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New Guinea recollections. (Part 4 of 8)

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Aviation and airstrips.

The very first day you go to live on an outstation in New Guinea is the moment when light aircraft begin to assume a major role in your life.

From firstly wondering how the hell is this guy going to land me and my belongings safely on that little clearing down there in the jungle, to then knowing that these little planes will be your lifeline.  
Your once-a-week mailman, your shopping trolley from the nearest store 200 miles away, your ambulance, and your tractor to commute to work in the bottom corner of your estate.

Many days, accumulating into weeks of your life, will frustratingly be spent sitting beside one airstrip or another waiting for a plane delayed by weather.
Your senses will accordingly become acutely tuned to identifying approaching aircraft up to 10 miles away.
You can firstly hear whether it has either one engine or two, then differentiate between the grunt of a 300 horse power Continental engine and the 230 HP smoothness of its little brother.

The time will come when you can detect the slight whistling noise which distinguishes a Cessna flying with a two-bladed propeller from one which has three.  
Other subtle changes in sound tell you whether it is climbing or descending, or banking to go to another destination or return to home base because the cloud is too thick at your place.
When it finally arrives you can tell who the pilot is by the "shape" of the landing circuit being flown.

You will also inevitably accumulate an sizeable catalogue of aviation stories to tell.
 
I will conclude this recollection with two of my own.

Aviation has played an enormous part in facilitating the economic development of PNG, as well as being a powerful force to unite the more than 600 tribal groups which comprise the country.

The very first aircraft to fly in PNG was a Curtis flying boat in 1922.

After gold was discovered in the Bulolo valley, PNG led the world in the movement of airfreight.  1000-ton dredges were broken down into pieces and flown into the valley with up to 60 flights per day from Lae on the coast, to Wau, an extraordinary one-way 800 metre-long grassed airstrip with a 10 degree slope. (some sources have it at 8, others 12)

During the 12 months from February 1931 to February 1932 Guinea Airways moved 4000 tons of freight.
For the same period the combined airline services of the UK, France and USA carried only 2670 tons.

There are approximately 500 little landing strips scattered around this small mountainous country.  Here are just a few of them together with some facts, anecdotes and personal observations.


 Pindiu
Government Patrol Post in the mountainous centre of the Huon Peninsula.  A one-way strip 600 metres long with a 3 degree slope.

Yilui.….  Short strip (470 m) in the middle of the Sepik plains. 
This is the landing view from the Catholic Mission Helio Courier aircraft.  On final approach in this short takeoff and landing aircraft the leading edge wing slats seen in the picture emerge from the wing with a disconcerting thump when airspeed decreases below 60 mph.
It has been said that the only aircraft in the world with a better STOL performance than the Helio Courier is a helicopter.
I knew at least one pilot of a Pilatus Porter who would probably like to challenge that reputation.

 

Yebil    An outpost for the New Zealand based Christian Missions in Many Lands.  Length 390 metres, slope 7 degrees.

Green River;  One of the most isolated and inhospitable Government outposts in Papua New Guinea.



Anguganak
;  Missionary Aviation Fellowship Cessna 185 at the headquarters of the Christian Missions in Many Lands and site of excellent hospital and school facilities in the 1960's and 70's.

Nuku ; Steeply sloping airstrip with Government office and Catholic Mission.  Length 700 metres with 7 degree slope.

Siwea;  One-way strip only 5 nautical miles from the coast, yet it's altitude is 5500 feet above sea level, and length only 450 metres. 
It has been the scene of many inelegant takeoffs where climbing airspeed is gained by firstly falling off the end at just above stall speed into the deep valley beyond.
Pictured is a Cessna 206 (possibly P2-COA) taking off in a cloud of mud and slush.

Lumi ;  Catholic mission on nearside and Government offices, with housing and hospital on far side.  Length 760 metres.



Kabori;
  Britten-Norman Islander loading bags of copal gum and massoi bark for export. 
Copal gum is the solidified sap of the Kauri pine tree, and Kabori is one of the few locations where there are naturally occurring dense stands of this tree.  The trees are "tapped" in a way similar to that used to obtain latex from rubber trees.  Copal was used in many products, including high quality paints and varnishes.
At 2000 feet elevation, Kabori is only 400 metres long and comes with a notice to pilots "slippery when wet".

I have included the Kabori picture primarily because the aircraft was being piloted by the legendary Reverend Doug McCraw. 
This is the only remaining picture I have of him, and it was disappointing when searching the internet to find almost no information about this extraordinarily gifted and experienced mature-aged aviator who was also one of nature's finest gentlemen.
It is my sad understanding that he was killed in a freak road accident on PNG's Highlands Highway through no fault of his own.

