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Tales from the kiap times - Sewing up a DC3

Qantas DC3, PNG, 1950sBOB CLELAND

“JULIE, have you got a curved needle and some strong thread?” I asked.

“I think so, I’ll look. Why do you want it?”

“Because I want to sew up a DC3.”

“Oh…. You want to do what?”

While Julie rummaged in her sewing kit, I quickly told her the story.

“There. Will that do?” I wasn’t surprised that she found a needle, living on an outstation, Julie had just about everything associated with sewing.

It was 1959 and Julie and I lived in Balimo, a remote government post about 500 kilometres west of Port Moresby.

“Yes, that looks okay,” I replied. “You’d better come with me right now, we need to hurry.”

I drove the 10 minutes to the airstrip on our only mechanised transport, the Ferguson tractor.

Julie, clutching the curved needle and a reel of strong linen thread, struggled to keep her seat on the floor of the bouncing trailer behind me. On the way, we stopped briefly at the hospital and ‘borrowed’ a reel of four-inch wide sticking plaster.

Earlier in the day, just after the DC3 aircraft landed on its weekly visit, the station tractor was driven under a wing and pulled up beside the door to unload mail, freezer and other cargo.

But the driver hadn’t allowed for a tall stick, which was pointing upright in a slot in the trailer’s tailgate. A labourer had used on an earlier trip to steady himself as the trailer bounced its way from Balimo station to the airstrip.

That stick was just a bit too long. As the trailer passed under the wing, it caught the fabric of the aileron (the wing’s only non-metal surface), leaving a very neat ten-inch, t-shaped rip in the material.

The aircraft couldn’t be flown with a tear like that as the rushing air may have stripped all the fabric from the control surface. The DC3 crew gloomily considered the prospect of being stranded in Balimo until a technician could be flown from Port Moresby – a two-and-a-half hour flight. Someone said jokingly, “Can’t we just sew it up?”

I took the cue.

When Julie and I arrived with the DC3 repair kit, the crew’s mood changed from gloom to optimism.

Between us, we managed a multi-stitched and knotted repair that would have drawn admiration from a surgeon.

Several strips of sticking plaster locked it together and would help smooth the airflow. Both pilots were satisfied.

They had the plane emptied of all cargo, taxied to the runway and took off for a test flight. A slow low-level fly-over enabled us to see that everything was OK so far.

A bit more altitude and some severe zig-zagging, and again the aileron looked OK.

They seemed to use the test as an excuse to throw that DC3 around as if it were a Tiger Moth. We had our own private air show, and very entertaining it was too.

By now a crowd of about 20 people had gathered as the test culminated in a low, full throttle, wheels-up pass straight at us, with a steep pull up over our heads.

The DC3 landed and we could see the repair hadn’t moved at all. The crew were happy, the plane was reloaded and took off for Port Moresby.

I sometimes wonder how much the Department of Civil Aviation was told of that incident.


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Arthur Williams

A good yarn Bob. Amazing some of the aviation stories experienced by ex-kiaps, chalkies etc during their years in the Territory.

Glad when anyone writes it for future generations to know about 20th century life in their home areas.

Wikipedia says Balimo airstrip elevation is 30 metres. When I lived in area in 1979-80 it seemed so flat and we would drive past the strip on the way to collect our Pasuwe Ltd trade goods left at Tai Creek on the bank of the Aramia as the water access to Balimo lagoon would rapidly disappear and be unnavigable to Steamies’ coastal boats like MV Ame Rupa etc.

When notified of the cargo being left there a couple of my staff would camp out for few days to keep goods safe as it was a long- perhaps 12km round trip from river to Balimo store.

Recall the huge drains all around the landing area to try and keep it open in the wet. One naughty PWD worker was wanted by irate parents of his temporary girlfriend.

Doing his early morning airstrip inspection, OIC Dick Randolph hid the scared worker at the far end of the strip in one of the then luckily dry drains.

Later he told the Talair pilot of the extra passenger who would rapidly jump into the plane a long way from the watchers in the ‘terminal’ as it waited for permission to take off.

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