All in the day’s work: Roger Wilson

It is 1950, the Second World War in which I flew as a pilot has been over for five years. I am now in Lae, capital of New Guinea, one of Qantas’s two bases, the other being at Port Moresby, capital of Papua. Based at Lae are some half dozen C-47s (the military version of DC3), about a dozen De Havilland Dragons, and a couple of Puss Moths. I am based here for two years with the rank of First Officer, crewing the C-47 when required and as pilot-in-command of a Dragon, a small twin engine bi-plane.

Today I am to fly the ‘Highlands Mail’, a twice-weekly service which supplies the needs of residents in the highland valleys. It’s 5 am, still dark. I arose shortly after 4 am, showered, dressed, breakfasted and now await transport to the Flight Operations office. It is a warm, muggy morning and will be hotter. Once at the office I fight the paper war. I make out my flight plan, inspect and sign the technical log (showing the aeroplane is serviceable to fly), collect the ticket book, the cargo manifests and sign for the mail bags. It is 5:45 am, daylight, time to go. I walk around the aeroplane checking that, as far as I can tell, it is flyable. Inside, I check the positioning of the cargo, the lashings, and welcome my first passenger who is coming with me on the first leg. We are ready to go.

In the cockpit I do my check, prepare for engine start. The ground engineer calls, “ignition on”, I reply in the affirmative, he swings the propellers, one at a time (Gipsy Moth engines are not equipped with self-starters), the engines start, I wave away the chocks and taxi to the end of the strip. A green light from the control tower and I accelerate along the runway. It is 6:02 am. I fly up the Ramu Valley, a wide grassy valley with a river meandering down it. We pass Nadzab, about five minutes out, and after about 20 minutes, climbing all the time, I enter the highlands (average altitude of the valley floor is about 5,000 feet) through a gap in the mountains known as the Arona Gap. We are going first this morning to Goroka, administrative HQ of the New Guinea Highlands. A District Officer is based there and has a number of Patrol Officers under his command. It must be appreciated that at this time the greater proportion of New Guinea is largely unexplored and is not subject to control by the Australian Government. Hence the District and Patrol Officers whose job it is to rectify the situation by entering unexplored territory, making contact with the local people, and bringing the benefits (!) of civilization to the local people.

At Goroka I unload the mail and cargo (mainly meat and bread). The only way then for Europeans living in the Highlands to obtain them was to have a standing order with Burns Philp and Morobe Bakery to send supplies up by the Highlands Mail service. There is also a quantity of trade goods (tobacco, razorblades, rolls of coloured cloth, etc.) for those Europeans who run trade stores at various points in the highlands.

After doing the paper work (filling out the manifest, writing out tickets, collecting the fares, etc) and refuelling the aircraft with the aid of a boi and the local agent, I start the engines by swinging the propellers myself (after setting the throttle and mixture and switching on the ignition). I take off (downhill) and make my way into the Wahgi Valley. This beautiful valley was discovered by the Leahy brothers on their famous safari on the 30s. It is fertile, at an elevation of some 5,000 feet and the Wahgi River snakes its way roughly down the centre of the valley. There are a number of airstrips in the valley which is reached by flying across some very uninviting rocky country keeping a huge mountainous rock formation on my left. I land first at Chimbu, a 400 yard long strip which runs uphill to end near a pawpaw plantation. The bottom end of the strip ends abruptly at the very edge of a cliff 300 feet above the Wahgi River. Once committed to take-off there is no stopping. The aircraft races downhill and flies off the end of the strip. On one occasion my DH84 suffered a partial engine failure on take-off. The aeroplane fell off the end of the strip lacking flying speed. The 300 feet of air between me and the river saved the day. After a few heart-stopping seconds we reached flying speed and with 1½ engines operating we flew to Kerowagi three minutes away. This day, however, nothing untoward happens. I complete my work. There is a passenger (an Australian government employee) who wishes to be taken to Kerowagi. It would take him 2-3 days hiking to cross the up and down intervening terrain. He asks me: “How much is the fare?” I have no fare schedule for the 5-6 miles to Kerowagi, so I make a guess and quote him 10 shillings. He pays, I write him a ticket and off we go.

At Kerowagi there is a native hospital run by a lik lik dokta. This man is employed by the Australian Government Medical service. He, although not a qualified physician, has adequate knowledge sufficient to run a native hospital. He and his wife are old friends. They give me morning tea on the verandah of their house, after I have unloaded their medical supplies. So the day continues. I fly next to Banz, a few miles further up the valley, where two young unmarried Aussies run a coffee plantation. Next I cross the valley to Minj, where there is an agricultural experiment going on. Back across the valley to Nondugl, the property of Sir Edward Hallstrom (he of Silent Knight refrigerator fame). Finally, passing Bobby Gibbs’s coffee plantation, I turn left and land at Mt Hagen.

