Trip 37, part 3 – An experience not to be missed

Whilst discussing and planning our Exmouth trip, I had considered taking up my scuba gear for a dive or two. In the end, opting to leave the heavy and bulky kit at home and to use hire gear if I decided to do a dive.

I’ve been fortunate enough to have done a bunch of scuba diving around Exmouth previously, so there were no ‘special spots’ that I was dying to dive at. I was thinking about doing the Naval Jetty again as it’s rated in the top 10 Australian shore dive sites, but I’ve done that half a dozen times now. Or alternatively, maybe to do a dive out at Blizzard Ridge in Lighthouse Bay as this remains the only dive I’ve done where we’ve encountered sea snakes. On that dive, seeing a snake swim towards you underwater is really unnerving, but as you realise they’re just curious, you relax and they’re beautifully graceful underwater and was a dive experience I’d love to repeat one day.

Despite my dive options, however, I just wasn’t feeling the urge to get wet. Then, as Jules was browsing the small shop attached to the RAC Caravan Park reception I noted a sign for Birds Eye View, offering microlight flights over the Cape Range and Ningaloo Reef. I’d always wanted to try hang gliding as a kid, but you don’t really see hang gliders anymore, so had never pursued it. I’d never really considered microlights before but here was an opportunity and I was intrigued.

Doing a little more research back at camp, I learnt that microlights have evolved from hang gliders and essentially consist of a hang glider-esque sail, under which sits a light undercarriage capable of snuggly carrying two passengers and a small engine. In the air, they look like a big Vespa scooter with a wing. Oooh, this sounds cool and I was starting to get excited.

Birds Eye View doesn’t actually offer ‘scenic flights’, rather they’re a training school and one of their flight options is a Trial Introductory Flight (TIF) which can count as your first lesson if you choose to go on and get your pilot’s license which, apparently, you can obtain in as little as 20 hours of instruction. With a 30min, 60min and 90minute TIF option to choose from, I opted for the full 90min experience at $499.

The TIF options and routes from Birds Eye View. However, we were offered, and accepted, a variation on this, essentially following the red flight path across the range to Tantabiddy, then spending our 90mins flying across Ningaloo Reef, going further South down to Osprey Bay.

Completing our pre-flight disclaimers, stating that I was aware that this is an extreme sport and it was not their fault if I died, you also have an info form to complete, on which there was the option to choose the type of flight experience you wanted. I can’t recall all the options, but it was essentially ranging from ‘nice & gentle‘ to ‘show me what a microlight can do‘. I opted for the latter, figuring you only live once and these guys knew what they were doing, I hoped…

My pilot was Duncan and after suiting up in our flight suits and getting into the snug rear seat, I was not so comfortably sweating in the fully lined and warm flight suit as we waited for the other three aircraft to finish their flight prep. Note, I was glad of the warm flight suit a bit later as at 5000feet the air temp drops to 13C.

All suited up and ready to fly

My other three flyers were related to Gavin the chief flying instructor so I was essentially the only ‘guest’ flyer, but with the four microlights going up together there was plenty of opportunity for some speccy formation flying and coordination.

Each microlight is fitted with a GoPro on the wing which takes a photograph every 5 seconds, providing me with over 1000 pics from my flight – all included in the price. When I get a chance, I’ll animate these into a short flight video. The pilots also carried a DSLR camera which they used to take pics of each other, and the wildlife we spotted in flight. Again, all these pics were provided to me at no extra cost. I also took up a GoPro which I handheld throughout the flight and will eventually cut that into a flight video.

Duncan finished his pre-flight checks and started the in-flight entertainment which started with the theme song from Top Gun playing in my helmet! The four craft taxied out and took off in two formations of two, quickly ascending and heading West, across the range towards the Tantabiddy boat ramp. After checking I was feeling ok, Duncan then proceeded to put the aircraft through some of its paces, ensuring I was ok with everything and preparing me for some of the flying that was to come. Pulling a couple of sharp turns I could feel the increased weight of everything and after questioning him, Duncan advised that we were pulling about 3G’s. Way cool. I was giggling like a little kid and still comfortable with everything so we crossed the coast at Tantabiddy and started some great formation flying, heading South along the reef as we searched for the ‘big five’. The five being, Humpback Whales, Whalesharks, Tiger Sharks, Dugongs and Manta Rays.

One of the other microlights crossing the range
One of the other microlights underneath us
Crossing the Ningaloo Reef

Our first find was Dugongs, with a mum and calf feasting on seagrass in one of the shallow bays. With each wildlife spotting, the pilots would take turns doing low-level circles around the spot, before making way for the other craft to take a look. I’m not sure what our altitude was during these loops but we were low enough to clearly see the animals and what they were doing as you can see from the following pics.

Dugong with calf
Dugong with calf

I spotted our next animal, a large Hammerhead Shed just cruising the shallows of Ningaloo.

We then spent the next hour or so, alternating from flying over the inner reef, as far south as Osprey Bay, then heading out to the outer reef where we managed to spot 3 Whalesharks, about a dozen Humpback Whales, including a mother with calf, and tens, if not over a hundred, Manta Rays.

Whaleshark
Manta Ray
One of the gaps in the inner and outer reefs
Humpback Whales
Humpback Whales
Manta Rays
Humpback Whale with calf
Humpback Whales
A pair of very large Cowtail Rays cruising the shallows

Despite Duncan’s best efforts, we failed to spot a Tiger Shark, one of the other planes did, however, I wasn’t disappointed at all. But Duncan did promise to buy me a beer in compensation in return – which he did!

With our flight time almost gone, the four microlights regrouped and made our way back over the Cape Range which was now glowing in the setting sunlight. The pilots all took turns getting into formation to shoot pics of the other craft, silhouetted in the setting sun.

With the Exmouth aerodrome in sight, Duncan then advised we’d be doing a non-power assisted glide landing. Essentially, this means they turn the engine off at 4000 feet and Duncan flies and lands the aircraft using just the sail. He also asked me if I wanted a ‘fast’ or ‘gentle’ descent. I opted for the ‘fast’ and boy was this cool. After rechecking that I was still all strapped in, Duncan wrenched into a series of sharp turns, again pulling Gs, as we looped and spun down towards the runway, before a gentle and controlled gliding landing and taxiing all the way back into the hanger.

What an experience! One I’ll never forget and one I wouldn’t hesitate to do again.

I’ve been fortunate enough to have flown in large planes, small 4seater plans, large and small helicopters, including helicopters with open sides/no doors and a glider. All of these were eclipsed by the cool experience of the microlight. I can fully appreciate the joy of flying these things both recreationally and professionally, and who knows, one day- time and money permitting- I might be tempted to finish my training to become a solo pilot. It was that good.

Thanks to Duncan and the crew at Birds Eye View in Exmouth!!

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