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by Mike Wood


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 victory.

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.

Mike Wood
4th June 2003



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