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Blue Collar Birds

Blue Collar Birds

Some people are suckers for blue collar aeroplanes, those birds that work for a living and always look as if they have grease under their fingernails. Some people call them “utilities” while others know them as “bush planes”. Derek Royal recently took the time to speak to a few pilots who earn a crust as operators of “blue collar” planes.


Reverend Garry Hardingham plays guitar and sings songs. He helps build airstrips and conducts religious ceremonies such as baptisms and church services. He oversees weddings, indulges in mediation work with mining companies and on occasion, discusses succession planning with families. He also operates food drops and evacuations and even fixes the odd computer. Reverend Garry it seems is a capable one-man band who thrives on the ad hoc nature of his calling.

So it comes as a shock when the good reverend says he has the best “flying” job in the world. FLYING job? Am I missing something? Known to some as The Flying Padre, Reverend Garry pilots his trusty Cessna 182Q around the outback, providing a vital pastoral service to an isolated population in a vast area that stretches from north-western Queensland to the Northern Territory.

“I wake up in the morning, look at the chart on the wall and say ‘Where will we go today?’” he explains. “And ‘should we drive or take the plane?’ My flying rule is that if I can’t drive it in two hours, I fly. Needless to say, I fly very often.”

Garry operates his trusty old bird for the Uniting Church McKay Patrol out of Cloncurry in north-western Queensland, and as a man of God, he is passionately committed to caring for the vast community in which he lives. But his job description is incredibly diverse and embraces more than religion.

“I basically do anything,” he says. “I like being able to offer free medical flights to Townsville so that a bloke who needs to be away from his property for four days to see a specialist can go down and back in a day. It’s a real joy to be able fly in food and medical supplies when properties are cut off for weeks or sometimes months. Or to set up a computer wireless network so the kids can access the internet in the school room. 

“To preside over a baptism or a wedding, or even a funeral and to see the whole area swarm in to share in the celebration or to mourn the passing of a mate, is to be part of the fabric of this community. It makes what I do feel so worthwhile.”

Many people dismiss the 182 as a “true” bush plane; maybe because of its tri-gear and common use as a trainer, but given the vast area and inhospitable terrain in which Reverend Garry operates, not to mention the variety of missions the 182 enables him to achieve, it appears that nothing could be further from the truth. Tri-gear undercarriage or not, the 182 is a reliable workhorse. A true bush plane. A true utility. Just ask the man who has “the best flying job in the world”.



Like the 182, the 206 isn’t considered as a classic bush plane. But despite this, it remains a “popular” bush plane. Why? Simply because the 206 does many things well. It’s a classic multi-tasker.

The NSW National Parks and Wildlife Service use the 206 as its workhorse of choice, a critical tool that assists in the organisation’s management of the state’s national parks, nature reserves, aboriginal areas, state game reserves and karst conservation areas.

During the winter months, the NPWS uses the 206 for kangaroo surveys. Veteran pilot Richard Byrne goes bush for a week then returns to Bankstown Airport, where the plane undergoes maintenance. A week later, Richard and his crew survey another region, a routine that repeats itself for two months, enabling the team four weeks to complete the entire mission.

During kangaroo surveys (and bird counts), Richard shows his flying expertise, caressing the Cessna through a series of low flying manoeuvres that only a pilot of skill and experience could perform. Flying as fast as 100 knots and as low as 250 feet, the ground rushes by as Richard manoeuvres the aircraft in such a manner that his passengers (park rangers) are able to complete their calculations safely and without duress.

Richard spends between 15 and 20 weeks a year on the road, so he knows his 206 intimately. But being far away from family and friends, spending time in small rural communities, isn’t everyone’s cup of tea. To Richard though, it’s simply the nature of the beast.

The Cessna 206 cruises at around 130 knots (faster with turbocharging) and is a decent short field performer. And while many don’t consider it to be a true bush aircraft, it’s remarkable how it remains the aeroplane of choice for a true bush organisation like the NSW National Parks and Wildlife Service.



Twin engine aircraft typically have retractable landing gear. The Twin Otter doesn’t. Turboprop twins usually don’t feature high lift wings supported by struts. The Twin Otter does. But as strange as this contraption is, it’s a winner, not only in the bush, but as a small regional airliner worldwide.

