Ever since she was a wee girl, Kathleen Chant always dreamed of being a pilot. But when she began flying lessons, she had no idea that it’d take her 22 years to earn her PPL.
SYDNEY, CIRCA 1960s
IT’S a beautiful Sydney afternoon, the skies are blue, the temperatures are in the mid-30s and there’s not a cloud in the sky. A young girl plays with her friends in the backyard of her western Sydney home but when she hears the unmistakable rumble of an aircraft engine roaring overhead, she stops, looks towards the heavens and follows the track of an airliner as it cruises towards an unknown destination. “Come on Kath!” her friends cry. “Let’s play!” But the young girl is mesmerised by the aeroplane and completely immersed in her own world. She ignores her friends and thinks, ‘Wow, how wonderful would it be to fly; to soar above the clouds and to be free?’
Some people have dreams and never take the first step towards achieving them. Some start but never finish. Kathleen Chant dreamed of being a pilot from childhood but for some reason she decided that flying an aeroplane was something other people did. It was just too hard. She had her reasons. After all, she was far too busy living life, as marriage and daily routine became her priorities. Unfortunately, Kath’s marriage eventually broke down and in an effort to put the sadness behind her she spent a year living in England. She then returned to Australia to live with her sister Helen’s family in Cairns and it was there that she decided to give her flying dream a crack.
“I always had a fascination with planes and flying, but growing up never even considered the possibility that it would be something that I could achieve,” Kath tells Aviator. “After living in England for a year I moved to Cairns where my sister Helen had just had her second daughter, got a job at the local pub and decided to start flying lessons.”
Kath rocked up to the North Queensland Aero Club but after half-a-dozen lessons decided to call it quits. “I realised the timing wasn’t right,” she says. “I was 30-years-old with no money, living with my sister and her family, and I needed to focus on rebuilding my life. So flying was put on the backburner.”
Not long after she decided to put her flying dream on hold, she met her future partner, Gavin Denton (and his son Brett) and the next few years were spent building a life and a future together.
“Over these years I made some friends who were pilots and one particular dear friend Barney who was an aircraft engineer,” Kath explains. “But my dream of flying always seemed to be just a pipe dream. Something else always seemed to take precedence.”
After 16 years in North Queensland Gavin was offered a job in Karratha, Western Australia. With WA being Gavin’s home state, the couple had already decided to retire in the west; the job offer merely fast-tracked the move.
But in mid 2010 Kath and Gavin received the devastating news that their good mate Barney had been diagnosed with terminal cancer. “The three of us had been mates for 20 odd years,” Kath says. “Barney and I were the same age and had celebrated birthdays together and even travelled the world together. Facing mortality certainly makes you re-evaluate your life. I finally decided I was going to make this flying dream become a reality, and when I mentioned it to Gavin he didn’t hesitate, he just told me to go for it.”
Barney was justifiably excited for his dear friend and even though he passed away before Kath earned her PPL, deep down she knows that he was with her every step of the way.
It had been 20 years since Kath had started her flying odyssey in Cairns but, buoyed by the support of her family and friends, she arrived at Karratha Flying Services determined to achieve her dream. She would need that determination and steely resolve to overcome several obstacles along the way.
In August 2010 Kath started lessons and after a smooth beginning, the first of those obstacles reared its ugly head.
“Things were going well but then on my fourth or fifth lesson, we smelt something burning in the aeroplane as we flew to the training area,” Kath says. “I just froze, with every worst case scenario running through my mind.”
Thankfully, Kath’s young instructor Georgia handled everything like a seasoned pro and the duo made it safely back to terra firma. The problem turned out to be a burnt out wire in the back-up radio, but as minor as it was, Kath still felt a little uneasy.
“I made a booking for the next day as I knew if I left it too long I might chicken out,” she admits. “Things went smoothly from there until about a month later when Georgia told me she had been accepted into a cadetship with Cathay Pacific. That was great news for Georgia but a bummer for me, as the flying school’s only other instructor was also leaving that same week.”
