Bill Larkin's final flight
Published in Verandah 21, August 2006
My grandfather was a dive bomber pilot in the Second World War. In the last months of his life, in a nursing home in Colac, Grandpa would enact emergency landings and go into imagined debriefing sessions from his hospital bed. When he died on Remembrance Day in 2000, our family decided to scatter his ashes from the air, tossing them from a light plane over the Colac Municipal Airfield which he had helped establish.
We had planned for years to pay homage to Grandpa’s passion for aviation by throwing his ashes from an aeroplane. When the time came, Grandma, drained from years of caring for her husband, decided not to be present for the event, instead entrusting the task to my mother and three uncles.
It’s a good thing she decided to stay home. In her state of grief, I don’t think Grandma would have appreciated the fun we had that day, chucking Grandpa out of a plane.
In spite of the traumas Grandpa suffered during his time in the war and that he revisited in his mind during the late stages of his dementia, his love of aircraft continued throughout his life. He was a founding member of the Colac Aero Club where my uncle Paul went on to earn his pilot’s license. Throughout their marriage, my grandparents travelled widely and came back with as many stories about airports as the countries they had visited. Books about aircraft littered the shelves at their house and a model aeroplane, a Vulti Vengeance, sat next to the clock.
My grandparents met in 1941 while they were both stationed at Port Pirie during the war. Lucy Gregg was training to be a nurse and Bill Larkin was a flight officer in the Royal Australian Air Force. They met one night at a party on the foreshore that some of the girls at the hospital had organised for the airmen. Grandma hadn’t wanted to go but the others talked her into it. ‘I was on duty until 9:30,’ Gran tells me. ‘I thought, I haven’t got time to have a shower, so I went into the outpatients department and squirted some local anaesthetic on myself to make me smell like boronia.’ It was dark when she arrived. ‘They said, “You’re going with Bill,” and I thought, who the hell’s Bill? I don’t think he was keen on going either, so we paired up.’
When they arrived at the foreshore there was a stone wall at the edge of the beach. ‘I said, “How am I going to get down?” and this voice said, “Jump and I’ll catch you.” So I did and I lobbed on his nose.’ Grandpa’s nose bled and bled. He responded to the assault three days later with a marriage proposal.
During their engagement Grandpa got them both in trouble by swooping down in his plane and doing barrel rolls over the hospital. As a result he was grounded for a month to dig trenches. ‘Matron said it was Nurse Gregg’s mad boyfriend,’ says Grandma. ‘He ended up being a dive bomber pilot; maybe that came into it. He dive bombed the hospital.’
She had her leave docked for a month after sneaking out to see him while he was grounded. ‘There was a thing in the fence we could shift and we used to get in and out through there. The night I got caught for pinching leave I’d put a couple of pillows in my bed and the matron, the old bugger, came and had a look and I wasn’t there.’
Decades later, after Grandpa had been admitted to a nursing home suffering from dementia, the more distressing of his wartime experiences began to manifest themselves. At his funeral my mother, Helen, read a poem she wrote about the nights she spent by his bedside, trying to get him to eat while he escaped from crash landings or went into debriefing sessions with his superiors.
I have helped him climb
from a smashed cockpit -
when we crash landed
and chucked guns overboard -
and I have taken
broken windscreen from
his smashed up forehead, she read.
Tonight we did one ninety eight down the edge
whatever that means.
When Grandpa finally died at the age of eighty we began to investigate in earnest the process involved with scattering his remains from the air. We were dismayed to find that it was against local council regulations, but luckily our funeral directors, Chris and Therese Quinn, had the same lively disregard for the rules that my grandparents had displayed all those years ago. ‘On the day we went in to organise Dad’s funeral, Mum told Chris that someone else had wanted to scatter their husband’s ashes over the airstrip and had been told it was against regulations,’ says my mother. ‘Chris said, bugger that, I know someone who’ll do it. Leave it to me.’ The Quinns arranged for a charter pilot, who had apparently done this sort of thing before, to fly down from Ceres, near Geelong, to the Colac airfield.
Colac Municipal Airfield lies about fifteen minutes out of town, in Irrewarra. Set on a block of land surrounded by paddocks populated by sheep and cows, the airfield comprises about half a dozen hangars, a fuel tank, a runway marked out in the grass with stout white cones and the Colac Aero Club headquarters. A yellow windsock hangs across from the runway and a wooden box outside the club office asks for a three dollar donation for every landing to help with the upkeep of the airfield. The Aero Club was founded in 1962 by three Bills – Bill Amezdroz, Bill Riley and my grandfather, Bill Larkin. Grandpa, a chartered accountant, was club treasurer from 1962-65 and again from 1973-76. Back then the airfield was located at Yeodene, about ten minutes east of Colac on the other side of the Princes Highway.
