Wednesday, 5 December 2007
Life started to unravel very quickly. We finally realised that it really was time to go: that the New Guinea we had known and called home for over 25 years was fast vanishing, and we were no longer welcome.
Panguna, now one of the biggest open-cut mines in the world, was facing rapidly developing opposition from disgruntled Bougainville villagers, overwhelmed by the transformation of their island into an industrial maelstrom of men and machinery; something they had not asked for and did not understand.
Plantations, which continued to produce the Copra and Cocoa on which the new nation relied on to supplement Australian aid dollars were finding the cheap, reliable labour on which these enterprises depended harder to obtain: workers had become less and less amenable to the ordered monotony of plantation life which required the laborer to rise before dawn six days out of seven for two years before returning to the indolent stop-start pattern of village life.
The police force lost almost all its experienced expatriate officers. The force now followed the same pattern as other government departments; rapidly promoting junior officers to senior positions far above their level of experience or competancy. For the first time, bribery and corruption started to infiltrate commercial life. It has now become the norm, and very little can be accomplished without it in today's PNG.
By the time the import of all this had sunk in, the possibility of finding a shadow local partner had come and gone. Banks and other lenders were now very reluctant to finance such arrangements, and the only thing left to do was to sell our physical assets; houses, buildings and vehicles etc.
This was still possible, but it was a buyer's market and values were less than a third of what could have been obtained a few short years previously. The commercial buildings were bought by Hagermeyer, a Dutch trading firm far more experienced in dealing with new Third World governments than I was. Our house went to an Australian bank whose manager lost no time in moving into a far more comfortable home than that formerly provided by his employers. The fleet of vehicles was bought by a local dealer with the exception of my Volvo which was shipped to Australia together with furniture and personal effects including an extensive library of New Guinea and Solomon Islands books and papers. Our leased bulk store was returned to its owners and our aircraft was loaded for a last flight from Kieta to Cairns in North Queensland.
Divested of all its assets, our now unsaleable business was placed in voluntary liquidation and life in New Guinea ended in a mixture of sadness to be leaving and relief at escaping the increasingly hostile and insecure atmosphere which now prevailed.
Was it all worth it ?... yes it was. We should have faced reality and got away sooner, but for all but the last few years, New Guinea gave us a safe, satisfying and adventurous lifestyle with an income far greater than we would probably have achieved in Australia. We had more than enough money to start again in Australia, which begged the question, what now?.........
to be continued
Tuesday, 20 November 2007
I owned and flew my own aircraft and had the advantage over other seekers after Sepik carvings and artifacts, as most collectors baulked at the cost of hiring an aircraft, the only practical means of entry into this remote area.
Leaving the aircraft tied down but otherwise unguarded at the end of the short, very slippery Ambunti airstrip, I would hire a large dugout canoe complete with a predictably unreliable outboard engine to penetrate the billabongs and narrow tributaries of this aquatic world where a treasure-trove of authentic carvings and ceremonial objects could be bought from willing sellers in the villages and hamlets.
Lack of respect for the religious significance of these carvings was not an issue. Masks, drums, weapons were all ceremonial objects on the Sepik River. They were only ever used a few times then discarded to decay and rot under village huts and sellers were only too willing to dispose of them when their ceremonial use ended: the problem was to penetrate the maze of waterways and backwaters and find them in time and then get them back to what passed for civilization in the coastal towns of post WW2 New Guinea.
Anyone foolish enough to do what I did in today's lawless and violent Papua New Guinea would be lucky to survive more than a few days before being assaulted, robbed and probably killed. White men could be, and sometimes were attacked and killed in the 1960's, but never for robbery in the jungle and I was never concerned for my personal safety.
Autres temps, autres moeures.
Thursday, 8 November 2007
MV DOMA. Voyage No. 5. 1956
Being in all respects ready for sea, you will depart Port Moresby for Morehead River with general cargo and passengers as manifested.
Return loading will be 1200 empty 44 gallon drums from the Australasian Petroleum Exploration Company base at Wasi Kusa River.
