Flight of the Lilly Warra

Lance Richardson dons helmet and goggles for a thrilling ride in a 1943 biplane.

Every time you get in an aeroplane, you buckle up in good faith that the flight crew has your best interests at heart. You'd be surprised, for instance, if the pilot came on loudspeaker and asked permission to do a loop de loop over the ocean. You'd also be surprised if the plane seemed to lack any sort of pressurised cabin - or a roof. By the time it became apparent the pilot had opted to sit behind you rather than in a hidden cockpit at the front, anxiety levels would probably be running as high as the aircraft's peak altitude.

Southern Biplane Adventures, operating out of Illawarra Airport near Wollongong, is all about pushing a passenger's limitations. Beginning this year, the company offers an incomparable thrill ride in the form of a 1943 Boeing Stearman, a bright red biplane.

The company also offers something else: an insight into what we do every time we entrust our lives in an aircraft. Because "Lilly Warra" (as the plane is called) has an open cockpit, it's like an anatomy class revealing all of the things a passenger would ordinarily try to ignore. The radial engine is exposed, the propeller is wood and the pilot instructs you to put away your notepad in case it suddenly catches in the wind and floats into the Port Kembla Steelworks.

With a striking blonde-bombshell figurehead painted on the side, Lilly Warra is both beautiful and terrifying. Standing beneath the fabric wing as my flight helmet and protective goggles are fitted before departure, I take solace in the fact that a 94-year-old flew the previous week and lived to tell the grandchildren.

But this isn't only about the challenge and fear factor. Talk to the family team behind the biplane operation and another intention emerges. There's co-director Tony Clark, an Airbus captain, and his wife, Lorry, the operations manager. But the star of the show is their son, Chris. A regular aerobatic performer in the Red Bull Extra 200, the 25-year-old is chief pilot, co-director and an affable guide to the world of old-fashioned flying circuses.

Barnstorming, Chris explains, is the main idea motivating Southern Biplane Adventures. In America in the 1920s, groups of stunt pilots would fly over the countryside until they found an open field near a town. "They'd lob in for the day and take members of the public up in joyrides," he says.

A carnival atmosphere quickly surrounded the impromptu landing strips; people would travel for miles to take part in death-defying stunts. Back then, flying was novel and glamorous.

By tapping into the tradition of barnstorming, the Clarks are seeking to evoke these latter elements. In an era when mid-air excitement has come to depend mostly on the quality of in-flight entertainment, the family wants to rekindle the wonder of simply being up in the air.

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I try to keep this in mind as I climb the ladder and slide down into a deep (and open) cockpit. There are reams of harnesses and a selection of handle grips. In front of me is a dashboard filled with gauges showing altitude, air-speed, the all-important G-force. Chris buzzes my helmet radio and asks me not to touch a large stick knocking against my knees. Well, if I can't drive the plane, at least I can monitor his performance and perform my own role of back-seat driver (though the driver, in this case, is behind me in a separate cockpit).

The pristine condition of the aircraft is startling. It looks brand new because it almost is (at least physically). Though built in 1943 by Boeing in Wichita, restorers have replaced virtually all of the original wing structure and the seven-cylinder engine to ensure the highest standards of safety. This doesn't mean its spirit is lost, however. Though this incarnation has logged little more than 115 hours in action, Chris and Tony can recount the long history of the plane.

Originally used as a military pilot trainer in Alabama during World War II, the Clarks bought it in North Hampton, New Hampshire and had it shipped to Port Botany after restoration. The inaugural Australian flight was in November.

And how did they find the plane in the first place? "We took a long time," Chris says. "Years, in fact. There weren't really any similar aircraft here, so we basically used the internet."

Take-off is like running and jumping, but never touching the ground again. As the radio crackles in continuous exchange with the flight-control tower at Illawarra airport, I watch the suburbs turn into a maze of streets. By the time we've reached full altitude it's impossible not to feel like a child in a retro fantasy. There's the snaking line of the Hume Highway, north to Sydney and south to Nowra. There's Mount Keira behind the university; just below is the lighthouse on Flagstaff point. And now here's Chris on radio contact asking if he can turn the plane upside down.

A wing over is followed by a barrel roll, a stall turn and then the infamous loop. Over the ocean, nothing can prepare you for the sensation of four times the normal G-force turning your body into something weighing 360 kilograms.

Twenty minutes later, Chris is pointing out a pie shop on a hill. Maybe we're both little boys at heart, or maybe it's that glamour of flying, but suddenly everything - even a pie shop - takes on an aura of spectacle and here I am waving down at its rooftop with a giant smile on my face.

Lance Richardson travelled courtesy of Southern Biplane Adventures.

FAST FACTS

Getting there

Illawarra Regional Airport is just south of Wollongong and a 90-minute drive from Sydney. As half of the trip is on the Grand Pacific Drive, there are a number of attractions to fill out the journey; see grandpacificdrive.com.au.

The airport is also across the Princes Highway from the Albion Park Rail station, with regular trains to and from Sydney.

Flying there

Southern Biplane Adventures has a range of packages, including the Stunt Pilot (30-45 minutes, from $350) and flights combining stunts with coastal exploration (75 minutes, from $595). A half-day ride-and-fly option includes flying and Harley-Davidson rides on Grand Pacific Drive (from $595). From June to November, aerial whale watching is also available. There is a winter special of two 30-minute aerobatic or scenic flights for $449, saving $251 (limited places). Phone 4257 9440, see southernbiplanes.com.au.

Illawarra airport houses an array of other aviation businesses with a tourism focus, including tandem skydiving. For a full list see illawarraregionalairport.com.au.