Sunday, 30 June 2013

Kristen's Echat With... Owen Zupp

Kristen’s Echat With... Owen Zupp

(No. 3 in the Echat With... series)
I first ‘met’ Owen by email back in 2006 through my day job as a military bookseller. At the time, he was ‘just a customer’. Two years later, after embarking on my Battle of Britain research, his name again crossed my radar but in a totally different context. My friend Doug Hurst, who wrote (among other things) The Forgotten Few. 77 RAAF Squadron in Korea, asked if I had read Owen’s biography of Squadron Leader Kenneth Butterworth McGlashan AFC. He recommended Down to Earth. A fighter pilot’s experiences of surviving Dunkirk, the Battle of Britain, Dieppe and D-Day to me for the ‘terrific insights into the RAF and England in those times ... That aside, I thought it a very good read’. And it is. (Don’t just take my word for it. Have a look at Andy Wright’s review at Aircrew Book Review. ) Doug pointed out that, typical of his generation, Kenneth McGlashan was a modest man with no claims to special recognition among his peers. But, according to Doug, Owen decided to tell his story ‘because he thought Ken did more than most and, having read it, I agree with him.’ Not a bad starting point for your first book, and one certainly that has helped me get a handle on the RAF during the Battle of Britain.

Soon after Doug’s recommendation, I contacted Owen and congratulated him on his book and asked if he could recommend a UK researcher as I needed to obtain records from British institutions. Since then, I have enjoyed sporadic contact but over the last year or so, Owen and I have slipped into a semi-regular econversation relating to our separate research projects. I have gained much from this and it is good to be able to share achievements and progress with a fellow writer. I now count Owen as a writing friend, but I have to confess that I had no idea of the depth of his experience as a journalist, pilot and aviation author. Not, that is, until I asked him to be the third in my Echat With... series.
So, what’s Owen’s background? He holds a Masters Degree in Aviation Management, he is a commercial pilot with nearly 17,000 hours of flight experience and has flown all around Australia and the world, and he has 20 years in airline operations. In addition to Down to Earth, he has written articles which have appeared in Australian and international journals and recently launched his first ebook, 50 Tales of Flight: From Biplanes to Boeings, a collection of stories from his aviation blog, which became an Amazon instant bestseller. He is currently working on another ebook about his solo round-Australia flight and an account of his father’s Second World War and Korean War experiences.

Incredibly, given his great literary output, Owen did not set out to be a writer. He started his working life as a paramedic, studying and learning to fly in between his shifts on the streets of Sydney. As you can imagine, he saw some terrible sights and grew up quickly, but his stint with the NSW Ambulance Service gave him a life-long sense of perspective and appreciation of life’s gifts which are ever apparent in his blog posts and underpin his 50 Tales of Flight. So, what made him take the leap from paramedic to aviation author?  

Owen had been working for Ansett Australia as a pilot but when it collapsed, so too did his job. That was the turning point that saw him embark on post-graduate studies and take up his pen to share his experience of flight. Fortunately, he was not lost to commercial aviation. It wasn’t long before Qantas snapped him up and, when he is not holed up in his study writing, or packing school lunches, or having coffee at his beloved International Cricket Hall of Fame, Owen is plying our airways in a Boeing 737. But where did his love of aviation spring from?
It seems in Owen’s case, Nurture came out winner in the Nurture V Nature debate. ‘Born to a fighter pilot father and air force radar operator mother’, Owen tells me, ‘the odds of me being a plumber were slim. I lived and breathed flight from an early age’ and he was ‘sitting in aeroplanes and peering into cockpits with cupped hands for as long as I can remember’. After watching for so long, I wondered about his first flight. ‘It was with my father in a Cessna 150 and I couldn’t reach the pedals on the floor. I would’ve been about five and my strongest recollection is during the take-off, looking down and watching the runway falling away from the wheels. It’s a very vivid memory.’ Fast forward eleven years to his first solo in a Cessna 152 at Camden, NSW. ‘Strangely, I had absolutely no nerves about going solo; I’d experience stronger butterflies before going out to bat in a cricket match. It was a beautiful still morning and I just wanted to scream out to the world that I was actually flying!’
Not the Cessna, but a Tiger Moth 
After experiencing such unadulterated joy in a small aircraft, why then, I asked, did Owen leap from a private licence to flying the big jets of the airlines? Again, it was Nurture, the influence of his father, who ‘would whistle as he went off to fly aeroplanes at 2 a.m. in the pouring rain. I thought there MUST be something special to this flying thing. He never shook this thought and, as an adult, ‘four years as a paramedic paid for flying lessons which ultimately led me into commercial aviation’. He initially flew outback charter and ferried aircraft overseas. I taught folks to fly and even held the approvals to issue them with licences. Eventually I joined the airlines’. He made the switch because they ‘always seemed to offer the greatest deal of security and stability for a family life. The collapse of Ansett proved that not to be the case.’

