Flyboys of the Mary Valley

Marty Power (left) and Paul McKeown of Wide Bay Air Charter. Photo PJ.

By Phil Jarratt

Oh, I have slipped the surly bonds of earth

And danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings;

Sunward I’ve climbed, and joined the tumbling mirth

Of sun-split clouds – and done a hundred things

You have not dreamed of – wheeled and soared and swung

High in the sunlit silence.

This is part of a sweet poem by a young pilot officer who was killed in World War II. It hangs on the dunny wall at the Gympie Aerodrome headquarters of Wide Bay Air Charter and the Recreational Flying Company, and it put me in mind of all those fabulous Biggles’ books I read through my early school years.

Like the fictional flying ace Captain James Bigglesworth, Paul McKeown and Marty Power, former airline captains who own and operate the twin companies, are trying to put the fun and adventure back into flying. And, judging by the numbers taking up their flight training, charters and scenic flights, they are succeeding.

Ironically, for the two seasoned but now redundant airline pilots, much of their flight instruction work is coming from pilots who have also been made redundant during the Covid crisis, and looking at the depressed immediate future for the airlines, are refreshing their light aircraft skills to chase work in general aviation. But while Paul and Marty have both had stellar careers flying jetliners – Marty with Virgin, Paul with Virgin and airlines in Micronesia and China – their hearts (and agile hands) have always been in the “stick and rudder” flying game.

Paul, 45, who now lives in Eumundi with wife and four children, grew up the only child of busy parents who ran a successful Noosa business. After school he was usually left to his own devices. “I wouldn’t say I was a daredevil, but I’ve always been kind of free-range, hard to chain down, whether it was on a skatey or a BMX. I was in that last generation of kids where they couldn’t keep tabs on you by mobile phone. I guess my love of aviation is an extension of that feeling of freedom I knew back then. I loved the idea that you could just take off into the sky and leave everything behind on the ground.”

He wanted to “slip the surly bonds of earth” with an Air Force career, but the fact that his nose was usually in a flying magazine during lessons meant that he failed maths and physics. “So I had to learn to fly the hard, old-fashioned way,” he says, learning to fly a glider while still at school, going solo at 16, and then progressing to ultralight aircraft where he got his first licence and quickly followed it up with a private licence for general aviation. “Then I ran out of money,” he laughs.

Fortunately, ultralight aircraft were really taking off and Paul was able to do a one-week course (borrowing $1000 from Mum) and become an ultralight instructor. After conducting his first lesson, the boss handed him $4.50 in cash. “I couldn’t believe it – I was getting paid to fly an aeroplane!” The job enabled him to complete his commercial licence and become a general aviation instructor, learning his chops on all sorts of aircraft in all sorts of situations.

Paul’s career was starting to fly high. After two stints in Western Australia, flying charters in the Kimberley and then flying larger turbo props for BHP in the Pilbara, he was recruited by Virgin, where, as a First Officer, he was assigned to fly with a more senior pilot, Captain Marty Power. The two hit it off immediately, each delighted to find a kindred spirit.

Buderim-based Marty, now 47, had wanted to fly since he was three, the son of an airline pilot whose mother also had a pilot’s licence. The family lived near Sydney’s Bankstown Airport and young Marty would ride his bike there every afternoon after school to watch the planes take off and land. At 14, he got a cleaning job at the airport and used the money to pay for glider lessons. He studied hard, learnt to fly and broke into the airlines as a load controller. From there he became a charter pilot doing night freight runs, and eventually got picked up by Virgin.

So, while holding down serious day jobs flying airliners, the two new mates started dreaming about a boys’ own adventure, buying an aeroplane together. In Victoria they found something affordable in the form of a 1945-built, fabric-covered Piper Cub, a traditional trainer with a hand-starting prop and no radio. “It was a delightful thing,” Paul recalls, “and we started thinking, why don’t we start a flying school to help pay for it? Just two men and a 60-year-old Piper Cub – what could possibly go wrong!”

They flew the old Cub back to Queensland, keeping on track by descending low enough to read road signs – yes, this really is a Biggles adventure – and parked it on the Gympie field at Kybong, next to an old painted caravan they used as a briefings office.

While development in South East Queensland has made airports for general aviation harder to find, Gympie Aerodrome, in the heart of the beautiful Mary Valley, offered affordability and safe flying. Says Paul: “It was the last viable airfield where we could get a hangar site and be able to fly in uncongested air space.”

In 2006 they opened for business, hiring a few locals to run the show while they were flying the commercial routes.

Although the general aviation sector has been in decline for decades, the partners managed to make a go of their spare-time business, taking over a large hangar to replace the caravan, then buying more aeroplanes to fill the space and expand the fleet. Says Paul: “It’s a tough gig, running a flying operation at this level, but our hearts were in it and we found great locals who have supported us.”

Part of this process was developing a relationship with the Aerospace Systems program offered to senior students at Noosa District High School, with students using the Recreational Flying Company facilities and simulator at Kybong to get a grounding in flying.

And then along came the pandemic. Two things happened simultaneously. The two partners were made redundant, and their part-time business became very much full-time as people with time on their hands and nowhere to go made a tick on the bucket list and learnt to fly, or took a scenic flight, or out-of-work pilots took refresher courses in general aviation. Recreational flying began experiencing a mini-boom.

On the cool, clear morning I arrive at Gympie Aerodrome, the skies above the Mary Valley are not exactly buzzing with flights, but there is plenty of activity, with glider pilots prepping at one end of the runway and private fliers coming and going from the other.

At the Wide Bay Air Charter hangar, Paul and Marty introduce me to my pilots for the day, Nina Burkardt and Mitchell Thomas. A confession: Showing my age, my first thought is that these lovely young kids are the children of the partners, dressed up in uniforms to impress me with the size of the staff.

Wrong: Both aged 20, these Cooroy-based pilots are graduates of Noosa District High’s aerospace program and have been licensed pilots since the age of 15.

At the controls of a nifty Cessna 172 (albeit one whose armrest ashtrays reveal its vintage), Nina flies us over to the coast at Double Island Point, while Mitch offers expert commentary on the flora, fauna and history of the area. Then we whale-spot up the Great Sandy Strait – mums and calves are plentiful on both Fraser coasts this day – before overflying Lake McKenzie and eventually dropping down to the old strip at Orchid Beach for lunch. Mitch takes the controls for the return flight down the ocean coast, magnificent in the afternoon light.

I couldn’t have been in better hands for this half-day “Fraser Island Experience”, one of four scenic flight options the company offers. As safety first pilots, tour guides and fun companions, the “kids” passed with flying colours.

Nina is interested in crop-dusting, Mitch hasn’t decided yet where he’ll look in these troubled times for the aviation industry. But just like their bosses and mentors, they share an absolute passion for the adventure of flying. It was written all over their faces every moment I spent with them.

For Paul McKeown and Marty Power, there are plenty of challenges ahead, but flying by the seat of their pants is what they do best. Says Paul: “We’re back doing the things we love, probably a bit earlier and a bit broker than we expected, but it’s where we always wanted to end up.”

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