I arrived in Port Moresby in January 1982 and met up with Stuart Boyce, who seemed pleasant enough. I had about 340 flying hours at the time. New Guinea is famous for being one of the most dangerous places in the world to fly. The mountains and tropical weather are a toxic mix, and the airstrips are mainly challenging because they are short and perched on the side of hills. Quite a large percentage of the pilots who go there end up killing themselves. Those who don’t are generally considered good pilots, the theory being that they survived, so they must be. To a point, I agree, but there have been outstanding pilots up there that have had bad luck and average ones who were lucky. There are no guarantees.
Unless they are desperate to fill positions up there, Chief Pilots are relatively cautious. After all, the cleanup after an accident can be time-consuming and involves a lot of paperwork. It’s best avoided. The reason Stuart gave me the time of day was my experience as a navigator. Just the airmanship and professional training were worth something. But he didn’t say yes right away. Instead, he sent me around the country with other pilots to ‘see’ the operation. Looking back, this was to see how I got on with others, and he would have got feedback as to whether my personality was right for the crazy lifestyle up there. In the end, he offered me a job and then sent me to Cairns to wait for my work permit.
A couple of weeks later, I had the work permit and was back in Port Moresby getting checked out on a Cessna 206. Once that was done. They flew me to Tabubil in the Star Mountains area of the North Fly District in the Western Province.
At that time, Tabubil was just a small mining camp that was being used as a base for setting up the Ok Tedi Copper Mine. It consisted, of a mess hall, a bunch of single bedrooms called Dongas and an airport of sorts that was one way, sloping and made of rough gravel. Because there was no road into Tabubil at the time, everything had to be flown in by Talair using Twin Otters and C206s. From memory, there were two Otters and about 5 C206s based there.
Life in Tabubil at the time revolved around flying and drinking to kill the boredom. A typical day would start with breakfast, then we’d all pile in the back of a pickup and get a ride down to the airfield. We were all there to log as many flying hours as we could as quickly as possible. There were two reasons for this. One was that the end game was the airlines, so the more flying hours, the better. The other was that you were only allowed to fly 100 hours in a month, so if you could get that done in three weeks, you could escape to the relative civilisation of Port Moresby or even Cairns for the last week.
If things went your way on a good day, you could fly six return trips to Kiunga to pick up supplies for the mine. So there was always a rush to get pre-flighted and get airborne. The fly in the ointment for this was an American called Jim who was a bit of a dithering old bugger and in charge of the operation. He always had a few passengers each morning that one of us would have to deliver to Ningerum and one other place with an airstrip. If you got caught for this job, it would disrupt your day and bring your total back to 5 return trips. So there’d be this mad rush to get airborne, and usually, the slowest pilot would just get his engine started, and Jim would stagger out of his office and stand in front of the aircraft, doing a cutting of throat signal, to say shut down the engine.
I got caught twice, I think, but at least I learnt a few things from it. I learnt to be first off the pickup truck and get a good routine going for your preflight checks. The second learning resulted from when I landed at Ningerum for the first time. Unbeknownst to me, the grass at Ningerum was more moss and slime than grass, and it was like ice when it was wet. On my first landing there, I came in a touch too fast and slid off the end of the runway about 30 metres. No damage was done, though, which is the best way to learn. I became more diligent about approach speeds and touch down points after that.
Another time going into Ningerum, when I got overhead, there was low cloud covering the airport. I could see that it was clear to the south, so I flew down low to see if I could see a way in underneath the cloud. It looked clear up the fly river, which I knew went right past the western end of Ningerum’s runway, so I dipped down into the river gorge and headed up the river until I saw the runway on the right and pulled up onto it. When I taxied in and shut down, one of the local ex-pats came up and said, “Where did you come from?” I said, “Up the river from the south.” Then he said, “Did you see the cable across the river?” It seems I had either flown under or just over a cable strung across the gorge. That was the luck I was talking about.
Don’t be too clever.
In general, we would fly straight to Kiunga to pick up supplies. Kiunga is a port town near the top end of the Fly River. Supplies to the mine were barged up the river from the sea, a distance of around 850 km. However, during the dry season of 1982, the level of the river dropped, so supplies were flown in from Port Moresby by C130 Hercules.