A stable family life is important for Owen (as for everyone) and he has been lucky enough to experience aviation and love combined. He is ‘happily married to a girl who flies Boeing 767s’. Kirrily ‘learned to fly at the school where I was the Chief Flying Instructor, although she gave the grumpy boss a wide berth. It was when she joined the staff as a flight instructor that we came to know each other’. They now have ‘four wonderful children’. 

Despite a fulfilled aviation and family life, Owen has one secret hope. ‘I still hold out that the phone will ring and I’ll be off to England to play in the Ashes series this northern summer’. It is a good thing Owen hasn’t laid down his pen while he waits for that call and, in the interim his current career as a pilot influences his writing more than his hoped-for one as a cricketer. He admits that ‘I’m very, very lucky. From the cockpit, we have the best corner office view that is forever changing. I am fortunate that I’m able to share that view and my thoughts with people through writing’. 

With a busy flying career, family and lots of writing projects on the go including blog, book reviews, articles, the next ebook, promotion of the first ebook and his father’s story, I wondered how he managed to be so productive. Owen confessed that ‘it’s a struggle that is mostly offset by getting up at 4 a.m. The best time to write for me is in those early hours before the kids begin their daily routine’. Needless to say, down time is rare in the Zupp household but when he does have a few moments to himself, his favourite way to relax is ‘having dinner, or even just a coffee, with my wonderful wife’.
Just like any other writer worth his salt, Owen does not spend all his time off drinking coffee and dining out. He reads. Currently on his bedside table is Phillip Bradley’s acclaimed Hell’s Battlefield. The Australians in New Guinea in World War II. When he finishes that, he will be back in the air with Charles Page’s brilliant biography of Charles Learmonth, Wings of Destiny (a signed copy, what’s more). 

I am sure WoD will become a firm favourite but I could not help asking about his all-time favourite. Sadly, Owen can’t remember the name and has unsuccessfully searched for it for years. ‘It was in my school library and was published around 1950. The paper cover had long gone and it told the tale, with black and white photographs, of a young lad taking his first flying lessons and going solo in an old J-3 Piper Cub. I borrowed it every week for about four years.’ Hopefully this strikes a chord with someone and, if so, please let Owen know the title!

From books to films. How, I asked, would Owen spend a gift voucher for the world’s biggest DVD shop? Ewan McGregor’s Long Way Round, The Untouchables, The Right Stuff, the Hunters in the Sky series and One Six Right: The Romance of Flying, directed by Brian Terwilliger.

I must confess I had to look that one up and, according to the good folks of Wikipedia, One Six Right looks at the unsung hero of aviation—the local airport—through the life, history and struggle of an airport icon: Southern California’s Van Nuys Airport. There are lots of aerial sequences and stories by passionate pilots, air traffic controllers, historians and flight enthusiasts such as Sydney Pollack, Lorenzo Lamas, Paul Moyer, Hal Fishman, and Desiree Horton. One Six Right tells how Amelia Earhart broke a world speed record over Van Nuys’ runways, and, for film buffs, reveals that scenes from Casablanca were filmed on the grounds and Marilyn Monroe was discovered while working in its hangars.

Once the DVD player is turned off, Owen retreats to his special writing place to tell his own aviation tales. ‘I love my study! It was actually twice the size until the arrival of our twins called for more space. The smaller room now has a better writing atmosphere! It has a number of bookshelves and cabinets. The leather-inlaid desk was one of the first pieces of furniture we purchased when we built the house.’

Owen has adorned his study with favourite cricket pieces and photos of aeroplanes, and ‘there are photos all over the walls of personally significant people.’ One of those significant people is his father Phil, who served as a commando in New Guinea and flew with 77 Squadron in Korea. There is a photo of Phil’s aircraft with a shattered canopy in Doug Hurst’s The Forgotten Few and the Australian War Memorial’s Gloster Meteor is the very aircraft in which Phil flew his first combat mission. As well as being a key influence on Owen’s aviation life, Phil Zupp was the greatest influence on his son’s reading life. ‘Forced by the economic times of his day to leave school at a young age, he became a prolific reader with a phenomenal general knowledge. I can’t remember going to bed without him reading to me or relating some wonderful story from his life’. It is an example that Owen has taken to heart as he shares his experiences, stories and books with his children, and with his readers.

