June 24, 1966.
Perfect survey day. 25,000 ft, cloudless sky, wind surprisingly
light for that altitude and drift constant. We were lining up
to start our third run. Bruce Yeo, camera op., confirmed ready
- drift and time interval set. I was coaxing the pilot to reach
the "Camera On" point with Hudson on track, and at correct
heading, when there was a shudder and the starboard Wright Cyclone
packed it in.
Over the inter-com came Lionel's laconic "Bad luck boys.
I've feathered the starboard, and it's back home for today."
"Back home" was our base, Halls Creek, and at that moment
a good hour and a half away. I called Lionel and suggested he
head north and that I would give him a precise heading and E.T.A.
in a few minutes. This I did and we settled down as the flagship
of our fleet, VH-AGX, began its long slow descent, a disappointing
outcome on a day of earlier promise.
The survey block was in the Great Sandy Desert, one of Australia's
most inhospitable and forbidding regions. Our client was Aquitaine
and the survey was a split operation, 25,000 ft RC9 photography
and 10,000 ft Airborne Profile Recording.
After fifteen minutes or so, I felt it was time to take the oxy.
masks off and asked Lionel for our altitude. No answer. Perhaps
he was on radio. I switched over, but still nothing. Back to intercom
All blank. This prompted an investigation, so I eased out of the
nav. position and stepped back towards the the cockpit. Here,
to my consternation, the pilot's seat was empty, and obviously
"George" was guiding us back.
A step up and looking over the mainspar I spotted him - the great
Lionel Van Praag was down at the aft end of the cabin emptying
his bladder into a film can. When he noticed my, no doubt startled
visage, he broke into a huge grin and gave me an emphatic V for
Is sangfroid the correct word? Well, whatever, Lionel had it.
Adastra was always a magnet - and a haven - for "characters",
and our last Chief Pilot and Check Captain was one - and in spades.
4th June 2003