About pumps and fuel: Jim Eames

One of the nice things about  being editor of the New Guinea Times Courier in Lae in the ’60s was the close relationships you forged with some of the people in the aviation industry. Because roads were few and far between it was handy to have those in the industry on the lookout for what might make a good story, and, importantly, provide you with the means to go and cover it.

Thus the Phil Stedman phone call one afternoon in 1966. Phill, as general manager of Ansett-MAL, had a sharp eye for a news story and this occasion was no exception.

“Stu Middlemiss is coming up from Sydney. He wants to see whether the Trobriands would work as a flying boat tourist destination so we’re going down to take a look. Would you like to come?”

Middlemiss and his own Ansett subsidiary, Airlines of NSW, ran flying boat services out of Sydney to such places as Lord Howe Island so, if he thought the Trobriands might have some tourist potential for his Sandringham flying boats, from my point of view it was certainly worth a story.

So early in the morning of the appointed day Phill, or Steddy as he was universally known, his wife Betty, Stu and myself boarded the Cessna 336 Push Pull—that version with one engine in the front and the other at back—and slipped off the airstrip at Lae to the south across the remains of the wreck of the Tenyo Maru, towards the fabled “Islands of Love”.

Recall tends to drop details as the years go by but my memory was that the Push Pull was one operated by Ansett-MAL’s light aircraft division and the pilot they referred to as Smithy.

The flight plan called for a refueling stop at Dobadura en route which turned out to be where the fun started.

Unfortunately someone hadn’t done their homework and through some circumstances or other it transpired that Dobadura boasted a pump, but no fuel.

After a quick conference between this small gathering of aviation leaders, none of whom had probably personally faced such a dilemma before, it was decided that we should head for Popondetta where, we were assured, all the requirements we needed would be in place.

So we boarded again and the Push Pull thundered down the runway and into the air until, around thirty seconds or so after take off, the front engine spluttered and the propeller stopped.

“That’ll be the fuel”, I heard Steddy gasp, a statement which probably didn’t need to be uttered.

“Or the lack of it” was the laconic statement from Betty Stedman in the back.

Anyway, fortunately for us, a long held belief among some that the Push Pull type flew like a brick on one engine, didn’t really come to pass and it wasn’t long before we could see the airstrip at Popondetta appearing from beyond the rigid front propeller. Smithy made a textbook one-engine approach and we landed smoothly.

Now, I have no way of knowing just why it was the case on this particular morning at Popondetta but it turned out that, unlike Dobadura which had a pump but no fuel, Popondetta had fuel but no pump!

Anyway, for anyone who doubts this story the proof surely lies in the photos I took at the time.

They show two of Australia’s and PNG’s most senior aviation executives helping in the transfer of fuel from a 44 gallon drum, into a plastic bucket and then helping Smithy pour it into the Push Pull’s tanks.

Fortunately there were no DCA types around the observe the operation.

So, on we went to the Trobriands to be kindly hosted for the day by the folks there who ran the hotel and to bounce our way around potted roads to allow Stu to assess its value or otherwise as an Australian tourist destination before setting out on the return flight to Lae.

As it turned out, that wasnt to be without its dramas either.

By the time we were scudding back along the coastline it was very late in the day and we were still some miles out from Lae. With darkness closing in, Lae air traffic control suggested we find somewhere else to spend the night but, given the day’s experiences, there was no way Popondetta or Dobadura would be a popular alternative. So, with the light fading Smithy pressed on, by now flying low along the coastline, until another call from air traffic control suggested that if they didn’t see us soon we had a problem.

Smithy, who fortunately had years of experience, quickly assured them we had “Lae in sight” but I do need to point out he was certainly the only person in the aircraft who could see it. At that point the rest of us couldn’t even see Salamaua! But he knew his onions, as they say, and a few minutes later, in darkening skies, Salamaua and then Lae came in sight across the waves.

Given that these were the days when flying at night in PNG was strictly forbidden, the vague outline of wreck of the Tenyo Maru never looked so good!

(When he later saw the photos, Steddy, who remained a good friend years after our PNG days, made me promise I would never use them in a newspaper. I’ve honored that ‘pledge for the nearly fifty years since but I think if he could see them now he’d get the same belly laugh I do. He’d probably put the rudimentary refueling exercise down to “management initiatives”.

As for Stu Middlemiss’ ideas for future Trobriand tourism with flying boats out of Sydney: well, those of us in Lae never heard much more about it. Maybe Stu became a little worried about some of the “operating procedures” which the local aviation industry employed in those days.)

Steddy and Stu Middlemiss tilting the 44 gallon drum while a squatting Smithy directs it into the bucket.

Smithy at work with the fuel on the wing while Middlemiss and Betty Stedman look on.


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