– Steve Hitchen
If there was ever a writer that put his heart and soul into general aviation, it was Paul David Phelan. A true champion of the cause and a skilled pilot with an adventurous career under his belt, Paul died last Thursday 13 August, leaving the world of aviation journalism in deep mourning.
Paul was the Executive Editor of Australian Flying for many years and in total his work appeared in the magazine for over 20 years. He built a reputation as a writer of great analytical skill who could turn his hand to entertaining prose when the subject required it. Behind the scenes he was also a raconteur of note, and often it showed through in his work.
He became known for his talent in putting regulators to the sword with cutting efficiency. It was once said of another writer, Leon Trotsky, that after he cut off his enemy's head he held it up to show that there were no brains inside, and I have always thought Paul Phelan was cut from the same bolt of cloth. It was a very brave bureaucrat that tried to find an escape clause by dissecting Paul's work to find a flaw in logic and reasoning. Mostly, there just weren't any.
His trademark was the last page of Australian Flying where he presented his "Backlash" column, a place where Paul could air his principles and ideals, targeting the guilty and espousing a logic in regulation that we are still chasing today. Many readers would pick up their new copy and turn straight to the back to see who Phelan was skewering in this issue.
His style set a benchmark for many aviation writers in the next generation, including me. Even today when I have to unravel story of some regulatory misadventure I always ask myself if I have done as good a job as Paul Phelan would do. Other writers have credited him with being their inspiration to start writing in the first place. He was a pilots' writer with a world of experience that helped him relate to the people he was writing about.
He started out in aviation the way many pilots did, flying ad-hoc charter work. One of his early roles was to fly the media chase plane over Lake Eyre in 1964 as Donald Campbell set his world land speed record. He later flew DC3s for Bush Pilot Airways in QLD, crewing up on at least one occasion with the late Warren Seymour, founder of National Jet Systems.
In the end it was as an aviation writer that he found his niche, not only in Australia, but also in international publications. He could turn his hand to anything, a trait that is lacking in many writers today. In-depth analysis of regulation, testing a corporate jet, flying a trike or waxing lyrical about a fly-away destination, Paul Phelan tackled them all, switching easily between the styles most appropriate for the subject.
And he was a great character that added colour to the lives of those who knew him, just as he did to the publications that used his work.
My first encounter with Paul was at one of the early Avalon air shows. As someone who'd been reading Australian Flying since the mid-1980s, I was already familiar with the name. As the Yaffa Publishing team were all Sydney-based, they fled early on the Sunday to get flights home, deputising Paul and me to look after the stand. "Sell all the magazines," they said, "nothing goes back to Sydney." Paul and I were not up for the task ... we just stood in the middle of the aisles and gave them all away. Mission accomplished; nothing went back to Sydney!
Paul and June (traditionally he would introduce her as "my first wife") lived in many places across Australia's east coast, from Cairns to Cooma and Mount Beauty. Anyone who visited them at home was most likely to be introduced to Paul's legendary home-made scotch. A few survived to tell the tale. I met him at a pub one day for a Saturday afternoon session. I had a cold beer; he had a scotch and coke. As we discussed the possible heritage of a wooden prop above the stage, Paul reached into his jacket and produced a hip flask, spiking his own drink with the contents – his home brew. "They never put enough in here," he grumbled.
Paul was a straight-shooter whose only agenda in this world was to use his typewriter to keep the bastards honest. After he left Australian Flying he entered the world of online journalism, working briefly for Aviation Advertiser before pairing up with Stan van der Wiel to create ProAviation. He changed his platform, but the writing remained quintessentially Phelan and the regulators were given no respite.
As with Ben Sandilands and John Spiers before him, the loss of Paul Phelan has weakened the art of aviation journalism in Australia, particularly in the general aviation sector. He was a true champion of the aviation cause and often the first journo to get a phone call when CASA threatened. He added power to the voice of David when Goliath began raising his bludgeon.
The thoughts of all of us here at Australian Flying and Yaffa Media are with June and the Phelan family.