Aerodist Measuring Activities 1963 - 1974

By the late 1950s, National Mapping was seeking to find a surveying system that could be efficiently deployed as a timely and cost-effective means of determining the positions of horizontal control stations across vast areas of the Australian continent.  Such horizontal control was needed for the small and medium scale topographic maps that Nat Map was already producing or planned to produce by photogrammetric means.  A South African sourced airborne microwave distance measuring system was seen as a potential solution. 

This Aerodist system was derived from the ground-based Tellurometer electronic distance measuring technology already in use.  The airborne version of the technology was seen as a way of overcoming the line of sight constraint of the ground based method that reduced the lengths of lines that could be measured and impacted on control station site selection options.

In July 1962, Nat Map took delivery of its initial set of Aerodist equipment but this set failed acceptance tests and was returned to the supplier.  In January 1963, a second set was delivered and later accepted.  This second set comprised a master control unit (Red frequency code) and an ancillary master unit (that had a separate Blue measuring frequency code).  The master units had related sub-systems to record distance measurement readings on a chart recorder and for gathering meteorological and other data.  The set also included four ground-based remote units (Red 1, Red 2, Blue 1 and Blue 2).  One of these units would be operated from a survey station at either end of a line that was then measured by the aircraft flying between the two remote stations.  The master units were firstly mounted in a helicopter and were later mounted in fixed wing aircraft.

The Aerodist system was operated by National Mapping from 1963 to 1974.  Over this period Nat Map expanded and modified system components to include three master measuring channel frequencies (1964) with an extra (white frequency) remote also added for the 1964 field season.  Later some dual frequency remote units were added.  In field operations there were two main organisational components: the centre party that operated the master measuring equipment in the aircraft and the two-person remote sub-parties that operated remote units on the ground at survey control stations.  

Field use of the Aerodist system commenced with helicopter-borne operations (in VH-INZ) in the Gayndah-Mundubbera-Eidsvold area of central Queensland in 1963.  The last Aerodist lines were flown with a fixed wing aircraft (VH-EXZ) operating out of Derby in Western Australia in October 1974.

Typically the centre party comprised the surveyor in charge/party leader, an electronics technician, a relief master operator (technical officer), the aircraft pilot and sometimes other support people such as when camping.  From 1965 the master units were fixed wing mounted (initially in VH-EXY).  The centre party then operated from suitable airstrips. 

In the early days of Aerodist measuring, the remote unit sub-parties operated from motor vehicles but for most years from 1967 remote parties were also positioned on to survey control stations by helicopters.  Exceptions were in 1969 and 1973 when there were no helicopter contracts and remote parties were vehicle based. Between 1966 and 1971, remote unit sub-parties were positioned on to survey stations in the Great Barrier Reef and other off-shore Queensland survey sites by various vessels including Royal Australian Navy survey ships and minesweepers and Department of Transport lighthouse tenders. In 1973 remote parties were also fishing boat based for offshore work from Onslow and Esperance in Western Australia.

When operations were assisted by helicopter, there would also be a helicopter support party of one or two people who worked with remote party members and with the helicopter pilot and engineer to ensure effective helicopter use.  The support party also carried helicopter fuel and other necessary stores and logistics.  Typically the helicopter was operated from base camps conveniently located for the airborne positioning of the remote sub-parties.


Aerodist Centre Party

Over the years Aerodist centre party staff comprised: party leaders who were: Len Turner, Syd Kirkby, Con Veenstra, John Manning, Frank Johnston and Peter Langhorne.  Electronics technicians were: Kevin Burke, John Ely, Mick Skinner, Terry Mulholland, Bob Lucas, Ozcan Ertok and Andrew Christie.  (Mick Skinner had previously worked on the Nat Map Aerodist system when employed by the Australian distributor DR Johnson.)  Other centre party members included experienced master unit operators such as: Kevin Burke, Carl McMaster, Eddy Burke and Norm Hawker as well as (at the time); experienced surveyors (but not party leaders) such as: Rom Vassil and (then) relatively junior surveyors such as: Alf Klerkx, Kevin Lawler, George Eustace, Simon Cowling and Andrew Turk.

