Amellia Airborne

I was never one of those kids that dreamt of being a pilot.

I never spent my childhood days playing with toy aeroplanes or dreaming about flying or reading books about famous aviators. Nor is there a history of aviation in my family.

Growing up, I had heard of Amelia Earhart, but only because she was the only other person I knew of that shared my name. Unlike today, there were very few ‘Amelias’ when I was a child and not one I met had two ‘l’s’ in their name like I did.

Black and white photo of Amelia Earhart
Amelia Earhart - American aviatrix,

While my mother was pregnant, my grandmother’s neighbour, Milly Henry, passed away. Afterwards, my grandmother said to her ‘Did you know Mrs. Henry’s name was Amelia?’ and mum thought it was a pretty name and named me after her. When mum went to register my name, she wrote it with two l’s because she thought it looked better spelled that way. At the registry, she was told ‘Amelia is spelled with one ‘l’’. Mum promptly replied ‘You can spell Anne or Lynn and John in different ways, so I can spell Amellia however I like!’. People have been correcting my name for me ever since.  

Amellia Formby at seven years old standing next to a fence in front of a pond with three ducks in it
Me rockin' a mullet at age 5.

I had my first experience with aviation soon after I was born when I was emergency airlifted by helicopter to Queen Victoria Hospital in Melbourne. It seems fitting then that I first had the notion to fly a microlight to Siberia while sitting at the traffic lights outside of QEII hospital on Winthrop Avenue in Perth. The idea struck me with such energy that I remember the details of the afternoon well. 

I was driving the Hilux – my favourite work car – to Bunnings in Subiaco to buy hinges for a lid on a tank we were building to breed cockroaches in (welcome to my job as a technician in animal biology – I’m very good at breeding cockroaches by the way, much to my own disgust). I had pulled up at the lights and was minding my own business when the thought popped into my head – ‘I could fly a microlight to Siberia following the path of our migratory shorebirds’. I felt stunned. Straight away I knew the idea was big and exciting and inspiring and life changing and that I had a choice. It left me speechless and I spent the rest of the afternoon in quiet contemplation because I also knew I could do this – if I decided to.

But I must digress. This adventure is all my friend Carl’s fault, really. A few nights before the idea came to me, Carl and I had been talking about how he and his brother had always wanted to circumnavigate Australia in a microlight to raise money for the Royal Flying Doctor Service. What an amazing adventure! I was inspired to hear of such an idea. Carl told me how his brother had his recreational pilot license and had bought a microlight, but gave up flying after damaging the aircraft’s wing in an emergency landing. Learning to fly a microlight is not that hard, Carl said, nor is it that expensive, he informed me. ‘Wow,’ I thought, ‘flying a microlight would be really fun’. I spent the next few days daydreaming about learning to fly.

But I must digress again. It is not entirely Carl’s fault, I suppose. John Wolseley also needs to take some of the blame. I always loved birds as a kid. At primary school, one of my favourite teachers, Mr. Hogben, used to take us for bird walks around the school grounds, pointing out and naming the species as we saw them.

I also remember the satisfaction of poring over ‘What Bird is That’ with mum to identify a pair of Gang Gang cockatoos that had come to decimate the pinecones on a pair of pencil pines in our front yard when I was about 10.

Parrots and cockatoos of the forest-lands, What Bird is That?

However, I wouldn’t describe myself as a ‘birder’ until after I began my undergraduate zoology degree in 2008, and my shorebird-nerdiness happened after I met fellow artist, John Wolseley when I worked as a weaver at the Australian Tapestry Workshop.

In 2010, I was part of a team that collaborated with John on a tapestry he had designed for the Hamilton Art Gallery. At the time, John had also been invited to create a mural in response to the theme ‘Propositions for an uncertain future: five responses through art to a fountain without water’ in Melbourne Square.

John’s love of natural history is evident in all of his work and his passion for birds is infectious. He invited us to join him at the unveiling of his mural ‘Wild Cries Wild Wings of Wetland and Swamp’ in the city, which featured an enormous flock of shorebirds silhouetted against a beautifully contrasting backdrop of blue sky and pindan orange ground.

Although I was into birding, I had not really paid much attention to the knots, stints and godwits that belonged to the East Asian-Australasian Flyway depicted in John’s dramatic imagery, but learning of their migratory feats captivated and astounded me. I was so excited to learn that these birds could be seen right where I was in Melbourne around Westernport and Port Phillip Bays.

Soon after, I joined the Victorian Wader Studies Group, led by the charismatic pioneer of Australian shorebird conservation, Clive Minton. I have had so many good times and made so many good friends being a member of the VWSG, meeting new people from all over Australia and the world and travelling to shorebird sites all around south-east and western Victoria to cannon-net and band Pied and Sooty oystercatchers; Whiskered, Caspian and Crested terns; Curlew and Sharp-tailed sandpipers; Red and Great knots; Red-necked stints; and Red-capped and Double-banded plovers.

