Bush Pilots Airways' DC-3 VH-PWN at Brisbane on 24 November 1974, just one month before Cyclone Tracy struck Darwin. (Picture: Ron Cuskelly H176)
At about 3:00am on 26 December
1974 (Boxing Day) Bush Pilots Airways General Manager, Ron Entsch heard
loud banging on the side of his Cairns house. He awoke to find an anxious
Stan Watkins (Chairman of T.J. Watkins Builders - a friend and a customer)
bearing news of the disaster in Darwin. Stan desperately wanted a DC-3
to haul supplies and other items to Darwin and evacuate staff to Cairns.
Stan was in action mode and he wanted the aeroplane immediately! Assembling
a crew in those deep slumber hours on Boxing Day was a challenge but
soon everyone was in top gear and ready to go.
Captain Bill Kelman
28 February 2012
I recall, we started work at 2am on 27th December 1974, endeavouring
to get to Darwin as soon as possible. Once the charter was confirmed,
a departure time was arranged and a Tech Crew rostered. Iím not sure
whether there was not a female crew member available or the company
thought things might be a bit rough up in Darwin, but I was asked if
would like to do the trip. I think I was probably chosen as I would
have been on days off anyway, so it would not upset the roster. I hadnít
had any training as a flight attendant up to that point, and as far
as I can remember my endorsement consisted of Col Shedden briefing me
on how to give a life jacket demo. Anyway, I was 20 years old and bullet-proof,
so I was looking forward to having a sticky beak at Darwin after the
big blow. I felt confident going with Captain Bill Kelman and First
Officer Rob Van Wyck who was not that much older than myself and this
put my mind at rest. However, I remember Charles Winter (another Traffic
Officer at the time, and a former British SAS member and mercenary soldier
in a past life) advising me not to get emotionally involved in what
I was to see in Darwin. So I took that on board.
After leaving Cairns, we headed to Normanton and then Tindal for fuel. It was a bit sobering flying into Darwin, as the place seemed like one big rubbish tip, with barely a building undamaged. The airport buildings were probably some of the least damaged, but there was quite a mess there too. The chaps we had brought up from Cairns left us, and so we just had to wait for them to return with their other company personnel before making the trip home. By this time it was about mid afternoon or so.
About that time some official people turned up asking if we would do an evacuation trip to Alice Springs that night. One of them said in a brash manner that if we didnít make the trip, they would commandeer the aircraft and do the trip themselves. As it looked like we were in for a night sleeping in the old DC-3 or worse, a soft bed in Alice Springs and a side trip to fill in the time until our folks were ready to leave, seemed not too bad an option. So off we went.
They loaded up the aircraft full of passengers until there were no seats left, and with full tanks of fuel so we could do the trip nonstop, we somehow got off the ground. I cannot remember who did the trim sheet for that sector, but even with the small amount of baggage allowed per passenger, I think there may have been a little fudging of the books. But that was ok "as this was an emergency trip.Ē
The trip to Alice Springs was pretty uneventful as the passengers were rather shell-shocked and just glad to get out of town. Most just dozed off soon after we were airborne. Arriving in The Alice we unloaded our passengers, put the plane to bed, and headed off to the pub where we were to stay, probably being better accommodated than those poor souls. However, by this time it was 1am and we had been on the go for 23 hours. The main bed in my room hadnít been made up since the previous occupants, as I guess there had been a lot of people passing through there, but I didnít care. There was another sofa bed there and I crashed into that.
We left for the airport about 7am next morning, and after refuelling, kicking the tyres and stuff we headed off for Darwin again. I donít remember a thing about that part of the trip, probably because I slept most of the way, as we had no passengers.
I canít remember waiting very long in Darwin either, so I think we loaded up fairly quickly with another full load of passengers and headed for Cairns. Again this was getting late in the afternoon by the time we left as a flight from Alice Springs to Darwin takes the best part of a shift in the old DC-3 (about 5 hours). Just like the trip to Alice Springs the night before, the passengers were a very sombre lot, requiring very little and just wanting to sleep and get out of there. After stopping in Gove for fuel we continued on to Cairns arriving about 9 or 10pm. It had been a very memorable couple of days.
14 March 2012
|Added Murray Walmsley's account.|