Even today, New Guinea is a hell of a place to commit aviation. The entire island (now bisected into Indonesian West Papua and Papua New Guinea) is literally bigger than Texas – by about 100,000 km2 – and steep mountains soar over 14,000 feet into the hot, equatorial air, creating a deadly home for the term ‘clouds with rocks in them’.
Huge rivers cut through dense jungles that, thanks to the hot and wet climate, climb most of the way up the mountains. Any flat ground along the river valleys usually has a dense covering of fierce grass up to 2 metres high.
Oh, and if you think the grass is fierce, the thousand-odd local peoples carry a reputation for cannibalism that just won’t go away…
Aviation first came to this forbidding island for that most pragmatic reason of them all – gold.
Huge gold deposits were first discovered on the Bulolo and Watut Rivers, deep in the northern Owen Stanleys, in 1926. It set of a massive, industrialised gold rush.
However overland transport from the nearest coastal ports of Lau and Salamaua, even using the mighty rivers, took eight days – and lives. So while commercial aviation remained a risky novelty at the time, compared to New Guinea’s hostile terrain it was safe, reliable and, above all, fast.
Still, an indication of the region’s unmitigated hostility was the fact that it took the first airplane three attempts to even find Wau from the air…
One of those early New Guinea pilots, arriving in 1928, was Charles Daniel Pratt. Along with his brother Len, ‘Charlie’ Pratt flew up from Victoria, Australia in his De Havilland DH.60 Moth to join the extraordinary Ray Parer and his Bulolo Goldfields Aeroplane Service.
Parer had served in both the Australian Flying Corps and Royal Air Force during World War One, before flying home to Australia and joining so many others chasing a career in aviation.
He’d arrived in New Guinea in 1926 and was reputedly the first person to fly over the Owen Stanley Range.
He then set up an airline alongside the gold company’s own service, pioneered by EA ‘Pard’ Mustar with a DH.37 (G-AUAA) bought from Australia’s Department of Civil Aviation. Mustar’s fledgling Guinea Airways would soon comprise a fleet of tough, all-metal Junkers aircraft and, by 1930, was conducting the largest air freight operation in the world.
On aviation’s frontier
With no end of demand, Parer’s little airline also found success against the endless natural challenges, and he soldiered on in New Guinea until Japanese forces attacked the island in 1942.
By 1929, however, Len Pratt had contracted the region’s rampaging malaria, so both he and Charlie returned to the more benign climate of southeast Australia. But not before Charles Pratt had snapped some gold of his own – precious views of those early days on aviation’s frontier.