1963: During the initial year of National Mapping’s Aerodist operations, the master equipment was mounted in a Bell 47J-2A Ranger piston engined helicopter (VH-INM) on charter from Ansett-ANA Helicopter Division.

1964: During the second year of Nat Map's Aerodist operations, the master equipment was mounted in a Bell 47J-2 Ranger piston engined helicopter (VH-INZ) on charter from Ansett-ANA Helicopter Division.

The Aerodist measuring operations of 1963 and 1964 saw significant blocks measured around Gayndah, Mundubbera and Emerald; Roma, Injune and Springsure and between Bourke, Cunnamulla, St George and Dirranbandi. Pilots included: Darcy Newell, Phil Clay and Andy Pryde.

(While working helicopter VH-INZ, from a base at Woolerina homestead between Cunnamulla and Dirranbandi in late August 1964, on a spot photography sortie with Kevin Burke using a hand held Nikon camera, pilot Andy Pryde became lost.  Andy was a former Royal Navy pilot who had learned to handle helicopters off the pitching decks of ships at sea.  However, he was remembered as not being the greatest navigator.  After landing to get directions from a homestead Andy pushed on across tight and seemingly endless scrub country until the inevitable happened; the helicopter ran out of fuel.  With considerable skill and without any engine power Andy managed to put the helicopter down in a tiny clearing in the mulga; the only one for miles. 

Back at base, there was a frantic night of contacting the Department of Civil Aviation which put search and rescue procedures into motion.  Homesteads were contacted and vehicles were sent out to look for the missing aircraft.  The next morning, party leader Syd Kirkby was picked up by the first search aircraft at a station strip about 10 minutes after first light and by about 8:00 am there were five aircraft involved in the well organised search. 

Syd’s aircraft found the missing machine about 9:30 am.  Apart from the front cross member of the helicopter skids being slightly bowed during the forced landing there was no damage to the helicopter.  When spotted from the air both helicopter doors were off as they were used as a barrier between the crew and the teaming ants during the night.  Andy and Kevin were uninjured and were soon recovered by vehicles driven by Terry Douglas and Brian Daenke who brought in aircraft fuel supplies, a DCA investigator and the aircraft engineer.  The helicopter was flown back from the landing site by Andy Pryde with the aircraft engineer.)

1965: In this year, the Aerodist master equipment was mounted in a Rockwell Aero Commander 680E (VH-EXY) on charter from Executive Air Services Pty Ltd based at Melbourne’s Essendon airport.  Pilots included: Ian Bell, Neville Cribb, Peter Poyton, Ken Wootton and Jim Wilson.  Engineers included: Ron Smith and Ray Landers.

1966-74: For its last nine years of operation, Aerodist master equipment was mounted in a Rockwell Grand Commander 680FL (VH-EXZ) on charter from Executive Air Services Pty Ltd based at Melbourne’s Essendon airport.  (Executive Airlines Pty Ltd owned VH-EXZ from 22 March 1965 to 18 October 1979.)  Pilots included: 1960s: Kandar (Ken) Singh, Neville Cribb, Ken Wootton, Ian Bell, Greg Searle, Lyall Copley, Peter Bini, and Alan Walker.  1970s: Peter Berbakov (1970), Trevor Haynes (1970), George Rickey (1970-71), Arthur Johnson (1970-71); Graham Galliott (1971-74), Ken Stewart (1972), John South (1972 and 1974), Trevor Merton (1972-73) and John Harvey (1973-74).  Engineers included: Ron Smith, Ray Landers and Bill O’Meara.

(Syd Kirkby recalled an incident in 1967 when operating VH-EXZ out of Calvert Hills homestead in the Northern Territory Gulf country.  At about 100 metres above the scrub at the end of the runway on take-off there was a loud bang from the starboard engine (later found to be a broken crankshaft).  From Syd’s view from the right hand seat, pilot Ken Singh’s hands were a picture of speed and elegance as they worked the controls: fuel off, ignition off, propeller to full feather and cowls closed.  But then silence!  Ken had pulled the wrong engine.  Then there was another burst of instant action; only this time Ken’s hands seemed to move in a blur.  The windmilling engine was fired up and the aeroplane brought around and safely landed.)


