End of an Era
At the end of June 2019, the oldest flying school in Archerfield (near Brisbane) closed its hangar doors for the last time. In this article we investigate why this occurred and remember some of the school’s finest products.
Gil Layt’s Flying School first started training new pilots in March 1974 and has been doing so continuously for the last 45 years. In that time countless ordinary folk have been turned into recreational, private and commercial pilots, ready to take on the world of aviation. The school is widely recognised for producing graduates that are both well-trained and well regarded by employers.
So, why did such an illustrious organisation that was so good at achieving results, finally close down? Before we answer that question, let’s look at some history. Join us as we strap into the DeLorean, fire up the flux capacitor, set the destination for 1974 and accelerate down the runway to 88 miles per hour…
Back to the Past
On 29th March 1974, a young man by the name of Gil Layt along with his bride Sue, decided to help meet the then massive demand for new pilots by opening their own flying school. Gil obtained his Instructor Rating at Archerfield in 1968. Four years later, at the tender age of 28 he was told by the airlines that he was too old for a career with them.
At that time, most flying schools were run by ex-air force pilots, with the accompanying formality and structured approach. Gil wanted to provide a school with a more relaxed atmosphere and pioneered the concept of ‘flying without a tie’. That format was intended to appeal to the outback pilots who were not big on the formal dress code imposed by the other schools.
At its peak, the school boasted 19 aircraft on the flight line and 9 instructors. Some quite famous – and infamous – names in aviation have been through its doors over the years.
Since it began, the school has been open every day except for Christmas Days. Even then, you could organise aircraft hire with Gil beforehand if you were that desperate to avoid Christmas lunch with your own family.
Gil was always ready for a chat about the aviation industry and the latest mishaps. Before the internet and facebook, this was how we found out what was going on in the world of flying.
Living in the 70’s
The decade that was the 1970’s was the heyday of bad haircuts, flared pants, pet rocks and a booming General Aviation sector, both in Australia and around the world. The days of cheap fuel were coming to an end thanks to the 1973 energy crisis which déjà vu’ed again in 1979.
1978 saw the peak of GA aircraft production, with almost 18,000 new airplanes delivered that year. However a decade later, production had almost ceased by comparison. To put the frenzy at that time into perspective, in the last ten years (2009 to 2018), less than two and a half thousand new GA aircraft were sold world-wide each year. Sales had been picking up prior to the Global Financial Crisis, but that event brought everything back down to earth, where it has stayed firmly ever since.
Meanwhile, back in the 1970’s, almost everyone wanted to learn to fly. In 1969 man had walked on the Moon and the Jumbo Jet had hit the skies for the first time, as had the supersonic Concorde.
Aviation generally had enjoyed massive growth since the end of WW2. Jets had replaced propellers in the larger airlines. More and more people were flying rather than using the more traditional transport alternatives. While the size of airliners was increasing and the cost of long-distance air travel was reducing, it was still cheaper to fly yourself in a light aircraft. So, everyone wanted to become a pilot.
All these factors contributed to a booming aviation training environment that, sadly, has been in decline ever since.
Back then, learning to fly was a much more social pursuit. Most flying schools and clubs had a bar at which tall tales were exchanged over a beer or seven when the flying day was done. Many lifelong friendships were forged, and networks developed. Some say the term PILOT was actually derived from such occasions because the participants were pissed a lot of the time. The empirical evidence we have seen over the years would tend to corroborate that theory.
The building that houses Gil Layt’s Flying School was built in the late 70’s, and many visitors are amazed at how well it has captured, and retained, the essence of that era. Walking through the flying school door for the first time, one is instantly transported back to a time when everything was brown and/or orange, everyone smoked indoors (including in aircraft), and ‘latest technology’ was a phone sitting on the desk that was not black with a rotary dial.
It took some time to get used to the ‘time machine’, but I think we are all going to miss it in some way or another.
Some Names You Might Recognise…
Of the thousands of pilots who passed through this flying school, there are bound to be some who have become a little better known than the others. Here are a few that spring to mind.
After ‘leaving’ Ansett, perhaps with some signs of boot polish on his posterior, Barry Hempel worked for Gil as an instructor in the early days of the business. Barry was what you might call a ‘colourful flying identity’. He was always getting into trouble with the powers-that-were. One day after yet another phone call from the regulator about Barry’s latest exploits, Gil politely suggested to Barry that he might like to go and open his own flying school. Apparently, Barry had been spotted flying up the main street of a certain Queensland country town. At 50 feet AGL. Inverted. Again.
