ensured I had no hope with the RAAF.

And so it came to be that in 1948, when there were plenty of jobs for school leavers, my father talked Harry Purvis into employing me as a general dogsbody with the SMH Flying Services at Camden. With my worldly belongings packed into one small suitcase I moved into one of the former RAAF accommodation huts on the airfield. Sharing the hut were several pilots and engineers. The nearest toilets were a hundred yards away. We took turns to cook breakfast on a primus stove, and for the evening meal, we would drive by jeep into Camden village. At the weekends, the others would go home to their families in Sydney. With no family now, I had little choice but to fend for myself and I occasionally got the glooms. My father had by now sailed away to distant lands and I was on my own at 17. Despite all that, for a first job after school, it could not have been better.

Besides cleaning aircraft and running errands in the jeep, I carried out aircraft despatch duty. This involved preparing a Hudson or Dakota for a 0500 departure. The tyre covers were removed (big radial engines are notorious for leaking oil over the undercarriage), and a ladder and fire bottle placed in position for engine starts. Exhaust and carburettor fires were not uncommon in the Hudsons. There was usually a massive backfire, and then a red glow would appear down the carburettor intake. The pilot would attempt to extinguish the fire by keeping the propeller turning over. If this failed I had to hastily climb on the wing and laying flat on the engine, aim a shot of CO2 down the engine intake. The battery cart lead for the Hudson was connected to a receptacle in the port engine a few inches from the exhaust pipe. When the pilot throttled back to allow the cart to be dragged away, the long tongues of rich mixture flame licked uncomfortably close to my hands. At night the spectacle of carburettor or exhaust fires was quite scary.

Besides fire guard duties, I had to load up to 1000 kgs of newspapers into the aircraft. The next task was to head into the cold night to lay kerosene flare pots along the runway. Each would then be lit with a flaming taper. If there was a take-off minima, then the pilots rarely observed it, because in winter, fog would often reduce the visibility to 50 yards. It was eerie to watch the wing navigation lights diffuse then vanish, swallowed by the mist as the aircraft slowly taxied over the grass towards the runway. Five minutes later, the sounds of each engine being tested at high power would echo through the fog. Then the quiet idling of the engines as the crew carried out their final cockpit drills before take off. From standing behind the pilots on my trips, I knew exactly what was happening during the engine testing of the invisible aircraft facing down the flare path.

As the aircraft began its take off run, the noise of the engines would rise to a crescendo, reflecting off nearby hills. I sometimes found myself waiting for the sound of a cutting engine. In my mind, there would be a few seconds silence before a huge explosion would rent the dawn. I had a vivid imagination in those days, and I had often overheard the pilots talking among themselves of the dangers of an engine failure on take off. It nearly did happen one early morning. The usual ground mist covered the grass as the captain of Hudson VH-SMK waved away the battery cart and wheel chocks. As before, the sound of engines being tested could be clearly heard from my position outside the hangars, half a mile away from the runway. A few seconds later I heard both engines open up to full power and the Hudson started its roll. Suddenly the noise of take-off power ceased, to be replaced with the terrifying sound of high speed braking and skidding of tyres. Because of the fog, I could not see beyond the glare of the arc lights on the hangar roof and my imagination ran riot.

Seconds later the noise of tyres skidding abruptly stopped and I waited for the explosion. Nothing happened, so I started the jeep and headed into the night towards the runway hoping nervously to become a reluctant hero. To my relief I saw the navigation lights of the Hudson as it taxied back for another attempt at take off. I could only speculate that a swing had occurred during the initial take off run, and the pilot had aborted. After the Hudson had departed, I collected the flare pots, and saw two parallel black skid marks curving off the centre line to disappear on to the grass verge. I later found out it was a defective tail-wheel locking device that caused the incident.

I occasionally cadged a trip acting as assistant to the co-pilot when dropping newspapers, and was allowed to fly the aircraft from the right hand seat while the co-pilot had a rest. By the time I had my first dual lesson in a Tiger Moth I had already flown 150 hours on newspaper runs. My proudest day was when I flew as co-pilot in a Hudson on a ten minute ferry flight from Camden to Sydney.

