Former Navy fighter pilot Geoff Litchfield, 90, is hanging up his wings in Port Macquarie on NSW's North Coast after a lifetime of living in the clouds.
The Hastings District Flying Club member has accumulated more than 18,000 hours behind the stick, flying everything from bi-planes to propeller fighter planes, navy jet fighters and passenger aircraft over the last 72 years.
He has made 350 day and night landings, and 205 catapult launches on aircraft carriers such as the HMAS Sydney, HMAS Melbourne, HMS Vengeance, HMS Illustrious and HMS Bulwark while flying over Australia and England.
Born in Glen Innes on NSW's Northern Tablelands and attending school in Tamworth in NSW's north west, he was briefly employed by the Commonwealth Bank. He began his journey to the skies when an ex-airforce pilot took him on a low-level flight in a Tiger Moth single-engine biplane over Bankstown, in Sydney, in 1948.
"As an ex-airforce pilot himself, he was going back in (to the service) and tried to talk me into going with him," he said
"I was 18 at the time and I loved my first impressions of flight. We did some low level flight and aerobatics. Being brought up during the war I had model aircraft, knew all the aircraft from the war and was interested in it.
"Pilots were heroes to us and while I was in Tamworth it was very active during the war. At that time I was too young and immature to know what to do with my life, until that first flight."
IN OTHER NEWS:
As an enthusiastic but fresh-faced recruit, he applied to join the Fleet Air Arm of the Royal Australian Navy in 1951 and was accepted in January 1952.
His training began in Melbourne before the recruits were transferred to join air force recruits at Archerfield in Brisbane, they then flew Tiger Moth and Wirraway military training aircraft near Wagga.
Mr Litchfield remembers advanced training and being issued his wings at RAAF Base Point Cook as the best moment of his life in May 1953.
"That was the proudest day of my life and the moment a country boy had come good," he said.
"I was very proud because I wasn't a scholar at high school, had to repeat second year but something about navigation and flight clicked with me."
He narrowly missed the jet fighting battles of the Korean War from 1950 to 1953, and was shipped to night fighter and aircraft carrier training in the United Kingdom.
As a young buck I was eager to go, but now looking back I think I could have ended up as a cross on the top of a hill.- Geoff Litchfield on air combat.
He undertook instruction to fly Fairey Firefly and Supermarine Seafire Mk.XVII carrier-based fighter planes in Scotland and England before training to fly the Hawker Sea Fury FBII fighter plane in 1954.
"We were commissioned and had to go for advanced training in England. We were transferred to training with the Firefly trainer, which was a huge step," he said.
"We then moved to the Seafire. That was frightening at first because the Seafire went like a rocket, it had half the weight of the Firefly.
"That first flight in the Seafire I was quite high before I pulled the (landing) gear up. It was a dream to fly, to look out and see those elliptical wings knowing you were flying an aircraft that had been in the Battle of Britain. It was magic.
"We only did 48 hours in the Seafire because that was all the Australian government would pay for. I would have loved to have brought one back to Australia, it is far and away my favourite service aircraft.
"This is when we did our initial deck landings with the Sea Fury on the HMS Illustrious. I barely remember the first landing, we did about 20 deck landings over a period of weeks to qualify us for the operational course."
Returning to Australia, he undertook an officers course, joined 805 operational squadron and became part of a three pilot aerobatic formation team which travelled around NSW performing stunts in the Hawker Sea Fury.
"Korea was all over by the time we got back to Australia. We were trained for it and itching to have a go," he said.
"We were never called on for active duty and I've often wondered how I would face up against an opposing pilot.
"As a young buck I was eager to go, but now looking back I think I could have ended up as a cross on the top of a hill somewhere."
Modern jet engine technology pushed him to take a conversion course to fly the de Havilland Vampire single-engine jet fighter, Sea Venom carrier-capable jet aircraft and Gloster Meteor NF.II twin-engined night jet fighter.
"They were pushing us in the direction of becoming night fighters with the Venom. They were faster than the Fury," he said.
"The Vampire and Venom were very easy to learn comparatively. I wasn't very fond of the Venom as a night fighter, thought it was ridiculous back here in Australia and indeed they would fail launch due to the heat in the tropics.
"The Venom saw me out, I decided to take a permanent commission and about three months later the Australian government made the announcement to disband the fixed wing fleet air arm in 1963."
He retired from the Fleet Air Arm in 1963 at 30 years old to become a domestic pilot for Trans-Australia Airlines.
Over the next 30 years of airline flying he flew Douglas DC-3 propeller-driven airliners, F27 and Lockheed Electra turboprop airliners, McDonnell Douglas DC-9 single-aisle airliners, Boeing 727 narrow-body airliners and finished with the Airbus A300 wide-body airliners.
He was one of hundreds of pilots who signed their resignations in the 1989 Australian pilots' dispute, but was largely unaffected because he was only 10 months from pilot retirement age.
Using saved superannuation he bought a Cessna-180 Skywagon general aviation airplane and toured Australia for 10 years. He then took work as an instructor at the British Aerospace/Ansett Air Academy in Tamworth and later moved to Port Macquarie.
"That Australian pilots' dispute went on for some years, some of the fellas went back to work. It was nasty, there were confrontations in the street but it didn't affect me much because I was approaching 60 years old," he said.
"My folly was to buy an aircraft, my wife and I toured the country for several years. Unfortunately there was no income coming in, maintenance going out and we eventually had to sell it."
Mr Litchfield said throughout his career as a fighter pilot, disaster was always a hair's breadth away and he recalls several near collisions during night interception exercises and on the aerobatic team.
"My first solo flight is something I'll never forgot. Flying down the runway and screaming my lungs out," he laughed.
"I certainly don't miss what airline flying has become now, although I have made lifetime friends from both the Navy and airlines.
"I don't think I'll miss flying as much, but unfortunately when you get to this age you have to let boy's toys slide."