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by Dr Noel Sproles


The 60's have been called the Age of Aquarius, but for some of us they were also the age of Adastra. Anyone who, from the mid 60's to the early 70's, was in any way connected with aerodist, the airborne profile recorder (APR), or aerial photography will remember Adastra as the contractor who provided the lumbering Hudson aircraft that allowed us to deploy these various items. Those were the days when Army aircraft had such little lift capacity that they could barely get off the ground with just a passenger let alone a few thousand pounds of aerodist equipment. They were also the days when the RAAF had better things to do than getting caught up in such seemingly un-warlike activities as survey photography. If you were any way involved, then you will remember the Adastra call signs of Alpha Golf Sierra (AGS), Alpha Golf Juliet (AGJ), and Alpha Golf X-ray (AGX) with mixed emotions. Regardless of how sweet or otherwise your memories are of these venerable aircraft, they became a part of the Corps' history and their call signs were an addition to our vocabulary for many years.

Memories are dimming as time passes but, if I am correct, I believe that all three were capable of aerial photography and were employed by the Corps at various times in that capacity. Because of the extensive modifications to the airframe and electrical system needed to install aerodist and APR, AGS alone was fitted with aerodist and AGJ likewise with APR. The longest of the several associations that I had with Adastra was in 1966 when Topo Sqn was operating in PNG in a broad band along the entire length of the border with Irian Jaya.

The main base was on Horn Island, next to Thursday Island, and a typical day's work was to fly from Horn Island to Wewak or Vanimo on the PNG north coast then back again to Horn Island. In that time they would be measuring to ground stations positioned on both sides of the mountain spine running the length of PNG. It was noisy and smelly and uncomfortable work and the physical and mental pressures at times were great. Fortunately for me I only did a few trips but some, such as George Gruzka and Eddie Anderson, did it day after grinding day.

The Hudson was a pre-war medium bomber, and of the several hundred that were purchased for the RAAF, some were eventually acquired by Adastra. By the 60s they were getting a bit long in the tooth and were much the worse for wear. Signs of age could be seen in things such as the amount of oil consumed on a long flight. AGS for one had a long thick band of heavy oily sludge on its wing behind the engine nacelles as a result of its excessive oil consumption. I observed at Wewak that it took longer to replenish the engine oil used on the trip north from Horn Island than it did to fill the fuel tanks! Ross McMillan swore that AGS had to run down the runway at Horn Island to gain additional impetus so as to get airborne with its full load of fuel and equipment as it headed off to PNG. We would stand at the edge of the runway and make careful observations to see if the under carriage was going left-right-left-right in quick time during take-off and then debate his theory. We were getting close to a consensus that he was on to something. On reflection, perhaps we had been in the bush too long by then and needed a break!

One of the nice things about operating out of Horn Island was the scenery as you came home south across Torres Strait. It was peppered with reefs surrounded by lovely turquoise water that turned to the rich blue of deep water as the reef edge plunged into the depths. Dead ahead was Cape York. The tip was plainly visible and the triangular shape was quite evident as the eastern and western coastlines gradually moved to the left and to the right to eventually span the width of the windscreen. It gave you confidence as a map maker that you were getting the shapes right at least! Our pilot at that stage was Lionel Van Praag who, in 1936, became the first Australian to win the Motor Bike World Championship. One beautiful evening, coming home to Horn Island, Lionel decided to skip the scenic tour and reverted to his motor bike racing days. He flew AGS so close to the sea that the propellers were drenching the aircraft in the spume that they whipped up. I thought at the time, as I gripped my seat tightly with both hands, that the aircraft was decrepit enough as it was without giving it a coating of corrosive salt water, but Ross McMillan expressed it more succinctly. "What am I doing flying at dot feet across Torres Strait", he said with clenched teeth, "in an aircraft built before I was born and flown by a pilot older than my grandfather". Good question.

In 1998, I attended a conference in the UK and the venue was the RAF Museum at Hendon in outer London. Being an aeroplane buff all my life, it was like being in second heaven and I took every opportunity, and manufactured some more as well, to linger in amongst the exhibits. One caught my attention from a distance as it had the distinctive RAAF roundel used in the South West Pacific. As I drew closer I could see it was a Hudson and the exhibit description stated that it was once registered as VH-AGJ, the aircraft initially used for APR operations. It had been repainted in its original RAAF colours as A16-199 but, as a memento of its Adastra days, it still has a modified plexiglass nose and not an original Hudson nose.

A few years before, in 1981, I was on a course at the RAAF School of Languages at Point Cook and there, in pieces, was AGS. You could not miss the distinctive Adastra colour scheme on the wings stacked alongside a hangar. At the time I was under the impression that it was to be restored for exhibition in the RAAF museum but it appears that it is another one of "our" Adastra Hudsons, AGX, which has that honour. Given the vagaries of memories over that span of time, maybe it was AGX that I saw and not AGS, but never mind as AGS was destined to go onto greater things. (Ed. Both AGS and AGX would have been at Point Cook in 1981 but the wings stacked beside the hangar would have been those from the damaged AGX.)

It is now not only a prized exhibit at the Temora Aviation Museum in NSW, but it has the distinction of being the only airworthy Hudson left in the world. It is unique. People will pay good money now to fly in it. "Good grief", you may well say.

However it is good to see that some things so firmly associated with the Corps are still around for people to look at and enjoy. I suppose that it is also a measure of the passing years that what were tools of the trade in our younger years are now treasured pieces stored away in museums around the world.

The preceding article appeared in issue number 26 of "Westlink" (17 December 2004), the journal of the Royal Australian Survey Corps Association (WA). It is reproduced here by kind permission of the RASCA and the author, Dr Noel Sproles. It is regretted that it has not been possible to include the illustrations from the original article. These illustrations were:
(a) Photo of Hudson VH-KOY (formerly VH-AGS) at Temora.
(b) Map of Papua New Guinea.
(c) Map of Torres Strait.
(d) Photo of the APR station on Hudson VH-AGS which can be viewed here.

The Author

Dr. Noel Sproles enlisted in the Australian Army a private soldier when 18 and left the Army 23 years later as a Lieutenant Colonel. During this time he was engaged in survey and mapping operations in Australia and overseas. He served in all the mainland states and the NT as well as in Papua New Guinea, the UK, and Indonesia. In 1968/69 he spent 12 months in Vietnam and was wounded in action while serving as an Australian liaison officer with the Thai army. After leaving the Army he spent some years as an operations manager in the wholesale grocery industry before returning to university and gaining his Ph.D. Following graduation, he was employed by the University of South Australia as a senior research fellow in defence related fields for six years before retiring in 2004. His association with Adastra was with survey operations in Papua New Guinea in the 1960s when he was serving as a staff officer at Murray Barracks in Port Moresby. In 1966 he was detached to the survey squadron conducting aerodist operations from Horn Island. Apart from a short period at Horn Island flying in the Hudson, he spent this period as officer in charge of the survey ground parties to the north of the ranges in New Guinea. Later in this period, a Hudson was based in Wewak to obtain aerial photography in the North West of New Guinea on an opportunity basis as weather permitted. He made several visits to the Adastra team during this period. The article 'Arduous Times with Adastra' was written for the Survey Corps association newsletter. Like Adastra, the Survey Corps is no longer but the spirit lives through the associations in the various states. Since writing this article, Noel has visited the Temora Aviation Museum to see their 'Adastra' Hudson. Fully restored complete with dorsal turret and WWII RAAF 'war paint', it is a great sight and one that he recommends everyone take the opportunity to see.

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