Friday, April 19, 2024

High flyer – Pilot and plane builder, Leanne McKenzie

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Serena Kirby, ARR.News
Serena Kirby, ARR.News
Serena Kirby is a freelance reporter, writer and photographer based in regional Western Australia. With a background in public relations, education and tourism she’s had 30 years experience writing and photographing for local, national and international publications. Her current focus is on sharing stories from the sticks; its people, places and products and the life that lies beyond the city limits. She enjoys living in a small town while raising a tall teenager.

You could easily say that Leanne McKenzie is a high flyer – but not in the traditional sense of the word.  Leanne is a pilot but she’s also President of her local aero club in Albany WA and she’s one of less than a handful of females to hold such a position. 

But Leanne has another venture underway and it’s one that her aero club is actually famous for as the Albany Aero Club was once a global hub for self-built planes.

“Back in the early 2000s Albany had the highest number of self-built planes per capita in the world,” explains Leanne.

“They were kit planes from an American company called Van’s and, at the time, pilots in Albany had built, or were building, almost two dozen of these.”

Leanne says that these kit planes cost around $200,000 but they’re considerably cheaper than paying $500,000 for one that’s already built. 

“You buy the kit in sections and it’s a bit like a meccano set; a very large and intricate one.”

Leanne is continuing that Albany tradition of plane-building having now started construction on her own Van’s aircraft. 

“I used to have a drone business and I loved the technical side of building them and creating this thing that could fly. When I first moved to Albany I’d come out to the hangars and poke my nose around and see all the guys building their planes. They were so knowledgeable and encouraging and they started prompting me to build my own. I finally took the plunge last year and got started building the tail section of a four-seater plane.” 

Building one of these planes requires dedication, concentration and countless hours with many people taking a decade to complete it. Leanne is aiming for completion in half that time and her commitment is born from an interest in flying that began when she was a teenager. 

“I’d always been interested in planes and when I saw the Top Gun movie all I wanted to do was fly jets. But the Australian Air Force wasn’t training female pilots back then and if I couldn’t fly jets I just wasn’t interested. I went and became a civil engineer instead.”

Years passed and Leanne tried other air-activities; she rode in a hot air balloon and skydived from a plane at 14,000 feet. 

“Skydiving was an incredible experience but when I was up there I just kept thinking, ‘Why am I doing this and why am I jumping out of a perfectly good plane?’ Because of that, I only ever did it once.”

It wasn’t until Leanne was in her late 30s that, on impulse, she decided to return to her teenage-dream of becoming a pilot and started lessons in Perth. And, within days of gaining her private pilot’s licence, she was flying across Australia in an outback air race, raising funds for the RFDS. After further training Leanne got her commercial licence and flew scenic flights for tourists.

With countless hours now in her flight log and having flown numerous aircraft in a variety of locations there’s one thing that Leanne sees as sadly lacking in the world of aviation… female pilots.

Statistics back up her observation as only around 5 per cent of the world’s commercial pilots are women.

“We have more than 50 members in our club and only three are female pilots. We have so many amazing veteran pilots in our club and these guys hold decades of experience and knowledge that they’re keen to pass on.”

Leanne definitely hopes that by sharing her love of flying that other women will be inspired to take to the skies and discover the wonderful world of aviation.


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