Aerodist Remote Parties

Helicopter support to ferry the two-person Aerodist remote unit operating parties in to position at survey control stations in remote locations commenced in 1967 as Aerodist operations moved into more remote areas.  This helicopter support helped to ensure the timely progress of the annual measuring program.  In turn helicopter crews (pilots and engineers) and Nat Mappers using the helicopters were supported by a helicopter support unit that nominally comprised two people including a fuel truck driver who would ferry-in necessary supplies of aviation turbine kerosene for the helicopter, motor spirit and water. 

The helicopter support party usually provided the initial recovery response to retrieve remote parties from survey control stations in the event of a helicopter becoming unserviceable.  (For example, such situations arose in 1970 and 1971.) Often the helicopter support base would be located as close as possible to the centre of the area where remote parties were to be positioned so that the helicopter could operate within its flying range and overall flight distances could be minimised.  In the late 1960s and early 1970s, the helicopter support party was run by popular and highly capable technical officer Norn Hawker or in his absence by technical assistants such as Lawrie O’Connor.  Later Laurie McLean carried out the function on an ad hoc basis on a few occasions.  In later years the helicopter support party was run by surveyors, namely Paul Wise, Andrew Dyson, Andrew Greenall and Ian Muir.

Each year around eight to ten technical assistants and field assistants would be nominally assigned to operate remote units in two-man sub-parties or to otherwise assist operations.  In later years there were four dedicated remote parties and two other units could be deployed on an opportunity basis from either the centre party or helicopter support party.  Remote units were also operated from time-to time by more senior Nat Mappers and, in later years, remote units were also operated by a number of trainee technical officers. 

The list of names below excludes more senior personnel who were known to have operated Aerodist remote units as necessary on a casual basis unless such names aren’t mentioned elsewhere in the Aerodist Measuring Activities section.  There was a fairly high turnover of the young men who undertook Aerodist remote party and general support work with many only staying one or two seasons.  Thus over the decade or so of Aerodist operations there would have been perhaps up to about 100 people employed in this function mainly as technical assistants or field assistants.  Their names included:

Terry Douglas, Brian Daenke, Don Locke, Alan Osborne, John Colquhoun, Jacques de Stefani, Neil Fenton, John Gray, Carl McMaster, Kevin Burke, Des Young, Kevin Moody, Terry Larkin, Dick Carter, Andy Lukas, Kevin Banner, Graeme Harris, Murray Porteous, Phil Welling, George Jennings, Bill Bannerman, Ron Francis, Gavin Chambers, John Doherty, John Nolton, Russell Tappy, Eddy Burke, John Ely, Lachlan Ely, Mick Skinner, Alan Mould, Colin Cheary, John Nicholson, Brian Mahoney, John Sheridan, Hans Delange, Lawrie O’Connor, Kevin Arnold, Ted Rollo, Ken Manypenny, Ian Ogilvie, Norm Hubbard, Mike O’Dea, Wayne Mein, Scott Crossley, Ian Campbell, Ragnar Berg, Derek Hatley, Dennis Jones, Michael Lloyd, Graeme Lawrence, Paul McCormack, Laurie McLean, Peter Bach, Neville Stonehouse, Ian Arnold, Frank Ayers, Brian Shaddick, Dave Abreu, Bob Goldsworthy, Peter Blake, Ted Graham, Roy Turner, Eddie Ainscow, Peter Salkowski, Bill Forster, Reg Kearns, Gary Burriss, Rod O’Brien, Peter Danne, Hayden Reynolds, Noel Goldsworthy, Tony Laidlaw, David Marsh, Michael Barker, David Beasley, Ross Stapleton, Bill Stuchbery, Ken Brown, John Corcoran, Max Anderson, Ron Williams, John Guilfoyle, Bob Smith, Steve Pinwill and Barry Wright. 

