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24 November 2012


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My son, who has a commercial licence and enjoys aerobatics to whatever passengers can stand, always comes out with the old adage: every landing is a controlled crash landing.

I find this very reassuring!

I flew with Peter Hurst in Chippies at Moree Aero Club cutting streamers. He was a good bloke and a top pilot but not so good on a motor bike.

An officious young Treasury bloke rocked up at Nomad River Sub-District Office in the early '70s to audit the books.

The Islander that dropped him off went on to Kiunga and was due back later that afternoon to pick him up for the return flight to Daru.

Being anxious to finish his audit in good time, he hurried through the books and informed me that we were short and that I would have to make up the difference.

The 'difference' was only a few dollars, but I was buggered if I would cough up because he had rushed through the books so perfunctorily, and in such bad temper, that there was no way he had not miscalculated.

Besides, on the previous day I had meticulously gone through the books and they balanced perfectly.

There were a few dark clouds building, a common feature at Nomad as the afternoon rolled on, and so I told Mr Treasury that unless he went through the books again, and this time more carefully, I would close the airstrip.

He looked out at the clouds, then at my steely and determined gaze, and went back to the figures. It wasn't too long before he again closed the books, less vigorously this time, and muttered that, yes, the books did balance.

I didn't close the airstrip and was glad to see the back of him.

Reminds me of the time an Australian Army pilot tried to land at the short Pagei air strip.

Instead of starting his landing at the edge of the strip he glided along to the middle then attempted to land. Naturally he ran out of room and ended up in the swamp at the end of the strip.

Imagine our amusement when we saw a General, who was doing an inspection of the border, climb out and wade through the swamp.

Once on solid ground he was not impressed when he saw his neatly ironed uniform covered in stinking mud.

We explained what went wrong and told him that the regular weekly plane had landed safely only half an hour before.

That poor pilot was never going to get a promotion and probably spent the next month peeling potatoes.

Gerry Ward and Sue Serjeantson edited a book in 2002 called "...and then the engines stopped: flying in Papua New Guinea".

It even has a contribution by Ross Garnaut. Some of the pieces have encouraging titles like, "Stooging Around in the Wet", "Where's the Bloody Strip?", "And Where Are We Now?' and "Or, You Could Go by Road".

It was published by Pandanus Books, which was a publishing arm of the Research School of Pacific and Asian Studies at ANU.

Pandanus is now defunct (thanks John Howard) but there are probably still copies around.

PS the photograph on the front cover by Graeme Ward is of the approach to Kundiawa - looks very small and unforgiving.

It was like landing on the deck of an aircraft carrier - KJ

Well I haven't placed a comment for ages - but flying in TPNG, as known in those days, was by the seat of your pants.

One of the many hair raising flights I did was on a Crowley airline doing the so-called milk run. It was a weekend and the pilot asked if I'd like to come, having never seen places like Sialum etc. I readily agreed.

Airborne and going along peacefully, the pilot told me to take over. I froze initially, listened to his instructions - "Just watch that dial in front of you and keep it straight"!

You would be surprised at the ups and downs a plane can do with me gripping that pilot stick in a vice like grip. And so ended my ambitions to become a pilot!

Then there was the Finsch/Pindiu return after the annual Finsch. Ball - a tractor mowing the Pindiu airstrip ended in a ditch, the plane removed leaves from the didimans" coffee and cocoa plantation.

Zombies got off that plane when it landed.

And finally, I never got the whole truth, but one Paul Oates saw and recalled my "death defying" departure from Pindiu when I departed TPNG in December 1969.

Some of you will remember that Kundiawa airstrip also served as the Chimbu Golf Club's 9-hole course.

Which led to the famous and somewhat superfluous Local Rule 1 imprinted on the scorecard: "Players shall retire from the fairway when aircraft are landing."

Siwea Airstrip and some near fatal landings.

Siwea (on the Huon Peninsula) is a typical ‘one way strip’ (read, nearly one way trip) but no better or worse than a host of others in PNG. I remember it well as I almost died there.

