JIM EAMES | Sydney Morning Herald
LAURIE 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.