Sabine's First Flight

The tradition in the Rudin-Brown family is for each child to take her first ‘flight with Daddy’ as soon as she turns five. Our youngest daughter, Sabine, recently had her birthday and, like older sisters Sidney and Lene, she was looking forward to her turn as co-pilot. What was different about Sabine’s flight, though, is that it was the first such flight made in Melbourne Australia, where  my wife, Missy and I have been living since 2009.
I have always loved flying.  When I was eight, I played on a soccer team, but would stop mid-play to stare up at passing aircraft, while my parents shouted from sidelines to “Watch the ball, son!!!”   I think that while they didn’t think much of my ignoring the match I was nominally playing, they were at least partly to blame for my fascination. I can remember so many warm Sunday afternoons when my family drove out to park at the end of the runway at Toronto International. My parents would sit my sister and me on the roof of the car, and we’d eat hot dogs as jets screamed just overhead. We had a ball doing that, and we got to know the best times to go to see all the big trans-Atlantic 707’s, DC-8’s and 747’s roaring past. Twenty years later, on one of the first dates out with my future wife, we did the same (denting the roof of my car!) and I can remember thinking she was a keeper when she enjoyed it as much as I did.

Like a lot of kids with planes on the brain, I learned to fly as an Air Cadet. That was about a million years ago, and I’ve flown pretty well steadily since then, as well as spending hundreds and hundreds of hours on survey planes navigating and operating geophysics equipment at 300’ above the dirt.  In all that time, I’ve found myself in the odd stressful situation, but only once have I had that sweaty-palm feeling on a sunny day with a perfectly operating aircraft.

My family and I moved to Melbourne Australia in 2009, and I was keen to get flying as quickly as I could. We were still jet-lagged that stifling hot January (!), when I dragged the kids down to Melbourne’s Moorabbin Airport so I could stop by the Royal Victorian Aero Club and inquire about what I’d need to do to be checked out to fly. Of course, with a three, four and six-year old along, the visit revolved around the playground next to the control-tower, but I gleaned enough to realize that I had quite a bit of bureaucracy to take care of with the Civil Aviation Authority before I’d get anywhere near a plane. Licensing requirements aside, I was surprised to find out that Australia is rather more security conscious than Canada, and many GA airfields require everyone to carry government proof of security-screening, or be escorted. Ugh. So much for my hurry! Three long months and several trees worth of paperwork later, my Australian ASIC card (security clearance) and pilot’s license arrived. I remember picking up that registered-letter at my local post-office with that little-kid at Christmas excitement, as if I’d spotted a BB-gun sized parcel under the tree and just KNEW what was inside!

On earlier flights, Rudin-Brown introduced his older daughters Lene (left) and Sidney to flying and to Australia from the air. Photo Missy Rudin-Brown

In hindsight, I think it was a good thing that three month delay, as it gave me the time to acquaint myself with the different procedures in place here, as well as the general geography of the Melbourne area. I arrived with the blissful idea that the country was as flat as a sheep-grazed pancake, and bucolically calm. Well, Australia is not famous for jagged snow-capped mountains as we think of them, but Melbourne is ringed by the Dandenong ranges, which are rather like an antipodal Adirondacks, with many peaks between three and six thousand feet. Compound this with overlapping control zones, wet weather blowing in off the Southern Ocean for half the year, and you get VFR flights being funneled in and out of a couple of passes! The weather may be fine at Moorabbin, perfect at your destination winery 100nm away, but if the “Kilmore Gap” has low cloud, it’s a no-go.

On an earlier flight Rudin-Brown took this late afternoon photo of the Cathedral Range – hills just north of Melbourne. Rudin-Brown tells us “It was a lovely day and we were at 7,500 feet, just to the east (right in photo) the hills were 4 to 6 thousand feet high.” Photo: Peter Rudin-Brown

Having taken care of the paperwork, I finally found myself in the left-seat of a 172 with an instructor showing me around my new backyard. I wasn’t too rusty, but the real difference was getting used to the tangle of runways at Moorabbin, and the equally convoluted airspace. I was lucky that my instructor had moved to Oz from New Zealand, and could easily relate to a recent arrival. It turns out that Kiwi and Canuck procedures are very similar, making him the perfect pilot to point out the critical differences I should be aware of. Thanks Rohan!

Moorabbin is Melbourne's equivalent of Buttonville or Toronto Island, except with that tangle of parallel runways!  It's very strange flying base leg head-on with another plane 100 yards off. (I used to fly gliders and did this regularly, but never with a business jet pointing at me!). Photo: Peter Rudin-Brown

The first and principal difference between Aussie and Canadian flying, and golden rule for all VFR pilots operating in a major Australian centre is this: ATC hates you. They don’t want you to call them or go near their airspace. If you have the gall to request passage, expect to have it bluntly denied, or begrudgingly accepted and then revoked without warning. I was once returning to Moorabbin from a country town to the northwest – a route with Melbourne International (“Tullamarine”) smack in the middle. It was a beautiful day and I requested clearance direct, as I could easily fly at the 6000’+ required. After a long silence, I was told to climb corkscrew-wise to 8000’, and then continue en route. Weird, but hey, I figured it was an exception. Up, up, up glider-style and then a turn onto heading. Fifteen minutes on my way, I was called and told simply that my clearance was revoked and to leave the airspace immediately. This involved me having to turn sharply to avoid the primary zone, and to descend 5500’!!  Not content with my complete detour and maxed-out descent, Tullamarine called again and told me to stop my forward progress, and descend “in a corkscrew over my position”!!!! Now this is all very well if there was a conflict, but there was no other traffic! Later (much later, as I had to fly in a wide circle around the main CZ) when I asked about this at the flying club bar, my chums laughed and said “You’ve been had, Mate!” while suggesting it was all a ploy to punish me for bothering the controllers.

