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Bruce Beale

by Bruce Beale


In April 1968, I had presented my flying credentials to a rather old, scruffy looking Chief Pilot and was walking out the door with yet another "sorry no vacancies" ringing in my ears when behind me came "whoa .hang on a mo!" Lionel had just read in my CV that I had, until recently, been installing an airfield radar system at Ohakea (in NZ) and weather radar systems around many of the Pacific Islands. It transpired that a radar technician was desperately needed to join a Hudson crew out at a place called Giles! Within hours I was duly deposited at The Alice and introduced to a bunch of guys who not only seemed to party continuously, but transported themselves around in the most dilapidated, dusty, oil covered aircraft I had ever seen (AGX). Captain Bob Marty, Alex Whitworth (Nav), Reg Nelson (Radar tech), Neil Edwards (Eng.) seemed to be living a lifestyle not dissimilar to Mel Gibson's "Air America". Such was my introduction to Adastra, Tom Flood's hostel at The Alice (where we seemed to end up 'on leave' every few days), and life camping 'desert style', (because we had been chucked out of the Giles weather station mess) in one of the remotest parts of Australia.

The radar work was of course the airborne profile recording systems (APR) used on the Hudsons to provide altitude and lateral references for the higher level photography that had been conducted earlier over the Gibson and Simpson deserts. There followed, some memorable months, during which I introduced a portable radar target screen system for calibrating the APR (to save endless flights to various calibration locations). Bob Marty departed not long after my joining the company and many interesting and entertaining hours were spent in AGX flying "Lionel style", followed by a longer spell with John Hampshire (a very experienced Super Connie and Sunderland pilot).

In December 1968, Brian Costello was promoted from the C206 to a Hudson and I was offered a position, flying Adastra's C206, VH-DGD. The check flight with Lionel remains one of the most searching I have ever had. At no other time in my flying career (on single engine aircraft) have I been expected to demonstrate a forced landing with the wheels running through a field of grain on the selected landing zone, followed by a climb up a hillside that had to be at precisely best 'angle of climb' speed to avoid hitting the terrain. With Lionel, everything had to be as realistic as possible!

It seems quite adventurous by modern standards to fly a C206 right across Australia (about 6 times) with nothing more than a compass and 'precessing' DG! While we carried out RC8 photography in many places throughout Australia, most of DGD's work at the time, was in the developing Queensland coal fields and all the associated infrastructure, roads, rail and National Mapping projects, Fraser Island etc. Since we were often climbing to 25,000' above Mackay, Cairns or Townsville, places like Brampton or Dunk Islands were much more "convenient" bases. One flight that remains a highlight, was our photography of the test launch of the Australian Navy's new rocket powered torpedoes (Ikara). We (crew myself, Mike Wood and Mark Liardet - I think ) flew some 100NM out from Nowra (VFR of course - but legal in Navy airspace) and liaised with the 'fleet', positioning ourselves directly over the launch point as the rocket was fired and capturing the entire flight on film. We were about the third or fourth crew to attempt this and the first to succeed!

Whilst flying out to rendezvous with the fleet, one lesson well learned by a young pilot, was what happens flying VFR at 14,000' over the sea in quite good visibility, when the horizon (due to increasing haze), ever-so-slowly starts to blend in with the sea. Next thing we were over at 45deg and although I had already initiated correction, Mike, sitting in the R/H seat and quite sure we were headed for disaster, had to be pried off the controls. Subsequently I have known of at least two aircraft losses in PNG (at a much lower altitude of course) that could probably be attributed to this phenomenon.

On leaving Adastra (in 1970) I obtained all ALTP subjects and later that year joined SAATAS in Darwin flying C310's and C337's around the top end. Thoroughly enjoyable (and challenging) charter work into the many hundreds of station & mining strips that dot the top end from Karumba through to The Alice & Derby. (That in itself would make another interesting website).

Following this was a spell in Air Traffic Control (Sydney) - not my scene - then work (utilising my electronics background) on shipping in the Port of Brisbane for about a year.

In 1974 I joined Mapmakers in Port Moresby, flying an old turbo PA-23 on aerial photography around Queensland and Papua New Guinea, doing (on a smaller scale) much the same work as we did in Adastra. The camera for the wildly varying terrain of PNG was (of course) the old reliable Wild RC8 and the photography covered just about every aspect of life in 'developing' PNG - from the volcanoes (infrared photography of the Rabaul area prior to the eruption) through to mining, forestry, land boundary and town surveys. When crewing with Jess Vasquez*, we took some vertical shots of Manum volcano near Wewak, as the lava boiled away merrily underneath. Jess only told me later about the rather large rocks he had seen through the drift sight hurtling our way!

Papua New Guinea is very challenging - probably one of the most difficult and dangerous areas to fly in the world, and although we did not really have the operational weather worries of other pilots, survey flying was, nevertheless, exceptionally difficult. In PNG it was not a case of just waiting for a fine day, you had to work out in advance which day it was likely to be and then have the aircraft sitting at 25,000' ready to roll at precisely the first sun-angle time. Then you had on average about 15 - 20 mins to get something in the can. No second chances! If you missed, in some areas it could be a year or more before you had another chance. To make matters worse, the lovely yellow plastic 'ground targets' often made excellent rain coats.

This also produced servicing issues - we had to be serviceable come what may, so plenty of spare parts were carried on board, with oil and filter changes 'on site' with a great deal of "crew servicing" whenever possible. Now, where would one get experience doing that sort of thing?

However, even survey work required transiting "PNG VFR" in some horrible weather conditions and I can well relate to Wally Bowles story about the flight into Lae. It was not as if you had a choice whether or not you wanted to fly in these conditions, the weather was often inflicted on you. For example, it was not unusual to be carrying out photography at 25,000 in wide-open blue sky and then be landing in the same location 40 minutes later in torrential rain - especially when the Inter Tropic Front was around. It's rather interesting flying when there is nothing but solid water outside the cockpit. I could not count the times I thanked the engineers who designed these wonderful engines and systems that "soldiered on" through conditions that should have been impossible! I can recall taking off at Tabubil (Western Highlands) once. As we commenced the takeoff roll (one way, down the slope), there was perfect visibility along the strip and the departure track. By the time the aircraft was at rotate speed we were in zero visibility and "on the gauges" due to torrential rain from a Cb that had just "let go". (We were also heading for a cliff - this was before the strip was realigned to its present position).

I spent about 13 years doing this - and loved every minute of it.

Returned to Auckland in 1987 and built my own house (literally) in Greenhithe. That was followed by another short spell back with Mapmakers in PNG, then 10 years as General Manager of an Auckland electrical manufacturing business, before starting my own business (with wife Susan) in 2000.

As "Albany Electronic Components Ltd", we now supply components to electronics manufacturers mostly throughout New Zealand and Australia.

Bruce Beale
18 July 2005

* Correction 07AUG11:
The other crew member on this flight was previously named as Richard Rudd. Although Bruce did fly with Richard Rudd, the crew member on the flight in question was Jess Vasquez.