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Aviation pioneer David Inau dies in Moresby

David Inau
David Inau - "Only birds can fly. But having a man in the machine was fascinating"


Captain David Inau, CEO of Sunbird Aviation in Vanimo and a pioneering Papua New Guinean Army aviator, died in Port Moresby on Sunday after being medically evacuated from Boram. He was in the second group of Papua New Guineans to train as PNG Defence Force pilots in Australia in the mid-1970s and in 1979 became the first Papua New Guinean to fly solo in a Machi jet. Journalist Liam Fox has commented on how, in his later career with the PNG Accident Investigation Commission, he “transformed it into a competent, professional outfit”. The article that follows was written by Scott Waide in September 2017 for the Inspirational Papua New Guineans website – KJ

LAE - As a six-year-old, David Inau, watched the legendary American flying Bishop, Leo Arkfeld,   transport supplies and other cargo into some of the most remote parts of East Sepik.

At that tender age, the young David decided he wanted to fly planes.

“I guess it was the  sense of being suspended in the air in a machine that fascinated me.

"Only birds can fly. But having a man in the machine was fascinating.

“As soon as I knew how to build toy airplanes out of sago fronds, I was building them and I would play with them.”

His dad, Simeon Auriap, a health worker who served in the community wanted the young David to become a doctor. The first step towards that goal came when he was selected to attend boarding school at Kaindi Primary School.

Then in 1970, he went on to Brandi High School where he did forms 1 to 4, the present day equivalent of Grades 7 to 10.

“Back then, it was difficult to get a placing. So I was very fortunate to get a placing in boarding school.”

In his preliminary year of year at the University of Papua New Guinea, the government put out a notice seeking people to be recruited as cadet pilot in the new Papua New Guinea Defence Force.

Out of 700 hundred applicants, David Inau joined a group of 11 cadets and headed to the Royal Australian Air Force flying School at Point Cook. They were the second group of pilots recruited into the PNGDF.

The mid-1970s, was a period of transition for the Defence Force. Brigadier General Ted Diro had been made commander. He was on the selection committee that chose the 11 cadets which included Sam Siaguru, Paul Lareki and Paul Kase.

As Independence neared, there were mixed feelings.

Although not being physically present during the period, David Inau, felt that the new country was not prepared for the transition to Independence. But also felt that there was a need to remove the fetters of Australian colonialism.

“I thought Independence had come too early. We didn’t have enough qualified people. I also thought that functions like finance should have been controlled by Australia.

“But also, I was in support of it. Growing up, I saw a lot of inequality. There was a lot of discrimination.

“There were places for white people only and that really angered me. Why did we have to put up with this nonsense, I thought.”

After returning from Australia, David Inau, became a co-pilot in the old DC-3s which were handed over to the new army by the Royal Australian Air Force. DC-3s were twin-engine planes used commercially and by the military. Some of his best memories as an army pilot were on the old planes.

“We flew only DC-3s at the time. The army had only DC-3s.   They were the best airplanes. They are a pilot’s airplane.”

Unlike planes of today which have a lot of functions automated and computerized, the DC-3’s functions were all manual. Many DC-3s are now museum pieces.

David Inau
In May 1979 Lt Inau became the first Papua New Guinean to fly solo in a Machi jet. He's seen here receiving an award to mark the achievement

Back then, as part of the capacity building of the PNGDF, he personally took possession of a former RAAF DC-3 and brought it to its new home in the country.

“The plane that now sits at the Lae Botanical Garden… I flew that all the way from Melbourne.

“With the DC-3s, we used to do airdrops for troops along the border and other essential activity.

“The DC-3s also carried troops and their families home for holidays. We used to fly from Moresby to Lae…Wewak… Madang….”

In 1982, Captain David Inau’s career as a pilot nearly ended.

On a PNGDF Normad aircraft, the crew departed from Port Moresby, headed for Daru in the Western Province. On board was then foreign affairs minister, later prime minister, Rabbie Namaliu.

After arriving in Daru, they took off for Weam and Morehead along the PNG-Indonesia border. A young co-pilot was flying the plane. In mid-flight, a series of events occurred in which both engines had shut down.

“I managed to restart one of the engines but we had lost so much height. I tried steering the plane towards the runway but we hit the mangroves near the runway.

“My co-pilot and I were seriously injured. Sir Rabbie Namaliu, broke his arm.”

Hot oil that leaked out of the plane upon the crash poured into his flight suit and burned 70% of his body. He also suffered severe head injuries and a broken arm.

David spent the next nine months in hospital recovering from the burns and the head trauma. When he returned, the army decided to ground him.

“They decided that I should be placed in logistics. I didn’t like it and I left the army in 1982.”

The army experience was, and still is, his most valuable.

“Military personnel are among the best trained in the world. I didn’t realize until I joined a civilian organisation that I had some of the most sought after skills on offer.

“If you look at it, Captain Ted Paki and Captain Daniel Wanma… they’re all former military pilots.”

Captain David Inau returned to flying as a commercial pilot. In recent years he is known for his work as the Chairman of the Aircraft Investigation Commission which he established in 2010.

He still carries the army discipline that added to the values his father taught him when he was growing up.

“My father had a lot of influence. He taught me respect. He never beat my mom.

“For young people my advice is to decide what you want to be and work towards it.

"You have to have commitment. You have to commit yourself to what you want to get.

“And you must have discipline.”


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Greg Drew

I am saddened to hear of David’s passing, which brings back fond memories of my time as a contemporary aircrew cadet; I recall that all of the PNG guys were exceedingly popular and well liked; great guys who went back to fly in one of the most challenging aviation environments on the planet, vale David

Chris Overland

Thank you for this story Scott.

When I first arrived in PNG in 1969, the notion of any Papua Niuginian learning to fly any aircraft, let alone a Macchi jet would have been regarded as a fantasy.

Nowadays, there are PNG pilots flying international passenger and freight aircraft as a matter of routine.

Much has changed yet much has stayed the same too. Papua Niuginians still live in two very different worlds, one ancient and one modern. The lines between the two worlds are blurred in many ways yet they continue to coexist.

Captain Inau was fortunate to survive the crash you mention. The Nomad was a notoriously difficult aircraft to fly, with a nasty tendency to drop its tail off under certain conditions. It was not well liked by military pilots and, as I recall, the last plane produced by Australia's Government Aircraft Factory.

Anyway, well done and vale to Captain David Inau on a long and distinguished career.

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