Once we had reached the safety of the Lord Howe Island lagoon, Karen and I had absolutely no intention of ever going ocean sailing again. Luckily, we did not have to sail back to Sydney. We had lived on the boat for a couple of weeks and would fly back home, along with Ron. Another crew who would fly out to the island once we had gone, have their own holiday for a week or two, and then sail the boat back to Sydney. Although we did not know it at the time, while our voyage out to Lord Howe Island had been frightening, it would be a breeze compared to our return journey.
At Peter's suggestion, we had booked our return flight through a company run by a friend of his. The friend was John Green, and the company was Kentia Link. It had formerly been called Seaview Air, a name which became infamous in Australian aviation in the nineties due to the crash of one of its planes going to Lord Howe Island. The crash had resulted in the deaths of all seven people on board, including a pair of honeymooners. Karen and I knew of the connection, but were hoping that lightning would not strike the same company twice. We should have listened to Melissa who had no intention of flying with any company owned by John Green, and was happy to pay an extra one hundred and fifty dollars to fly with another airline.
We had all read the stories about the Seaview Air crash. It had been headline news for a few days at the time, and impossible to avoid. Karen and I innocently believed that the Civil Aviation Authority would not have allowed John Green to continue to operate an airline if there was the slightest risk to public safety. Almost a year after our return flight we would hear the results of the CAA investigation into Seaview Air, and Kentia Link, and would shudder when we realised the risk we had taken by flying back to Sydney in one of their planes.
Peter once told us a story of an experience his mother had when she had visited the island a few years before. For her return flight, her baggage had been loaded aboard the plane by a teenage boy who had then proceeded to help Peter's mother on board as well. She had thanked him politely and taken her seat. A few minutes later he had climbed into the cockpit and started the engine. Quite alarmed, Peter's mother had tapped the teenager on the shoulder to get his attention over the noise of the engine.
"I'm sure you know what you are doing dear," she said, "but shouldn't we wait for the pilot to start the plane?"
"I am the pilot," the young man replied.
We had a similar experience as well, having met two of the Kentia Link pilots at the New Years Eve party. They were very young. They both enjoyed themselves immensely at the party, but I suspect they were very seedy on New Year's Day. I was very glad we were flying home on the second of January rather than the first.
When we were greeted by the pilot who would be flying us back to Sydney, it was one of the two young men we had met at the party two days before. We were positive that he did not remember us, but not surprised because he probably remembered very little of the entire party. We climbed aboard the plane, Karen and I sitting directly behind the two pilots' seats, with Ron behind us. Although there may have been two pilots seats in front of us, only one pilot came aboard. That was a little disconcerting. I familiarised myself with the instruments and controls during the moments before take-off, just in case something happened to the pilot and I had to assume command of the plane.
Lord Howe had been wonderful. Our initial impressions of the island five years before may have been coloured by the honeymoon experience, but it still seemed wonderful to two older and hopefully wiser heads. We had originally said that we would return, and we had. Now that our second visit was ending, we still had the feeling that we would one day be back.
In the meantime, we had more pressing matters to attend to - like getting back to Sydney alive. Nothing untoward happened during the take-off. Once we were airborne, we passed over the Ferros, still moored in the lagoon near Rabbit Island, and we waved to Mark who was standing on the deck. The plane climbed to its cruising altitude of about five thousand feet. As the air in the plane became hot and stuffy, the pilot handed out drinks to the passengers - fruit juice packs bought from a local shop just prior to departure. I could see the docket in the bag, and knew that the pilot would be reimbursed for his expenditure if and when he made it back to the office. I also noticed a clipboard containing some documentation. The name Seaview Air was prominent in one corner, crossed out with a pen. The name Kentia Link was hand-written above.
I had heard another Seaview Air story about a return flight from Lord Howe when John Green himself was actually piloting the plane. Once in the air, he apparently took out a large map, propped it up against the front windows of the plane to block out the sunlight, and promptly went to sleep! I do not know how true this story is. I do know that our pilot was during the entire flight because I watched him like a hawk.