I would like to rectify the absence of Reverend Doug McCraw stories with two of mine.

An aeroplane was simply an extension of Doug's body.  He was born to fly, and more than any other pilot I have known, he had a consummate knowledge of aircraft performance gained during thousands of hours of aeronautical experience which enabled him to put his craft precisely where he wanted it, whether in the air or landing it on the ground.
When, later on, I was also to do my pilots training in PNG, he was my inspiration.

New Guinea is one of the most dangerous countries on earth for conducting light aircraft operations, partly because of sub-standard airstrips and high mountains separated by deep narrow gorges, but primarily because of the speed at which weather conditions can deteriorate and give pilots no escape route.

All such flying was nominally conducted under the Internationally accepted Visual Flight Rules which govern minimum distances, both vertically and horizontally, that pilots are required to keep away from cloud.  
Reality however necessitated that virtually every New Guinea bush pilot contravened these conservative rules, almost on a daily basis.
 
Flight safety was more dependent upon a pilot's skilled airmanship, timely decision making, and knowledge of local terrain and weather patterns, than strict adherence to any set of written rules.

Reverend Doug Story 1.

It needs to be remembered that there were no navigational aids at any of these airstrips, and planes were not equipped, as they are today, with GPS's. 

At the very top right hand corner of the Lumi picture above, there is a deep forested river valley running at right angles to the landing direction of the airstrip.  
Quite often in the mornings an extensive solid cloud layer would obscure the mountain tops, and the cloud base would be only a few feet above airstrip level .
 
In these conditions Lumi was inaccessible to all pilots except Doug. 
He would navigate his own well practised indirect route from Anguganak (at a lower altitude) to Lumi following a maze of clear river valleys beneath the cloud base, before making his landing approach from below the level of Lumi airstrip.
As onlookers we would watch in wide-eyed amazement as an aircraft climbed up out of the valley through mist and fog to deposit itself on the runway threshhold. 
This was not some irresponsible act of daredevilry. 
It was an exhibition of sublime piloting and navigational skills.

Reverend Doug Story 2.
 

This event happened on the day when I took the Kabori picture.
The warning to pilots "slippery when wet" was an understatement. 
Doug had landed the empty Islander at Kabori amid a huge spray of mud and grass kicked up by the wheels and propeller wash, after which he slithered to a stop not too far short of the top end where the parking bay was located.

After loading our bags of produce, with weather closing in, I was the passenger in the co-pilot's seat as he gave maximum takeoff power to both engines, commencing his takeoff run across the parking bay to gain extra momentum, before initiating a skidding realignment onto the top end of the airstrip proper.

The Islander's 4 small main wheels rolled up strips of sodden grass like a harvester at a turf farm.  With 50 metres of strip left before plunging into an area of swamp, only the nosewheel was in the air. 
I was terrified that I might have made an error weighing the bags of copal gum we had loaded, and that eventually The Inquest was going to establish my culpability for causing this terrible accident.

Doug, sensing my unease, casually turned to me and smilingly noted "Ducks with mud on their feet take a while to get airborne"  then with barely perceptible inputs from him the aircraft flew off the ground missing all the bullrushes by just a few feet. 
It seemed at the time to me like some sort of miracle. 
Today I understand that he knew precisely how his Islander was going to perform under those conditions.

Thank you Reverend Doug McCraw for the memories and also for initiating my dream.


(For access to all stories in this series click the "view my tags" link on the right of screen then click "png history".   If any non-Vox readers would like to share a Doug McCraw memory, please contact me by email….address secreted and accessible from "profile" link on my home page.)

 

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About GOF

"Life is like a sewer. What you get out of it, depends upon what you put into it." (Tom Lehrer)

18 responses »

  1. I was just talking to someone last night about their fear of flying. She was talking about seeing the mountaintops obscured by clouds and then the pilot flying right into the next cloud (while she feared it was hiding the next mountaintop)."Then don't look out the window." I told her."The planes going to crash whether I'm looking out the window or not!""Yeah, but you won't know about it …"Amazing that people – like Rev. Doug (actual priest, by the way?) – could fly "blind" like that. I found it even more amazing that you actually kept your eyes open to notice how close the bullrushes were! Mine would have been closed tight while I blubbered like a baby …

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  2. Fantastic! I can see the small plane bouncing along a car park to pick up speed.