When it came to open it up to commercial traffic, the local trader who owned the restricted licence and I had to be picked up at Sialum Patrol Post by a Department of Civil Aviation (DCA) charter and flown in to Siwea to prove it would be suitable to commercial status.

The Council had decided that they wanted all planes to land there, not just the trader's charters.

Come the day, the DCA plane arrives at what I would have said was a very high approach to Sialum. Admittedly, there was a line of coconut palms of the southern approach but the 206 was still very high.

When the trader and I arrived at the strip, who should be piloting the aircraft but (---- -------) the Airport Inspector himself.

Another bloke was sitting next to him in the front left had seat. The trader got in behind (----) and I sat behind the other bloke.

The take off was a bit ordinary but then so were a lot of similar ones in those days so we didn't think too much of it.

Flying down the valley and approaching Siwea, I thought we were a bit high. It reminded me of the high approach you used to make in Crowley's Helio Courier, an aircraft that was able to perform a STOL (short take and landing) approach with slots and flaps.

I can still remember what happened next as vividly as the day it happened. Siwea airstrip was below and seemed directly under our nose wheel. The 'stall warning' was screaming in our ears.

Then suddenly the airstrip floated up in front of our eyes and disappeared from view above us. We were then left staring directly at the cliff face below the strip. The pilot was still sitting woodenly looking straight ahead.

"----, ----, SNAP OUT OF IT," the bloke next to him yelled, "You've stalled it!"

(----) did this funny little shake and grabbed the throttle and yanked it back. The engine roared and we swept up over the lip of the strip and came down heavily on the port wing and wheel.

I can still remember in my mind's eye seeing the trader's horrified face almost directly above me until we then bounced forwards onto the nose wheel and almost flipped over. The propeller hit the ground and the aircraft came to a sudden stop.

We then found out (----) was still a trainee pilot and the bloke in the front seat was his instructor. Olaman!

I got out of that plane and even though I had given up smoking six weeks earlier, found the first bloke with cigarettes and bummed one off him.

(----) apologised but you had to be alive to appreciate it. I don't think I said much to him.

The wing was only slightly bent and the prop had fortunately not been damaged too much. We then took off again for Sialum, it being possibly the slightly lesser of two evils.

As usual, we did our too high approach, with the stall warning screaming again in our ears, as if to remind us of what had nearly happened before.

When I arrived home, my wife asked me whatever had I been doing? “Your face is as white as a sheet”, she said.

(Ho hum!) Just a normal day at the office you might say.

Many were the times, over a rum or two (beer was too expensive in the Highlands), talk would turn to flying. Everyone had a story, often second-hand. In 1955 an incident gave me a first-hand story to tell.

DC Ian Downs, some didimen and I were trying to view from the air a small grassed clearing about 9,000 feet above my Daulo camp.

The cloud base was too low to fly safely through a gap to over-fly the clearing. Instead we flew back and forth trying to catch a glimpse as we passed the gap. It was no good so we turned and headed back towards Goroka.

Precisely, both engines in the TAL de Havilland Dragon stopped at the same time. The only noise was rushing air as the nose dipped down towards the Upper Asaro valley.

Pilot Tony Vadim in a slightly wavering voice shouted back, 'It's okay, the carby's have iced up. The engines will start as soon as the ice melts.'

About 2,000 feet above the hilly terrain, with Tony gliding towards a too-distant small airstrip, the propellers windmilling silently, one engine stuttered and started, then the other.

It was good to be back under power and regain some altitude on the remaining ten minutes to Goroka. Tony's only comment was, 'That was awkward.'

Up the Kikori river with the late John Senior of Delta Kikori in his yellow machine.

"Don't worry about the weather, we will just go up the river".

And I swear we went uphill to land on the end of the Kikori airstrip which must be all of 30-odd feet above the river.

Magnificent men all of them.

I can still remember sitting on those webbed seats. Miss those days. Great job mate, brings back the memories!

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