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They Mapped the Nation

by Ron Cuskelly


"If I can get a definite programme of photographic work with occasional taxi jobs I will cheerfully abandon the Flying School field." So wrote former WWI flyer Frank Follett to his friend, Edgar Johnston, the Acting Controller of Civil Aviation on 2nd May 1933. This marked a major turning point for Adastra Airways which had been formed in 1930 by Follett, his sister Evelyn and H.T. “Bunny” Hammond as a flying school and air taxi operator with two DH-60 Moths based at Mascot. Both Follett and Hammond had served in WWI, Follett in the Australian Flying Corps and Hammond in the Royal Flying Corps. The RFC motto “Per Ardua ad Astra”  (Through Labours to the Stars) provided the new company with a name which was to endure a further 46 years in Australian aviation.

The year 1930 was not an auspicious time to start any business, but despite the great depression, Adastra managed to survive. At the end of October, Follett reported that Adastra had flown over 300 instructional hours and had 25 pupils on its books. Two years later, Adastra reported that they had flown 3,500 hours and trained 40 pupils to “A” Licence standard. One casualty of the depression was Bunny Hammond himself who voluntarily left Adastra in 1932 to take up a flying job in New Guinea. (He was destined to return to Adastra in 1950 to manage the company after Frank Follett died).

In January 1933, Follett expressed concern to the Department over the ongoing lack of assistance to private flying schools and welcomed the announcement of forthcoming tenders for subsidised air routes as “the only ray of sunshine”. By April of the same year, Follett was indicating to his friend Edgar Johnston that he was “rather keen” on tendering for an “air survey” project to cover 1,500 square miles in the Newnes area. To this end, Adastra had lodged an application to import a Waco aircraft and Follett had personally inspected the RAAF photographic facilities at Richmond, for at this time, the RAAF were the only agency capable of “air survey” operations. It would appear that Adastra was unsuccessful with this tender.

In December of 1933, the Minister approved five applications to operate subsidised air services, one of which was Adastra’s proposed Sydney to Bega service. In anticipation of gaining approval, Adastra had earlier ordered a de Havilland Fox Moth (VH‑UQU) with which to operate the service. The inaugural flight to Bega departed Mascot on 5th February 1934 with Frank Follett at the controls of the Fox Moth. The service was subsequently operated at various times by Waco YKS-6 VH‑UYD,  de Havilland Dragonfly VH‑AAD and B.A. Eagle VH‑UUY. (Remarkably, the Waco and the Dragonfly survive to this day as do some parts of the Eagle). As war approached, Adastra continued to operate the Bega service although the government threatened to reduce its subsidy. In arguing against any reduction, Follett reminded the Department that Adastra was performing reconnaissance work on behalf of the Navy on each flight to Bega. Always the visionary, Follett had also offered Adastra’s services to the NSW Forestry Commission to provide a bushfire patrol during the course of the Bega flights at no further cost to the government. During August 1940, Adastra were advised that their subsidy would be withdrawn because of the war effort which left Follett with no option but to suspend the Bega service. Just over a week later, the service was reinstated as a show of good faith to the local community using the more economical Eagle VH‑UUY. This enabled the company to allocate the Dragonfly with its twin-engine reliability to survey work which was frequently conducted over inhospitable terrain. On the 11th November 1940, Butler Air Transport took over the Sydney to Bega service leaving Adastra solely an aerial survey operator, the flying school having been closed in December 1936. Apart from a ground collision at Mascot, the only incident to blemish Adastra’s six years on the route was a noteworthy flight during which the Waco lost its engine – literally! Despite the engine having parted company with the aeroplane, a safe landing ensued. 

In October 1935, Follett had written to Johnston advising that “Adastra recently decided to take the risk of purchasing the necessary camera and photographic equipment to embark on aerial survey and photography”.  By April of the following year, Follett was advising Johnston that he had acquired the entire photographic equipment of the Western Mining Corporation and that Adastra was now better equipped for aerial survey than the RAAF. This represented a significant financial investment which evidently weighed heavily on Follett. Johnston was also advised that Adastra had been granted a contract by the NSW Mines Department to conduct a survey in the Cobar area. Adastra’s first survey aeroplane was the B.A. Eagle VH‑UUY which was acquired in April 1936. In the interim, Adastra had been appointed as agents for British Klemm and Waco aircraft. A new de Havilland Dragonfly VH‑AAD was added to the Bega route in February 1938 which released the Waco YKS-6 VH‑UYD for survey work and permitted the sale of the Fox Moth. In July 1938, the Eagle VH‑UUY was shipped to Port Moresby for a series of survey flights on behalf of oil interests.