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  3. Wow. Makes my Mt Tom Price flying stories pale into insignificance.Keep em coming GOF and I'm sending a link to Ninja who is documenting his flying lessons. I think he will apreciate the speed start from the parking area.

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  4. the pilot flying right into the next cloud (while she feared it was hiding the next mountaintop).Commercial flying around the world these days is such a safe activity with all of the electronic aids which permit instrument flying, and control tower radar surveillance which maps every change in aircraft altitude or direction.Reverend Doug was as far as I know an ordained minister of religion, but he was not the sort of man who ever displayed that vocation or sought to impose his beliefs on anyone else. We used the title as a mark of respect.could fly "blind" like that. (With apologies for my long winded reply πŸ™‚ It is an interesting phenomenon that viewing clouds from the ground often make them look more threatening than when you are actually in the air where they take on a more transparent appearance. It is quite common to make a landing approach through a bunch of insignificant looking clouds then to look back from the ground and wonder how you ever found your way.The magic of Doug's landings here is that without an actual view of where the strip was, he must have had some landmark in the valley which prompted him to turn and climb with precision up to where it was.

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  5. Thanks Pete.I think he will apreciate the speed start from the parking area.Again not a practice taught by flying schools, but in these circumstances a "moving start" is always preferable to a stationary one.

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  6. Wonderful photos. It brought back memories of the crop dusters – those pilots could land on a little dirt track guided in by a person standing at the end waving a little white rag!

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  7. Sometimes you come across someone who is just awe-inspiringly gifted at what they do and your Reverend Doug sounds like just such a person. You've got a wealth of stories, I wish done stuff as exciting as that!

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  8. Great stories GOF. I've only got PPL training stories to swap for now. But I have been to PNG and know the terrain enough to understand the unique challenges of what it must be like to fly there. Keep them coming!

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  9. It brought back memories of the crop dustersYep, they are another breed altogether!I once went on a flight as a passenger with a locust spraying pilot…..it was just a ferry flight back down the flat valley to Nadzab in PNG, but he still refused to fly up where all the other planes were, instead skipping low over fences and trees. I vowed to never again fly with a crop dusting pilot πŸ™‚

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  10. "Sometimes you come across someone who is just awe-inspiringly gifted" That really sums it up beautifully Vicola. In a lifetime we might only meet half a dozen such people in various fields of activity and we need to treasure the moments we have with them.

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  11. Thanks for visiting, and the comment Ninja."I've only got PPL training stories to swap for now".I remember what an intense learning experience the PPL was for me, so I am sure your stories will be of great interest.It's probably best if I lay off PNG flying stories for a while.There is an assortment of my older posts under my "aviation" tag.

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  12. Really enjoying this GOF. Also really amazed at the amount of info you can dredge up from 40 years ago, when I have trouble remembering last Tuesday.

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  13. Thanks Inga. I've actually surprised myself by rediscovering a lot of dormant memories. The old journals and slides helped a lot……I had never seriously revisited them until now.

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  14. Lovely tribute to Reverend McCraw. He would feel honored, I'm sure. You're right that it's about skills, not being a daredevil. I admire that, although when I hear about small planes I tend to hide under the futon. They scare the hell out of me, reliable or not.
    Thank you for the explaination of the tree gum – facinating. We often forget how precious are our natural resources for everything that surrounds us. This local knowledge is like gold. I'd much rather read this than all the fluff I read for "news" in our paper this morning.

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  15. Thank you Emmi for your very kind comments. They are greatly appreciated.

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  16. Hi GOF: I had flights as pax with the inimitable Doug when he flew for LutaAir in 1968/69. Having written up one hairy flight with him in our Baron, Mag-Wwk, wherein undercarriage motor failed, flew circuits over Boram Bay, etc …… and in searching more info about him I discovered your blog (new-guinea-recollections-part-4-of-8). I see how well you have painted him. May I copy your words there about him to my story with total acknowedgements of you of course, please? I was born at Finsch ’39, left for South 1953. Was back to NG 1966 to 2003. My story is only for family and friends, mostly expats from PNG. And if U R interested I can email my final story to you, if I had your email address which I was unable to discover looking for your “profile” link.

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    • Hi Lester, Apologies for the delay in replying, With an unreliable bush internet service in North Queensland I’m not very active on my blog these days.
      You are welcome to use anything from this blog in your stories and I would love to have email contact with you and read your reminiscences. Finschhafen/Pindiu was my favourite area in PNG and I retain many fond memories of working with the people there..
      Please email me at

      didimanian at y7 mail dot com

      One of them should work

      Reply

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