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THANK-YOU FOR CHOOSING TO FLY ADASTRA

by Bruce Beale

 

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.

 



PS

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 reserves.

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.

Bruce Beale
23rd May 2003

 

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