Whether or not the term ‘go and open his own flying school ‘was intended as a euphemism is not clear, but Barry did in fact open his own school. Unfortunately, his tendency to flaunt the rules increased with age, until his death in 2008 when his Yak crashed into the waters off South Stradbroke Island.
Andrew became an instructor at the school, and ultimately the Chief Flying Instructor. If you don’t know the name you might know the face – he has appeared in CASA information videos such as the OnTrack series. He spent over 14 years with CASA, often presenting their AvSafety seminars around the countryside. He was also largely responsible for the Private Pilot’s favourite publication – the Visual Flight Rules Guide. He was last seen working as a Safety Manager for a group of flying schools in Melbourne.
Another of Gil’s one-time instructors was Gordon Bradberry, who also left to start his own flying school – Arena Aviation – at Archerfield. That lasted for 30 years before moving to Redcliffe in 2006. Sadly, the school only survived for another 6 months before the costs of relocation took their toll on the business. Gordon then returned to Archerfield for a brief stint with AV8 Flying School.
Gordon also served as chief pilot for Skytours, a small charter airline that operated services between Archerfield and Lord Howe Island.
Steve is one of the few true ‘career instructors’ who has worked for many of the flying schools at Archerfield over the years. He worked for Gordon Bradberry and Barry Hempel as well as Brian Westin at Sunland. However, for the last 20 years he has worked at Gil Layt’s, with most of that time spent as CFI. There would not be many people around Archerfield that have not crossed paths with Steve at some point.
… and some Quiet Achievers
GLFS graduates have achieved enormous success in the aviation industry over the years. Here are a few samples of some of the alumni that have emerged from the cocoon to fulfil their flying dreams.
Chris Ban learned to fly at Gil Layt’s in the late 1990’s. After gaining his instructor rating, he then spent the next few years introducing countless students to the joys of flying, myself included. After stints instructing in Melbourne, Adelaide and Perth, Chris returned home to Brisbane and joined a major airline as a First Officer on A320’s. After 3 years he progressed to Captain, the position he still occupies today.
Chris only flies about 400 hours per year, which leaves him plenty of time to enjoy his young family. We asked him if he misses the little planes. “I have no desire to get back into a light aircraft” he told us with no hint of uncertainty. While he still has the passion for aviation, the daily grind has obviously tempered his enthusiasm somewhat. This is definitely not the guy who used to love pulling 3.5g’s in the old Cessna Aerobat during my ‘straight and level’ lessons.
Dugald Boyd learned to fly at Gil Layt’s at the same time as Chris Ban and our own Aero Circus resident Instructor Fabrice. From there he then moved into instructing, then on to mix flying and adventure, building the necessary hours required by anyone serious about their flying career. He worked in various roles including aerial mustering on a remote cattle station in far west Queensland as well as charter flights in Papua New Guinea. He went on to work for the Police Air Wing, building his aviation experience to the point where is he now flying for LifeFlight, a leading medical evacuation unit. This is a career path not very well known to the rest of us – that is the world of corporate flying.
The roster of a typical corporate pilot is to be always on call, with passport, always ready to take off to Indonesia, Japan, Hawaii or other exotic destinations. The pilot and crew are expected to be bouncing down the runway in less than 90 minutes from the time the office calls.
To gain an endorsement for a Learjet, a pilot must go to the US. The cost of the endorsement is around $75,000. It is far cheaper to become endorsed on a more common commercial jet such as a 737, mainly due to the volume of endorsements conducted each year on the more ubiquitous aircraft.
After instructing at Gil Layt’s for a few years, Geoff Thomson took an unusual career path. He joined the Army Reserves and learned to fly helicopters at Oakey in southern Queensland. We’re not sure what prompted the move to the ‘dark side’, but his career has certainly ‘taken off’ since then. Quite a few times.
When Geoff told us that he now flies the Polair helicopters, were we impressed. Now we know where to get an emergency air-drop of doughnuts if we need one. But when he also told us that he flies for Surf Life Saving Queensland, we were a little confused. What gives?
It turns out that the Queensland Police Service does not have an air wing, like some other states. So instead of Queensland Police members flying their own helicopters, they outsource those roles to SLSQ. When the bad guys are all tucked up in bed, Geoff also flies the red and yellow Westpac Lifesaving Rescue machines on surf patrols and rescue missions. Hopefully not in his budgie smugglers.
In case you think the Police have any special privileges when it comes to Class C airspace, think again. If a surveillance job requires the Police helicopter to enter Class C airspace (for example around Brisbane) and ATC are a bit busy juggling A380’s, then the chase stops there.
