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Thistles, Burrs and Barbed Wire

This is the story of how we met

I had been asked to take Lisa (one of our newest flying club members at the time) to Narromine for Natfly 2000 in her newly acquired Skyfox as she didn't yet have her cross-country endorsement. She had asked one of the instructors to take her (so she could log the time), however he had pulled out at the last minute due to other commitments.

The day dawned bright and clear with a 15 knot south westerly wind blowing. As I had not flown the aircraft before I carried out a quick circuit before leaving.

Being happy with the plane, we then loaded our allowable luggage (all 5kg of it) into the cargo compartment and departed on the first leg of the journey from Port Macquarie to overhead Taree and then as the RAAF was on holiday and the Williamtown military restricted areas were deactivated, direct to Maitland. Once there, and safely on the ground, we refuelled and had a chat with Cam who was flying the C-206 towing a banner for Northpower around the Newcastle area that day.

The next leg was from Maitland to Scone, and with a groundspeed of 46 knots, at about midpoint I calculated that after refuelling at Scone, we would be pushing daylight to make Dubbo by dark, so we decided to overnight at Scone. With luck, some of the engineers from Scone Aircraft Maintenance working on a snag with a Chieftain when we arrived, and they offered to put the Skyfox in their hangar overnight and gave us a lift to town where we obtained rooms for the night. Scone is fairly quiet on Good Friday and with not much happening, it was fairly early to bed, which also meant a good rest before rising early to continue on our way.

Saturday dawned fine and clear, with a slight south easterly blowing and we again launched into the air tracking to overfly Dubbo for Narromine. The trip went again uneventfully with a better ground speed this time with help from the tail wind. On arrival in the circuit at Narromine found half a dozen other aircraft in the circuit and a total of 168 aircraft at the airfield. We landed and tied down between another Skyfox and a Lightwing and then set off to have a look at what else was there.

Within half an hour we had run into a number of people from Port which included Col Bailey and Bill Andiel among others. After wandering around the flight line a number of times and looking at what could only be described as some very interesting and unusual aircraft, by mid afternoon I had found a comfortable position to oversee the activities from the beer tent. The night was spent camped beside the aeroplane using the Skyfox seats as a mattress.

The next day dawned totally overcast with a cold wind blowing from the southeast. By 9:00am a lot of the aircraft had already left and we decided to do the same thing. We were airborne by just after 11:00am heading for Lake Keepit, which was to be our overnight stop before proceeding back over the mountains for Port Macquarie.

The flight went uneventfully as before with a refuelling stop at Gunnedah. Something to remember when operating around or through areas where gliding operations are present is that most established gliding areas use discrete frequencies for these operations, and apart from a note to this effect in the ERSA, the frequency that each gliding operation uses is not notated in any documentation. You will also generally have no joy in getting this information from ATC. Lake Keepit for example, operates on 122.7 and not on the area frequency.

The people at Lake Keepit were very friendly and we arranged accommodation at the gliding club for the night. Lake Keepit Soaring Club has some single bed rooms as well as rooms with two single beds and also cabins available at modest rates. You will need to supply your own linen (or in our case on this occasion, sleeping bags), and food. There is a caravan park about 3km away that hires linen and it is here that you can pick up supplies. It is a quite enjoyable walk there and back.

The next day was bright and sunny, and we set off toward Manilla and around the Tamworth control zone to fly to Walcha, Yarrowitch and down the valley for Port Macquarie. About 5 miles west of Manilla I picked up some fairly strong thermals and was cruising at 5,500 feet earlier than expected. This thermal activity was short lived and by the same distance east of Manilla was gradually descending with full power in sink. By about 10 miles east of Manilla, the decent had ceased and we were maintaining 5,200 feet with full power slowly climbing back up to planned altitude when suddenly the engine revs reduced to about 300 RPM above idle.

After executing all the emergency checks and not being able to get any increase in power, I executed a quick 180 degree turn and headed back toward Manilla where I had seen some likely paddocks and away from the tree covered ridges where we now were. The paddocks to the east of Manilla while looking quite good from altitude ended up being criss-crossed with power lines but there appeared to be a suitable area just west of the Tamworth road near the radio antenna which was surrounded by freshly plowed fields.

The airstrip at Manilla was still a couple of miles away, and being blanketed by dust coming from ploughing just to the south. We arrived over my landing zone at around 800 feet AGL, and after a quick pattern decided that it looked OK. I flew to line up into wind, which ended up being diagonally from corner to corner. At around 200 feet AGL, just about to cross the fence line the engine finally stopped and I carried out a landing into this paddock that was full of burs, thistles and cattle (which had already taken flight on the opposite fence line near the creek).

The paddock was rougher than expected with some reasonable sized rocks; holes left by the cattle's feet when the paddock had been wet and a small gutter. The landing apart from the roughness was uneventful, and on finally coming to a halt, we exited the aircraft to inspect the damage and decide what to do next. This was about six minutes after the problem had first manifested itself.