They were happy days for me. The pilots were a kindly lot. Harry Purvis had been an airline pilot pre-war, as well as flying the old Southern Cross which belonged to Kingsford Smith. During the war, Harry became the RAAF chief instructor on Hudsons, and later commanded a Dakota squadron. Doug Swain was the flight superintendent. He had been awarded a Distinguished Flying Cross while flying Mosquito's on low level strikes into Europe. He was later killed in a Hudson crash in NSW. Bill Selwyn flew Wellington night bombers deep into Germany. My favourite was Dick Cruickshanks who had a swaggering bravado which I tried to emulate with little success. It was Dick who introduced me to the delights of female company when he persuaded some local nurses to join into drinking sessions on the banks of the idyllic Camden weir. The weir was part of a nearby river which meandered under weeping willows. One of the engineers had fashioned a canoe from a Spitfire drop tank, and, under the shade of the willows, many a romantic interlude was consummated in this beautiful silver canoe. I remained innocent of course - being far too young to know about such things.

Pilots would fly on four days a week and have the rest of the time free. There appeared to be no shortage of flying, booze, and nurses, and it seemed to me that being a pilot was the best job in the world. Fifty years on, my view hasn't changed..

My problem was that I had little money and could not afford flying lessons. I certainly couldn't afford wine and women. The only solution was to join the Air Force to learn to fly. Alas, I only had my father's cast off clothes, and he was tall and I was short. The RAAF interview board showed polite interest in my flying with the SMH, but I lacked the necessary educational qualifications and perhaps my father's garish houndstooth jacket didn't impress. Either way, my application was unsuccessful. From somewhere in Asia, my father wrote and urged me to apply to join the RAAF as ground staff. He was well aware of my scholastic limitations, and I think he was convinced that I would never make a pilot.

Next, I tried for the Royal Australian Navy Fleet Air Arm. It might have been the loud tie, or worse still, I may have called a ship, a boat. I received a polite knock back.

I wrote to the Headmaster of my former school in England stating that I wished to be a pilot in the RAAF and could he send me a letter stating that my British education was the equivalent of the New South Wales Intermediate Certificate. Now I am certain that he would have had no idea what that standard was, but he must have read between the lines that I needed something on paper that looked good. Back came a testimonial adorned with the school crest and impressive Latin motto. In as many words it stated that I was a jolly good lad who excelled at cricket and that everyone was sorry to see me leave for Australia – and by the way, the education that I had received was well up to the standard of the NSW Intermediate certificate.

Bingo! – that’s just what I needed. Meanwhile Harry Purvis and Doug Swain both gave me short but good references. At the same time I saved money by cutting back on meals. A bar of chocolate would sometimes temporarily replace the meat and three veggies. Within six months I had saved enough money for a new suit and tie.

From one of the pilots I borrowed a Dalton computer for a week. It was made of metal and designed to be strapped to the knee. Today its equivalent is the well known Jeppesen's CR-2. I visualised myself with a big wrist-watch, gold braid and wings on the chest. Those, plus my trusty Dalton computer (which I did not know how to operate) was now all that I needed to be a real pilot. At least that's how I saw it in 1949. Observing young flying instructors over fifty years later, it seems little has changed... To the pilots of the SMH, I was just a teenager with a Biggles complex. For my part, they were truly gods of the air. Especially, Dick Cruickshanks. So one day in the hangar, I showed him the computer and asked him to teach me how it worked. Clearly he was not in the mood to be tactful. Looking down at my grubby overalls and scruffy appearance, he said quite sincerely, "Forget it John, you'll never make a pilot".

His words hit hard, and mumbling an apology, I shoved the computer back into the pocket of my overalls and went back to sweeping the hangar floor. In the event, I eventually learned to fly and enjoyed a successful career in aviation.

From that early episode I learnt not to judge someone solely on appearance and to this day I have never told a student that he is wasting his time and money. With determination to succeed and the help of a good instructor, just about anyone can learn to fly. I have seen students scrubbed by the RAAF who, if given extra tuition and a change of instructor, would probably have graduated. Some of these students went on to command big jets in civilian careers, while their military instructors later languished behind a headquarters desk.

Sadly, Dick Cruickshanks and his co-pilot were killed a few days after our conversation. In the early hours of January 1st 1950, their Hudson crashed shortly after take-off from Camden. Dick was only 24 years old. The cause of the accident could not be determined although there was evidence of the Hudson stalling following a low power condition of the starboard engine.

