“RESCUE MISSIONS” from Carl McMaster

with additional insights by Murray Porteous


The Aerodist field years are blurred in my memory but these two events were around 1968 when we were working out of Hooker Creek, an isolated aboriginal community, way west of Tennant Creek. Our ground field parties had driven across country following an old trig traverse from north of Tennant Creek which still had some of the kipper tins that H.A. Johnson (see Andrew Porteous’s story) used to mark the route. 



Map of the locations mentioned in the text. Murray is correct and Muckaty is too far north for his turnoff. From Tennant Creek he would have driven towards the now disused Orlando Mine and probably onto the Warrego Mine then headed west following the Department of Interior’s “DE” bench mark traverse towards Supplejack Downs turning north to Hooker Creek.


Hooker Creek had an airstrip that our Aero Commander EXZ, chartered from Executive Air Services in Essendon, was able to operate from using drummed fuel brought in by truck. The ground parties were supported by helicopter.


Hooker still had a Superintendent from, I think, the Anglican Church and we were required to camp several kilometres from the main settlement. However, we were allowed to go to the outdoor movies on a Sunday night where the Superintendent would park up the back in his 4 wheel drive along with a few of the locals in their not so flash vehicles.




EXZ needed to go to Darwin one weekend and naturally enough took a few of the field party for a bit of R & R. It returned with an extra item; a helicopter rotor blade which they had managed to slide in the length of the fuselage. Their story was that the Helicopter Utilities engineer in Darwin had requested a favour. They had a US chopper working out of Kidson Field and could we please deliver the blade.


This was a big ask. However, the next day we headed off with a number of passengers who were needed to extract the blade. We re-fuelled at Halls Creek and arrived over Kidson Field where there was no sign of life and a very dodgy overgrown airstrip. Nevertheless we landed OK and managed to off-load the blade. For all I know it may still be there.


We knew the return flight time was very tight but rather than spending a cold and hungry night at Kidson it was agreed to return to Halls Creek although it did not have landing lights. Not surprisingly it began to get dark and when we were abeam of Balgo Downs this looked like a good alternative. However, when the pilot Greg Searles checked his charts, it showed their airstrip was out of action.


The silence of the people on board was matched by the eerie green glow of the instruments as we continued on. When the lights of Hall Creek came into view we could see a stream of car headlights heading down the street. It eventuated that the refueller had alerted people that we were expected back and they were prepared to light up the airstrip. We landed however, before they could position themselves.


Aerodist aircraft VH-EXZ and Helicopter VH-SFS during Aerodist ground marking operations in the Simpson Desert during 1969.






Getting fuel to Hooker Creek was a difficult process. One such trip sticks in my mind when Murray Porteous travelled from Melbourne with a newly recruited field assistant who was French and not familiar with, well anything really.


To depot chopper fuel Murray needed to drive across country on the angle from south of Tennant Creek and follow a levelling traverse which had been put in by, I assume, the Department of Interior some years before.


At first we were in regular radio contact with Murray as he made progress which became progressively slower as the Bedford’s radiator became clogged with grass necessitating stops every couple of kilometers. We finally lost contact with him and I recall flying out to find him.


Eventually it appeared that he was close to Hooker Creek so Norm Hawker and I drove south one evening to try to guide him in. Uncle Norm, as those who knew him, was prepared for all eventualities having been part of the Occupation Forces in Japan after WW2. The still night air enabled us to hear the Bedford stopping and starting every few minutes. True to form Norm had a magnesium road flare saved from his days with the Natmap Johnson Ground Elevation Meter vehicle. We tied it to the tip of the 30 foot radio aerial, lit it, and lifted the aerial into our vehicle’s aerial tube as we were rained upon by dripping magnesium.


Murray and his French companion saw the blaze and had arrived.



Aerodist helicopter support camp on Kidson track at Lake Auld in Great Sandy Desert during late September-early October 1972.