Clive Minton
Pioneer of shorebird conservation, Clive Minton

I loved spending time sitting in the bird hide for hours learning to identify shorebirds from fellow ardent shorebirders, who would enthusiastically share with me their knowledge gleaned from decades of observation of all the little differences between the species, as we shared our lunch and waited patiently for the slow push of the incoming tide to position the birds in front of our net. 

"I loved spending time sitting in the bird hide for hours learning to identify shorebirds... "

The experience of looking out over vast flocks of thousands of shorebirds settling on the beach cannot help but instil awe at the distance these far-travelled birds have come, the endurance of their small, vulnerable bodies, their fight for survival and give life to imaginings of the many places and sights they have seen. This is where I fell in love with shorebirds. Just a bit…

Pratincoles on 80 Mile Beach
Hundreds of thousands of Oriental Pratincoles roosting on 80 Mile Beach at Anna Plains Station WA, February 2016

So it is no wonder on that fateful day sitting in the Hilux at the traffic lights outside of QEII, that somewhere in the depths of my subconcious my mind took my dreamy ‘flight of fancy’ to become a microlight pilot one step further and smooshed it together with my shorebird-nerdiness. 

That was in March 2015. It would take me another year to build up the courage to commit to and share the idea with people who could help me see it become a reality. Actually, it was a while before I shared my dream with anyone – not even my closest friends – but a fire had been lit inside me and I kept finding myself coming back to and rearranging my life around learning to fly. 

I felt a bit like Homer in The Simpsons episode ‘Homie the Clown’ after he sees the billboard for Krusty’s Clown College, then starts to hallucinate everyone around him as clowns and sculpting a circus tent out of his mashed potatoes at dinner, except I didn’t jump up and shout ‘That’s it! You people have stood in my way long enough! I’m going to clown college!’.

In November of that year, I booked myself in for a trial instruction flight (known in aviation as a TIF) at Sky Sports Flying School, situated on beautiful White Gum Farm in York, about 2 hours east of Perth. Seeing if I actually liked flying seemed like a good place to start. As it turns out, I absolutely love flying!

My Subaru overlooking runway 14/32 at White Gum Farm

I’d only moved to Perth from Melbourne 7 months prior to begin a new life and a new job. I was in debt and had no car. I made a promise to myself to do whatever it took to put myself in a financial position that would allow me to buy a car so that I could drive to flying school and start learning to fly. 

By April of the following year, I had enough money saved to afford lessons and returned to White Gum Farm to begin training with flight instructor, Gordon Marshall. I am Gordon’s first female student pilot in the microlight. When you’re learning to fly, it is imperative that you trust your flight instructor and from the get go I have always felt I am in safe hands with Gordon. His calm and easy-going demeanour is rarely shaken, which is great when you’re a beginner and want to feel that reassured you’re instructor is not going to let you fall out of the sky.

I appreciate that he doesn’t like to take unnecessary risks and flies by his gut. When it comes to flying he says, if something doesn’t feel quite right before you fly, then it is important to listen to yourself. This guidance is usually followed by a story, like how soon after his mother died, he found himself trying to put the kettle away in the fridge, then stopped himself and thought ‘Wait a minute, kettles don’t go in the fridge… I probably shouldn’t fly today’. Or the one about how when the Wright Brothers first demonstrated their flying machine, they waited for just the right weather conditions and didn’t bend to the pressure of an eagerly awaiting audience. I love Gordon’s stories.

Amellia Formby and passenger flying in a red microlight aircraft
Me & Gordon Marshall training in an Airborne XT 912 Outback at Sky Sports Flying School, York, WA.

On my first day of training, it was too windy to fly. Instead, Gordon and I spent the day talking about flying and how magpies are the masters of the wing stall stop, and Wedge-tailed eagles don’t like it if you try to spiral up a thermal in the opposite direction to them when you’re hang-gliding. Collision avoidance is for the birds too so it seems. 

All day I wanted to tell Gordon about my big idea but was so afraid of being told it was ridiculous and laughed off the property. Needless to say, I went to bed annoyed and frustrated at my cowardice, but resolved to tell Gordon the next day.

Australian magpie
Australian magpie demonstrating a wing-stall stop

When I arrived at the hangar the following morning, I met Gordon standing outside of Hangar 2 looking out over the runway at the tall White Gum he refers to as ‘the weather bureau’ – if it’s shaking in the wind, it’s too windy to fly. The weather bureau was indeed shaking in the wind that morning and he said ‘Well, it looks like another day of not flying. What can we do? I can take you through a theory lesson but I don’t like to do that until after you’ve been up in the air’.

While Gordon was mulling over what to do with me for the day, I was thinking ‘This is my moment. It is now or never’. As I mustered up my courage, my heart was pounding and I started to shake a little I was so nervous, but I found my voice and said ‘Gordon, could I share an idea I have for a project with you?’. 

Microlight on runway 14 at Sky Sports Flying School
The tall eucalypt known as the 'weather bureau' to the right of the microlight at Sky Sports Flying School, York WA

His eyes widened with surprise and he said ‘Yeah, sure’. I then told him all about the shorebirds and my dream to fly their migration path to raise awareness for their conservation and asked for his honest opinion as to whether or not my idea was at all feasible. He considered me and then said ‘Let’s go inside and have a cuppa shall we’.