You will arrange with the Master of M.V.Melinda anchored 30 miles upstream in the Wasi Kusa to take this vessel in tow and deliver her to Port Moresby using every precaution against loss or damage to your own vessel and with due regard to the state of the river and associated hazards.
Melinda is said by her owners to be seaworthy but is unable to move due to a broken propellor shaft.
J.Buchart. Shipping Manager
Doma was flat-bottomed, and drew only six feet fully loaded, except for both propellers, which hung unprotected under the central rudder. This unconventional arrangement made running over one of the innumerable floating logs, which drifted awash on this coast at all seasons highly inadvisable. A bent blade was the best that one could hope for, but a broken-off propeller was more likely, with an even worse chance of a broken shaft which would spin backwards out of its housing taking the prop with it, resulting a high speed jet of water to rapidly fill the engine room and probably sink the ship.
The voyage across the Papuan Gulf as far as Daru on the western shores of the Fly River Delta was uneventful, but from there on, for another 100 nautical miles across the top of Torres Strait, we would be in virtually uncharted waters. GPS Satellite Navigation gear, now standard on every sea-going vessel of any size was not even a twinkle in NASA's eye in 1956. Radars, Electronic Depth Sounders and Radio Direction Finders did exist, but not on Doma or any other small ship in these waters. We had a compass, a chart and a lead-line and were expected to use them to keep us afloat and on time along the entire Papuan Coast. The only certainty was that anything over five fathoms (30 feet) was not to be expected, and two fathoms was more likely. Lights, beacons, buoys and all the other usual navigation aids simply did not exist.
Doma crept slowly along the deserted mangrove-lined coast with a crewman heaving the lead from early morning to late afternoon; her young master hovering within instant grasp of the engine room telegraph, ready to signal Full Astern if the leadsman's voice rose an octave to match rapidly shallowing water. The anchor was simply dropped wherever we happened to be at sundown.
The exploration company was camped 30 miles from the Morehead river mouth close to what was then the Dutch New Guinea Border. We would have had no chance of reaching it without local knowledge and assistance. This was provided by a near-naked, painted tribesman who spoke neither English nor Pidjin nor the Police Motu. Hand signals and pursed lips pointed left or right directed the helmsman, and Doma arrived alongside the high mud-walled river bank which served as a cargo wharf, discharged the cargo and departed for the Wasi Kusa and MV Melinda, our prospective tow.
Emboldened by a successful passage right across the top of Torres Strait, we carefully retraced our outward voyage until the mouth of the Wasi Kussa River again loomed ahead.
This is a much deeper and more navigable river than most on this coast, and the base camp was reached without incident. Our highly dangerous cargo of empty aviation fuel drums awaited us. Full drums are (hopefully) properly sealed and leak-proof, but empties should be sealed again after thorough washing out with fresh water before being loaded as cargo. Needless to say, this nitpicking precaution was unknown in Papua in the 1950s, and the drums were loaded in whatever condition they were in at the time.
Busama, another sister ship to Doma, exploded in a huge fireball at Wewak before the Marine Department put a stop to this dangerous practice a year later.
With 1200 empty drums stowed four high on deck, we steamed a few miles down-river where our tow awaited us. Melinda was a sorry sight, having swung to her anchor for almost three months waiting for a tow. She was manned by a mixed crew of Malayan and Papuan sailors and a Dutch engineer. The Master was a white-haired, cockney-accented Englishman,
Captain Salmon, known from Singapore to Sydney, I later discovered, as 'Sockeye Salmon.'
"Yer going to say its no go I suppose, young feller" was Captain Salmon's opening remark.
"My orders are to get you back to Moresby, and that's what I'm going to do."
This was greeted with a surprised snort and a swiftly poured glass of the inevitable Negrita Rum.
"We've got no power, no lights, and no towing gear," he said.
" I'll put you alongside down the river and then use your anchor cable as a towline with my chain as a sling from both quarters," I replied.
"Sooner you than me, young feller. Ever done it before?"
"Better have another then."
"No thanks .lets go"
And we did.
