Reminiscences of Connellan Airways
by Ian Leslie
This article of reminiscences of Connellan Airways was originally published in Aviation Heritage, the journal of the Aviation Historical Society of Australia. It is reproduced here because it gives a good impression of the conditions under which air operations were conducted in outback Australia in the early post-war years and also because of its descriptions of the relationship between operators and the Department. Click here to read a biography of the author, Ian Leslie.
Eddie Connellan toured Northern Australia in 1938 in a Spartan VH-UJT. During this tour he met John McEwen at Mistake Creek who persuaded him to set up an air service between Alice Springs and Wyndham. He was assisted in finance by his friend Damien Miller and purchased 2 Percival Gulls and a 1920 Silver Ghost Rolls Royce with a tourer body to be used in constructing aerodromes.
There were some exciting moments in this period of the airline. On 21 December 1939 Jack Kellow had an engine failure in the Gull but managed to make Victoria River Downs Station. At Alice Springs, Eddie and his brother removed the engine from the other Gull and set off in the Rolls. The Wet season had arrived and, although 600 miles were covered in the first 24 hours, they were then faced with flooded creeks and impassable roads. It was December 26 before they got to VRD. Engine change completed, the Rolls set off again but that gave Eddie time to contemplate the enormity of his problem - the other Gull now had no engine there was no spare and no cash.
Damien Miller came to the rescue and a Miles Falcon VH-AAS was purchased from Arthur Schutt in March 1940, but it was not really suitable. It did fly some mail services to Wyndham but the problem of unsuitability was resolved when it failed to climb away on take off at Hatches Creek, a wolfram mine northeast of Alice Springs, whilst engaged on a medical evacuation flight. To make quite sure a bush fire then burnt the remains before it could salvaged.
The next acquisition was a DH75 Hawk Moth VH-UNW which was re-engined with a Armstrong Siddeley Cheetah 340 h.p. engine. It was said to be a good robust aircraft and it did a good job but was hard to start.
The War had just started, and for Eddies plans there was a major setback as his staff joined the Services. It became a one-man one aircraft operation. Eddie was appointed to the RAAF Reserve but was required to maintain his operation of the mail run.
|In 1944 Eddie purchased a Beech 17 which had been modified by Beech for a flight in the Antarctic - it had a tremendous range. When it arrived by sea the RAAF impressed it but he finally appealed to the Minister, Arthur Drakeford, and finally got possession of it, albeit in pieces and with some bits missing. It was many years before it got into the air. It was eventually registered as VH-AFP.|
And so in 1945 came the end of the War. Of the five friends and helpers who started with Eddie at the commencement of the airline just before the War, only two survived. His brother Vin and the two OKeefe brothers were all killed.
The end of the War brought the return of Sam Calder, one of the originals and also another pilot, Kyle Sellick. The Wyndham service, having started with 10 ports had grown to 23 ports by May 1945. The local Mt. Irwin service, started in 1942, was serving 7 ports by 1945. A fortnightly service to Borroloola in the Gulf started in May 1945 serving 21 stations. In the post-War years the service was gradually expanded throughout the Northern Territory and into Mt. Isa and the top of South Australia, and though the Kimberleys to Wyndham and Halls Creek.
Equipment was still a problem. Eddie sought vainly to obtain Beech 18s, then reluctantly agreed to try a DH84, VH-AXL. This type was just not suitable for the hot conditions and, predictably, in September 1946 on a take-off at Hermansburg it sank back on and was a write off.
The DH-84 was replaced with a DH90 Dragonfly VH-UTJ and another DH90, VH-UXB was purchased. In 1946 Kyle Sellick was killed and VH-UXB destroyed whilst doing a beat-up at Camooweal.
In 1947 the operational fleet consisted of two Dragonflys and one DH82 Tiger Moth, fitted with a canopy and stretcher. The first of the DH89 Dragon Rapides, VH-BKR, was added to the fleet in 1948 and was then followed by VH-UZY, VH-AHI and VH-AIK. In 1949 Colin Johnson was killed in Rapide VH-UZY at Coolibah Station on the Victoria River, NT.
