WHEN TERRITORY AIR LINES’ pilot Garry Honour banked the Cessna 180 prior to landing at Kundiawa on a reasonably fine afternoon in 1964, he could hardly have anticipated the serious problem he was about to confront.
Gulf Kilo India’s touchdown was light enough but, unbeknownst to Honour, who went on to become a senior pilot with Qantas, the undercarriage was ready to fail.
And soon after the aircraft landed and began to slow down on the grass runway, the wheels came off spinning the Cessna around and leaving it propped up on one wing.
The five Simbu passengers on board gathered their belongings and calmly strolled away.
Within minutes I’d arrived at the ples balus to get the news for the ABC, for which I was the Simbu correspondent, and to take the photo that adorns this story.
I asked Honour what had happened to the passengers and he told me they were fine. “They just walked away,” he said.
I asked whether there was any panic on board.
“No,” Honour replied. “I think it was their first flight and they thought that was how aircraft land.”
The tales of air travel in Papua New Guinea during colonial times are legion. Then as now it was a difficult country to fly in.
Qantas would send their cadet pilots for a stint flying light aircraft in the Territory. The terrain and weather gave them plenty of useful experience. Some of them never made it back to Australia.
Flying by the seat of your pants was considered normal in a place where navigation aids were mostly absent.
Brian McCook, then chief pilot for TAL, once told me that, even flying in the highlands, he was always confident he could find a place to touch down in an emergency. But many of his colleagues were not so astute, or so lucky.
Peter (Thirsty Hursty) Hurst flew light aircraft around the highlands with a nonchalance that few of his passengers felt.
After a night’s carousing at the Chimbu Ball I watched him take off early Sunday morning with an overloaded aircraft which clambered into the air and then promptly fell off the end of Kundiawa airstrip.
What seemed like an eternity later, way down the Chimbu Gorge, Hurst had managed to get the plane back to its take off altitude and it came back into view. We all breathed deeply and went to Dick Kelaart’s nearby Kundiawa Hotel to drink a bit of breakfast.
A few years later Hurst was killed in a high speed motor accident on Australia’s Gold Coast.
Then there was Captain Peter Manser who flew for a number of airlines in PNG. A flamboyant character, he was also partial to a jar or two and had the distinction of flying so low over the Kassam Pass that foliage and tree branches stuck in the tail-wheel of his DC3.
“There’s usually an updraft there,” he explained to me later.
“A group of us girls were invited to go on a TAA social charter for a picnic to Butaweng near Finschhafen. The plane was a TAA DC3 in cargo configuration. The cabin had webbing seats along the sides for the lucky and the rest sat where they could on boxes in the middle.
“Strategically located at the rear of the cabin was half a 44-gallon drum filled with ice and drinks.
“When slight movements take place on an aircraft, the pilot adjusts the trim. On this trip, with mischievous intent, people started moving to the back of the aircraft at 20 second intervals.
“Then, with stability re-established, and at a pre-arranged signal, we all raced to the front. The aircraft nose dived and I, along with others, thought my time in TPNG did not have long to run.
“The pilot, however, proved the capability both of himself and the DC3 and quickly corrected the situation. And, yes, we had a great picnic.”
And Col Booth, who spent some years on Karkar and is now a businessman in Port Macquarie NSW relates:
“On a charter flight between Madang and Saidor, I asked the pilot about instructions taped to the instrument panel telling how to restart an engine in flight. The pilot explained in detail how they were all wrong.
“At four that afternoon, long after dropping me at Saidor, the bloody Cessna was still on the strip awaiting a mechanic from Madang to start the engine. The pilot couldn't even get it going on the ground, so I don't know what hope he thought he might have had of restarting it mid flight.”
And Col Booth had another interesting experience:
“The Missionary Aviation Fellowship used push/pull Cessnas, the front engine providing 40% of the power and the rear 60%. MAF pilots may have known where they would end up in the event of a crash, but I was never so certain.
“On this flight, our MAF hero tried an old trick: kill the rear motor in flight then restart it using instruments. The inevitable happened. The motor wouldn't restart.
“The implications of landing at a controlled airstrip like Madang, then the busiest in Australasia after Sydney and Bankstown, were horrendous - plane impounded, motor stripped and, if no fault discovered, pilot disciplined.
“So Mr MAF did the only sensible thing - radioed in that he was diverting for some sightseeing, landed in a patch of kunai somewhere in the vicinity of Bogia, managed to restart the engine and took off.
“He wasn’t concerned that I was totally packing it.”
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Photo: TAL Cessna Gulf Kilo India the worse for wear after losing its undercarriage on landing. Facing the camera is police inspector Graham Breman and looking ruefully at his aircraft is pilot Garry Honour