An Ed Burke “Flashback”
Some Aspects of Operations in Papua New Guinea –
TAA The Friendly Way
December 1964 - PNG Highlands
The majority of the party departed Melbourne by air to Brisbane where we transferred to a DC-6B for the flight to Port Moresby’s Jackson Field.
H.A. (Bill) Johnson, Chief Surveyor Geodetic, was in charge of the operation and was insistent that we kept track of all the survey equipment during the transhipment in Brisbane. We were instructed to keep a very close eye on the movements of everything. Such was the scale of airport operations in those days that we were able to satisfy ourselves that nothing had been left behind.
Now for those deprived individuals who have never flown in a large aircraft with ‘round’ engines let me expand a little. Enter the cosy cabin with the 50 or so other travellers and strap yourself into the large, comfortably upholstered seat, there are two each side of a single aisle, while the crew start the engines with much vibration and a few violent backfires, then a lengthy trundle out into the darkness of the airport, for it is now approaching midnight. The pre-takeoff checks take quite a few minutes while the heavily laden aircraft is held short of the runway. Included in these are magneto and propeller checks, made at higher revs than we have experienced so far, which give one an inkling of what is to come. When the process is completed the racket subsides to a deep rumble and we slowly wheel onto the drag strip.
Suddenly the noise really gets going as the throttles are pushed all the way to the stops and the four engines battle against the inertia of 48+ tonnes of aeroplane. Some of you might like the sound of a big V8, maybe even as large as 7 litres of small block Chevy, sheer power! Right now you are listening to four supercharged engines with straight exhausts totalling 72 cylinders and about 182 litres which are contributing 9600 hp to our airborne aspirations. The bedlam is only partially separated from us by the sound proofing in the thin cabin walls. If you are lucky enough to have a window seat behind the engines you will be able to see, inside the open cooling gills, the exhaust system begin to glow dull red then rapidly brightening until the colour is the main feature outside the cabin, a bright red that is maintained throughout the ground roll of almost a minute and only begins to dull as the power is decreased for the long climb to cruising altitude. This climb can take nearly an hour for a heavy aircraft with the necessity to repeatedly ‘step climb’ where the climb, which is gradually slowing the airspeed, is eased off until the speed builds once more, and then we resume climbing.
Brisbane to Port Moresby is an endurance feat. The hostesses quickly do what they can to ensure that they will not be disturbed and then all activity ceases for the night. The flight takes about six hours and it is only during the final hour or so that there is any relief from the darkness outside.
In the early morning light we approach the New Guinea coast over the green waters of the Coral Sea and the let down commences as we depart from our lofty 20,000' cruising level. The engine drone that has maybe lulled us to sleep during the flight diminishes and our ears start to pop. Our attendants ready the cabin for landing and the lush country passes more and more rapidly by the right wing tip as we descend over the sea towards our destination at Jackson Field. There is a great deal of under-floor noise from hydraulic systems as the landing gear and flaps are lowered. The flaps and propellers dramatically trail streams of condensation in the humid tropical air. As we spot the WW2 wreck of an aircraft in the sea, the coastline rushes by under us; over the land and the main wheels contact the runway with a thump to be immediately followed by a thunderous roar as we are slowed by the reversed propellers and the straining engines.
Quiet descends as we taxi to the terminal catching glimpses of the USAF B-50s being used for the Hiran surveys and the sundry other strange aircraft that are scattered about. Finally we brake to a halt and our faithful Pratt and Whitney friends subside into silence.
If it is your first visit to the tropics you will be surprised, as you step onto the stairs upon leaving the aeroplane, by the welcoming blanket-like warmth of the soft, moist air. To the old-timers it is “Here we are again”.
Our accomodation is at the Aviat mess, a Department of Civil Aviation establishment. The survey equipment is transported to the Geophysics Laboratory for storage. This lab will be our base in Port Moresby.
Several months later we find ourselves in Lae at the end of the job, for this trip anyway. There is now the short hop over the Owen Stanley Range to Port Moresby where we will spend a further day finalising the shipment of equipment home.
Having a beer in the pub we find ourselves talking to some airline crew members and inevitably ‘hangar’ talk gets going with ‘lies’ being swapped to and fro.
To the yarns we are able to contribute the departure from Keglsugl in the Cessna 180 where the lowering cloud is threatening to ground us at the nearly 9000’ high, steeply sloping grass patch that passes for an airstrip. So our intrepid pilot taxies to the extreme bottom end of the strip, looks along the steep sided valley that we are committed to if we leave the ground, and declares it to be a ‘goer’. We then use almost full power to taxi back to the top of the strip for our takeoff. Away we go, a right turn down the Chimbu Valley, and the cloud stays right on top of us all the way to Kundiawa.