Many months after it was all over, I was told that Doma was the fourth ship sent to tow the broken down old freighter back to Port Moresby. The masters of the first three ships sent to do so refused to risk it: "Far too difficult.": the danger being that there was a real chance of both vessels getting caught across current in the fast-flowing Wasi Kusa, and either sinking or rolling over before coming to rest permanently in one of its shallow bends. Doma's young captain had no such doubts but the same sailor, now grey-haired and much more timorous, would agree with the first three dissenters, and refuse to even consider the operation which now got under way.
Melinda, of similar size and unpredictable behaviour to Doma, was lashed alongside for a headlong dash down the Wasi Kusa, letting the swift current carry us along and using engine power ahead or astern to keep both vessels out of the mangrove-lined banks. Incredibly, we reached the open sea still lashed together and undamaged, and rigged both vessels' anchor cables for a long tow across the Gulf of Papua into the persistent Southeast Trade Winds and relentless breaking seas. Speed dropped to a bare three knots whenever the wind picked up and five almost sleepless days and nights passed, before I triumphantly docked both ships alongside the wharf in Moresby Harbour.
Doma, aground and used as a breakwater at Belesana in Eastern Papua. Photograph taken from SV Tekani in 1987. Author in foreground.
Unknown to me, the owners of Melinda had a commitment from their insurers that this was to be a final attempt at salvage before they could collect their money.
No-one, least of all my employers who were owed several thousand pounds by Melinda's owners expected us to even make it down the river, let alone across the notoriously wild Gulf of Papua.
This, and much more, was relayed to me by a panel of experts in tne Snake-Pit, the mariner's retreat in the Papuan Hotel. I should have consulted them before, not after, my first attempt at salvage at sea.
Tuesday, 6 November 2007
RABAUL MARINE BASE
In 1956, MV Doma was only a few years out of her wartime origin, but was already showing signs of a hard life as the tropical climate ate away at thin steel hull-plating when I assumed command, as the youngest ship's master on the Papuan Coast.
A voyage across the Papuan Gulf into the Northwest monsoon, the last of many such operations was abandoned when the Chief Engineer dropped a heavy steel bar in the engine room. It penetrated Doma's single-skinned bottom and produced a fountain of salt water which he temporarily smothered with a cement patch over a hastily riveted metal plate.
The ship's owners were not unduly concerned and suggested that the patch would serve as a permanent repair. I disagreed and was ordered to "Get on with it and stop nit-picking." but the thought of another hull failure in the single skin of this rusting survivor of who knew how many wartime stresses and strains made resignation of my command an easy decision.
Her previous master had found another job as crash-boat skipper with The Department of Civil Aviation at the Flying-Boat Base on Port Moresby Harbour, and I followed, exchanging a slow-moving eight knot coastal freighter for a 30 knot crashboat.
The Port Moresby Marine Base was equipped with high-speed launches powered by twin V-12 Dorman-Ricardo diesels. They were there to guard and control the flying boat landing area used by RAAF PBY Catalina amphibians, now owned by Qantas. These slow-flying aircraft made a leisurely circuit of several thousand miles twice a week from Port Moresby, covering all of coastal Papua and New Guinea and most of the Solomon Islands as far as Honiara. The Catalinas carried less than a dozen passengers perched uncomfortably on canvas seats down both sides of the hull, with their feet in bilge water which sloshed from one end of the aircraft to the other after most take-offs. The launches, ( "crashboats,") would sweep the harbour for floating logs and debris and the occasional native canoe before every take-off and landing. The rest of the time was spent on standby, waiting for an emergency of any kind, with the crew busily cleaning paintwork and polishing and re-polishing the brass fittings, which were liberally fitted throughout the vessel.
I had been with DCA in Port Moresby for only a few months. Unaware of the traps laid for unwary newcomers by long entrenched government employees, I treated my transfer to Rabaul as Officer in Charge. New Guinea Islands as a welcome promotion and we left immediately for my new posting. The Rabaul Marine Base had its crashboat lying to a mooring a few yards offshore from two ex-wartime buildings. One had been converted into living quarters for the boss, while the other was a workshop and store with accommodation for the boats crew.
