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Tales of An Old Aviator .... The Big Chill

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Tales of An Old Aviator .... The Big Chill

Old 7th Mar 2004, 07:48
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Ah...the Goroka Gumi Ball.... the Banz races...thieving haus bois.....

Then as you said Duke along comes Goof and promises them Independence and within 20 years the place is a basket case.

Old 9th Mar 2004, 04:07
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We were inbound to the mine. Upstream that is. The mighty Iskut River has been laid to rest for the winter, cloaked in its shroud of snow and ice. Icy water flowed in her veins beneath .... she was still a dangerous viper.

We had aboard , sixteen hundred gallons of stinking diesel fuel to feed the mine's thirst of 4500 gallons per day. This was the return trip from Wrangell , Alaska , where we had flown the three huge bags of gold concentrate with a total weight of ten thousand pounds. The C117's two Wright 1820's growled away in unison , as we scooted along beneath a grey overcast.

Past the confluence of the Stikine and the Iskut Rivers we flew .Directly East now ... into the teeth of the wind.
"Delta Oscar Golf .. Hoodoo 1500 feet inbound" reports Rob as we both look left , up the steep draw ... to the HOODOO Glacier.The descending cold air from the glacier T-boned us with thumping , wallowing turbulence.

Around the corner , flying slightly East South East now we see the narrow gap through which we must fly in order to see the strip at Bronson Creek which will appear suddenly to our right.
But we are not at the gap yet. We are searching the river .. racing quickly through our check list in order to do so. I crowd the south bank . Visibility out of a Super DC3 is poor unless you bank the generous wing and engine cowl downward but then the sheer mountains on the other shore stare you down .. I bank away just as I caught a glimpse ..

It is easier to see the wreckage in the spring when the yellow and green metal lies awash in gravel. But today the cold East wind bares some of the remains ... already at the gap now and the wide gravel strip appears to Starboard ... Rob looks up the strip for any taxiing traffic ...checks completed with a quiet reverence ...into the widening bowl for the 270 degree turn to final. Gross weight ... slightly high on purpose .. even though a perfect approach to an uphill sloped runway looks high...Lots of power on .. not too much though , I don't want to rely a whole lot on power , some of which can vanish when you need it. Height is easy to get rid of in a loaded freighter ... but you don't want to set up a sink rate .

"V Ref plus ten" I have time to sync the props ...may as well make it perfect." V Ref plus five" calls Rob. Touchdown any second .. she squats softly onto the big oleos as the soft big tires touch the gravel with a slight check forward to keep the tail proudly poised...Eighty knots .. there are shapes in the snowbank .. out of the corner of my eye... to the left. Snow covered blobs . five or six . I am not counting now as I slowly lower the tail and slow down without use of brakes , uphill , engines idling up to the pumpout station. I exchange my fox -furlined gloves for the stinking diesel pair .. I ponder for a moment.

Donny never had a chance. The burning engine had already fallen off when the skilled Captain bellied the DC4 onto the gravel bar in flames. A mile or two short , he was . He wasn't quite at the gap yet and then a viscous right bank would have been required to line up with the suddenly appearing runway which was tough with everything going for you. He made a decision and saved his crew.

The brave Captain was missing , presumed drowned. Donny couldn't swim. The crew crossed the cold river and survived.

Back to work . have to unload the fuel , load three big frozen 3000 lb bags of gold concentrate bound for Wrangell , Alaska and do it all over again.
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Old 9th Mar 2004, 11:28
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It was the demise of the DC4 that had brought us here , to a place of rare , spectacular beauty that was rarely appreciated as it was usually lashed by rains in the fall and cloaked in heavy snow in the winter. On a clear day , Johhny Mountain stood like a sentinel above all with its beard of driven snow whisping off the top , driven by the constant winter winds.

We were new at the mine. We had completed a couple of trips but we certainally were'nt broken in yet. The miners and administrators were a tight bunch so friendships would be hard won. I had to deal with the management of the Snip gold mine and we felt somewhat unwelcome as we hashed out an agreement and signed up.

It sounded so simple. Each trip was to fly three concentrate bags, each weighing 3000 pounds , to Wrangell , Alaska , and either return with groceries or diesel fuel.