With the RAAF fully occupied with the war effort, it fell to Adastra to undertake much of the survey flying which might otherwise be completed by the military. These operations included a survey of northern Australia with the Waco VH‑UYD in July-September 1940 and a survey of  north-east NSW for much of 1942 using both the Waco and the Dragonfly. Earlier, Follett had expressed concerns about the risk from local artillery and for this reason Adastra was given approval to apply military markings to their aircraft. Photos of the Dragonfly show that these markings were limited to camouflage and fin flashes with the aircraft retaining its civil registration.

Towards the end of the war,  Adastra began looking for replacement aircraft. That they chose the Avro Anson is hardly surprising, given that the RAAF themselves had used the type for aerial survey. However, the introduction of the Anson was not without difficulties as Adastra was advised in May 1944 that the take-off weight would be limited to 7,500 pounds. Follett argued that manuals supplied with the aircraft provided for a maximum take-off weight of 8,500 pounds. This placed the company at a distinct disadvantage as the Anson could not be used on the task for which it had been purchased, a Victorian government contract let in early 1945 to survey 60,000 square miles of the state. One internal DCA document even went so far as to suggest that Adastra had purchased an unsuitable aircraft, but this is hardly fair to an operator who clearly felt that they had been encouraged to adopt the Anson. It wasn’t until October 1945 that Edgar Johnston intervened and directed, not without technical justification, that Adastra be allowed to operate the Anson at 8,200 pounds. A second Anson had been acquired in September 1945 and Adastra went on to operate seven of the type. Airworthiness problems with the Anson again reared their head when it was discovered that the glued wooden wings were deteriorating. This led to the premature grounding of some of Adastra’s Ansons and ultimately the permanent grounding of all Australian wooden wing Ansons in 1962. By this time, the company was well established as an operator of another type which has come to be synonymous with the name Adastra – the Lockheed Hudson.

Adastra acquired their first Hudson in June 1950 when the company purchased VH‑BLA from the famous speedway rider and wartime George Medal recipient, Lionel Van Praag. In time, the larger-than-life Lionel Van Praag was another name to become synonymous with Adastra. The first Hudson entered service as VH‑AGG in March 1951 bearing the name “Frank Follett” in honour of the company founder who had passed away the previous year. By this time, Bunny Hammond had returned to manage the company. The Hudson proved to be an ideal aeroplane for Adastra’s operations. It could operate comfortably at 25,000 feet where aerial photography was usually conducted and its capacious fuselage provided plenty of room for crew and equipment. This latter requirement assumed some significance when survey crews were operating at remote locations for weeks on end. There were no five star hotels and limousines for these crews. They lived in tents and got around on motor cycles, all of which had to be transported to the base in the aircraft. Adastra went on to operate seven Hudsons in the ensuing twenty-three years. Although the Hudson’s airliner heritage had left it with a roomy cabin, Adastra chose to group the crew together forward with the navigator and camera operator in the cramped nose compartment. This location was found to provide a more stable position for the camera and the crew were able to function more efficiently in close proximity to one another while benefitting from superior heating in a smaller compartment. As the crews were operating for long periods on oxygen, this close proximity also enabled the crew to monitor one another for alertness. It was with the Hudson that Adastra really made a name for themselves in the field of aerial survey. Not much of the nation escaped their cameras and the company’s operations even extended to Fiji, New Caledonia and Papua New Guinea. The massive Snowy Mountains Scheme was mapped by Adastra and the development of Australia’s natural resources depended heavily on Adastra’s expertise.

The Hudson years were not without tragedy as three aeroplanes were destroyed in fatal crashes, all being attributed to loss of control. The first of these was in June 1957 when VH‑AGO was lost at Horn Island. Barely a year later, VH‑AGG was lost in similar circumstances at Lae. Both accidents involved landing with an engine shut down, the former through failure and the latter for training purposes. Wartime experience had demonstrated that the Hudson was not a forgiving aeroplane and both of these accidents had occurred in a configuration where the Hudson was most demanding. In the words of expert Hudson pilot, Lionel Van Praag: "The Hudson has a very good single engine performance but at V2 speed is the most dangerous aircraft on the register because of its very short fuselage and a lot of power available asymmetrically in the event of losing an engine at this speed and full power being applied. This calls for instantaneous corrective action which requires more than a little leg power to hold the aircraft straight, but in any other configuration it is a good aircraft to fly.”  The third Hudson crash was to occur after eight years of safe operations. This accident saw the loss of VH‑AGE at Tennant Creek in September 1966. Although this accident also occurred in the landing configuration and was also attributed to loss of control, it differed in that both engines were operating at the time of the crash and the exact reason for the loss of control was never determined. A fourth Hudson,  VH‑AGX, was written off at Horn Island in December 1973 in an over-run following a rejected take-off after which both crew walked away with minor injuries. By this time the Hudson was coming to the end of its service life so the aircraft was not repaired. (VH‑AGX is held awaiting restoration by the RAAF Museum at Point Cook).

