In 1980, an era in Australian
aviation came to an end when two former Qantas Douglas DC-4s departed
our shores for the last time. These two aeroplanes, VH-EDA and VH-EDB,
had served Qantas from 1949 to 1977. Although they were originally mainline
aircraft, they soldiered on for many years on the Sydney to Norfolk
Island run, simply because no other aircraft could operate the route
efficiently. Eventually progress caught up with the DC-4s and on 27
February 1977, VH-EDA operated the last DC-4 service to Norfolk Island.
Significantly, it was also the last Qantas flight to be operated by
a piston-engined aircraft. In August of 1977, both DC-4s were sold to
Air Express who used them on freight services from Melbourne to Tasmania
and on ad hoc freight charters. Exactly two years later, Air Express
ceased operations and the company was placed into receivership.
In February 1980, both DC-4s were sold to Basler Flying Service of Oshkosh,
Wisconsin in the United States. At this time, both DC-4s were parked
in or in the vicinity of Hangar 104 at Essendon and two former Air Express
engineers had been retained by the receivers to prepare the aircraft
for delivery. In addition, Maurie Legg was engaged to paint the new
U.S. registrations on the DC-4s and his son, Russell, was tasked with
washing the aircraft. Maurie and Russell both suspected that all was
not well with the instructions they had been given for re-painting the
registrations so they raised their concerns with both of the engineers.
After due consideration and checking, it was confirmed that the re-painting
instructions were correct and accordingly, on 6 February 1980
VH-EDA was painted as N5581T
VH-EDB was painted as N5581S
The first aircraft to leave was N5581S which departed Essendon on 17
February 1980 flown by a Basler crew, arriving in Brisbane at 1330 local
with a dead cylinder on No 3 engine. The aircraft was to depart Brisbane
for Tarawa and Honolulu on 18 February but bad weather off the Queensland
coast delayed the departure until 0100 on 19 February.
The second aircraft, N5581T, departed Essendon for Brisbane on 9 March
1980 and left for Tarawa at 2300 on the same day. Included amongst the
crew of N5581T was Warren Basler, the President of Basler Airlines.
With the departure from Australia of the last Qantas DC-4, this should
have been the end of the story.
It's not certain when it first became generally known to enthusiasts/historians
that all was not as it should have been, but it may have been around
the time that the DC-4s moved on to the Canadian Register, although
clearly some were aware much earlier. The aviation historian's bible,
Aviation Letter of August 1982 carried a report from a correspondent
who had photographed both DC-4s at Oshkosh in August 1980. At this time,
it was obvious that the last letter of both registrations had been overpainted.
By reference to the previous Australian registrations which were clearly
etched into the skin under the wings, it was obvious that:
The former VH-EDA was now N5581S
The former VH-EDB was now N5581T
Traces of the former Australian registration under the wing, together
with other subtle differences between the two aeroplanes, had enabled
the author to confirm that the reverse had been the case when the aeroplanes
departed Brisbane. (At the time, the author was employed at Brisbane
Airport and therefore would have been amongst the last to inspect and
photograph both aircraft at close quarters before they departed Australia).
Evidently, when the aeroplanes were repainted at Essendon on 6 February
1980, the instructions passed to the painter had mistakenly transposed
the registrations. It is not known when this mistake first came to the
attention of the new owners, but clearly it was easier to change the
aeroplanes than it was to change the paperwork!
If, like the author, you have trouble remembering which is which, the
aeroplanes should have been, and ultimately were, re-registered in alphabetical
A became S
B became T
Perhaps this confusion should not be so surprising as these two aeroplanes
have a history of identity crisis. In July 1963 it was announced in
Qantas News under the headline "Names Traded", that
as a result of a successful staff suggestion; "the two Qantas Skymasters
have been renamed and VH-EDA is now Norfolk Trader and VH-EDB
is now Pacific Trader." What this was reporting was that
Malayan Trader and New Guinea Trader had been renamed
to reflect their almost exclusive use on the Norfolk Island run, but
in so doing, Qantas News transposed the two new names. This confusion
was repeated in a fleet list published by Qantas in 1967 and corrected
two years later. What really happened in 1963 was:
VH-EDA Malayan Trader was renamed Pacific Trader
VH-EDB New Guinea Trader was renamed Norfolk Trader
After a brief time on the US Register, both DC-4s moved on to the Canadian
N5581S (ex VH-EDA) became C-GPFG
N5581T (ex VH-EDB) became C-GPSH
It is said that these registrations denote that the former VH-EDA was,
shall we say, "very Good" and the former VH-EDB was,
shall we say, "rather Hot"!
(Compiled by Ron Cuskelly in October
(The reference to an alleged name swap between VH-EDA & VH-EDB was
corrected in September 2016)
Special thanks to Maurie
and Russell Legg.