With a background solidly based on reading and storytelling, it was a natural progression to writing his own tales. ‘I think I enjoyed writing from childhood’, and his first published piece was a poem in the Sunday Telegraph’s ‘Charlie Chuckles’ section when he was about seven. (BTW, I too am an alumnus of the Charlie Chuckles Club! I wonder how many other Australian writers have been encouraged by Charlie and his editors?) Since then, Owen has barely stopped writing but ‘a career in a very technical realm tended to immerse my life in manuals rather than creative works’. But them with the collapse of Ansett, Owen had the time and a new impetus to tap into his creative side. ‘I sat down to write, purely and simply and the words just poured out. I often think they’d been bottled up for a few decades just waiting to be released’. And how they were released!

Owen has learned much about his literary craft in his time and perhaps the most important advice he has ever received has been, ‘write, write and just keep writing. Get to the end and then go back and start to edit the work, otherwise you’ll never get beyond the first chapter’. And if he could pass on one piece of advice to someone starting out, it would be, ‘just do it. Shelve self-doubt and just start writing’. The consequence of Owen just doing it has been over 300 articles, one of which led to his first book. Kenneth McGlashan read one of those articles and mentioned it to a mutual friend. When Kenneth and Owen realised they lived near each other, they decided to meet ‘and the book was born that day’.

Kenneth Butterworth McGlashan
My second reaction to this (after ‘what a wonderful story!’) was ‘how hard it would be to write about someone still living’. How does Owen do it? I know I would be forever imagining someone looking over my shoulder, and worrying if they would be offended by my conclusions, or if they would be sensitive to a particular line of questions. Owen overcame any potential problems easily. Kenneth placed no restrictions on his writing and gave him free rein to tell the story as Owen uncovered it. ‘Part of Kenneth’s magic’, recalled Owen, ‘was his forthright honesty, blended with a cheeky sense of humour’. Holding your first book in your hands, smelling that special newly printed smell and tracing your name on the title page with your finger, are some of the most exciting experiences of a writer’s life but for Owen, the most fulfilling aspect of writing Down to Earth was ‘establishing a close friendship with Kenneth and his wife, Doreen’.
Owen’s next challenge was to write about his father. That, of course, offers its own set of challenges: how to be objective about someone you love, someone who has been such an important part of your life, someone who has influenced you so profoundly that you followed in his footsteps and flight path. I speculated that trying to tell (what I call) Phil’s Story honestly, with the proverbial warts and all, must be difficult. ‘You’re right on the money. For these reasons this has been the most difficult work for me to write to date. Finding the balance of maintaining arm’s length accuracy, whilst still conveying the insight only a son can offer has been a challenge. At times I have walked away from the manuscript for a period before reading it again with fresh eyes. I can honestly say that thankfully I believe that I have found that balance and the story is still an incredible tale’.
Phil Zupp
From what Owen has told me (in confidence, and I am not blurting) Phil’s Story is indeed an incredible tale that has developed considerably over the last six years. ‘The main evolution of that story’, says Owen, ‘is the continuing emergence of new people, places and anecdotes from my father’s life. Each one makes the story richer in its own way, even if it is only a short humorous reference. The passage of time has also allowed me the chance to find official documentation to support a number of recollections’.

With so many other writing projects on the boil, I gained the sense that Phil’s Story is almost taking a back seat. I know I get antsy if I can’t focus on my main writing task so I asked Owen if he felt torn between finishing his father’s story and compiling his blog, writing his articles and publishing his ebooks. ‘It has been frustrating in a sense, as my father’s story is my major work in progress’, he admitted, but ‘I realise by virtue of the amazing popularity of 50 Tales of Flight, that these [other] stories need to be shared as well’. And it is all part of a plan. All going well, ‘Solo Flight. Australia will be released in August, 50 Tales of Flight will find its way from eBook to print, and my father’s manuscript [will] soon becomes a book that does justice to his amazing life. Stay tuned...’. I certainly will.

On 4 December 2011, Owen wrote that ‘writing can be a solitary, one-way street of communication, punching words out into the world beyond and rarely hearing a voice echo back with comment. Yet that somehow makes the exercise a cleansing journey through one’s own thoughts, offering clarity to concepts that may otherwise annoyingly rumble around inside the head’. That was part of the second post on the blog and website he began four days earlier when he committed ‘to entering the world of blogging which was a fantastic tool of communication on the around Australia flight and I will even endeavour to try my hand at the so-called “social media”’. Since then, Owen has effectively used facebook and blog to connect with readers. The blog’s genesis may have been ‘a desire to share a mixture of published pieces and random musings on aviation with a broader audience’, but ‘the natural progression was to grow those “tales” into a published work and the ebook—50 Tales of Flight—was the most logical, affordable step in the first instance’.

