Last flight: Bob Cleland

As related by Julia Lesley Cleland

Our second daughter Kathryn was born at home at Balimo in the remote Western District of PNG on my birthday, 8 February 1959. I had planned to go to Port Moresby for the birth, but the aircraft didn’t arrive that day and Kathryn came along before the next scheduled plane. I was attended by qualified sisters from the nearby mission and the birth was quick and easy. But she hadn’t seen a doctor. When she was two months old, I thought maybe she should have a full check-up and the sisters agreed.

I’d booked on a regular DC3 flight to Port Moresby but, on the due day, the company substituted an old wartime twin-engined Avro Anson: much smaller than a DC3. Our first-born Susan, aged three, was first aboard, excited about the trip. I climbed the three steps and Rob handed Kathryn up to me. The remarkable discomfort of the seats turned out to be a harbinger for the trip. The noise level was high, the old airframe rattled and creaked and I couldn’t see much out of the scratched, nearly opaque Perspex windows.

Over the Gulf of Papua where it’s nearly always raining, we ran into a rainstorm. This pitiful apology for a plane leaked like a sieve. Water poured through many leaks in the roof and around the windows. I wondered how much water it would take to force us down then realised it was probably pouring out the bottom and tail just as quickly. I opened my umbrella—always wise to carry one when travelling in PNG—and at least was able to keep Kathryn dry.

After two hours, I was well and truly fed up managing my own discomfort and trying to keep Susan tractable and occupied. Kathryn, bless her, was fast asleep cradled in my left arm, long since half numb, half aching. But relief (Port Moresby) was close—until the pilot turned and shouted that weather had closed Moresby airport so we had to find an alternative. My heart sank. I visualised us stranded over-night at some remote airstrip with two children and no way to feed them or properly bed them. I’d heard frightening stories about such a situation.

“We’ll land at Aroa in a few minutes. That’s a big coconut plantation and there’s a manager living there.”

“Oh, thank goodness,” I yelled back. “My brother-in-law is manager there and it’s a huge house.”

After a low buzz of the homestead, we landed just in time as another rainstorm burst upon us, ensuring that we were staying at least overnight. We huddled together in a small shed waiting for Evan, my brother-in-law, to arrive. In a few minutes he drove up in an old jeep, no doubt wondering why this unscheduled aircraft had dropped in on him. The astonished and horrified look on his bachelor face, when he saw his sister-in-law, and new, hitherto unseen niece, was priceless. He realised he had us all as overnight guests: the three of us, another passenger and the pilot.

Well, we managed. Evan’s weekly supplies hadn’t arrived from Moresby, so he and I concocted a meal from tins. I mashed up some gooey food for Kathryn from ingredients to horrify any paediatrician and made up bottles of milk from Sunshine powder. She wolfed it all down. Susan thought the whole thing was just wonderful: just the sort of adventure one had when travelling.

We all slept well and Evan drove us to the strip soon after sunrise. The pilot radioed DCA flight control in Moresby and gave them his flight plan and told them he was ready for take-off.

“Stand by please.” And after a long pause, “You are not authorised to fly. The Certificate of Airworthiness on your aircraft has expired.” The pilot must have known this, but I wasn’t impressed. Apparently the C of A of all Ansons, world-wide, expired for commercial operations on this day.

“I’ve got to get these two children to Moresby pretty quickly.” I said, “I’m taking them in for medical treatment. We must fly and soon.”

“Hang on.” And his reply to DCA was, “I have on board a mother and two children. One is three, the other’s a tiny baby. It’s urgent that they get to medical attention today.” I silently thanked him for his exaggeration of my reason for travelling.

“Okay. I need to consult. Stand by.” We waited uneasily for many minutes before the controller’s voice sounded again. “This has been declared a medical emergency and you are cleared from Aroa for direct flight to Port Moresby only. Report after take-off.”

Eight minutes later, we landed in Port Moresby. I was glad that I would never fly in that aircraft, or any other Avro Anson, again. I think I would have refused point blank anyway. I heard later that special permission for our ‘medical emergency’ had to be referred to DCA headquarters in Melbourne. I would like to have given special thanks to that pilot who must have had a sixth sense of the best way to get through DCA bureaucratic red tape.

Several weeks later, driving out to the airport to return to Balimo (in a DC3), I smiled wryly when I saw the same Anson of our adventure stripped and mounted in a playground with children climbing all over it. A fitting end I thought.

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