So the operating fleet when I came to Connellans in 1950 consisted of two DH89, one DH90 Dragonfly and DH82 VH-BIW which had been purchased in June 1948. In 1951 the first new aircraft, an Auster Aiglet VH-KAU as purchased, and I flew it from Sydney to Alice Springs. The Beech 17 VH-AFP was finally completed in 1956.
In 1955 destruction of Dragonfly VH-UTJ at Tennant Creek, whilst being refuelled by the Shell agent, did not help in the short term, but it paved the way for a transition to metal aircraft. With the settlement from the Shell Company a Beech C18S VH-KFD was purchased from Brown & Dureau, and this was a turning point for Connellan Airways. Over the next few years two more Beech 18s, VH-BJJ and a Beech D18S VH-CLI, were acquired and later also a Beech Travelair, Beech Barons and Beech Twin Bonanzas.
The first Twin Bonanza, VH-CLA, was ferried out from the USA by Brian Monkton. During this period two De Havilland Beavers were leased and used on some of those services suitable for single-engined operations.
The post-War years, until about 1960, were the formative years of the airline where it progressed from being a one-man show. Eddie was able to acquire surplus equipment from Army disposals to set up workshops and the hangar was enlarged to develop engine shops, propeller and metal working facilities. The 1950s also marked the development of a good maintenance system suitable for a developing airline.
From 1947 to 1960 the numbers of passengers carried and passenger miles flown increased by a factor of 13, and mail from 18.1 tons to 50.4 tons. In 1947 the Airways served 75 stations, mines, and settlements and by 1960 this had increased to over 100, and then rising to about 120 and operating over 12,000 route miles.
The Airways continued to provide the flying service for the Flying Doctor Service at Alice Springs and in 1955 flew its 1000th medical flight. Five years later the 2000th medical flight was flown.
Meanwhile charter flights became an important aspect, particularly tourist flights to Ayers Rock.
is worth noting here that throughout these early days, no passenger was killed
or injured on scheduled services. The safety record of the airline was excellent
- conditions were difficult and it is a tribute to the standards adopted by Eddie
to meet the difficult conditions. At times these standards and practices were
ridiculed by some but, looking back, I believe that the Airways had an outstanding
performance in operating in poor conditions.
In 1979 Eddie was forced into a position where the only way out was to sell the airline to East West Airlines. Trading as Northern Airlines the new operator commenced in January 1980. Predictably, it encountered problems and lasted less than twelve months although it had been given most of the support Eddie had been seeking from the Northern Territory Government - with his customary intensity and uncompromising approach, but without success. That was the story of the Airline.
Going back a bit, in 1953 the years of hard work and pressure finally took their toll of Eddie and he lost his pilot licence due to hypertension. He engaged a manager to run the airline while he retired to his cattle station, Narwietooma, to work with his cattle and to recover his health. It was a period of great difficulty for the Airways and, after a year or so, it became clear to Eddie that there were problems.
that time I had flown as a full-time pilot on all the routes and I ran the office.
I was appointed manager in 1955 and managed the Company until I left in 1961.
It was a gratifying task as the airline had expanded in size and now had a staff
of about forty. It had acquired additional aircraft and we were undertaking a
considerable amount of charter work.
I will comment briefly on the types which were flying during the early 1950s, as they are the more interesting in a historical sense.
|We operated one Tiger Moth VH-BIW, and it was fitted with a stretcher. It had brakes, modified undercarriage and it was virtually impossible to nose over in it. It had a canopy covering the two seats. It was a horrible aeroplane to fly. I even flew a few scheduled services in it, and as we operated it under our airline licence, I think I am probably the only pilot in the world to have operated a DH82 on an airline service. I remember even carrying a passenger on one scheduled service, and I had to get him to hold a couple of bags of mail in his lap as there was no other place for them.|
One of the problems with the Rapides was engine fires on start-up. In conditions of extreme ambient conditions, after being shut down for about five minutes, the fuel in the carburettor tended to boil and flow into the manifold and sometimes into a cylinder. If starting were attempted during this critical period there was a real chance of fire. One Rapide was thus damaged by fire and this led to a modification of fitting metal panels near the exhaust. Later, Eddie had a fire with a Rapide VH-AIK at Turkey Creek in Western Australia and the aircraft was destroyed. The fire extinguisher was saved, but nothing else, including the annual budget submission that I had prepared for the DCA subsidy negotiations. Eddie was considering this whilst flying this mail service. I had kept no copy so I had to start again.
oil temperatures were high in the hot ambient conditions and it was a frightening
day for pilots when oil temperatures gauges were fitted. Some of us found it comforting
to paste paper over the gauge. Surprisingly, laboratory tests indicated no break-down
in the lubrication qualities of this overheated oil. Ultimately oil coolers which
could be adjusted, albeit externally, were fitted and we could look at the gauges
without alarm. This also virtually fixed the fire problem.
