It's looking like my ridiculous Australia trip will actually happen. I've completed the large stack of forms I needed to apply for the various things that Australia told me I would need to use my pilot's license there. Specifically: CASA Form 078 - Authority to Release Information, Flight Crew LIcensing; CASA Form 498 - Application for Aviation Security Identification Card (ASIC); CASA Form 523 - Certificate of Validation Application On the basis of Foreign Civil Qualifications; and CASA Form 1162 - Aviation Reference Number (ARN) Application. To get the CoV or the ASIC, you need to have an ARN, which is basically...yep, just a number associated with your name so that their systems and files can keep track of you.
These various documents have caused me a bunch of stress over the past few weeks. See, CASA says that it will take 'up to 56 days' to process these forms. However, some requirements for them aren't easily come by, or flat out aren't available, unless you're already in Australia. So setting up a very expensive trip, with lots of deposit money down, where you have to have your CoV and ASIC to carry out your plans, can be nerve-wracking. I can't afford the time or money to spend 56 days in Australia prior to commencing my adventure vacation. So I have to apply from here, and hope like crazy that everything works out OK when I get there, or I'm out an awful lot of money. Not for the flight over there, obviously I'd spend the month in Australia anyway, but I'd have to come up with another plan.
For example, the ASIC requires you to have proof that you've entered the country legally. That means either an Australian passport (not an option for me) or a properly stamped visa in my passport proving legal entry. Which, of course, I won't have until I arrive. Gulp. I'm hoping that they will process the ASIC but not release it, and release it on receipt of said proof. I'm arriving a week before my tour leaves, so I have a week to get the paperwork through if anything goes wrong.
Another, more Kafka-esque problem, was the 'Proof of English Proficiency.' See, aviation is an international activity by its nature, and long ago, those nations advanced and rich enough to set the rules for aviation got together and formed the ICAO. Member states all agreed that the lingua franca of aviation would be English. Thus, if you want to fly to a country other than your own, you will need to speak English - as that's the only language that your destination is guaranteed to be able to speak.
Aha, Custo, I can hear you saying. But you speak English! Well...sort of. See, Australia requires that all foreign applicants for pilot's credentials provide proof of their ability to speak and comprehend English, at least well enough to interact with flight controllers and other pilots. The required level is called 'ICAO Level 4'. Nearly all countries, when they license you to fly outside their home territory, will require you to pass a standardized test in English. When you do, they will issue you an ICAO English proficiency certification.
However, since I live in the United States, I never had to pass this test. Therefore, I don't have a separate ICAO Level 4 certificate. This is of course heartbreakingly funny since both Australia and the US speak native English. Australia (via the CASA) has told me that since I don't have this certificate, I must pass a speaking and comprehension test of English before the CASA can issue me a Certificate of Validation (basically, a piece of paper that says that my US Private Pilot's License is valid in Australia). However, the only place I can take this test is...yep, that's right, in Australia. I checked to see if the Australian Consulate or Embassy might be able to administer it - nope, no go.
The flight school I'm renting the airplane from in Australia has said that in an emergency, they can try to administer this test by telephone, but have warned me that the recordings for the standard test are almost inaudible in normal use, and that the trans-pacific phone link will certainly not help. So we'll see how that goes. I found a document on the FAA web site explaining that the words "ENGLISH PROFICIENT" on my US license count as an ICAO Level 4 certification - so I sent that document, and its URL, along with my application. We'll see if the CASA accepts it.
Anyway, that's the paperwork nightmare.
On top of sending that, I bought my airline tickets. I'll be in Australia for around 33 days, if all this comes off. I had sent a many-thousand-dollar deposit for the rental of the airplane last month, so I know I have the airplane reserved. The airplane I'll be flying is a Cessna 182 Skylane - a bigger, more powerful version of the Cessna 172 Skyhawk that I trained in. The one I'm renting - tail number VH-SDN - is nearly new, has 50-70 more horsepower than the 172N I trained in, has a constant speed propeller, and has a Garmin G1000 'glass cockpit' in it. So I've been flying a nearly identical airplane on Long Island with an instructor to get ready. I've put in 5 hrs so far, and plan on putting in another 5-6 hours before leaving for the trip. The main issue with the 182 isn't the plane - it's a bit bigger and heavier than the 172, but feels very very similar. The biggest issue is the G1000. SO MANY BUTTONS. Instead of the round dials I'm used to ('steam gauge' or 'six-pack') there are two large flat-panel displays, the PFD and MFD, with tons and tons of contextual buttons around three of their edges, and a digital comms panel for good measure. Learning how to operate the G1000 is one reason I'm training - but the more important reason is learning how to fly the plane without getting focussed on all the damn technology and graphics and buttons and lights inside the cockpit. Harder than it sounds. Especially if you're a geek pilot.
So. Forms, airplane rental, airline tickets. I have to send money to the tour company I'll be flying with, and I plan on doing that this week. Ah, right, the tour. My original plan was to 'fly myself across the Outback.' Then I realized that it would probably be safer to fly with other people who have done this before. Also, easier, because I have no idea where to go and what to do! Luckily, I found a company called Stawell Aviation Services based in Stawell, Victoria. These folks have been giving tours of Australia using Cessnas since 1986. Originally, I was hoping to rent one of their 172s - if you're a pilot, you can fly yourself on the tour, in convoy with others, rather than hiring one of their pilots - except their insurance company thinks I'm too heavy to fly their airplanes. Bah. So I'm forced to rent a larger airplane from somewhere else for ungodly money, and then 'tag along' on the tour.
This is a pretty good way to go, though, I think. While I am 'flying myself across the Outback', I'm doing so in a group, with other planes piloted by folks who are experts on the local conditions and fly these routes all the time. So if anything goes wrong, I'll be with other airplanes, not in the middle of nowhere by myself. Also, they do all the flight planning, which is handy because I'm not used to Australian airspace rules or procedures, so following their lead will make life much less stressful. Finally, the tour company is happy to set up all ground arrangements as they would if you were on their planes, so now I don't have to worry about lodging or meals or planning or anything - I just have to fly the airplane, and when I land each day, I rejoin the tour group.
The tour starts around 150 miles west northwest of Melbourne, and goes north all the way to the north coast. Then west, a bit down the west coast, and back down across the center - stopping at Alice Springs - and back to Stawell. It's a two week tour, with river excursions and light hiking and lots of overflight sightseeing along the way. Sample description: "We'll fly this gorge at 500 feet for over 30 miles!" So, woohoo!
I've started thinking about gear. After the tour ends, I have a week with the plane, and my friend who is going with me and I will strike out on our own for 5 or 6 days. As a result, I'm buying a GPS/satellite tracker and messenger, which can send status updates, records of my track, and in emergencies can send SOS calls directly via satellite. I'm considering buying a GoPro Hero camera, to see if I can record some flight operations in Australia.
Getting excited. Nervous, but excited. Two months to go.