This is quite a settlement, and is at the end of the Waghi Valley. There are a couple of trade stores here, an engineering shop selling tractors, machinery (generators, truck spares, etc.), a small general store, and some coffee plantations, one being run by Mick Leahy, one of the famous brothers. From here I fly over the ridge on the side of the valley, descend into the Baiyer Valley (altitude 4000 ft) and land at Baiyer River, another agricultural station. The strip here is the longest one in the highlands. I never did find out why. In the Baiyer Valley a number of varieties of Birds of Paradise make their home.

Leaving there I head up the valley to Wabag, my final destination today, where the airstrip lies at an altitude of 6000 ft. This is a demanding airstrip from a pilot’s point of view, subject to a variety of winds. On the left side there is high ground. On the right, over a rocky ridge, is a fearsome rocky declivity. The strip itself presents problems, or at least requires very careful attention. It is flat for only about 200 yards, then it rises abruptly for another 200 yards, before continuing to rise at a lesser angle. Once committed to landing, there is no turning back, no chance of aborting the lading and having another go. The high ground on the left and the ridge on the right prevent it. You cannot have a second bite at the cherry, although on a memorable occasion a friend of mine in a C-47 did abort and got away with it. How he did it l will never know.

At Wabag there is a medical centre and a patrol outpost. This is the end of known territory. This year or next a patrol with a line of bearers carrying the food, tents, etc., an interpreter, and a number of armed native police will bring some of the territory to the west and south under government control.

At Wabag, the government orderly gives me a cup of tea while I eat my box lunch of a sandwich, a boiled egg and a piece of fruit provided by the company at Lae this morning.

After lunch I take off, fly down past Wapenamunda and begin flying up a narrow ascending valley. This valley leads to the top of the ridge above Mt Hagen and is a shortcut to that outpost. It avoids having to fly back through the Baiyer Valley. One must not fly up this valley unless the gap at the top is clear of cloud, because there is no turning back, the valley is too narrow to allow turning around. One of our pilots erred in flying up this valley when the gap at the top was choked with cloud. He tried to turn back. He failed and killed himself.

At Mt Hagen I load vegetables for Lae and pick up two or three passengers for tomorrow morning’s flight to Sydney on the DC3 Bird of Paradise flight. (This service is reputed to be the longest DC3 scheduled flight in one day (2,000 miles) in the world. It leaves Lae at 6 am and travels via Port Moresby, Cooktown, Cairns, Townsville, Mackay, Rockhampton and Brisbane, arriving at Sydney at 10 pm.

I call at various strips on the return flight down the Waghi Valley, collecting vegetables and fruit (bananas, pawpaws, etc) and the odd passenger. Some of these are natives going to another outpost to visit friends (wantoks) or relatives. At Goroka there are passengers for Lae, and some cargo for Kainantu, some 10-12 minutes towards Lae. The aeroplane is refuelled, I swing the props for the umpteenth time and set off for home.

Kainantu is my last stop in the Highlands, although two other strips, Arona and Aiyura, are nearby and may sometimes warrant a stop. After leaving Kainantu I fly out over the Arona Gap and descend into the Ramu Valley which leads to Lae. My penultimate stop today is Kaiapit. On final approach to that strip I notice a number of fowls wandering on the runway. I am not about to abort my approach for fowls and land amongst them. There is much squawking (from the fowls) and yelling (from the native owner). One rooster and one hen have been run over and killed. I get an assurance (honoured in the breach) from the resident at this government outpost that he will endeavour to see that fowls are kept off the aerodrome. My day is ending. Fifteen minutes after leaving Kaiapit I land in Lae. It is 5:40 pm. I am not permitted to fly in New Guinea after 6 pm so there wasn’t much flying time left. I leave the aircraft in the hands of the engineers and report to the operations office. There I hand over the fare money I have collected plus the one penny per pound for the ‘back loading’ freight of fruit and vegetables, the cargo manifests, unused tickets, etc.

I then check the roster to see what flying I am to do tomorrow. I am to fly to Madang and back in the morning as Flying Officer in a C47 with one of the resident Captains. In the afternoon I am again flying a Dragon to Bulolo, where there is gold to be collected, and to Wau. It will be another long day. Today I have flown for seven hours, started the engines at each stop, made 16 take-offs and landings, uplifted to their various destinations 18 passengers, been on duty for 12 hours plus, loaded and unloaded the aeroplane at every stop and done much paper work.

I return to the tiny tar-paper shack, located on the south side of Lae airstrip where I live with my new wife. Having earned it, I drink two or three cans of beer (the nights are hot), have my dinner, watch the geckos and praying mantissas in the roof rafters (the shack has no ceilings) and shortly retire as I am tired from having been up since shortly after 4 am this morning.

There is short-wave radio to be listened to if one should so wish, or a visit to the pub or the company mess. Some other evening. TV is yet non-existent. I earn £12 per week (decimal currency still resides in Malcolm Frazer’s head), therefore my salary for today’s work amounts to £1.14.3 (about $3.50). The labourer is worthy of his hire.


Leave a Reply