I quickly phoned HQ and told the Operations Manager of our contract and to have the Chief Pilot hire two more Captains. I knew that I would soon train Rob as a Captain but I would have to hog a lot of the initial flying as I felt I was a rookie here. I wasn't comfortable myself yet. Maybe thats how I got to 18,000 hours.

There was a procedure in place at the mine and we chose to conform as it had taken years and many accidents to cement them in place.
Pushed back from the strip and behind the snowbank were remains of a DC4 , DC3 , Bristol Freighter , Beech 18 , a single Otter and more .

We were REALLY paying attention. To Dave Menzies that is. He was partner in and Captain of the Bristol Freighter.
They were a competing company with years of seniority ahead of us.

They had been here for years and had seen it all. He explained the procedures in Wrangel Alaska , customs , loading , circuit procedures and most of all , radio reporting points.

This man and Donny , the Bristol engineer quickly gained our respects.
They weren't going to spoon feed us however.

After all , we were all there for the Gold .
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Old 9th Mar 2004, 15:14
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I'm glad this has been made a sticky.

Tales of derring-do from a world a million miles from mine.

My father is ex-RAF and used to knock around SE Asia in the 1940s with little fellas trying to shoot him. I know he'll love your book Duke.

Keep up the yarns mate and keep fighting the fight.
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Old 10th Mar 2004, 13:18
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There was plenty of flying to go around. Days were short in the middle of winter so the backlog of con bags grew rapidly. Over two thousand bags to go .. two airplanes carrying three bags per trip each ... months for us.

Now throw in some sh*t weather and lots of breakdowns.

Just when you thought things couldn't get worse ... it does.

It was like living in an aviation biosphere.

It was supposed to be a remote mining camp but a camp it was not. More on this later.

There were no roads.

Aviation was its life link.

If you braved the biting , stinging wind and the driven snow you could walk down the side of the airstrip , past the crashed hulks to a temporary hangar that housed a hovercraft. It was built in my home town in Australia.

Four huge turbo diesels propelled this Banshee wailing behmoth at a great rate of knots downstream to a drop off point down by the power station at the confluence of the Stikine and the Iskut. 30 bags at a time... wow!..nothing could compete with it. Nothing.

It scared the living sh*t out of any animal that dared live within its aural range of terror. I think it was the Native community who finally were rewarded by its withdrawal from active duty. It sure was an impressive beast.

But there it sat idled in its own hangar and cloaked in politics.
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Old 10th Mar 2004, 16:46
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I'm enjoying your tales. I know most of the PNG players... but was Captain Seiko Jimmy B with TN?
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Old 12th Mar 2004, 17:04
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People, there are times when all 3 JB Mods are otherwise engaged in real time, and do not have time to do more than skim the forum and check if any posts have been 'reported to Moderator'.
Yesterday was one of those days.
A very offensive post was put on this thread. We didn't see it and the 'Report this post to a moderator' button was apparently U/S.

One member did take action and another forum's Moderator thankfully called our attention to it in the Admin forum. So today that post got removed.
With the new server online this weekend you can again use the button in place for just such occurences instead of sending a mail or PM.

Of course with the after-the-fact moderating system we have here, we will never catch all of the idiots all of the time and that is the price we pay for the instant access that makes the place lively and vibrant.

Duke, apologies and we trust that this one idiotic posts will not deprive us of further stories.

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Old 12th Mar 2004, 23:31
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When we had first arrived they showed us to our quarters.

There were four beds in shacks with a bathroom ...that is all.
Diesel heated....by the sweat of yer own balls.... flown in all day.

You were a "contractor" ...... second class. We were in no union.

The miners had their own room with phone and internet connection. And access to a library, pool room and a bar in a chalet ... a huge rock fireplace ... a french lady bartender .....
They were clean , well behaved and self policed. Well paid too.

The dining room was a thing of beauty .. the walls of which were adorned with the most exquisite airborne photographs known to mankind. By Captain Grant Webb. Killed in action , Bronson creek... a DC3 .... on his last flight , and he was heading home.

It is rumoured that his last words were , "Watch this!."

Even the more senior of the contractors, Hawkair , did not enjoy the priveledge of the single rooms in the main building.

