As the tourist season cranked up earlier this year, it was six to two in favour of female pilots out at William Creek. Deliberate and premeditated hiring, or pure coincidence? Shelley Ross drops in to Kidman country for a chat with the girls.
There’s something in the air at William Creek, and it’s not testosterone.
Trevor Wright raises some dust as he strides over to the bowser where we’ve just landed to refuel.
“What do you think about this, Shelley?” He’s pretty excited. “We’ve got just about an all-girl crew up here this year! What about that?”
So it seems. Everywhere we look, young energetic professional looking females. A very enthusiastic and welcoming Katrina Gillam on refuelling duty, Talia (Tay) Sheppard and Heather Ford taking off on scenics with a full load of passengers each, new recruit Jane Wright sorting out the paperwork up in the office, and (three-year veteran of William Creek, and she’s still sane) pilot Alison Shaw pouring the coffee and happy to give Australian Flying her slant on the female dominated roster board.
“Yeah, it’s going to be an interesting season, that’s for sure,” laughs Alison. “We’ve got six girls and two guys flying this year. Most of the pilots have come back from last year so we know each other already and we all get on great together. It’s so good to see all the girls who were here last year back again.”
An article in the South Australian Advertiser ran a gorgeous photo of the girls, all in their 20s, at the height of the busy season and dubbed them the, ‘Flying Angels of the Outback’.
“Well, aren’t we being paid out big time by the boys for that one,” groans Tay. “And out at the mine where we’ve got to know a lot of the workers, they’re having a field day with it – threatening to book extra flights with us just to fly with an Angel ... you get the picture.” She’s shaking her head and rolling the eyes, but unable to keep the grin off her face.
What’s not to love?
When Australian Flying called in at the beginning of the season, Jane Wright had been out here three weeks, the rookie of the team. When considering her job prospects, getting out of the city and into the outback at William Creek was certainly an attraction. With her brand new Commercial Licence in hand from Point Cook, Jane pursued Trevor Wright for a job and didn’t have to wait too long for the request to come on up the next day. Now she’s here, she can’t wait to be checked to line initially on the C172 and C182 by Chief Pilot Sam Merlo.
“Then I’ll be out there!” she says, clearly chomping at the bit.
“Trevor wanted to rehire as many pilots from last year as possible, as they’ve already been checked to line up here,” Alison says. “But Sam is not too accessible living in Tasmania, so Jane, for example, has to be satisfied with office duties until he comes up.” [By the time we’ve gone to press, Jane is an old hand at flying scenics for Wrightsair.]
“A couple of the girls who are up here this season helping us out have come from Freycinet Air down in Tasmania (who own our AOC),” Alison continues. “Mind you, there were certainly male pilots who we could have brought up from down there as well, but these girls were recommended over the other pilots. What can I say? You’ve heard the rumour, females make better pilots. And apparently we look after the aircraft better. Who are we to argue?”
Alison laughs and warms to her subject: “But seriously, what’s not to love about this job? The work up here is so good. If William Creek is your first commercial job in aviation, you’ve scored well. The land is so flat, the weather is pretty good for the most part and the people are fantastic.
“It’s really the people that make this place – the station people, everyone up at the pub, the regulars who fly through. And every place I fly to now, there’s always someone at the other end I know. The difference out here though, is that even if they’ve only seen you the day before, they’re all so happy and excited to see you. You’ve gotta love that.”
All in a day’s work
More so than in years gone by, it seems there’s plenty of work to go around this season. The significance and spectacle of water in Lake Eyre, a traditionally dry salt lake, has hit a chord with people from around the country who’ve flocked to the area in droves for a bird’s eye view of the lake and associated birdlife.
But the scenics are only a portion of the jobs that Wrightsair hands out to its pilots; mining runs and stock spotting for the stations are other regulars on the job sheet. The mining runs involve picking up locals and flying them to and from work at the Prominent Hill Mine.