The DH90 Dragonfly was under-powered with two Gipsy Majors, and lacked in carrying capacity but was good for the shorter service through Mount Isa and the Barkly Tablelands. The DH90 had a great desire to ground loop, and you never really finished the flight until it had come to a stop with engines switched off.
I suffered an engine failure shortly after taking off from Tennant Creek and, even though I was the only person on board and was lightly laden, it had no hope of maintaining height in the hot conditions and I was forced to land on the Stuart Highway. It surprised a couple of people in a car who came along and gave me a lift back to Tennant, where it surprised even more the operator at Aeradio when I walked into his shack and there was no aircraft outside. The aircraft did not carry a radio. This aircraft was subsequently destroyed by fire whilst being refuelled by Shell at Tennant Creek
Beech VH-AFP, the Stagger Wing Beech. This was a great aeroplane. It had been used by the US Navy to fly over the South Pole. At that time it had been powered b a Jacobs 380 hp engine. We converted it to a Pratt & Whitney Wasp Junior 450 hp engine with a kit from Beech. It had a tremendous range, was fast and it was good for charter flights and for some medical evacuations. We had problems with spare parts - the brakes gave us some difficulties. Particularly on one occasion hen we had an unexpected visit from two DCA airworthiness surveyors in co-incidence with the arrival back at Alice Springs of a Beech 17S without brakes, and for whose arrival we had positioned most of our staff on the strip so as progressively to grab its wing tips and slow it and stop it at the end of its landing run.
The introduction of the Cessna 180 and Cessna 182 was very successful and they were used extensively on charter flights and on the local services from Alice Springs.
the Beech 18 replaced the Rapides and they proved to be a worthy replacement.
The Wasp Junior engines were most reliable, mainly, I suppose, because they had
never been stretched beyond the original design of 450 hp.
During these years of great expansion the Airways continued its excellent maintenance under the leadership of Ted Briggs, an Englishman who had served in the Royal Navy Fleet Air Arm. He initiated airline type maintenance standards and procedures and set the organisation on a sound basis to conduct maintenance and overhauls of engines and propellers. There was a large turnover of staff but there were many notable contributions. The isolation and difficult living conditions in Alice Springs, the exhausting working conditions of heat, flies, and so on were a severe test but there was always a determination to keep the aircraft flying. When Ted Briggs left in 1954, Owen Lawry took over. Owen came to the Airways in 1951 from Adelaide where he had been a fitter and turner, and he acquired all classes of LAME licences during his time with us. He later joined DCA as an Airworthiness Surveyor and ultimately became Regional Director in Queensland.
During the 1950s modern aircraft were introduced into the fleet and the old wooden and fabric aircraft were retired. It was in this period that the organisation achieved approved organisation under the new DCA airworthiness requirements and this, together with revised arrangements in the flying operations area, meant that Connellans were becoming properly structured for airline operations.
Government Financial Assistance
The subsidy provided by the Government (through DCA) was essentially for the carriage of mail and so negotiations with the Government was a very important factor of managing the airline. The Government mail payment/subsidy was the single biggest item of revenue and, further, any capital expenditure had to be approved by Government - this led to some interesting battles.
In the 1950s, as the aircraft in service were all types with only single pilot control positions, the conversions were essentially self-taught, as no-one was very keen to give instruction without having access to the controls. Of more importance was route qualification as it took many months for a new pilot to be trained: the terrain was difficult, and although all flying was visual there were few landmarks, and the weather conditions in the Wet season in the North and dusty conditions in the Centre made it essential for the pilot to know the terrain in fine detail. We made our own mud maps and these sketch maps were of more use for visual navigation than the official aeronautical maps.