PART 2 (by Murray Porteous)


The reason for travelling across the Tanami and meeting the rest of the crowd in Hooker Creek was to establish fuel dumps for a proposed helicopter operation. We left Tennant with a load of 44's (gallon drums) of chopper fuel to be strategically dumped across the Tanami, well marked with a cleared area surrounded by white painted rocks, logs, trees, whatever; memory flash - did we take some rolls of white plastic to be weighed down with sand?


Despite looking at maps to try and recall the place from which we started the journey on the eastern side, and while Muckaty features on the maps I don't think that was the place.



Murray Porteous’s nearly new Bedford ZSU 262 in 1968 at a fuel dump site.


There had been someone go across in the previous couple of years or so; guess it was the Deptartment of Interior, and I think there were Land Rovers involved. Think I also recall that there was some evidence, mainly wheel tracks, but the past couple of seasons had obviously been pretty good, so plenty of Spinifex and grass, so soon lost any track to follow.


Early part of the journey was OK, but we lost radio contact with the rest of the mob and, of course, grass seeds created a problem blocking the radiator, hence the over heating problem. Sure, we would have had radiator protectors etc but still seeds got sucked into the radiator. Guess, the biggest problem though, was when I went to the water tank which was under the Bedford tray and found the tap open and tank drained dry!!


The tap was one of those old ones that used to be on the old bush tanks; brass colour, handle swivelled up and down, as well as left and right. In the down position it should have been secured, but have no idea what happened; the tank was dry.

So things got worse as we pushed on with an overheating truck. Nights that time of year were cool to cold so that was when we did most of our travelling.


Now to mention my side kick - think his name was Denni (or was that one “n”) whom I recall asking "but they will come and get us, no?" to which I answered "if they knew where we were".


I remember that the radio receiver was working because we would listen to the radio of a night time between our little bursts of travelling. It was during an Australian/English Ashes cricket series in England and we listened to one of the Tests for 5 or 6 nights. I spent ages explaining the laws and rules of the game - you guessed it, it was a draw. To which Denni, would say "what do you mean, they play 5 days, and do not get a result?"  Try explaining cricket to a Frenchman.


Tucker became a bit of a problem. Denni, I think, had probably only just arrived and had all his food with him. My tucker box was probably in an Inter somewhere and I only took what I thought I would need for the trip. There were however, a few tea chests of somebody's food on board, and I got into that, trying to remember from what tea chest I took what. I seem to remember I was sick of sickly sweet orange juice.


I think Denni was getting a bit concerned at one stage. He claimed he had had a bit to do with car racing in Europe and reckoned that they drove vehicles with motors damn near glowing red - think that was another way of him saying "let's get this journey over. I wasn't told this would be the caper when I joined up".


Bird life was plentiful, guess that meant there was water somewhere, but we were in no position to go round looking for it. We kept having the radio skeds at the scheduled times hoping that as we got closer to Hooker we might make contact. Then, of course, heard the plane come out and when it was close by we made contact, hence the fellas knew we were still alive and mobile. I recall that we were directed to some sort of water hole, and my memory suggests it wasn't the purest water but we drank it and obviously took what we could to help the boiling Bedford. 


Think we were only a day or so short of Hooker Creek at that stage and it was then that Carl and Norm played their part. It’s mentioned above that they drove south which brings to mind we weren’t completely on track but close to it. Nights had been clear so stars and/or moon helped navigation.


In hindsight, would I have done something differently? Think not, I know that the poor old Bedford copped a hiding and probably needed substantial repairs. The option would have been to sit tight and wait for someone to come and find us, but reckon the expense of that was probably more than a Bedford motor. I recall Ian Ogilvy up to his waist in the Bedford motor checking it out the next day.


One last point, I am almost sure that the helicopter work was never carried out in my time, and hence the chopper fuel was not used!!



Aerodist centre party camp at (new) Andado homestead, Northern Territory in July 1970. Standing L-R: Norm Hawker, unknown, Michael Lloyd, unknown (with back to camera), Ken Manypenny, Ian Ogilvy, Laurie McLean, unknown. Seated: both unknown.





Photographs courtesy:

Carl McMaster, Murray Porteous, Ozcan Ertok & Laurie McLean.