Recently I ran into a former student whom I had trained on Wirraways in the RAAF. He confided that during the aptitude tests required for entry as a trainee pilot, he had failed the hand and eye coordination exercise. The test required the use of a miniature stick and rudder to follow a light on a screen. After the test, the recruiting sergeant told him that the machine never lied, and that from the results it was clear that he would never make a pilot. Fortunately, the sergeant was a family friend, and quietly fiddled the results of the test to indicate a pass. He proved an able student, and after graduation, went on to fly Mustangs. He later became a Group Captain and commanded an RAAF Hercules transport squadron. After leaving the service, he became an airline captain. At one stage he was posted as Commanding Officer of the very recruiting centre from where he had done his original aptitude tests. One evening, when all the staff had gone home, he tried the aptitude test again. After jockeying the control stick around the screen, he checked his score. It was one out of ten - or in other words he would never make a pilot...

In my own case, I gathered my newly arrived testimonial from my old Headmaster in England, praying that the interview board would naturally take the word of a British gentleman, and with my meagre savings bought some dual in a Tiger Moth at Bankstown. I was blessed with an excellent instructor who sent me solo in just under eight hours. His name was Bill Burns. Armed with a new log book and wearing a smart suit which had wiped out the rest of my bank account, I fronted for another interview with the RAAF. The Wing Commander remembered my face from the previous meeting and after glancing at my log book commented favourably on my time to solo. It turned out that he and my civilian instructor had flown in the same squadron during the war.

By now, the Sydney Morning Herald had lost their third aircraft and the Camden operation was closed down. Harry Purvis got me a job as a clerk in the SMH city office, while he went off to fly Catalina flying boats around the South Pacific with another pioneer airman, Captain P.G. (Bill) Taylor. Bill Selwyn, the former Wellington pilot, joined Qantas to fly Connies, while Doug Swain survived a ditching off Burma in a Mosquito in which he was positioning to England for the London to Christchurch air race. The scars on the hill where Dick Cruickshanks had crashed, soon disappeared under lush green grass, and the ground staff went their various ways to other employment.

I loathed the life of a clerk, and sorely missed the excitement of being around noisy Lockheed Hudsons and the stately DC-3. The banks of the beautiful Camden weir no longer echoed to the laughter of pilots and nurses. I needed the overtime for flying lessons at Bankstown and volunteered for the hazardous job of assistant to the car drivers who raced around the city newsagents collecting advertising copy each night. Seat belts were not invented then, and those drivers were nutters of the first order. After surviving one crash and several close calls, I decided give up the overtime.

One evening when I returned to my digs in a boarding house, the landlady handed me a telegram. As a child during the war, I remembered telegrams only as an official notification of the death of a loved one killed in action. To my relief this news was different. The telegram advised me that I had been selected for Pilot/Navigator training in the RAAF, commencing at No 1 Flying Training School at Point Cook, Victoria in October 1951 - and would I please advise my acceptance of the offer. Is the Pope a Catholic, I thought to myself! I pondered the term Pilot/Navigator, and decided that as pilots must be able to navigate, the telegram was merely stating the obvious. I would have been less confident if I had known that it meant if I failed the initial flight test, the second option would be a navigator’s course or discharge from the RAAF.

A few weeks later, I was on the train to Melbourne with a hundred other recruits. On arrival we boarded buses for Point Cook RAAF base. We were unpacking our suitcases when several uniformed officers burst into the barracks block and ordered us to polish the floors and mow the grass outside. One officer wearing medal ribbons and pilot wings ordered me to grab a nearby lawn mower and get working. I was still wearing the new suit bought at the cost of many potential dinners. In the darkness, I failed to notice that the mower was coated in wet paint, which completely ruined my suit. By now, the officers had disappeared. It soon dawned on us that we had been spoofed, and that the culprits had been cadets from the senior course who lived in adjoining barracks. They had borrowed the uniforms of their flying instructors to fool us.

Among our course was a tough Sydney first grade rugby league player. His name was Len Pittaway. With other well-built trainees, Len led an immediate counter attack on the senior course, wielding fire extinguishers and buckets of sand. The occupants were hosed out of their beds and covered in sand. The honour of No 8 Post War Pilot's Course was avenged. By the morning, two of the new recruits had decided that service life sucked, and were last seen heading back to Sydney.

