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Lae – Horn Island – Brisbane 1978

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P2-WKD at Pindiu ….with my apologies for having scanned transparency as a mirror image.

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.

*      *      *      *      *      *      *      *      *      *      *      *      *      *

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.

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.

*      *      *      *      *      *      *      *      *      *      *      *      *      *

(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.)

About GOF

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

25 responses »

  1. What an incredible thing to be doing. Flying that scary little stinkbomb all over the place. I would love to go back in time and see all the “goings on”, because you survived them all. But, I don’t think I could get myself to hop into that craft today! I have lost some of my relaxed attitude, too, sadly!

    • As I look back from this position in life, it feels like it was someone else doing all this stuff Lauri. The little plane saw lots of “goings on”…..a few of which will never be officially recorded on this blog. 🙂

      I still get nostalgic every time I see or hear a single-engined light aircraft flying around here.

      • >As I look back from this position in life, it feels like it was someone else doing all this stuff

        I know the feeling, Gof: _jamais vu_ …

        (Thanks for the post.)

  2. What a coincidence. I made an airplane post today as well. 🙂

    My guess is that the windows needed to remain closed long enough to cause any stowaway mosquitoes to die of heat stroke.

    • “I made an airplane post today as well.”

      I didn’t know that you even owned an airplane to tie up to it Mike. 🙂

      (sorry…I couldn’t help myself… wonder I haven’t got any friends left in the world) 🙂

      • “I didn’t know that you even owned an airplane to tie up to it Mike”

        LOL! That’s just the sort of thing I would say. Have you been hanging around me too much? Oh, wait a minute, you were already like that. 🙂

  3. I was thinking, the last time I flew cross-country, that flying used to be fun. Even riding on those big boring jet liners had an air of glamor back when I was a teenager. Now I dread that line going through TSA’s inspection of my clothes, bags, and depending on which airport I’m at, of my body cavities via x-ray. Then there are one’s fellow passengers, who think they can bring half the contents of their home along with them and stuff them in the overhead bin, not to mention their squalling underaged offspring, who should be stuffed inside the luggage compartment down below. The whole affair feels like taking the Greyhound bus to Nebraska, instead of flying into the great airports of the world.

    So thank you for your memory of flying between PNG and Australia, GOF. Travel should be adventurous. Your post reminds me of that.

    • I’m glad you enjoyed the story from a bygone era HG.

      “who think they can bring half the contents of their home along with them and stuff them in the overhead bin, “…..Oh dear, don’t get me started on this one……last time I flew to Brisbane on a commercial airline I could not believe the volume of shite people brought on board as ‘cabin baggage’….I have no idea why the airlines don’t strictly enforce “1 piece only” ……if it was my airline I’d have a very large Tongan man waiting at the door of every departing aircraft whose job it would be to confiscate all the excess cabin baggage and heave it down onto the tarmac.

      I suspect the problem would cease….oh…in around 2 or 3 days.

  4. ‘…and a live tribal warrior with an axe half-buried in his skull.’!!??!! I think there’s probably an interesting post buried somewhere in that sentence alone! 🙂

    • It was one of the more interesting medical evacuations that I flew…..had to make a concerted effort not to look at the ‘damage’ and the blood so I could keep my mind on the job at hand. 🙂

  5. I’m so proud I actually know what “steam gauges” means…
    If it was me, I’d be *flying* that thing with the windows open just to air it out…

    • I love the old steam gauges even though modern glass instruments look prettier and perform multitudes of wonderful functions…….on that aircraft I’d be worried that the window would break off it’s rusty hinges if I’d tried to open it in flight.

  6. How does one go about hauling live fish in an airplane? Huge (and heavy) pots of water?

    • We used to import live trout fingerlings to stock streams and the upper reaches of the rivers……1000 of them could survive for an hour or so in a relatively small plastic bag full of water.

  7. Mmmm, nothing makes rotting food and sweat smell better than a few hours on in a greenhouse. Possible conspiracies aside, it sounds perfectly logical to keep the windows closed.

    My place is on terra firma too. But that’s because I’m a sissy when it comes to flying.

    • I was a relative ‘sissy’ too when it came to flying. “Real’ pilots like doing aerobatics and other impressive stuff. I just wanted to get safely from point A to point B.

      • Cripes, you’re not a sissy. I’m talking about me needing hardcore sedatives just to step onto a commercial aircraft (or now even to consider it). Very pathetic. Flying a plane? Hero.

        • I always had and still have a serious fear of heights….get me 3 metres off the ground and I panic, so I was nervous about the whole ‘learning to fly’ thing.
          You would discover as I did the confidence that comes from understanding the physics and theory of flight when combined with practical training. . It can’t be too difficult as most students can go solo after only 8 or 10 hours of training.

  8. GOF, I’ve always been fascinated by flying, and I really enjoyed your well written, vividly described story here, including your humorous quips and amusing wordplay. But man! Your description of being stuck in the stinking cabin of that plane in broiling tropical heat was like a scene from a nice day in Hell! I’d love to have your experience with flying, but maybe not this particular experience after landing.

    • Thanks Chris…glad you enjoyed the story. I was extremely fortunate to have lived during an extremely small historical window when it was affordable for the average working man to own a plane. By the early 1970’s the first (now ageing) mass-produced Cessnas could be bought cheaply secondhand and fuel prices were low. By the 80’s, fuel and wage prices had gone through the roof and Governments had imposed so many fees and charges that aircraft ownership could only be afforded by the rich.

      • The expense is what kept me away from learning to fly, and becoming a pilot. I’ve always deeply regretted this, and I still do, right up to this very minute.

        I almost joined the US Air Force ROTC (Reserve Officer Training Corps) with the goal of becoming a pilot, in my first year of college, but the Viet Nam war had just ended, and I was still suspicious of the US government’s ability to make intelligent choices for when to go to war, and I also didn’t have much faith in the US Military leadership to use effective strategy to win a war. I didn’t want to be one of those guys who died for a huge mistake.

        Now with 20/20 hindsight, I wish that I’d taken my chances and joined the US Air Force, because if I had, I’d probably be a pilot right now. Oh well… it’s been a good life anyway, with lots of fun and adventure, and we can’t have it all.

        • Your doubts about military management have been vindicated, not only re Vietnam but in all the subsequent rumbles which your country and mine have been involved in since. I think you have been safer doing your underwater diving adventures rather than flying fighter jets off some aircraft carrier……at least (to my knowledge) you haven’t been unnecessarily killing other humans while you’ve been diving. 🙂

          • Your comment caused me to re-evaluate my so called 20/20 hindsight, GOF. I guess what I meant, is that from 1975 until 1990 there was a 15 year window in which it was very unlikely that I would have been involved in flying combat missions. My hindsight theory is that I would have got my flight training and gotten out of the US Air Force well within that window, and maybe taken up a career in commercial aviation.

            But what if I didn’t? What if I fell in love with flying F-16s so much, that I stayed in the Air Force? When the Gulf War started in 1990, I would have been 34, still a young man, and I probably would have been flying in sorties with a mission to kill people, and maybe even been shot down myself, because although relatively rare in the Gulf War, it could and did happen.

            Even if I wasn’t shot down, I know that I wouldn’t want my flight log
            to include killing people, because I think my conscience would have struggled with that, and possibly for the rest of my life.

            You’re right GOF… I was better off diving, and no I’ve never killed anyone either intentionally or unintentionally, while scuba diving.


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