Some flying memories: George Oakes

It was February 1954, and I was at Goroka airport with two other Cadet Patrol Officers, Max Allwood and Neil McNamara. We were about to board a Norseman for a flight to Mt Hagen then on to Mendi. Only one of us could sit up with the pilot, Bobby Gibbes, and I was allowed to because of my past flying experience.

In March 1952, I did National Service in the RAAF firstly at Richmond, NSW. I was lucky to be selected to do pilot training. Six of us were sent to Williamtown near Newcastle. We did our training on Tiger Moths at the old Broadmeadow field. Flying in Tiger Moths was quite an experience—no steering wheel (only a joystick), no canopy, no brakes, no radio and very few instruments and it was started by spinning the propeller by hand—however, as we were in the RAAF we had to wear a parachute. The Broadmeadow field was about 500 m in diameter and mostly surrounded by a water ditch and power poles. When you were landing you had to be spot on to just clear the power lines in order to stop before you got to the drain on the other side. I believe the Broadmeadow field is now all houses. We all got solo after about 8 hours and did most of our solo flying over the swamps. Sometimes there were 4 of us flying over the swamps at the same time. We made a rule amongst ourselves that when you approached the swamps from the airfield if you were on your own you waggled your wings: if you flew straight in we knew there was an instructor with you. You would be surprised what we got up to when there was no instructor in the area. It was a real experience for us 18-year-olds.

So back in Goroka I got to sit with Bobby Gibbes up in the front of the Norseman. When we flew in a gap in the mountains into the Wahgi Valley I could even see the eyes of the birds sitting in the trees only metres away from us. The trip to Mendi was a real eye opener to me of flying in PNG conditions.

Later in 1954, I went with Bob Cole on a patrol from Erave to Lake Kutubu then up to the Nipa area then back to Mendi. Bob Cole and some of our patrol gear and policemen flew on the first flight into Erave and I flew on the second flight with pilot Adrian Nesbitt. After we took off from Mendi we could see the cloud building up over the Kagua and Samberigi Valleys and Adrian became a little worried. Anyway, we flew on over the cloud and Adrian and I looked for a break in the clouds in order to get down to the Erave airstrip. We finally got a break almost above Erave. Adrian side slipped the Norseman through the break and we steeply approached the strip. Adrian straightened up only a short distance before the strip and we touched it about 150 m from the start then bounced in the air coming down again over half way along the strip. We travelled fairly fast to the end of the strip where there was quite a drop then Adrian spun the plane with the right wing nearly touching the ground and headed back up the strip before we stopped. Both Adrian and I were very relieved. We could see Bob Cole, Bill Brand, the Patrol Officer at Erave, and CPO Jack Battersby running along the side of the strip thinking no doubt that we would crash over the end of the strip. We unloaded the aircraft and Adrian took off climbing rapidly to get above the cloud for his flight back to Mt Hagen. It did not hit me until later how close we were to a bad accident.

In early 1955, I was flying in a Norseman from Ialibu to Mendi with Peter Manser the pilot. It was a nice, clear day and after we had taken off, Peter put the Norseman on “George” the automatic pilot and pulled out a book and started reading. I was having a good look around the valleys which appeared so different from the air. I said to Peter, “Where are we going?”, and he pointed to a big landslide in the distance and went back to his book. I looked around and could see another big landslide more towards Mendi and asked Peter if we should be going towards this second landslide. Peter looked up, looked around and then suddenly turned the Norseman towards the second landslide. No doubt, we would have got to Mendi eventually if we continued towards the first landslide! Oh, the joys of flying in the Highlands.

In 1957, I spent about 6 months supervising the construction of Nuku airstrip for a new Patrol Post in the Sepik District. I was bush camping at Nuku and got one break in Wewak after 3 months. Before I went to Nuku, I was able to arrange with MAF pilots to airdrop to me about 2 kg of fresh meat when they did their fortnightly flight to Green River. The Cessna, or was it an Auster, when it arrived over Nuku would circle around about 30 m above the ground, fairly tightly, and then throw out the package of meat to an area where no people were standing then wave and keep going to Green River. Sometimes the package which had been loosely packed in a bag, landed in one piece while other times it would break open and meat would go everywhere and people would hunt around and pick up the bits of meat. Then a big meal of meat was cooked. The rest of the meat had also to be cooked quickly because of the heat: I did not have a frig. I found if the meat was not eaten within 24 hours it would go off. I did not have a cooler like my parents had in New Ireland before the war consisting of a hanging open box with wet bags over it. After the meat was all eaten it was back to tins! It was always a special day for the people when the plane came over.

In about 1961, when I was the Patrol Officer at Pomio, on the south coast of New Britain,  we would go over to Palmalmal to meet the DC3 on its flight from Lae to Rabaul every fortnight.  On one occasion the plane landed and had over 20 passengers on board. After the pilot had organised people getting off and on and unloading cargo for us they all boarded the plane to go to Rabaul. The pilot went to start the motor: nothing happened. The battery was flat. The pilot got out and asked if we had a long rope which the plantation manager at Palmalmal soon found. The pilot then twisted the end of the rope around one of the propellers like starting a top then got back in the plane and when he gave the signal about a dozen of us pulled hard on the rope: nothing happened.  We then attached the end of the rope to the tractor and the tractor driver waited for the signal from the pilot and then drove as fast as possible away from the plane: the engine started to everyone’s relief. Once the pilot got one engine going it was no problem to start the second. He was then able to take off for Rabaul. The pilot told us he had a party in Lae he wanted to attend. We people on the ground heaved a mighty sigh of relief as we did not know how we could look after over 20 passengers for the night if the pilot had to wait for another battery to be delivered. The pilot said no photos please, however, several months later I was sent some photos of what had happened. I had not realised a DC3 could be started this way.

In early 1975, we flew to Rabaul for the centenary of the Methodist Church in the New Guinea Islands. Edna’s parents and my parents had been Methodist missionaries before the war. After the function was all over we went to the Rabaul airport to get planes to take us home, in our case, to Port Moresby. There were lots of people from Australia and they were put on the regular passenger DC3s while those from Lae and Port Moresby were put on a cargo DC3.  We boarded our plane and sat in the canvas fold up seats along the side of the plane: the centre section was for cargo, however on this trip there was none. On our way to Lae we travelled through heavy rain for some time. We had not realised that the roof of the plane was full of holes so in no time we all had our umbrellas up keeping the rain off us. It was quite a sight looking down inside the plane seeing the passengers with their umbrellas up.

Probably the greatest thrill I had regarding flying in New Guinea was when the first plane landed on the airstrip I was constructing at Nuku. The Cessna came through the gap and landed easily on the new airstrip and out jumped the pilot, Bishop Arkfeld, the District Officer, Fred Kaad and an airport inspector. The airport was immediately opened to small aircraft and after the fill had settled and some more drains had been put in I was told it would be opened to larger aircraft.

Anything to do with flying in Papua New Guinea is always an experience and sometimes dangerous. It has been an experience I will never forget.