At Rabaul, the weekly Catalina arrived on Mondays from Port Moresby via Lae, Madang, Manus and Kavieng, and departed the following morning for a flight to Honiara in The Solomon Islands, returning to Port Moresby by the same roundabout route on Wednesdays after an overnight stop. This left half the week free. The only other task was a short trip down-harbour with the town's resident vulcanologist for an inspection of Matupi Volcano which smoked away day and night and contributed the occasional earth tremor: these were ignored by blasé Rabaul residents as something of no particular concern.
My short career as a public servant came to an abrupt halt when the decision to close the Marine Base and replace Catalinas with DC3 'Gooney-birds'; a decision made before I left Port Moresby, was conveyed to me for the first time in a brief official telegram.
The crashboat was sold; the base was closed; and I was unemployed with a wife and new baby daughter to provide for and a grand total of twentyfive pounds in the bank.To be continued
Monday, 29 October 2007
Cherokee Six 300. Bougainville Island 1965
It was a short twenty minute flight from the small town of Buin at the southern end of the big island of Bougainville in pre-independence Papua New Guinea to Kieta further up the coast.
I was expecting no surprises over this familiar route and with no passengers or cargo the powerful 300 HP Lycoming easily lifted the lightly loaded Cherokee to a safe 3000 feet and I throttled back for the few minutes' level flight remaining before descent into Aropa Airport.
The late-afternoon weather was the usual mixture of scattered showers near the coast and a line of big cu-nims to port where the terrain rose steeply to five thousand feet or more culminating in the seven thousand foot extinct volcano, Mount Taroka with it's crescent shaped hanging lake at the five thousand foot level.
Below, a uniform carpet of thick jungle covered every inch of ground right down to the coast. Typical New Guinea conditions with nowhere to even consider a survivable forced landing. The few sandy beaches were too narrow and short and the only options after an engine failure were to ditch into shallow water near the coast or onto the just-covered barrier reef a few miles out to sea. neither of these was an attractive prospect, but better than flying into the solid jungle below.
The big Lycoming purred contentedly away for a few minutes more and I reached for the throttle to reduce power as the last ridge loomed ahead.
Suddenly, the smooth hum from the engine changed to a shudder which shook the whole aircraft; revs dropped and manifold pressure followed. Full rich mixture had no effect; a quick cycle through left,right and back to both magnetoes changed nothing, neither did switching fuel tanks and bringing the electric fuel pump on line.
First things first. I banked hard right and headed for the coast away from the forbidding terrain below while considering the possibile causes of the rough running. Dropped valve? Tip missing on a propeller blade ? Timing gear slipped? Plug lead fallen off? Ran over a black cat on take-off? "Aviate,navigate,communicate"… The first two disposed of I called Flight Service at Rabaul, far away on the other side of the Solomon Sea and advised them of my situation.
"Are you declaring an emergency?"
" No, but I'm tracking coastal to Aropa for a straight in approach and will call on final"
I was, by then, level at 1500 feet with the steep coastal hills to port and a reassuring light green band of shallow water under the wings.
The vibration got no worse and I made a straight-in approach to Aropa, landed without incident and taxied up to the one and only hangar where engineers, one carrying a CO2 extinguisher at the ready who had heard the whole thing on their hangar radio surrounded the aircraft making throat-cutting gestures which I interpreted as "shut it down NOW."
The reason was soon clear; from both sides of the long engine cowling, a vivid green stain spread fan-like along the fuselage. Avgas. The entire engine compartment was a bomb waiting to explode.
A quick inspection revealed a broken high-pressure injector fuel line which had produced a spray of 100/130 Avgas, filling the cowled engine compartment with an explosive mixture of vaporised fuel and air which neither the hot exhaust manifold nor electrical discharges from the magnetoes and alternator had ignited.
Even now, after a lapse of 30 years I like to think I would have immediately shut the engine down and ditched in the shallows had I known the cause of the rough running, and not continued flying to a safe landing at Aropa.
Thursday, 25 October 2007
The darkness is still absolute at this pre-dawn hour and dew beads the upper surface of both wings. It hangs in a stippled opaque curtain on the windscreen and side windows. Mosquitoes whine against my ears in a last try before the dawn banishes them to wherever mosquitoes go in daytime. The heavy flight bag bangs against my leg as I reach the aircraft and start the airman’s traditional walk-around.
