Between rock and a hard place – an interview with David Lowy

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This feature article originally appeared in the December 2018 magazine edition of Australian Aviation.

David Lowy in front of his Spitfire. (Temora Aviation Museum)

Hard rocker, Spitfire pilot, aerobatic champion, aviation museum benefactor, businessman and philanthropist, David Lowy is a pilot {with a|having a|using a} difference. Part of the entrepreneurial Lowy family – his father Frank founded the Westfield Group – he has led a life less ordinary.

A successful business career sees Lowy {in charge of|responsible for|in control of} the Lowy Family Group, the family’ s private investment company. But {he is|he or she is|he could be} also a former Australian aerobatic champion and Spitfire display pilot, the founder {and primary|and first} benefactor of the much-loved Temora Aviation Museum (which in mid-October hosted its semi-regular Warbirds Downunder Airshow), flies his own Gulfstream G550 business jet, and is the founder and a guitarist in the heavy rock band The Dead Daisies.

Australian Aviation recently spoke with David Lowy in his Sydney office {to discuss|to talk about|to go over} his love of flying, how he came to found the Temora museum, {and the|as well as the|plus the} similarities and differences between music, business and flying.

AA: What sparked your love of flying?

DL: I had {wanted to|desired to|wished to} fly since the age of five. When I was a little boy we lived in Dover Heights, {in the|within the|inside the} eastern suburbs of Sydney, on a very steep hill. When I’ d {just started|just starting} school my mother bought me this little balsa wood glider.

It came in wax paper and you slid the wing through a slit in the fuselage, and you put the tail on in a similar sort of way, and it had a nail that went in the front for weight. And I ran {up the|in the|the} top of this very steep hill on a summer afternoon and I threw the glider down. I can still {see it|view it|find it} in my mind’ s eye, and I’ m 63; I just watched that thing glide down the hill {on the|around the|within the} sea breeze, and then it got into ground effect, {and then|after which|and after that} there was a bit more breeze {came in|arrived}, it went up again …

{From that|As a result} minute on I just wanted to fly.

{I always|I usually|I} wanted to be a pilot {growing up|we were young|maturing}. I wanted to join the Air Force once I got a little bit older. But I was pointed {in a|inside a|within a} different direction, if you like. I studied, went to university. {My father was|My dad was} keen for me to {come into|enter into|get} business. I was also keen to come into business. {But the|However the|Nevertheless the} passion for flying {never really|never truly} left me.

I didn’ t start flying until I was 30. {I got|I acquired|I obtained} a ride in a British Aerospace Hawk, and after that ride I thought, that’ s it. Nothing’ s {going to|likely to|gonna} stop me from {doing this|carrying this out|achieving this} now, and I’ m going to get myself a jet fighter.

Temora Aviation Museum's Spitfire. (Phil Makanna)

Temora Aviation Museum’ s Spitfire. (Phil Makanna)

AA: This was in the days when there weren’ t many warbirds flying {in Australia|nationwide}?

DL: It would {have been|happen to be|are actually} the early 1980s and {there were|there have been|there was} certainly no jet warbirds, but I got there! [Lowy would later acquire two Vietnam War-era A-37B Dragonfly light attack jets.]

{When I was|Once i was|After i was} learning to fly at Bankstown I used to taxi {past the|beyond the|beyond daylight hours} Sydney Aerobatic Club {and I|and am|and i also} thought, ‘ Oh, I really want to do aerobatics, that’ s like military-type flying’. So I went to Noel Kruse at the Sydney Aerobatic Club and he introduced me to Allan Hannah, {who was|who had been} a RAAF F/A-18 Hornet pilot. At the time he was flying Caribou, and he was a civilian instructor on the weekends. We struck up a friendship very quickly.

So I coincided my annual holidays with Allan’ s annual holidays, typically between Christmas and Australia Day. I’ d organise for Allan to train me in aerobatics and formation flying. Every time I had a work vacation I got him to take {a vacation|a holiday}.

So I learned from a military instructor. He taught me how {he was|having been} taught in the military, {and that|which|and this} gave me a really good grounding. {He was|Having been} Australian advanced aerobatic champion at the time, even though he was still in the military.

Unfortunately, he was killed {in an|within an|in a} accident. But by {that time|that period|that point} he had already taught me the rudimentary aerobatics {and I was|and am was|and i also was} already doing competitions.

