Day 3 - Dubbo YSDU to Longreach YLRE via Thargomindah YTGM
Woke up early early in Dubbo today, hoping to see clear sky. When I left my room to get breakfast at 6am, it was still dark, but there were clouds visible in the faint reflected streetlights. We were a day behind the tour - they had made it to Thargomindah, some 370 miles northwest of us, the day before. We had been stuck. Today, they were leaving Thargomindah around 8am to go to Longreach, some 275 miles further north. We were intent on catching them up.
Breakfast (a McDonald's coffee and McMuffin since they were the only thing open) and then a cab to the Dubbo airport. Felt sort of cool bypassing the terminal and coding in the GA gate. We walked over to SDN where she had patiently waited for the grounded day. Took out the stakes and tiedowns, did a preflight check, repacked our gear. The clouds were indeed overcast, but the Dubbo AWIS system claimed that they were at 3,700 feet (Dubbo is at 935 feet) - and far off to the northwest, we could see a strip of clear sky. Decided that we were going.
Fired up SDN, taxied out to runway 31, did the runup, and took off. Turned on course at 1000 AGL, set the altitude bug for 2500 feet to remain below the clouds, and settled in. As the day broke, the flight, I realized, was AWESOME. 1500 feet AGL we could see everything! We passed over farmland, pasturage, sheep stations, and a lot (a whole lot) of bush, i.e. scrubland and red dirt.
We were heading to Bourke YBKE, around 167 nm out, which had been our goal the day before. Got there in good time - winds were much better, and we made around 132 knots over the ground. At Bourke, we were doing fine, so I continued on to Thargomindah YTGM, some 188 nm futher on. We had come out from under the clouds, so I climbed to 6500 feet in a completely clear blue sky, the sun coming up in the East over our right wing.
I was struck by how little traffic there was on the radio. I was listening to both the local CTAF frequencies and to Brisbane Center (Melbourne to start, Brisbane as we tracked north). There was only occasional traffic, most of it from commercial flights up at flight levels 19 to 35, or approaching/departing Sydney and Brisbane. US frequencies would be full of traffic, requiring clipped comms and care to avoid stepping on other transmissions, but here, nope, long long stretches of silence.
Approaching Thargomindah, I called my approach on the CTAF some 25 miles out to the southeast. Another aircraft reported he was 15 miles to the east, also approaching, a Cessna 172. Told him I'd be descending, but that I'd make sure to get behind him. When we arrived, he was on a downwind while I flew an upwind on the dead side before turning crosswind to enter the pattern. He was on the ground by the time I was on crosswind, and I came around to base, then final...
Too damn high. Got enthusiastic. Thought about getting aggressive and slipping it in, then realized "What the hell are you doing?" and just went around (CCCC - Cram it / Clean it / Cool it / Call it) and came around again at a much more sedate pace and ended up still slightly fast but on the ground easily. Taxied back to Thargomindah, which is basically an unmanned shed with a bench outside it, and a card-operated fueling station. The plane ahead of us was just finishing, so they pushed their 172 out of the way and we taxied up to the pumps.
Two gents were in that plane, locals. We had a chat for a few minutes - very friendly folks, as I've found all Australians to be so far, especially aviators. They were about to leave as I tried the fuelling machine - and it wouldn't work. It wouldn't take any of the 5 credit cards my pax and I had. I asked for advice, and the pilot came over saying "This thing sucks, mate, took three tries to get mine to work. Did you tell it credit?"
Turns out I'd selected the wrong option on my debit card - Checking, instead of Credit. That worked. Whew. The aircraft hire agency gave us two fuel carnet cards, but this pump only wanted credit cards. Ugh. No worry, they'll deduct the fuel purchase from my rental at the end of the trip.
They headed out, and we fuelled the plane, then had a sit on the bench to eat some Raspberry Tartlets while my pax had a smoke. I saw some soaring birds that he opined might be wedge-tailed eagles, so I went back to the plane to get an actual camera with a zoom - and of course as soon as I found it, they buggered off. Jerks.