“We fly them about once a week mainly from Oodnadatta and Coober Pedy to the mine and back home again,” says Alison. “We’ve also just picked up a new contract flying people from APY Lands, the aboriginal community up in the north of South Australia, to the same mine and bringing them home again. Those runs have hours restrictions so our pilots have to have a minimum number of 1200 hours before we’re assigned to those jobs. It’s a stipulation of the mine’s management, which isn’t an unusual request. Most mines prefer to have their employees flown in twin aircraft and, as Wrightsair doesn’t have twins, they were happy to compromise with just the hour restriction for the pilots.”
Stock spotting for the Kidman stations and other properties further down towards the south adds a different element to the job. William Creek is situated in the middle of the 24,000 sq km Anna Creek Station and is fairly close to Macumba, another Kidman station nearer to Oodnadatta, for whom they also do some work.
“They’ve got their people on the ground, and it’s our job to spot the cattle they’re trying to muster and help them locate them,” Alison explains. “So we’ll just relay to the ground crew which way to track to pick up any strays, and tell them when to stop! We’re generally flying at around 500 feet to do the spotting effectively, usually in one of the C172s. It’s good practice in steep turns!
“But we do pretty much anything and everything as far as general charter work goes. We can usually look after most enquiries that come in – we just ask them what they want done and we’ll do it. Most of our planes are based here, but there’s also a Cessna 207 at Maree where another of our team, Georgina Abraham, is flying with us for her second year.”
Finding the right mix
Wrightsair owner Trevor Wright is an astute media man. Any article written these days about Lake Eyre will almost certainly mention his charter company. Trevor lives on the phone to the media, most of whom he knows well, answering queries, telling them what’s going on around William Creek. He seems to always have people ringing him wanting to know something or other and is more than happy to help them out if he has the time. Forward bookings this season indicated the effort had paid off.
Trevor likes his new pilots to have minimum 250 hours before he hires them. Because of the remote location, there aren’t a lot of high hour pilots who are prepared to come out here; they can get work closer to a big city. Having said that, Alison, who looks after staff recruiting, says they received a resume from one fellow at the beginning of this year with 18,000+ hours, an ex-airline Captain who was just after a lifestyle change. But most resumes are from pilots with about 200 hours, and occasionally with twin work up to 800-1000 hours.
But until the busy part of the season really kicks in, they can’t hire new pilots; a message most of the hopefuls are fully aware of from regular phone calls to the office. And the lifestyle is not for everyone; it takes a certain style of person to make the most out of a remote posting like this one. A veteran pilot and charter operator, Trevor has certainly learnt from experience to hire pilots with some life experience – it’s not just all about the flying.
A far cry from the pioneering days of aviation where women pilots were virtually unheard of, the girls find there are virtually no issues with tourists’ reaction to their occupying the left-hand seat. In fact, their youthful energy and enthusiasm have been a hit with the tourists, particularly the female passengers who are always delighted to have a lady pilot up the front. Alison has had a couple of dubious reactions from stone-age men: “To the stage where I’ve had to tell them they’re more than welcome to stay on the ground if they like,” she adds wryly, “but they’re pretty rare.”
As far as weather goes, William Creek gets both extremes – it can get freezing in the winter and boiling in the summer. Most of the locals remember the last two weeks of the season last year were 47 degrees, but it’s a dry heat so infinitely more bearable than coastal humidity.
“The only issue we have out here is crosswinds, and they can be very cold,” Alison explains. “We get strong southerlies, particularly in spring. Winter is supposed to be calm but last year the spring winds came early so that made life interesting.
“If you come from a training regime that hasn’t allowed you up in anything more than a 10kt crosswind, you’re sure going to know you’re alive when you come out here. The windsock is often pointing straight out across the runway; it tends to get your attention pretty quick.”
Everyone gets one day off a week, but William Creek isn’t exactly known for its metropolitan sophistication, so there aren’t many places the seasonal workers can escape to. Any time off is therefore usually spent in the pub, not necessarily drinking I’m quickly assured, but just chilling out in what is arguably one of Australia’s most visited and iconic watering holes in the outback. But nothing is set in concrete out here; if requested, extra time off can be organised, particularly when bookings are slow.
