May 16th, 2011.
“Big Bob Flies Home”, the journey of a 1942 Boeing Stearman WW2 Open Cockpit trainer bi-plane across the width of Australia to raise awareness for HRI, has been declared an overwhelming success. Pilot Ben Merkenhof set off from Perth on March 23nd 2011, and landed in Cessnock in the NSW Hunter Valley on Aril 5th.
By journey’s end Ben had flown 4000 kms which included 21 fuel stops, 31 hours of flight time and a four-day unscheduled stopover in Kalgoorlie due to a flat tail wheel. Ben was inspired to make the journey following the 2009 sudden death of his father, Bob Merkenhof from heart disease when he was only 59 years of age. Two years prior, Bob had begun work on restoring “Big Bob” and knowing his father’s passion for the project, Ben made it his mission to see the plane roar into life again.
Also important to Ben’s mission was to raise awareness of the devastation heart disease can cause; “My Dad was a work-horse, he liked steep hills and heavy loads. He never took a “sicky”, and, unfortunately got too busy with work to do what was required to save himself, to get his own heart checked”, Ben said. “If my Dad had been more aware of the importance of getting his heart checked there would be no need for me to fly “Big Bob” home”.
Along the way Ben stopped at the Echuca Air Show, where Big Bob was awarded the Antique Aircraft Association of Australia’s Grand Champion award. Big Bob also attracted considerable media coverage everywhere he went, including Channel 10 News in Perth and Channel 7 News Adelaide, the former filming a story whilst following Big Bob in their helicopter. NBN television, which has a large reach up and down the Central Coast of NSW including Newcastle, Tamworth, Gold Coast, Lismore and Gosford covered the story twice for television. Newspaper coverage included the Kalgoorlie miner (two stories), The Daily Liberal in Dubbo, The Wagga Wagga Daily Advertiser, the Riverina Herald, and the Newcastle Herald. Radio coverage appeared on ABC Newcastle and KOFM Newcastle.
Ben’s journey across the wide brown land was tracked by GPS and live video crosses from nightly stops gave his viewers an insight into some of the isolated but beautiful places he stopped at along the way. Big Bob is now back home in Cessnock where he will hopefully be taking people out on joy flights from Hunter Valley Joy Flights in the near future. The HRI is sincerely grateful to Ben Merkenhof and his family for their generosity and dedication to increasing awareness of heart disease.
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