BUSH PILOTS AIRWAYS

JOINS THE DARWIN RELIEF OPERATION

by

Bill Kelman, Ron Entsch and Murray Walmsley

 

Bush Pilots Airways' DC-3 VH-PWN at Brisbane on 24 November 1974, just one month before Cyclone Tracy struck Darwin. (Picture: Ron Cuskelly H176)

 

At about 3:00am on 26 December 1974 (Boxing Day) Bush Pilots Airways General Manager, Ron Entsch heard loud banging on the side of his Cairns house. He awoke to find an anxious Stan Watkins (Chairman of T.J. Watkins Builders - a friend and a customer) bearing news of the disaster in Darwin. Stan desperately wanted a DC-3 to haul supplies and other items to Darwin and evacuate staff to Cairns. Stan was in action mode and he wanted the aeroplane immediately! Assembling a crew in those deep slumber hours on Boxing Day was a challenge but soon everyone was in top gear and ready to go.

The flight in DC-3 VH-PWN was planned to leave Cairns in the early hours of 27 December so that it would be daylight for our arrival in Gove where the only runway lighting was for emergencies only. The First Officer was Rob Van Wyck, and the cabin attendant was Murray Walmsley.
Bushies decided not to send any of our girls on the trip due to the uncertainty of sleeping accommodation in Darwin. Murray was actually a traffic officer on a day off and he was given some last minute training on flight attendant duties. We arrived at Cairns airport to find that a Notam had been issued requiring all inbound aircraft to Darwin to track via Katherine/Tindal. This delayed our departure while we replanned, obtained new weather forecasts and arranged for fuel en route. In addition to the supplies, our load included several Watkins staff and two motor bikes. We flew via Normanton and Tindal for fuel, arriving Darwin early in the afternoon of 27 December. (My log book shows 7:55 flight time to Darwin, with only :25 mins night)

We parked at the general aviation area to the southeast of the airport. On confirming that we were not departing until the following day, some of the locals asked us to assist with putting up tarpaulins to shelter people who were awaiting evacuation. We were also handed a beer. Some time later, when we were on our second beer, an RAAF vehicle arrrived looking for the crew of the DC-3. They wanted to evacuate people to Alice Springs and asked us if we could do the trip. We indicated that it had been a long day, we were out of hours and the beers were much appreciated. The RAAF types responded that they had approval to break all the rules as it was an emergency. They said if we couldn't do the flight they would commandeer the aircraft and crew it with RAAF pilots. We didn't want to lose our aircraft, and as we had a bunk fitted in case we couldn't find anywhere to spend the night (we used the bunk on longer three man crew flights), and as I was familiar with Alice, having spent 2Ĺ years based there in 1964/65 with Connair (then called Connellan Airways) and SAATAS, we decided to stay with the aeroplane. I can't recall the details but we had a minor unserviceability which was fixed by a Connair engineer after which we departed for Alice Springs. I spent some time in the bunk en route and felt good on arrival (maybe the beer helped). My log book shows 1:20 day and 4:25 night.

Next morning (28 December) we had to leave around 0800 or 0900, to get back to Darwin in time to pick up our passengers and get to and out of Gove before last light. After leaving Alice Springs we refuelled at Tennant Creek as fuel was not readily available in Darwin. As we didn't know how many Watkins staff would be joining us in Darwin we had to restrict our fuel uplift to allow for a full pax load with 60 minutes holding at Gove. I can't recall exactly how many passengers were on board ex Darwin but we were pretty full. We left the two motorbikes behind in Darwin. Our departure from Darwin was expedited by Darwin Tower, and an aircraft, a 707 I believe, (See Note: 1) on final offering to do an orbit so we could get away. On arrival in Gove, the airport manager (I think his name was Col Peacock) declared that the emergency evacuation was over and therefore we couldn't have runway lights to take off for Cairns. Thanks to the local fuellers and the quickest refuelling I have ever seen in Gove (or anywhere else) we got airborne just in time. Flight time that day was Alice to Darwin with refuelling at Tennant Creek 5:05, and Darwin-Gove-Cairns 2:25 day and 4:10 night. Total for the two days was 25:20. We arrived back in Cairns on 28 December, my 35th birthday!