Anyway, we’d turn up empty in Kiunga, and the workers would load us up for a return trip. You had to be on your game with this because there wasn’t much thought (None) put into the balance of the aircraft. The loading boys generally wouldn’t try and overload you, weight-wise, though. Commonly for the C206, the load would be three 44 gallon drums of petrol or diesel. We had to remove the seat next to the pilot and shove one drum as far forward as possible to get this in. Even then, the load was right near the limit of being too far back.
Sometimes I’d come out of the air-conditioned site office to see my C206 sitting on its tail with the nose wheel in the air. It was a surprise to the loaders that this wasn’t ok. Even if the nose wheel was on the ground, we pilots would always try to lift the front of the aircraft by pushing up on the propeller spinner. When you did this, if it dropped down reasonably quickly, once you stopped lifting, you’d accept it. If it was really light, you wouldn’t. Of course, the real danger started when you got airborne. The drums could not be tied down very well, so movement in flight in turbulence was a possibility that could kill. However, one of the benefits was that when you landed at Tabubil, with these aft centre of gravity positions, you didn’t need to flare. All you needed to do was stop holding forwards control pressure, and the nose would rise and give you a good landing.
In the evenings, we’d all sit on the balcony in front of our dongas and drink the local beers, South Pacific Lager or San Miguel. They were a good bunch of blokes that I was there with. There was Ron Buchanan, a Canadian, Grant Ladelle, who would later become a Qantas Captain, Rob Craven, who would later become an Emirates Captain, Neil Brooker, Peter Leamon, who later died in an MU2 crash in Australia and a couple of others whose names escape me. There was a mish-mash of other contractors and the like, primarily misfits chasing dollars. One big guy from the Middle East told us how he had fucked camels in the past. No prizes for guessing what we called him after that. He was a strange character, and no one felt that safe around him.
Just about every night, it would piss with rain. Tabubil has one of the highest average rainfalls in the world, with around 390 inches or 10 metres per year. So it was a good thing that the balcony was covered. We’d sit there watching sheets of rainfall and listening to the thunder, and we’d tell bullshit stories, and life was good. Then we’d eat, sleep, and the following day, do it all over again.
These days Tabubil has changed a lot with a population of around 10,000, an entire town and a new international airport. The Ok Tedi copper mine accounts for half of the Western Province economy and 26% of Papua New Guinea’s export earnings. Most of the supplies going in and out, go on the new road between Kiunga and Tabubil, which should be sealed by now. It was cool to be there, but I have no desire to go back at all.
New Guinea: Daru
There are different types of flying experience when it comes to what the airlines see as useful. The least useful is probably instructing on single-engine aircraft. Then comes charter flying on singles. Then you move up to twin-engine aircraft, which is more valuable again. Twins with turbine engines would be next, and the top of the heap would be multi-crew jet time. Finally, any air force time is deemed very valuable as well.
So when I got the call from Port Moresby to head down to get my Islander/BN2 endorsement after three months at Tabubil, I was pretty excited. The Islander is a twin-engine, fixed gear, high wing aircraft capable of short takeoffs and landings. It's well built and solid and perfectly suited to New Guinea flying. With a cruise speed of around 135kt, it gets along ok. I really enjoyed flying it.
I went down to Port Moresby, and over a couple of days, I completed the endorsement. They tended to make more of a song and a dance over twin endorsements because of the need to train for engine failure and the resultant asymmetric power. While I was down there, I met a few of the pilots from around the place, such as Peter Edwards, Phil Stevenson, Max Parker and Bruce McCook. One night there was a party at McCook's home. Some of the operations people were there too. There was Chris Miles, the Moresby Ops manager and Jim Birrell, who was over from Lee. These parties were generally somewhat wild. It was great to get to know some of these hard cases, and they'd keep popping up during my time in PNG. I still catch up with Edwards now and then, who ended up as a Captain at Cathay Pacific.
After the Islander endorsement, I was sent to be based in Daru. In the Western Province, Daru is a 15 square km island in the Torres Strait, a few km south of the PNG mainland. It's the province's capital. When I arrived there in mid-1982, the main town consisted of about four cross streets, a wharf, and a long road out to the airport. Apart from that, there wasn't much to be said for it unless you liked snakes and sharks. There were taipans a plenty on the island. A bite from a Taipan has enough venom to kill 100 adults in as little as 30 to 45 minutes for those who don't know. Taipans would often be found in the wrong places out near the airport.
To add to the excitement, the waters around Daru were shark-infested. Daru had a pier that jutted out into the strait between the island and the mainland. We would have a few too many drinks on occasion and go and jump off the end of it. Of course, the locals thought we were mad.
