The Great Registration Switcheroo of 1980.




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 sequence:

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 Register.

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 2006)

(The reference to an alleged name swap between VH-EDA & VH-EDB was corrected in September 2016)

Special thanks to Maurie and Russell Legg.