How Des trained his Dragon
NO MATTER where Des Porter flies his Dragon, it pulls a crowd, like Dragons always have.
But to him and his family, the rare vintage biplane is far more than simply an aircraft.
More, too, than the Australian aviation history its purring twin engines carry in every time Des lands it.
And much more than the sum the Brisbane auto mechanic managed to scrape together over the seven years to have the aircraft rebuilt.
The airliner's spruce and plywood frame, once covered with the finest Irish linen, is part of the fabric of the Porter family.
Des's father and older brother Keith died in a Dragon crash. Des was on board, too, but somehow escaped. He was 10.
"It was Saturday, October 23, 1954," he says. His mother forbade him to ever fly an aircraft.
Everyone at Caboolture Airport knows Des and his Dragon.
"Just keep going down that way," the bloke motions with his head as he wrestles with a gyro-copter motor. "You can't miss 'em."
Des comes up with family and friends at least twice a month from his home in Tingalpa, on Brisbane's eastside, to take the aircraft for a spin.
The little airport is dotted with gliders, Tiger Moth two-seater biplanes, a swarm of other exotic flying machines, and no end of air enthusiasts.
"It will be in a minute," the man says as he struggles to strip the cover from his veteran Cessna.
To the south-east, the Dragon curls over the top of the hangars. Des and his passengers spent the morning at Watts Bridge out near Kilcoy, meeting with other fliers at a private airstrip.
The aircraft touches down lightly, and rolls up, its Gypsy Major engines buzzing.
Des, perched at the front of the fuselage, slides open the slide window and waves.
"You get a great view from there," he says later.
Only four Dragon DH84s are still flying anywhere in the world. Des's is pristine, sparkling in the autumn sun.
Dragons, first built in Britain from 1932, have a venerable service record.
They had been designed by de Havilland as a bomber for Iraq, but were soon modified for general use. During the Second World War, versions built in Sydney were used as transport and navigation trainers.
After the war, fledgling Queensland airline Qantas used some as passenger aircraft.
Trans Australia Airlines - TAA - also had several, while the Royal Flying
Doctor Service used them as air ambulances.
The aircraft's distinctive art deco lines are a testament to 1930s styling. That some are still flying, to 1930s engineering.
Des's head has not always been in the clouds.
His dad, Stan, had a dairy farm in Brisbane and was a mad-keen pilot.
"Dad's first flight was with Smithy," Des says, taking off his sun glasses as he walks into the hangar where his Dragon rests.
"He was a paying passenger - just a boy, then."
Australian aviation legend Charles Kingsford Smith, as many of the early airmen and women did, made a little money from joy flights.
Some took off and landed at bigger, more public spots like Brisbane's Exhibition Ground, but it was the Age of Air.
Airfields were everywhere.
And if one was not available, pilots landed on beaches or in paddocks - anywhere there was flat space.
Small freight, mail delivery and charter air companies blossomed across Australia, as the country wrestled with the tyranny of distance.
So it was not that surprising that Stan spent his spare time tinkering with aircraft.
"Dad built an airstrip on the farm," 68-year-old Des recalled, smiling.
"He had nine aircraft before he bought the first Dragon."
Stan's Dragon had put in stalwart service before coming into the hands of the farmer.
She was flown by Airlines Pty Ltd - APL - before Queensland Airways bought her.
The Dragon had been on the mail run from Brisbane through Wide Bay, including Murgon, Kingaroy and the Cracow goldfield.
"Two blokes would load the gold into the plane in Cracow, and 10 would be there to unload it in Brisbane," he says, breaking into a laugh.
He had the aircraft from 1952 for two years before it crashed at Archerfield Airport and was damaged beyond repair. No one was hurt.
By April, 1954, he had put together enough cash to buy another Dragon. They were not cheap, costing about twice as much as a car.
Six months later, the air adventure turned tragic.
Stan and both of his sons took off to do a favour for a neighbour: to scatter the ashes of the family's patriarch over the land he had loved.
But something went wrong, and the Dragon cartwheeled into nearby Doboy Creek. Stan and Keith, who was 13, drowned.
Des, at the insistence of his mother, stayed well away from aircraft. A few years later, he left school and became a mechanic.
He had his own business by the end of the '60s, and took a liking to drag racing, first at Surfers Paradise, and then at Willowbank near Ipswich.
Des, now a father of two, stayed away from flying aircraft until the 1990s.
It had been almost 45 years after the fatal crash when he saw an ad in an aviation magazine.
Vintage aviation specialist Mothcair, based at Murwillumbah Airport in northern New South Wales, planned to rebuild a Dragon. It was looking for a buyer.
"I said to mum, 'we've got to have this'," Des says.
She was not really happy, but relented.
The cost was a bit of a problem.
"Like everyone else, they didn't know how much it would cost to rebuild a Dragon - no one had done it," Des said.
Mothcair - brothers Greg and Nick Chellinor - had done up Tiger Moths, but never such a big biplane.
"They thought it would cost about twice as much as a Moth - but that was a bit optimistic, as it turns out."
He would not reveal exactly how much.
The years it took to rebuild was a blessing. Getting his pilot's licence for such a unique aircraft took years and required one of the few accredited Dragon pilots in the world to be flown in from New Zealand to do the final test.
The meticulously-rebuilt Dragon can carry up to five passengers for about three-and-a-half hours - a range of more than 1000km.
Since 1996, when she first took to the skies, Des has flown all over Australia.
"It's been worth it," Des says. "Well worth it ..."
But there is one more twist to Des's Dragon's tale.
While Mothcair was working on her, the Chellinors discovered that the tail section had come from Brisbane.
It was from the first Dragon that Des's dad had owned: Riama, named after a World War One flyer.