Keys out, and unlock the door. Release the seatbelt left looped through the control yoke and pulled tight against wind-induced movement of elevators,ailerons and rudder. Start at the left side. Fuselage looks intact. Left leading edge of the tailplane with its glued-on rubber boot likewise. The elevator moves freely, as does the rudder. Duck under the HF aerial wire running from the right wingtip back to the tail and then forward to a small anchor point just above where I sit in the cockpit. It’s still there….good.
Right flap angled down towards the tarmac and fully extended is intact, and the aileron alongside it moves smoothly up and down when I try it. Wingtip smooth, and undamaged. Front leading edge of the wing also OK. Turn the small catch on the outer fuel tank and remove the inside cap. Stick finger into tank and verify tank full of fuel. Fuel Guages sometimes lie….fingers, never….. Close cap.
Crawl under the wing and remove the small leather cover from the pitot head. Very necessary to prevent wasps and other small insects blocking the tube which feeds the airspeed indicator. Another small hole in the fuselage sends air pressure readings to the altimeter. Check this as well.
The pre-takeoff check continues as I walk around the aircraft. Fuel drained into a bottle and checked for water, or anything else sullying its clear green purity…both propellers free of any nicks or chips… undercarriage looks good, and both tyres are firm under the weight…..We are ready to fly.
Into the aircraft and slide over to the left-hand seat. ( why always the left one?. Orville sat in the middle, but the pilot is now always on this side.) Before me, the panel of instruments and guages stretches across the full width of the cockpit; airspeed Indicator, turn and bank,artificial horizon,rate of climb, altimeter,heading indicator and the rest of the performance instruments right in front of the control yoke. The ADF dial is here with a smaller DME readout alongside it. The VOR dial takes up far too much space and is almost useless anywhere outside a few New Guinea airports The radios are stacked,one above the other in the centre, and engine guages, fuel indicators and some duplicated twins of the ones on my side are all crowded together on the right in front of the missing co-pilot.
Door closed and the handle is held down with an unapproved short length of shock cord. Aztecs have a history of doors springing open in flight. This prevents it.
The right engine starts and the panel come alive. Needles rise from their stops and three small green lights indicate all is well with the undercarriage. The left engine follows, and settles down to a steady rumble. Check the controls by moving the control yoke from stop to stop and fore and aft.
Both trims set to neutral, brakes off, and we roll gently forward towards the runway.
An all powerful, all knowing Department of Civil Aviation, irreverently dubbed ‘The Department of Colossal Aggravation’, has decreed that all aircraft must lodge a flight plan with ATC before leaving on any flight anywhere in New Guinea. Sheer necessity has modified this to allow an aircraft to take off and climb over the airport to enable tenuous high frequency radio signals to reach ATC controllers; they are at Rabaul two hundred miles to the northwest, and on the other side of the mountain range looming above the airstrip which blocks communication from on the ground at this early hour.
A quick call on the short range VHF radio tells other aircraft, if any, that we are moving onto the runway. Light is rapidly replacing the pre-dawn darkness as the aircraft trundles down the long airstrip right to the end, flaps coming up as we roll. The Aztec can, and does, use only a fraction of the length of this one, but why not use all of it if it’s available? The runway behind you,like air in the fuel tanks is high on the list of useless things in an aeroplane.
Stop at the end. Brakes on, and run up both engines to maximum power, cycling the propellors rapidly in and out of their emergency feathered position. A last check for anything on or near the strip which might endanger the takeoff.
Say aloud… ENGINE FAILURE ON TAKE-OFF
60 knots: close both throttles. Land straight ahead.
70 knots: Enough runway left? close both throttles. Land straight ahead.
NOT ENOUGH RUNWAY LEFT ?: Keep straight. Seventy knots. Gear UP. Flaps UP.Power UP. Identify; Dead Foot: Dead Engine. Confirm it with the throttle. Mixture closed. Feather it.
Keep straight. Seventyfive knots. Climb out and go for a safe height.”
A last look around. Open both throttles. Check for maximum RPM both engines.