As we approached Sydney, we could see that it was experiencing bad weather. The coastline came into view for a few brief moments. I recognised Lion Island and the northern beaches before we were engulfed by a huge mass of cloud. Visibility was suddenly reduced to zero. The pilot chose this moment to make a phone call! He took a mobile phone from his brief case, held it close to the window where I assumed the reception and transmission must have been better, and called someone in Sydney. From the brief snatches of conversation I could understand, I think he was making a date for dinner.
Our flight was redirected to the south of the city and back out to sea. We then swung around in a wide arc, heading in for touchdown. The cloud had been intermittent since our first encounter, but had given way to rain, which was rapidly getting heavier. It was impossible to see the city out of the front window as we flew in and out of cloud and storms on our final approach. Lightning flashed around us. The rain drummed against the windows and fuselage of the plane. On and on we went, the altimeter showing we were getting very close to sea level, and still there was nothing to see but dark grey cloud and smears of water across the windows. At about three hundred feet, visibility returned, but the rain grew even heavier. Karen was gripping my hand at this stage, and I was doing my best not to perspire so she wouldn't know how apprehensive I was too. When the landing gear thumped into place, locking the wheels down, Karen nearly hit the roof!
For all his youth, the pilot executed a perfect landing and brought us to rest just outside the terminal. If it had not been raining so hard, I am sure Karen would have kissed the ground as we climbed out of the plane and hurried inside. What a relief it was to be down safely. We no longer had to worry about massive waves, or lightning strikes, or running into wharves and sinking. We no longer had to worry about kids piloting dubiously maintained planes through clouds and storms and more lightning. We were back in Sydney, our home town, safe on solid ground. Or so we thought. We had reckoned without Ron!
Even though he lives in Sydney's west, Ron offered us a lift back to the northside. We had planned to catch a bus into the city, then a ferry to Manly and another bus from there, but Ron had been met by his wife in her car, and would not take no for an answer.
Ron's wife's car was obviously the second car in the family. It ran okay, but it was small, and getting old, and it had no air-conditioning. With four people in the car, and in the heavy atmosphere, the inside windows fogged up almost immediately. As we pulled out of the airport, the storm we had flown through south of Sydney caught up with us. Rain bucketed down and was soon flooding across the roadway. With the wipers going full bore Ron was driving just as fast as he normally would in good conditions. He had his handkerchief out and was wiping the condensation off the front window with one hand and driving with the other. It was hard to make out objects through the windscreen - like cars and streets and buildings. We missed our turn-off to the city and headed off towards San Souci, before Ron did a U-turn and finally got us on the right road.
Karen offered me a tissue to wipe the moisture off the window next to me so that I could see out, but I declined. "I don't want to watch any of this," I told her. The storm continued all the way into the city, and it was not until we reached the harbour tunnel that we had a break from the rain. Ron was still attempting to drive with one hand and clean the windscreen with the other when his wife suddenly yelled out "Ron!" He quickly jerked the wheel to the left to avoid running into the wall of the tunnel! Karen was gripping my hand again, tightly. This time I could not control my perspiration.
I cannot remember the rest of the trip home. The mind tends to erase memories of traumatic experiences, and becoming catatonic seemed like a good idea at the time. We arrived home unscathed physically, but forever scarred emotionally. I have a vague recollection of sitting at the Inlaws' dining room table, trying to put two words together after being asked how the trip had gone.
While I have trouble remembering the details of the flight and the car trip home, the horror still remains. It has, however, put the sailing trip into a different perspective. I no longer feel the same about ocean sailing as I did immediately after arriving at Lord Howe. The combination of the flight back to Sydney and the car trip home from the airport was an experience far, far worse than sailing to Lord Howe. In fact, I might even go back to sea again.
But not soon.