Pilot Profiles



There’s something about drumming that applies to flying, or so I discovered when I met Jeff “J.J.” Harris, CFI and CEO of White Star Aviation, a new Flight Training Academy based out of Ballina in Northern New South Wales.

While we haven’t met, an extended phone conversation from locked down Victoria to sunny Ballina revealed a genial guy with a passion for flying, a passion that began its journey on numerous trips across the Pacific to the US. That was back when he was a drummer with a few Australian bands you may well have heard of, like Gangajang, the Divinyls, 1927 and Bang the Drum.

Of all the stories he told me, the one that sticks out is of being asked to play a pub gig in Mildura, an out of the blue invitation after a fun gig one night, supporting Fleetwood Mac, in Brisbane. The Bang the Drum boys were up for this – why not? Full pay, board and travel were covered – so off they headed. Quite the drive as you can imagine, to arrive at a blacked out, closed, seemingly empty – hotel. On entering they found the owner and a stage set up ready to go, and no one there except him. The shocked band wondered what the hell was going on. Seems the owner had seen them play the Brisbane gig. “I think you guys are going to be one of the biggest acts in the world. I want to be able to say you played at my pub!”.

Hearing J.J. talk of this other life, playing in stadium gigs alongside Fleetwood Mac and Aerosmith had me wondering why he’d ever leave it, but as I came to understand him…I came to understand. Back in the olden days (if you can call the olden days 20 years ago) you could, when you were lucky, go up to the cockpit of an airliner to take in the view, and to meet the pilots. Usually reserved for little boys and girls – as happened to me once – but also for travelling rock band members, particularly if they are a drummer, and the pilot is interested in that rhythmic art.

The pilot in question was Cliff Bedser, and through a mutual interest in drumming, came a ‘you teach me the drums – and I’ll teach you to fly’ conversation. How it actually transpired – I’m sure it was entirely above board as from what I can gather of J.J. there is no other way – well, I’m not quite sure. But from those first exchanges on flights to LA grew a passion that saw much of what was earned from music gigs going towards flight lessons that progressed over ten years towards a commercial licence. This journey, as anyone knows, is not an easy one. It has an intense academic component. Beyond the practical flying there is a lot of bookwork.

Jumping back nearly 25 years to J.J.’s start in the rock industry might help with how he managed this. At just 16 years old and still in year 10, he backed himself to leave school, heading to Sydney to live under a bush in a park, in the hope of securing an audition with a band and seeing out some dreams. He followed his heart and found himself on a jet to LA a week later. His main goal was to be good. He loved recording with the feedback of hearing himself play. He acted on that feedback, accepting his own self-critical nature, and became very good indeed.

His 25-year rock career was launched, its bookend – a sliding door moment when Mick Fleetwood offered to take him under his wing and help him to fly into the BIG rock world. But J.J.’s heart, by then, was in the sky. The heart of the story is linked by these two events. J.J.’s self-belief, in eschewing school to follow a dream, and backing a dream again when he realised that the rock lifestyle was not for him forever but flying was a way to live a life he wanted. To see that out he had to, again, become very good indeed.

In the background was the love of his life, Tracey, who’d been with him for almost as long (now 30 years). The wife of the travelling rock and roller who wasn’t really, but a rock and roller that could read his life ahead, knew what he wanted, and had the ability in his 30s to put his head down and do the hard yards, become a commercial pilot and a flying instructor. He hadn’t finished year ten, but he knew that “you can become anything you want”.

Over the past 10 years JJ has held a number of positions with both Charter companies and Flight Schools around Australia and a little over three years ago he decided it was time to bring some fun back into flying with the formation of White Star Aviation. All that has gone before is a preamble to this new adventure in JJ’s life. With Nathan James as Head of Operations and Flight Examiner and Mike Long as Chief Engineer, this unique management team has built a thriving operation covering aircraft maintenance, sales and training through to commercial license, Instrument and Instructor Ratings, using both practical flight training in the air, and simulator training on the full-motion CKAS MotionSim1 Flight Training Device. This platform offers students both analogue and G1000 instrumentation on single and multi-engine aircraft, which provides students with a full flight trainer/aircraft combination for basic training through to Multi Instrument Rating.

Our conversation around the simulator stemmed from a conversation I’d had about five months back with Flight Lt Aimee Heal of the RAAF Roulettes. Her journey to flying at that level at just 30 began with an enchantment with flying as a child, and a dogged desire to get into the air professionally. Her Air Force journey was naturally honed within that elevated learning environment, but the core remained the same. High level instruction at a theoretical level, great simulator experience and getting into the air actively right from the beginning. The mix seems to be the key, especially if flying as a career is in your sights.

I mentioned my own meagre experiences in a cockpit, with the confusion and unfamiliarity of this new operating space. JJ talked about how learning to fly needs to be fun, that there needs to be a sense of humour about it as a relaxed mindset encourages learning. It was during this part of our conversation that we made the connection to JJ’s drumming, and flying. The controls operate around a three-dimensional space, with stick and foot controls respectively making sense of the up, down and around that it is to work with your head in the clouds, literally. A certain ambidexterity is developed, but it helps to be hardwired with it, when you’re a drummer.

J.J. also spoke of the way aircraft have improved over the years, and the change in focus from aircraft reliability (now almost a given) to flight training, the recognition of threat, and error management. Listening to J.J., and knowing his own very idiosyncratic flying journey, told me there are many ways to skin a cat when it comes to getting into the air. You don’t have to begin as a child. Nor do you need to feel daunted if a life changing career shift to flying is on your bucket list. I know I hark back to the wrong musical era in saying you can go from Shake, Rattle and Roll, to Yaw, Pitch and Roll, and still make a beautiful life, but I think you get my drift.