This song of John Williamson brings back memories of the 6 months in 1976 that I was a pilot for the North Australian Pastoral Company (NAPCo) during the peak of the BTEC Scheme.
In 1973 the Federal Labor Government had cut existing subsidies on far-western routes for mail services and air freight. The following year the fuel subsidy was also withdrawn and regular air services to stations by Bush Pilot’s and the like were severely curtailed.
This prompted NAPCo to purchase theirs own aircraft, a Cessna 206, in 1974, to be based in Mt Isa and to provide weekly mail and freight runs to the NT properties of Alexandria, Soudan and Gallipoli on Tuesday and on Thursday another run to the Queensland Georgina River channel country properties of Glenormiston, Herbert Downs, Marion Downs and Coorabulka as well as Monkira on the Diamantina River.
|Current day NAPCO properties. Imaged sourced NAPCO|
The aircraft was registered VH-EFI and became affectionately known as “Effie”. As well as carrying mail, spare parts and perishable foods on regular runs it was also utilised by the station managers for spotting cattle during mustering and other inspections.
With the Brucellosis and Tuberculosis Eradication Scheme (BTEC) well under way, “Effie” also flew the Vets to and from properties to blood test the herds, so she was busy nearly 7 days a week and usually clocked up a 100 hourly maintenance inspection every month. It also soon became evident that two pilot’s were needed.
Phillip Packer had been the first “Effie” pilot and in 1975 Peter Lehmann had taken over and as he had previously been with Primaries, he gave me a good rap and knockdown for the job of second pilot in March 1976.
I arrived on the job, with about 900 hours private time plus a new Commercial Licence and an Instructor’s Rating, to find out that Peter Lehmann was “crook” and that he and “Effie” were at Glenormiston and that I should go and get them. I chartered a Victa Airtourer from the local Aero Club and myself and a club instructor flew out to Glenormistion to bring them back.
My next introduction was to the company Vet Lethal Lee McNichol. Lee was also a qualified pilot and had flown “Effie” from time to time however this was no longer permitted due to his veterinary workload. Apparently, on one occasion, Lee had ended up with a flat battery in “Effie” so having removed the top engine cowl to get access to the battery for a jump start from a vehicle, had difficulty replacing the cowl with the engine running so it was thrown on the back seat for the flight back to town.
On my first flight with Lee as a passenger he also had a dog in tow that positioned itself between the 2 front seats for the flight and frequently passed wind. Fortunately the Cessnas had good air vents from the wings and a pilot could hold his nose to the vent in such circumstances.
These vents proved useful on another occasion when “Effie’s” battery collapsed and fumes entered the cabin.
A second Vet, Murray Cameron was also employed on a contract basis.
The main difficulty with the Vets was that you had to advise them of the latest departure time, based on flight time and last light, that would allow them to return to Mt Isa, rather than having to stay over, which none of them wanted to do.
Invariably, they would turn up to the aircraft late and here is where the “Sundown” thing came in as, in the words of the song, it was always “Bloody near dark when we reached the strip”. More than often it was actually dark and it was not unusual for us to call the Mt Isa tower some 30 miles out with “On long final, please cancel Sarwatch” to which the tower would reply “Sarwatch cancelled - Clear to land”. Probably not something that can be done these days!
The testing of the blood for the BTEC scheme was done in
Alice Springs and on one occasion we must have
missed the last regular commercial flight from Mt isa that would get the blood
there in time. As a consequence I had to fly the blood over in “Effie” and Dr
Lethal came along for the ride with another couple of passengers.
Although it was to be a one day trip over and back, as was usual in those days most things ended up in a pub so when we departed for the 3 hour trip back to Mt Isa most bladders (except for the pilot’s) were on a short holding pattern. We used to carry in the aircraft a number of emergency supplies including some little resealable plastic bags with sponges in them. Maybe they had been selected with extreme foresight as on that day they were used with great difficulty and then despatched via the side window to somewhere near Jervois Station.
To facilitate freight handling, the company bought a small Honda Van and we alternated flying with running around town in the Van picking up mail bags, spare parts and other freight, as well as undertaking shopping requests for the ladies of the stations, for the next day’s flight.
On one occasion, Peter Lehmann was driving the van and must have been looking away when he suddenly came upon a red stop light. He applied the brakes with such force that the van started to slide sideways and then promptly fell on it’s side. Not to be fazed, Peter enlisted the help of some pedestrians to lift the van upright and he was on his way again, poste haste.
Initially, we worked out of a car saleman’s cubicle at Barkly Motors and later that year the company purchased a pilot’s residence come depot at
Beta Street, Mt Isa.
We often flew heavy machinery parts such as radiators back to town and I can remember that the Soudan strip was only 1,000 feet long but fortunately had good approach and departure clearways, the only obstacle being vehicles on the highway at the southern end.
During the year, “Effie” came up for a major overhaul and inspection and to save down time it was decided that she was to then become a twin, and a second engine was purchased.
I remember doing a low level property inspection at Glenormiston one day and after landing did my usual shut down checks including a magneto check and found that I had one dead magneto. An engineer was flown out the next day and as he replaced the faulty magneto, he removed and inspected the other and found that it also had a badly damaged drive gear, which I think was nylon. So that could have been close to a total engine failure.
From time to time we also hired other aircraft from John Lanhams Air Charter or the Aero Club to get the work done. These aircraft were Cessna 210’s VH-EUX and VH-ERH; Cessna 206 VH-DPU; Cessna 205 VH-COY and Cessna 182 VH-CDN, (which I think belonged to the local Southern Cross Rep).
In June a private fishing trip was organised to Wentworth Station and Massacre Inlet by some pilot’s and local Flight Service staff. I flew a Cessna 210 with 5 passengers and the Cessna 205 was enlisted to carry 1 passenger and a number of cartons. As is usual with Cessna’s, the “tail test” was done and the loading centre of gravity found to be within limits. (The “tail test” is when you load your aircraft and then push the tail down until it nearly touches the ground. If it then rises again then all is OK). Being the faster aircraft we let the C205 take off first and watched it consume a considerable amount of the 9,000 foot Mt Isa runway. Luckily there would be no need to return this freight from Wentworth. I recall also we slept in swags on the sand at Massacre Inlet, which was probably not a wise choice in retrospect.
I left NAPCo in September that year. Peter Lehmann stayed on until 1978 and other pilots included John Murphy 1978, Noel Stanley 1978-79, Casey Herman 1981-83, Ian Bean 1979-83 and the longest serving Chris Lilford from 1983 onwards.
I am not sure what happened to “Effie” and she may have come to grief. I see she is no longer registered and that her registration is now (from January 2013) on a smaller Diamond Aircraft Industries DA40 aircraft at Caboolture.