Larry Jones soars above the clouds in gyroplanes, ultralights and microlights, and with flipancy the dad-joke tellers of this world comment that he flies lawnmowers.
The funny thing is, in the 1970s he really did pick up old lawmowers in the Trading Post and put the engines on hang gliders. It progressed to old VW engines.
Some claimed madness, others a trace of the spirit of aviators Wilbur and Orville Wright at the turn of the 19th century; epitomising that famous John Wayne 1942 movie line: … on a wing and a prayer.
Given that we will celebrate Wilbur’s 150th birthday on April 16 and a few weeks later Marion Mitchell Morrison’s (Wayne) 100th (of course, you knew that), it seems a good reason as any to marvel at those on the Fleurieu who love to fly.
And believe it, our Larry, 58, is special. He took this editor 2000ft up in a gyroplane, and others in his situation would not have kept a promise not to roll it upside down over Milang having taken off from Strathalbyn Airfield where he runs his learn-to-fly business, Adelaide Airsports.
Seriously, it has been a remarkable journey for Larry starting as a 16-year-old dare-devil jumping off cliffs at Aldinga on contraptions that confirmed Sir Isaac Newton’s third law of motion.
“By 1978-79 there were a few funny people like myself scattered around the country trying to put chainsaw and lawnmower engines on hang gliders,” Larry (pictured) said. “Things like that are not scary when you are a young teenager (he laughs).
“We were still foot launching (running) and it was hard. Eventually we discovered wheels and made little tricycle under-carriages.
“The first one in Australia was something we produced together in 1979. It had a Victa 160 lawnmower engine and a hand-carved wooden propeller. It got off the ground. Just.
“We were going all around the Fleurieu Peninsula, especially Aldinga and Sellicks where we’d ask the farmers to go off or out of their paddocks.
“Mum and dad probably weren’t that enthusiastic – to say the least – but they always encouraged me to follow my passion, and that’s what it has been ever since.
“I dropped out of school at 16 to pursue the flying. I was doing voluntary teaching for the hang gliding club, and eventually I decided to make it a business here at Strathalbyn in 1985. Most people thought it would never succeed, but I have just plodded along for 32 years.
“When I first moved in here at Strathalbyn Airfield it was just me, and all Cessnas, Pipers and other general aviation aircraft. They all thought it was a bit funny when I turned up with this little microlight. Slowly but surely we multiplied and now there are 35 of them permanently hanging here at Strathalbyn.”
The teaching part was successful in a special way – it was how Larry met his dear wife, Judy, and suddenly they were venturing on holidays all over Australia taking the ultralights. Flying became a huge part of her life too.
Sadly, Judy died five years ago of cancer, and now their daughter, Dakota, 21, loves the flying and with dad they have become a beautiful lifeline of strength for each other.
“It’s one of those things that when you lose somebody they come into mind at odd times,” Larry said. “Yeah, I think of her a lot when I am up there flying. Like a lot of things it is a reminder to live every day to the fullest.
“I guess that’s why people get into a microlight for the first time; they share a desire to do something special; they liove the dream. Others hold back and I guess they die wondering. I say just go for it.
“We get people out here who have worked their whole life and retired… they say; I’ve wanted to fly my whole life, but they’ve waited until they’re much older. That’s great, but they could have been doing it a lot earlier.
“These aircraft aren’t ridiculously expensive; you can own your own aircraft and fly. Australia is a big country and there isn’t a lot of controlled airspace; there is freedom.
“We can go as high as 10,000 feet outside of controlled airspace. It’s a long way up. Some single-seat microlights fly around 30 knots (about 55k/ph). Some are faster at 80-90 knots. A single-seat microlight costs about $17K, while a top-of-the-range may reach $80K. A good two-seater is $40K.”
But as much as flying in these magnificent machines is exhilarating, and they can be relatively cheap, a lot of people will still argue they are just a flying lawnmower and the risk factor is high.
Larry obviously defends the notion, claiming it is the human factor that makes it safe or dangerous. “It’s not the aircraft,” he stresses. “Flying a gyroplane or an ultralight is the same as driving a car; you can fly safely or you can fly dangerously.
“The gyros had a bad reputation in years gone by, but nearly every one of them was home-built with old Volkswagen engines. Nowadays, the aircraft and especially the engines are professionally designed, fully certified and registered. There are some of the early model gyros still flying around the place, but the new breed of gyro is quite a sophisticated aircraft.
“Learning to fly requires the same fitness level as required driving a motor vehicle. If you hold an Australian driver’s licence you can learn to fly. You can get a licence to fly at 15. You also need a minimum 20 hours of flying instruction to get a licence to fly this aircraft.
“A lot comes down to self-assessment. If you are, say in your 70s, there may be days when you don’t feel quite up to it. You have to be honest with yourself. It’s the same if you are a young lad who has been out partying all night; you don’t come here early and start flying.
“When I first started in the 70s it was a new sport and it had an extreme element to it, and that was the attraction for a lot of people. It was a bit wild.
“From that it grew into a well organised sport with rules and regulations, and importantly with good equipment. The days of people building gyros in their backyard have gone, and now the equipment is being designed and built by nautical engineers. It’s tested and proven which has taken it way from being an extreme sport that it was in the 70s.
“An accident can occur with anything. Part of my job as an instructor is to give those learning a good foundation to their flying. If they learn properly and have a good attitude, flying can be safer than driving a car. Human error accounts for 99 per cent of the accidents that have occurred.
“The biggest thing about flying a gyroplane or a microlight is that it’s fun. If you have a desire to fly you should try it. You can go to Aldinga and learn fly or just have a trial flight in an aerobatic aircraft. You can come out to Strath and try microlights and gyros. You can go to Goolwa. There is a wide variety of aircraft on this peninsula.
“If you’ve always wanted to fly you owe it to yourself and just try something.”
Larry spoke of the days he and Judy would pack up a tent and their sleeping bags and head off into the sunset. It remains a special part of his life.
He has flown to the Birdsville races and camped in the desert. Many years ago he flew with a group of microlight enthusiasts from Mascot in Sydney along the east coast to the tip of Cape York, camping on beaches along the way.
Without doubt, those wonderful moments will be revived next month when Larry and other members of the Southern Districts Flying Club, which is based at Strathalbyn, head south to Robe for a day or two, enjoy a special view of the Grampians, and come back through Bordertown, Tintinara and Wellington.
“It will be a week of fun flying… a mixture of aircraft and a mixture of people,” Larry said. It sure beats the hell out of pushing a lawnmower.
T: 0408 815 094 www.airsports.com.au