Tragic Events at Tauta – Sept 2020 Kundu
My first task this fateful day in September 1964 entailed flying a DCA aerodrome inspector from Goroka to Nondugl in the Cessna 185. Though my intention was to wait at Nondugl while the inspector finished his task, after landing and just before shutting down, DCA Madang called up with a request: a Dornier Do 27, the subject of an uncertainty phase, had not been heard of since calling ‘taxying Tauta for Madang’ some while ago.
My heart missed a beat, for this was the replacement aircraft for one that I had crash landed. During my stint with the Lutheran Mission, I had piled up several hundred hours in both Dorniers before forced landing VH-AMQ, the one we’d called the Green Machine, at Mount Elimbari a couple of years before piling up. I, and others, had a miraculous escape following engine failure. Now it sounded as though VH-EXA, the Red Machine, could be in trouble.
Madang asked if I could have a look around the Finisterre Mountains in the vicinity of Tauta. An initially, somewhat disgruntled, aerodrome inspector agreed to my proposal that I drop back into Nondugl to collect him as soon as emergency duties had been done.
As I was uncertain of Tauta’s exact location, my forty-minute flight there was via Dumpu Cattle Station in order to follow the Surinam Valley that ran down from the Finisterre Ranges to the Ramu Valley. From there the narrow, jungle-enclosed river could be followed upstream until it petered out high on a steep, forest covered, jagged and sinister looking mountain wall.
Circling Tauta, the prominent and notorious ‘Shaggy Ridge’, where Australian and Japanese forces had fought their bloody battle, could be seen a few miles west. The focus of my attention though was on the airstrip below, the newly-made gash in the forest.
There was no sign of the Dornier, except for wheel marks on the muddy surface. It was plain to see where pilot, Ray Jaensch, had landed and parked. Also, where the wheels had left the ground on take-off, usual for the Dornier, a very short distance from the start of its run. The airstrip, as yet without a blade of grass, sloped steeply down to the tree-lined river valley below.
Wasting no time, I swung around in a tight circuit for the uphill landing. At the top of the strip, swinging round to park at right angles to the slope, dozens of excited locals instantly closed in. The whole tribe was yelling and pointing down the strip into the valley below.
It appeared that not long after the Dornier had lifted off, some distance down the valley the engine faltered. The plane was seen to descend suddenly without rising. At times smoke was seen coming from the river valley.
This information was communicated in excited, rapid-fire pidgin, or ‘tok ples’ [local dialect], volume at maximum, accompanied by much sign language with hands and eyebrows.
Looking down, the formidable valley floor with its thick rain forest cut by a narrow, winding, boulder-strewn stream did not fill me with hope. But take off and search I must. The villagers seemed uncertain as to which way my 185 would move. They darted away from the spinning prop blades in all directions as I swung round to face down the strip.
Requiring no climb at all, the take-off was easy, coasting off the strip into a descent below the treetops lining the valley. In less than a minute I saw a curl of smoke. And there it was! The wreckage of the Dornier among huge boulders in the stream.
No surprise I’d missed it on the way in as my eyes had been searching ahead for first sight of the new airstrip before banking sharply to turn away from the sheer wall of the forested mountain. Flying downstream as I was now, I could push the nose down and zoom over the wreckage at treetop height. Four people were on the rocks in the river. Two were waving frantically.
Coming around again, I recognised Dr Laurence Malcolm, District Medical Officer, Madang. He seemed unhurt as he tended another person stretched out on a rock, some twenty metres down-stream of the wreck, by then a tangled mass of burnt out metal.
Buzzing low with a wing waggle, I then climbed and called Madang with the details. My immediate destination was Goroka to collect a storepedo—a large cylinder packed with emergency gear. Arriving there thirty minutes later, the right-side passenger door was removed and the rear bench seat. With re-fuelling over, the storepedo was loaded, along with Max Parker, a fellow pilot, as handler, to dispatch it.
Another half hour later we were coming in low and slow, for a downstream drop. On my signal, Max bundled the storepedo out on its static line, while I poured on the power, gaining height till a reverse turn could be made. Flying over the wreck again we saw the parachute draped over a boulder close to the wreckage. For the first time I felt somewhat reassured, knowing that Dr Malcolm now had some tools of his trade with which to work.