There were two pilots based at Daru. When I turned up, an Aussie, Michael Butler (Jeeves), was there. We shared the Talair house in town together. There was an Islander and a C207 based there. I mainly flew the Islander while Jeeves flew the C207. We covered the Western Province and made an occasional trip to Thursday Island at the tip of Cape York in Australia. About once every six weeks, we'd make a trip to Moresby for maintenance. The flying wasn't too bad, with some variation in there. We used to do a run to Balimo, then Wipim, Yuki, Bensbach and back. These destinations all provided some entertainment and opportunities to learn.
In the case of Balimo, it was a low cloud event. I'd flown from Kiunga an hour to the north. The ground around Balimo was all flat, and when I got there, it was mostly covered in cloud. I decided to fly down to 200ft to see if I could break out below the cloud. I had just got to 200ft when I saw a tree go flying past the left-wing, so I immediately pulled up and got out of there. Lucky again. The altimeter setting between Kiunga and Balimo had changed and created an altimeter error.
Unless you have an accurate QNH, don't do dumb shit like that.
At Wipim, it was a performance problem with the C207. Wipim has a shortish runway, a couple of hundred metres of long grass, and then quite high trees. On that particular day, it was hot and gusty. The C206 is a pilot's machine, but the C207 with extra seats and a cargo pod underneath is not and is more suited to long-sealed runways. It's like the difference between a car and a truck. I loaded up the C207 with as many people and as much freight as I thought was appropriate, then started the takeoff roll. By two-thirds of the way down the runway, I was still way below takeoff speed, and the airspeed was fluctuating with the wind gusts. With 100m of the runway left, I felt that even if I did get airborne, I wouldn't clear the trees, so I jammed on the brakes, cut the power and ran off the runway into the long grass. The passengers all thought that this was a hell of a joke. They all jumped out to help lift and push the C207 back onto the runway. Then we taxied up to the other end and stopped. I got out and said that some of the passengers would need to stay behind and go another day. But no one wanted to get out. They all wanted to have another go.
If performance data is not available and there are lots of warning signs, be very conservative.
At Suki, I had been flying all day and was on about my 18th approach and landing for the day. Unfortunately, there was a thunderstorm sitting a few km to the west of the field. On approach, because I was fatigued, it didn't occur to me that to maintain the final approach track, I had to offset the aircraft's nose by about 20 degrees. It was only when I got to about 200ft that I saw the windsock, which was indicating about 40kt of crosswind. So I aborted the landing and went on to Bensbach.
Learn to recognise fatigue before it becomes an issue.
Bensbach was at the far southwestern end of the province on the Bensbach River. Australians Brian and Doreen Brumley owned a hunting and fishing lodge there. They had a daughter, Jane, who was about my age too. So with hunting, fishing and Jane, an overnight or two on a charter was just what the doctor ordered. Guests would arrive at Daru from Port Moresby, and then I'd fly them out to the lodge. What's not to like?
One of the treats for the charter passengers was that I would divert a little from track and show them a fully intact US air force WW2 mustang that had run out of fuel and been forced to land on the grass plain. It was a reminder of how PNG was right in the midst of the action during the war.
One of the pieces of bad news that arrived early in my tenure at Daru was the death of David Bayliss, one of the instructors from Goulburn. He had crashed an Islander at Kopiago in the PNG highlands and had not survived. He was a good pilot too. In the time that I was in PNG, pilots continued to die at the rate of three or four per year. No wonder dad had told me not to go there. Afterwards, Dad said to me that every time the phone had rung at an odd hour, his heart would miss a beat.
After being in Daru for a while, I got a call from Ops in Port Moresby that I needed to defend the fact that I had flown the C207 after it had run out of hours. Our job was to put all the hours into the aircraft logbook and then tell Moresby when the aircraft was due for a service. On this occasion, Jeeves had made a mistake in the addition by ten hours, and instead of it being on 93 hours as I thought, it was actually on 103. I was invited to come to Moresby to explain myself by the manager at Moresby, a guy called Adrian Nesbitt, AKA 'GHOC' by the troops. What is that? What does GHOC stand for? Well, I'm glad you asked. Grey-haired old ……. And the last word isn't coming to me right now.