‘We started out at Joe Meredith’s place,’ remembers Grandma. ‘It was just a dairy farm. I think they had sheep too, we used to have to shoo the things off the runway so we could take off and land.’
My uncle Paul, the third youngest in the family, remembers his older brother Chris chasing sheep off the runway early one morning when he had just got his driver’s license. ‘Dad asked us to chase the sheep off the runway while he opened the hangar,’ Paul tells me. ‘I thought Chris was going to turn the car over. He was showing me how you can do 360 spins. Worked rather well the first two times. The third time around I thought we were going to come unstuck.’
Paul earned his restricted private pilot’s license in 1967 after thirty hours of practice flying with a chain-smoking trainer from Grovedale. That year, his matriculation year at Colac High School, he used his license to get out of participating in the annual cross country event. ‘Cross country was compulsory and it was across some awful distance in the Otways,’ he says. ‘I persuaded one of the teachers who was making the school magazine that I should fly him over the top to take photographs. It was quite funny, flying along and looking through the treetops at all these silly buggers running, thinking, ha ha, I don’t have to do that.’
Mum remembers an open day held at the Yeodene airstrip when she was young. The doors had been taken off the Aero Club’s Cessna 172 and there was a competition to drop flour bombs on targets from the air. ‘One of the guys in the plane with me got a bit carried away and tried to drop flour bombs on people’s cars,’ she says. ‘They had a tendency to dint the roofs. Can’t remember his name – jeez he was a mad bastard.’
We were all fairly quiet as we arrived at the Irrewarra airfield. Mum, my sister Lotte and I arrived with my three uncles. Chris had come down from Queensland for the funeral, Paul from Paris. David, the oldest, had arrived from Melbourne. Gavan Fox, a friend of the family and professional photographer, came with us to capture the moment on film. Grandpa came along in a strangely domestic-looking receptacle, a square, beige plastic number that resembled Tupperware or a thermos. The pilot arrived in a Cessna 185, a taildragger. He discussed the plan for the day with Paul, who once scattered a friend’s ashes from his own plane in Botswana. The rest of us filed into the Aero Club’s office space to make our preparations; above our heads we read Grandpa’s name, W. Larkin, repeated over and over on the honour roll.
Mum had brought along three reams of crepe paper in white, red and blue, the colours of the RAAF. On the table she carefully spread out three layers, one in each colour. Someone opened the oddly unceremonial-looking urn, and poured Grandpa out onto the centre of the paper. His ashes had an unexpected texture; a fine plume of dust rose into the air while some chunkier bits of rubble made a dull sound against the table.
‘He went all through the flying office,’ says Mum. ‘Clouds of Dad. Like a little explosion.’
The pilot had suggested that we put rose petals in with the ashes so Mum brought some from her garden. When she tipped them onto the crepe paper a pile of earwigs came out. We wrapped up the bundle of ashes, earwigs and rose petals and stepped outside into the sun.
The Cessna was a six-seater and we realised someone had to remain on the ground. I volunteered. I imagined watching from below as the parcel was thrown from the plane, the crepe paper layers unfurling and Grandpa’s ashes gradually spreading in the wind and gently falling to the ground. I could picture perfectly in my mind the visual poetry this act was going to create, and I wanted to witness it from the best possible vantage point. So I stayed on the ground while the others piled into the plane and Gavan rifled through lenses and filters. Boy, did I miss out on a party.
It was a beautiful day. It was edging into summer and the sky was a perfect blue, the air still and warm. The propeller made a healthy chugging sound as the pilot taxied and took off. Overhead the plane did a few circuits around the surrounding field and settled into a rhythm.
Suddenly a white streamer came into view from the side of the plane and fluttered to the ground, the signal that Grandpa was about to follow. ‘Here it comes,’ said Gavan to me from behind his telephoto lens. Then a blue shape emerged from the plane and was airborne – and then it plummeted to the ground around a hundred metres from the office building, landing in the long grass.
It was graceless, undignified. I didn’t know whether to be shocked or disappointed. Turns out I was meant to be amused. Everyone else was.