We were knee deep in snow around the huts , most of the time. Early darkness , cold brutal wind and exhaustion drove us into these huts to collapse onto the bunk and regain enough energy to reach under the cot for the Scotch bottle. Not much had to be said to recount how tough it had been that day, Frustration was the order of the day.Whining ? Never .

Our new wing covers didn't fit properly and flapped wildly all night. The Herman Nelson crapped out. Runups weren't going well , no oil pressure on the guage. Burned out winch. Snow . Wind , frozen levers. We had brought this old girl from down South where the climate was moist and now it was twenty below.

The owner of the company was there at the beginning. Mike was his name. The dimensions of his cranium qualified him to be the Germanic man he was. Stubborn , tough , brilliant with his hands .. and mind too.

Then we met our future engineer. He was already in the camp . He was on the DC4 that crashed and had made it to shore along with the co-pilot , Dan.

His eyes were too close together and he drank too much. He had lots of DC3 and DC4 experience and immediately started solving some of our problems. We learned lots from him as in the case of the oil pressure guages. The oil was too cold and thick to make its way up to the guage through a thin line. The guage was unhooked and thin hydraulic oil was injected therein. Never had a problem with that again.

He hung about with the Bristol crew most of the time.
He was seen at closing time every night clutching three rum'n'cokes .. pig-eyed.

We hadn't flown for days. Heavy snow . We would shower and trudge to the mess hall. Huge , clean . cozy ... and the best food imaginable. Then to the Chalet with its huge fireplace and a cute lady bar manager. The miners were very well behaved and policed themselves. There was always an underlying tension in the bar between our crew and the Bristol guys.
But generally respectful of each other ... yes ..they had lots of talent .. so did we. Generally we remained in groups.

It was the very weather that kept us grounded that made maintainence a brutally painful task. We had no choice. Captains did not lounge about the mess hall.
There was always something to do.

Often during the day, especially if the wind died a little , we would drive down the road parrallel to the runway , down hill to the Iskut. To the windsock ....

Rock solid ..40 knots .. bareley a flicker .. its open gaping mouth facing up the Iskut .. up to the plateau upon which was the airstrip at Bob Quinn Lake , 2000 feet above sea level. The cold East winds up on the plateau all gathered together and sped up as they squeezed themselves into the steep sided , narrowing Iskut on their rush to the sea to meet the savage warm wet blasts of the Pacific.... freezing rain downstream. Turbulence ...
The truck trembled in the blast.
"Did you see that?" it had dropped a little .. maybe five knots.
We were too eager. Chill out ..

I could see that you had to have whiskers to fly here.


The outline of another truck appears in the driven snow ... they sit and watch the windsock too . It still doesn't move.
It is the Bristol crew... hunched over their coffees ...

They too , want to aviate.

But we drive back up to the ever humming camp .

There was an ingenious device for use by all that made engine maintainence cozier .. called a nose hangar. It was built by a bloke named Speers , he later went on to be a Westjet Captain .. he flew DC4 back then.
With corrugated iron bolted onto an angle iron frame it could be wheeled up to and surround an engine and even provide a catwalk. A curtain then zipped up and a Herman Nelson could be plugged in for comfy warmth.

It got to be a favourite meeting place.. like a secret society ...cozy. Mike had designed and built a tray system with rollers and a huge winch to lug the 3000 lb bags up the hill of the Super DC3.
We were eager to try it. And the diesel tank system too .. all plumbed , waiting for the inaugral flight.

And we were to be tested , yet ,too.

We wandered about , checking breakers for all the heaters plugged in ...around batteries , oil tanks and the cylinders.
The huge Bristol was all rugged up too.
Wing and tail covers were a beast to remove and put on in a wind.

They wandered aimlessly too. .the Bristol Crew.

It had been a week now. No let up.
The cooks would now start quizzing us as to the likelihood of a grocery trip .. running low, they say.
The miners quizzed us on the likelihood of a trip. They were running short of explosives.
Crew change day approached for the miners. Now things get interesting and tense. The miners want to go home , really bad. I understand how they feel , its been a long shift.