Climbing again to assess the recovery plan, the straight-line distance to Tauta appeared to be about one kilometre; a tortuous climb for the survivors, over boulders and through thick bush, but not by any means impossible with the help of the men of the village. There could well be a track somewhere beneath the dense jungle. Adept with their razor-sharp machetes, the rescue party would have no trouble making stretchers from saplings and vines.
Radioing Madang that I was about to land at Tauta, they replied that Tauta was closed by order of the Director of Operations, DCA, Port Moresby, and not to be used under any circumstances. The telex to this effect also stated that my earlier landing there was in breach of regulations for the strip had not been approved, and I must submit an incident report on return to Goroka.
This stupid message I rate as by far the most ludicrous I have ever received or ever want to. Later, I was to see it as tantamount to criminal. In hindsight I should have ignored it. Regrettably, I was swayed by the imperious tone of voice from Madang insisting I acknowledge receipt of the NOTAM [notice to airmen], and further relaying the instruction that we were to remain over the crash site until arrival of the helicopter that presumably had been dispatched.
Even recounting the story years later distresses me, for Max and I circled for hours that day knowing full well that things down in the river were bad and that time was running out for the injured. There were two survivors wrapped in blankets stretched out on the rocks with Dr Malcolm and others attending. Each hour the story was the same. ‘The chopper was on its way’ … ‘No, a specific time of arrival could not be given yet.’
A note dropped to Dr Malcolm to tell him the chopper was coming was acknowledged with a thumbs up.
Fortunately, the weather further upstream towards the towering Finisterre Mountains remained fine. Streams in such narrow, steep gorges, are prone to flash flooding after deluges in the high country.
Three hours passed with no sign or word of the chopper. On the Tauta airstrip we could see villagers making their way down to the river. The sight of them caused us to wonder what their thoughts might be after spending many hard months chopping down the trees, carving out the strip, filling it, smoothing it off, all without machinery, awaiting the grand occasion of the official opening. The sight of them now using some nous gave me heart.
Next came a request from Madang to proceed to Goroka to uplift fuel for Dumpu Cattle Station so that the chopper could refuel there enroute to Tauta. And that a DC3 from Madang was coming into } Dumpu to await the return of the chopper with the survivors.
On arrival Goroka I called Madang and told them that the strip at Tauta was perfectly safe for a fully loaded 185 considering the present weather. I said I could easily uplift the survivors from Tauta should the need arise. The answer was the same, ‘Tauta is closed to all operations. The helicopter will uplift all survivors and transfer them to the DC3 at Dumpu.’ Had I been standing by a brick wall I’d have banged my head against it.
After a hurried refuel, and the loading of a drum of avgas, we replaced the door and returned to Tauta via the Bena Gap and Dumpu. For some fortuitous reason the old enemy, an afternoon build-up of rain cloud along the Bismarck Sea and the Bena Gap, was nowhere in sight.
The weather remained abnormally clear and stable. The mountain tops and the cattle station, only a few miles from Tauta, all basked in bright sunshine. For me though, as I resumed my standby function overhead, a dark cloud of another kind was hovering nearby.
For hours I circled, frustration and anger building, while watching the two pitiful figures stretched out on the rocks with the doctor and the others ministering to them. Extreme anxiety for the wellbeing of those injured had got to me. There was still no sign of the chopper, nor could an estimate for its arrival be ascertained.
When the Ansett Mandated Airlines DC3 came up and gave its landing report at Dumpu I flew straight there for a briefing. Tom Deegan, a New Guinea airline veteran was flying the ‘Three’ with Rob Hopkins as First Officer. A government medical assistant was on board to attend to the survivors. Now taking the major role in the rescue, the DC3 would remain at Dumpu to transport the survivors to Madang when the chopper brought them in.
Tom was interested in the location of the wreckage but could not be enticed into flying his DC3 to take a look, though I assured him that it was perfectly safe for his bigger charge over the site at 4,000 feet, all surrounding heights being clearly visible. Again, I returned to Tauta to take up my circling watch, still in an angry state of mind.
At about this time a pilot with a Canadian accent came up on the radio. At last the chopper was somewhere nearby. He said he was having weather problems leaving the Highlands for the Ramu Valley and Dumpu. He passed an estimate, or more likely a guesstimate, of four o’clock. My heart sank even further. The Dornier had already been down for seven hours and there was still some time to go before the chopper could be on the scene.