And then there is the flight from Mount Hagen to Port Moresby in a TAA DC-3 where, again, there is a low, solid cloud base. As the place is surrounded by mountains with peaks in excess of 12,000’ our driver-airframe takes off and circles the airport, climbing, climbing. Into the cloud and, because we are carrying our survey barometers, we see that he finally sets course for Moresby at 14,000’, certainly the highest we have been in a commercial, unpressurised ‘plane. To balance the experience, we do the last 50 miles along the southern beaches at coconut palm-top height due to some very low storm clouds.
We talk of the TAA Catalina operations from the lakes and rivers in the Fly River area where we share the “cabin” with local people with their billums full of veggies and dragging the odd pig along for the trip. There seems to be little heed given to the load on board for there is plenty of ‘runway’ available, flog it for long enough and it will eventually fly!
One of our drinking companions proves to be our flight engineer for tomorrow’s Port Moresby flight. Again, a DC-6B. The Brisbane service terminates at Lae after calling at Port Moresby and we are on the first leg of the south-bound flight. He is waxing eloquent about his absent pilots. “Butchers they are, they gave my engines a really bad time on the trip up from Brisbane and I’m going to have to really lean on those blokes on the way home”. He goes on in this vein, mumbling into the froth and the more froth, the deeper the mumbles.
So it is with added interest that we board the sun baked aircraft the following day. Our engineer is spotted going on board, but too far away for a “G’day”. Now the ancient amongst us can recall how TAA and Ansett/ANA used to shadow each other. Where one airline flies the other also flies, generally almost at the same time, with the same type of aircraft; crazy stuff. We are due to leave ahead of the ANA flight but due to some small delay we have to wait ignominiously by the runway while the opposition wheels away towards Moresby.
Now this is too much for our unseen pilots who turn onto the runway very rapidly and get us into the air and in pursuit of the offender with a great show of alacrity. It is indeed, a race, but the distance is far too short to make much impression on the margin separating us despite the feeling we have that we are using a great deal of engine power in the attempt. We are visualising the expression on the face of our engineer friend.
Inevitably we find ourselves in line astern behind the ANA DC-6B as we fly our final approach at Jackson Field, Port Moresby. All is not lost however because our eager sky jockeys see that the ANA boys are rolling through to the end of the runway giving themselves a lengthy trip back to the terminal, SO!
We come in over the fence flying quite slowly with nose elevated and quite a lot of power from those four gadgets on the wings. I understand it is called a ‘precautionary approach’, something one does in a Tiger Moth. We thump heavily onto the blacktop, the props reverse and we stand on the wheel brakes - HARD, causing cushions and bits of rubbish to tumble forward along the aisle due to the spectacular deceleration. We did it! Left turn off the runway right in front of the terminal and we are able to shut down the engines and open the cabin before that beastly ANA thing has even entered the tarmac area.
When ANA departs for Brisbane our aircraft is jacked up while a replacement is found for one of the main wheels, seems that a tyre has suddenly worn out, worn right through almost to bursting point in fact. There is talk of a delay of an hour or more for people heading south.
We try to get a comment from our engineer but he is unavailable.
New Guinea flying is different.
Next day we are winging our way towards Brisbane but instead of the darkness of our flight north there is brilliant sunshine. Shortly after take off our cabin attendants vanish one at a time and re-appear having shed their formal uniform for a floral sari and a flower in the hair and a general party air pervades the remainder of the flight. We are wafted over the Great Barrier Reef with its beautiful colours and there is plenty of discussion and seat swapping and we want the flight to just go on and on but all too soon it is back to the airport scene and business as usual.
Down with fast travel, bring back propellers!
Addendum:- TAA refers to Trans Australian Airlines which was started by the Australian government and first flew in September 1946 with a DC-3 service from Laverton to Sydney. Naturally TAA was given preference with bookings for government employees. However we did often fly with the ‘opposition’. TAA eventually became Australian Airlines and was later merged with Qantas.
Ansett-ANA was the result of a takeover by Ansett Airlines of the ailing Australian National Airways (ANA). ANA was a branch of the Holyman shipping organisation. It was started in 1936 based on the 4 year old Tasmanian Aerial Services. It bore no resemblance to the previous airline of the same name built up by Sir Charles Kingsford-Smith.
Ansett Airlines was founded by Sir Reginald Ansett. The ANA part of the name disappeared after a few years and the airline was once more simply Ansett Airlines. Ansett Airlines shamefully went ‘to the wall’ in recent years after a period of mismanagement by bean counters who had little or no appreciation of managing a great airline.
Ed Burke, March 2007