The weather is hopeless.....people wandering the camp start looking upwards .. at nothing ...just leaden skies.
If a rare blue hole above scurried by someone would run into the mess exclaiming, "Through to the blue .... its opening up"

It didn't.Even if we did take off , Wrangel was pooched .. freezing rain , thirty knot crosswind.
A mere sixty mile trip could subject you to thirty below temperature at departure , through a cauldron of turbulence , warming temperatures , freezing rain , slush , snow pellets , fog.
Only to do the reverse and take off in rain and fly a wet airplane into thirty below again ..

Yet we wanted to fly.
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Old 13th Mar 2004, 07:45
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I salute you sir for your amazingly tolerant response to that bloody clown the other day.

Keep up your fight aviator. Don't give an inch (or should that be 2.54 cm?). There's so much, much more you must share with us.

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Old 13th Mar 2004, 11:02
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Hey thanks Flaps...but nuthin is gonna stop me old mate tha Duke.
Old 14th Mar 2004, 10:06
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It was customary , if there was a chance of flying , to arise before dawn , chow down and get the snow and wing covers off..... wishful thinking . The dark night slipped away , but , alas , we were imprisoned now by a heavy , wet fog. We then struggled to put the massive wing covers back on to prevent that killer ice from sneaking back on.

We wandered aimlessly about.... peering upward.... as did the Bristol crew.

Crew change was late .. the three Beech 1900s couldn't make it... we were WOXOF. Tense .. miners who want to go home .. "Whadya think?" was the question we were bombarded with. as they too wandered about.

Finally the cry went up " Through to the blue!" as huge blue holes appeared above the camp. We knew the Beechcraft were on the way , to auger down through the hole. The arriving crews were not as elated as those embarking for the trip home.
One Beech 1900 stood alone , and carried few people.

It had a load though .. strongboxes...


Wrangel was still crapped out so we watched the Beechcraft depart.
Then we got the word. She's a GO. Covers off , Herman Nelson heaters roaring , chords being rolled up , the 966 loader bringing the con bags for loading. Walkarounds , fuel samples , Herc straps , the winch grinding away slowly hauling the heavy load up hill for tie down ... and ... CRACK! .. a fitting lets go and the tray with its 3000 lb bag slides downhill on its icy palet skids and slams into the bag only recently placed in the lobby. Otherwise it would have smashed into the rear bulkhead.....and I'd have been kicking horseturds down the road. We untangle the mess with palet jacks and come-alongs and eventually tie down all three bags. The Bristol was long gone leaving us to eat the dust of their departure.

The Wrights rumble into life and reach temps quickly thanks to the heaters and Hermans.
I align the airplane with the runway , pointing down to the Iskut where soon I would slam into the wind at 90 degrees ..I hoped to have 110 knots by then ... and I should be climbing.
The tailwheel is locked so I push the throttles up , really not needing to correct for torque ... I was in no hurry as the airplane accelerated downhill very comfortably. Past the wrecks , and I tug her up into a climb right over the hovercraft shack ... already banking right. .And carving a path around the inside of the bowl edged by steep mountains.. runway always in sight to my left .. just in case ......


The battering wind down at the Iskut had let us off lightly.

Past the strip and Westbound through the gap. We flew at last.
The synchronic buzz warmed the soul .
Then the heater quit.
If one generator fails , the heater automatically shuts down. It gets cold fast.
It is not my well being that is foremost on my mind. Wrangell is cold and raining and blowing. I need a defroster. Its warming to fifteen below zero now.

These are the longest sixty mile flights in history.

Past the pummelling winds from the Hoodoo to the low visibility , ragged mist hanging in the trees as the air warms , and gets wetter as the Stikine River joins us from the North.

Lower we fly.

The valley has widened somewhat as we turn left around the old power station and right again toward the sea. The wind has spread out ... smoother now.
The cargo straps have loosened and Rob clambers back to snug them prior to the confusing wind at the mouth of the now conjoined rivers.
I am relieved at the rapidly warming cockpit ... but it chills me. In an instant freezing rain appearing on the prop spinners , windshield and wings.
The engines throb beautifully.

"Can you see the ridge on your side?" I question Rob , as I stare left to see the ridge protruding across our path on my side.
"Not yet." was his terse reply. The visibility got worse . .. right at the wrong time.
Menzies had warned me about this place ... squeezed by two low ridges appearing out of nowhere .. rarely do you get to fly over them.
The frozen windshield didn't help either.

