For the best views from above, take a bespoke Air Tour with Australia’s most experienced pilots in a comfy private jet.
Kirkhope Aviation began their flying adventures in the mid ‘70s taking intrepid travelers on trips into outback Australia. Over the years, these outback air adventures became a passion and the company began specializing in tours around Australia, particularly the Kimberley and Red Centre. Based out of Melbourne, VIC, Wandermelon recently caught up with the owner Tony Kirkhope and one of his most experienced pilots, Keith Siler to find out more about the incredible views from above and what gets them up, up and away.
How long have you been flying for? And how did you come to set up KA?
Tony: I started in the 1970s at Wollongong with joy flights around Sydney and the Sydney Opera House and opened Kirkhope Aviation in 1974 after a water skiing accident in the Nationals that temporarily ended my passion for water skiing, so I took up flying instead. In the beginning it was just Keith and myself – now we have another 7 pilots flying 5 aircraft: a twin engine Baron, two Piper Chieftains, a Piper Navajo and a pressurized twin turbine Super King Air.
Keith: I started out as an Airforce cadet in the 1960s and had just completed my commercial pilot’s license when I met Tony. In the beginning it was exciting to get your license, but we both wanted to do more and not just fly in the same old circles. We both had engineering backgrounds and shared a love of flying, so it seemed like a natural thing for us to do… what began as a hobby turned into a life-changing career.
What sort of experiences can you offer that no one else can?
Tony: Heavy rains during the ‘80s and ‘90s caused a flurry of interest around Lake Eyre and a bounty of wildflowers, which everyone was keen to see. So this created a large interest in more intimate and personal flying experiences that were tailored to suit our clients’ needs.
Keith: We go off the beaten track to places that other commercial airlines simply don’t go to. We have access to private airports and dirt and grass tracks and can pretty much land anywhere. We offer more of an African Safari style of travel and have a wide range of unique tours that include wineries, golfing, fishing, skiing, and gourmet dining experiences.
Tony: Clients really enjoy and benefit from their personal relationships that we share with our clients. That personal touch makes the world of difference and opens up a lot of doors. This is a ‘bucket list’ type trip. People get to do stuff they don’t normally do or see. We offer a very authentic and unique perspective of outback Australia. We work with the best people and we like to have fun!
Do you cater to groups or individuals? What works best?
Tony: Groups are ideal because they can be designed bespoke. Alternatively, we do scheduled set itinerary tours from 1 to 14 days, and solo travelers can join them individually. Travelers can visit the Tasmania Isles, the Pilbara and WA coast, South Australia, Flinders Ranges, the center of Australia, the Kimberley’s and the Top End, as well as Cape York and more. We’ll pretty much go anywhere!
Where do most of your clients come from? And what attracts them?
Tony: We get a lot of business through word of mouth and repeat customers. The majority of our clients are Australian and many of our internationals come as guests of Aussie friends. We have quite a few corporate clients who use our services and a few roving grey nomads.
Keith: The great thing is that you can see so much in such a short period. We really pack it in and if you are short on time, this is a fantastic way to cover a lot of ground. We also take people to the heart of local communities – and that is pretty cool – for everyone!
Describe your ideal trip and your ideal guests?
Keith: Our best trips involve people looking to really experience the outback and have some adventure… people who like to view the best aboriginal rock art, go canoeing in gorges, rock climbing, fishing, bird watching, horse riding, 4WD, and ballooning. We have a wide range of activities and experiences that we can offer when we land at our destinations.
Tony: ‘Go-with-the-flow’ types usually enjoy our trips the most because sometimes things don’t go as planned… so you need to be able to relax and enjoy the ride. Mother nature often has her own agenda.
A lot of people are afraid of flying… what do you tell nervous customers?
Keith: Yes, we call that the Law of 3’s. A 3rd are very keen, another 3rd are mildly apprehensive and the other 3rd are nervous. It’s important to give clients a sense of confidence and trust. We are very experienced and conservative in how we operate. We have to follow the same regulations as commercial flights so we are very safe.
Tony: We usually get the nervous ones to sit up the front by the co-pilot and that helps. By the end of the trip, they love it! They also tend to learn a lot because they are more involved.
How do you deal with weather issues when they come up?
Keith: We usually just fly around it and/or change the plan… you need to have flexibility and we don’t take any risks.
How do you go about choosing your destinations and places to stay?
Tony: We are always on the lookout for small, remote and more difficult places to get to… we like to be unique and innovative.
Tell us about one of your best and worst trips?
Keith: Having a good attitude to outback travel helps a lot. We tend to attract a lot of high-wealth clients who know what they what, so we have to manage expectations and do our best to accommodate them. The people factor is always the big variable… you can have a good group or a difficult mix. Once I took 2 sisters to Lake Eyre – one of them was dying of cancer and the trip was on her bucket list. At the end of our journey she gave the most moving speech and told us what a transformative experience it had been for her. That was a beautiful moment… for all of us.
What’s the most amazing thing you’ve seen from the air?
Tony: There are so many! Australia’s great outback, some of the sunrises, the water in Lake Eyre and the Flinders Ranges at sunset – all incredible. I never get tired of seeing the view from above… even 40 years on!