All the time, while circling, I’d been looking for a suitable pad for the chopper, a reasonable distance from the Dornier. To my mind there was nothing. I’d passed that information to Madang several times. There were no sandy stretches or clearings within coo-ee of the wreck. Big trees spread their branches out over the huge boulders that ran bank to bank.
I began to hate myself for not landing in defiance of the order. Had the Tautuans started on a ground rescue at the beginning, the stretcher-bearers might already have been on their way back up with the injured. The inland bush-men, the ‘fuzzy wuzzy angels’, became supermen when it came down to such tasks. From Tauta, the injured could have been flown directly to Madang in the 185, a flight of about twenty-five minutes in favourable weather.
Looking down on the scene in the river, a sickening feeling came over me. A tragedy was in the making. How could a man in faraway Port Moresby know whether the Tauta strip was safe or not, without seeing for himself, or questioning me about it? He had already been informed that Tauta was suitable for the 185. The accident with the Dornier was not related in any way to the state of the strip. Whether or not it would be possible to land the chopper in the narrow, boulder-strewn riverbed still had to be decided.
The next call from the chopper came as he entered the Ramu Valley at Arona Gap, about thirty kilometres away. At four-thirty he landed to refuel at Dumpu, alongside the drum that had been placed conveniently to allow for a quick turnaround.
I was mortified to learn that the pilot had been in New Guinea for only two weeks and hadn’t been to this part of the country before! He’d been on a sortie from a surveyor’s camp to faraway Mount Karimui when notified of the crash; this about an hour after I had been called to assist after landing at Nondugl. He knew next to nothing about what was going on.
With no one to brief him on the best route to follow to Dumpu, and ill-equipped with maps, he returned the surveyors to their camp, then chose a route that had, at least, doubled the distance to Dumpu. It was easy to see that he was tired and nervous as I told him of the urgency of the situation in the Surinam Valley.
There was no time to lose. The Dornier’s location was pointed out on the map that had been lent to him. My outstretched arm showed him the route to follow across the Ramu Valley plains to the entrance to the Surinam. He didn’t seem to be too sure of himself. For that I could not blame him, new to this strange land. In fact, I felt sorry for him, though his attitude angered me. He wasn’t acting as if he was in any sort of a hurry. I watched from the 185 as time ticked on. Finally, he got his rotors turning.
He lifted off and chattered away across the flat, open plain of the Ramu towards the entrance to the Surinam. The summits of the towering mountains of the Finisterres by then were purple in the lowering sun, soon to be hidden under huge, billowing, build-ups. Allowing a few minutes I took off, soon passing the slower mover and taking the lead where the Surinam’s white water poured out into the Ramu. I climbed so as to orbit at a height to allow the chopper to manoeuvre. We established contact on VHF.
It was obvious that the chopper would not be able to set down close to the wreckage. I traced his movements as he began a hunt for a landing place upstream and downstream. My spirits were lower than low during that period of uncertainty. The thought of him not being able to find a suitable place and of a day wasted, from the rescue point of view, dismayed me.
Finally, he found a spot, one that looked far from acceptable to me. But with a flurry of cut leaves and foliage he put down. He told me he felt forced to risk what he did with night coming on. My respect for fling-wing drivers, never that high, rose rapidly, especially for the one down there in the riverbed.
A long time passed before a number of local men came hopping from rock to rock towards the chopper, path finding for a group carrying a blanket between them, with what must be Ray wrapped inside. The stream was now in dark shadow as the sun dipped behind the mountains. Fifteen precious minutes elapsed before the Tauta villagers, with Dr Malcolm, reached the chopper. The black wall of night would soon roll down over the valley, preventing a safe take-off. Why the others were still at the wreck some two hundred metres upstream I could not understand?
Tauta men, with their machetes, hacked away at branches that would interfere with the rotor blades during lift-off. Then came a delay while a mob of local men milled about the bubble of the chopper. The pilot radioed that they were having trouble. Ray would have to be shifted from the pannier where he was lying to inside the bubble. Due to the restricted area he could carry only the patient, and he would have to be seated beside the pilot to compensate for the critical balance of the helicopter at lift-off.
Still circling overhead, still fretting, time running out without a sign of the chopper starting up, only heightened my anxiety. Finally, at six o’clock the rotors began turning.