After three months of square bashing, rifle drill, morse code and grenade throwing, we were transferred to Archerfield near Brisbane where we were given ten hours of dual instruction in Tiger Moths and then assessed. My previous flying experience proved invaluable, and after our flying results marks were read out at the local base cinema, those that were marked for navigators were posted to the School of Air Navigation at East Sale. Signallers went to the School of Radio at Ballarat, and I, along with 50 others, went on to complete our pilot training at Uranquinty and Point Cook. Some were scrubbed and one was killed in a Wirraway crash. On the 8th of December 1952, along with 29 other RAAF trainee pilots and 7 Navy cadets, I was awarded RAAF Pilot wings and put up the three stripes of Sergeant.

Many years later, I was flying a Convair 440 Metropolitan of the RAAF VIP flight based at Canberra. On board was the Governor General of Australia, and we were landing at Cloncurry in Queensland. After the official welcome, the GG was whisked away for a beer or two, while I wandered over to have a look at a dusty Connellan Airways Heron that was parked nearby.

The pilot's face seemed familiar, despite an abundance of white whiskers. There was no disguising however, the steady blue eyes and the firm handshake. It was Harry Purvis, my old boss from the Sydney Morning Herald Flying Services. He looked first at me, then up at the RAAF Convair with the regal pennant fluttering from the cockpit masthead and he said "Well, John - old Dick Cruickshanks was wrong, wasn't he?"

Last edited by Centaurus; 20th May 2021 at 01:49.
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Old 19th May 2021, 17:09
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Thank you for sharing that.
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Old 19th May 2021, 17:17
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Thanks Centaurus -- a great read!

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Old 19th May 2021, 18:19
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Doing demo flights at the age of nearly ninety! Impressive...God willing, I won't live that long, let alone fly.
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Old 19th May 2021, 21:34
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Great read, Centaurus, brought some memories of early days back as well.
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Old 20th May 2021, 01:53
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Doing demo flights at the age of nearly ninety! Impressive
Sorry about the misleading wording of that opening paragraph. The story was written a few years back. I have amended it to now read "Many years ago."
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Old 20th May 2021, 22:56
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Great read as always John. I think of my own journey to that wings parade in Pearce and I don't think I could make it sound interesting like yours. Although my uncle did say to my mum that I would not get in the RAAF as a pilot - didn't have the right family background and I wasn't bright enough. But as I found out, and as the RAAF knows, you don't have to be bright, you just have to show extreme determination becuase pilots course is a lot of hard work and long hours
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Old 21st May 2021, 16:11
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But as I found out, and as the RAAF knows, you don't have to be bright, you just have to show extreme determination because pilots course is a lot of hard work and long hours
While that is true, the often sad part is the numerous instances of trainee pilots being scrubbed when with a little more patience on the part of the flying instructor the student would have graduated. A change of instructor should have been tried.

For example. One of my students on Wirraways circa 1957 was a normal average pilot when I knew him. He was a cheerful young man and smiled a lot and his attitude was beyond approach. After graduation from No. 1 Basic flying Training School at Uranquinty he then went to No 1 Advanced Flying Training School at Point Cook. He was later scrubbed several weeks before graduation. He had the misfortune to have a prick of a flying instructor who was well known as a screaming skull. I never knew why he was scrubbed but his ready smile may have upset someone. His scrubbing would have cost thousands of dollars of tax payers money because in those days there was never any thought of changing instructors since that would have been a big no no in the Service.

Another example. The Wirraway was notorious for its savage brakes. In fact we were taught how to "burn them in" by taxying brakes against power. Several students were scrubbed because they inadvertently had tipped the aircraft on to its nose when the brakes "grabbed" while taxiing.

On 29 January 1954, just over one year since I had graduated with my "Wings," I was taxying a Wirraway (A20-746) at Darwin during a two week SAR attachment as second dickey on a Lincoln. . The brakes were "savage" as expected while taxiing out for take off and common sense should have suggested these were worse than usual and I should have returned to the tarmac.
But I was young and foolish and besides I wanted to go flying and chase the herds of buffalos in the training area. I very carefully tried to "burn" the brakes out and then got airborne. In the back seat was Sergeant Geoff Yule a signaller in our Lincoln crew.

