Australia to honour brave Balgownie pilot

Lyndy Nerandzic will accept the Star of Courage on her husband’s behalf. Picture: SLYVIA LIBER

Lyndy Nerandzic will accept the Star of Courage on her husband’s behalf. Picture: SLYVIA LIBER

A Balgownie pilot who got his passengers to safety before he perished in a fiery blimp accident in Germany is to be awarded one of Australia's highest bravery honours.

Michael Nerandzic's widow, Lyndy, will accept the Star of Courage on her husband's behalf.

A veteran pilot with more than 12,300 hours' experience in the air, Mr Nerandzic was bringing an airship in to land in a central German airfield on June 12, 2011, when it pulled up uncharacteristically short of the support crew that would have weighted it down.

German crash investigators would later report a landing wheel had snapped off as the airship hit the ground.

Michael and Lyndy Nerandzic were married 28 years.

Michael and Lyndy Nerandzic were married 28 years.

A broken piece of the component pierced the fuel tank and caused a fire to break out in the rear of the gondola.

As the flames took hold, Mr Nerandzic lowered the airship to about two metres above the ground, allowing one of the passengers to jump through an open window to safety.

He maintained control as he unlocked the door and ordered the remaining two passengers to jump clear.

The drop in weight as the pair disembarked is believed to have caused the burning craft to shoot 20 metres into the sky still carrying Mr Nerandzic, who died three days before his 53rd birthday.

"It must have been a very quick decision for him to make," Mrs Nerandzic said.

"He was always the ultimate professional when it came to his flying. It was just part of who he was."

"Michael was always so proud of being from here. He used to say to me, 'not bad for a Wollongong boy'."

"Michael was always so proud of being from here. He used to say to me, 'not bad for a Wollongong boy'."

The Star of Courage recognises acts of conspicuous courage in circumstances of great peril. With its magenta and blood-red ribbon, it is the second-highest Australian Bravery Decoration after the Cross of Valour, and has been awarded only 143 times since 1975.

It will be the third bravery award bestowed on Mr Nerandzic posthumously, following honours from the US and Britain.

"These awards means that Michael didn't just die in obscurity. He was recognised for the sacrifice that he chose to make," Mrs Nerandzic said.

"[The Star of Courage] means so much more because it's from Australia, it's from our home.

"Michael was always so proud of being from here. He used to say to me, 'not bad for a Wollongong boy'."

The Nerandzics were married for 28 years and made an interesting, adventurous life together.

Before settling in the Illawarra, they spent 10 years living out of hotel rooms, while he took piloting jobs and she followed in a car, towing all their worldly possessions.

The work took Mr Nerandzic to 24 different countries and the best seat in the house for five Olympic Games.

In 1988, in Seoul, his passengers were Korean intelligence agents and police carrying out surveillance work.

British billionaire Richard Branson once strapped on waterskis and was towed behind an airship with Mr Nerandzic at the throttle.

Mrs Nerandzic has since sold the Balgownie home that held all the mementoes from that life, but plans to create a space for awards, photos and souvenirs in her new home in Berkeley.

Mr Nerandzic was laid to rest in the cemetery at Scarborough, near the hotel where he and Mrs Nerandzic liked to take visiting friends from overseas to sit and look in awe at the incredible ocean views.

Mrs Nerandzic visits the seaside cemetery often, to sit and talk to her "best friend" still.

"When I go to visit, it's just so quiet and all you can hear is the waves breaking," she said.

"I always feel him with me. I think about him every day to this day. It doesn't seem like three years have gone passed."

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