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Pioneering PNG aviator Laurie Crowley dies at 93

JIM EAMES | Sydney Morning Herald

Laurie Crowley and CessnaLAURIE CROWLEY (1920-2013) arrived in Papua New Guinea in 1948 and during the next 20 years made an indelible mark on civil aviation, from the establishment of a solitary Tiger Moth operation in Lae through to becoming one of the biggest light-aircraft charter operators in the then Territory.

He also formed a charter service in the Solomon Islands, Megapode Airlines, which became today's Solomon Island Airlines.

Struggling through those early years, Crowley not only opened up some of the territory's most isolated mountain reaches to the aeroplane, and therefore administration and trade with the rest of the country, but also fought a continuous battle with an aviation bureaucracy that tended to favour larger, well-established airlines.

Crowley, along with others such as Bobby Gibbes, firmly believed that while safety was paramount, the unique PNG aviation environment called for some of the more stringent rules to be bent slightly if the country's outposts were to be served adequately.

Laurence Crowley was born on 20 May 1920, one of eight children of James Crowley and his wife, Ellen (nee Lawler), a Lockhart farming family. After starting work, he enlisted in the RAAF in 1940 and became a mechanic.

On his way to service in Europe, going through Canada, he met Betty Robicheau. They didn't see each other again for five years, but when he proposed, she accepted.

Crowley got back to Australia at the end of the war intent on gaining a pilot's licence and looked for an opportunity to fly.

He got the licence, all right, but found himself just one of hundreds of former wartime pilots looking for work. So he took a job as an aircraft mechanic at Coffs Harbour. There, he was asked to fix an Avro Anson, and its owner was so impressed that he offered Crowley a job with Guinea Air Traders.

Guinea Air Traders packed up within 12 months, but Crowley, now with a commercial pilot's licence, decided to stay on. He bought a half-share in a Tiger Moth and started his own charter operation.

In the years that followed, Crowley Airways branched out, first with a Curtis Robin then into single-engine Cessnas and a twin Piper Aztec. Helicopters followed later.

With these machines, Crowley opened the way into scores of the isolated airstrips in the PNG mountains. Over the years, he also expanded his interests into trade stores, earth moving, a vegetable shop, bus tours and tea and coffee, along with mineral exploration.

While Crowley had the occasional accident, he also developed techniques in introducing new pilots to his operations, emphasising that they must always fly within safety margins while he in turn would ensure that their aircraft was properly maintained.

Still, legend has it there were times when he pushed his own safety envelope. Once, when asked to fly into an airstrip near Wewak and lift out a pilot who had wrecked his machine, Crowley arrived to find the pilot and a passenger.

The Tiger Moth sat only two people, so Crowley handed the controls over to the pilot, gave the other seat to the passenger and flew out on the wing.

No matter how meticulous he was with his machines, Crowley had a healthy disregard for the maps of the day, which he considered inadequate and misleading.

When one new employee pulled out a map to gauge the height of an approaching gap in the ridge line Crowley barked: ''Put that bloody map away, son, or you'll be dead in a week. Use your eyes.''

By the early 1970s, after his expansion into the Solomons, Crowley had had enough and retired, eventually to the family farm. Even into his nineties he was out on the tractor daily and, just for old time's sake although he no longer flew, his Cessna remained parked in the farm's hangar.

In 2006, Papua New Guinea appointed Crowley an officer of the Order of the Logohu, the equivalent of the OBE. Last year, Solomon Island Airlines invited Laurie and Betty to the 50th anniversary of the founding of the original airline.

Laurie Crowley is survived by Betty and children Gisele, Denis, Shane, Randal and Kieren.

Comments

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Steve W Labuan

It is both interesting and honourable to know of the story of Laurie Crowley.

I wasn't born yet in his time of activities. but from Leahy's condolence comments, in the mid seventies I was in primary school (78 - 83) at Bulolo; and I am sure I used to see his planes among those owned by Co-air and Talair landing & taking off: as a boy I always liked to watch the planes land and fly on the airstrip from my home in the hills at New Camp II.

Such great man. Sad but he lived a great life. My condolence. Thankyou Laurie Crowley: RIP.

Richard Leahy

I am sure that Laurie will be recognised as being the most significant Light Aircraft Air Charter Operator so far in the history of PNG Aviation.

Laurie was an aircraft mechanic (fitter) in the RAAF (I think) during the war, and learned to fly soon after hostilities ended.

In early 1950 Laurie with another pilot, Ray Stockden, started up Crowley Stockden Airways at Lae.

They began with Tiger Moths, and from there followed a fascinating assortment of aircraft which included Avro Ansons, a Curtiss Robin, a Piper L-5 Stinson, Piper Apache, and later Piper Aztecs and, of course, Cessna 170s, Cessna 205s, and I think, later a Cessna 206.

Laurie had an Aero Commander and a Helio Courier in his fleet for a time as well.

At some stage Laurie took over Ray Stockden’s share, and the company became Crowley Airways. Sometime in the 1960s Laurie decided to develop a helicopter operation as well, and I think, at one time fielded up to six Choppers, a Bell 47 G-5, Bell G-47 3B1s, and Bell Jet Ranger 206s.

Laurie eventually sold out the entire operation during the mid-1970s, and moved to New South Wales with his family.

A little known fact, and I would include the members of Laurie’s family in this statement as well, is that during 1959 I would spend about one hour each and every week with Laurie in a camp hut at my family’s cattle station at Baiune, which was between Mumeng and Bulolo.

DASF were endeavouring to eradicate a cattle tick problem that we had at Baiune, and once a week they would charter Laurie and his Cessna 170 to take the stock inspector, at that time Neville Robinson, in to spray our cows for tick.

I would walk into the property at dawn on the designated days (one and a half hours walk each way) to ensure that the cattle had been yarded for the spraying operation.

After Laurie brought Neville in to the airstrip, I would leave the spraying to him, and our lads and I, would spend the hour the spraying took with Laurie, asking him endless questions about every aspect of flying in PNG.

I can say without any fear of contradiction, that I learnt more from Laurie during that year than I ever learnt from a text book or from a flying school.

I was only seventeen at the time, and although Laurie always had a book to read, each and every time he saw me walking over he would close the book, and very gracefully put up with my endless questions.

Later that year I would go on to take out a Private Flying Licence, and about three years later a Commercial Licence.

Laurie operated both fixed and rotary wing aircraft for around twenty- five years. No paying passenger was ever killed flying in a Crowley Aircraft whilst Laurie was at the helm.

I would like to pass on my condolences to Laurie’s family, and I’m greatly saddened by the passing of one of aviation’s greats.

[Thanks to Dave Wall]

Paul Oates

Many a former resident of PNG outstations would remember Laurie and Crowley Airways in a very favorable light. Contacting Crowley's on the radio and waiting to hear that familiar drone of the government charter was a regular social event.

Another PNG icon has departed.

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