The damage that was evident at this time consisted of a dent in the rim on the right hand side and a tyre going slowly flat. This was apparently from a hole or a rock that we had run over early on the landing roll. With the cowls off I could find no obvious reason for the power loss and was able to restart the engine. But it would still not develop more than the idle power we had had earlier.

Knowing that Col Bailey was due at Lake Keepit sometime during the day, we decided to walk to town and see if we could find a phone to talk to him, and hopefully arrange the loan of a trailer of some kind to get the aircraft back to Lake Keepit. It was about 11:45 by this stage and getting pretty warm.

We walked about a mile, and came across a farmhouse where I knocked on the door thinking we might get some assistance. An elderly lady came to the door and I explained the we had just had an engine failure and landed in what was probably her paddock about a mile away, and enquired what the best way might be to get to town. She replied that we could walk across the sheep paddock toward the silo that we could see on the edge of town, but then she said that there were a couple of really bad barbed wire fences and a pretty deep creek to get across that way. She recommended that we not go that way.

She then called her husband out, who appeared with a cup of tea in hand, and I explained the events to him. As with his wife before he also suggested that we could walk across the sheep paddock toward the silo that we could see on the edge of town, but then said that there were a couple of really bad barbed wire fences and a pretty deep creek to get across that way. He recommended that we not go that way as well. He then said that we could walk toward the west and there was a farm road that went in the direction of the Gunnedah road. He then went on to say that that road was blocked off and we wouldn't get through that way either. With that, they both went inside leaving us on the doorstep and I could hear the banjo music from the movie ‘Deliverance' playing inside my head.

We took to the sheep paddock, and after making our way through one the barbed wire fences found ourself at the creek. I found a way to cross and after climbing up the opposite bank which was quite steep, managed to cross the other of the fences. We found ourself on a track that lead us to the outskirts of town.

Finding ourselves at a garage, I decided that a drink was in order and Lisa had to go to the toilet. I had been standing outside the garage for about ten minutes when Lisa finally emerged. She had been locked in and the door refused to open. A passing customer had eventually let her out and we proceed inside where she explained the problem to the assistant. After some discussion between the staff, we were advised that it had been doing that for some time and they would have to get it fixed.

After asking for directions to the main part of town and with cold drinks in hand we headed in the direction indicated by the assistant at the garage, not knowing what we might find next. It was quite a surprise when we actually found the main street and the first place of interest right in front of us as the RSL Club. Hot and thirsty, we entered and acquired two beers.

I then went to find the phone (there is no mobile service here and my mobile was not working). I tried calling the Lake Keepit Soaring Club, but there was no answer. I then called the flying school where I talked to Dave Collits and explained what had happened and that we were both OK and not to expect us back that afternoon. He offered to keep calling the gliding club for us and get Col to ring us at the RSL Club when he got in contact with him.

About an hour later, I was paged to the phone and it was Col on the other end. He had just arrived at Lake Keepit and asked where we were. I explained what had happened and asked if he might not be able to get the loan of a trailer and extract us. He agreed to try and I went back to my beer.

About an hour and a half later, Col and his mate Laurie appeared through the door of the club. They had brought an open topped glider trailer with them and after a short rest we were all in Col's car heading toward the GPS position where we had left the Skyfox.

After folding the wings we were manoeuvring the plane to get it on the trailer when the farmer who had been ploughing earlier appeared. This was about five hours after we had landed, and he said that he had seen us come down and was wondering why we had landed in that paddock. After explaining the events of the landing he helped us get the plane into the trailer and after securing it as best we could, set off back to Lake Keepit.

We arrived back at Lake Keepit close to dark, and after unloading the aircraft from the trailer, decided that a couple more beers were in order. I had wanted to call Rod Hall to tell him that I wouldn't be back to fly in the ANZAC day formation, but with still no mobile service and with the office locked, I couldn't get to a phone.

Some time later we found out that some of the other people there were going into town for something to eat and we conned a ride with them as we had both not eaten since the night before. A short time later we found ourselves heading away from Lake Keepit toward (you guessed it) Manilla! The big fish cafe is also in the edge of town (almost everything here appears to be on the edge of town), but the food wasn't too bad.

The next day we took the cowls off and with the help of an engineer who was there gliding, checked what we could with the limited tools that we had. We could still get the engine to start, but still the same problem manifested itself. We decided that we should get the aircraft back to Port Macquarie where we could check it out properly and taking up Col's offer of borrowing his car to get back, set off in the afternoon to collect a trailer and bring the Skyfox back.

The next day saw us back at Lake Keepit with a trailer in tow. We got the aeroplane on another trailer and spent our final night next to the lake. Early the next morning we drained the fuel out of the wings ready for transport when I slipped off the trailer and tore my left calf muscle. It was a slow trip down the mountain through fog and rain, and we arrived in Port just after dark where we got the plane into a hangar and then returned the trailer.

The following Monday, I returned to Lake Keepit by plane as promised to pick Col up and bring him back as his car was still in Port and he was stranded there.

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