1967: Fairchild-Hiller FH-1100 (VH-UTZ) helicopter was chartered from Sydney based Helicopter Utilities.  This helicopter was powered by an Allison 250 series turbine engine.  Areas of operation included the south-western the Gulf of Carpentaria region of the Northern Territory from bases that included Borroloola, Calvert Hills, Brunette Downs, Cresswell Downs, McArthur River, Katherine, Daly Waters and Elliott.  Pilots included: George Treatt (in July and early August). 

(Operating out of Borroloola that year, party leader Syd Kirkby had to ward off an opportunistic attempt by a visiting commonwealth government minister who tried unsuccessfully to purloin the helicopter for his own personal use.  The minister apparently had no regard for the impact on the 19-man Aerodist party’s operations or for the six remote operators who would have been left stranded on distant survey stations.  However, Syd Kirkby was acutely aware of these impacts and rightly prevailed over the minister’s demands.)

1968: A Fairchild-Hiller FH-1100 helicopter (VH-UTZ) chartered from Sydney based Helicopter Utilities was used to support operations in the Northern Territory from bases that included: Limbunya, Timber Creek and Victoria River Downs.  Pilots included: Bill Mayo and Frank Hillier.

During late October to mid-November 1968, a Fairchild Hiller FH-1100 helicopter (VH-UHE) was chartered as required from the Helicopter Utilities Pty Ltd Heron Island tourist transfer service at Gladstone airport. This aircraft was used to position several Aerodist remote parties engaged in measuring operations over the Great Barrier Reef. Nat Mapper John Ely was positioned onto Royal Australian Navy survey mark C060 on High Peak Island. The survey mark was on the top of a feature that rose abruptly some 725 feet from the sea. High Peak Island is located in the Coral Sea about 160 kilometres north of Rockhampton. Later, a four-person station establishment and Aerodist remote field sub-party was positioned from Bundaberg to Sandy Cape about 100 kilometres to the east. The field sub-party comprised Nat Mappers Terry Douglas, Ian Ogilvie, Ken Manypenny and Ragnar Berg. Also Nat Mapper Graeme Lawrence was ferried from Sandy Cape to North Reef Island lighthouse located about 120 kilometres east of Yeppoon. The pilot for all these flights was Harvey Else.

1969: There was no Aerodist measuring party helicopter contract.  Vehicle-based ground remote unit parties operated in western Queensland including around Bedourie, Windorah, Jundah, Winton, Longreach and Cloncurry.  (There was further Aerodist measuring in the Great Barrier Reef with remote parties positioned by Royal Australian Navy minesweepers HMAS Gull and HMAS Teal.  This operation extended offshore measuring work that had commenced in 1966 with support from RAN survey vessel HMAS Paluma and used some offshore stations established in 1968 with support from HMAS Teal.)

1970: Hughes 500 369HS helicopters (VH-BLO and VH-BLN) were chartered from Jayrow Helicopters Pty Ltd based at Melbourne’s Moorabbin airport.  The helicopters were used separately rather than simultaneously in the field.  Each of these helicopters was powered by an Allison 250 series turbine engine.  Helicopter supported operations were conducted into the Simpson Desert from bases at Birdsville, a fly camp west of Glengyle homestead, Bedourie, Boulia, Tobermorey homestead, Plenty River homestead and Andado homestead.  The work was then conducted over central and southern parts of the Northern Territory from helicopter bases at Alice Springs, a fly camp at The Granites, Tennant Creek, a fly camp on the DE level traverse west of Tennant Creek, Willowra homestead, Yuendumu, Papunya, Ayers Rock and Docker River.  Pilots included: Vic Barkell, Peter Clemence, Cliff Dohle and Lloyd Knight.  Engineers included: Peter Smart, Dave King and Jim Marsh.