Up until 1954, Adastra had concentrated solely on aerial photography, but another dimension was added to the company’s services with the arrival from the U.K. of the Percival Prince G‑AMLW which was equipped for geophysical survey. The Prince was owned by the U.K. based Hunting Aerosurveys with whom Adastra had formed the joint venture company Adastra Hunting Geophysics in November 1954. Soon after arriving in Australia in December, the Prince was put to work on a survey of the Sydney Basin. Although the aeroplane was initially flown by Hunting crews, Adastra pilots and technicians were soon endorsed on the Prince. In June 1957, the aircraft was placed on the Australian Register as VH‑AGF. In January 1959, the Prince was flown back to the U.K. by an Adastra crew.

Earlier, the Adastra Hunting Geophysics fleet had grown with the arrival in October 1956 of a Catalina (actually a Canadian built Canso). This aeroplane was equipped for geophysical survey and placed on the Australian register as VH‑AGB. The Catalina’s first project was a survey in the Charleville and Cloncurry areas. The Catalina served Adastra well until mid 1962 when it was sold to TAA as a source of spares for their New Guinea based Catalina VH‑SBV. Sadly, VH‑AGB was broken up for scrap at Bankstown in 1967. The Catalina was replaced by a DC-3 and various Hudsons which had been configured for geophysical survey.

During 1956-57, Adastra chartered the Bristol Sycamore helicopter VH‑INO from Australian National Airways for a geophysical survey in the vicinity of Queenstown, Tasmania. For this project, a 22 foot long magnetometer (known as a “bird”) was towed through the tree tops.

Over the years, much of Adastra’s flying might be categorised as routine and boring. Certainly, long delays awaiting suitable survey weather resulted in boredom amongst the crews. One Hudson crew even successfully tendered for a job to excavate a building site in their downtime! Unfortunately, armed only with picks and shovels, they were no match for the bedrock which was soon encountered and the venture folded! Another incident which no doubt had its roots in boredom involved a meeting of two Adastra Hudsons in central Australia and a subsequent night out at the local pub. The crew of one aircraft departed the pub before the other crew and, despite being adequately lubricated and riding motorcycles, managed to creatively acquire a large bomb-like object which had been decorating a local civic building. This “bomb” was duly ferried on the two motorcycles to the aerodrome where it was wired into the bomb bay of the Hudson belonging to the other crew. The following morning, the “bombed up” Hudson departed for home base in Sydney where, upon arrival at the Adastra hangar, the bomb bay doors were opened to reveal – a bomb (followed by a collective scratching of heads!)

Some of the more unusual flying undertaken by the company included providing an aerial platform for the filming of a commercial on behalf of P&O to promote their liner “Orsova”. This resulted in an Adastra Hudson making several low-level passes at the “Orsova” as it entered Sydney Heads. Eyewitness reports stated that the Hudson was throwing up spray from the ocean while other panic-stricken witnesses rang the local newspapers. (Unfortunately, attempts at locating the resultant film footage have been unsuccessful).

Another activity, which might be considered unusual for an aerial survey operator, was target towing! For several years during the fifties, Adastra held Army contracts to tow a drogue target up and down the coast off Sydney for target practice by shore-based anti-aircraft artillery units. For this mission, a wind-driven winch was fitted to a Hudson forward of the cabin door.

During the late sixties and into 1970, Adastra participated in trial firings of the Australian designed Ikara anti-submarine missile system. This project, which at various times involved most of the Adastra fleet, was to provide a record of each launch from firing to splash-down. On one memorable occasion, the net distance travelled by a wayward missile was remarkably short as it splashed-down alarmingly close to the launch vessel!

