| Edited extracts
Acknowledgement: The complete version of senior pilot the late Captain Bryan McCook’s article was originally published on the Professional Pilots Rumor Network. You can link to it here (requires a little downward scrolling)
THURSDAY 3 SEPTEMBER 1964 - My first task on this fateful day entailed flying a DCA aerodrome inspector from Goroka to Nondugl in the Cessna 185.
Nondugl, in the Waghi Valley, belonged to Sir Edward Hallstrom, a prominent industrialist, philanthropist and chairman of Taronga Park Zoo in Sydney. Many birds of paradise and other exotic fauna brought into Nondugl were destined for the zoo.
Though my intention was to wait at Nondugl while the inspector finished his task, after landing and just before shutting down, DCA Madang [the control tower] called up with a request.
A Dornier DO27 had not been heard of since calling “taxiing Tauta for Madang” some while ago. Madang asked if I could have a look around the Finisterre Mountains in the vicinity of Tauta.
My heart missed a beat, for this was the replacement aircraft for one that I'd crash landed.
During my stint with the Lutheran Mission, I'd clocked up several hundred hours in both Dorniers before forced landing VH-AMQ, the one we'd called the Green Machine, piling up at Mount Elimbari a couple of years before.
I and others had a miraculous escape following engine failure. Now it sounded as though VH-EXA, the Red Machine, could be in trouble.
Ray Jaensch, chief pilot of Lutheran Air Services was, I knew, now flying the Dornier.
Later I learnt that the purpose of the flight was to have Madang’s District Commissioner, Fred Kaad, open a newly prepared airstrip at Tauta at the headwaters of the Surinam River on the northern side of the Ramu Valley.
As I wasn't sure of Tauta's exact location my forty-minute flight, there was via Dumpu cattle station to follow the Surinam valley that ran down from the Finisterre Ranges to the Ramu.
From Dumpu, I could follow the narrow, jungle enclosed river upstream until it petered out high on a steep, forest-covered mountain wall - jagged and sinister.
Circling Tauta, a few miles west of there, I could see the prominent and notorious Shaggy Ridge, where Australian and Japanese forces had fought their bloody battle.
The focus of my attention, though, was on the airstrip below, the newly made gash in the forest.
There was no sign of the Dornier, except for wheel marks on the muddy surface. It was plain to see where Ray had landed and parked, also, where the wheels had left the ground on take-off, as usual for the Dornier, a very short distance from the start of its run.
The new airstrip, as yet without a blade of grass, sloped steeply to the tree-lined river valley below.
Wasting no time, I swung round over the top in a tight circuit for the uphill landing. At the top of the strip, swinging round to park at right angles to the slope, dozens of yelling excited locals instantly closed in. The whole tribe was yelling and pointing down the strip into the valley below.
It appeared that not long after the Dornier had lifted off, some distance down the valley the engine faltered. The plane was seen to descend suddenly without again rising. Smoke was seen coming from the river valley.
Looking down, the formidable valley floor with its thick rainforest cut by a narrow, winding, boulder-strewn stream, did not fill me with hope. But take off and search I must.
Requiring no climb at all, the take-off was easy, coasting off the strip into a descent below the treetops lining the valley. In less than a minute, I saw a curl of smoke. And there it was! The wreckage of the Dornier among huge boulders in the stream.
Flying downstream as now I was, I could push the nose down and zoom over the wreckage at treetop height. Four people were on the rocks in the river. Two were waving frantically.
Coming round again, I recognised Dr Laurence Malcolm, District Medical Officer Madang. He seemed unhurt as he tended another person stretched out on a rock, some twenty metres downstream of the wreck, by then a tangled mass of burnt-out metal.
Buzzing low with a wing waggle I then climbed and called Madang with the details. My immediate destination was Goroka to collect a storepedo, a large cylindrical storage container packed with emergency gear.
Arriving there thirty minutes later, the right-side passenger door was removed and the rear bench seat. With refuelling over, the storepedo was loaded, along with Max Parker, a fellow pilot, as the handler, to dispatch it.
Another half-hour later we were coming in low and slow, for a downstream drop. On my signal, Max bundled the storepedo out on its static line, while I poured on the power, gaining height till a reverse turn could be made.
Flying over the wreck again, we saw the parachute draped over a boulder close to the wreckage. For the first time, I felt somewhat reassured, knowing that Dr Malcolm now had some tools of his trade with which to work.
Climbing now so as to assess the recovery plan the straight line distance to Tauta appeared to be about one kilometre, a tortuous climb for the survivors over boulders and through thick bush but not by no means impossible with the help of the men of the village.
There could well be a track somewhere beneath the dense jungle. Adept with their razor-sharp machetes the rescue party would have no trouble making stretchers from saplings and vines.
When I radioed Madang that I was about to land at Tauta, they replied that Tauta was closed by order of the Director of Operations, DCA, Port Moresby, and not to be used under any circumstances.
The telex to this effect also stated that my earlier landing there was in breach of regulations for the strip had not been approved, and I must submit an incident report on return to Goroka.
This stupid message I rate as by far the most ludicrous I have ever received or ever want to. Later I was to see it as tantamount to criminal. In hindsight, I should have ignored it.
Regrettably, I was swayed by the imperious tone of voice from Madang insisting I acknowledge receipt of the NOTAM [notice to airman] and further relaying the instruction that we were to remain over the crash site until arrival of the helicopter that presumably had been dispatched.
Even recounting the story years later distresses me, for Max and I circled for hours that day, knowing full well that things down in the river were bad and that time was running out for the injured.
