Air Australia International Closes: WA Aviation Legend Chuck McElwee Calls For Time At Jandakot Flight School
Tech Updates

Air Australia International Closes: WA Aviation Legend Chuck McElwee Calls For Time At Jandakot Flight School

Aviation legend Chuck McElwee has visited one of WA’s largest private flight schools, citing a student’s successful crash landing during his first class as just one of the highlights of his action-packed career.

The 76-year-old former US Navy pilot who flew Phantoms in the Vietnam War has lost count of how many thousands of commercial and private pilot careers he has launched since starting Air Australia International at Jandakot Airport during the 1992 recession with just $9000 in cash and no line of credit.

Air Australia International Closes

Three wildly successful decades later, he’s now wrapping paper at his desk in the lobby, deliberately positioned there so he could chat with everyone who walked in.

“I love talking to customers,” Mr. McElwee told The West Australian.

“People call me a grumpy old bastard. I’ve been alluded to in the book, but I kept trading and stuck with the idea that this was a transit for budding commercial pilots, especially flight instructors.

“I used to say to people, ‘if you’re here for more than three years, I’m going to fire you,’ mainly because in three years, you should get the most out of me and go to the next level.”

The company’s entire fleet is up for auction after the official shutdown on Sunday, sparking a social media deluge of good wishes and fond memories from former students, employees, and customers.

Ben Salter described a joy flight he took with Air Australia International as one of life’s greatest experiences. At the same time, Jamal Principe said the company had “contributed so much to WA aviation”.

“They will be missed,” he wrote.

Mr. McElwee says his decision to call it a day came after his wife became ill and spent a few days in the hospital, prompting him to “re-examine what to do”.

Camera icon Chuck McElwee, Commander in Chief of Air Australia International. Credit: Danella Bevis/The West Australian

“I don’t feel old — people tell me I look exactly the same as when they met me,” he said.

“I planned to stay in business for 20 years. Now I’m going to do something else. I don’t know what that is. I’m not sure yet.

“I like to do things that people say I can’t do.

“I’ve been toying with making living history with military fighter pilots. Australia has some – you don’t think you have them – and let them tell their war stories.

“I talk a lot, but every young pilot learns from the stories they hear. That’s called pre-flying.”

One of those stories dates back to 2005 when he crashed into a cul-de-sac in South Lake and ended up upside down in the front yard of someone’s house after hitting power lines.

‘I had drunk too much coffee and hurried back. I go, ‘why does the propeller slow down? Oh shit’.

“I tried for this field, but the plane didn’t reach that far.

“I landed on the plane’s hardest part – my head.

“I made my 501st arrested landing. Unfortunately, there was no aircraft carrier.”

The homeowner came out, gave him a glass of water, and they waited together for emergency services.

The incident that made international headlines and thankfully ended with a smooth landing was in 2019 when Max Sylvester, then 29 years old, was forced to take control just over an hour after his first lesson after his instructor lost consciousness mid-flight.

Air traffic controllers spoke to him across the landing, and he kept his cool as his pregnant wife watched the drama unfold from the airport, shielding their two children from what was happening.

“I’ve done 40 interviews in 48 hours,” said Mr. McElwee.

“He was a good boy, and he’s still flying, still learning.

“This could have ended badly, and he pulled it off, which is always great.”

Air Australia also made headlines for its Mile High Club, which started as a joke around 1993 but gained so much interest that they completed 350-360 mid-air returns over the past 29 years.

On Valentine’s Day, they did six.

“We don’t hear anything, but we feel the earth move,” laughed Mr. McElwee.

He said he got the biggest adrenaline rush when he saw a pilot complete his first solo “or see them come in on a test flight”.

“The first thing they say is, ‘I made a start’. That’s a great feeling right now.”

He joked that his future could be climbing Mount Everest.

“Will I keep flying? I don’t know. Maybe I’ll go watch gliders or something I haven’t done before.

“I would love to fly around the world in a light aircraft, but I don’t know if that will happen. Not rich enough.”