“I’M not in the business of scaring people,” hirsute helicopter pilot, Brett Campany says as we wander across the grassy knoll at Chateau Elan, in the Hunter Valley.
“Flying is all about fun.”
Regardless of whether you know, or, perhaps think you know, that you’re afraid of heights, and thus, afraid of flying, Campany has an undeniably amiable ability to put your mind at ease.
Partly, because of his professionalism as a skilled and qualified helicopter pilot, and partly because of the smile he flashes, which wouldn’t be out of place if, instead, he was the host of The Price is Right or, indeed, Campo’s Catch Phrase.
“My instructor always said I talk too much, but I love getting the conversation going before we take off,” Campany says.
“People are already nervous enough. I find that just talking about this or that relieves some of the anxiety and the tension.”
Campany works for Lake Macquarie-based Skyline Aviation Group.
He handles the scenic helicopter flights and tours around the Hunter Valley wine region; a place well-known for its weekend cavalcade of earthbound bus tours carrying folks hither and yon to taste and sample the fine wines of this world-class vine region.
“When people come up here, they want to have an experience,” he says.
“It’s my job to give it to them; to show them new wineries and other places they might not ordinarily go to. We just happen to do it in a helicopter, rather than a bus.”
Campany believes there’s nothing quite like getting a glimpse of your own backyard 2500 feet up in the air.
“A helicopter is a platform to look at a region from a different perspective,” he explains.
“When people see this region from the air, it gives them a whole new sense of place. People always say they come away with a deeper appreciation for the wines, having seen the vineyards from the air.”
The long blades of the Augusta-Bell 206A Jet Ranger, or Jet Ranger for short, lie motionless, for now, as Campany takes me through the safety briefing.
“Watch your head when you step out of the chopper as the ‘disc’ above our heads will be spinning around pretty quick, just a few feet away from your head,” he says, with a remarkably comforting tone.
“Also, don’t go back any further than the back seats, there’s a massive rotating blade beyond that’s also spinning very, very fast.”
You’ve seen the Indiana Jones classic Raiders of the Lost Ark, right?
“The seat belt up front is a four-point harness,” Campany says, continuing the safety brief, “which will clip around your waist and over your shoulders.
“Now, if we do have a situation, I’ll need you to adopt the brace position; sitting up right, firm into the back rest, and then we’ll just glide down somewhere and I’ll shout you a stiff drink afterwards.”
Inside the cockpit, a classic pair of mint-coloured headsets dangle from a hook above the control panel.
There’s buttons and dials and levers and knobs everywhere.
Somewhat dauntingly, the bottom of the cabin is made of Plexiglass, so you can see straight through the floor of the cockpit, all the way down to the ground.
“That’s a really cool feature of the Jet Ranger, I think,” Campany says.
With my passenger door firmly closed and his still wide open, Campany leans out and yells, “Clear start!”, before gripping the throttle between us to crank the turboshaft engine into life.
Tick, tick, tick goes the gas generator, sparking ignition, and the blades begin to spin. Slow, at first, and then faster and faster, accelerating until they whir above our heads like a hollow disc.
As the noise of the engine moves from a low rumble to a high howl, the Jet Ranger easily breaks gravity’s shackles, lifting us off the grassy green lawn at Chateau Elan, and we soar up into the blue sky above.
Any residual flight anxiety, is quickly dissolved by an uncontrollably broad smile forming across my face, as we levitate at high speed over rows and rows of leafy green Hunter Valley vineyards.
“One of the most beautiful vineyards we fly over is Tyrrell’s,” Campany says suddenly through the radio static.
“It’s got so many colours… and if the sun is in the right position, you’d say the damn thing near glows.”
Seeing the soil profiles shift so quickly is pretty spectacular. From this perspective, so too is the magnificent Brokenback Range. Wedged between the rolling white clouds of the big blue above and the many shades of green and brown below, the ancientness of this imposing escarpment has never been seen more clearly than from up here, in Campany’s chopper.
“We usually do between 20 and 30-minute hops around the Valley, taking in as much as we can while I point out any significant features or locations,” says Campany.
“Other times, guests might book us for a whole day’s wine tour, which includes lunch. So, we might drop into see Angus at Vinden Estate or Usher and Ebony at Usher Tinkler Wines. Sometimes, people will want something different, so I’ll drop guests in for a beer with the boys at Ironbark Brew House. There are so many awesome places to take people around here.
“I think Tatler’s (in Lovedale) is probably the best place to come in for a landing. I mean, it just looks the duck’s nuts with the water fountain running, the wines are great, and, Tess makes a mean coffee.”
Every week, Campany flies groups of families and friends, as well as couples on chartered airborne wine tours around the Hunter Valley. He tells me this as we approach the makeshift landing pad at Tatler’s.
“Proposals are a big one… I’ve had three out here in the last year; had to say no to all of them, obviously,” he says, showing off his wedding ring, flashing me that smile, while doing his best John Burgess impression.
Descending from the sky, we land unscathed, and, me, no longer nervous, on the tiny tombolo jutting out into the Tatler Wines’ dam with the water fountain in full flight (he’s right, you know, it does look pretty awesome).
Strolling as slowly as my adrenaline-fuelled legs will allow, over to Tatler’s cellar door for coffee, wondering if this is what it feels like to be a rock star, Campany confesses: “People say to me all the time, ‘you must love your job’, and I feel guilty for saying so, but,” he says, “When you get to do things like this all day, it’s pretty hard not to.”
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