Following, we got back in, texted the tour folks that we were leaving YTGM, and took off. In the air we tracked almost directly north for 275 NM, over a stretch of fascinatingly empty country with random dirt tracks scattered through it. We passed one (ONE) sealed road, which had a pair of lorries on it.
As we approached Longreach, I called 50 miles out. Another aircraft called 50 miles to the west, so I told him I'd make sure to come in behind him. He got me the current QNH (barometric reading) for Longreach, which he'd had someone who had just landed give him. Coming in, I saw him land, so I came around again for a crosswind entry and set up for landing. Much more credible landing this try, and I back-taxiied to the end of the strip where a bunch of GA planes were parked. A helicopter was sitting in front of the Jet-A pumps, but the Avgas pumps were free, so I snugged in. These pumps would only take a BP carnet - which we didn't have - but the station was manned. Or, really, womaned. She said "No worries, I'll enable it, you can settle up with me in the office when you're done." While I was fuelling, the tour operators (Val and Hugh) showed up and chatted up my pax. When I was done, I went inside and asked what cards they took, fearing only Visa/MC (I only have debit Visa/MC cards, so daily limits are a worry). She said "Oh, I just signed up for Amex, want to try? You'll be the first!" Sure! Handed it over, and sure enough, it worked. "Congrats, our first Amex customer!"
Thanked her, went back out. Val and Hugh gave us the details on the local motel we were staying at, and we made arrangements to meet them later. Val had also brought a packet of paper charts - the ones I hadn't been able to buy in Sydney due to them being revised and out of stock.
We wandered off the airfield towards an enormous familiar shape - a 747-200, sitting just outside the fence next to a 707. Longreach is the home of the QANTAS Founders' Museum, and the 707 was the first civil jet aircraft in Australia while the 747-200 was their first 747. Both are retired here as museum exhibits, so we wandered through the museum and I gawked at the 747. You rarely get a chance to actually walk around under those things. They are bloody huge, let me tell you. Learned something new - the tour guide was saying that QANTAS' 747s had 'spare engine' mounts to allow them to transport spare engines to Australia. Apparently the 747 had enough performance that just bolting a 5th unused engine to an underwing pylon let them carry the extra with no problems!
Afterwards, we saw a DC-3 and some other fairly interesting exhibits about the history of the Queensland And Northern Territories Air Service (no, I didn't know that acronym prior to my pax explaining it to me).
To cap the day, on the walk to the motel we came across a group of grey kangaroos hanging out in a field. I felt like I'd finally made it to Australia - first marsupials! Took a picture, naturally.
So here we are. We caught the tour (whew!) and flew what will probably be one of our longest days, at 640 nm, since we were playing catch-up. I'm 600-700 miles into the Australian interior, the sky here is huge and clear blue, and groups of kangaroos on the move are incredibly hypnotic to watch.
Addendum: Had dinner at the Cattleman's Restaurant (steak, would ya believe it). Apparently country and 1970s American music is huge in the Australian Interior. a local band was performing all manner of covers from Johnny Cash to Kenny Rogers, with local favorites thrown in. We met our tour mates - a pair of retired couples from Victoria and a gent from New Zealand, who confided that he has owned three airplanes and has recently taken up helicopter flying to find something challenging to do. My travel buddy and I walked back to the motel - I managed to find the Southern Cross in the sky, no big trick as the sky is huge and empty and there is very little light pollution. Walking back, I did see a cool sight - Longreach is in the middle of nowhere, so the sky is big, huge and empty. In the middle of all this, however, The City of Banbury - the 747-200 - towers over everything in the area with the QANTAS logo on its huge vertical stabilizer floodlit and indigo accent lighting on the fuselage. It looks a bit like a cross between a rock concert and an alien invasion, sitting out there in the bush.
I had originally thought it was a bit sad, this grand aircraft sitting here, but then I realized that compared to many of its compatriots which were ignominiously scrapped, this is surely an honorable retirement.