• Yvette Gulliver with the AWPA Around Australia baton. (Johanna Hodge)
    Yvette Gulliver with the AWPA Around Australia baton. (Johanna Hodge)

The first Women Pilots’ Relay of Flight saw a commemorative baton passing between the hands of 72 female pilots as it made its way around 28,000km of Australian skies.

You know, it’s a funny thing about women. We don’t mind a chat. And once the chatting starts, it’s accepted practice to spread the circle out. It’s not long til the volume increases; many mouths now competing for air time; ideas racing full pelt towards the start line. It’s not chatting anymore. It’s down to business, and the girls are on a mission. Here’s where it can be dangerous to try and stop the flow. Think hot lava down a steep mountain.

OK, so there may have been a glass of wine involved at that initial meeting, but welcome to the birth of the first Women Pilots’ Relay of Flight. By the time you’re reading this, it’ll be all over bar the movie, but I’d like you to come along for a leg or two. In the world of females in Australian cockpits, this was gold.

The mission

As you’ve picked up, there was no official organisation conducting the relay, just an ever-growing squad of women pilots, many of whom happen to be members of the Australian Women Pilots’ Association (AWPA), who were happy to throw their weight behind cancer research and have a huge amount of fun in the process.

Starting from Avalon, Victoria, on 2 March, at the end of this year’s air show, each pilot was to pass the commemorative baton on to the next female pilot as it progressed anti-clockwise around Australia, passing through Victoria, NSW, Queensland, NT, WA, SA, back into Victoria and down to Tasmania. Here’s where it was to arrive at its final destination, Launceston, on 22 April in time for the start of the AWPA annual conference.

As I pen these words, the relay is only a third of the way through, but the volume level of the mob is now going through the roof. Progress reports to date indicate all expectations have been exceeded tenfold. The baton is on schedule so far, but it’s a wonder. There have been unverified reports of baton wielders taking the treasured item on wildly off-course diversions to nail a decent airport coffee en route. Its close cousin is known in the industry as a hundred dollar hamburger. There’s also the Victorian leg, launched by Peta Denham-Harvey, which had to be divided into three or four take-offs and landings to accommodate the number of pilots wanting to fly – gotta love that. Suspect photographic evidence has also come to light of ground time being put to dubious use in devising new roles for the baton, including a Moet bottle stop, a tug-o-war prize and a novel throttle extension. I did say ground time.

Lunacy aside, each pilot has taken care of the logistics, and substantial costs, for her individual leg of the relay, in many cases handing the baton over to the next pilot whom she’s never met before. That’s about 30 new friendships made so far.

Relay welcomes Fly Navy

A thrilling inclusion in the relay was the Royal Australian Navy’s Fleet Air Arm, based at HMAS Albatross in Nowra, NSW. They went to extraordinary lengths to avail personnel and aircraft for the event, and to grant the necessary approvals required on base for our visiting civilian aircraft. 

Having flown the C182 down to Moruya on the NSW south coast to receive the baton off ACT pilot Jan Goodhew, who’d received it from Kreisha, it was the mission of me and great flying buddy, Catherine Fitzsimons, to fly it up to the military base at Nowra. With clearances earlier sorted, the hospitality given to us by the Navy was staggering. Commanding Officer HMAS Albatross, Captain Simon Bateman, was gracious in his welcome, surrounded as he was by a sea of females. It was great to see a dozen young girls from Nowra Anglican College amongst the crowd mingling with the Navy pilots and asking a hundred questions about an aviation career in the Defence force.

So the baton was safely handed over to four of the most capable pairs of hands in the business: Lieutenant Sally Malone, Qualified Helicopter Instructor at 723 Squadron, 816 Squadron’s LEUT Tammielee Moffatt, Lieutenant Commander Natalee Johnson and Lieutenant Natalie Davies. To say it was a privilege to meet these young women is a dire understatement.

Taking the opportunity to get to know one another over dinner that night, Sally, Catherine and I hardly came up for air;  lava flow in full working order. I was quietly shaking my head when Sal shared with us the challenges of overseas duty, like the night deck work, landing her Seahawk heli on a tiny target on the deck of the mother ship (an Anzac class helicopter frigate) that was pitching and rolling in the dark. (Lord, pass me the blood pressure pills. I’ll never complain about windy circuits at Camden again.) But here’s the thing, with GA being a world apart from Sally’s experience, she was equally inspired by Catherine’s account of her four-month adventure, flying her little C172 solo around Australia. Watch this space - maybe we could entice Sal out to the Windorah yabby races?

The following day was nothing short of awesome.  At the controls of an AS350BA Squirrel helicopter, Sally flew the next leg of the relay in company with an MRH-90 helicopter piloted by Tammielee and an S-70B-2 Seahawk from 816 Squadron. (I guess the Navy wanted to make sure they didn’t lose the baton.) The spectacle of these three impressive aircraft making their way down Sydney Harbour in such a show of support for women in aviation will be hard to forget.

“The FLYNAVY team were so excited to participate in the relay,” says Sally, “by flying up the beautiful south coast, over the Sydney Harbour Bridge and into Bankstown Helicopters. It was fantastic to see four out of the five Navy female pilots involved. The Fleet Air Arm also has seven female Aviation Warfare Officers and one female air crewman so it was important for us to promote the varied roles of women within Naval Aviation. It was a privilege to be able to bring together our female maintainers, engineers, writers, Ship's Warrant Officer and support staff at the arrival of the baton at HMAS Albatross and during the flight to Bankstown. Thank you for the opportunity of meeting some amazing women and sharing some incredible flying stories!”

And all I can say is if these women are an example of our Navy expertise, we’re in good hands.