It was Uncle Chris’s job to turf Grandpa out the window. ‘The pilot said that the bloke who chucks it out the window hangs onto the end of the roll and tips it out the window and it all unrolls and the petals come fluttering to the ground and the ashes blow away into dust,’ Chris tells me in his laconic Aussie drawl down the phone from Queensland. ‘Very sort of theoretically terrific. We went up to about a thousand feet and he said this would be a good spot, they’d be able to get photographs on the ground and the ashes would scatter right down the runway. What happened was the bit I was hanging onto just tore off, and I was left with a couple of inches of crepe in my clenched fist. The pilot was doing this really steep turn to watch the proceeding and there was this bloody crepe suzette going neeiyow straight into the runway.’
‘I think he bounced the first time,’ remembers Mum. ‘Landed amongst the sheep.’ The plane landed and everyone, including the pilot, spilled out and began wading through thigh-high grass, searching for Grandpa.
Although Chris jokes about it now, Paul thinks he was quite emotional on the day. ‘I had the parcel of Dad on my lap. The window didn’t open on my side but it did on Chris’s so I turned around and said, open the window and throw this out. He looked most upset.’
From my station near the office I watched my family stride through the grass, hooting and shouting to each other as they searched. I heard them laughing and cracking jokes – they were having a great time. ‘We landed and everyone jumped out of the plane and climbed over barbed wire fences and went hunting in the long grass for Grandpa’s ashes. It was like a jelly bean hunt or something,’ says Mum. Finally someone located him, still intact after falling from such a great height. There were cheers of victory before everyone piled back in and the plane swished through the grass and took off once more.
Once again, the package went plummeting to the ground. ‘And fair dinkum,’ says Chris, ‘it just landed about ten metres from where it landed the first time.’ This was attributed to Grandpa’s skill as a dive bomber pilot during the war. ‘We decided he was having the last laugh on us,’ reckons Mum. ‘He didn’t crash when he was alive, he wasn’t going to crash when he was dead.’
‘This time the pilot said he couldn’t waste time landing on the airstrip so he landed in the paddock,’ recalls uncle Paul. ‘Because it was a taildragger they’re quite rugged and can land virtually anywhere.’ The pilot landed as close as he could to where the parcel had fallen without risking landing on top of it. This time there was some damage to the package, and a plastic bag was retrieved from the plane. The party went back up into the sky for a third try. This time they were successful – to a degree.
‘We had to stuff the whole thing out the window because it was so busted, you couldn’t expect it to unroll,’ says Chris. ‘So here I am poking it out the window and trying to break up the crepe paper and all the ashes went into this great big turmoil! Half of it went out, and the other half got sucked back into the plane.’
From the ground I saw the package spiral rapidly and ungracefully to the ground, a trail of dust pluming behind it. Meanwhile, Grandpa flew around inside the plane, getting into everyone’s hair and clothes and throats. When the plane landed, my family tumbled out, brushing themselves down and laughing hysterically. Mum held open T-shirt and peered down the neck hole. ‘Dad’s in my cleavage,’ she hooted.
‘It was funny though,’ she says in retrospect, ‘we didn’t get any earwigs or rose petals in our faces, we just got my father.’
‘Grandpa got in my ears,’ adds Lotte.
Mum, District Leader for the Girl Guides, says the reason the package refused to open was the materials used. ‘We went to a Guide camp a week or so later and we were telling some of the leaders about it,’ she says. ‘They were like, it’s the crepe paper, it’s too strong. You should know that as a Guide leader!’
Everyone was in good spirits, the pilot offering to clean up the mess in the plane when he got home. ‘He said, “I’ll make sure my wife has a clean bag in the vacuum cleaner when I get back, I’ll suck him out and scatter him on my airstrip too,’ remembers Mum. Chris went to write an entry in the logbook in the office, and we were all sternly reminded by Paul, who was perhaps the most concerned about protecting Gran’s feelings, that none of this was to be reported to her.
According to the story we told her, everything went perfectly. ‘We told her that I had actually flown the plane, which I hadn’t,’ says Paul. ‘That was a big thing for her. What got me most worried was that she said she’d been thinking about it in our absence, and she wanted us to do the same thing for her when she dies, which brought on gales of laughter.’
‘We just kept giggling at each other over dinner,’ says Mum. ‘Grandma didn’t know what was going on. She probably thought it was the hysteria of grief.’
Recently Grandma found out the whole story. ‘Helen said one day, do you wonder why we were going on like that after we scattered Dad’s ashes? And then it came out.’ In retrospect she’s relieved that she made the decision not to watch the event: ‘I’m glad I wasn’t there. I couldn’t associate your Grandpa with ashes. It was a bit beyond me.’
Although Grandma is renowned within the family for being a misery guts, she can still take her mind back to the good times she had with Grandpa. ‘He used to take me flying up and down the coast. That was lovely. We’d fly out over the seaside. In a Cessna.’