AA: How does a tragic event like that shape you {as a|like a|being a} burgeoning pilot? [Hannah was flying as a copilot of a Cessna 210 which crashed in December 1990 after suffering an engine failure during a search and rescue mission near Oakdale, south-west of Sydney]

DL: {It really|It truly|It} shocked me…

I’ m a very conservative pilot I think. Very risk averse, even though I did {many years of|many|a lot of} competition in aerobatics and won the unlimited championship in 1998. And I’ ve done, I guess, many {hundreds of|countless|numerous} airshow displays. But you analyse the risk, and you take the best precautions you can.

Having said that, I think I know 22 people who have been killed flying, and some of them very close {to me|in my experience|in my opinion}.

I think anybody who does this type of flying {would have|might have|could have} similar experiences. Talk to {any of the|some of the|one of the} military guys – I’ m sure they’ ve lost quite a few friends {in all|in most|in every} different circumstances.

There but for the grace of God go I. No doubt about that.

But whenever you lose a friend, or someone you know, it’ s really, really hard. But we take risks for what we love to do, {and do|is to do} our best.

AA: You’ re well-known for being an one-time Australian aerobatic champion.

DL: The last few years of doing competition, I really didn’ t {enjoy it|appreciate it|have fun with this}. But I didn’ t want to stop flying competitively until I’ d won the unlimited championship. I flew unlimited, I think, for four years before I won. It was very competitive and there were very good pilots. And after I did it, I never flew another competition flight.

AA: From there, how did you go from {owning a|having a|buying a} few warbirds to founding the Temora Aviation Museum?

DL: I had people come and have a look at them sometimes, and from that germ {of an|of the|of your} idea grew the museum.

AA: So the birth and growth of the Museum was almost an organic process?

DL: Totally organic. I’ ve worked in a very large public enterprise, a global business, {and you|and also you|and you also} don’ t really have {a plan|an idea|a strategy}. Looking backwards you can say you had a plan. But you {have a|possess a|have a very} vision somewhere out there {and you|and also you|and you also} go for it, and you change course all the time as things {come along|arrive}.

You work very hard, get very lucky.

Anybody who’ s very successful at anything and doesn’ t admit they’ re lucky is just fooling themselves. {So we|And we} got very lucky. {We had|There were} a very good business. We were {in the|within the|inside the} right industry at the {right time|most fortunate time|best}, and my dad had {the right|the best|the proper} background; myself and my brothers, we worked collectively together and it worked {for us|for all of us|for people}.

But it was never a grand plan, and neither was the museum {a grand|a great} plan.

AA: Does supporting the museum come from {a sense of|a feeling of} giving something back?

DL: There’ s a lot of that, definitely.

It struck me when we rolled the Spitfire out of the hangar. After I bought it from Col Pay, we repainted it in Bobby Gibbes’ s colours, and had Bobby Gibbes come out to Temora {with some|which includes|with a} of his mates, all Spitfire pilots. And I didn’ t tell him what we’ d done. We opened the hangar doors, pushed this thing out. They’ re in tears. Bobby was in tears; Ted Sly was there with him in tears.

I realised there’ s more to this than the aircraft, and I thought, okay, this place is going to be a tribute to the veterans as well as the aircraft. And it grew from that {to really|to actually|to truly} be all about the veterans and the people. That’ s when I thought, wow, {I can|I could|I will} really do something here {to give|to provide|to offer} something back…

I noticed the people who were around me at the museum {were also|were} very passionate about it, and they’ re still there today. And the site {for the|for that|for your} museum is very historic. {It was|It had been|It absolutely was} the largest RAAF World War II training field. So it was a confluence of ideas and events and people, and that’ s how it became a tribute to veterans and serving members, and the history of the aircraft and the sacrifices {that have been|which have been|which were} made, and for current and future generations to see.

David Lowy plays in The Dead Daisies. (David Lowy)

David Lowy plays in The Dead Daisies. (David Lowy)

AA: {What are the|Do you know the|What are} museum’ s plans {for the future|for future years}?

DL: We’ ve now got an education program which we didn’ t have before, where we bring schools to the museum. We do tours for all {sorts of|types of|kinds of} ages of kids.

It’ s quite difficult {to do that|to achieve that|to accomplish this} at Temora because the {beauty of|great|regarding} Temora is its isolation. And the disadvantage of Temora is its isolation. So , you’ ve got two things pulling at each other.

Plus we’ ve got one of the biggest repositories of digital video of veterans’ stories. There are hundreds of them. {Every time a|Whenever a} veteran comes to the museum we record their story. They’ re like unsung heroes.

{So the|Therefore the|And so the} remit of the museum {has grown|has exploded|is continuing to grow}.

Then {there is|there is certainly|there exists} putting on the Warbirds Downunder Airshow, which is a massive effort. The guys out there did {an outstanding|a superb|an exceptional} job.