In addition to the aircraft types already discussed, Adastra also utilised or evaluated a number of other interesting types, not the least of which was the Boeing 707! The 707 project resulted from a requirement to produce photographs from 40,000 feet. Initially, Adastra evaluated the Hawker Siddeley HS‑125 executive jet VH‑TOM with a view to purchasing it. Although the evaluation had extended to having Qantas design a camera mount for the rear equipment bay, problems with physically accommodating the camera in the aircraft, together with the aeroplane’s instability at high altitude with a full fuel load led to its elimination. As an alternative, Qantas suggested the Boeing 707!   Although this might seem an outrageously expensive option, Qantas agreed to conduct a series of trials in conjunction with crew training details to minimise costs. To this end, Qantas designed and manufactured a camera mount to take the place of the belly hatch to the forward electronics bay aft of the nosewheel (commonly known as the lower 41). The construction of the camera mount was sufficiently robust to permit the 707 to be flown pressurised. A series of trials using Boeing 707 VH‑EAA began with a single unsuccessful flight in December 1973. Trials did not resume in earnest until January 1975, culminating with the seventh flight on the 11th November 1975. Although this flight produced successful photography, advances in satellite technology had overtaken the project and further development was abandoned. Ironically, the target for the final trial was Parliament House in Canberra, at the very time that dramatic events were unfolding on this infamous day in Australian politics! (Regrettably, all attempts at locating these very historic photos have proved unsuccessful).

Several other aircraft types were evaluated over the years but none progressed to the flight stage. One of these was the Mustang. Although the company actually purchased the former A68-187 and reserved the registration VH‑AGJ for it, it was found that the aeroplane could not provide sufficient accommodation for what Adastra considered to be a minimum three-man crew (pilot, navigator, camera operator). The project was not pursued and the Mustang went on to become the famed Dart Mustang which is now flying in the U.S. under Merlin power.

Another type evaluated by Adastra was the Grumman Tracker. As a rugged type, with the familiar Wright Cyclone engines and adequate internal space, the Tracker could have been an ideal replacement for the Hudson, but for one shortcoming. Because it was designed for landing on carrier decks, the Tracker was fitted with high pressure tyres which would have rendered it unsuitable for operations from most of the airfields that Adastra was likely to visit. The seemingly obvious solution of fitting fatter, low pressure tyres was examined but eliminated because the Tracker's wheel wells would not accommodate them. This brought to an end Adastra's brief flirtation with the Grumman Tracker.

By 1973, Adastra was experiencing financial difficulties which prompted the directors to seek an investor. On the 1st of April 1973, Adastra was sold to East-West Airlines of Tamworth. There was a certain irony in this as two of Adastra’s Hudsons had previously served with East-West. Indeed, one of these Hudsons (VH‑EWS later VH‑SMO/AGP) had been converted for aerial survey by East-West, so there was no shortage of aerial survey experience at East-West. Sadly though, Adastra was allowed to run down with the Mascot maintenance base being the first to go. The remaining Hudsons were withdrawn from service and what little aerial survey work there was on offer was flown by light aircraft. Unfortunately, the East-West takeover was not to bring the salvation that Adastra had hoped for and a company which had survived the great depression closed its doors on the 30th June 1976 with the company name and remaining assets being sold to QASCO. Tragically, Adastra’s company records do not survive, but the company has left an enormous legacy in the thousands of “Adastraphotos” which survive in  libraries and archives around the nation. Although the Lockheed Hudson was used in large numbers in many countries, only a handful survive worldwide. That the following four Hudsons survive in museums is another Adastra legacy.

VH-AGJ in the RAF Museum at Hendon

VH-AGP in the Australian War Memorial, Canberra

VH-AGX at the RAAF Museum, Point Cook

VH-AGS (the world’s only flyable Hudson) at the Temora Aviation Museum.

Another Adastra aeroplane which survives to this day is Anson VH‑AGA which the company donated to the Camden Museum of Aviation in 1963. Although Adastra’s Hangar 13 is still in use at Mascot, their office in Vickers Avenue was demolished soon after the company closed its doors forever in 1976. Fortunately, the ornate glass panels from these very doors were saved by several forward-thinking Adastra staff and the panels are now on display in the Mascot Library as part of the collection of the George Hanna Memorial Museum.

Early in 2003, the realisation that so little of Adastra’s history survives, prompted several former Adastra staff to encourage the writer to develop a website on the history of the company. The website can be viewed at  www.adastra.adastron.com

Any reader who can contribute anything to the Adastra history project is invited to contact the team via the website or write to:

Kevin Pavlich
P O Box 447

The research team are also eager to hear from any former Adastra staff.

This is the original, unedited text which was supplied for the article which appeared in "AERO Australia" Issue 5 of January/March 2005. The author gratefully acknowledges that very few changes were made!


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