Sunrise cruising

So, time for another baton change, another aircraft and another crew. Massive thanks must go to Bankstown Helicopters who donated the use of an R44 heli for helicopter pilots, Sandy Taylor and Joanna Murphy to ferry the baton up to Cessnock.

Female world champion balloon pilot, Nicola Scaife, took the prize for giving the baton its most cruisey leg, drifting over the gorgeous Hunter Valley at dawn. “Ballooning is completely weather dependent,” said Nicola, “and I was happy to get our flight away as there were strong winds forecast for later in the morning. We gathered early, an hour before sunrise, and had a beautiful 40min flight. Our top speed was nine knots and we travelled all of 1.5 nm! The highlight for me was meeting new friends and introducing them to a very different form of flying.”

Down to work

Plenty of the girls dodged strong winds or fading light to keep the plan on schedule; all had a Plan B up their sleeve and impromptu overnight stays took care of any no-go weather. Floatplane pilot, Judy Hodge’s return flight to Port Macquarie was a race against the wind. With a front on its way, she could see over her shoulder the telltale darker colour on the ocean surface some 5nm behind. So, abandoning plans to make a halfway stop for a radio interview, she pointed the nose for home base and had her beloved Cessna 182P out of the water and safely tied down in time to meet the next posse of pilots, Tam Augostin, Margie Sullivan, Leonie Mason and Cathy Hobson who all stayed the night and that’s about where I stop reporting.    

Since signing up for the relay, 18-year-old commercial pilot Yvette Gulliver had been frantically studying for her Diploma in Aviation instructor rating at Basair in Cessnock NSW. Yvette and her pax scored postcard views as she skimmed up past the Gold Coast beaches at 500 ft. “It was just an amazing experience meeting so many other women pilots,” she said, “hearing their stories, and getting to share this with my mum.” Starting to hear a theme here?

By mid-March that hard-working baton had done some serious miles in the air, and was making its way up the Queensland coast. It had already passed through the hands of over 20 pilots in Cessnas, Pipers, a float plane, hot air balloon, Robinson heli, the Navy Squirrel and a tiny Foxbat. The welcome mat had come out at airstrips wherever the girls landed, and local radio stations and press had jumped onboard to give the relay the exposure it deserved.

The connection with cancer is a familiar story for most of the women. Early champions in the fundraising race, the “Foxy Ladies” team of pilot Heather Haynes, and student pilot, Nathalie Gochel, flew Caboolture to Bundaberg in a Foxbat on International Women’s Day, 8 March.

“Our flight was challenging with low cloud and mist the whole way,” said Heather. “We had a support team of no fewer than four aircraft, all of whom donated their time, aircraft, fuel and services to the relay effort. The generosity and support of all the people we were in contact with is unsurmountable. In my 20 years of flying and at the age of 63, this would have to be the biggest highlight of my flying years.”

Flying kangaroo signs up

As the route was being put together, ex flight instructor and charter pilot, Margie Sullivan was telling me about Qantas’ involvement. It seems we had a gap in the relay up in north Queensland. Unlike the southern capitals which are comparatively teeming with women pilots (if you know where to look), in FNQ they’re a bit lighter on the ground.

So the jungle drums got going and next minute, Haidee Wong is all over this. Haidee is a Qantas First Officer based in Perth and arguably the reigning queen of any given lava flow. She put the word out to her female colleagues in FNQ and .. Bingo! She was inundated with offers from female captains and first officers based at QantasLink Cairns (which, happily, has one of the largest concentrations of female pilots in Australia) to fly the baton. Without a single roster change, they added the baton as a VIP guest on, at last count, seven QL flights out of Cairns, a sort of extended tropical safari for a good cause. Qantas Captain, Kristie Casey, got the ball rolling, giving it a seat on QF2306 Mackay-Townsville on 10th March, then she passed it to Bek Klukowski who tucked it into her nav bag for her early morning flight next day to Cairns.

From here, the baton was passed through the skilled and feminine hands of crews on QL flights to Weipa, Hamilton Island, Mt Isa, Horn Island, then throughout the Torres Straits with Christy Lee from local charter company, Westwing Aviation. Ever the tropical tourist, it was even to be making a short international diversion as Shelley Kent, the pilot of a PNG-bound service, offered to take the baton on her QL flight to Port Moresby.

So the flying kangaroo was on board, big time. Over in WA, Haidee and colleague Skye Mules, FO on the B737-800, were delighted to each be pre-allocated flights between Broome, Perth and Adelaide. WA pilots like Wendy Mann, Chief Pilot at Geraldton Air Charter, signed up to do various local legs as well. To raise awareness of the relay, Qantas agreed to an in-flight PA announcement telling passengers about the relay and the cancer fundraising. Each female flight crew, with baton in hand, was planning to farewell passengers and collect any donations as they disembarked.

Another unstoppable team member, AWPA NSW President, Tammy Augostin reflected on these past months: “I felt this relay has brought together the reality of what being a member of AWPA really means for me. The friendships, unity and support for each other truly shine through. I revelled in the opportunity of supporting other pilots and to also remember my dad who I lost to cancer 18 years ago today. He was a gorgeous man who never got to fly with me, so now I have a beautiful chapter to remember him by, this relay.” Tammy is herself a cancer survivor.

So there it is. Cleared to land a hundred times, amidst a thousand laughs and plenty of hugs, through grey skies and blue, our cherished baton has earned a rest. Let’s acknowledge the spirit of adventure that got us all signed up and may the baton be passed on for many years to come. To any teenage girl with a pulse, who may not have thought about a career in aviation, let me tell you, there’s a spare seat up here, way up the front, with your name on it.

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