I have lived an exciting and varied life so far. I was born in Dublin and completed my secondary education there, although I lived with my parents and my sister in a flat close to the sea in a district on the south side of Dublin Bay. Predictably my childhood interest was sea fishing and it was during my bait digging sessions that I became fascinated with the sea birds as they soared effortlessly along the local pier.
I was somewhat of a loner but I did have a friend who decided to join the Royal Air Force (RAF) as an Engineering Apprentice. The seeds of desire to become a pilot had been sown within me by this stage even though I had no connection with flying whatsoever. I read the literature that my friend had which stated that it was possible to become commissioned at the end of the three year training, that being a prerequisite to the commencement of flying training.
I had lived a happy family life and I had many good memories of Ireland, not least being the sea fishing and the great holidays spent on my mother’s family farm in County Wicklow some fifty miles south of Dublin. The farm work didn’t appeal too much but I caught a lot of trout and shot a lot of rabbits! I can still remember the distinctive smell of my uncle’s well-oiled .22 rifle. Ireland is a beautiful country with gently rolling hills and lush intense green fields. My parents never had much money but that didn’t seem to matter and I managed to gain a scholarship into The High School in Dublin which assisted with my secondary education costs. I had seven uncles and one aunt on my father’s side spread around the area to the south of Dublin and family get-togethers tended to be happy if noisy affairs.
I decided to take a giant step into the unknown by joining the RAF in 1962 at the tender age of sixteen. My uncle accompanied me up to the recruiting office in Belfast, the return flights confirming my desire to become a pilot. On commencing my three year apprenticeship to become an Electrical Fitter (Air) I discovered that only one or two apprentices would typically be selected for commissioning; as I was not really a technically minded person, it was clear that I was not going to be one of them! I took up aero-modelling but then I heard about the availability of gliding at a nearby RAF base. I gave it a try and even though the flight was short I was hooked! I continued gliding through my apprenticeship which somehow resulted in my graduating as an electrical engineer. After two and a half years on an RAF base in the south-west of England I was successful in being selected for officer and pilot training.
Initial, basic, advanced and tactical/weapons training took place on a variety of aircraft types, namely Chipmunk, Jet Provost and Hunter. On completion of the tactical/weapons training I was selected to be converted onto the Phantom, joining my first operational squadron in 1971 in the ground attack role. I loved low level flying and weapons delivery but the specialist role of the squadron was night ground attack which raised the level of challenge to a whole new level!
My second tour of duty was on an air defence squadron and halfway through the tour the squadron moved to Scotland. Although I had loved ground attack, air defence proved to be just as challenging and rewarding. A common feature of both roles was air to air refuelling and it was exciting to be scrambled to intercept Russian long range aircraft near Iceland. In 1977 I was promoted to Squadron Leader and posted to the sister Phantom squadron on the same base. During the two tours of duty I got to fire live Sidewinder and Skyflash missiles as well as regular air to air gunnery. My final tour in the RAF was in northern Germany coordinating and debriefing tactical training missions involving eighteen aircraft, being a mix of different nationality ground attack and air defence aircraft. In 1983 I exercised my option to leave the RAF at the age of thirty eight, mainly for family reasons. On leaving the RAF I was fortunate to be accepted into Cathay Pacific Airways in Hong Kong to fly B747s.
I continued gliding during my years with the RAF with the exception of the basic flying training year. I became an instructor in the late sixties and flew in my first competition in 1970 which I was thrilled to win. I then progressed on to Nationals level competitions, winning my first Nationals in 1974. My results record was good enough to get me into the British Team for the World Gliding Championships in Finland in 1976 and I managed to win the Open Class. I successfully defended my title in the following two World Championships in France 1978 and Germany 1981 becoming the first person to win three successive World Championships titles. I had always been a competitive person and I believe a hunger for victory is an essential part of the recipe for competitive success.
I was honoured to receive a number of awards during the late seventies, the main ones being the MBE, the Royal Aero Club Gold Medal, the Britannia Trophy, the Air League’s Founders’ Medal and the Lilienthal Medal (gliding’s highest international award).
