THERE isn’t many pilots who boast almost 50 years of flying. Especially in the bush.
But meet Judy McKenzie. Pilot. Flight instructor. Encyclopedia of knowledge for all things aviation. She’s Tamworth’s top gun on the flight scene.
Growing up out the back of Nundle, the New England has always been home.
But her first foray into flying came when she went to the big smoke.
“I couldn’t keep a horse, so I wanted a hobby that I could really enjoy,” Judy says.
“So I got into flying with friends while I was in Sydney.
“I didn’t start flying until I was 28, so I was a bit of a late starter.”
Back then, a trial instruction flight was very expensive, she said.
“That was in the older days with Rex Aviation, they were the Cessna dealers at Bankstown Airport,” she recalls.
“I was a market research clerk at the time.
“And it was very expensive, you know, if I had to get a new tyre for the car, I couldn’t fly.
But because I really liked it, I decided to really get stuck into it.Judy McKenzie
“But because I really liked it, I decided to really get stuck into it.”
And she hasn’t looked back. From research clerk to one of the most experienced instructors still teaching in regional Australia.
“For a day’s secretarial work on a Sunday, you could get a lesson, so I did that for six years and that paid for my navigation exercise for my licence and two-thirds of my instructor flying,” she recalls.
“But that was also six years of giving up my Sundays.
“That’s the trouble with aviation, it wrecks your social life.”
She eventually made her way back home, when turbulent times hit the general aviation industry.
“After Rex aviation folded up, I got a few of my students together including John Gissing (Qantaslink CEO) and started a flying school,” she said.
She first encountered Mr Gissing at Bankstown at Rex Aviation, but his first job came under Judy, when they packed their gear and moved to Quirindi.
“I did quite a lot of training with him at Bankstown,” she said.
She started Tamworth Regional Flight Centre, but couldn’t get into Tamworth, and thinks the DA is probably still buried.
“Quirindi were begging for someone to come up, so I did Quirindi and then went into Gunnedah,” she said.
Mr Gissing is one of many students she still keeps in contact with.
To set-up the flying school, I selected my most talented students but that was probably a mistake ... because [John] was soon off to bigger and better things.Judy McKenzie
“To set-up the flying school, I selected my most talented students but that was probably a mistake,” she jokes.
“Because [John] was soon off to bigger and better things.”
Nowadays, Judy isn’t flying. She has two feet firmly on the ground, still teaching. She says she has done her time in the air – and counts herself pretty lucky never to have had a close call or belly-up landing.
“I’ve been very lucky, I’ve had no forced landings,” she said.
“One thing for sure is, flying is as safe as you make it, and if you check everything out, you can get away with no dramas.
“I was mostly flying school aircraft that have to be serviced regularly [as a mandatory requirement].
“But when you’re flying with students, you can expect the unexpected, something can always happen (laughs).”
While she might have taken a backseat to flying, she can’t turn away from the industry and now spends her time teaching students the art of flying and all things related out at Tamworth Airport for charter companies like Airspeed Aviation.
Throughout her career, Judy has taught hundreds of students, maybe even into the thousands – she’s lost count.
Clocking 17,000 hours in the air, navigation flights out the back of Bourke are some of her favourite flights.
“It’s quite fun taking city people out there,” Judy said.
“Going out of town is good, you get a bit sick of doing the same training area and the circuits.”
You could almost say Judy is the go-to-girl for Cessna. Her whole career has been with the planes.
Her favourite? The Cessna 152, but she spent most of her time cruising in a Cessna 182, but the Cessna 310 is the biggest aircraft she’s piloted.
“It’s the most enjoyable job,” Judy said of her days in companies like TamAir.
“It was very sociable.
“I don’t fly anymore, because once something has been a job, it’s different.
“But I’m 77 next month, and that’s bloody old, ha.”