It was a first date to remember.
The suitor picked up 20-year-old Catherine Conway, a student of computer science and applied maths, at 5am. They drove east towards the sunrise for five hours, from Adelaide to Mildura. There, they clambered into a two-person glider and were catapulted into the sky to spend the next seven minutes airborne, soaring on thermals.
Ms Conway had never flown before. Not even Qantas, let alone something without an engine.
“I was scared stiff,” she says. “It was the usual fear of the unknown: this is something high, this is something out there. I hung on pretty hard, like you might on a fairground ride.”
They landed, hopped back in the car for the return trip to the Adelaide University Gliding Club, aircraft in tow. “Then he took me out to the movies to see Top Gun,” she says, laughing.
The relationship lasted just months, but Ms Conway’s love affair with being airborne – specifically with gliding – blossomed.
Now at age 52, it is her work, passion, hobby, sport and passport to the world, affording her the privilege of surveying the most beautiful places from on high. It made her a teacher, a mentor and the mother of pilots.
And it’s the reason she’s on Monday’s Queen’s Birthday Honours List, as Catherine Conway OAM, recognised for ‘services to gliding’.
Her laundry list of ‘services’, paid and voluntary, includes membership for more than 30 years of the Adelaide University Gliding Club, where she’s president. She has skippered Australian teams to world championships and, with an evangelist’s zeal, has talked countless groundlings into giving gliding a go.
When her sons Michael, 23, and Peter, 20 – whose first flights were in utero and who both now study aeronautical engineering – joined the Air Force cadets, the organisation appealed for more ‘parent helpers’. Maybe they wanted mums to cook fundraising snags, but in Ms Conway they found a seasoned flight instructor and self-confessed fanatic, committed to the cause. She’s still a staff officer with the Gliding National Aviation Operation wing of the cadets.
It hasn’t been just about flight: Ms Conway pursued a career in engineering, co-founding telecommunications provider Agile with her glider buddy Simon Hackett, CEO of sustainable energy storage company Redflow.
But mostly, she concedes, it is about flight. She is a pilot for Airborne Research Australia and her sights are set on making the team for the 2020 Women’s World Championships, to be held in Australia.
As many other honours recipients might on Monday, Ms Conway feels surprised and proud, but almost embarrassed at being lauded for doing something that brings her such joy.
Glider flight harnesses her love of science – meteorology and aerodynamics – as she drifts across the landscape on rising thermals used by eagles. It fires her competitive spirit, but also offers peace and solitude and the chance to hone the art of flight.
She has soared over the Alps, the Rockies and glaciers of New Zealand and enjoyed memorable dinners with farmers after a surprise landing on their turf. And Ms Conway’s own ‘backyard’, too, has a raw, mesmerising beauty, stretching from the Riverland in one direction to the Flinders Ranges, edged with green in the cooler months.
“I’ve been afraid in the air, but don’t think I’ve ever been in danger,” she says.
“I think fear is just a normal human response to something new or something different.
“You fly in the mountains and you know you’ve got glide out there but you think … ‘I don’t want to get caught low’. To an extent, the day you get complacent about flying is the day you should give it up.”
Ms Conway is asked to describe the feel of gliding, for those unlikely to ever get off the ground.
“You can!” she says. “You should! Why not?”