Although the Airways operated some local services from Alice Springs, the main activity was in services operating to schedules spanning three, four and even six days duration away from base. On the longer services the aircraft would make about 35 stops, would reload at places like Katherine and Wyndham, and would stay overnight at cattle stations. Services were operated to strict timetable. We operated to schedules with a margin of 10 minutes early and five minutes late, and relied on stations to report if the aircraft did not arrive.
first we had no radios although we carried a small portable Traeger transceiver
for emergency use on the ground. As radios were gradually fitted to our aircraft
we were able to maintain communications using a virtually discrete frequency in
the 8 megs band with Flight Service, then called Aeradio stations. All pilots
became good friends with the Aeradio operators and we received great assistance
from them - they usually monitored the various Flying Doctor Service radio frequencies
and could keep stations informed as to our progress and delays of the service.
We also maintained a listening watch in our office in Alice Springs which could
monitor our progress, usually by hearing the read-back of the Aeradio station.
became well known to the people living in the outback, and at some times of the
year, in the Wet season, the Connellan pilot was the only outside contact. We
provided all sorts of service to those living in the remote areas - shopping for
instance. I was a JP and was in demand to witness documents in between loading
the aircraft, refuelling it and so on.
|On the longer services we scheduled overnight stops at stations and it was seldom that we were overnight in towns. The stations had to put up the passengers, but many times they were bush people and it all added to the informality of the service. For instance, at Coolibah, if the station manger were not there the pilot would assume the role of host and carve the roast at dinner. The services remained overnight at Brunette Downs twice per week and the manager told me once that I had spent more nights there in one twelve month period than he had.|
We carried some emergency rations and water - enough to keep us going for 24 hours in extreme heat. We also carried tools, spare fabric and dope, a spare magneto, spark plugs and so on. The pilot was responsible for daily maintenance and some defect rectification once he left base.
When I joined Connellans all the pilots were experienced and, other than Eddie, were all ex Air Force. For most of us it was a step backwards in technical sense in having to fly Rapides, as we had all been flying modern military types. However the compensation was that it was an interesting life.
Thereafter it was not always possible to get experienced pilots, and we had to employ some with just the bare Commercial licence experience. They were also used in other jobs, such as in the hangar or in traffic work, and it gave us a pool to train, and to draw on. Some of the young pilots had some large gaps in their aeronautical knowledge. For example, I could not understand why one pilot had an aversion to topping up with oil - when his aircraft was checked at base it always needed a lot of oil. He said he had been told whilst training to reduce the amount of oil in the tank in hot conditions as the oil would then circulate more frequently through the oil cooler, and therefore would cool the engine. Another pilot reported by radio from a cattle station that the bolt attaching the tail wheel assembly to his Auster had broken. I told him to re-fit it with a gutter bolt he could get from the station, but he demurred saying it was illegal. Not wishing to have an argument over the radio heard by everyone in the area, I sent a LAME in another flight to fix the problem. On the other hand, on a subsequent flight he flew his Auster back to base although it had some fabric torn off the top surface of the main plane of the Auster. This had occurred when he ran off a landing strip into some scrub. He said that he thought that as it was on the top of the mainplane it would not matter. The young pilots were employed essentially on local services, charter services and medical flights and this worked quite well. For the longer services it was necessary to employ experienced pilots, and this sometimes proved a problem.
We got to know very well the people we served. We often carried children on the first stage of their journey to boarding school. In the very turbulent flying conditions which persisted for much of the time, children did not travel well and some were air-sick on every flight. For some, air-sickness developed before they even boarded the aircraft because there was an association with the thought that they were leaving home again. I found that having a young child sit with me at the front of the DH89 and by putting their hands on the control column the diversion was sometimes effective in stopping the nausea, not just for that flight but also in the future. Not a very good operational practice but they were simple aeroplanes to fly.
Royal Flying Doctor Service
The Airways had operated the flying services from Alice Springs for the Royal Flying Doctor Service since 1939. Under the terms of our contract we kept one aircraft ready during daylight hours, however there were many occasions when we were able to send out three aircraft on separate evacuations.
