Early days flying in New Guinea: William John Robins

William John Robins passed away on 08 November 2012, aged 99 years. This article was scheduled for inclusion in the June 2013 Una Voce, but was inadvertently deleted from the final print edition. The article is printed with the kind permission of his family. [Editor

In 1937 two jobs came available and I applied for and was accepted for both. One was Assistant Instructor with the Aero Club in Sydney and the other with Guinea Airways in New Guinea.

I went back to one of my relatives who had been a mining engineer for Bulolo Gold Dredging in New Guinea and his advice was to take the Guinea Airways job as it would only be a matter of a year or two before I was on to large aircraft. His idea was that I would stay on small aircraft at the Aero Club.

I went by ship from Sydney to Port Moresby in 1937. In Moresby I was met by Jack Turner, a Ford pilot for Guinea Airways, and I sat in the cockpit of a Ford aeroplane for the first time as we flew from Port Moresby to Lae. The General Manager for Guinea Airways was Eric Chater who was also a pilot and had flown all their aircraft. I was staying at the Guinea Airways single men’s mess and a very comfortable one it was too.

Every day I would fly with one or other of the pilots to study the terrain. Mainly I flew with Bertie Heath to Bulolo and occasionally in one of the big Junkers aircraft into Wau. There was no instrument flying in New Guinea in those days: the pilot had to know the mountains, valleys, etc., by sight.

The pay with Guinea Airways was very good. Once you got onto the big Junkers you were on top money. I started off in 1937 on £600 ($1200) per year with a living allowance of £120 ($240) p.a. and there was no taxation in New Guinea in those days.

 My first flying in New Guinea was in the Gypsy Moth, the smallest aircraft we had. I had to do circuits and bumps and gradually flew out further and further. Then I was given a 100 lb (46 kg) bag of rice and told to fly it into Bulolo on a nice clear morning. I went around the Wampit and into Bulolo where I picked up some mail and some small items and flew back to Lae. That was the commencement of my New Guinea flying.

I really enjoyed flying in New Guinea. I flew the Gypsy Moth for a while, then the Fox Moth which had belonged to Sir Douglas Mawson who had it at the South Pole for a while. It had floats on it when it arrived and I eventually ended up with one of the floats as my canoe when we put land undercarriage on it. It was a wonderful aircraft to fly and I flew it for many months. It ended up in the Wau area, as a lot of flying was done out of Wau to the smaller outposts: Upper Watut, Slate Creek, Bulwa, Surprise Creek, Roma (a most difficult strip). I would do these runs day in and day out for many months. Guinea Airways had two float planes which used to fly between Port Moresby and places like Samarai, and different stations in the Papuan Gulf such as the Lakekamu River and Lake Kutubu.

I then graduated to the Stinson which was a bigger and more comfortable aircraft with a battery starter. In the Stinson you actually sat inside the cabin like a car. I flew Stinsons for some months and was then put on to the single engine Junkers with a Pratt & Whitney 550 h/p engine and eventually on the small Fords which had 3 Pratt & Whitney motors in them. From there I graduated to the bigger Ford which had three Pratt and Whitney motors and eventually, after another year or so, on to the three engine Junkers, the biggest aircraft Guinea Airways had flying in New Guinea.

By this time I had flown into just about every airstrip in our area of New Guinea. The single-engine Junkers flew to Mt Hagen, Benabena, Chimbu, Kainantu, etc.

Fortunately I had been able to manage without any communications, wind socks, etc. Very seldom did I have to stay overnight, with the exception of Mt Hagen which was much further away from Lae or Madang. If I had to overnight in Mt Hagen I would stay with one of the Leahy brothers.

At one stage I headed for Mt Hagen to pick up George Greathead, a Patrol Officer in the Bogadjim area, south of Madang. George had made a beautiful airstrip. On either side he had the natives dig drains and then planted yellow and green crotons around the strip: you could see it from miles away. Later on he did the same thing in Mt Hagen when he was stationed there. George Greathead would meet me in Mt Hagen on his horse. There were many private airstrips in New Guinea at the time. The Missions all had their own strips and aircraft and the Leahy brothers had a private strip outside Mt Hagen called “‘Mogai”. It was not uncommon for me to get a call as I was arriving into Mt Hagen: “Kuta calling Gormus” (Mick Leahy calling me) “You must stay here overnight, make sure you bring up plenty of medicine”. This is when Mick would call George.

