As you rip, so shall you sew: Bob Cleland

“Julie, have you got a curved needle and some strong thread?”

“I think so, I’ll look. Why do you want it?”

“Because I want to sew up a DC3.”

“Ooooh . . . . You want to do what?”

While she rummaged among her sewing bits and pieces I quickly told her the story.

“There. Will that do?” I wasn’t surprised that she found the needle: she had just about everything to do with sewing on an outstation. This was 1959 and Julie and I were living in Balimo, PNG, a fairly remote Government station about 500 kilometres west of Port Moresby.

“Yes, looks okay. You’d better come with me. Right now, we need to hurry.”

I drove the ten minutes back to the airstrip on the Ferguson tractor (our only mechanised transport) with Julie clutching the curved needle and a reel of strong linen thread, trying to keep her seat in the bouncing empty trailer behind me. We called at the hospital on the way and “borrowed” a reel of four-inch-wide sticking plaster.

Earlier, just after the DC3 landed on its weekly run, the tractor driver had driven under the wing of the aircraft and pulled up beside the door ready to unload mail and freezer and cargo, just as he always did. He hadn’t allowed for a tall stick, stuck upright in a slot in the trailer tailgate, which a labourer had used to hold on to on the bouncing trip from Balimo station to the airstrip. That stick was just too long. As it passed under the wing, it caught the fabric of the aileron (the only non-metal surface on the wing of a DC3) and left a very neat ten inch, tee-shaped rip in the fabric.

The aircraft couldn’t be flown with that tear, as the rushing air may have penetrated and stripped all the fabric from the vital control surface. The crew gloomily considered being stranded there until a technician could be flown the two and a half hours from Port Moresby. Someone said, only half seriously, “Can’t we just sew it up?”

When we arrived with the DC3 Repair Kit, the crew’s mood changed from gloom to optimism. Between us all we managed a multi stitched and knotted repair that would have drawn admiration from a surgeon. On top of that, several strips of sticking plaster locked it all together and smoothed out the airflow. Both pilots were satisfied.

They had us empty the plane of all cargo, taxied out and took off for a test flight. A slow low-level fly-over enabled us to see that everything was OK so far. A bit of altitude and some severe zig-zagging, and again it looked OK. Then I think they used this test as an excuse to throw that DC3 around as if it were a more agile smaller craft! We had our own private air show, and very entertaining it was too, culminating in a very low, full throttle, wheels-up pass straight at us (a crowd of twenty or so locals by now) with a steep pull up over our heads.

They landed and we could see that the repair hadn’t moved at all; the crew were happy, so we re-loaded and off they went back to Moresby. I’ve sometimes wondered how much the Department of Civil Aviation was told of that incident!


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