Brakes off, and I am pushed hard against the back of my seat as the two engines power up. The plane gathers speed down the long runway. Airspeed needle leaves its stop and moves quickly past fifty knots, sixty, seventy……..stick back, and the wheels leave the ground. Maintain seventy five knots and increase the climb. Nothing shows over the long nose except pale blue sky. Wheels up. Start a gentle turn at five hundred feet and start circling to gain altitude for the obligatory call to Rabaul.
Rabaul Bravo Foxtrot Delta
Bravo Foxtrot Delta Rabaul. Goodmorning Go ahead
Rabaul Bravo Foxtrot Delta, goodmorning. Airborne at Kieta. Request weather for Kieta/ Kiriwina.
The weather forecast, when received is identical to yesterday’s and will be same tomorrow. Winds southeasterly up to the ten thousand foot level. Thunderstorms for late afternoon.
Thanks Rabaul. All copied. Ready with details.
Flight details sent and acknowledged, we are free to depart. A climbing turn towards the Crown Prince Range which divides Bougainville Island along its entire length brings us over the mountains and we soon reach the green coastal plain on the west coast; beyond it, the Coral Sea. Seven thousand feet seems a good idea today. Just a few fluffy fair-weather cumulus below in an otherwise cloudless blue sky… Aeroplane salesmen’s weather. Woodlark Island is an hour and a half away over the water.
Engage the auto-pilot and let it fly the aeroplane. It does it with less fuss or control movement than any human pilot, including this one. Coffee from the thermos and just sit back and wait for rough running in one of the engines which seems to be part of every long over-water flight.
The sea below is flecked with white horses kicked up by the Southeast Trade Wind. Wind up here is a guess, probably about 25 knots, southeast. No way of telling. There is a radio beacon at Buka, the length of Bougainville away to the north or Kiriwina even further away and ahead.. We just fly what is, hopefully, the right heading and sit and wait.
The ability to identify a dark line on the horizon over a hundred miles away as land and not just cloud only comes with practice and after many mistakes, but today’s sighting is easy. That hard-edged line sloping into the sea under a cap of cumulus cloud where Woodlark Island should be is indeed just that and the tiny Laughlan Islands soon show clearly under the left wing.
Wind the trim wheel forward to start a long descent for the big island, now showing plainly ahead. Turbulence starts to gently shake the aircraft as we leave three thousand feet and gets stronger the lower we descend. No tower or controller to talk to here but Rabaul Radio acknowledges our safe arrival as we enter the circuit for Girua airstrip.
Girua was built by the New Zealanders in the 1940’s for a squadron of Hurricane fighters. Just south of this big island, the Japanese suffered their first major defeat at sea in what was to become known as The Battle of the Coral Sea. The fleet was headed for Australia but a combined force of American and Australian ships intercepted the large Japanese force of aircraft carriers, light cruisers and destroyers and roundly defeated it. Aircraft from American carriers playing a major role in the sea fight which lasted for days before the remains the defeated Japanese fleet fled northwards. New Zealanders in their Hurricanes from Garua airstrip hurried them along.
The reefs around the island still cradle reminders of the battle. Crashed aircraft and other debris can easily seen from low flying aircraft in the shallow water. Teak gratings, portholes and other small pieces of marine debris from sunken warships can still be found in villages.
The airstrip is still in good condition; the original crushed coral retains its hard-surfaced smoothness produced as the scooped up, still-living coral coalesced into a rock-hard concrete runway after salt water was sprayed over the freshly laid surface while heavy rollers trundled back and forth under the tropical sun. The only aircraft using it now are a fortnightly Britten-Norman Islander and me. I come here every six weeks for a load of the beautiful wavy-patterned striped ebony carvings which are almost unique to Woodlark.
The light skinned inhabitants call the island Murua. It is part of the age-old trading and cultural exchange route, The Kula Ring, which still moves in a huge circle around the Louisiade Archipelago. Highly polished jade axe heads originate from this island and are used as ceremonial exchange items, as part of the ring. They come from Suloga on the island’s south coast where a quarry has provided the inhabitants with dark green jadeite stone for centuries. There is also gold in the hills here, and Australian miners risked fever and the clubs and axes of the warlike Muruans early in the 18th century in search of it. Many succumbed to one or both and mining ceased shortly after World War 1.
