Dick Smith arrived at Somersby in his Jet Ranger as promised just after seven on Monday morning. He briefed me on our route, but I was already pretty clear what we should do: Down the coast, turn right through Sydney heads, up the harbour not above 1000 ft to the bridge, then down to 500 ft below the approach to Kingsford Smith International as far as Parramatta oil refinery, then south down the helicopter route to Bankstown airport to meet the press at about 8:30.
"What about flying under the bridge?" Miles asked. There had been talk about us doing this for a couple of days. Easy to do, but with what consequence? Dick said Yes, he'd flown under it, but that was when he returned from his pioneering circumnavigation by helicopter and it had taken 3 months to get the permission. We could do what we liked, however he advised against it as the bridge is something of a 'global icon' and these days 'they are very hot on security'. Most of all though, the helicopter routes through Sydney are Dick's babies, they're not the simplest of routes on account of the proximity of big airports but he had persuaded the government to introduce them when he'd been chairman of CASA (the Australian CAA). On this occasion I understood he'd managed to persuade CASA to let us fly up the harbour on his personal assurance we were competent enough not to crash into anything, and I for one was not prepared to renege on his trust. I was taking the view that Miles could fly under it if he wanted, but I wasn't going to be with him.
It would also be of no help to Brian Milton who'd started out this journey with Miles. Brian is presently struggling to get permission to fly a gaggle of microlights for charity up the helicopter routes along the Thames in London and if I did something in Sydney harbour we weren't supposed to, then UK CAA would almost certainly get to hear of it.
The girl in charge of media relations for Seeing is Believing in Sydney had told me that all four TV channels would have a news helicopter filming us in the harbour. This sounded like their publicity machine was in top gear but I asked if she could get the pilots to call me as microlights and helicopters don't often mix very well and I was reluctant to be killed by one of them at our moment of triumph. Three of them did ring, but I heard later that the TV companies had decided to pool the footage from just one which sounded like a much better plan. Before we took off I made double sure our video cameras were working too. Once again I aimed some choice words at you-know-who who hadn't prepared them properly before the flight as we still have no sound.
Despite another oil and filter change yesterday the pressure is still 'off the clock' when the engine is cold but it settled down to its usual fluctuating self once warmed up a bit. No funny noises when we took off but difficult to say whether this was an improvement.
It was a very clear day with a high overcast with the occasional blue hole in it, not the best for photography, rather flat. For some reason I'd always thought the East coast of Australia was pretty much all beach, punctuated by the very occasional inlet like Sydney harbour. It's not like that at all, there's plenty of beaches but also loads of inlets and miles and miles of sheltered waterways. We climbed out over Gosford which has a nice harbour and met up with Dick at 1000 ft over Barrenjoey Head at the entrance to Broken Bay.
As we flew down the beaches I got a running commentary from Dick over the radio; "Newport - very expensive", then "Narrabeen, where they wanted to film the Aussie version of Baywatch". We met up with the TV helicopter over the golf course at Long Reef, he had some trouble finding us, I don't think he was expecting something quite so small. Sydney heads were clearly in sight as we passed Manly Beach.
Just at that moment Sydney City centre, otherwise known as the CBD, the Central Business District, was lit up with sunlight through a big hole in the overcast making the most tremendous spectacle. Dick said something on the radio about how he'd never seen the City looking so beautiful.
We rounded north head in to the harbour. One of the things at my briefing was "keep over the water at all times", it was a more wiggly route up the harbour than I'd imagined.
It was all a bit too much to take in really. Dick said something about elephants on the right, I couldn't see any in what looked like expensive suburbia, I had no idea what he was talking about and filed a mental note to ask him later.
I could see the bridge, it looked smaller than I'd imagined, but it was a bit deceptive against the glow of the skyscrapers behind. From that I located the Opera house below and to the left - it looked tiny. A bit earlier than I expected Dick said: "You should go down to 500 ft now" as we passed garden Island. I pulled the bar in to my chest, The TV helicopter pilot said something about how he couldn't go down as fast as that.
This new height brought the bridge more into scale as we were now about the same level as the two flags on top. I remember thinking "Epic! I'm going to have to fly round it".
The opera house, still looking surprisingly small was to our left, the bridge ahead, the bustling rush hour ferries of circular quay between. For the benefit of the TV helicopter I said into the radio "I'll just be doing a few turns here in front of the bridge", shoved on full throttle and did a few steep turns by way of saying "We're here!"
As we went round I saw the TV helicopter hovering in the middle of the harbour, its pilot said something about that being jolly good. Miles was yelling. I was making sure we weren't actually going to hit anything. In retrospect I wish we'd spent a bit more time there because it seemed we were heading over the south pier of the bridge far too soon.
We seemed to be far lower than most buildings in the CBD. I was thinking 'If we have to be this low to avoid airport traffic, what about them?'
If the outer harbour was wiggly, the inner harbour is much more so. We went past Goat island, originally a naval arsenal, now part of Sydney Harbour National Park. Below us was a ferry packed with commuters, I waved at the people on the front deck but they must all have had a heavy weekend, some of them just stared back, the rest were reading their newspapers. Beyond them a huge tanker was being manoeuvred into the Shell Gore Bay terminal. I went around Cockatoo Island, originally a convict prison, then a shipyard, now under renovation by the Harbour Trust but it appeared semi-derelict, I supposed one of those pieces of property so hot nobody knows quite what to do with it. I don't expect they've considered a microlight strip but I could have landed on the wharf, the first possible place since we entered the harbour.
We went over Gladesville bridge packed with commuter traffic and weaved our way up the river past some very expensive looking real estate with equally expensive yachts moored offshore.
As we passed Breakfast Point the TV helicopter asked if I could head towards the Olympic stadium complex clearly visible on the left. After a while he said "no, not that way, keep over water" so I turned right over Ryde bridge and then south around some TV masts towards the stadium. Miles yelled and waved as we did a few more steep turns for the cameras.
I could see the oil refinery where we were supposed to turn south towards Bankstown airport but Dick said I could head straight in from where I was. I checked the engine instruments several times as we continued the last five miles at 500 ft over densely packed suburbia. Bankstown approach instructed me to land on 29 right; it's the first airport I've ever landed at with three parallel runways.
Never one to miss a photo-opportunity, Dick was striding across the tarmac as we taxied in to a mob of press and TV keen to interview the first blind man to have piloted a microlight from London to Sydney.
I was considering the last 30 minutes to be definitely the highlight of the flight so far and thanked Dick for getting such an amazing permission. Before he left, I asked what he was going on about Elephants. Apparently we were passing Taronga zoo which hasn't had elephants for years but amidst great controversy from animal welfare groups, four Elephants from Thailand were installed in a new $25m enclosure at the end of 2006 as part of a captive breeding program.
I was thinking I might get to see some real wild ones on my next microlight trip....