The workload of course depends a lot on the weather. If it rains around here, which isn’t often, hardly anybody comes through. But William Creek seems to get under the skin of people who spend any time out here.
“There’s just something about the place,” reflects Jane. “It’s just really funny, really odd. And the weird thing is that you don’t seem to get bored, even though there’s only a few of us here. There’s always something to do, always something going on that’s highly amusing.”
The Wrightsair “home” has a handy address bang on the Oodnadatta Track, a minute’s walk from the strip and maybe three minutes from the pub. The pilots have a private room each, and from what we hear, all their mothers can rest easy in the certainty that they’re not left to starve. “At the beginning of the season when things are quieter, we’ll all share the cooking,” says Alison. [All mothers reading this are hereby excused from just fainting. What is it with these kids? How come they only figure out how to feed themselves after they leave home?]
“But when it gets busy there’s a full-time chef that comes out to do all the cooking. We had Phil last year; he was fantastic. Most of the season you don’t get time for a decent lunch break so it’s great to just run in and grab something he’s already made for us. Dinner’s ready and served at 6:30 on the table and you’re in trouble if you’re not there. But the servings are massive. You beg Phil to halve the amount but still every night, your whole plate is piled high. I’m dying to buy a mini plate so he can’t give me so much! No, seriously, we get looked after really well.”
It seems the boss is pretty popular too. When I asked the question around the troops, the various descriptions of Trevor Wright were nothing if not consistent.
“Trev? God, where do you start trying to describe him? He’s a
“The most random person you’ll ever come across.”
“Always has about 10 million things going through his mind at the one time, and he’ll try to get them all out at once.”
“I’ve got a photo of him – he’s doing the washing-up with a bow and arrow on his back. He was actually shooting it the other day.”
“This place would not be the same without him.”
Never say never?
This is Alison Shaw’s third year working at this isolated outpost in the South Australian outback. She usually comes out for six months of the year and then heads home to Brisbane for the summer. But my bet is she’d make for pretty lousy company waiting for those final weeks to tick by before returning to this place she loves.
“This was my first commercial job, and the first year I worked here (there were only two of us pilots here then) was going to be my first and last,” she says. “Then last year was, now this year is going to be my last year, so maybe next year will be my last year! Who knows? It’s brilliant fun; an awesome first job to have.
“A lot of my friends say, ‘It’s so isolated out there – I don’t know how you do it’. I say, I don’t know how you don’t do it. It’s a life experience like you could not get anywhere else.”
The beating heart of William Creek
Not hankering for a job at William Creek? Fair enough, why not plan to drop in anyway? You’ll probably need some fuel by the time you get here; you might even need a bed. It’s all here, and delivered with a good dose of that outback hospitality the bush is famous for. Book early and you may even score one of their new air-conditioned rooms.
Whether you’re headed up to the Birdsville Races or out to see the sun go down over Uluru, it’s worth a small diversion. Once you get here, one of the team at Wrightsair will gladly give you any help needed, whether it be the latest weather, suggestions for local scenics or what’s good to order for lunch at the pub. The hundred yard walk from the strip to the pub is pretty well mandatory if you want to tick off the legendary William Creek Hotel from the wish list, and that also means you’ve walked the Oodnadatta Track.
Originally built to service the old Ghan railway line, the timber and corrugated iron structure dates back to 1887. Since then, thousands of visitors crossing our outback over the years have left the place soaking in a colourful history which now translates into sheer fun once inside the doors. Publicans Mim Ward and Bruce Ross have worked hard to please travel-weary visitors with a remarkably good menu, decent coffee and a unique and quirky atmosphere that’s worth crossing the miles for.
Location: Approximately 40nm west of Lake Eyre, and 85nm east of Coober Pedy.
YWMC Runway: 11/29, natural surface. Further details in ERSA. Ring Wrightsair for strip condition.
Ph: (08) 8670 7962 or (08) 8670 7880
William Creek Hotel:
Ph: 08 8670.7880
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