The Twin Otter doesn’t fit anyone’s conception of what an aeroplane should be, and perhaps this is why it has created a niche for itself with a variety of operators. Based on the successful single-engine Otter design, the “twin” version is solid and dependable and quite capable of getting in and out of rugged, unyielding airstrips, making it perfect for bush operations, especially in isolated third world countries such as Papua New Guinea.

“Of all the aircraft I have flown, I must admit I enjoy the Twin Otter the most,” explains Chris Bubb, a former Mission Aviation Fellowship pilot based in PNG. “There’s nothing glamourous about it, it’s just a truck with wings. However, for the operations we do, there’s nothing that comes close to the Twin Otter.”

MAF is a Christian organisation operating light aircraft in developing nations to deliver vital medical, relief and development services as well as love and hope to remote communities or areas affected by war. During his time with MAF, Chris was involved in searches for missing boats; and flying military and police charters. However, the area in which he knows his skills as a pilot make the most difference is medical evacuation (Medivacs).

“There’s no aeromedical service up here like the Royal Flying Doctor Service or CareFlight, so it’s a privilege to be able to help out in this way,” Chris says. “A very large percentage of our medivacs are for mothers with complications during childbirth. Infant and Maternal mortality in PNG is somewhere in the order of twenty times that in Australia. In PNG it’s approximately 100 per 1000 people as opposed to five per 1000 in Australia.”

As ungainly as the “truck with wings” might seem, the Twin Otter certainly plays a vital role in providing care to remote communities around the world.


Mentioning the deHavilland Beaver often invokes a religious-like reaction amongst die-hard bush pilots, many of whom have been known to remove their hats and become misty-eyed in remembrance of times past.

Designed as a serious, no-nonsense bush plane, this philosophy is well reflected in the Beaver’s functional, yet rugged cockpit. The plane isn’t dainty. It’s large and barrel-chested and looks more than capable of consuming a 206 or 182 in one ferocious bite. True to its utility roots, it’s common to see Beavers with military-like interiors: tube frame seats and web fabric, functional yet spartan. Then again, on the odd occasion it’s possible to come across a model that has been lavishly restored for private or commercial purposes.

One such example is Sierra Whiskey Bravo, owned and operated by Steve Krug of Sydney-based SeaWing Airways.

Purchased from a New Zealand owner, Steve meticulously prepared the Beaver for water flying and with partner Jenny Belfield established SeaWing Airways in Darwin in 1996. The couple eventually re-located to Sydney, where Steve currently flies scenic flights, charters, transfers, day trips and fly and dine restaurant experiences.

“The Beaver is a beautiful aircraft to fly,” Steve says. “It’s a STOL aircraft and very light on the ailerons. The elevators are beautifully balanced and the effort needed to get the aeroplane on and off the water and through the various phases of flight is minimal. Flying the Beaver doesn’t involve enormous physical effort. It’s also an aircraft that was designed to be utilised and worked, not a fancy piece of equipment. But it’s a machine that pilots and customers love because it’s stable and provides a very pleasant flying experience.”



There’s nothing glamourous about the Airvan. To the uninitiated, it’s merely a truck with wings, often referred to as an ugly duckling that turns heads for all the wrong reasons. With its squared-off features and asymmetrical shape, it’s the kind of plane that many pilots would assume to be as dull in the air as it looks on the ground. But those pilots would be horribly wrong.

The Airvan excels in areas like Papua New Guinea, where organisations like the Mission Aviation Fellowship (MAF) haul loads of people and freight between towns and villages in some of the most isolated and inhospitable territory on the globe. The Airvan excels in these conditions because of its excellent short takeoff and landing capability and freakish ability to climb up and over treacherous mountains. Oh, and it also excels because of its simplicity.

The aircraft is basic, made of sheet-metal and powered by a single 300 or 320 hp Lycoming engine. It possesses a big door for loading and unloading, while the rest of the interior offers more of the same: a no-frills package in the name of ruggedness, light weight and cost.

“The GA8 is brilliant for medivacs, because we can fit a stretcher patient in, and still have four passengers on board,” explains former MAF pilot Matt Painter. “Most medivacs come up when we are out and about, and with guidance from mission doctors we make decisions about what we can keep doing on our program or what we need to drop off. The GA8 generally means we can get the best of both worlds.”

The Airvan isn’t fast – it cruises between 130 and 135 knots – and while it has limited range (around 550 nm), it excels on missions that require short hops and large payloads. Ugly on the outside but beautiful on the inside … as the old saying goes, “Never judge a book by its cover”. 

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