One of the
joys of the Gibson Desert survey camp (The Giles Hilton), was
the occasional trip back to Alice Springs, and one of the joys
of Alice Springs was undoubtedly Thomas Flood's Hostel.
For it was here that the ladies of Ansett & TAA often chose to
stay when on a few days leave - a fact not lost on the ever-resourceful
Adastra crews. To Adastra crewmen, fresh from several weeks at
the 'Giles Hilton', these ladies were nothing less than divine
goddesses from another planet.
In our enthusiasm to win the hearts of two of these beautiful
ladies, we suggested a scenic flight over Alice Springs. They
responded with equal enthusiasm, "that would be lovely!" and when
the next day turned out to be 'non-survey', we duly transported
them out to the airstrip (motorbikes of course).
There sat AGX, a rather forlorn sight with green stains under
the wings, black oil covering the cowls and dripping onto the
tarmac. The tailplane covered in a mixture of black oil and bulldust
from Giles and a green paint scheme that had seen better days.
The airline ladies hesitated, but bravely clambered aboard. "Whew,
what's the smell" commented one as she encountered the stench
of AVGAS. "Oh that's normal" and we all trouped up to the cockpit
to meet our pilot - Lionel.
No soft music or gold braid here! There sat Lionel, unshaven,
in a holy old singlet and shorts, greasy baseball cap and usual
bent 'roll-your-own' hanging from the side of his mouth, peering
over the top of his bifocal glasses. The girls started to look
slightly horror-struck but managed a smile and Lionel set about
getting the engines started. "Starboard Clear", I call and after
a bit of coaxing, the right engine splutters into life and the
cockpit immediately fills with thick blue smoke. (Yet another
Cyclone, due for overhaul). We peer out but can't see anything.
Lionel apparently can see the left engine and that soon splutters
into life as well. A huge pall of smoke hangs over the aircraft
- no forward visibility at all! "No worries" says Lionel and opens
the throttles, till at about 1500 revs, the smoke finally blows
away and we start breathing again.
Our beautiful ladies are starting to look a bit troubled "shouldn't
we be strapped in…?" They race down the cabin and strap themselves
into the first available seats.
Now that we could see again and the engines were running smoothly
Lionel gets his taxi clearance and we amble along to the holding
point, final engine checks - everything looking fine, we line
up with a takeoff clearance. Two Wright Cyclones wind up to a
steady full throttle roar and away we go!
The Hudson of course is a tail-wheel aircraft and at about 50
Kts, up comes the tail! At this point there is a tumultuous crashing
and banging accompanied by screams from the cabin that completely
drown two Cyclones roaring at full throttle. Unbeknown to us,
the engineer had had a party in the aircraft the night before,
and as the tail came up, a cascade of bottles, glasses and cans
bounced from all sorts of hiding places and down onto the plywood
cabin floor around the feet of our friends.
Who - by this stage were starting to look quite mortified……!
A lazy scenic cruise around The Alice and the McDonnell Ranges,
soon had them a bit more relaxed and we finally headed back to
the airport, everything going fine in the approach, onto final,
hold off and…….
As many will know, the Hudson is not an easy aircraft to land,
the combination of poor directional control and tail-wheel can
make things exceptionally difficult. If anyone could land a Hudson
smoothly it was Lionel - but not today. We touched a bit heavily
and were airborne again, heavier still and airborne again. Finally
after much bouncing and swerving and screaming tyres, the aircraft
was brought under control again and safely settled on the ground.
Our ladies looked distinctly relieved - but not a word was spoken.
In a matter of a few minutes their whole concept of aviation had
been completely transformed. We duly escorted them back to the
hostel and never saw them again!
I wonder if they happen to read this, if they had forgotten this
day … I doubt it.
Perhaps to the uninitiated, this might all sound a bit unprofessional.
Don't be fooled, the opposite is the truth.
Something I have come to appreciate over the years is that flying
old aircraft safely on a tight budget (a requirement of most airwork
crews), requires a level of skill and expertise that can only
be learnt over many years. People like Lionel Van Praag were the
unsung heroes of modern Australian aviation. Adastra was the first
company I worked for as a pilot and Lionel (as Chief Pilot) gave
me a check flight that, even though it was only a Cessna 206 (VH-DGD),
remains one of the most searching tests I have ever had.
There were many other incidents in which Lionel undoubtedly saved
many lives - from incidents during WWII (a DC-2 ditching which
earned Lionel a George Medal) to times in his career with Adastra
when his superb flying skills brought all the crew safely home.
I recall another incident with Lionel - filing a flight plan at
Tennant Creek. Lionel (in a hurry) had just filled out the total
fuel endurance figures, and instead of filling in the 'flight'
and 'reserve fuel' details had simply written 'enough'. The Flight
Service Officer mistakenly brought this to Lionel's attention.
Lionel leaned menacingly across the counter:
"Listen, I'm Lionel f….. Van Praag and if I say I've got enough
f….. fuel, I've got enough f…... fuel! I wrote the f….. book on
this aeroplane when you were still in f….. nappies!"
The Flight Service Officer (wisely) said no more and needless
to say, we completed the flight safely with all required fuel
The Hudson was a difficult aircraft by any standards. Lionel would
not allow inexperienced Hudson pilots to go it alone until he
had sat in with them for 100hrs flying - a huge amount of time
by any standards.
Looking back, I realise that the skills and attitudes that kept
me safe during my flying career (some 25 years), were mostly learnt
in Adastra and from people like Lionel - whether it was over a
beer or behind the controls. Lionel's style often upset the authorities,
but he was the right person in the right place at the right time.
There was no gold braid or glitter - only good solid hard-won
experience, and for that I will always be grateful.
23rd May 2003