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Flying Down Under

Juneau family circles Australia in ultralight aircraft

Posted: Friday, January 05, 2001

A Juneau family had no trouble circumnavigating Australia by ultralight aircraft and motorhome even though things seemed upside down, inside out and the other way around from Alaska.

Larry Musarra, wife Lenne, and children Aren, Sungie and Tim, flew more than 10,000 miles and drove more than 12,000 miles in about five months. They left Juneau on July 12 and returned home on Dec. 28, after covering a continent about the same size as the United States mainland.

Larry, a retired U.S. Coast Guard helicopter pilot, did most of the flying, with the children taking turns next to him in the two-seat aircraft. Lenne drove the motorhome.

The Musarras stayed right on course in the Land Down Under, where people drive on the other side of the road, weather patterns move the opposite way, and toilets flush water in reverse.

"The vines also grow in the opposite direction," said Sungie, 13, who learned about it from an interpretive sign on a nature trail.

The family traveled counterclockwise - or anti-clockwise, as they say in Australia - starting at Brisbane on the east coast.

Friends and family thought they were loony, but the Musarras had a vision and a plan, which took shape the year before. Larry always was intrigued by Australia, especially after reading about a man bicycling around the continent.

Larry, who retired from the Coast Guard last June, was sitting at his desk more than a year ago on the seventh floor of the local Federal Building when the dream came into focus.

"I'm looking out the window toward the bridge and channel when someone comes flying by in a powered parachute," he said. "I'm thinking bicycle, parachute, Australia ... I wanted an adventure that would be fun but challenging."

His wife, fearing for her family's safety, was less than thrilled.

"I was blown away and got tense just thinking about it," Lenne said. "But I have strong faith in God and prayed about it. I also have strong faith in Larry. In addition to being a great pilot, he has wonderful skills responding to emergencies."

Larry buried himself in research, studying maps and investigating flying machines. He settled on a contraption called an X-Air ultralight aircraft, which is not as secure as an airplane but has an enclosed cockpit that seats two.

The family plan was taking flight, even though an official with the Australian Ultralight Federation doubted the Musarras would get very far.

In a 1999 issue of the federation's magazine, columnist Paul Middleton wondered if they could weather desolate deserts and crocodile-infested areas. He predicted more pain than pleasure during the Musarras great Australian adventure.

 

The family's route traveled counterclockwise - or anticlockwise, as Australians say - around the country starting in Brisbane on the east coast. Photos are courtesy of Adam Hourigan, The Daily Examiner, in Grafton, Australia.

"Sounds bloody magnificent although I tried to break it to (Larry) gently, that in my humble opinion he will probably need a new wife by the time she drives across the top end," Middleton wrote.

The ultralight official did not realize the Musarras are heavyweight adventurers.

Larry had flown Coast Guard helicopters on rescue missions throughout Alaska, where bears can do as much damage as crocodiles. Middleton's remarks only added to the challenge.

"I e-mailed him back telling him that Lenne has a lot of inner strength," Larry said. "She's tough and I was sure she could handle it."

After arriving in Australia on July 19, the family rented a 22-foot motorhome and purchased an X-Air ultralight kit. They built the aircraft in four days, then headed off into the wild blue yonder.

They flew at altitudes between 500 and 10,000 feet, the lower the better for sightseeing.

Aren, 16, set up a Web site - www.flyabout.net - as a school project and to help friends and family follow the journey. It includes all sorts of things from a description of the X-Air to a trip log covering 21 weeks.

There's also a section, Aren's Ramblings, containing bizarre minutiae such as: pizza with eggs as topping, toilets that out-flush anything in Alaska, the pain of sunbathing at nude beaches, and what it's like to eat emu, crocodile and kangaroo.

It wasn't just the small things that impressed him. Aren was in awe of the scenery and wildlife.

"No two places were alike, from the east coast with beaches, to the northeast with rain forests, to the top end with the desert, to the west coast with a combination of everything, to the south with beaches and farms, to the southeast with snowcapped mountains, and then back up the east coast," he said.

The only close call they had with the ultralight happened while it was parked. A gust of wind lifted it off the ground along with Larry, who was trying desperately to keep it from taking off.

"We were close to losing it," he said. "I felt totally helpless lying on the plane while it started to fly."

The family rushed to the rescue and the flyabout continued.

Another close call was averted by Tim, 10, who could've blown up his Game Boy by plugging into a socket that has 220 volts, double the current in Alaska. But he also had done his research and knew better.

"I had to kill a lot of batteries," he said.

Their great adventure cost about $50,000 (U.S.): $17,000 for the ultralight, which is up for sale in Australia, $10,000 to rent the motorhome; $6,000 for airline tickets; and other expenses such as fuel, food and recreation.

They insist it was worth the money, and would like to do it again.

Now back in Juneau, the Musarras are cataloging more than 1,400 slides, and the children are preparing to return to school.

While looking at the photographs of beautiful scenery and exotic wildlife, they talked more about the people of Australia.

"Their hospitality was overwhelming," Larry said. "They had mate (friend) chains, with the same people who met us on departure making sure they had friends meet us on arrival."

When asked how the Musarra family could top this vacation, Larry pulled out a book, "On Foot Through Africa."

"I don't plan on walking, but I'm definitely thinking about flying," he said.

Mike Sica can be reached at msica@juneauempire.com.



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