So I jumped on the flight to Moresby and was put up in a hotel for a few days while they decided my fate. GHOC wanted to fire me to make an example. I suspect the rest of them thought it was all a bit silly and that replacing me would be difficult. While I was waiting to hear my fate, Bruce Bartlett from the Kiwi Air Force, my Mosman flatmate, turned up looking for a job. While he was waiting to see if he had been given a job, he bludged off me in my hotel. This was awful timing because the two of us were forced to cause all sorts of trouble, because of boredom, for the next few days. In the end, commonsense prevailed, and I was eventually sent back to Daru as if nothing had happened, and Bruce got a job.
Aircraft maintenance was always an issue in PNG. A lot of the bases were hours away from the nearest engineer. If you got caught on the ground somewhere, you had to wait for a rescue. I had a couple of interesting nights in villages that way. One of the common things was battery and starter motor problems. I got pretty good at swinging props which is the aviation version of a car's crank handle. It's one thing to do this on a Cessna 150 while someone sits in the aircraft standing on the brakes. It's another to do it by yourself on a 300hp engine with no one standing on the brakes. I would always put rocks in front of the wheels first. On the 300hp engines, you'd have to put your whole body into the swing to turn the prop. At the same time, you'd have to be quick to get out of the way if it did start lest it chop your head off. You'd need some time off after that.
A couple of weeks after nearly being fired for 'incompetence', I was suddenly not incompetent because they called to say that the Prime Minister, Sir Julius Chan, was coming out to the province to campaign for the election, and I would be flying him around for a week. To make the PM feel special, they sent out another pilot, Ron Buchanan from Tabubil days, to be the co-pilot. What they didn't tell the PM was that Ron wasn't qualified to fly the Islander.
In due course, Sir Julius turned up, and we did the rounds. This involved flying him and his entourage into places and hanging around while he made a speech and shook a few hands. I liked Sir Julius. He was easygoing and friendly and not at all up himself. He treated me as an equal and would sit down with Ron and me in the evenings and have a beer. Life and politics and been good to Sir Julius. He mentioned at the time that he was very wealthy.
Two things came out of that week that left a lasting impression. The first was that coconut juice is very refreshing when you are thirsty. Amazingly, no matter how hot it was, the freshly opened coconut was cool inside. The second thing was that even a good political speech, heard too often, will start to sound like bullshit.
Shortly after the PM had been and gone, the dry season kicked in well and truly in the Western Province, and fires broke out in many areas. This meant that visibility reduced markedly, and navigation got a lot harder. Generally, it was best to get airborne then fly on instruments until you estimated you were in the area of your destination. Then you would drop lower to see if you could recognise anything. There were no navigation beacons or aids to help. It was all visual. I must have accumulated over 200 hours of actual instrument flying in this way during that dry season.
One method that I used to locate places was called 'Local direction finding'. With this method, you relied on your passengers to know the rivers and villages in their local area. Once you were in the area, you would fly a line and watch the passengers. If their heads turned slowly to the right, like the needle of an ADF system, as they recognised something, you would know that it was somewhere to the right. Then you could take another straight line and watch the heads again. This time the heads might slowly turn left. In this way, you could narrow it down until the airfield came into view.
A risk to the strategy of flying around in super hot conditions on instruments was that we had no weather radar. One time I flew straight into the downdraft of a massive thunderstorm at about 3,000ft. The aircraft started descending at 1,500ft per minute even with the nose up and full power on. Fortunately, I got spat out the side at about 1,000ft, having learnt a good lesson.
Stay away from thunderstorms. The power in them is immense.
There was news from 'the front' in mid-1982 that the management (Dennis Buchanan) had decided we all needed to take a 10% pay cut because there was a mini-recession of sorts in PNG. We were all on slave wages already, and our ex-pat accommodation was by far the worst of all the ex-pat professions in PNG, so this was the thin edge of the wedge. Most of us also knew that all the aircraft were owned by a tax-free company of Dennis's in the Soloman Islands and were charged to Talair at loss-making rates, thus reducing taxes in PNG.
Many of the airfares in PNG were paid to the pilots in cash by the passengers when they got on board. The odd pilot funded boats and other toys by taking every second cash fare for themselves. Most were honest, though. But when wages were reduced by 10%, everyone took enough cash fares to give themselves a 10% pay raise. And when Rob Craven wrote off the Talair ute in Hoskins and was billed for it by the company, Many pilots chipped in with cash fares until he was reimbursed.