Nothing remains of those early enterprises. A single white family maintains a small plantation at Kulumadau. The planter augments his income by trading with the Muruans for finely worked wooden bowls carved from the island’s striped ebony logs.
We roll to a stop alongside the solitary windsock and the engines are shut down. A small grass hut holds a collection of cartons and loosely stacked striped ebony carvings left by the planter for collection.
The quality is uniformly excellent with all items showing the finely finished incised patterns which enhance these polished bowls and carvings, all are finished with a wetted cloth impregnated with talc-fine sand from the beach alongside the airstrip. No checking for faults is necessary and a cheque is left in the hut. This is New Guinea, where business is done with a handshake or a brief radio conversation and honest dealing is taken for granted by people who rarely meet face to face.
The Aztec is filled with its load of carvings. Fuel from a drum left for us in the long grass is pumped into the tanks, and I taxi down to the end of Girua strip and take off to the east.
With a full load, the climb to cruising level is slow, but we level out at six thousand feet and head for home. A layer of cumulus below now gives only an occasional glimpse of the sea where white-caps still show the direction of the southeast surface wind. Whatever the windspeed up here is, it is now against us and the return flight will be slower.
The NDB radio beacon at Kieta is not to be relied on at any great distance due to the deflection of the radio signal by the mountains of Bougainville, but the peaks of the Crown Prince Range show clearly over 50 miles out. The weather is still good out here and both engines have settled down to a contented synchronised rumble. As we approach the west coast, build-ups of towering cumulus cloud appear behind the range heralding bad weather on the east coast where Aropa airstrip awaits us. Turbulence disturbs steady flight, causing slight continuous shaking the closer we get to the coast. Height must be maintained until we are clear of the high central range where cloud now sits in a grey blanket with only the highest peaks of the mountains showing above it.
Over the range and it’s time to descend. The signal from the Kieta beacon is now loud and clear. Just as well, as it will almost certainly be unofficial instrument let-down today. I am instrument rated, but the aeroplane is not, due to the cost of keeping it maintained and equiped for legal instrument flight and the distance from a suitably equiped facility to carry out the regular inspections. We have a panel loaded with navigation aids including marker beacon, Distance Measuring Equipment and VOR, all good to have but Kieta has none of these, just the solitary NDB now beeping its identifying signal loudly in my earphones.
The needle is rock steady, pointing directly at the antenna behind Aropa airstrip. The needle wavers, hesitates, then suddenly reverses to point directly behind us. We are over the unseen sea below and clear of the mountains.
Power off, and we descend in cloud towards a turning point over the unseen Zeune Islands, eleven miles offshore where a 180 degree turn puts us on a return course for the northern end of Aropa Airstrip. No point in looking for it yet. We are in solid cloud. Fly the panel and watch the rapidly unwinding altimeter. Light rain spreads a gauze film over the perspex windscreen with a minute left to go and no sign of a break.
If this was a commercial operation with paying passengers to consider, as well as Big Brother DCA, the approach would have to be abandoned. A turn away from the unseen land ahead and a retreat to a different airstrip would be mandatory, but as with many things aeronautical in New Guinea, expedience, experience and familiarity with the idiosyncracies of local weather allow me to press on.
1500 feet and still no break in the cloud. 1000 feet is my personal minimum here and this is rapidly approaching when we emerge from the cloud, and the airstrip appears ahead with a heavy shower approaching from the hills.
No time for a full circuit. A quick radio call to alert anyone else in the air around Aropa gets no response.
Wheels down. Landing checklist methodically ticked off and we straighten up for a final slide down the last few hundred feet until the first cone markers at the end of the runway pass beneath us. Power off……stick back……back… back… ri-i-ight back and the wheels touch the runway with a satisfying squeak.
Rabaul Bravo Foxtrot Delta—landed Kieta at time three zero. Cancel Sarwatch.
Bravo Foxtrot Delta…. Kieta…. Sarwatch terminated Rabaul. Good afternoon.
Bravo Foxtrot Delta . Apinun.