81yo pilot
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81yo pilot

Aug 13, 2023

David Cooke is in his element as he prepares his meticulously maintained vintage aircraft for take-off on a sunny Saturday morning.

He has been a pilot and doctor for more than half a century and, now in his 80s, still flies his own plane to treat regional patients each week.

He also leads a regular aerial formation display with a group of pilots known as the Bobcats, who fly over their home town of Port Macquarie, on the NSW Mid North Coast.

The weeks are busy and Dr Cooke has no plans to slow down any time soon.

"People say, 'Why, at 81, don't you retire?' and I say, 'Because I love work'. I love sitting in my surgery and talking to people and being up in the air," he says.

In 2020, Dr Cooke received an Order of Australia Medal for services to aviation and medicine.

He spent time with the Royal Flying Doctor Service in the 1960s and 70s at locations including Mount Isa and Cairns, then worked as a GP in Gunnedah for 20 years before setting up a practice at Port Macquarie about 25 years ago.

He continues to work as a Port Macquarie GP and also flies north twice a week to treat patients at nearby South West Rocks, helping meet a rural GP shortage.

"When I was with the Royal Flying Doctor Service, my boss used to say you are not a doctor who flies, you are a pilot who practices medicine," he says with a smile.

"I was a flying doctor for years in the outback, so old habits die hard.

"All the small country towns are very short of doctors … so I come up to South West Rocks two mornings a week to add to the medical manpower of the town."

There is no dedicated runway in the town, so Dr Cooke has established an agreement with a local property owner.

"I land in a modified cow paddock," he says.

"The owner chases the cows off the airstrip before I come, and then I have a motor scooter, which I putt into town on."

At the end of his busy working week, Dr Cooke takes out his vintage de Havilland Chipmunk aircraft to lead the Bobcats' regular weekend formation air show over Port Macquarie.

"This aeroplane I use is 73 years old … not as old as me," he says with a laugh.

"The engine is probably 85 years old but obviously very intensely maintained."

Dr Cooke says the Bobcats are a group of experienced pilots, including an ex-navy fighter pilot and a retired commercial jumbo captain, who started flying together in 2001.

Flying in formation takes "intense" concentration.

"You are about half a second from crashing into each other at any time … but, of course, you are trained not to," Dr Cooke says.

"When you are following a leading aeroplane, you aren't looking at your instruments or the ground or anything, you are just looking more or less at the back of his head.

"You are positioning yourself, so you are a few metres away … it's a real workout for us all."

The Bobcats have become a well-known sight over Port Macquarie.

"We [the Bobcats] started getting feedback that people would stop and watch us fly over each weekend, so we have been really rather touched that the local community seems to have adopted us," he says.

Dr Cooke says a passion for flying runs in the family.

"I come from a long line of pilots," he says.

"My grandfather flew in 1915 in the First World War and then my father was a Spitfire pilot."

Dr Cooke says he's passed the flying bug on to his own children.

"Flying is a terrible disease in our family," he says with a laugh.

"Both my boys are jet captains, they have their own business in Queensland, and they do medical evacuations and transfers of people with transplants all over the southern hemisphere.

"I have granddaughters and soon-to-be a grandson, and hopefully one of them will be in the next generation of pilots."

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