 The rule I’ve had with taking my daughters flying has been that they must be at least five years old.  My rationale for this is that they’d be tall enough to see out the windows, and (hopefully) sensible enough to keep quiet when I’m talking to the control tower. Now, my older daughters each had a special solo trip with me out for their first flight, but my youngest turned five in January and hadn’t yet had her turn. Between the weather, work, school and family, the opportunity hadn’t come up, and I was feeling bad about it. Looking out the window at work one Friday, a windy, but clear and sunny day, (the sort of day most pilots stare up at and daydream) it occurred to me that I should surprise her after school! I called the club, and booked VH-LSP – a 2009 C172S with a “new-car-smell”, souped-up engine, and a very “un-flying-club” spiffy leather interior. It’s THE plane everyone likes to take first-time flyers in as it’s very comfy and new. I raced home from work, picked the kids up at school, and handed out snacks in the car on the way to the airport. Arriving there, I grabbed the keys and papers, strapped Sydney and Lene in back, Sabine in front on a booster seat, did the walk around and pre-flight checks and then started up.

The Flying Rudin-Browns: Sabine (L), Sidney and Lene, seen here in their new Australian school uniforms. Airplanes have been part of their lives since birth. Photo via Peter Rudin-Brown

Buckled in with her headset on, Sabine (with Teddy) calmly awaits start-up. Photo: Peter Rudin-Brown

  As I mentioned, Melbourne is a very busy place to be flying, so the process of covering the 12nm to the city for a sightseeing flight involved changing frequencies and transponder codes three times between lift-off at Moorabbin, and “Look, Sabine!”  I hardly had time to appreciate what I was doing until we were in orbit over the city centre at 1500’.  It was amazing to hear her picking out landmarks – the Eureka tower, the Melbourne Cricket Ground, St. Kilda Pier, Flinders Street Train station and the Royal Exhibition building. I have a theory that kids are naturally better at identifying things from the air than adults as they haven’t got the mindset that something must always look a certain way, but rather can imagine it looking differently at any moment.

Though never having been in the air above Melbourne before, Sabine found it easy to identify landmarks from above. This is the "MCG", the Melbourne Cricket Ground.  It's the Australian equivalent of Maple Leaf Gardens.  The Australian Football League plays all its most important matches here, as well as the Grand Final. Photo Peter Rudin-Brown

A few minutes later, and three more channel-changes, we were over our neighbourhood, their school, and then the Victoria State Police Academy – a VFR inbound reporting point for Moorabbin. Winds were a gusty 18-22kts at 280, I was cleared for runway 31L and asked to maintain 135 knots until on final as there was a Piper Malibu behind me.  Turning to land I bled off speed, put the flaps down partway (too gusty and too much crosswind for full flap) and concentrated on the trickier than expected approach. At that moment I heard the kids chatting and giggling to each other over their headsets and I had the realization: “They’re ALL with you, Peter.  DON’T BONE THIS!!!.” For me, it was one of those “flashbulb” moments that you get when you hear something BIG has happened. That view over the cowling at the precise moment that it clicked that I had my three children aboard is completely seared in my mind.  Suddenly, I didn’t feel like a private pilot making a routine crosswind landing, but as if I were flying a stormy night approach onto a heaving carrier. I don’t think I’ve ever been more focused! Every gust lifting a wing or drifting me off the centreline was quietly cursed and corrected for, down, down, down until a bump and roll to the taxiway. Of course, the kids didn’t notice my inner turmoil, and before we had even come to a stop on the ramp, I had returned again to my usual role of “Dad in family car”, telling the kids to stop always making fart jokes, and to quit pestering each other.

Yahoos in economy class. Young Sabine had the comfort of sharing her first flying experience with Sidney and Lene, her two older sisters. Rudin-Brown says that they were “... being total goofs while I was trying to have a "special moment" with Sabine!!  Luckily, the audio panel had an "isolate" switch, so I could turn them off and let them be yack away in the back, while Sabine and I chatted up front. Photo: Peter Rudin-Brown

Sabine and Teddy pose contentedly for Dad after her first flight. Photo Peter Rudin-Brown

On the way home that day, I got thinking about my sister and me, laughing and watching the jets blasting over us all those years ago, and I wondered how my kids will remember our flights together.  At the dinner-table, I asked Sabine what she thought of her first flight. She looked up from her plate, shrugged and said “I don’t remember…”  My heart sank - could she really NOT remember her flight with me, just two hours earlier? Worse, could this mean that flying might not be universally esteemed as the coolest thing ever? (This is the cornerstone of my world-view.) As these terrible thoughts swirled around my head, she added, “…but I liked watching Peter Pan!”  She was, thank heavens, referring to our flight here when she and her sisters crossed the Pacific, and watched Peter Pan about ten-times consecutively.  PHEW!  All was right on planet earth. Pressing on, I said “No, no, I mean flying TODAY, in the little plane with me. What did you think of that?” There was a pause, and with a mouthful of noodles, she grinned and said “It was fun!  I liked wearing the headset.”

I think I’ll ask again in fifteen years.

Peter Rudin-Brown

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