A simple crude wooden model aeroplane given to him by his dad was the thing that first sparked young Keith Robey's interest in aviation.
The year was 1929. The only experience the average Australian had of aeroplanes was seeing barnstorming ex-WWI pilots offering joy flights around the country at shows which regularly included a complimentary crash. The generally held view was that aviation was inherently unsafe, a view shared by Keith's mum who did not encourage him at all. But a young man's sense of invincibility easily overcame this perception and Keith saw aviation as the last frontier and his obsession continued to grow as he devoured every book on the subject and built hundreds of model aeroplanes.
During the First World War the war machines of Europe put the vast resources of industry to work designing and building aeroplanes. In the years before the Second World War the fledgling industry was struggling to convert some of this technological success into commercial viability. New airlines were struggling to get a foothold to compete against the railways. In Sydney they found a home on the flat swampy paddocks of Mascot.
Keith grew up in Balgowlah and rushed outside to watch every aeroplane that passed overhead towards Mascot. On his 10th birthday his dad took him to the aerodrome, where they encountered an Avro 10. Peering over the threshold of the cabin door Keith saw two leather-clad pilots discussing their trip down from Brisbane. Seeing the youngster they invited him in and showed him the office. Keith was absolutely enthralled by all the dials, levers and knobs. It was there and then that he decided to make flying his lifelong career.
As Keith grew into his teenage years, war with Japan became increasingly imminent and his dad, a decorated original Anzac, asked young Keith which of the he wished to join. Keith told him that wanted to be a pilot, but there didn't appear to be an organisation available to teach him. Keith's dad discovered his son was right, gave it some thought and discussed it with his returned servicemen mates. A couple of weeks later they announced their intention to form the Australian Air League. Keith was cadet number one of the first squadron (Manly).
Keith went on to win a small scholarship from the Air League and at 17 commenced flying training with the Royal Aero Club of NSW at Mascot. He achieved his Advanced A Licence on the day before war was declared. Keen to enlist in the RAAF as an instructor he was initially knocked back because of a constricted nostril. He promptly had surgery to correct it and nine months later was accepted under the Empire Air Scheme. He did his basic training at Temora and later Point Cook where he was selected for multi-engined aircraft training and went to Bairnsdale where he trained for maritime reconnaissance. His war service was wide and varied, flying mostly Avro Ansons in anti-submarine operations and escorting coastal shipping. Later he was posted to WA and flew bombing missions in Indonesia and PNG in B24 Liberators.
Demobbed in 1946, Keith found work as an instructor and charter pilot adding more types to his already impressive list of endorsements. He worked tirelessly for GA and formed the Association of Commercial Flying Organisations (later the General Aviation Association) and the Bankstown Airport Chamber of Commerce. Keith was President of both these organisations.
He was later the CFI for the Illawarra Flying School, a post he held for 18 years while he oversaw its development into the largest commercial flying school in Australia.
Today there are few people in the general aviation arena that can boast Keith Robey's statistics. With over 31,000 hours in more than 110 types, he is one of the most experienced CFIs in Australia – if not the most! This man has clocked up the majority of this time in the right hand seat of single-engined aircraft in blocks of an hour or two at a time! That's the equivalent of flying fours hours a day, every weekday for 31 years!
These days, in semi-retirement, Keith is the patriarch of the `Flying Robeys' – which includes his wife Senya and son Chris, both of whom are also instructors at Sydney's Hoxton Park airport. Senya and Chris, with 11,000 hours each, have, with Keith, over 100 years of flying experience. Keith and Senya were both admitted as Master Pilots to the Guild of Air Pilots and Navigators; a first for a husband and wife team.
In 1967 Keith was named Australian Flying's `Man of the Year' and was awarded an MBE for services to general aviation in the 1970s.Flying training is a special kind of job – and it takes a special kind of person to do it well. That's Keith Robey in a nutshell.
About the Author
John Laherty is a contributor to the aviation magazine Australian Flying
This article originally appeared in the March/April issue of Australian Flying and is reprinted with the kind permisison of Yaffa Publishing