Thick foliage under the trees on the river banks began to flatten and fly as the blades speeded up for the lift-off. From above, the whole manoeuvre looked highly hazardous. The gap between the trees was so narrow. Though dreading to watch, I couldn’t take my eyes away for a second. The canopy of the jungle began to quiver in the downwash as the chopper lifted clear.
I held my breath until some forward movement of the bubble with its skeletal frame behind could be seen. Judging by the foliage being whipped about, he was still below the level of the branches. That reminded me of a nasty dream I had once had; flying an aircraft down a busy street, trapped under tram and power lines unable to rise, with a busy intersection coming up … before I woke with a start, very happy to be in familiar surroundings. Slowly the frantic waving of the foliage died down.
Watching that chopper rise from the dark valley was an experience never to be forgotten. The young pilot may not have known his way round New Guinea, but he certainly knew a thing or two about his helicopter’s capabilities. I breathed a sigh of relief skimming down the river to emerge out onto the plains of the Ramu, and so down into Dumpu, to be on hand when the chopper arrived. Tom and Rob of the DC3, after spending a boring afternoon, were eager to go. The sun had gone down. The short twilight had set in. A race was now on to beat the failing light.
They could have saved precious minutes by starting their engines ready for a quick departure when the chopper arrived, but that suggestion, coming from me, a general aviation pilot, was not received with any great enthusiasm, nor was there any sign of the engines being started up. Minutes later the chopper put down beside the DC3. I could see Ray beside the pilot, head and shoulders slumped as if he was supported only by the seat harness, his colour ashen-grey. He was unconscious. As I lifted him out to carry him to the DC-3, I could see that both his legs were broken. He was very cold and lifeless. It seemed to me that there was only a rasp of breath at times to show that he was still alive.
Ray was laid on a stretcher on the floor of the DC3 with the medical assistant tending him, while a couple of retaining straps anchored to the floor were passed over his body. Too many minutes later, Tom took the ‘Three’ away along Dumpu’s dusty, grass strip, and turned low for Madang, disappearing quickly into the gloom of approaching night. I knew I’d never see my good friend again.
When they had gone I turned to the chopper’s pilot, sitting on the pannier on the ground rails of his machine, his head bowed low to his knees. A fierce anger swept over me like a tide, as cruel, harsh words formed on my tongue, words that were meant to hurt. I said his lateness might be the cause of Ray’s death. That I had spent most of the day circling in a tight valley uselessly waiting for him to arrive. I asked how the other four survivors could be uplifted out of the river now that darkness had overtaken their rescue.
My outburst was the result of the many stresses and strains of the day. Frustrations too, so words that should never have been uttered, were. As I simmered down, I deeply regretted the explosion of anger.
I quickly apologised. I could see that he was hurt badly. A form of truce now existed for there was nothing more we could do that night. We stayed at Dumpu homestead with Bruce and Barbara Jephcott. It was hard for them as well, for they knew everyone who had been in the crash.
Over dinner, the Canadian recounted his day’s many trials. With the chopper, he was in a precarious situation on the summit of Mount Karimui (8428 ft/2569 m) over in ‘old Papua’, waiting for some surveyors to complete their work, when he received the rescue request. His party had to be shuttled back to their camp before he could set out for Dumpu, a necessary task that occupied more than a couple of valuable hours. Did the searchmaster not know, or understand, that those men must not be left on the top of Mount Karimui for the night I wondered? The rest I knew.
Again, I apologised for my earlier outburst. He finished by saying that he would not go back into the Surinam Valley again, ever, under any circumstances. The landing and take-off there had been a frighteningly close shave for him; he would not take the same risk again, come what may. I said not a word to him of my thoughts, but before sleep came, my mind was made up.
In darkness next morning, Bruce drove me over to the airstrip. I checked the 185 over by hurricane lamp. Madang didn’t come on watch until six o’clock. Making no radio call, I taxied out. Throttle wide, I tore off for the Surinam and Tauta like a Spitfire pilot in the Battle of Britain. To the southeast, over the broad plains of the Ramu, the sky gave first glimmers of the new day.
With the sun’s first rays hitting the upper slopes of the Finisterres, I three-pointed onto Tauta’s notorious airstrip. There had been no rain overnight, a miracle in itself. The surface was firmer than the day before. There were no villagers about, most were solid sleepers in their windowless, darkened huts; it would take more than an aircraft arriving to wake them at that hour of the morning.
