This felt so weird and so good at the same time. Sorry, I won't be tasting wine because, you see, I'm the pilot and, well, you know, eight hours from bottle to throttle and all that kind of things. Yes, small airplane, we flew in from Sydney. Beautiful day for flying indeed. My passengers wouldn't mind tasting the Semillon though. And we'll take a couple of bottles back with us, thank you very much. Yes, we walked from the airport. No, walking alongside the highway is not terribly pleasant.
That scene played out at a winery in the Hunter Valley on a beautiful early spring Sunday a couple of weeks ago. Susanne and Ingo had joined me as passengers and plane spotters on a day trip to the wine growing region north of Sydney. And they even brought lunch with them. You may remember Ingo from the $100 burger in Wollongong episode. With his better half around lunch was a lot healthier than the famous Aviator Burger.
We left Bankstown in Piper Archer VH-SFR and proceeded up the GA lane through Sydney's northern suburbs. Approaching Warnervale Ingo spotted a couple of ultralights about to cut across our route, so I made an early right turn to Norah Head lighthouse. We drew a couple of orbits at 1500ft. I could have flown lower orbits at 1000ft or even 500ft but since we didn't have life jackets with us I preferred to stay within safe gliding distance of the mainland.
We then tracked to Swansea, weaving our way around low dark cumulus clouds. Since we were below 3000ft we only had to remain clear of clouds, with no minimum distance from clouds required either vertically or horizontally. So this was all legal. Being legal does not however automatically imply being safe (that'd be too easy), so I kept my eyes out and steered our craft away from the fluffy stuff.
It's in situations like that that I realise how easy it would be to enter clouds inadvertently. I remember sitting at home earlier on reading reports about VFR flights into IMC and thinking "come on, how can you not realise you're about to enter a cloud?" Well, spend only five seconds with your head down in the cockpit looking up a frequency in the ERSA, finding a landmark on the map or twidling the GPS buttons and you've already covered 300m. In the photo above, five seconds would have put me rather close to that big opaque flying collection of water droplets.
Approaching Newcastle we tracked inland and the scenery changed quickly from waves, rocks and beaches to hills, pastures and trees. The skyscape also changed to more friendly-looking fair weather cumulus clouds.
As we were only a couple of miles away from Cessnock aerodrome a Twin Comanche overtook us on our right at the same level The manoeuvre was definitely safe but the pilot lost karma points on this one. A radio call on the CTAF frequency would have been a nice display of airmanship. I followed him to the dead side and we both joined crosswind for a left-hand circuit to runway 17.
We taxied and parked our little Archer III not too far from a hangar full of warbirds available for joyrides, hoping that the Piper would learn a trick or two over lunchtime. We took a very informative tour of the hangar, the best part of course being sitting in the cockpit of an L-39 Albatros, a T-28 Trojan and an Avenger. Photos and details in a future post if I don't forget.
After lunch, which was delicious but way too healthy for an aviation-themed day out, we walked to the Hunter Valley visitor center, very conveniently located a few hundred meters from the aerodrome, and from there to the De Bortoli winery. Not that we had ever heard about it before, but it happened to be within walking distance from the airport. As can be seen in the photo below, patches of wineyards can be found right up to the airport fence, in-between the runway and the highway so to speak.
Wine connoisseurs would certainly tell you that this very unique terroir, right on the extended centerline of runway 35, is responsible for the wine's unique bouquet, a delicate balance of wild strawberries, citrus fruits, fumes of unleaded mogas from the road and unburned avgas sprinkled by 152s doing circuits with the mixture on full rich.
People who already shared a bottle or two with me know that one of my pet peeves is the overly lyrical labels found on the back of rather ordinary wines. I like to think good wine sells itself. And don't get me started on wines bottles featuring a dozen gold medals from obscure competitions held in unknown places.
After replacing burnt aviation fuel in the tanks with bottles of wine in the baggage compartment, we took off again and headed further west up the Hunter Valley. From Cessnock we tracked to the Singleton NDB to make sure we didn't infringe on the Dochra restricted area and then west to Lake Liddell and back the same way.
It's difficult to tell vineyards from other crops from altitude, but there is one thing that cannot be mistaken for anything else in this part of the world: open-sky mines.
We flew back via Cessnock, Warnervale, Calga NDB and Brooklyn Bridge. Good thing I made a number of inbound calls before overflying Cessnock since another aircraft on the frequency was about to drop skydivers over the area. He waited for me to report overhead Cessnock before dropping what pilots affectionately refer to as meat bombs.
The trip back to Bankstown was uneventful, which is good, except for a very, very ordinary landing with some crosswind which saw me float and drift way too far from the centreline.
The great thing with flying with passengers, in addition to making the whole day more enjoyable, eating a healthy lunch and sharing costs, is that they take videos during take-offs and landings. I tried to compress three hours of flying into about 2 minutes of video, result below.
We finished the day at home with a beautiful coq au vin that Nina had prepared while we were away, which of course we washed down with one of the bottles that had survived my landing at Bankstown. Thinking about it, we could call this type of flying trip the $100 wine bottle.