Air Australia International closes down: WA aviation legend Chuck McElwee calls time on Jandakot flying school
Aviation sector legend Chuck McElwee has called time on one of WA’s biggest privately owned flight schools, citing the successful emergency landing by a student on his first lesson as just one of the highlights of his action-packed career.
The 76-year-old former US Navy pilot, who flew Phantoms in the Vietnam War, has lost count of how many thousands of commercial and private pilot careers he’s launched since starting Air Australia International at Jandakot Airport during the 1992 recession with only $9000 in cash and no line of credit.
Three hugely successful decades later, he’s now packing up paperwork at his desk in the lobby, deliberately positioned there so he could chat with all who came in.
“I like talking to customers,” Mr McElwee told The West Australian.
“People call me a grouchy old bastard. I’ve been called everything in the book but I just kept trading and kept on with the idea that this was a transit for beginning commercial pilots, particularly flight instructors.
“I used to tell people ‘if you’re here longer than three years, I’m gonna fire you’ primarily because you should get everything you need out of me in three years and you should move to the next level.”
The company’s entire fleet is up for auction after officially closing on Sunday, prompting an outpouring on social media of well-wishes and warm memories from past students, staff and customers.
Ben Salter described a joy flight he’d taken with Air Australia International as one of the greatest experiences of life while Jamal Principe said the company had “contributed so much to WA aviation”.
“They will be missed,” he wrote.
Mr McElwee says his decision to call it a day came after his wife fell ill and was hospitalised for a few days, prompting him to “re-examine what I have to do”.
“I don’t feel old — people tell me I look exactly the same as when they met me,” he said.
“I only planned on staying in business 20 years. Now I’m off to do something else. What that is, I don’t know. I haven’t figured it out yet.
“I like doing things people tell me I can’t do.
“I’m kicking around the idea of doing living history with military combat pilots. Australia has a few — you don’t think you do — and getting them to tell their war stories.
“I talk a lot but I believe every young pilot learns from the stories they hear. It’s called pre-flying.”
One of those stories was from 2005, when he crash-landed in a cul de sac in South Lake, winding up upside-down in the front yard of someone’s home after hitting power lines.
“I’d drank too much coffee and I was hurrying back. I’m going ‘why is the propeller slowing down? Oh crap’.
“I was trying for this field but the airplane didn’t quite stretch that far.
“I did land on the hardest part of the airplane — my head.
“I made my 501st arrested landing. Unfortunately, there was no aircraft carrier.”
The homeowner came out, gave him a glass of water and they waited together for emergency services to turn up.
The incident that made international headlines and fortunately ended with a smooth landing was in 2019 when Max Sylvester, then aged 29, had to take control just over an hour into his first lesson after his instructor lost consciousness mid-flight.
Air traffic control operators talked him through the landing and he kept his cool as his pregnant wife watched the drama unfold from the airfield, shielding their two children from what was happening.
“I did 40 interviews in 48 hours,” Mr McElwee said.
“He was a good kid and he’s still flying, he’s still learning.
“This could have turned out really bad and he pulled it off, which is always great.”
Air Australia also hit the headlines for its Mile High Club, which started out as a joke around 1993 but got so much interest they went ahead with it, completing 350-360 mid-air trysts over the past 29 years.
One Valentine’s Day, they did six.
“We don’t hear anything but we feel the earth move,” Mr McElwee laughed.
He said he got the biggest adrenaline rush watching a pilot complete their first solo “or watch them come in on a trial flight”.
“The first thing they say is ‘I did the take off’. Now that is a great feeling.”
He joked his future might include climbing Mt Everest.
“Will I keep flying? I don’t know. Maybe I’ll go and look at gliders or something I haven’t done before.
“I would like to fly around the world in a light aircraft but I don’t know if that’s going to happen. Not rich enough.”
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