Michael's War

Slow and Steady Doesn't Win the Race

by Daniel Ford (Air & Space / Smithsonian)

"She's a very tired old girl," said Maurice Kirk of his 58-year-old Piper Cub, British registration G-KIRK, when they reached Sydney, Australia, last April. "She's lost a magneto, her fabric's coming off, and just about everything has broken that could." Kirk was tired too. The British veterinarian is only two years younger than his aircraft.

Their journey along the London-Sydney Air Race 2001 course took them halfway around the globe, nearly 14,000 miles. They flew 200 hours in 28 days, with only a single rest stop in Thailand, and that one given over to oil-sump repairs. G-KIRK was throwing oil, so Kirk doubled the sump's capacity by welding an extension to it. All the other sanctioned rest days were spent catching up with the race, which celebrated a century of Australian federation and re-created the "kangaroo route" air race of 1919. The winner was Spirit of Kai Tak, a state-of-the-art Piper Aerostar crewed by four Brits from Hong Kong. Thirty-seven teams left from Biggin Hill near London on March 11, and all but six were on hand for the triumphant fly-past of Sydney Harbor on April 8 [2001].

Which didn't include the gallant Piper Cub. G-KIRK was disqualified on the first day, when Kirk landed in a pasture west of Lyons, France, instead of Cannes, the official landing site, to the annoyance of police and race officials. "It was logistics," he later said. "They couldn't cope with the [60-knot] Cub. Or was it Maurice Kirk? I forget which." Nontheless, Kirk forged ahead, now just along for the ride.

When delivered to the U.S. Army Air Forces in 1943, G-KIRK had a 12-gallon fuselage tank and a range of 190 miles. That would hardly suffice for race days that averaged 500 miles and sometimes double that. Kirk learned that an American had once fitted his Cub with wing tanks from a Piper Colt; the modification had been approved by the Federal Aviation Administration and was therefore legal in Europe.

Now G-KIRK could carry 50 U.S. gallons. For a reserve, Kirk cached four plastic jugs in the cabin and snaked a tube through the window to the fuselage tank. In Calcutta, this rig actually put him ahead of the field: airport authorities neglected to send out a tanker of aviation gasoline, and deployed only one tanker the next day. The last contestant didn't get off the ground until 3 p.m. Kirk, meanwhile, refueled the night before with the help of a taxi, a nearby service station, and his jerry cans.

When Kirk set off from Biggin Hill, G-KIRK had sported a wind-vane generator between its landing struts, which powered a 12-volt fuel transfer pump. Alas, the generator failed in Saudi Arabia. Kirk thereafter relied on a hand wobble pump. This in turn failed while G-KIRK was flying across "some sea," as his wife Kirstie, coping with hoof-and-mouth disease at a veterinary hospital in Wales, described it on their Web site.

The sea was the Bay of Bengal, and Kirk managed to glide down to a Burmese beach for repairs. "They were all in skirts and treated me royally," he reported. "They fed me. It was fantastic."

G-KIRK also made unauthorized landings in Egypt, India, Thailand, Indonesia, and Australia, further alienating Kirk from officialdom while making him a hero to everyone else. He broke the monotony by occasionally cutting the engine, skimming down to 20 feet above the ground, and shouting to woodcutters or fishermen: "Hi! I'm on my way to Australia!"

Race rules required Kirk to carry a radio and a GPS receiver, which could fix his position by satellite. He preferred his old school atlas, plotting his course between "the pink bits" that once marked the far-flung British Empire.

The East Timor Sea, from Bali to Darwin, was the most difficult crossing: 500 miles, with the wind against him. Kirk got a head start by skipping to the island of Sumba, where he jettisoned his blind-flying gear, spare clothes, and the gifts he'd accumulated along the way.

"Just as the sun began to show itself, I took off against 10 mph headwinds," Kirk rhapsodized by cell phone from Sydney. To minimize the effects of the headwind, he flew 20 feet above the water, which led to a close encounter with two whales. He says he landed at Darwin with 15 minutes of fuel remaining and half an inch of oil on the dipstick.

On the final leg, to Coolangatta, G-KIRK threw two of the six bolts that secured its wooden propeller, which cracked. Happily, Lyle Campbell of Arizona had volunteered to carry a spare prop in his Grumman Albatross, the second oldest airplane in the race. Campbell had also underwritten Kirk's $25,000 entry fee, and he and other contestants ferried Kirk's daughter Belinda to Australia after race officials threw her off the dignitaries' aircraft in the Mideast.

At journey's end, Kirk's principal regret was that police helicopters kept him away from the Sydney Harbor Bridge. (G-KIRK was of course banned from the fly-past. It wasn't officially a contestant, and anyhow it didn't have a radio adequate for formation flying.) "No one has ever looped that bridge," he marveled. "Can you believe it?"

Other Maurice stories on this site:

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