Self-published memoirs are usually vanity projects and rarely worth reviewing. Bill Austen’s irreverent Cloud Surfing isn’t one. Like many young people, he wanted to fly. And he did, ending up for years as Captain of that unique aircraft, known by those who love the romance of flying as the Queen of the Sky – the Boeing 747.
The 747 took so many Australians to the world, opening new horizons and it had a personality few aircraft ever acquired. What other aircraft, as he describes, has a lift you can ride at 39,000 feet – but it only goes about 15 feet. He recounts 40 plus years of flying around the world for Qantas, beginning in 1965 as a “space cadet”. After 707’s, he stepped aboard 747’s and, for him, he was home in these beautiful lumbering four-engine dominators of the sky. Nearly 400 tonnes of something wrought by humans, these aircraft changed flying and, for young Australians, replaced the long rite of passage sea voyage to the UK and the wider world. Austen loved that aircraft, and his memoir reflects his love, his adventures (trained to dodge bullets or control a brawling little old lady) and a time when flying was actually fun.
He talks of the Smithsonian Space Museum where you see the Wright Brothers’ powered aircraft that first lifted off the ground. The Wright Brothers aircraft is hardly bigger than the aft row in a 747 and its flight was as long as from nose to tail of a 747. Carrying Aussie troops on the Saigon run, sheep to India, landing a 747 at Auckland when crosswinds and windshear meant “the arse feel out of it” (a technical term), overcoming aquaplaning, reverse thrust pulling the aircraft up so the passengers (when they used to be passengers and not customers) looked out, saw the terminal and unconcernedly disembarked. That’s training.
Love and the romance of flying comes through just about every page of this memoir, and some graphs, fascinating but inexplicable. Read it and remember when flying was flying.
Cloud Surfing can be purchased here.