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Little Jay Beats the Big Boys

How Jennifer Douglas’ Jabiru 160 won the Outback Air Race

If anyone had told me that my midlife crises would find me flying a tiny aircraft throughout Australia’s remotest outback skies, I would’ve said they were crazy.

But that’s exactly what I did this April, completing in the Sydney Flying Club (SFC) Angel Flight Air Race. I’m sure anyone who saw my tiny Jabiru 160, parked next to one of the team’s Cessna 182, would have thought we had a slim chance of winning. But win we did, with Gretta Kingston as navigator and myself Jen Douglas as pilot. It turns out ‘Little Jay’, as she’s affectionately known around my local aero club, was perfect for the challenge.

Despite the other five teams flying larger aircraft – including a Cessna 182 with autopilot, three Piper Archer’s, a full glass cockpit Piper TX and a Sling – Little Jay held her own, coming a very close second in every one of the five official legs, before sneaking in with a cumulative high point win. “The race is more about precision navigation and airwomanship than size and speed.” Miss Kingston said. Our main aim was to raise lifesaving funds for Angel Flight, but probably the other essential mission was to have fun, and that’s exactly what we did.

Little Jay, despite being a fraction of the size of the other competitors gave the big planes a run for their money.

The Journey Begins

Taking off from my home airport in Wentworth NSW, with Gretta hailing from Northern Tassie, we set off for Mungo Lodge on our first leg and my first ever air race.

It was a practice leg, and my first taste of the cryptic adventure to come, the only clues for this leg were “the women’s tee of the 18th hole of the Coomealla Golf course and where the runways meet.”

After studying Google Earth images of the Coomealla Golf Course, I found what was the most likely coordinates and used them as my outbound gate, with the inbound gate being the intersection of the Mungo Lodge runways.

It must have worked, as the tracking unit we had onboard provided the race organisers with our daily results and we were delighted to learn that we came in first place. Being a practice leg though, it didn’t count towards the final score.

The race legs were scored on precision navigation and our planned flight time between the outbound and inbound gates, that had to be submitted within 30 mins of departure.

Navigating Weather, Outback Thermals and Interpreting Clues

After finding the needle-in-a-haystack outbound and inbound gates from the cryptic clues, calculating Little Jay’s speed through the hot bumpy outback thermals was just one of the many factors entered into our navigation plan.

Gretta’s experience as a glider pilot spurred on my eagerness to use the thermals to make up time, which resulted in my favourite new skill; thermal wave surfing.

The race organisers found wonderful ways to trip us up, making the cryptic clues even harder to find precise locations, let alone flying precisely overhead the gates with crosswinds and outback heat turbulence to contend with.

Thankfully; if faced with becoming hopelessly lost, teams were able to buy additional clues with a donation to the winning team’s Angel Flight fund. As far as I know, nobody got too lost.

“We all helped each other with clues and then focused on perfecting our skills, having fun and learning from the awe-inspiring knowledge of all aviators in the race.” Miss Kingston said.

Friendships Among Kindred Spirits Raising Lifesaving Funds

The teams were made up of twelve pilots, three women and nine men, from a diverse range of aviation experience. From commercial, general and private pilots, to military, flight instructors and recreational pilots, all joined the race to raise awareness and lifesaving funds for Angel Flight.

We had such a great time with all the teams, and we made some lovely friendships.

So Many Outback Highlights

Despite so many memorable moments along the journey, from the First Nations peoples’ history of Mungo to the star lit skies of William Creek, or the big red sunsets of Birdsville. Not to forget the magnificent vistas of Lake Eyre.

Two moments stood out more than the others. The first was holding short while ‘giving way’ to cattle trucks when taxiing across the Oodnadatta track after landing at William Creek. The other was during an impromptu visit and delicious lunch at one of South Australia’s most remote northern cattle stations, Clifton Hill Station.

Little Jay Wins the Air Race

The race took us from Mungo Lodge to Broken Hill, Leigh Creek, William Creek, over Lake Eyre, to Birdsville and Tibooburra, before returning home via Packsaddle and Broken Hill. In total, we travelled 1,304nm.

Despite Jabirus getting a less that favourable wrap over the years, this ultralight aircraft didn’t miss a beat when put to the test. Other than using a bit more fuel than planned when surfing thermals, Little Jay was an absolute delight to fly. I look forward to our next adventure flying to Bathurst to collect our trophy.