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Dropping from the heavens: Resupplying the patrol

Bush flying, Pindiu PNGPHIL FITZPATRICK

BACK in my kiap days it was quite common in the more remote districts for long patrols to be resupplied by airdrop. I have been on both the dropping and receiving sides of such operations.

The supplies most commonly dropped were food, usually rice and tinned fish or meat. At other times it might have been medical supplies like penicillin or specialist articles such as radio batteries and ammunition.

To get the food ready for a drop required opening the rice bags, which weighed around 20 kilograms each, and distributing half a dozen tins among the grains of rice. The bag was then tied shut before being placed in another bag, which was also tied shut but with room for movement.

The theory was that if the first bag broke on impact the inner bag would survive and the tins inside would be insulated from the shock.

A twenty kilogram bag of rice, with the added weight of six tins of bully beef or mackerel pike, was a deadly bomb and getting them down to the patrol accurately depended on the skill of the pilot and the skill of the person tossing them out of the open door of the bucking aircraft.

The selection of the drop zone was crucial. There needed to be an adequate approach and an obvious target site identified. When a bag left the aeroplane it would be travelling at the same speed, around 100 knots, and the height and trajectory of the aircraft were crucial.

If the patrol was in previously unpatrolled country, or among people with little contact with the outside world, extra care had to be exercised. Killing or injuring someone with a bag of rice was not good public relations.

The trickiest airdrop I received was in the rugged Star Mountains at the top of what is now Western Province.

There was no flat land, the terrain was all up and down and covered in tall, dense primary rainforest.

We had been on patrol for well over a month in the sparsely populated and challenging environment and were getting increasingly hungry. We had also run out of medicine to treat a raging flu epidemic in the area.

The drop zone was very tight but the pilot and the cadet patrol officer chucking stuff out of the hatch did a remarkable job. They only destroyed one latrine and didn’t kill anyone.

Better still, the cadet avoided falling out of the plane and the pilot avoided smacking into the mountain behind us.

It took several runs to get our supplies down but it was the last drop that I recall best.

From the air came several bags of speeding rice and then a biscuit tin containing several boxes of trade tobacco, glass vials of penicillin and my accumulated mail from the last few months.

It was of those big old biscuit tins with the round press-shut top.

We watched in fascination as the top popped off the tin in mid-flight and envelopes and boxes of tobacco showered down over several square kilometres of dense rainforest.

People were probably wondering for months why I hadn’t answered their letters. On the other hand, the police accompanying our patrol managed to retrieve every single stick of tobacco.

The penicillin, against all odds, stayed in the tin and only a couple of vials were broken.

Comments

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Bomai D Witne

Phil, I enjoy reading this article and your contribution in the initial stage of what became an Independent State of PNG later. Thank you. This article reminded me of a candidate dropping posters in a helicopter during a election campaign period and the people in the village running in the direction of the flying posters yelling, "money! money! money!"

Chris Overland

Phil has brought back vivid memories for me, as the recipient of a resupply airdrop.

As I recall, the goods were triple bagged in an effort to minimise losses and, while in several cases the two inner bags burst, all enclosed tinned goods were recovered intact, if slightly dented.

The aircraft involved was a Britten Norman Islander, which had a very low stall speed, thus making it very suitable for the job. It came in low and slow with ADO John Mundell doing the honours with the cargo.

The biggest concern was an over-enthusiastic local warrior who got the idea that he could literally catch the bags as they fell.

Luckily for him (and me) after having seen one bag hit the ground, he suddenly realised that this was a bad plan and scampered off the drop zone before any suffering any harm.

As for dropping things out of an aircraft, this was a task I was glad to avoid. A few hairy helicopter flights with my bum hanging halfway out of the door were quite terrifying enough thank you.

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