The bar had been our simulator.
And beer was the golden viscous lubricator that was the common denominator between two crews from opposing commercial operators.
In detail , Menzies walked us through the sixty mile trip and left no confusion in our minds.
But confused we usually became , when Menzies related one of his tales as a submariner .. he was a brilliant storyteller.

But now in the darkening cockpit , darkened by rain .. sleet ..fog...
So far it is exactly as the experienced aviator had us believe. We report our position at the required checkpoints but it is Wrangell Airport that we seek on the radio.
We hardly see the ridges as we rumble by to the delta. Usually we can climb up from our 200 feet altitude here only to be greeted by a raging cauldron of lumpy air.

The airplane bucks , the wind driving her spurs into the flanks .. the bags loosen ...I wrestle with the controls.
Wrangell reports a fifty degree crosswind ... twenty knots. And it's coming from Summer Strait so over the mountains it will tumble.
The big airplane is askew on final .. lurching ... bucking.
The into wind wheel chirps on loudly ... quick as I can .. the other .. and pin it. Pin it hard and saw at the rudder pedals to keep straight in the gusts. And lots of downwind brakes too.
In fact , the brakes were cherry red.
Not good.

Next ... paperwork.
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Old 15th Mar 2004, 00:17
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The customs guys in Wrangell were a decent bunch and there was a trust built up between the Snip Mine people and the US government. It was a trust that not one of our pilots was willing to barter. Generally , loading and unloading went smoothly , that is until we rookies showed up.

Roller trays with a 3000 lb load going sideways , leaking vents on our diesel tanks and that overheated brake ...these problems paled in comparison to the worsening weather.

Because our diesel tank leaked it was not feasible to carry fuel so we got to hand-bomb about eight thousand pounds of groceries needed desperately by the cooking staff.
We sweat as we slip on the stinking diesel spilled on the floor... uphill , four tons we strap down.We take on fuel for about four trips and resort to furious weight and balance calculations. Refuelling is a hazardous task atop a trembling wing blasted with wet Pacific air.

The Bristol has gone ... we must hurry.
The right brake sticks a little but seems to be less effective on take off .... just when I need it to counteract the hammering croswind from the left.
The heavilly laden beast is pinned on with forward control column pressure , tail level , she fights me ... wanting to turn her snout into the wind , where she would be more comfortable. The dark , wet runway determines our required track , the bich fights me but I get my way .. tracking the centreline ... dead straight.
I tug slightly and she unsticks .. and gets her way as I let her nose swing into the wind as we claw our way to fifteen hundred feet.

Through horizontal rain we fly toward the mouth of the Stikine and our bout with turbulence which shakes the cargo down under ever loosening straps. Rob lurches from side to side trying to tighten the Herc straps. I need him up front .. lower I fly .. now the soft sleet slips by .. shrouding the two protruding ridges through which I must aviate. I need Rob up here , to peer into the lowering visibility , to follow our progres on the map , to operate the GPS that I stab repeatedly and missing the buttons in the rough air. He has to do our landing calculations , finish the weight and balance and fill out the logbook from the last trip.... after all he was too busy in Wrangell.


And return , he does , laden with Snickers bars , fresh peaches and smoked oysters.
Perhaps five hundred feet now but our speed over the ground slows , as we encounter the cold moaning winds from up on the plateau.
We stuff food into our hungry mouths , missing the hole more often than not in the turbulence , as we rumble by the ridges with not a lot of room. A left turn , then a right takes us up the Iskut , leaving the Stikine coursing northward.
Snow showers now but some blue holes above.

Colder. No heater... chilly , the moisture from our sweat now driving into the body , and anywhere that there was wetness ... now frost .. then ice. Inside the arplane that is.

Rob calls camp at Hoodoo , the glacier now visible atop the steep draw .. spectacular! And the fishcamp .. through the narrows where we catch our first glimpse of the strip upon which we must alight.
What a trip , sixty miles each way.

We labouriously unload the cargo.
The Cat966 loader appears at the lobby ... with a bag of concentrate on the forks.
"The Bristol crew think they can get three more trips in" he says.