Towards the end of 1982, when I was really getting sick of Daru, I had to do a charter out to pick up some government people from Bamu. I landed and started to load the four or so ex-pats and maybe six locals. It was stinking hot, and I was in a bad mood. While I was loading, a drunk local guy came over and asked for a ride to Daru. He had no money, and besides, it was a charter, so I declined him. When the loading was complete, I got in, closed the door and strapped in. But when I went to start the left-hand engine, I saw that the drunk guy was standing by the prop. I had to get out and move him away, with my temper getting worse in the 40 degrees. Then I got ready to leave again, and when I looked to start the engine, he was standing there again. Well, I'd had enough, so I got out and punched him in the head very hard, knocking him down. Then I dragged him clear. When I walked back to the aircraft, I could see the local passengers all distraught and the ex-pats all nodding and smiling with approval. I had to fly back using only my left hand, which was an exercise in itself. My right hand was in shock from the punch.
News of events like this travelled quickly in PNG, and my nickname for a while was 'The Bamu Basher'. One of the things everyone flying all over PNG had to do before each flight was call Moresby on a standard HF frequency to get a search and rescue watch started. We could all hear each other doing it and would recognise pilots we knew. From then on, every time I'd call up for a SAR watch, some smart arse pilot would say," Is that the basher?" At least it was entertaining, which was more than I could say for Daru.
There was a saying that it was time to leave a place like Daru once you decided you liked it. That started to happen to me towards the end. One time Ron Buchanan turned up again on a charter from Kerema, and the two of us had about 30 beers then went for a drive around town. There was a local pub there of sorts which was more like an old disused squash court in shape and with no windows. Ron decided it would be a fine idea to make some racist comment out the window as we drove past. This encouraged a few of the locals to jump in a ute and give chase.
For a while, it was like a keystone cops chase around the four cross streets. At one point, things got so confused that we were right behind them as if we were chasing them. Then, we snuck onto the main road at an opportune moment, turned off our lights, and zoomed at high speed out towards the airport. About 200m before the airport, there was a 30-degree bend in the road, and the road was wet. Ron and I were congratulating each other on getting away when we spun out on that corner and slid in slow motion into a ditch that was about 6 feet deep.
The vehicle was on its side in the ditch below the level of the road. We almost pissed ourselves laughing. Soon the chase car turned up looking for us and drove straight by. We waited another few minutes, and then they drove back past us and back into town. Then we went into the nearby hostel and got a bunch of boys to help lift the ute out of the ditch. There was no noticeable new damage because it had been munted so many times before. I did notice, however, that it took some effort to keep it straight on the road and turning 30 degrees right was now just a matter of letting go of the wheel for a bit. After that, we needed to do a wheel alignment using a hammer that we had at the house.
I'm sad to report that I spent one of my 62 Christmases in Daru. But actually, it wasn't too bad thanks to the new pilot, Graham Clarke and a volunteer service abroad girl from the UK called April Brett. April had moved in just up the road, and she had rescued a local stray dog which Clarkey and I named Scabby because it was in such bad shape. April spent a lot of time at our place over the last few months of 1982, and when Christmas was near, she announced that she would cook us a fine Christmas lunch. Please don't ask me why because it escapes me now, but Warwick Rankin also flew in for Christmas. He may have been lost, but it's not essential information as far as the story goes.
On Christmas day, April came around and tied Scabby under the deck downstairs, then proceeded to cook. Being bored and with not much else to do, Clarkey and I did tequila shots. I'm sure most of you know how this goes. At first, everything is fine, and everyone is wondering what all the fuss is about with drinking tequila. But then suddenly, it's like the starter's gun goes off, and everything turns mad very quickly. A log of happenings would look something like this:
10:30 April turns up, ties Scabby up under the balcony and starts cooking.
11:45 Jeremy and Clarkey start tequila shots while Warwick looks on disapprovingly.
12:15 The meal starts to appear on the table.
12:16 Jeremy and Clarkey start ripping into the leg of lamb with their hands.
12:18 The peas and gravy appear.
12:18.3 Handfuls of peas are being thrown at Warwick.
12:19 A full-on food fight develops.
12:22 A photo of Clarkey is taken sitting on a chair on top of the upturned dining table. Signs of food are everywhere.
12:23 April has joined us and is drinking out of the tequila bottle. The lamb has been scoffed.
12:25 Warwick announces that we are all fucked, and he's going to make sure all three of us, and Scabby, are fired.
12:25 Warwick is told to fuckoff by three different people in unison. Scabby growls at him from outside.
12:30 Clarkey has a spew off the balcony.
12:30 Scabby has the best Christmas ever.
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