Balus ikam – Talair PNG in the 1980s: Robin Mead
During the 1980s I worked in Papua New Guinea for Talair, one of the largest third-level airlines in the world, with a mixed fleet of 55 aircraft flying a complex network of scheduled and charter services across PNG. With associated airlines in the Solomons, Vanuatu and a number of other countries, Talair’s owner and managing director R Dennis ‘Junior’ Buchanan had created an aviation empire, building from just a handful of aircraft in 1958. Talair ceased to exist in 1993, but almost all of us who worked for it remember with affection our times with this unique company. These are some of my memories of those times.
In 1986 I was based with Talair in Lae as Assistant Manager, under the legendary Bryan ‘Sluggo’ Peters. Lae was an extremely busy port, with ten aircraft flying scheduled services as far north as Rabaul, south to Port Moresby, west to Mount Hagen, and east to Alotau, as well as many local and regional charters. As Assistant Manager at Lae, I was having a wonderful time working with the operations coordination of those ten aircraft, the rostering of their crews and the ever-changing operational environment. Bryan was a superb person to work for, truly a seasoned veteran; he had been in the airline game in PNG for many years, starting with Ansett as a young Traffic Officer before Independence. Faye, his delightful wife, worked in Talair’s International Travel Office at the airport, and the Peters family were well-liked residents of Lae. Bryan was the unruffled anchor of Talair Lae, almost a father figure to some; appreciated and admired by everyone, he was the epitome of cool, exuding confidence, his stock phrase being “No worries, mate”. Talair Lae was a big base, with a large and diverse staff, but also a happy base, a little community within a community. Working in that environment was always interesting.
Picture an early morning in the 1980s at the old Lae city airport, built for the Morobe gold in the 1930s, bombed by the Japanese, the Americans and the Australians in the 1940s, flourishing in the postwar development of the 1950s and 60s, and finally closed forever in 1987.
Just before dawn, the dankness of the heat and humidity are almost palpable. A short drive through the streets of the garden city, past residential roads still asleep, a few local people up and about. Through the commercial area of Top Town, past all the shops, Burns Philp, Steamships, Carpenters, Repco, Papindo and the other smaller shops, the Post Office, then down the hill along winding Coronation Drive. Turn left at the bottom, then right into the airport – Air Niugini office and terminal on the right, Talair terminal and hangar on the left, Co-Air and Morobe Airways across the tarmac from Talair; all three bush operators preparing for a busy morning’s cash fares and freight opportunities in the Huon Peninsula, Talair also gearing up for scheduled services.
0600 hours. Aircraft sitting ranged in a line along the apron, doors and hatches open, waiting.
Cargo staff lugging ancient baggage trolleys laden with trade store goods: Trukai rice, Triple Seven tinned mackerel, cartons of South Pacific beer, sacks of betel nut, bilums, boxes.
Pilots walking around their aircraft, carrying out the daily inspection, crouching under wings, checking for irregularities; that panels are secure, flight controls have no excessive play, wheels are as they should be, no excessive tyre wear or drift on the hub, struts and fairings secure with no visible defect, then also verifying fuel and oil levels, checking fuel drain samples in the special drain container – a quick swirl, hold up to the terminal lights, no free water or dirt evident, swill out.
Inside the yellow light of the terminal, everything is activity, noise and movement. Trolleys moving in and out, passengers checking in, stepping on the scales if the ticketing staff felt the pax weight warranted confirmation, anticipating a heavy load for a flight. Tickets and consignment notes being filled out and paid for, pilots and traffic staff ducking their heads in behind the check-in counter, impatient to close the flight, exclamations of “Hariap! Taim pinis, ia” [Hurry up. Time’s up]. Late arrivals being checked in.
Inside the operations office, Bryan ‘Sluggo’ Peters holds court, calm and unruffled as all the activity swirls around him. The desk is covered in papers of various kinds – roster sheets, flight record sheets. The atmosphere is cool and busy as pilots and traffic officers come and go, to a background of periodic crackles and transmissions on the company frequency from the single sideband radio. The agent from Wasu, Zebang Zurenuoc, comes on the air: “Lae, Lae, Wasu…. Lae, Lae, Lae, Wasu”. Leaning his ample body towards the radio, Sluggo picks up the microphone, his ubiquitous cigarette in his mouth, his face frowning slightly with concentration: “Wasu, Lae – Go ahead.” The query is a routine one and, exhaling luxuriously, he responds: “Thank you, Wasu – Copy, copy all that. No worries, India Sierra Bravo’s about to take off for yours – By the way, what’s your weather like over there?”
Outside, the crank of a starter motor on a Britten Norman Islander, of which Talair had more than 20 in the country. The cough as the Lycoming engine catches, raucously starting up then settled into smooth running, quickly followed by the second engine. Further along the line of aircraft, the crack of the igniters on a Pratt & Whitney PT6 turbine as a De Havilland Canada Twin Otter starts its starboard engine, leaving the port engine until after the passengers have been boarded, for the air stair door is on the port at the rear of the aircraft, and safety dictates the procedure. Then the Senior Traffic Officer closes the flight, completes the Flight Record and load manifest, passing it to the pilot. Picking up and switching on the heavy public address microphone, an electric crackle, a thud and the sound of a breath come over the loudspeaker: “Gud moning, ol man na meri. Talair singautim ol pasindia i go long Kabwum, Derim na Wasu … balus bilong yu i redi nau… plis kamap long Gate namba Wan.” Ushered by a Traffic Officer, a small group of passengers walks out across the tarmac in the semi-darkness to board their aircraft, another Islander. The waiting pilot makes a last check of the aircraft and passengers before himself climbing into the cockpit and securing his own safety harness.
Over towards the East, the sun is beginning to come up over the Markham Valley. Shapes of aircraft – Islanders and a Cessna 206 for the Kabwum Valley, a Twin Otter for an ‘all ports’ service – detach from the darkness at the tree-lined perimeter of the airfield and form a slow-moving small purposeful queue along the taxiway, occasionally bouncing slightly with the little corrugations in the surface, the sound of the engines varying with power and pitch changes. Then, one by one, they stop at the holding point, then turn onto the runway and, with a burst of noise and power, take off into the welcoming morning sky.