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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