AA: Any plans for new aircraft?

DL: I’ m not sure whether we’ ll acquire more aircraft. There are some very passionate {people out there|people} who are restoring aircraft. {They can|They could|They might} bring them out to the museum, and we can have ours {on display|displayed}, so you don’ t necessarily have to own them to {have access to|get access to|gain access to} them. It’ s {a very|an extremely|a really} collaborative community.

So we’ ll {continue to|always|carry on and} do what we do. It’ s a real challenge. We’ ve got an unbelievable engineering team there with, I think, {one of the most|probably the most|the most} complex aviation engineering operations in the world. You’ ve got everything from wood and fabric through to World War II pistons, {through to|to|right through to} early model jets, {through to|to|right through to} later model jets.

And we do it all {with our|with the|with this} dedicated small team.

AA: It would seem from the outside its personnel are the museum’ s greatest resource, not the aeroplanes or the location?

DL: {Without a doubt|Certainly|Undoubtedly}. The museum is all {due to the|because of the|as a result of} passion of its people. We’ ve achieved a lot there, but I certainly haven’ t done it {on my own|by myself} and we all share the pride. It’ s a shared thing, and I couldn’ t have done it without all the people who have been around me along the way.

AA: You {sit on|take a seat on|lay on} the museum’ s governing committee, but do you have a hands-on role?

DL: No, I don’ t {have a|possess a|have a very} hands-on role at all. I’ m president of the governing committee, and obviously the founder, but Murray Kear, {the chief|the main|the primary} executive, he runs it on a day-to-day basis. Peter Harper is the general manager on site there, Andy Bishop is chief engineer. That’ s the core of the team.

From a board perspective, we’ ve got policies and procedures in place to identify and assess the risks. Safety {is the|may be the|will be the} number one, two and three priority. That is it, and I’ ve always had that culture there. And, touch wood, we’ ve been incident-free.

The museum has been in operation going on 18 years now. We do our best to mitigate the risks and we’ ve got very good systems and procedures in place. {We had|There were} a safety management system in place before we had to. We have {an emergency|an urgent situation|an unexpected emergency} response plan. We ran an emergency response simulation {a week|per week|weekly} before the airshow with all emergency services, fire brigade, ambulance, there. It’ s a board’ s responsibility {to make sure|to ensure|to be sure} we’ ve got {all these|each one of these|all of these} policies and procedures {in place|in position|set up}, which we do. {And then|After which|And after that} the oversight of the financial management is important, as is guiding the management strategy. {But the|However the|Nevertheless the} operation’ s run by those guys on the ground.

AA: The museum was a multi-million dollar investment on your part. Can it be self-sustaining?

DL: It’ s not self-sustaining. No museum is self-sustaining. All museums need patrons. They’ re not commercial enterprises.

I funded this privately, and some income comes in through gate receipts and the shop, but it’ s nowhere near the {cost of|price of|expense of} operation. But I think {of it|from it|than it} as an investment, not as {a cost|an expense}. It’ s an investment {in the community|in the neighborhood}. It’ s an investment {in our|within our|inside our} history. It’ s {an investment|a great investment} in our culture.

David Lowy acquired Spitfire Mk VIII VH-HET in May 2000 and donated it to the Temora Aviation Museum in July 2002. (Gavin Conroy)

David Lowy acquired Spitfire Mk VIII VH-HET {in May|in-may} 2000 and donated it to the Temora Aviation Museum in July 2002. (Gavin Conroy)

AA: World War 2 era aircraft like your Spitfires are now {more than|a lot more than|greater than} 70-years old. Philosophically, {how long|just how long|how much time} can you see them flying?

DL: That’ s a really good question. They’ re both 1944 models, {the ones|those|the people} we’ ve got there, so that makes them 74 {years old|years of age|yrs . old}. They’ ve obviously been rebuilt more than once and we check them. We do everything we can, but it’ s a really good question. Often I’ ve thought: are {these things|this stuff|these items} too valuable to fly, not in a dollar value, but in an historical sense? And then I think, no, let’ s fly them. {If the|When the|In the event the} engineers are satisfied to sign them out, {and the|as well as the|plus the} pilots are comfortable to fly them, we’ ll fly them.

It feels the right {thing to do|action to take|move to make}, and one day it might not. But right now, we’ re comfortable to do it. We’ ve assessed the risk. We know {the risk|the danger|the chance}. The engineers know the risk. The pilots know the risk. We know the risk at the museum, and life is not {risk free|risk-free|safe}.

So , there may come a time, but I don’ t see that now.

