Flights of Courage

Editors' review

October 25, 2016

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26 Mar 2016, 10 a.m.

ROCHERLEA'S Debbie Stewart has defied an anxiety disorder and cancer to pursue her love of flying, writes DOUG DINGWALL.

PROPELLED: Debbie Stewart felt a desire to achieve something big before dying when she was diagnosed with liver cancer.

PROPELLED: Debbie Stewart felt a desire to achieve something big before dying when she was diagnosed with liver cancer.

DEBBIE Stewart knows peace above 1,000 feet in the air. 

The 60-year-old admits she doesn’t relax.

It’s a different matter when she flies a plane. 

Flights are an escape for Ms Stewart, who has obsessive compulsive disorder. 

The condition has made her journey to flying more of a challenge.

“Nobody, unless you suffer what I have, would understand what I’ve had to go through to get where I am today.”

She describes her golden moments as being up in the air above Tasmania after taking off from Cranbourn airfield near Launceston.

Ms Stewart soars above the Tamar River or may take a detour to Bridport.

“I get up there and it’s a beautiful day, and I can sit back and enjoy flying,” Ms Stewart said. 

It wasn’t always so peaceful for her in the air.

Ms Stewart says she was “extremely nervous” when she began flying. 

“I mean petrified, out of my mind.”

She would feel nauseous. 

When she began flying in 2010 she found it hard to even get in a plane. 

As she learned how to fly, she left landing to her instructors. 

At first Ms Stewart wasn’t even keen on planes. She preferred helicopters, but found flying them too expensive to learn. 

“Helicopters are definitely not a poor man’s sport.

“I had to go from something I loved, and felt an affinity with, to a plane.”

It took a course of chemotherapy to bring her to the cockpit. 

She was given five years to live in 2010 when she was diagnosed with liver cancer. 

“I wanted to achieve something big in my life before I died.”

Chemotherapy knocked her “rotten”, and at times she has looked back and wondered if the pain was worth it.

Ms Stewart likes to be physically active and didn’t want to let herself age. 

“I want to be 60, but I want people to say ‘you look well, you look 40,” she said. 

“I had to make myself young again.”

Photos of her flying, taken while she flew gyrocopters with pilot Geoff Jamieson before his death in 2007, convinced her to get back into the air.

“I thought ‘I’m going to do this again’.”

But her obsessive compulsive disorder meant she would only learn to fly in her own plane.

“I need everything to be clean, simple and functional.

“I had to have my own plane or it wasn’t going to work.”

It took a bank loan and a friend’s trip from Western Australia to make it happen.

A PLANE CALLED SCOUT

AT A hangar in Cranbourn sits Ms Stewart’s beloved Skyfox Gazelle. She calls it Scout.

Ms Stewart credits the 500 kg plane as a major reason she’s learned to fly.

“I could not have bought an easier plane to fly or a more perfect plane for me.”

She knew it was the one for her when she saw it in a newspaper. 

Once she bought it using a bank loan in 2013, she needed her friend Rob Sharman to fly it back for her from Western Australia. 

Ms Stewart plotted his course to Tasmania. 

Buying the plane meant there was no turning back.

“I knew I had to keep going. It was a big investment to me.”

A lot of people were watching her progress by then. 

“I didn’t want to fail.”

A sharp learning curve awaited.

Teachers have guided her on the way. 

Each instructed her in the style she needed at the time. 

John McBride, who was a test pilot for the Skyfox Gazelle, taught her about her own plane and its limits. 

“I could toss it around the sky and it would cope with a lot.”

Mr McBride was easier on Ms Stewart and tended not to push her too hard, an approach she needed at the time. 

Her next teacher, Mr Sharman, was a bit tougher. 

He would push her out of her comfort zone and would ignore her when she protested.

“I was meant to have him in that situation.”

Her current instructor, Eugene Reid, has refined her flying. Ms Stewart described him as one of Australia’s best pilots, and said he had single-handedly built one of the longest-running flying schools in the country. Recently he told her something she had wanted to hear.

“He said you’re ready for solo.”

She is yet to fly alone and plans to attempt gaining her pilot’s licence in three months.

Ms Stewart will take part in Cranbourn’s Fly-in Interclub Day on April 2 off Dalrymple Road, Mt Direction. The airfield, owned by Gillian and Bert Hill, provides a base for nearly 30 pilots and their aircraft. 

Ms Stewart said she was grateful to the owners.

The event will have flying demonstrations and visitors may be able to ask pilots for a fly.

Entry is free, food and drink will be available and activities start at 10.30am.

THE RIGHT PLANE: Ms Stewart with her plane, a Skyfox Gazelle called 'Scout'. She bought it with a bank loan after starting to learn flying in 2010.

THE RIGHT PLANE: Ms Stewart with her plane, a Skyfox Gazelle called 'Scout'. She bought it with a bank loan after starting to learn flying in 2010.