We are veterans now

Last edited by Duke Elegant; 15th Mar 2004 at 00:42.
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Old 15th Mar 2004, 05:11
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"Duke Elegant -a perfect nom de plume"


I have spent some time reviewing your posts in this thread and would like to express my gratitude. Your amazing life / experience is only twinned with tremendous dignity that shines through in your writing - maybe you missed another vocation there ?
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Old 16th Mar 2004, 02:44
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Well, there went another early night I had promised myself! My son drew my attention to this thread late yesterday evening. It has been a pleasure reading your captivating narratives, Duke, and I look forward to placing your book on my "top shelf."

I pray that you win your battle.
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Old 16th Mar 2004, 04:47
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The engineer ambled about , rolling up chords , clinking about in his tool box , generally doing things he had all day to do.

Rob and I wrestled the three huge bags uphill on their trolleys with an overheated winch and strapped them down. We were sweating in the chilly air and our breaths fogged the windshield. We probably only had one generator so the defroster was not an option. The weak brake troubled me.

Sure it had been getting worse over the last four months as it countered crosswinds in Masset and Sandspit from where we hauled live crabs to Vancouver. But it sure was bad at the wrong time.

I heard the doors thump shut and Rob locked the handle but out my window I could see Piggy the Engineer heading for the mess hall.
He walked right by the wheel that was only half rebuilt. It hadn't been touched all day.

The Bristol was long gone. He had his diesel fuel pumped out quickly and with three con bags took off for Wrangell just ahead of the huge cloud of snow and dirt with it's engines performing flawlessly.

On our return trip we were to bring back a full load of groceries ... a back breaking nightmare.
We rumbled down the Iskut , past Hoodoo , past the confluence with The Stikine and through the squeezing ridges. We had heard the Bristol call here.... low level .. at The Shakes.

The bags shook down and the straps loosened as we thumped through the turbulence as we hit the warm coastal air .. only to land with full on but ineffective right brake.
Once again , it didn't take the Bristol Freighter very long to pump in the diesel and roar off Eastbound as Rob and I humped five tons of groceries .. up the hill.
Some with the winch , some by hand.

The inflight meal as we flew Eastward into the cold , biting air , was smoked oysters , as we tore into a few boxes to find the crackers.

We were on the bleeding edge of technology.


The Bristol was off on her third trip when I landed. The uphill strip precluded the use of brakes but I knew , when I turned at the top , that I was licked.

The brakes were pooched. Piggy ambled by conveniently after we had unloaded the groceries. I couldn't even finish telling him of our difficulty when he started blubbering excitedly about todays decision by the mine management to bring in a DC4 from Alaska under a temporary Operating Certificate.
It was to arrive before dark.

The wind had died down somewhat and the weather improved just as my airplane was not flyable any more.

The Bristol did a final trip and was buttoned up, wing covers on and plugged with heaters. Things were going well for them and they eagerly awaited the arrival of the DC4. They knew the crew from previous contracts.

Piggy babbled on about about how they required his services and that from now on he was to collect two paychecks , one from us and one from the DC4 company. His eyes seemed even closer together than before.

M3 engineers were scarce and he knew it.

I had to stop the left jab that was on its way to the side of his snout with a planned follow-up right overhand clubbing punch to the ear.
Instead , I stared into his tiny raisin-like eyes.
I had to think fast.
And I did.
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Old 17th Mar 2004, 06:24
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Now that I have you hanging, here are some pictures .
Please feel free to comment.
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Old 17th Mar 2004, 06:47
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No problem in an Auster but I really wouldn't fancy it in a DC-3 or a Bristol
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Old 17th Mar 2004, 07:17
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Yip, that's better Duke. Great stuff from brown trouser territory!

Love the picture of the Dak -- one of my favourite planes.
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Old 17th Mar 2004, 14:35
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Great pics Duke.
Dunno about you, but I'd be going through a couple pairs of shorts a trip.
That CMA DC-3 Looks Like AAM, one of Austin's old machines.
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Old 17th Mar 2004, 21:10
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Great pictures Duke - and thanks, Mzunga..!!

After reading all the stories, it is certainly great to see the 'scene of many crimes...'

Now, Iv'e landed on some pretty dodgy cattle paths in Africa, but I will NEVER complain again...!

Keep it strong Duke

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