There were two survivors wrapped in blankets stretched out on the rocks with Dr Malcolm and others in attendance. Each hour the story was the same. The chopper was on its way. No, a specific time of arrival could not be given yet.
On arrival Goroka, I called Madang and told them that the strip at Tauta was perfectly safe for a fully loaded 185 considering the present weather. I said I could easily uplift the survivors from Tauta should the need arise.
The answer was the same, “Tauta is closed to all operations. The helicopter will uplift all survivors and transfer them to the DC3 at Dumpu." Had I been standing by a brick wall I'd have banged my head against it.
After a hurried refuel and the loading of a drum of avgas, we replaced the door and returned to Tauta via the Bena Gap and Dumpu.
For hours I circled, frustrated and angry while watching the two pitiful figures stretched out on the rocks with the doctor and the others ministering to them.
By that time, extreme anxiety for the well-being of those injured had got to me. There was still no sign of the chopper, nor could an estimate for its arrival be ascertained.
I began to hate myself for not landing in defiance of the order. Had the people from Tauta started on a ground rescue at the beginning, the stretcher-bearers might already have been on their way up back up with the injured.
The inland bushmen, the 'fuzzy wuzzy angels’, became supermen when it came down to such tasks. From Tauta, the injured could have been flown directly to Madang in the Cessna 185, a flight of about twenty-five minutes in favourable weather.
Looking down on the scene in the river, a sickening feeling came over me that a tragedy was in the making. How could a man in far-away Port Moresby know whether the Tauta strip was safe or not, without seeing for himself, or questioning me about it?
When the chopper put down I could see Ray beside the pilot, head and shoulders slumped as if he was only by the seat harness, his colour ashen grey. He was unconscious. As I lifted him out to carry him to the DC-3, I could see that both his legs were broken. He was very cold and lifeless. It seemed to me that there was only a rasp of breath at times to show that he was still alive.
When they’d gone I turned to the chopper’s pilot, sitting on the pannier on the ground rails of his machine, his head bowed low to his knees. A fierce anger swept over me like a tide, as cruel, harsh words formed on my tongue, words that were meant to hurt.
I said his lateness might be the cause of Ray’s death. That I’d spent most of the day circling in a tight valley uselessly, waiting for him to arrive. I asked how the other four survivors were to be uplifted out of the river now that darkness had overtaken their rescue?
In darkness next morning, I checked the 185 over by hurricane lamp. Madang didn’t come on watch until six o'clock. Making no radio call, I taxied out. Throttle wide, I tore off for the Surinam and Tauta like a Spitfire pilot in the Battle of Britain. To the southeast, over the broad plains of the Ramu, the sky gave first glimmers of the new day.
With the sun’s first rays hitting the upper slopes of the Finisterres, I three-pointed onto Tauta's notorious airstrip. There’d been no rain overnight, a miracle in itself. The surface was firmer than the day before.
As I switched off, to my surprise, Dr Laurence Malcolm, Vin Smith, District Officer at Madang, and Patrol Officer Tony Cooke, three of the Dornier’s passengers, appeared from a nearby bush house. Their faces all showed signs of the stress suffered, during and after the crash. All were scratched, mud-spattered and grubby, but none seriously hurt.
To a man, they praised Ray fulsomely for the landing on the big boulders in the river. District Commissioner Kaad was nowhere to be seen. He’d been sitting beside Ray and was now lying in the hut seriously hurt.
Guided by the village men, they had reached Tauta in the early hours, after trekking up from the crash site in darkness. They had watched the chopper take off. That was not going to be for them, even if the pilot came back. Better the overnight trek through the bush to Tauta.
DC Kaad, who was suffering a spinal injury, was carried over to the aircraft on a bush stretcher. Laurence Malcolm considered the District Commissioner’s injuries to be serious, which told me that Ray with DC Kaad should indeed have been evacuated from the airstrip in the afternoon of the day before.
DC Kaad was obviously in intense pain. When told of the closing of the Tauta strip by a bureaucrat in Port Moresby, all three were ropeable. I felt small, for the look in their eyes told me that I should have gone in regardless of the consequences.
The thing about a chief pilot's responsibilities, and Lord knows I've had to spell them out enough times writing operations manuals , is that you’re damned if you do and you are damned if you don't.
Laurence was beside himself with rage, DC Kaad too, about the contents of the storepedo, which contained only blankets, bandages and dressings. Of sedatives, opiates, syringes, or antiseptics, there were none. Both vowed that their reports would cause heads to roll.
Before leaving, I let them know that as they were about to be party to be an illegal flight, I felt obliged to give them the option of declining. The good doc's response was a derisive snort as he set to load Fred Kaad as comfortably as he could, carefully settling him on a layer of blankets on the floor, leaving room to squat beside him.
In perfect early morning weather, cloudless and still, we climbed over Shaggy Ridge, taking in the fearsome mountains etched against the clear blue of the sky. Then it was down over Astrolabe Bay and on to Madang calling the mildly surprised tower at six-thirty, thirty miles out.
Unloading at the mission hangar we heard the grim news that last night Ray Jaensch's wife Betty met the DC3 only to find that Ray had died not long before. A sombre moment for us all, particularly Doc
Malcolm and me, for Ray had been for both of us a true wantok.
Ray Jaensch's accident was his first after war service in Europe with the RAAF. Though I had survived several close shaves virtually unscathed, I still continued to fly around the mountains of New Guinea nearly every day. So, it is fair to conclude that I must have been doing something right.
TOMORROW: TO MARK HIS 100th BIRTHDAY, WE PUBLISH THE FRED KAAD STORY