A LOVEABLE larrikin who was always up for adventure is how long-time friend Cliff French described gyrocopter pilot Ken Wilkinson, who was killed in a crash east of Nowra on Sunday morning.
A Vietnam veteran, who volunteered for service, Ken was a well-known local businessman who later saved a number of children from a burning house at East Nowra after their mother had been murdered. He later survived what was described as incurable cancer.
He had a passion for adventure. “He would just give anything a go. A real adventurer,” Mr French said.
“At least he died doing something he really loved.
“It’s the end of an era.
“He was a legend no doubt about it – I’ll never forget him saving those kids in the house fire.”
Mr French said their friendship dated back to school days, where they were more foes than mates.
“We knew each other from school and were somewhat foes back then but we became mates when he came back from Vietnam,” Mr French said.
“He was balloted out but joined up and went to Vietnam anyway.
“We both got into motocross – he was the club champion at the Nowra and District Motorcycle Club.
“When he got home we ended up going into business together.”
They ran an engineering shop in Nowra for a number of years and later a successful muffler business.
Mr Wilkinson had been flying for around eight years.
With Mr French they originally started flying trikes, but soon got hooked on gyrocopters.
“The older you get, you want to try things and we wanted to get into flying,” he said.
“We started flying on the trikes but a mate took me up in a gyro and I said to Ken we have to do this, they are so much better and handle the wind better.
“We paid for training and got our licences and Ken was quickly into it and got his Gyro Oz gyrocopter.
“He just loved it and would always be out flying.”
Mr French would later build his own machine and three other gyros.
“I’d flown Ken’s machine before I got my own,” he said.
Around seven years ago Mr Wilkinson was diagnosed with incurable cancer of the bowel, which had spread to the pelvis and bladder.
But undergoing treatment he defied the odds and
“He couldn’t and wouldn’t suffer fools,” Mr French said.
With his wife Mary they also owned the A1 Diner Complex at South Nowra, where they also had a used furniture shop.
“We had an engineering business together from ’72-’79 and then got into the exhaust business,” he said.
Mr French eventually bought out his partner in 1988.
“Part of the deal was I always had to buy his lunch every week day (Monday to Friday) for the rest of his life,” he said.
“And I did, he would come in every day and we’d have lunch and catch up.
“He was my best mate.
“He loved poking around with cars and vans and fishing.”
Mr French said gyrocopters were one of the safest ultralights flying.
“They are great fun,” he said.
“But at times they can be challenging to fly, like most craft.
“They are the best of the ultralights in the wind.
“You have trikes and you can’t take them up in wind over
“They are good, almost like helicopters – as safe as.
“Early on in their development there were a lot of people getting killed – you can virtually build them with a battery drill and a hacksaw.
“A lot of it was pilot error or poor training.
“But the activity is so well governed now that deaths are pretty rare.
“But they do still happen – at the end of the day you are the pilot and you have to make the decision.
“And sometimes unfortunately they can be unforgiving.”