Lord Howe Island is 500 miles east of Sydney, Australia. The island extends about 6 miles from the south end to the north but it's only a few miles wide in the populated northern half. In fact, it's so narrow in the spot where the Lord Howe airport is located that the runway extends the full width of the island.|
It's normal to pass over Lord Howe on the last leg of a flight into Sydney, if the previous stop was at Norfolk Island. Lord Howe is two-thirds of the way along the route and makes a fine check-point. You can see it for miles; there is also a radio beacon there for positive navigation when visibility is poor. And when you pass over at mid-day, the operator in the control tower was always happy to take your position report and forward it to Sydney. There might even be time for a bit of a chat if traffic was light and it usually was.
Flights along this route are always filed on an instrument flight plan. This guarantees that no other aircraft will be using your airspace at the time you pass any given spot. To make the plan work out, you need to keep the ground controllers posted regarding your progress. Radio reports of passage of known or estimated positions are forwarded to a central point where clearances to proceed are generated. Everybody has an assigned altitude so faster or slower craft can pass above or below you on the same route. Any changes in route or altitude need to be coordinated with the air traffic control center for collision avoidance.
On those occasions that the control tower operator at Lord Howe agreed, we were permitted to leave our assigned altitude and descend to a few hundred feet over the island for a better view. It worked two ways, we got a better view of the island and at the same time we provided a little air-show for the tourists from Austrlalia visiting on holiday.
This worked out well on several occasions. It didn't work out so well on the day we got a late start from Norfolk Island.
Our arrival over Lord Howe Island on that fateful day was just about dinner time. The control tower operator had gone home for the day; there was no need for him to be on duty. It was already dark. Since the airport runway had no lights, no aircraft would be scheduled for arrival.
So there we were, at 6,000 feet, about to pass over Lord Howe in the dark. There were plenty of lights in town, so spotting the island at night was, perhaps, even easier than spotting it during the day. And since the tower operator had gone home, there was no one to chat with as we passed over and no one to ask if an air-show was in order. We decided on our own that a night time air-show would be just the ticket.
Leaving our assigned altitude, we dropped down to pass over the center of town at a few hundred feet, just like it was noon. You need to generate a little noise so people know they should look up. Then out to the beach for a few low passes before heading on to Sydney.
That's when we noticed a number of cars heading out on the dark road toward the airport. We thought it was really curious that so many people would be going to an unlighted airport and even more curious that they would be lining up on both sides of the runway, with their headlights pointed toward each other.
The answer came to us immediately. The radio frequency that we had been using to talk from one aircraft to the other, that of the control tower at Lord Howe, came alive with a new voice.
"Aircraft in Distress, Aircraft in Distress, this is Lord Howe Tower, Over !!"
All those cars had been rounded up and brought to the airport to light the runway for an emergency landing! Our air-show had turned into an emergency, all right, but not one in which anybody was in immediate danger. We explained that it was just us again and that even though there was no one in the tower to sanction a little fly-by, it seemed like a good idea.
We explained that there was no emergency and that we really must be on our way. After all, we were expected in Sydney in a few hours and we mustn't be late. We turned to the west, climbing back to our assigned altitude and watched the cars head back to town. Nobody said a word for the rest of the trip.
We returned to the airport in Sydney the next morning to remove the ferry tanks and plumbing from the aircraft, to be used on the next trip. The president of the ferrying company that had organized the trip happened to be visiting from San Francisco, in an effort to generate new business. He greeted us as we packed up our equipment and questioned us about an incident concerning unwarranted low flying over Lord Howe the previous evening. Did we know anything about that, by any chance?
There wasn't any good way out, short of suicide, so we confessed. That's when he informed us that all of the cars that had come to the airport were being driven by the heads of the Australian states who had come to the island for a business meeting. We had broken up a state dinner in the process of leaving our assigned altitude without permission. Throw in careless and reckless for shooting up the beach at night and you pretty much have all the ingredients necessary for an international incident.
When things turn nasty in aviation, they usually do so pretty quickly.
It's a good thing the president of our ferry company was in town to intervene for us. He was able to convince the Australian aviation administration that we suffered from temporary insanity caused by total boredom. He worked out a plan such that, if we would promise not to do that ever again, they would promise not to take our pilot's licenses away.