It was ten years last month since Ben Merkenhof’s father, Bob, died suddenly from heart failure at the age of 59. In the decade following the devastating loss, Ben has continued to pay tribute to his father the best way he knows how, by carrying on the aviation enthusiast’s work restoring vintage aircraft.
Bob had overseen the restoration of a 1940 VH-EEI Tiger Moth in 2004, in the process winning the title of Antique Aircraft Association of Australia’s Best Tiger Moth (2004).
Tragically, Bob died before finishing work on another classic wartime plane, a Stearman (Boeing) Model A75-L300 biplane, one of only 282 that were built for the US Navy in 1940.
In honour of his father’s memory, Ben began overseeing work on the World War Two training plane, aptly naming it “Big Bob” in his honour.
Ben also grabbed an opportunity to buy the hanger at Cessnock Airport where his father had been storing the Tiger Moth and set up Hunter Valley Vintage Wings, an aviation museum designed to promote and share his father’s passion for vintage aviation through stationary displays and joy flights.
The business has been a source of comfort and joy for Ben, who still hears his father’s voice every time he sees an eagle soar through the sky.
“May 7 this year was the tenth anniversary of his passing, so that sort of hit home fairly hard,” Ben said.
“He had a few iconic sayings, and one of them was, ‘Does an eagle’s arse pucker in a power dive?’, so when I see an eagle flying in the sky and the Tiger Moth sitting there with a customer on board and it’s a beautiful morning (I feel closer to him).
“The Hunter Valley is a wonderful area to fly in. We call it God’s Country for flying because of the vineyards and the Brokenback Mountain Range and in the morning you’ll get the fog or clouds dripping off the side of the mountain range... it's a magic sort of arena to take a vintage aircraft flying with passengers.
“I had a fair idea that I was going to give (the business) a crack, but I had no idea that it’d still be going ten years later, so it is quite an honour to be able to continue doing this in his memory.”
Over the years Ben has added to his father’s collection of planes, including his first solo restoration project, a Tiger Moth VH-YYI, which had spent 66 years on the ground from 1947 until March 2014 when the restoration was completed. Like his father’s Tiger Moth before it, Ben’s biplane also went on to win a Best Tiger Moth Restoration Award from the national antique aircraft organisation.
Aside from the two Tiger Moths and the Stearman, which are the planes most commonly used for their joy flights, Hunter Valley Vintage Wings also has several other aircraft on display in the hanger, which visitors can look at and learn more about.
Education is a major feature of the museum – Ben hosts weekly Sights, Sounds and Stories sessions to bring to life the history of the iconic planes, which were used to train the pilots of the British Empire and Allied Forces during World War II.
“We’ve got four vintage 1940's aircraft in the hangar at the moment, which are two Tiger Moths, the Boeing Stearman and a Piper Cub, which was used throughout the European arena for World War Two as a spotting plane,” Ben said.
“Over and above that we’ve got a T-6 Texan (also known as a Harvard), which is a 600 horsepower aircraft. This particular model is a 1954 model, which is done up in colours from the Korean conflict. It was used for what they call Forward Air Control or FAC with a pilot and an observer, and they'd go and find targets of opportunity and help artillery and ground forces etc, adjust aim and where to go and what to do.
“We’ve also got a more modern Pitts Model 12, which is probably one of the most powerful of its type in the world.
“The experience starts (for a visitor) when they walk in the hangar; there’s 1940s era music playing in the background, and there's lots of artwork on the walls, so they spend time just wandering around looking at everything.
“It’s not just for the person who's flying, the experience is for everyone that comes with them, and it is about education because if people don't learn about the vintage aircraft they’ll end up dying away, and people will forget them.”
While Ben has a private pilot’s licence, having learnt to fly in his father’s original Tiger Moth, he has a team of commercial pilots that take the visitors on their joy flights, with his role focussed around the education side of the presentation. While he doesn’t get to spend as much time in the air himself these days, Ben is content seeing the smiles on the faces of the passengers after they return from their journeys.
“I was learning to fly in the Tiger Moth when Dad passed away, which I finished doing, but I’ve still only got a private license, so I have a few commercial pilots that work for me,” he said.
“I do what we call the meet, greet and seat on the ground, discuss the history of the planes, the role they have played and so forth. I guess my passion really stems towards the smiles on faces when they come back from their ride. That's where I get my buzz.
“Open cockpit flying, especially in a vintage aircraft, is a very visceral experience. You sense every minute of the flight, the wind in the wires, wind in the hair – that can be overwhelming for some, but quite frankly nervous flyers are our best customers because they come back with the biggest smiles.
“There can be some trepidation from passengers about doing the flight, but they get quite excited when they taxi out and line up on the runway… about 12 seconds after they’ve had the throttle applied they’re already off the ground in about 100-120 metres. The first thing that comes to mind as they look out the window, or over the side of the plane, is ‘Wow, we’re already off the ground.
“All of a sudden this feeling of flight really waves over them and then they’re looking around and having an absolute blast.”
Aside from taking in the spectacular scenery of the Hunter Valley, the flight path can sometimes be customised, especially for locals who get a thrill out of seeing familiar places from a whole new perspective.
“The pilots are very good, they’re continually talking to the passenger, so if the passengers are looking out the left at something they’ll note that and they'll tell them what they're looking at,” Ben said.
“We tell people we're about to turn before we turn so there's no surprises, we don't do the aerobatic side of things, we leave that to other people. We want the passenger to have fun, not just the pilot.
“We can tailor the route that we do if they live locally, so if they wanted to look at their property, we can certainly go and do an orbit or two over their property. We’ve had customers fly over their house, and they’ve got toilet paper on the roof marking out a big sign with Happy Birthday or something of that nature, so that’s exciting for the locals.
“For the people who are coming from far and wide, they just can't believe how beautiful the countryside is for a start, and to experience it in the Rolls Royce of Tiger Moths… they’re able to really relax and enjoy the flight.
“Our feedback on Facebook and Trip Advisor and everything else says exactly that, and it's all five-star reviews because people have enjoyed the experience, and that’s where the enjoyment comes from for me.”
Hunter Valley Vintage Wings is located at Cessnock Airport, 3 DeHavilland Drive, Pokolbin and is open Fridays, Saturdays, Sundays and Mondays. They offer a range of joy flights from 15 minutes through to an hour, as well as information sessions and venue hire to create truly unique and intimate private or corporate events for up to 80 people.
Visit www.huntervalleyjoyflights.com.au for more information.