In 1977 I was invited to take part in a special gliding event, the Trans-American Smirnoff Derby. There were only five pilots taking part and it was a tremendous experience to fly over different terrain each day. In 1978 I had the honour of taking Prince Charles up for his first and only flights in a glider. That was followed by my receiving an invitation to a small lunch party with The Queen and Prince Philip at Buckingham Palace. I flew in two more World Championships, in the US in 1983 and finally in Australia in 1987. I did not do well in either event as I was out of the swim of regular cross country and competition flying.
Competition flying apart, I love gliding for its own sake. Powered flying can be both exciting and satisfying but gliding has a special appeal. There is the draw of being one with the forces of nature. There is the challenge of utilising sun generated thermals over a full day to fly distances of up to one thousand kilometres and even further. There is the peace of gliding and the special thrill of sharing thermals with large birds of prey. Given the hustle and bustle of modern living, to experience peace and to get in touch with our inner selves are attractive options.
To go from the relative freedom of flying Phantoms to the structured and highly regulated world of airline flying in B747s constituted a significant challenge. It was a privilege to fly the 747 around much of the world as it was a wonderful aircraft for the job and had superb handling qualities for an aircraft of its size. I was based in Hong Kong for fifteen years flying 747s for Cathay Pacific and flying in and out of the famous Kai Tak airport presented special challenges. In spite of it only having one runway, Air Traffic Control did a magnificent job over the years in optimising the flow of arriving and departing traffic.
During my early years with Cathay Pacific I flew mainly long haul routes to London, Frankfurt and Vancouver. With the arrival of the B747-400, which was optimised for long haul flying, the “Classic” 747 was put on regional routes. Although I went to work more often my body thanked me for the change! Long haul flying presented two physical challenges; firstly the demands of the time in the air which could be in excess of thirteen hours westbound, and secondly the not insignificant effect of jetlag on arrival.
Hong Kong was an amazing place to live in. When I was there the population was between six and seven million, approximately ninety per cent being Cantonese with the remainder being a mix of almost every other nationality on earth! Hong Kong was a popular tourist destination, particularly in winter, and it wasn’t necessary to learn Cantonese as English was widely understood. The main attractions of Hong Kong were the excellent shopping and the wide variety of different eating styles. The main negative aspects of living in Hong Kong were the climate with its very high humidity over many months of the year and the poor air quality which worsened over the years as more factories were established in southern China. Negative aspects apart there was a buzz and an excitement about Hong Kong that wasn’t found in many other global cities.
A personal downside to living in Hong Kong was that there was no gliding there, the weather, controlled airspace and unsuitable terrain all conspiring against it. I did manage to stay in touch with gliding during my annual leave, with one week in the UK and one week in Australia. Although my annual gliding hours had diminished, my desire to fly had not and I gave a lot of thought to my retirement plans. Maren and I agreed that we would retire to Australia and I had a vision of running advanced coaching gliding courses for experienced junior pilots from both the UK and Australia. A suitable small farm was identified in Queensland and purchased in 1996.
Maren and I left Hong Kong in 1999 and we set about getting a new house, a hangar and an “airfield” constructed in quick order. The first gliding course took place the next year and the courses ran for ten years, coaching pilots from Australia, UK, USA, Austria and South Africa. Our nearest town is Dalby, some twenty minutes drive away, and the locals have been tremendously welcoming from the beginning. The area we live in is called the Darling Downs and it offers good gliding conditions for much of the year.
Maren and I are actively involved in a small local church where we are Elders or church leaders. Maren has been a strong Christian from being a teenager. I had always believed in God but my life was transformed in 1993 when He touched me powerfully and I have never been the same since. I believe that life is fundamentally about having a personal relationship with Jesus who died for each one of us and who loves each one of us more than we can imagine. Having faith in Jesus gives me the certainty of spending eternity with Him when I die.
A recent development has been Maren and I becoming members of the Queensland State Executive of a new political party. We’re excited about this and we’re looking forward to seeing the party make a big impact in the Federal elections in 2013.
Finally, Maren and I have two children; our eldest, Sonja, studying in Australia with a view to taking up residency in the country, and Brian who is married to Diana and living in Germany with their three children.