With lessons becoming few and far between, things came to a head when the school’s CFI decided to move on, forcing KFS to close down. Distraught and faced with a major dilemma, Kath wondered how she was going to complete her licence.
“I was devastated, but by this time I well and truly had the flying bug and knew there was no turning back.” Grounded for the next few months Kath decided to commute between Karratha and Perth, where she would complete her training. For those who are unaware of the vast distances in WA, Karratha and Perth are separated by over 1,500 kilometres. A return airfare between the two locations can set you back close to $1,000, so the decision to train in the state capital was a very costly one. Indeed, the $8,000-$9,000 Kath ended up spending in pursuit of her dream could have easily paid for a couple of extra endorsements. But nothing could stop her from pursuing her dream.
Kath contacted a flying school in Perth and booked five days of flying lessons. She was on her way again. Or so she thought.
“I arrived at the school in Perth at the appointed time and the instructor, who was also the owner of the school, was nowhere to be seen,” she explains. “This should have sent the warning bells ringing straight away. A half an hour later he rocked up and we sat down to have a chat. We hardly spoke about flying and it ended up being a chat about my instructor’s politics! I wasn’t feeling extremely confident with our chemistry but for some reason decided to soldier on. Needless to say, the weekend was a disaster. I felt like I had just wasted those days and dollars, ending with my confidence at its lowest and not knowing where to go from there.”
So Kath reached for the phone and called her previous instructor from Karratha, who suggested she hook up with the Royal Aero Club of Western Australia. “My instructor Jenny set up a meeting for me and right from the get go I knew these were the people that were going to get me there,” she says. “I can’t sing enough praises for my instructors Paul and Nicola, especially in the beginning, building my confidence and fitting in with my weekend trips from Karratha.”
Kath’s lessons started in a Cessna 152 and on July 3, 2011, she achieved her first solo; an achievement she considers to be the highlight of her life. “That will remain as the highlight of my life,” Kath says. “After nearly 12 months, three flying schools and five instructors I finally did my first solo. What a feeling!”
Kath’s training progressed rapidly (well, as rapidly as is possible while commuting 1,500km) and on 10 December 2011 she obtained her GFPT. It was at this stage that Kath started believing she could actually earn her PPL.
“I then moved to a Cessna 172 for my navigation training, which wasn’t that easy because everything looks so different from ‘up there’,” she says. “It took me a while to get a handle on things and there were a few extra nav lessons, but finally Nicola decided I was ready to sit my PPL. Unfortunately, the test proved to be unsuccessful.
“We won’t dwell on this day too much except to say things started out badly and got progressively worse. The nerves just seem to get me when I am facing exams. I was absolutely devastated and in tears before we even got back to Jandakot. My examiner Trevor was wonderful, dealing with a blubbering woman and all the while giving me another lesson and some valuable pointers as we tracked back home. I would have to come back and do it again.”
On 5 July 2012 and with 106 flying hours in her log book and a whole heap of emotions swirling through her head, Kath passed her PPL, thus achieving something that she had never thought possible. “I didn’t come down from the high of earning my PPL for weeks,” she laughs. “My friends and family were so excited for me and I returned to my workplace which was filled with balloons and congratulations and a wonderful cake made in the shape of an aeroplane. Gavin, Brett and (grandson) Max were so excited and proud. Throughout all this time they had kept the home fires burning while I was away and also looked after me while I was studying. My wonderful family in Perth, Susan and Ken shared first-hand all the ups and downs and I could not have done it without their help. They shared all the emotions with me along the way.”
Kath’s next challenge will be learning to navigate in the vast open areas of the Pilbara and she’s looking forward to taking to the sky with family and friends, and maybe next year participating in an air race in WA, supporting the Royal Flying Doctor Service. She would also like to one day fly across Australia.
“I suppose now that the sky is the limit, and with my newfound confidence and passion for flying, anything could happen,” she says.
That’s for sure. Remarkable woman. Remarkable story.