1971: Hughes 500 369HS helicopter (VH-UHO) was chartered from Sydney based Helicopter Utilities.  Helicopter supported operations started with fuel positioning flights from Halls Creek and Christmas Creek homestead in May 1971.  Helicopter supported measuring activities commenced in June from bases at Rabbit Flat, survey control station NM/G/132 north-west of Vaughan Springs homestead, survey station NM/F/595 near Balgo Mission, a fly camp at control station NM/F/366 south of Christmas Creek and another camp south of Balgo Mission near Point Moody.  VH-UHO crashed on take-off during a willy-willy near survey control station NM/B/245 but just over the border in the Northern Territory on Lake Nash station south of Camooweal on 11 September 1971. For the final couple of days of the Aerodist measuring work, it was replaced by a Bell 206A Jet Ranger (VH-ANC).  Pilots were: Harvey Else and Brian Harriss.  Engineers were: Jack Fackrell, Frank Summers and John More.

1971: A Bell 47J-2A Ranger (VH-THH) piston engine helicopter was chartered from Adelaide based Australian Helicopters Pty Ltd to position the remote party that occupied geodetic survey stations on Cape York during Aerodist measuring operations to survey stations in the Coral Sea during October 1971.  The helicopter operated from bases at Cooktown, Marina Plains, Coen and Iron Range; the remote party comprised Nat Mappers Eddy Ainscow, Laurie McLean and Lawrie O’Connor.  Helicopter pilot was: Keith McKenzie and the engineer was: Roy Rayner.

1972: Hughes 500 369HS helicopters (VH-BLN and VH-BLO) were chartered from Jayrow Helicopters Pty Ltd based at Melbourne’s Moorabbin airport.  The two aircraft were used in the field simultaneously to improve operational safety and efficiency by reducing aircraft unserviceability risk.  Each aircraft operated independently but usually from the same base.  Each helicopter was required to lift a load (men and equipment) of 800 lbs for up to 80 nautical miles from base and return without refuelling. The helicopters were used in Western Australia and operated from fly camp bases at control stations R199, NM/F/677, NM/F/446, R208, on a level traverse south-east of Sulphur Knob, at NM/F/17 Mt Samuel, near NM/F/25 Mt Johnson, at Carnegie homestead, near Mt Eureka about 150 kilometres east of Wiluna, at Balfour Downs homestead, Kidson airstrip, a fly camp on the Wapet Kidson track at Lake Auld, at NM/F/602, at NM/F/644 and at Forrest.  Helicopter pilots included: Cliff Dohle, Vic Barkell, Howard Bosse, Terry Ellis, Peter Clemence and Phil Cooke.  Engineers included: Dave King and Eckhart Schneider.

1973: There was no Aerodist measuring party helicopter contract.  Vehicle-based ground remote unit parties operated in southern New South Wales, northern and western Victoria and eastern South Australia from fixed wing aircraft bases that included Deniliquin, Hay, Wagga Wagga, Swan Hill and Mildura.  The party also operated vehicle and fishing boat based ground remote unit parties from in Western Australia.  The party carried out Aerodist line crossing measurements in the Monte Bello and nearby islands from Onslow; Aerodist photo-trilateration measurements from Port Hedland and further line crossing measurements in the Archipelago of the Recherche from Esperance.

1974: During the final year of Aerodist field operations, Hughes 500 369HS helicopters (VH-BLO and VH-SFS) were chartered from Jayrow Helicopters Pty Ltd based at Melbourne’s Moorabbin airport.  The two aircraft were used in the field simultaneously to improve operational safety and efficiency by reducing aircraft unserviceability risk.  Each aircraft operated independently but usually from the same base.  Each helicopter was required to lift a load (men and equipment) of 800 lbs for up to 80 nautical miles from base and return without refuelling. 

The helicopters operated in the Kimberley region of Western Australia from bases that included Plain Creek just north of the Gibb River homestead, Lansdowne homestead and on Kimberley Downs east of Derby.  Pilots included: Peter Clemence, Gerry Leatham and Vic Barkell.  Engineers included: Peter Smart.

(VH-SFS lost a tail rotor when cruising at 5,000 feet on the morning of 24 October 1974.  It was carrying a remote party comprising Bob Smith and Barry Wright from a helicopter camp on Kimberley Downs east of Derby and was near Oobagooma when the incident happened.  Pilot Vic Barkell skilfully managed to bring the aircraft down in a clearing in tightly timbered country.  Although the heavy landing badly damaged the aircraft such that it was written-off, there were no serious injuries.)