Beating the odds at Aseki: Ben Dannecker
Following a telephone approach by a retired senior air safety journalist, the author was prompted to come forward and share this remarkable tale of survival in an aviation incident that occurred in the pre-independence Territory of Papua New Guinea (TPNG) more than forty years ago.
Setting the stage
Operating into and out of short, one-way, steeply sloped mountain airstrips at maximum aircraft weight in tropical Papua New Guinea, is definitely not for the faint-hearted. In fact such activity could only be termed as high risk flying, evidenced by the inordinate amount of PNG air accidents and incidents, many of which were fatal. Papua New Guinea weather is notorious for unexpected changes such as rapid cloud build-up (cumulus granitus in local parlance) and anytime after mid-morning one can expect cloud and rain to develop in many areas. It was often possible to be caught between two layers of cloud with nothing to go on for navigation other than deduced reckoning.
Due to the circumstances described here, I came very close to meeting my maker on a hot February day back in 1970 during flying operations between Wau and Aseki, one of several close calls during my New Guinea days. Sadly, a number of my contemporary pilot colleagues didn’t make it from missed approaches or closing weather, being swallowed up by the jungle or the sea, and we regularly flew DCA-sponsored searches for lost aircraft.
Missed approach: Overshoot manoeuvre initiated whilst still airborne on approach to land.
Go-around: Rolling after landing and then subsequently electing to take off again due to unforeseen circumstances.
Touch and go: Pre-planned practice manoeuvre of taking off again immediately after landing.
I was based at Lae, New Guinea, flying passenger and freight charters with Macair, having already logged about 200 hours on the company’s new, less than a year old Beech Bonanza 36, VH-MKF. This was the only commercial Bonanza working in TPNG, and was duly replaced at year’s end by the ubiquitous and eminently more suitable Cessna 206.
On this occasion, Wednesday 25 February 1970, I was flying a brand new, three-month-old Cessna U206D, VH-MKG, on a planned series of shuttles between Wau and Aseki in the Morobe District: freezer goods and general cargo including drums of diesel fuel into Aseki and then a backload of coffee bags to Wau, for onward road transport to Lae.
I was en-route again from Wau sometime after lunch on my fourth shuttle that day, about half of the scheduled trips, being the first with no forward load. About two-thirds along the way to Aseki, picking my way below the clouds and rain, the weather deteriorated to the point where I would be unable to return to Wau. I was now committed to proceed to Aseki.
The approach into Aseki for Runway 34 was commenced under cloud from between two cliff walls, which form the opening of a dead end canyon, giving about half a kilometre width, known locally as “the gate” and there was blue-black cloud below the hilltops and driving rain everywhere.
Upon lining up for a straight-in landing on Runway 34, I noticed that the Aseki weather was clearing and that an aircraft (Aztec) was already parked there at the top of the strip at right angles, as is customary for such mountain landing grounds. On short finals I noted that a strong tailwind was present with the strip completely soaked by the rainstorm just passed.
What immediately got my attention on touchdown was the fact that the aircraft was aquaplaning with no apparent means of slowing down, and the Aztec was looming closer. Remaining completely focussed, I instantly elected to go around as I didn’t want to write off two aircraft at the same time.
After applying maximum power with pitch and throttle controls fully forward, I reselected the electric flap switch back to the take-off position and then concentrated on flying out of the situation in which I now found myself, retrimming as required.
Aseki Runway 34 has two earth mounds at the field boundaries; each I believe 12-metres high, one on the left side and one at the far end, from the excavation of the landing area. After I managed to just clear the left mound in a climbing turn, I immediately lowered the nose and dived into a gully running broadly parallel to the strip. Picking up speed I managed to stabilise control of the aircraft and flew out of danger to make another approach.
Second time lucky
This time I touched down right at the end, using full flap, high power and very low speed for the precautionary landing. The strip was soggy but there was no aquaplaning, allowing me to come to a normal halt at the top of the strip, parking behind the Aztec VH-SIL.
Oddly enough, there was no one there, as everyone had run over to the gully to rescue me from the presumed wreckage. A missionary came up in the meantime with a welcome cup of tea and a biscuit. In the excitement, I forgot to cancel SAR, but the Aztec pilot did so for me on his departure later that afternoon.
This almost impossible uphill go-around on a “hot and high” rough bush airstrip was achieved solely due to three crucial factors:
- The aircraft was very light at minimum weight, with the sole occupant being the pilot.
- The brand new Cessna U206D was fitted with a 300 h.p. 6-cylinder fuel-injected Continental IO-520F engine and 2-bladed Hartzell propeller, giving 2,850 r.p.m. for take-off, resulting in an optimum power-to-weight ratio, even at high density altitude.
- Whilst still carrying close to flying speed during the aquaplaning event, the pilot applied full power and selected take-off flap, retrimming the attitude as required, reducing drag to a minimum.
Therefore, by a massive stroke of luck and some swift airmanship, all the required factors came together at the precise time, permitting me to live to tell the tale forty years on.
Suffice to say that, had the other aircraft not been parked at the top of the strip, I may well have elected to continue with the landing and may possibly have managed to stop just short of colliding with the embankment. However, after an interval of forty years this could now perhaps only be viewed as conjecture.
Upon my return to Macair’s Lae base the next day, a few beers with pilot colleagues at the local Aero Club went down very well!
Aseki village and airstrip is situated in the notorious Kukukuku tribal area, known for its fierce headhunting reputation. After landing successfully, a government patrol officer came up and asked me if I wanted to see the famous Aseki burial caves with mummified bodies, high up a cliff face accessed via a narrow path. On arrival there, we saw about half a dozen such bodies in makeshift chairs or standing against the wall, all supported by wooden staves. Quite a change from what I had just experienced!
The following month on 18 March 1970, again in VH-MKG, I flew two loads of live Bird of Paradise specimens in cages from Konge to Lae, to be transhipped onto a Territory Airlines Cessna 402 for the Baiyer River Sanctuary. Konge was a one-way strip located along the side of a high cliff wall in the Indagen Valley, with ever-present unpredictable wind shifts to contend with. However, a missed approach was a simple exercise, just turn slightly left and drop into the valley for another go! Take-off was even simpler, as one had instant altitude as soon as you fell off the end of the strip!
Trip 1 was uneventful, tracking almost straight back to Lae, visually avoiding any high ground. Departing Konge on Trip 2, whilst still in the valley, rapid cloud buildup caught me unaware, requiring a climb up through the murk, breaking clear at 13,000 ft. Visually noting the higher peaks poking out of the blanket of cloud coupled with our DR position, we then found a hole near the north coast of the Huon Peninsular, allowing us to descend safely and thereby enabling us to track under the cloud back along the coast via Finschafen to Lae.
Sadly the Turbo-Aztec “C” model VH-SIL, was later involved in a fatal accident departing from Nadzab when a wing burned off in flight following a fire in the turbocharger.
If anyone out there has details and images (lo-res at this stage) of aviation occurrences in Papua New Guinea similar to that described here, successful or otherwise, the author would be glad to receive same by email, to be incorporated in a proposed follow-up article. Many thanks.
Map showing location of Aseki airstrip
Approach information for Aseki airstrip
The author at Finschafen, with VH-MKG