The year was 1980, Margaret Sullivan held a commercial pilots licence, a grade two instructor rating, and had a dream to fly in the outback.
‘I was instructing at Albion Park in NSW, when I received a phone call from the owner of Chartair in Alice Springs, he said I had been recommended to him, as he needed a pilot for charter who was also an instructor. He need someone to go out to stations, instruct people to fly, do the mail runs and charter work out to remote communities.’
What did you find when you got to Alice Springs, here you are a young, female pilot in one of the most remote locations in Australia, surrounded by all male pilots. How was that for you?
‘The lucky thing was Christine Davy MBE lived in Alice Springs, she was a senior pilot for Connellan Airways, based there. Christine offered to take me in and I was able to stay with her for a few months until I got my own accommodation. She was a busy lady but she taught me to cook, there were three of us staying in the house, it was always fun, but we were always exhausted from a full days flying’
What was challenging for you?
‘There were no navigational aids, no GPS flying in remote area, you were subject to reporting by HF radio within 2 minutes of your eta. We used to track out on the radial from Alice Springs, work out the drift angle then maintain that heading until you reached your destination. Always referencing time, and complying with the Remote Area rules. When you got to the cattle stations, you had to fly low over the top of the station, so they would hear you, otherwise you would find yourself very lonely at the strip which was always a fair way from the homestead, with no one to meet you. You did not want to walk back in the heat of the desert!’
How were you treated as a female pilot in the outback?
‘Fabulous! I never had a bad experience with anyone. My most memorable times were flying tourists around Ayers Rock, the American tourists were thrilled to have a female pilot and always wanted photos with me in front of the airplane. The Giles weather station was fun to fly out to, I did the mail runs out there, it is just over the NT border in WA 750 klm west south/west of Alice Springs, in the middle of no where.I always had to stay for lunch, because they had to respond to any urgent mail that I had just delivered them. This would take around 2 hours. The chef would make profiteroles on the day that he knew I was coming out to the station.’
What aircraft were you flying?
‘Cessna 206, 210 and Partenavia’s where the aircraft I flew, they had great range, the 206 carried a great load because they had the cargo pods underneath. They were great to load up, and fly.
How much endurance did you have, how far would you go?
‘When I was trained on one of the mail routes, the training pilot taught me that once I was out of Alice, switch to the left tank, when it coughed, switch to the right, and then I knew I had enough fuel to get back to Alice Springs. Not really the way pilots are trained today! It was great flying, challenging’
‘I loved the aboriginal people, I flew the elders around to their meetings regularly, Balgo mission in WA, just over the border again, was one of my favorite places. When I would land there all of the little aboriginal children would all run down to meet me at the strip, the nuns would had lent me their mini minor to use to get back and forth from the mission to the strip, the children would anxiously wait for me to ask them to get into the mini so I could drive them up from the airstrip, I lost count of how many kids, but I think I hold the record for the most aboriginal kids in a mini minor.’
Recently you returned to the Alice, how did it feel and did anyone remember you after almost 40 years?
‘We flew into Yuendumu, I was with my son who is learning to fly, we had to get some fuel, it was in drums, the same as it was in the 80’s. The guy refueling had worked there for over 40 years, he didn’t remember me at first, but once the comment was made about the only female pilot who did the mail runs for Chartair in the 1980’s, he quickly remembered me. He was the one who used to bring out the mail bag and swap with me for the new mail. It was a bit sad going back, because nothing much had changed, there were still unemployed youth, wandering the streets, filling in their day with no employment. I was excited to show my son my past history, where I had learnt so many skills with my flying, it was a big eye opener for my son as it is a part of Australia that not many people get to see.’
Margaret Sullivan has over 3000 logged hours as a commercial pilot, she still flies today owning two of her own aircraft based in Bankstown. Her eldest son flies as a First Officer on A330’s for Etihad Airlines and her younger son is about to complete his commercial licence. Margaret is an avid supporter of Women in Aviation and regularly gives her time to mentor young women or girls considering a career in aviation fields.