Perhaps instead of mucking about with ASIC’s in the name of security, we should be more concerned about the bad guys getting hold of VTC’s to plan their getaways.
Becoming a pilot with the Royal Flying Doctor Service is generally considered the pinnacle of general aviation in Australia. From the Pilatus PC-12’s to the King Airs, and now the PC-24 jets, the fleet is the envy of all other GA organisations. Michael Urquhart earned his CPL at Gil Layt’s and a few short years later he found himself flying for the RFDS.
Michael is a very talented pilot and hence was advised to choose that path to maximise the use of his aviation skills. No ‘press the start button then go to sleep’ for this young aviator.
The entire Aero Circus team was trained at Gil Layt’s. From RPL through to Grade 1 Instructor, we all earned our wings there, and I suspect, will remember the school fondly for the rest of our lives.
The Last Waltz
For the last-ever flying lesson conducted by Gil Layt’s Flying School, a couple of Aero Circus clowns took to the air in VH-UGF. This is the Cessna 150 that has been part of the school since it was first wheeled off Noah’s ARK all those years ago. Not many people know that ‘ARK’ is an acronym for ‘AiRcraft Karrier’. True!
My first 3 flying lessons were in this very aircraft in 2002, and it was no spring chicken back then. But neither was I. In fact, UGF rolled off the Wichita production line about the same time as Gil opened the flying school. It already had 28 years of student pilot abuse under its belt when I first climbed aboard to terrorise the Brisbane skies. Seventeen years later, it might be showing its age cosmetically, but it is still as reliable as ever.
Because the instructor for the lesson was rumoured to have some French heritage, the call sign for the flight was changed to ‘Yoplait One’. Fortuitously, as we taxied one last time to holding point Bravo 5 for a few circuits on Runway 10 Left, the entire class D airspace around Archerfield was suddenly devoid of traffic. The whole zone was ours, and we planned to make the most of it.
Back at the flying school, the crowd gathered around the radio to listen to the proceedings. Just like we used to do before TV’s relieved us the need to actually think about what was going on.
We started with a short field take-off, hanging a few inches above the runway until we reached the downwind threshold. With just over 90 knots on the ASI, we pulled back smartly on the yoke and zoom-climbed to about 300 feet in a couple of seconds. Levelling out, we turned quickly to overfly the school and the assembled guests at low level. That flightpath is rarely available due to other traffic and especially helicopter training, so we were very fortunate with the timing.
As we had arranged for some photographers to gain access to the control tower to record this historic occasion, we next made an approach to Runway 04 Right, flying past the tower on late final. As the grass runways were out of service due to recent rain, we executed a go-around and headed back to Runaway 10 Right for another tower flypast.
Then it was time for a one-wheel landing (the kind you need to use when you have a blown tyre, for example), then one last attempt at the record for the quickest circuit. At 1 minute 33 seconds from touchdown to touchdown, it was a new record, and one we won’t be trying to outdo for some time. It sure beats those long and tedious circuits, following some ill-informed pilots who think every circuit is a navex.
We finished with a nice long landing using the Night VFR technique, and taxied off the runaway at Bravo 1 and back to the flying school flight line for the last time.
Another One Bites The Dust
Parts 141 and 142 of the Civil Aviation Sabotage Regulations 1998 have effectively forced all flight training organisations into one of the following courses of action.
- Introduce a bureaucratic management structure into their perfectly functioning organisation, just to satisfy a larger bureaucracy that at times appears to exist purely to weave an ever more tangled web without actually achieving any quantifiable benefits.
- Move their training business to the recreational sector under RA-Aus where they can continue to function as in the past but with a few limitations such as a 600kg MTOW and maximum 2 seat aircraft.
- Hoist the white flag and close the doors.
Gil Layt’s Flying School has closed down. Not because the owner is running out of money. Not because of quality of the instructors (the last three were all grade one). Not because of health issues.
The school has closed because of the changes forced upon it in the name of … we are not sure what. It is not safety, as the remaining flying schools keep turning out the same (often poor) results. It is definitely not efficiency.
Time marches on. The world changes, and to survive, any business must change with it. But forcing change for no apparent gain does not seem to be the smartest move.
Perhaps the government would be better served by trying to find a solution to the growing problems in GA. Time is running out, and it appears that those with the power to make changes for the better do not have any idea that a problem even exists.
Meanwhile, good people are just giving up.
Aero Circus is now officially hangarless and destitute. The place we have called home (some of us for more than 20 years) is fading into the sunset. Where will we get our regular aviation fix from in the future? Stay tuned.