“You’re not going to make it!” radioed the rear pilot to Brad Imber as he inched the iconic Mirage jet closer to the infamous ‘hole in the wall’ under the railway overpass.
The heavy haulage specialist knew from a reconnaissance run that it would be a tight squeeze on this notorious stretch of the heavy vehicle bypass through Charter Towers in Far North Queensland.
Just how heart-stopping, however, didn’t hit home until he squared up his K200 Fat Cab towing the supersonic A3-55 fighter on its final sortie to the RAAF Base Townsville Aviation Heritage Centre.
After months of painstaking restoration by the Static Display Aircraft Support Section from the Air Force History and Heritage Branch at RAAF Base Amberley, the Mirage, along with a Winjeel trainer A85-403 aircraft, were going on permanent display as reminders of their integral roles in RAAF history.
The Winjeel, following in behind Imber aboard a pilotless Linfox MAN, could travel with wings detatched so was a relative breeze to transport along the 1800km, three-day journey.
But structural concerns with the old Mirage meant industry icon Imber, the former star of 2012’s hit reality show MegaTruckers, had to call on all his skills to deliver the prized cargo without a scratch.
“I’d measured it and knew we were going to fit,” says Imber, who now runs his own heavy haulage company, the Brisbane-based Edge Heavy Logistics, which often partners with Linfox on defence contracts.
“The gap was 8.4 metres wide between the staunches and we were 8.26 metres, leaving just 70 mil either side.
“But when we rounded the corner at Charters Towers, it was like ‘holy shit!’.”
“I knew it was just a matter of being dead square as we came in, but that’s pretty hard when you’re 8.5m wide and sitting high up in a truck with 70mm to spare.”
RAAF Warrant Officer Mike Downs, the man in charge of the resto and relocation, said it felt more like a 25mm gap as he and the pilot had one hand on each wing tip helping to guide the prize jet through.
“It was a hairy moment, but I was very confident,” says Downs.
“We’d been following him for two days and I knew that if it could be done, Brad would do it, and the aircraft didn’t kiss the side wall at all.
“There must have been 200 people watching and they all applauded as we came out the other side.”
Onlookers may have had their hearts in their mouths, but Imber – the man who has moved everything from an 850t off-shore drill rig compressor to the Gold Coast light rail trams without incident – kept his cool and got the show back on track after 15-20 minutes of intricate reversing.
The ace up his sleeve was a custom-built trailer cradle that Imber designed and built himself with air-bag suspension, shock absorbers and height-control valves.
“We could raise it up and down 550mm and with the use of ball valves in the system, we could list the plane 450mm either side,” reveals Imber.
“So, if we had got stuck in the Hole in the Wall, I could have rolled the plane on its axis and got it through the bridge.
“I over-engineered the shit can out of the frame, which cost me a lot more money than I thought it would, but you only get one chance at it. We had a set date, police and cranes booked in.
“There’s no use turning up with your hat on backwards and going oh f**k, it won’t work. I gave it four more functions than it really needed but I thought if it gets into a spot and I’m on a highway, I can’t back up for 300km. I have to keep going the same way I’m going, so this thing has to do everything.”
In the end, the only time Imber had to use his frame was in the haul out of Amberley air base, near Ipswich.
With the plane measuring 4.7m in height on its own wheels, and 5.7m when hoisted onto Imber’s trailer, he needed to have a way of lowering it under the 5.1m bridge clearances in the area.
Once back on the Logan and cleared for 80km/h of clear air toward Townsville – a far cry from the 2000-plus km/h speeds the Mirage was used to during its flying days from 1964-1987 – all Imber then had to do was jack it back up again.
The only other anxious moment was coming into Townsville three days later.
For most of the journey he stuck to the tried and true routes north he’d predominately used carting dump trucks for the last 20-30 years.
But every time he asked a local about finding the best way into the Townsville RAAF base with a jet plane in tow he got the same answer: “It’s not going to happen, you can’t get in there.
“Then I was talking to one of the army fellas one day while up there delivering a trailer and he said, why don’t you think about crossing on the wrong side of the road and going down the on-ramp at Nathan St.
“So we had mapped out a route of how to get in on paper but it wasn’t until on the day as we were going down the bloody wrong side of the road, that we were going tick…on-ramp, roundabout, tick…holy shit, this is working so far, I can actually see the gate now!”
Imber says the reception for he and co-pilot, wife Karen, was unlike anything he’d seen in more than 35 years behind the wheel, many of those driving the biggest and baddest loads seen on the back of a truck trailer.
“We could not believe the road in. There were people lined up like the Queen was coming, and they’d been there for three or four hours waiting for us to turn up,” said a humbled Brad.
“The RAAF really went above and beyond media-wise, to ensure the coverage of this project was captured.”
All the way down the road it had been the same story. At the first overnight stop in Banana, fans crowded around the Mirage and Winjeel for hours to get pics and to hear about the planes’ histories.
It was the same again when they stopped at the new Puma servo in Charters Towers to let the local Rural Fire Brigade give the planes a hose down ahead of the big finale.
“It was like a show day…massive. I just couldn’t believe it, I was so overwhelmed.
“You drive through a town with a 8.5 metre load which I’ve done all my life with a dump truck on, and people go ‘holy shit that’s impressive’, but when you actually drive through a town and you’ve got a historical jet fighter on your back, and the way it was loaded, even the army people said, it just looks so majestic.
“It looks like it’s coming into land, or doing a fly-by – it was just sitting perfect.”