Most of my flying was out of Lae but occasionally I would be stationed for brief periods in Madang from where I would take loads into Mt Hagen, Chimbu, and Benabena etc. On one occasion I had to fly into Wabag. There was a Patrol Officer there who was with the famous Taylor, Black expedition who had contracted beriberi or some such. We had to lift him in a blanket into the Junkers and take him to Madang to the hospital. All his skin was peeling off but he survived. It was our practice to airdrop supplies into expeditions such as that. I personally did not do much airdropping as Tommy O’Dea would normally go in with the Ford. The biggest problem was finding the patrol as they were not always where they thought they were. Anyway they would put up smoke and place out markers so we usually found them.

One of our big problems was with the loading of the aircraft. Each load was supposed to be supervised by an expatriate load master, but occasionally they would get distracted and the loading was not always right. One of the loads which always caused difficulty was the big slabs of steel going to Bulolo. They were very heavy: 6 to 8 feet long (over 2 m) and 4 to 5 ft wide (1.5 m). However they didn’t look much like a load when you looked in from the back door and on a couple of occasions the natives came in with another load and placed in, on top of the steel. Funnily enough in the big Junkers it was not so noticeable on take-off but more when you were trying to sneak up say, the Snake Valley, between the mountains that you noticed how sluggish the Junkers handled. On more than one occasion when the airport staff at Bulolo jokingly asked me if I had any more weigh bills (2 loads on board) I would have to admit that the Junkers was a bit sloppy coming up through the gap at 6,000 ft. The big Junkers was a beautiful aircraft to fly.

Bulolo Gold Dredging must have made a lot of money in New Guinea. The first dredge flown into Bulolo was the smallest of the lot and Bulolo Gold Dredging paid for the flying in of the rest with the gold taken out by that dredge alone.

I used to fly into Bulolo once a month and fly out a ton of gold to Salamaua on behalf of the Company.

In August 1939 I came down on leave and was married. My wife was Flora Mitchell and her father was a well-known solicitor in Sydney, with one of the biggest Conveyancing practices in Sydney.

We went to New Zealand on our honeymoon, and were half way across the Tasman in one of the larger passenger ships on its way to Los Angeles when Captain Davies announced that we had been pulled up by a small sloop and told that Australia was at war with Germany. I distinctly recall everyone looking at each other in amazement. Immediately crew came around the ship and closed all the shutters on the portholes for blackout purposes. Then the sloop escorted us into Auckland. We heard Mr Chamberlain say Britain was at war with Germany.

Even though the War had only been on for 3 days when we arrived in Auckland, there were tables out in the middle of the streets with men queued up to join the Forces.

I went straight back to Lae but had to wait a while to obtain married accommodation and then Flora came up. I only had to wait for a few weeks and a house came available at Salamaua so I took it. Flora made some lovely friends in New Guinea and really enjoyed it.

My job was then flying Junkers from Salamaua to Wau on a daily basis, up to six trips a day and, on one occasion, 7 trips. That day I flew more cargo in the big Junkers than the opposition flew in New Guinea with all their aircraft put together.

Life continued as usual flying out of Salamaua until late 1941 when the Administration decided to evacuate the women and children from New Guinea. My first evacuation flight to Port Moresby was on 21 December 1941, in VH-UOV, one of the Bulolo machines, and I could not get across the ranges into Port Moresby.

I landed in Kokoda with 51 passengers, all women and children. I then rang Port Moresby for Tommy O’Dea to come across to Kokoda and bring fuel with him, as, with the westerlies that were blowing at the time I would not have made it to Port Moresby with the fuel I had left. This was the first time that a Junkers had landed at Kokoda. From then on it was:

22 December 1941       Port Moresby – Bulolo – Port Moresby – Wau – Bulolo
23 December 1941       Bulolo – Port Moresby – Bulolo – Wau – Port Moresby
24 December 1941       Port Moresby – Bulolo – Port Moresby – Wau
25 December 1941       Wau – Port Moresby –Wau
26 December 1941       Wau -Lae – Port Moresby – Bulolo

Flora had left New Guinea earlier than this. She came down on a Carpenter’s Plane.