Whilst we had a roster of pilots for the medicals, I flew many of them in the early years. I was normally at the office and if the case was very urgent I could put down my pen and be airborne in a few minutes. I flew well over one hundred medical flights from Alice Springs and carried a variety of patients. At that time it was unusual to carry a doctor but sometimes a nurse attended. Many times we used the Tiger Moth DH82 VH-BIW aircraft, and this meant that only the patient could be carried.
We did not fly at night, and this did lead to some difficult decisions or refusals when the request came too late for the flight to be completed that day. Nevertheless the senior doctors at Alice Springs, who handled the cases over the radio, understood the risks involved and I never experienced any great problems in making the decision although I was sometimes left overnight with concerns. On some occasions it was decided that the aircraft would go to the patient but remain overnight. In these cases medial staff also went. There was one such case where a lad at Mount Cavenagh station was thrown from a horse and sustained head injuries. I knew that it would be touch and go as to whether the aircraft could get to Mount Cavenagh by last light and, having given a tight deadline line for the medical staff to get to the aerodrome, I recall commencing to take off with the doctors and nurse still getting themselves into their seats. It was a marginal operation, and it was dark by the time I had landed and taxied at Mount Cavenagh. The lad survived the night and, after arriving Alice Springs very early the next morning, he underwent surgery and subsequently recovered fully.
We introduced a policy that whoever was in charge of operations at the Company would make the decision as to whether or not a medical flight would be undertaken. This was to take the pressure away from the pilot who could otherwise have been faced with great pressure from understandably concerned relatives who, nevertheless, were not equipped to assess the aviation risks. At that time there had been several fatal accidents in Australia where pilots of other companies had been pressured into making medical evacuation flights into adverse conditions. In one case the pilot, the nurse, the child patient and as his father were all killed when a flight attempted into atrocious cyclonic weather conditions. In fact the child was not in a dangerous condition but his mother would not accept a delay and the pilot was put under tremendous pressure to undertake the flight with terrible consequences. [Read more about this accident and the origin of Mercy Flights]
As the airline operated under an Airline Licence, there was a requirement that all aerodromes be licenced, not just Authorised Landing Areas. Maintenance of these aerodromes was a problem for the owners and a continual problem for the DCA Airport Inspectors - particularly as we in the Airways had our own ideas about what could be reasonably achieved, and what we required for safe operation. For us, clearing and consolidating and keeping smooth the centre thirty feet or so was our priority, with the remainder of the strip kept free of any outcrops or holes or anything that could damage an aircraft running off the centre strip.
On one occasion, following heavy rains throughout the whole of the North, we had virtually our entire fleet out of action either due to being bogged and damaged, or being repaired, or just with mechanical unserviceability. As manager I had been pondering as to what action I should take in regard to one of the pilots who had damaged an aircraft on landing on a soft strip. I felt that he had not taken sufficient care to establish the condition of the strip before attempting a landing.
|Whilst thinking about this I was also engaged on a mail-run flight. I landed at Timber Creek, in the Victoria River district, the surface was extremely soft and the aircraft went onto its nose and stayed there. Timber Creek was a Police Station and the Officer in Charge was a famous and highly respected policeman, Tas Fitzer.|
Tas had come to meet the aircraft mounted on his horse and, seeing my mishap, he came galloping up and then tried to pull me through the cockpit window. I had to resist strongly as, were I leave the aircraft, the loss of my weight against the weight of my four passengers and freight and mail would have dropped the aircraft back on its tail with disastrous results. We got the passengers out, then I got out, but Tas disappeared on his horse without word. It was apparently to go to the Station to get a bottle of whiskey and to announce to the world, by medium of the Flying Doctor Service radio, that "Connellans aircraft is on its back at Timber Creek". He then raced back to the aircraft to give me a drink and, upon my refusing, he had one for me and one for himself.
The bad weather conditions persisted, and it was not possible for another aircraft to land at Timber Creek for several days. Finally a charter aircraft from Darwin flew in with necessary spare parts, but then it was unable to take off owing to the soft condition of the airstrip. Eventually both aircraft flew out. In my own defence I might add that I had landed at Timber Creek the previous week and found the strip OK, but in the meantime grass had been cleared from the centre however, unbeknown to me, it had been cleared only on one side of the centre so that I landed with one wheel on hard surface and the left side on soft unconsolidated surface.
