WARRADALE, SA - Flying in pre-GPS Papua New Guinea was certainly an unforgiving process. I knew a number of people who did not survive it.
Harry Balfour-Ogilvy was a kiap in our intake in November 1965. He, his wife and two infant daughters all died in May 1970 when a dangerously overloaded plane took off from Gurney in Milne Bay.
From memory, it took about 8-10 days to find the wreck, even though it was only 10 minutes from take-off point.
Inspector John Collett, RPNGC, had his own plane. On transfer from Mt Hagen to Rabaul, he took off from Lae with his wife Nancy on board. They disappeared somewhere between Lae and New Britain and no trace was ever found.
I recall three incidents where I almost did not come back either.
One day I took off from Tabibuga in Jiwaka Province en route to Mt Hagen in a Talair Cessna 206 with a pilot who will remain un-named.
He took his eyes off the task at hand to draw me a picture of a building he wanted to put up somewhere.
We both happened to look up at exactly the same second to see a Catholic Mission 206 en route from Mt Hagen to Madang at precisely our height and no more than 100 feet to one side of us. Had we met head-on at 206 cruising speed, that would have been it.
On another occasion in 1974 in Mt Hagen, my wife and I decided to spend a weekend in Wewak, so organised three others to fill a Macair 206 charter and have a nice break on the coast.
On the Sunday at lunchtime, the pilot decided he wanted to leave immediately for Hagen as he feared a build-up of afternoon cloud.
After some discussion we agreed and set off. Across the Sepik and into the mountains, he picked up the right river to follow (the Lai) but tracked it too far and found himself heading for Wabag instead of Mt Hagen.
The area came under Baiyer River control and I had worked in the region and walked all over it so I knew exactly where we were.
We ran into heavy cloud and the pilot spent some time circling trying to get through. I knew there were solid mountains in those clouds, and was about to tell him so, when he turned and followed the river back down.
He suddenly spotted a small bush strip and dived towards it, obviously going to land and ask where he was.
I screamed at him, "That's Lumis! Baiyer River is over there and Hagen is that way."
Fortunately he listened, and we safely landed in Mt Hagen. The pilot, a young fellow, jumped out of the plane quicker than I’d ever seen and ran into the terminal, I guess to find the toilet.
The third incident I recall was a flight from Wabag to Mt Hagen, also in 1974.
It was about 4.30 in the afternoon in Wabag and three of us wanted to get back to Hagen that night.
The weather, although not flash, wasn't too bad and the pilot said, "If you want to come, I'll give it a go."
District Commissioner Bob Bell was on the strip and made it known there was no way he would get into a plane at that time. Good advice, it turned out.
About halfway to Mt Hagen, the clouds started really building up and the pilot did much circling looking for holes. Then all of a sudden, complete white out.
Anyone who has flown flew in PNG would understand the feeling. At 5.30 in the afternoon with rapidly failing light, clouds full of mountains and nothing to be seen but cloud.
I was mentally calculating out how my wife would survive financially when I wasn't there anymore.
Then a large miracle. A hole opened up and down we went into what turned out to be a good move.
We emerged from cloud over the top end of the Nebilyer Valley and made it back to Mt Hagen’s airport at Kagamuga with about 30 seconds to spare before darkness.
All part of the experience but, looking back, it doesn't really bear thinking about.