On 3 January 1942, I had been asked to take a Ford across to Rabaul on a Government Charter. Unfortunately nobody had notified Rabaul we were coming in. We were lucky not to get shot down by our own soldiers. Actually the Aussie soldiers saw me flying over and told me how lucky I had been that they knew the old Ford.

The following day I flew back to Lae and that day went to Rabaul again twice, these trips without incident. I stayed in Rabaul that night and came back with a load of mail on 5 January. I had been advised to get out of Rabaul as the Japanese were bombing it at that stage and the aircraft was a sitting target on the airstrip. The Japanese were using a ‘daisy-cutter’ bomb which sprayed a lot of shrapnel and 20 people were killed in the attacks on 4 January. I dug out a couple of pieces of shrapnel from the angle iron on the corrugated sheds where natives had been accommodated and you could see pieces of copper and soft metal in the steel so that when the bomb exploded it would break up into small pieces.

Later in January it was known that the Japanese Navy was approaching New Guinea so I went to Madang and flew personnel, records and stores into Mt Hagen, Chimbu and Benabena. Much of the stores consisted of rice, bully beef, etc. which soldiers and Patrol Officers could be capable of living on. On these runs I would drop off at Mt Hagen first so the plane would be a bit lighter to get into Chimbu without falling over the edge.

After a few days I was asked to go to Port Moresby and from there I did a few trips to Kokoda where there was a big experimental farm. When I came back from Kokoda one morning I noticed a few Lae chaps on the Moresby strip and asked what they were doing there. One of them said “Haven’t you heard? The Japs have bombed Lae and Salamaua”.

Guinea Airways had the biggest aircraft workshops in the Southern Hemisphere at Lae and it was destroyed completely in the air attacks. The Japanese concentrated on the hangars and workshops and left the airstrip relatively undamaged so they could use it themselves later on. One of our pilots, Fonce Parer, was killed while attempting to get his plane off the ground during the attack on Lae.

I was then tasked to fly out of Port Moresby with a Doctor, 6 Nurses from Wau and 2 hospital patients for Australia. Our mechanic in Port Moresby at the time was McDonald and I told him to put a few small drums of fuel up front and a semi rotary pump above my head in the cockpit so he could pump fuel during the flight.
Bertie Heath, our Senior Pilot, was coming with me so we set off for Australia with no radio aids or any navigation equipment. I knew Daru, on the Fly River in the Papuan Gulf so we headed that way first, flying low because it was so stormy. If you flew high you would be lost straight away. From Daru we could see coconut palms on the islands south so we flew towards Horn Island. I circled Horn Island a couple of times but could not see a suitable airstrip, however the people on the ground were pointing across at another island, so we flew there. Sure enough there was an airstrip but it was covered with barbed wire, drums and all sorts of obstacles, so we had to fly around until the airstrip had been cleared before we could land. I flew the following day to Cairns with my passengers.

I had been flying for about a month now with a temperature above 100 degrees, but had not been able to take it easy because of the necessity for my flights. In Cairns at the Hyde Hotel the nurses told me I had to go to bed but they would stay with me. After about 4 or 5 days I felt a bit better but my weight was below 9 stone by now.

I then flew to Townsville where Wing Commander Bill Garing at Garbutt airbase came out and did a few circuits and bumps in the Ford and then I left for Adelaide.

I had account books and logbooks for Guinea Airways as I had been away from any of the main offices during the last month or so, so I had to get them to Adelaide where Guinea Airways was headquartered. When I handed in the information to Guinea Airways I was told that the Air Force wanted me back in New Guinea but Guinea Airways wanted me to fly the Adelaide-Darwin run.

Darwin was being built up at that time as a precaution against a Japanese landing and there was a lot of flying of personnel between the two places. Crews of bomber squadrons stationed at Fenton and Batchelor. I stayed in Adelaide on that run for the remainder of the war.

