Max Buchanan– A career cut short

By Caitlin Matticoli, Swinburne University

If he hadn’t have suffered from a severe health condition at 59 years old, 85-year-old ex-pilot Max Buchanan is adamant he would “still be flying today”.

Despite his deteriorating memory, Max still lives at his home with his wife Margerie in Bayside. They’ve been happily married for 61 years now, he said proudly.

old planeSuffering from dementia, Max apologises to me for being unable to remember the names and dates of events occurring in his 42-year career as a pilot. His memory failure frustrates him.

He tells me that this interview would be easier if he still had his autobiographical memoirs which were lost after he gave it to one of his sons who died a few years ago. “Everything you’d ever want to know was written in there.” he said with regret. Max said that he and his family had searched his son’s house for it after he died but they never found it. I tell him to “just do his best”, and that he does.

Mr. Buchanan spends most Wednesdays at the Anzac Day Therapy Centre in Brighton now with other retirees who once put their lives on the line for us in war. Many of these ex- soldiers, nurses and pilots were involved in WWII but there is a handful that fought in Vietnam – and according to the centre’s documents, Max Buchanan was one of them but he doesn’t talk about it.

Beneath the aged exterior is a once young and adventurous man who’s done more than most. He has a large build for an old man and painted across his solid square jaw is a contagious smile and in an instant, it is clear he would have been quite the ‘looker’ in his day.
While the other oldies are practicing their golf putting skills with one of the bubbly staff members, the other named Sandra leads us to a round table a short distance away from the activities.
She gave me a very warm welcome in her Canadian accent as I walked in and gave me the run-down on Max’s condition. “He finds it difficult to remember some things, but you should be able to get a lot of good stuff out of him. He’s a very interesting man.” She said with a smile. And that he was.

I decided then and there that Sandra displayed the cookie cutter qualities of someone in the aged care field. She seemed patient, understanding and always willing to help. Her demeanour automatically put me at ease and there was an overwhelming feeling of peace that came over me here in her presence. I can imagine getting old can be scary, so I can see now why people come to these places when they retire.

“Is this ok, or would you prefer to go somewhere quieter?” she asks me with genuine concern. I tell her its fine and she informs me Max and I will only have an hour as afternoon tea is normally served at three. I agree and she goes back to help her colleague with the afternoon activities.

The room we are in is surrounded by large windows, overlooking the immaculately kept lush green gardens and it’s a sunny day outside. Max’s eyes twinkle brightly when the sun catches them as he begins to talk.

Born in 1931, Mr. Buchanan was too young to fight in the Second World War like his older brother. But Max being Max always wanted to help, so it was his brother who encouraged Max to join the air force.

At 17, Max began his career with intentions to become an aeroplane engineer and studied at the renowned RAAF College in Melbourne for the 4 year course. He was taught to pilot for the first year, then learnt how to build and maintain planes. After that, he decided he no longer wanted to be an engineer, so he gave up that dream to become a pilot.

Max moved to Sydney to train for two years and learnt to fly bomber planes in Perth for a few months. He then spent 12 months in Malaya controlling the Japanese who had captured all airfields in North Malaya earlier in 1941. Max was only 10 when the Japanese invaded, however we agreed he was likely to have been involved in peace-keeping for any ongoing conflict in the area.

Max said he spent 12 months flying bomber planes in the Philippines, and controlled the Chinese and locals there that were “developing” in the area.

After this, he flew back to Australia to begin training at RAAF College again but this time, he would learn how to be a training pilot. Max was always a hard-worker and eager to learn so devoted 3 years of study which opened another door in his career as Squadron Leader and said he was even commissioned to be a senior pilot for the Russian Army around the same time.

“I went on trips all over the world to transfer people from the army and navy and to check to see if the airports and aircrafts overseas were up to standard.” He said.

“There was a lot of business in New Zealand, New Guinea and Jakarta” he remembers.

At this time, Max was the second senior member of the Squadron flying heavy aircraft. After some time doing this, Max said he left RAAF and joined the Civil Airforce of Australia where he looked after the condition of planes and aerodromes all around Australia.
Then something out of the ordinary happened. Max had made many trips to New Zealand before, so was nonchalant when he was asked he was required there for business aged 59.

“It was a very difficult trip and while I was flying there I felt a little bit sick. I can remember the captain of one of the planes asked me how I was feeling and I said I was having a little trouble with a sore head and slight pain in my shoulder. I landed the plane in New Zealand fine, but when I went to the doctors afterwards I was told I’d had a heart attack.” Max laughed at the absurdity of the situation.

Shocked, I asked him how he managed to land the plane with no trouble, and he replied “It wasn’t that bad. I had no idea what was happening.”

Max said that the incident had put an end to his 42 year flying career and at the time, most pilots retired at around 65, so his heart-ache from his condition extended in another way when his career was cut short.

“The only thing that stopped me from doing it today was this blasted stupid thing, they called a heart attack.” He said.
Max said he was offered work in different fields of aviation but refused. If he was going to work the only thing he wanted to do was fly. “It was my life,” he said.

After retiring, Max and his wife went on 3 more overseas trips together. “It was strange being in the passenger seat and not flying the plane.” Max said.

It was now three pm- the tea was steaming and the cakes were being brought out on trays. Sandra appeared at our table like clockwork kindly telling me my time with Max was now up.
The twinkle returned in Max’s eyes as his mind was probably racing with memories he hasn’t retrieved in decades. A smile stretched across his face.

“That was my life.” Max said. And what a wonderful one it was.