The problem of soft airstrips was always present and it was quite difficult for those on the ground to decide whether the strip could be used, particularly as in many cases failure to land meant that there would not another call for two weeks.
In Central Australia it was not the same problem, and in any case when rain came there was usually such relief that missing a flight was not as serious. On one occasion I got into trouble through my own stupidity and I came very close to missing my own aircraft. I landed at Argadargada Station, some 200 miles north-east of Alice Springs. It was a new station, the airstrip was not well consolidated and there had been a lot of rain. I did not know that there was no-one at the station homestead, which at that stage was only a tent, and that the strip had not been inspected. My Auster aircraft became badly bogged on my landing run. I dug the earth from in front of the wheels of the aircraft and pushed the aircraft with a lot of engine power applied, but to no avail. I then cut up some mail-bags to use in the tracks and this worked better, suddenly the aircraft came out of the bog, reached firmer ground and accelerated rapidly. I had great difficulty in scrambling aboard. I think my mind must have locked onto getting out of the bog and off the strip because, still sprawled in the aircraft, I left the throttle open, gradually got myself into the seat and then had no alternative but to continue with the take off as trees were rapidly approaching. I missed the trees by a whisker. It was not one of my better decisions.
Apart from towns such as Wyndham, Katherine, Mount Isa and Tennant Creek we had to maintain fuel dumps at a number of our stopping places - some with probably fifty drums, others were regarded as emergency dumps and had just a few drums. Getting the fuel to the dumps was always a problem, but the various station owners and mines co-operated when they could. Water in the fuel was always a problem due to the high temperatures and humidity in the northern areas, and also there was contamination with sediment.
Nevertheless the methods used for refuelling at bush dumps were effective. It appeared something of a Heath Robinson system but was effective. At each dump a semi-rotary pump was mounted on a tripod and, using a standpipe reaching to the bottom of the slightly tilted drum, the pump delivered the fuel by hose to a filter/funnel consisting of a cut-down four gallon square fuel can, with an intake pipe to which was fitted a sock of several thicknesses of aircraft fabric. The fuel would then drop onto a single thickness of fabric held over the can with a spring wire to keep it in place. Inside there was a half jam tin with fine mesh on the top and covered with another larger half can or deflector. From there the fuel went through the outlet pipe to the aircraft tank. Each filter unit was a made for the aircraft involved and was carried n it. It was quite ingenious but it worked and we never had problems with fuel. Engines like the Gipsy Major and Gipsy Six had voracious appetites for oil so we had to ensure that there were adequate stocks.
On a long mail service it was always good to have a man passenger or two to help in the refuelling. On one occasion I had a passenger, who was making a round trip with me for the whole five days. On the fourth day he seemed to lose his sense of humour, and had to remind me that he was paying for the flight as a passenger.
Whilst speaking of fuel, Eddie and I had a different sort of a problem with a fuel drum. In 1957 we took the Minister for Civil Aviation and the Director-General for a tour of the Barkly Tablelands area. Eddie was flying the Beech 18. At Brunette Downs Eddie, when commencing to taxy, ran the aircraft into a fuel drum and damaged one blade of one of the propellers. I had to arrange for a propeller to be flown from Alice Springs, and this was difficult because our spare propeller had just completed its service overhaul life, and I knew it was about to be sent away for overhaul. In a radio conversation being heard by all those stations on the Flying Doctor network I had some difficulty in persuading our Chief Engineer to ignore this illegality, and to dispatch it to us. At that stage I was beyond worrying about the legalities.
The next day I wished that I had had a camera to record the scene of an engineer fitting the propeller with the Minister, the Director-General, and also Eddie Connellan all endeavouring to assist. I kept out of the way and waited in the shade. The whole episode was an embarrassment to Eddie and to me, but I must record that the Minister and the Director-General were very reasonable and did what they could to minimise any publicity given the incident. Yes, Eddie did submit a CA 225 - Air Safety Incident Report!
In later years when I was heading the Flying Operations and Airworthiness Division in the Department of Civil Aviation I frequently had people from the industry discussing many problems with me and more than one would say that, of course, I just would not know of the difficulties faced by general aviation operators as I was a civil servant!
My years with Connellan Airways were interesting and rewarding years and I learnt a lot, many things the hard way.
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