Big sky, big dream, big picture
The sky’s the limit for one Lyndoch based businessman whose passion for flying has taught him to look at the big picture and aim high.
Pilot, Steve Ahrens, says “aviation is a disease”, one he caught as a seven year old from his father, Claude who was enticed by the “whole romance of flying”.
“I was in the plane every chance I got, flying with dad. But dad only ever got what was known as a restricted licence, so he couldn’t go wherever he liked, he was always bound within so many miles from take off.
“I remember coming home from trade school one day, I was 19 at the time and dad said how would you like to learn how to fly?
“I can’t remember if I said do horses eat hay or is the Pope Catholic!” laughs Steve.
His father’s one proviso was for Steve to get his full licence and so he began lessons at the nearby Rowland Flat air strip with Bruce Hartwig, the late Colin Hayes’ private pilot at the time.
Steve and his dad would eventually take ownership of a plane – a dream come true for both father and son who would use it for their family business.
He still owns that 1977 Piper Cherokee and has clocked up more than 1,000 hours in the pilot’s seat. But he will never forget his very first solo flight, the trust his instructor had in his abilities, the “sense of achievement and elation” and the freedom he continues to enjoy to this day.
Strangely, Steve has a fear of heights, yet it’s from the pilot’s seat that the 55 year old husband and father of two finds his outlook on life.
“I like to look at the big picture and I think that’s all part of the aviation thing, even in business I’ve tried to look at the big picture. I think that comes from flying because when you get up there you can see the big picture – you can see where everything fits in the landscape.”
Steve’s “big picture” theory has launched even bigger dreams, having spread his love for aviation to the masses as chief organiser of the Barossa Air Show which celebrated a record-breaking 10th event in April.
He recalls how a chat over a glass of Shiraz with fellow Lyndoch local, Rick Burge and reading an inspirational book about a South Australian pilot who built an aeroplane and flew it solo around the world twice, would lead him to an interesting discussion at his old school, St. Jakobi.
His children were students there at the time and Steve was on school council.
“Morale was down, the school was pretty small and funding was a bit scarce,” he describes.
Thinking it would be a good idea to get the pilot author to fly to the school and give a talk, Rick and Steve thought perhaps they could turn that idea into a fundraiser and it “sort of just developed” from there.
“I remember going to the school council and saying look, I’ve got this idea…We could call it a fly-in or we could call it an air show. If we called it a fly-in we can’t charge for spectators to come in but we could have a sausage sizzle and stuff…But if we went down the path of an air show we could charge people to
“I think everybody was naïve enough to say let’s do an air show – that sounds pretty cool!
“Rather than doing a lamington drive, we just thought we’d do something a bit bigger.”
That classic Steve understatement would launch a biennial project that has since raised “about a half a mill” over the years.
But it wasn’t all smooth flying to get that first 1998 event off the ground, with major aviation bodies and experts saying “you cant’ do that…it will never work”.
Such naysayers just fuelled Steve’s passion further and he was determined to succeed because “they were wrong”.
“I think essentially, most people thought we were nuts!”
As chairman of the successful Gemütlichkeit at the time, Steve had some knowledge of how big events were organised.
“How hard can it be? We’ve just put on the Gemütlichkeit, all we are going to do is pull the music stuff out and insert aeroplanes, that’s all it is.”
A gritty determination kicked in.
“Don’t think of the reasons why you can’t do it, think of the reason why you can!”
And whilst his head feels “like something out of the exorcist” on Air show day attending to safety protocols, pilot scrutinisation and what he calls a growing “culture of compliance”; seeing the display he pictured in his mind’s eye come to life is reward in itself.
His late father would be proud.
“I’ll let you into a little insight,” says Steve of the most recent airshow.
When the roulettes did the love heart, I had a tear in my eye – that was dad.”
Now the Barossa Airshow is recognised by pilots as setting a benchmark and they clamber to be a part of it.
“It’s as much a friend-raiser as a fund-raiser. Here’s a small school that thinks big and I can only hope that filters back to the kids…it’s the only primary school in the world that puts on an air show.”
With all the work organising such a big event alongside his day job as General Manager and Director of Lyndoch Motors, one would think Steve is too busy for anything else.
He laughs out loud as he reveals “a few” other things people may not know about him, including being a past Kapunda Rifle Club champion.
“I got to shoot in the Australian Champion of Champions,” he says. “My name was at the top of the list…but that’s because it was in alphabetical order!”
Eyes sparkling, he reveals his more “earthbound” passions.
“Well, there’s blacksmithing,” he says casually, bringing out an ornate envelope opener from his top drawer that he made in his backyard “smithy”.
“That’s all in one piece…I just practice little things like tying knots and stuff.”
Dubbed a “serial chairman” by some of his mates, Steve agrees to a certain extent.
“I was the chairman of the school council, the Gemütlichkeit committee, the inaugural chairman of the Southern Barossa Community Childcare Centre and Parish chairman…I’ve dropped out of the church scene, upset too many people!”
He’s also a past president of the SA chapter of the Australian Entrepreneur’s Organisation (EO) and continues to be an active member.
And whilst he says the organisation might sound a bit snobby it’s anything but.
“I still don’t know how to spell entrepreneur!” he laughs.
He credits the business group for building his confidence and opening doors to opportunities that have brought him out of his comfort zone.
“I don’t see myself as an entrepreneur. A business person – yes, but it’s not just about business, it’s about family, it’s about the person, it’s about community.
“It’s the bigger picture…and living your legacy.”