Captain Bill Kelman

28 February 2012

NOTES

 

1
Probably this 707 was Qantas' VH-EAC arriving from Sydney. This aircraft later returned to Sydney with 276 evacuees. How appropriate that a Qantas 707 should show "age before beauty" deference to VH-PWN which was itself a former Qantas aeroplane. (Compiler)



 

As I recall, we started work at 2am on 27th December 1974, endeavouring to get to Darwin as soon as possible. Once the charter was confirmed, a departure time was arranged and a Tech Crew rostered. Iím not sure whether there was not a female crew member available or the company thought things might be a bit rough up in Darwin, but I was asked if would like to do the trip. I think I was probably chosen as I would have been on days off anyway, so it would not upset the roster. I hadnít had any training as a flight attendant up to that point, and as far as I can remember my endorsement consisted of Col Shedden briefing me on how to give a life jacket demo. Anyway, I was 20 years old and bullet-proof, so I was looking forward to having a sticky beak at Darwin after the big blow. I felt confident going with Captain Bill Kelman and First Officer Rob Van Wyck who was not that much older than myself and this put my mind at rest. However, I remember Charles Winter (another Traffic Officer at the time, and a former British SAS member and mercenary soldier in a past life) advising me not to get emotionally involved in what I was to see in Darwin. So I took that on board.

An unforseen problem with flight planning meant we didnít get away until about 5am. There were just a few passengers making the trip including Bluey Bedford, a regular passenger with Bush Pilots in those days. Iím not sure whether Bluey was attached to the company chartering the aircraft, or if he was just hitching a ride.

After leaving Cairns, we headed to Normanton and then Tindal for fuel. It was a bit sobering flying into Darwin, as the place seemed like one big rubbish tip, with barely a building undamaged. The airport buildings were probably some of the least damaged, but there was quite a mess there too. The chaps we had brought up from Cairns left us, and so we just had to wait for them to return with their other company personnel before making the trip home. By this time it was about mid afternoon or so.

About that time some official people turned up asking if we would do an evacuation trip to Alice Springs that night. One of them said in a brash manner that if we didnít make the trip, they would commandeer the aircraft and do the trip themselves. As it looked like we were in for a night sleeping in the old DC-3 or worse, a soft bed in Alice Springs and a side trip to fill in the time until our folks were ready to leave, seemed not too bad an option. So off we went.

They loaded up the aircraft full of passengers until there were no seats left, and with full tanks of fuel so we could do the trip nonstop, we somehow got off the ground. I cannot remember who did the trim sheet for that sector, but even with the small amount of baggage allowed per passenger, I think there may have been a little fudging of the books. But that was ok "as this was an emergency trip.Ē

The trip to Alice Springs was pretty uneventful as the passengers were rather shell-shocked and just glad to get out of town. Most just dozed off soon after we were airborne. Arriving in The Alice we unloaded our passengers, put the plane to bed, and headed off to the pub where we were to stay, probably being better accommodated than those poor souls. However, by this time it was 1am and we had been on the go for 23 hours. The main bed in my room hadnít been made up since the previous occupants, as I guess there had been a lot of people passing through there, but I didnít care. There was another sofa bed there and I crashed into that.

We left for the airport about 7am next morning, and after refuelling, kicking the tyres and stuff we headed off for Darwin again. I donít remember a thing about that part of the trip, probably because I slept most of the way, as we had no passengers.

I canít remember waiting very long in Darwin either, so I think we loaded up fairly quickly with another full load of passengers and headed for Cairns. Again this was getting late in the afternoon by the time we left as a flight from Alice Springs to Darwin takes the best part of a shift in the old DC-3 (about 5 hours). Just like the trip to Alice Springs the night before, the passengers were a very sombre lot, requiring very little and just wanting to sleep and get out of there. After stopping in Gove for fuel we continued on to Cairns arriving about 9 or 10pm. It had been a very memorable couple of days.

 

Murray Walmsley

14 March 2012



 

 

SOURCE

 

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ISSUE
DATE
REMARKS
2
23MAR12
Added Murray Walmsley's account.
1
28FEB12
Original issue