Interview with Dan O’Donnell

INTERVIEW WITH DAN O’DONNELL 

(Photos supplied by Dan and Phil)

How did you become involved with aviation / flying and at what age?

My life of aviation began from a very early age. My father was a pilot and his father had a passion for all things aviation after going for his first flight in an Airspeed oxford in his teenage years. My first flight was at the age of six weeks and I have been in and out of aeroplanes ever since. Being an impressionable 6 year old when Top Gun came out and having a copy of Battle of Britain at home I never really had a chance…I remember taking off and landing my first aeroplane (A Cessna 172) at the age of eight, albeit only holding the control yolk…

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How did you find learning to fly – going through the stages of gaining your licenses and approvals – was it easy or challenging for you?

I was fortunate enough to be accepted to the Australian Defence Force Academy as a pilot candidate after completing Flight Screening in Tamworth in Year 12 during my mid year break. Whilst I had flown a lot with my father prior I had never undertaken any instruction and hence RAAF Pilot training was my first true taste of all of the in’s and out’s of learning to fly. Each flying course I have done within the RAAF has been harder than the previous and each course has tested me both physically and emotionally. Luckily in Australia CASA recognises the high level of training that ADF pilots undertake and on presentation of your wings CASA will issue a PPL. After an operational conversion on ADF type they then issue a CPL and hence the only license you must study for as an ADF aviator is the ATPL. My passion for civilian aerobatics, warbirds and instruction began in 2007 whilst instructing on the PC-9 in Perth. I fell in love with both the Nanchang and the Extra 300 which I flew for FCIWA and then began the long journey of gaining Low Level aerobatics waivers to the point where I am today a Low Level delegate for CASA and able to teach aerobatics and formation flying, skills inherent to any RAAF pilot.

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How complex was the RAAF flight training program? Can you give us an insight to how much work is required to become a RAAF pilot?

The hardest thing I have ever done… The roughly two years it takes to gain one wings there must have no other distractions. Working a twelve hour day only to come home and prepare for another 5 hours for the following day is not uncommon. As a student you must very quickly learn how to take criticism onboard and always strive to become the best you can be. In my nearly 3,000 hours of Air Force flying I have never once come back from a flight and had nothing to debrief or take away as a major learning point, you truly are that challenged everyday. The wings course is proficiency based and must be completed in a set timeline. Due to the nature of aptitude required, attrition is generally quite high. Out of the 34 RAAF and Navy pilots that began my pilots course – only 11 graduated.

What do you find the most enjoyable aspect about flying as a fighter pilot?

The constant challenge in search of professional mastery. No matter how many times you fly a set sequence the result is different every single time and there is always a better way of achieving ones objective. One of my most memorable flights as a Fighter Pilot was flying in Alaska for Operation Red Flag within a four ship as part of a large package at low level (250′) and high speed (Up to 600kts) through incredible snow capped mountains, fighting our way into an area with Surface to Air threats, dropping bombs on targets of opportunity, and then fighting our way out again.

Exercise High Sierra 2010

What is your most memorable flight experience so far that you would like to share?

Probably the above, or; Whilst flying with the USAF deploying an E-3 Sentry direct from Oklahoma through the night down the west coast of South America and then crossing the Andes mountains for sunrise before landing in Argentina 17 hours later.

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What skills have you gained from flying that you may not have gained, if you had not taken up flying? Have you been able to handle situations better by being a pilot?

Being a good pilot is all about prioritising the ‘nearest croc to the boat’ and maintaining safety as your number one priority at all times. Being a pilot teaches you to think on your feet and to also recall vast amounts of information to maintain Situational Awareness at all times. As one of my instructors once taught me – The ground has a Pk (Probability of a Kill) of 1 (in other words 100%) and must be avoided at all costs! This same focus on life can be applied to business, sports, and everyday life.

What is your most favourite aircraft to fly and why?

I’d be lying to you if I didn’t say F/A-18 Hornet. It has 32,000lbs of thrust, can travel to the edge of space, Pull 7.5G, do nearly Mach 2.0 and has more engines than seats… Having said that I have absolutely loved every aeroplane I have ever flown from DH Chipmunk, to F/A-18, Cessna 150, Boeing 707, to Pitts Special.

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How do you find flying military aircraft compared to warbird and aerobatic aircraft on a rotating basis?

Military flying is very different to Civilian flying. I strive to bring the same professionalism to my civilian flying but absolutely love the fact I can arrive at Cessnock Airport, pre-flight my Nanchang, jump in and enjoy it, pack it up and then go home. No briefing, de-briefing etc, just flying in its purest form.

MHR Wing Shot

What kind of thrills do you get from flying warbird and aerobatic aircraft?

Warbirds for me bring Nostalgia. Whilst I have not yet reached my goal of flying a P-51 or Sea Fury I can only imagine ‘strapping’ one of these machines on and attempting to tame it as so many thousands have done before in wartime with a lot less training than me! For me there is no better sound in this world than a Super Charged Merlin in a P-51 or the radial rumble of a Hawker Sea Fury at full throttle. Aerobatics on the other hand is something I have grown into in the past few years. It is a love-hate relationship. Pulling up to 10G’s truly does hurt, yet the reward from watching a well flown manoeuvre afterwards make you want to do it again and again. Modern aerobatic aircraft like the Extra truly are amazing, you as the pilot will break before the aircraft will which is a really comforting feeling.

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How much effort goes into aerobatics and what is the motivation that drives you to do such type of flying as seen in the CJ-6 Nanchang?

Aerobatics is all about visualisation, both on the ground in preparation, and in the air with making your hands and feet move the controls in a manner which tracks the nose of the aircraft to place you want it to go. After mis-handling an aeroplane earlier in my career an instructor taught me the phrase “Make it sing for you, not scream”. As far as flying manoeuvres well though it really is a case of ‘practice makes perfect’.

What got you interested in creating an aviation warbird business?

I have worked for some of Australia’s leading Adventure Flight companies and basically fell in love with sharing my experience with the greater public. The reward from a passenger telling you the flight you just took them on was one of the best experiences of their lives truly is addictive. Owning the CJ-6 though is my first step to ultimately one day owning my own WW2 warbird.

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What challenges do you face with your businesses and how do you cope with the some of the airspace limitations of flying in Australia?

Owning and operating a successful Warbird business is challenging, especially when we try and keep it to one day a week at a maximum. Good maintenance is essential and at times hard to find. The operating cost of flying is really what holds us back. Paying a premium for Fuel, Maintenance, Parts, Landings, Hangarage, Insurance, etc means that it is quite hard to keep our experiences affordable for the greater public.

One of the great things about operating outside a capital city is that the passenger gets more time doing the fun part of the flight (aerobatics) and less transiting. It is also great for the family and friends of the passenger to be able to see the experience from the ground.

What are your own views of the current aviation industry in Australia? Can it expand further perhaps bringing more people into the industry?

Very hard to expand with every increasing costs.

How could AOPA and the aviation industry help attract more people to become interested in flying?

I think more Scholarships / Government Funding could be available.

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What goals have you got for the future with your aviation interests?

I would like to expand my own Adventure Flight business and continue to develop and expand my flying further both inside and outside of the military. Like I said earlier I will be well on my way the day I get to fly that P-51!

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