In 1978 our nineteen year old Cessna 182 had to be ferried from PNG to Brisbane for it’s mandatory major overhaul, a procedure which required 2 weeks of dismantling, primping and pampering in Mr Curley’s Archerfield airport workshop.
Even before I got hold of her and treated her like a farm truck, P2-WKD had won no beauty pageants. In 1978 the exterior looked like a mongrel dog who’d been in one too many junkyard scraps.
One sniff inside the cabin was enough to remind you of what cargo this aircraft had carried in recent times; jute bags full of cabbages and coconuts jammed in from floor to ceiling, pigs, chooks, cows (alive and dead), fish (alive and dead), kerosene, engineering parts for waterwheels and micro-hydro electricity installations, one deceased person, and a live tribal warrior with an axe half-buried in his skull.
The flight time to Brisbane was 16 hours with 8 refuelling stops along the way as a precaution against strong headwinds, and an overnight break in Cairns. It was a memorable trip for a couple of reasons.
Firstly, my friend and co-pilot Robert was at the time undergoing training for his Instrument Flight Rating, so despite my frequent protestations involving selections from GOF’s Dictionary of Bad Language, he still insisted on diverting to and through the middle of every little bit of cloud he could find along the way just to get some extra practise and hours to enter into his pilot’s logbook.
Not being a born aviator, my idea of safe flying (i.e. keeping the wings level and the wheels permanently pointing towards the ground, a position in which they tend to be most useful) involved two primary instruments.
My left eye and my right eye.
Robert wanted to put his faith in the ancient little cluster of steam gauges in front of him, and the Lear direction-finding radio, a relic from World War 2 which I knew could be as reliable as a blind alcoholic butcher performing cut-price circumcisions.
Rob must have known what he was doing, for we arrived safely and he eventually ended up flying jets around the world, whilst I discovered my true destiny and contentment back on terra firma growing tropical vegetables and decorative garden plants.
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The most memorable part of this journey was the Customs and Immigration procedure at Horn Island which is Australia’s most northerly entry point for light aircraft.
All International air travelers arriving at major airports in Australia during the 1960’s and 70’s will undoubtedly remember that before disembarking they had to wait in their seats until they, and the cabin, had been thoroughly fumigated by a uniformed man discharging numerous aerosol cans of insecticide.
Prior to departing PNG, Robert and I had been advised by other more experienced pilots;
“When you arrive at Horn Island, whatever you do, DON’T OPEN THE WINDOW of the plane before the Customs/Quarantine Officer gives you permission to do so.
Flight Service in Weipa will have advised him of your estimated arrival time at Horn Island, so he’ll be waiting for you.”
Right. No opening windows. We understand Australia is serious about not allowing malaria-carrying mosquitoes past it’s borders.
Arrival at Horn Island. Midday, Day 1
At around 10 degrees south of the equator, Horn Island is seriously hot and humid at the end of summer. We taxied to the parking bay, stopped the engine and waited.
There was only one other aircraft, a Britten Norman Trislander, parked on the other side of the airfield.
No movement anywhere.
No sign of life in the ‘Terminal/Customs Office” which was about the same size as Beyonce’s walk-in wardrobe.
We waited,……… and we broiled and felt nauseous from the sickly rotting sauerkrauty smell coming from beneath the seats.
We were just discussing how long it might take to run out of oxygen when a nondescript gentleman arrived at the airport in an old car and a cloud of dust. He wandered nonchalently out towards us. He was wearing daggy shorts, thongs (the footwear variety) and a tee-shirt which thankfully supported a “Customs and Immigration” badge.
He tapped on the window and said “What the hell are you two silly buggers doing inside there with the windows shut…..y’know it’s bloody hot out here today.”
We presented passports, signed a few pieces of paper, refuelled, then headed off into the southerly gale towards Iron Range.
To this day I do not know if we had been ‘set up’ by pilot pranksters, or if there was indeed a pile of skeletons with single bullet holes in their heads buried in a nearby mass grave…….the only remains of pilots who had dared to open their windows prematurely.
Border security today is much tighter in an effort to combat the smuggling of people, weapons and drugs between PNG and Australia.
We have sadly lost much of our innocence and relaxed attitude towards life during the last 34 years.
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(Other stories about flying in Papua New Guinea may be found by clicking the ‘aviation’ tag near the bottom of the sidebar on this page.)