First thing was to determine where, in fact, we were going to go. I've never been to Australia, and my knowledge of Australian geography was limited to knowing that most of the cities are on the coast. I could point to Sydney, Adelaide and Perth on a map, but that was about it.
The obvious solution was to find an airplane for rent and figure out an itinerary. This was a bit of a challenge for a couple of reasons. First, I still didn't know much about the Outback and how to fly there, nor did I know much about what's interesting to see. That made flight and trip planning sort of hit or miss. While trip planning can miss, flight planning (in my opinion) really cannot. I knew a few other facts about Australia - namely that it's incredibly inhospitable in the interior, on top of which most things that live there are lethal to humans. I wasn't enamored with the idea of blindly striking out into the unknown.
Fortunately, my travel partner - the original friend who had promised to follow through with me if I did this - is an Australian native. Unfortunately, he too agreed that a homebody USian doing this planning was a Bad Idea(tm).
We shook our family and friends' trees, to see if we could connect with anyone who might be willing to loan us an airplane. This wasn't successful (not that I really expected it to be). We found a family friend who runs a flight school a bit west of Sydney - hooray! - but they only fly Light Sport Aircraft (awww.) This wasn't tenable - as can be seen in the prior post, I'm not a lightweight. Light Sport aircraft have a maximum takeoff weight of 1,300 pounds. I weighed (at the time) around 345 lbs. He weighs around 180. Avgas is approximately 6 lbs/gallon. There was no way we were going to get into a LSA. ON top of that, LSAs tend to be lightly equipped and cramped for someone my size - not what you want to take on a long distance trip.
While I was idly searching the web for 'air safari' in Australia, I hit upon a possible solution. A company called Stawell Aviation Services advertised a tour of Australia by light aircraft! They had several options for their tours - but one in particular looked just the ticket, the Kimberly-Broome tour. That left Stawell (near Melbourne) and followed a big loop north and west before returning via Alice Springs. It was a two week trip. And (best of all) they flew Cessna 172s - the same airplane I trained in! Even better, they advertised that if you were a licensed Pilot with sufficient hours, you could rent one of their aircraft for a fly-yourself, following along in convoy!
Elated, I got in touch. It turned out there were several problems with this plan. First and foremost, even in a C172, my pax and I and enough baggage and gear for two or three weeks really pushed the edge of the airplane's capacity. In fact, it was a toss-up if we'd be able to fill the tanks - and the 172 only has a range of around 350 nautical miles, leaving little room for error. The Outback, on the other hand, has ample room, which can lead to error - and airports aren't nearly as common as here in the States.
Furthermore, it turned out that their insurance policy limited any single seat occupant in one of their airplanes to 250 lbs. That was a dealbreaker. Although I had trained in a C172, and with an instructor could (and did) fit within the weight-and-balance limitations of the airplane, it was just too far outside their limits. Losing 100 lbs didn't really seem to be an option. Stawell Aviation was apologetic, and reminded me that if I could find an appropriate airplane to rent, I was welcome to 'tag along' with the tour.
Although unhappy that the easy option wasn't available, I thought about it. That, in fact, sounded like the best idea so far. Rather than having to worry about planning the logistics for a two-week Outback trip from the other side of the planet, I could let Stawell - who did this regularly - do it for us. They would make all lodging, meals, transportation and sightseeing reservations, as well as arrange for fuel for the aircraft. That's not a small thing, given how far into the wasteland most of the stops would be! In addition, instead of soloing on a wing and a prayer in an unfamiliar country, I could fly in the company of professional pilots who had made the trip several times.
I redoubled my efforts to find an airplane. Most of the general aviation aircraft for hire in Australia seem to belong to flying clubs, which didn't help. Not only would I be unable to join one, most clubs aren't okay with one person absconding with an airplane for two weeks. And again, very few places had aircraft larger than light sports for hire (at least, piston singles, which I'm licensed to fly).
There were still at least two serious gotchas. First, as I'd realized, the Cessna 172 - while larger and more capable than Light Sport airplanes - is still probably too light for the mission.
And, second, there loomed a bigger problem. I have a U.S. Private Pilot's License. But I wanted to fly in Australia.
On first glance, it seems like this wouldn't be a problem. After all, airline pilots fly in other countries all the time. And Australia and the U.S. are both members of the ICAO (International Civil Aviation Organization), which coordinates things like this sort of reciprocity. But as always, there's a catch. While an ICAO member nation pilot can fly an aircraft into and around another country with their home license, this is only true if the aircraft they're flying is registered in their home nation. So unless I wanted to find a way to fly a single-engine Cessna almost literally halfway around the world, that wasn't an option - even if I could find someone fool enough to rent it to me. And given that the cruise speed of a C182 is around 130 kts, it'd take a heck of a time to get there!
So. I dove into (more internet) research.
And finally, something broke my way. If a foreign pilot wants to vacation in the US and fly, as far as I can tell they're pretty much stuck having to hire a U.S. flight instructor to fly with them at all times (they can't act as Pilot in Command, so can't fly solo) *or* they have to exchange their foreign ICAO license for a U.S. license. This can only be done if they move here. But Australia is much friendlier to foreign pilots! It turns out that there is an Australian Government process for doing exactly this.
That doesn't, however, mean that it's easy.
Next: The Plane