.After some aerobatics and chasing the buffalos we returned for landing on the long Darwin runway. I didn't have to use the brakes until approaching the tarmac. In a flash the brakes grabbed and the Wirraway was up on its nose, the prop cut into the tarmac and we were stuck up in three points - two wheels and a buggered prop jammed into tarmac. After turning off the fuel and ignition switch I abandoned ship by gracefully sliding down on my arse over the hot cowls of the engine while the signaller in the back seat had to wait for a crane to arrive to let the tail down gradually.

The Commanding Officer of Darwin RAAF Base was Wing Commander "Bull" McMahon DFC, an ex wartime Catalina pilot. He was a blunt individual and much feared for his explosive temper. He arrived on the scene in his jeep and went right up me for me for buggering up his one and only Wirraway which was the only aeroplane the RAAF had for the defence of Darwin against the perceived "Yellow hordes" from the north. Notwithstanding there were no machine guns in this Wirraway although we did carry a Verey pistol signal gun which could fire pretty coloured smoke projectiles.

A few days later, a RAAF test pilot by the name of Flight Lieutenant Paul Jessop arrived in Darwin in the prototype Winjeel for tropical trials before acceptance by the RAAF as its new basic trainer. All this in 1954. By then a new prop had been fitted to the Wirraway. "Bull" McMahon asked the test pilot to flight test the Wirraway after its prop change. By then I had returned to Townsville, the base of No 10 Squadron Lincolns.

It wasn't until about 20 years ago (Year 2000) that Paul Jessop (then since long retired and living in the NSW High country south of Canberra) corresponded with me and reminisced over the old days. He said he had been asked to test fly my pranged Darwin Wirraway A20-746 following its prop change. He had started its engine, completed the engine run-up and started to taxy. Moving forward slightly he applied both brakes to test them and to his astonishment nearly stood the Wirraway on its nose.

As Paul described it to me, he cut the engine, and climbing from the Wirraway refused to continue with the test flight until the brakes were fixed. Further investigation by Jessop revealed that in some areas the maintenance manual used by the RAAF for the Wirraway brakes was different to the original Commonwealth Aircraft Corporation maintenance manual for the Wirraway. In particular the brake tolerances were different; as was the servicing of the brakes. It had been like that for years and hadn't been picked up by the authorities.

Paul Jessop had then persuaded the Commanding Officer "Bull" McMahon to exonerate yours truly from all blame of buggering up his Wirraway and the verdict of Pilot Error expunged from my personal file. It made me wonder how many innocent trainee pilots at Point Cook had been scrubbed over the years through no fault of their own for the sin of standing their Wirraways up on its nose through alleged poor braking technique? ..

I then remembered the navigator in my Lincoln crew in 1954 was Flight Sergeant Bill Woods. I often took him flying in the squadron Wirraway at Townsville and had commented on his excellent flying ability especially during aerobatics. He could fly the Lincoln too. He told me he became a navigator after being scrubbed as a trainee pilot at Point Cook for standing a Wirraway on its nose after the brakes had jammed on him during the landing run. He had been within two weeks from graduation as a pilot. It was no wonder as a navigator he was so good at aerobatics..

Bill eventually left the RAAF and joined Qantas as a navigator around the world flying the Super Constellation. But he had always wanted to be a pilot...

Last edited by Centaurus; 21st May 2021 at 16:21.
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Old 23rd May 2021, 01:52
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Top read once again! thanks for sharing all that!
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Old 23rd May 2021, 10:33
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Have you written a book, if yes, please direct me to it, if not, you should.
Enjoyable reads, allways.
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Old 23rd May 2021, 10:47
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No I haven't yet, but I'm thinking about it. I'll keep you posted
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Old 24th May 2021, 13:30
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Centaurus, thanks for sharing that. What a wonderful read.
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Old 24th May 2021, 13:32
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Centaurus' handiwork can be found and bought here:

Tall Tails of the South Pacific
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Old 24th May 2021, 21:16
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Originally Posted by Captain Nomad View Post
Centaurus' handiwork can be found and bought here:

Tall Tails of the South Pacific
Excellent, copy ordered, thanks for sharing.
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