Regular contact with his readership is time consuming, but Owen believes it is worth it. Owen told me that he, like any other author, ‘often wonders if anyone is reading the words that you write. These new mediums let the author know first-hand that people ARE reading your work. Furthermore, the feedback can allow the writer to see their work from a different perspective; sometimes you can stand too close to the mirror’. Owen values the opinions of his readers and consulted them when he was deciding on the all important cover art for his new ebook. ‘Releasing the two covers of Solo Flight. Australia for the greater community’s opinions was a very worthwhile exercise’. 

It is interesting that Owen refers to the ‘community’, because Solo Flight. Australia springs from Owen’s community mindedness. Back in 2010, the centenary of the year in which powered flight first took place in Australia, Owen took part in an adventure dubbed ‘There and Back’ to help raise funds for the Royal Flying Doctor Service. During that solo flight, Owen ‘maintained a detailed diary, took hundreds of photographs and hours of footage’. He always intended pulling this together into a book but that project had to line up behind all his others. But when 50 Tales of Flight ‘received such an amazing response, I knew another ebook had to be forthcoming’ sooner rather than later. ‘Consequently, Solo Flight. Australia was born and, like 50 Tales of Flight, it may well evolve into print’.
Just as he embraced social media to promote his work, Owen has taken advantage of the many varied faces of publishing. Grub Street put out Down to Earth in 2007 and, while it is currently out of print, it may well be reprinted when Kenneth McGlashan’s restored Hawker Hurricane takes to the skies. (See Owen hopes that Phil’s Story will be published by an Australian house but he decided to self publish 50 Tales of Flight as an ebook. He believes that print and ebooks ‘each has their own realm and audience and as an author each form needs to be approached differently. I have no real preference as each style fulfils a different need at different times. I initially decided to publish an ebook purely because of convenience and cost. The success of 50 Tales of Flight as an ebook then provided a wonderful indicator and stepping stone to print should I venture down that path’. With this sensible outlook and valuable experience, Owen decided that Solo Flight Australia should first see life as an ebook as well.

Owen’s success as an ebook author has been hard fought. It doesn’t matter if the book is good (and it is) if no one knows about it. Right from the start, Owen has been a dedicated ebook marketer. He has promoted via facebook, called for reviews of 50 Tales of Flight to be placed on Amazon by all who read it and then shared those reviews via social media. (See mine, for example, at He has had giveaways to reach new readers and kept his followers up to date with his Amazon rankings. I wondered if Owen found this ardent marketing a distraction or necessary evil. ‘I don’t find it to be either. I learnt with Down to Earth when it was first released that the author’s job is to market the book. Publishers have an ever-changing stable of books to distribute, so the author needs to share their passion for their book to the greater audience. Whether it is an ebook or print, marketing is simply part of an author’s role in the modern world.’ Owen has accepted that role and has benefited from it.

Stepping out of the modern world and into Kingsford Smith’s Southern Cross
Owen has had many thrills in his writing career and it is hard to pin down a ‘greatest’. If pushed, he would opt for a ‘three-way toss-up. Signing copies of Down to Earth at the Duxford Air Show in the UK alongside Battle of Britain veterans; having a copy of my first published article faxed to my hotel room in the United States the day it hit the news-stands; [and more] recently, 50 Tales of Flight gaining bestseller status in the aviation genre on Amazon on its first day of release. I have been very fortunate along the way’. Fortunate perhaps, but Owen has worked hard for his well deserved success. 

 If you haven’t read Owen’s books, it’s time you did! Copies of Down to Earth can be sourced via or you can purchase the ebook at Amazon also sells 50 Tales of Flight at

If you would like to connect to Owen, visit his website at or sign up for his blog You can find him on facebook at You can also view images from his solo charity flight around Australia in support of the Royal Flying Doctor Service at
I am delighted Owen Zupp agreed to be the subject of my third Echat With... 

Next month I Echat With... historian, teacher and battlefield guide, Michael Molkentin. Michael’s articles have appeared in a number of journals and magazines including The Journal of the Australian War Memorial, Wartime, Flightpath and Teaching History. He is the author of the acclaimed Fire in the Sky: the Australian Flying Corps in the First World War and Flying the Southern Cross: Aviators Charles Ulm and Charles Kingsford Smith.



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