John Chesterfield with a model of a Sabre jet.
John Chesterfield with a model of a Sabre jet.

Top Gun clears the cockpit

JOHN "Chesty" Chesterfield of Banora Point was one of Australia's best fighter and rescue pilots. The former RAAF "Top Gun"" has climbed down from the cockpit one last time. At age 75, he is still sharp as a tack but has decided not to tempt fate. "I wanted to go out on top," he said yesterday. "If you crash, that's all people remember." With more than 11,500 fixed wing and helicopter flying hours to his name, Chesty now heads up the Care Flight rescue chopper operations, based at Gold Coast Airport, after an incredible 58 years in military aviation and pilot training. "As long as the brain continues to do its job, I plan to stick with Care Flight so I can contribute to its mission," he said. In 1957, Chesty and his 3 Squadron team of ace pilots flew F86 Sabre jets more than 1000 miles over water, on deployment to Malaysia. "These days that would be considered dicing with death," Chesty said. "I wouldn't fly more than 10 miles off the coast in a single engine aircraft now. "But at the time we thought nothing of it, it was marvellous fun." During the Vietnam War, Chesty experienced what was without doubt the scare of his career. He had been asked to observe US Air Force ground attack procedures, in the "second seat" with an American pilot at the controls. As their F100 Super Sabre dived at its target, hurtling along at an incredible 600mph, the American lost sight of a target marker in smoke haze. At the very last minute he found it, but they were heading straight for a mountain and the pilot did not pull up from his dive. "It was absolute stupidity, as close to the edge of the envelope as you can get," Chesty said. "I just sat there waiting to hit the mountain and die." Their bomb was dropped, but it missed the target, and the Sabre scraped along tree tops on the mountain. Back on the tarmac, Chesty and the American noticed the Sabre's wings were stained green from the leaves. After leading the Black Panthers Aerobatic team, Chesty became Director of Training at RAAF headquarters in Canberra. He was made an Air Commodore in 1982, after picking up an Order of Australia Medal for his services to officer training and education. Despite his passion for jets, Chesty says the most satisfying job he's ever had was in helicopter search and rescue. A dramatic retrieval of a fisherman who had survived 48 hours at sea near Lady Elliott Island off Queensland is one he'll never forget. "I had to sit in a hover for 25 minutes while the survivor was winched on board. "I was exhausted, but seeing the grin from ear to ear on the man's face was well worth it." Chesty left the RAAF and moved north in 1983, initially running a DC3 aircraft on charter operations from the Bilinga airport. He then opened his own flying school at the airport and was responsible for training many of the pilot captains now flying for Virgin Blue. "Banora Point is a beautiful place to finally call home," Chesty said. "My wife and I lived in 22 different houses throughout my RAAF career and we love it here."



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