AA: Would you say that you’ re a risk averse person who realises that {life is|a lot more} not risk free?

DL: {I see|I realize} myself as a risk manager.

The investment business I run for my family is basically {a risk management|a risikomanagement} business. You want to preserve and grow capital. And the {purpose of|reason for|aim of} having a business is to {make a|create a|produce a} return on shareholders’ funds. That then generates the
ability to hire people, reinvest, hire more people – and that’ s what makes the economy; makes the world go around.

But at the same time, business is a risk. You calculate the risk. It doesn’ t always {come out|turn out|appear} how you think. So I see myself as a risk manager in everything that I do, {and some|plus some|and several} things are riskier than others. You’ ve got to weigh it up and decide whether to take those risks.

AA: What does aviation teach you about music, and music about aviation?

DL: By doing {different things|various things}, that gives you quite a broad perspective. Music is totally {in the moment|at the moment}. You just can’ t think out of the moment. You think {out of the|out from the|from the} moment, you’ re {going to be|will be} somewhere else other than your band. It’ s just not {going to|likely to|gonna} sound right. It’ s totally in the moment. In fact , you play a 100-minute show {and you|and also you|and you also} think it’ s been 10 minutes. Whereas aviation, if you’ re flying {a business|a company|an enterprise} jet at eight miles a minute, your brain better {be in|maintain|take} the future, not where you are. {And if|And when|Of course, if} you’ re flying {a display|an exhibit|an exhibition}, the spatial awareness you’ ve got to have – that 3D picture {in your head|in your mind} of where everything is – it’ s all where are you going to be in the next second or the next couple of seconds. Whereas music, I’ m here now. You can’ t think of anything else.

AA: What does aviation teach you about business, and business about aviation?

DL: There’ s a lot of crossover in business and flying in terms of risk management. {In fact ,|Actually} with my investment team, I’ ve got {them to|these to|those to} do some of the online aviation courses that I take {every month|each month|on a monthly basis} because they’ re {all about|about|exactly about} identifying and managing risks, and it’ s {the same thing|exactly the same thing|a similar thing} in aviation. And I run checklists in my investment business. So there is quite a bit of crossover.

What you learn in business are organisational skills. You can’ t {run a|operate a|any} business without being organised, {and you|and also you|and you also} certainly need to be organised {in the|within the|inside the} cockpit. And if you’ re running an aviation operation, like the museum, or complex business jets, you need to be organised. And then you need to be able to hire and motivate the right people.

So there’ s a lot of crossover between business and aviation.

AA: Are there many connections between music and aviation?

DL: Music is a completely different field because it has a big creativity element to it. Not that aviation doesn’ t {involve some|possess some} creativity as well – {you might have|you may have|you could have} to be creative. You have some emergency, such as those Qantas QF32 guys in the A380. Look at how creative {they were|these were|we were holding}. They did an outstanding job. There wasn’ t a checklist for that emergency. They {figured it out|sorted it out|got this sorted out}. So that takes creativity.

But music {is a very|is an extremely|is definitely a} creative thing, and it’ s a completely different process. If anything I’ ve learned from my fellow musicians (it) is that you’ ve got to leave more to chance in music and you can’ t be so regimented. There’ s gotta be improvisation.

The last thing you want to do {in an|within an|in a} aerobatic display is improvise. But the last thing you want to do {in a|inside a|within a} rock and roll show is be strictly disciplined. It doesn’ t really work.

AA: So flying and music don’ t really mix?

DL: I don’ t fly and play music on the same day.

David Lowy flies his own Gulfstream G550 business jet.(Gulfstream)

David Lowy flies his own Gulfstream G550 business jet. (Gulfstream)

AA: And what’ s the Gulfstream like to fly?

DL: I love the 550. It’ s a great aeroplane, it really is. It’ s got enough new technology, but it’ s still old technology. It’ s not fly-by-wire, but it’ s got a lot of good stuff in it.

AA: It’ s a more {of a|of the|of any} tactile aeroplane to fly?

DL: It feels great. {It is quite|It is rather|It is very} tactile. You are operating {a very|an extremely|a really} complex aircraft in a complex airspace system, so there’ s not much hands-on flying and there’ s {a lot to|a great deal to} think about. And I don’ t do it every day. I would probably do 150, 170 hours a year, a lot of it long-haul. And I really love the challenge {of it|from it|than it}. I’ d much rather be sitting in the front {than as|compared to} a passenger in the back.

{This article|This short article|This informative article} originally appeared in the Decemnber 2018 magazine edition of Australian Aviation. To read more stories like this,   subscribe here .