Much to my surprise and relief, Gordon didn’t tell me I was ridiculous or laugh me off the property – quite the opposite. After making himself a coffee and me a tea, he sat down and told me that it was doable and that people had flown microlights internationally before – but it wouldn’t be easy. He then spent the rest of the day going over the logistics of the flight with me – how much training I would need, what equipment to buy, safety considerations, navigation software, the risks involved and suggesting people for me to talk to. It was exactly the support that I needed to take the next steps.

I have enjoyed getting to know Gordon over the past months since then and have discovered he is the Ron Swanson of aviation. 

Ron Swanson
Ron Swanson from Parks and Recreation

Not only does Gordon rock the Swanson-style ‘stache and an acquired taste for steak and a good stout, he is also a cabinet maker and speaks about working a fine piece of wood with the same air one would expect of a sommelier appreciating a fine wine. 

In fact, when I emailed Gordon to ask for this blog article what wood he used to cast the mould for the rubber mats outside the hangar, he wrote: ‘The timber used was Douglas fir – aka Oregon – chosen for its contrasting growth rings. It was made into a table then burnt to an Arnotts milk arrowroot biscuit colour, then scrubbed with a wire brush to a contrasting depth of 0.6mm’. 

He is also known to impart Swanson style nuggets of sage wisdom such as ‘Wherever you are, just be there’ and ‘Perfect practice prevents piss poor performance’. 

Gordon’s unwavering belief and utmost confidence in my ability has been exactly the support I have needed in the early stages of this endeavour, for which I am so grateful. We have become great friends and have shared many laughs together.

Milly Formby and Gordon Marshall selfie composite
Selfies with Gordo

From the beginning, I have felt as though this idea is not my own – I am just a vehicle for it and I have always had a choice whether or not to take up the challenge. 

I have spent a lot of time asking myself why I have chosen to do this. Yes, I want to travel and see the world and yes, I want to adventure and yes, I want to share my love of shorebirds with you and how amazing their journeys are and introduce you to all of the incredible people working tirelessly on the ground for their conservation and convince you get involved and join me in the land of shorebird-nerdiness. 

But this is also about something much more than adventure and shorebird conservation.

A big part of it is about having the courage to put yourself out there and to create a meaningful life that gives back to the world.

 People often tell me I am brave to fly a microlight, but honestly the scariest thing I have done on this journey so far has been to take that first step to tell Gordon about my idea. Since then, every time I am brave and ask someone new for help, my confidence grows a little more and my fear shrinks smaller and smaller. 

I have already been through a gamut of emotions, from fear and anxiety, to pure joy, happiness and excitement and I expect it will continue to be so. Some days I feel so energised by the project and that everything is just magically falling into place, and others I am tired, stressed and overwhelmed by the uncertainty of where this is going to take me. 

To accept and enjoy all of these emotions – ‘good’ and ‘bad’- feels like part of the journey. Each day, I do my best to return my focus to being present with the day-to-day experiences of the journey and not worry about the outcomes. 

Yes Please book cover
Book cover of Yes Please by Amy Poehler

As Amy Poehler says in her book ‘Yes Please!’ about her own venture into comedy, the doing is the thing. I love this quote so much I have it written on a piece of paper stuck to my fridge, to remind me that just by doing something towards this flight everyday, I have already succeeded. Although, I would probably add to it, it is not just the doing that is the thing; it is also how you do the thing that is the thing. What I have come to trust is that no matter what happens or where I end up, everything is going to be ok.

Put simply, to give back to a cause I care about deeply by sharing my passions for shorebirds, flying and the creative arts through this project makes me happy and it feels worth it and it takes guts to do it. 

So most of all – more than anything else – I sincerely hope that by pursuing my dream I might inspire you to be brave enough to do a little something courageous in your life, no matter how small. That you may be inspired to do the things that you are passionate about and that make you happy and bring your life meaning, because nothing marvellous has ever been achieved without a little marvellous risk.

So there you have it. I have decided to jump, but I trust that I have wings and adventures such as these are rarely seen through to the end on one’s own. So I invite you to join the ‘flock’ and fly with me into the realm of uncertainty as we ‘do this thing’. Life is for living. 

I think Amelia Earhart summed it up best:

"The most difficult thing is the decision to act. The rest is merely tenacity. The fears are paper tigers. You can do anything you decide to do. You can act to change and control your life and the procedure. The process is its own reward."

Milly Formby
Milly Formby is a zoologist, pilot, and illustrator of the children’s book, A Shorebird Flying Adventure She is currently flying her microlight around Australia in 2022/23 to share,A Shorebird Flying Adventure with primary students.
Image credits:
Book cover for A Shorebird Flying Adventure

A Shorebird Flying Adventure

Available Now

Join Milly on her microlight and discover how amazing and awesome migratory shorebirds are!

Milly Formby is a zoologist and illustrator of the children’s book A Shorebird Flying Adventure. Available now through CSIRO Publishing.

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