Flora came across from Sydney and we eventually purchased a house at St Georges. I did a few trips from Adelaide, Melbourne, Sydney, Brisbane, Townsville, but most of my flying was in Lockheed Loadstars between Adelaide and Darwin. These were aircraft issued to Guinea Airways by the U.S. Airforce who wanted experienced pilots flying them while carrying personnel.

I was inducted into the Air Force Active Reserve and was issued with Air Force uniform. I had Air Force crews of navigators, radio operators, etc., but the pilots were Air Force Active Reserve. The aircraft I flew still had U.S. markings on them.

When WW2 finished, Guinea Airways were not granted a licence to fly again in New Guinea as it was claimed that they had flown out of the country and left people stranded there. This does not sit well with me after all the evacuation of women and children I did and those who were left in New Guinea when the Japanese landed had plenty of warning and plenty of time to have left before then. Most of the remaining aircraft were ruined on the dromes at Lae and Bulolo.

When the War had finished Flora said to me “You have been flying continually, without much leave for 10 years now, and during that time I have had to raise the children. It’s time!”  My reply was that the only other thing I knew was farming so we purchased a property of about 200 acres at Penwortham in South Australia which had been owned by one of the early settlers in South Australia and had a lovely two-storied home on it. Much of the land was still in timber and a beekeeper friend asked me if he could put 100 swarms of bees out near the stringy-bark trees.

We had three children by then with a fourth born later.

Tony         born 4 August 1940 at Salamaua
Timothy     born 5 September 1944 in Adelaide
Jonathan   born 14 July 1946 in Adelaide
Penny       born 24 January in1951 in Adelaide

In 1951, when the Korean War was on, I was called up for the Air Force Reserve again. I went to East Sale for a refresher course, not knowing what I would be doing. I had been asked to bring in my log books which I did and, after a few weeks was told “You have a family and are a bit older than most of the chaps here. It’s a bit risky in Korea so we are posting you to Woomera (where there is a drome being constructed.” 5 Construction Squadron had just returned from Cocos Island in the Indian Ocean where they had built an emergency airstrip for Qantas flights between Australia and Colombo. On their return to Australia they had been tasked to build an airstrip at Woomera so I then flew Bristol Freighters and Dakotas between Adelaide and Woomera. At the time we were stationed at Mallala and had to fly down to Parafield, which was then the main Adelaide airport, and then on to Woomera. We flew freight and passengers.

Any call up into the Active Reserve is a two-year call up, in my case from March 1951 until 25 November 1952. I became a bit of a Jack of All Trades after getting out of the Air Force. One particular job I had was being an Inspector of orchards for the Department of Agriculture. Fruit fly was pretty bad at the time and I had to supervise a gang who went around the orchards carrying out inspections.

I also went back flying for Guinea Airways as a First Officer for some years. We only flew in South Australia and had Convair 440, a nice aircraft which carried 50 passengers. The only times we flew outside South Australia was to Proserpine in Queensland where we would take charters of people who wanted to go to the Whitsunday Reefs. We would go there every two weeks or so. We also used to fly to Alice Springs when the Todd River was in flood to transfer people from Alice Springs to Oodnadatta and would make two or three trips a night. On a moonlight night it was a great sight to see so much water over the countryside.

When Guinea Airways were taken over by Ansett it looked as though a number of pilots would be retrenched so I went up to the Operations Manager, who I had known for years, and told him that, rather than have one of the young pilots retrenched, I would retire. It was a pleasure to go to a Guinea Airways reunion some years later and see this young chap who had been kept on then a Captain of an Ansett jet.

In 1973 I had a major lung operation. In 1974 my daughter Penny was married in Johannesburg in South Africa so Flora and I flew over there with Qantas. We had a lovely time and went from Johannesburg to Durban and Cape Town and generally had a great trip around the country.

We lived in North Adelaide for some 20 years.

Unfortunately Flora passed away on 6 July 1986, after having had Alzheimer’s for a few years.

This JUNKERS G.31go, nicknamed “Bulolo 1 PAUL”, was flown by Robins. It was destroyed in an air raid at Bulolo.


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