On aviation’s frontier

Gold fever

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’.

The terrain around Wau (marked) and the Bulolo River, in New Guinea. Just the coastal mountains rise well past 8,500 feet (2700 m) and are cloaked in thick, hot, disease-ridden jungle. (Map data © 2017 Google)

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.

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…

Charlie Pratt

Charles Daniel Pratt. Born in New Zealand in 1892, Pratt fought at Gallipoli in 1915 before serving with the RAF in the Middle East. After the war, he wound up in Victoria, Australia, with four War Disposals aircraft, where he went barnstorming before establishing a flying school at Geelong. He flew in New Guinea from 1927 to 1929. (State Library of Victoria)

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.

Charlie Pratt (second from left) and his DH.60 at Watut, New Guinea. The aircraft behind is, I believe DH.4 G-AUCM, which was bought by Ray Parer in 1927 and eventually withdrawn from use at Lae in 1930. (State Library of Victoria)

 

Ray Parer’s Bristol Tourer G-AUEB (cn 4965) in the rudimentary hangar (location unknown). This aircraft started life as an F2b (RAF H1248) before being delivered to Australia with a 340HP HIspano-Suiza engine. There it was bought by Horrie Miller, who soon sold it to QANTAS where it was converted to Bristol Tourer configuration in 1924. It then went to the Larkin company before being sold to Parer in late 1927 and shipped to Port Moresby, where Charlie Pratt oversaw its reassembly then flew it across to Lae. The long-suffering warbird was written off after a crash at Wau on April 17th, 1928. (State Library of Victoria)

 

Charlie Pratt’s DH.60 G-AUHJ at John Wren aerodrome, above the Watut River, New Guinea. Quite how the wood and linen Moth, designed for the English recreational market, survived in New Guinea’s tropical hell, is a miracle. Surprisingly, many New Guinea village airstrips still look as rough as this one did. (State Library of Victoria)

 

A pair of New Guinean men on Pratt’s DH-60 Moth G-AUHJ, seen in the somewhat makeshift hangar at Lae aerodrome. The company’s big DH.4 registered (but never marked) G-AUCM can just be seen in the background. (State Library of Victoria)

 

A nice shot of the Bulolo Goldfields Aeroplane Service’s hangar at Lae, with Pratt’s DH-60 being refuelled. The strange green of the prop blades is actually their canvas covers. Unless I’m mistaken the Airco DH-4 behind is G-AUCM, formerly RAF 2691, which was sold into Australian civilian hands in 1921, joined the Larkin fleet in 1922 as ‘Scrub Bird’ (when it was apparently flown by Ray Parer), and was finally sold to Parer’s Bulolo airline in 1927. (State Library of Victoria)

 

Guinea Airways Junkers G.34d (cn 2610), possibly at Salamaua, during the 1930s.This versatile floatplane, VH-UNM, was taken over by the RAAF in 1942 as A44-3 and used by the RAAF Survey Flight, before heading south to Australia and ending up at RAAF Base Rathmines on Lake Macquarie, NSW. (State Library of Victoria)

4 thoughts on “On aviation’s frontier

    1. You’re so right. I don’t imagine they had electricity, air conditioning, laundry facilities, flush toilets (without snakes, spiders, etc) or anything else we usually take for granted. They just camped out in the equatorial humidity. They would have had to ‘make do and mend’ in terms of parts and maintenance too. Plus of course, there were no mountain flying, bush flying or short field courses to prepare them. …Giants among men!

  1. Yous peak of New Guinea as though you’ve experienced it first hand . . . ?

    Beautiful pictures! And very rustic. You wouldn’t want to get any matches near that hanger in the second picture! 😀 I love the floatplane, but I’ve always had an affinity for seaplanes and flying boats.

    1. I can’t claim to have had the “pleasure” (thank goodness!) but I was raised on tales of Aussies defending the Kokoda track, which gives a pretty good picture of the Owen Stanley Ranges at their worst. Quite a few people post their PNG jungle flying adventures on YouTube; and if you really want to make a meal of it, search ‘Worst Place To Be A Pilot’ – a TV series by the UK’s Channel 4.

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