As I switched off, to my surprise, Dr Laurence Malcolm, Vin Smith, District Officer at Madang and Patrol Officer Tony Cooke, three of the Dornier’s passengers, appeared from a nearby bush house. Their faces all showed signs of the stress suffered, during and after the crash. All were scratched, mud-spattered and grubby, but none seriously hurt. To a man, they praised Ray fulsomely for the landing on the big boulders in the river.
District Commissioner Fred Kaad was nowhere to be seen. He’d been sitting beside Ray and was now lying in the hut seriously hurt. Guided by the village men, they had reached Tauta in the early hours, after trekking up from the crash site in darkness. They had watched the chopper take off; and knew it would not be for them, even if the pilot came back. Better the overnight trek through the bush to Tauta.
DC Kaad, suffering a spinal injury, was carried over to the aircraft on a bush stretcher. Laurence Malcolm considered the District Commissioner’s injuries to be serious, which told me that both Ray and DC Kaad should indeed have been evacuated in the afternoon of the day before.
DC Kaad was obviously in intense pain. When told of the closing of the Tauta strip by a bureaucrat in Port Moresby, all three were ropeable. I felt small, for the look in their eyes told me that I should have gone in regardless of the consequences.
The thing about a chief pilot’s responsibilities, and Lord knows I have had to spell them out enough times writing operations manuals, is that you are damned if you do, and you are damned if you don’t.
Laurence was beside himself with rage, DC Kaad too, about the contents of the storepedo, which contained only blankets, bandages and dressings. Of sedatives, opiates, syringes or antiseptics there were none. Both vowed that their reports would cause heads to roll.
Before leaving, I let them know that as they were about to be party to an illegal flight, I felt obliged to give them the option of declining. The good doctor’s response was a derisive snort as he set to load Fred Kaad, as comfortably as he could, carefully settling him on a layer of blankets on the floor, leaving room to squat beside him.
By splitting the load so as to allow an added margin of safety it was decided to make two trips instead of just the one. District Officer Vin Smith and Patrol Officer Cooke were, needless to say, quite content to wait for my return. All set to go, doctor and patient were clearly nervous about their second Tauta take off, particularly so because of the softness of the uncompacted strip surface. The doctor asked if the 185 could handle it or would I prefer he remained behind.
I responded by powering up against the brakes until the locked wheels could hold us no more. As we began to slide I released the brakes. Roaring down the slippery slope, we were in the air by about half way. Throttling back, I pointed the nose down into the Surinam to find the bottom of the narrow valley, including the crash site, blanketed by fog.
In perfect early morning weather, cloudless and still, we climbed over Shaggy Ridge, taking in the fearsome mountains etched against the clear blue of the sky. Then it was down over Astrolabe Bay and on to Madang calling the mildly surprised tower at 6.30 am, thirty miles out.
Unloading at the mission hangar we heard the grim news that Ray Jaensch’s wife, Betty, had met the DC3 only to find that Ray had died not long before. A sombre moment for us all, particularly Doc Malcolm and me, for Ray had been, for both of us, a true wantok.
After seeing Fred Kaad into his hospital transport, Laurence Malcolm said he must call on the Jaenschs before going to attend to Fred at the hospital. Though still distressed that there were no pain relief drugs in the air drop with which he would have been able to relieve Ray’s suffering and perhaps prolong his life, he did say that Ray’s chances of survival had been greatly eroded by the way he had to be sat in the front of the chopper for the short, hazardous flight to Dumpu.
For me, there was still work to be done as the 185 was urgently required back at Goroka, not to mention an aerodrome inspector cooling his heels at Nondugl. First, though, back to Tauta to pick up Vin and Tony. I’d got word that I was now clear to use Tauta at my own discretion! Good news of course, but also adding wry force to the old adage that if you do not stand for something, you will fall for everything.
Ray Jaensch’s accident was his first after war service in Europe with the RAAF.
As chief pilot of Lutheran Air Services, Ray was the only pilot flying the Dornier. Later, I learnt that the purpose of the flight was to have Madang’s District Commissioner open a newly prepared airstrip at Tauta, at the head–waters of the Surinam River on the northern side of the Ramu Valley.
Though I had survived several close shaves virtually unscathed, I still continued to fly round the mountains of New Guinea nearly every day. So, I feel that I must have been doing something right. I became increasingly involved with pilot selection and training despite having to deal almost daily with obstruction from DCA officials.