The Adventures of an Australian Flying Padre
By Esrom Morse
It's a fascinating sight to be flying across the Great Western Plains at around 12000 feet and watching scores of great towering 'whirlies' moving slowly across the plains and reaching thousands of feet into the sky. It's not so inspiring to be flying on such a day and clawing at the sky, trying to gain some altitude, but being thrown hopelessly about them and going down just as much as you go up. I remember one such a day when I had struggled for ages and was still only at about 7000 feet when I heard a Folker friendship's aircraft's pilot pass his position. As he was not far away I called him to find out what height I had to get, to be clear of the bumps and get some smooth flying. He asked what height I was, and when I told him I heard him laugh and said, "Forget it mate. We are at fourteen thousand and it is just as terrible up here."
Charlie Gray was a passenger with me as we climbed five thousand feet west of Muttaburra, when we were alarmed at what looked like a big flock of large birds, but in a few seconds we passed through a mass of dry roly-pollies and grass. We have seen sheets of corrugated iron several thousand feet up, which indicates the power of storms or whirlies at ground level.
Storms play a very important role in the lives of anyone living in the Outback, especially in the case of light aircraft pilots. It is Ian incredible sight to watch from a great height a dust storm generate and then build up in the 'Morney' and the 'Cluny' areas. The country is so open and flat and vast that the huge build-up accompanying such a storm can be frightening to watch from a plane, especially if they are where you want to go.
The results of such storms are unpredictable. I have sat them out, and next morning joined the shovel and wheelbarrow brigade moving sand from inside the house. Most houses have large verandahs, which are screened in, and the dust blasts through and can build up a foot or more deep against the inside walls. Many times when storms like this hit, all the men on the property would be out holding down my plane until it was over. I feel sure that my plane has been saved from damage on a number of occasions by the men's unselfish actions. I recall landing at 'Cluny' after a big dust storm and the sand had built up to the top of a six or seven foot corrugated fence around the homestead.
As summer approaches storms are taken for granted but results can be disastrous. Early storms are generally accompanied by thunder and lightning, sometimes with little or no rain. Lightning can strike in dozens of places in a line and then suddenly, you have a huge grass fire moving over the plains. Most properties plough wide fire breaks around their paddocks to help contain grass fires but in a few hours fire can destroy huge areas of grazing land
With more moisture in the atmosphere, the storms can bring heavy downpours of soaking rain. Country that has been parched and drought stricken for ages will spontaneously burst into life. In the red sandy country of the south-west there will suddenly appear miles of beautiful coloured flowers between the sand hills. Water is trapped between the huge sand hills and the result is that, in many cases, all the flowers between two sand hills will be white, the next one blue, the next one yellow and so on. An airplane is a wonderful way to enjoy the sight. In the nor-east corner of South Australia you will find miles of purple parakeelya which grows best up the foothills of the sand-dunes which run in a north-south direction. It is the winter and early spring rains that produce the mass of flowers.
Storms and weather fronts govern much of life in the Outback. I have heard big jumbo jets advising that they are diverting for two hundred miles due to an immense front that reaches up to or over 50000 feet. Lines of fires started by lightning strikes can burn out huge areas of country, and dust storms, hundreds of miles wide, can travel from the far west of Queensland to the coast and make day like night and leave every house keeper in the west in despair.
Much of the southwest of Queensland is flood country. Great rivers like the Thompson, Barcoo, Diamantina and Georgina can carry floodwaters from rains hundreds of miles away and as it moves down into the far south-west it branches out into thousands of channels which spread out for miles and miles. If the flooding continues, the waters rise and eventually the whole country is submerged. As these waters recede, the volume of top cattle feed is enormous and enough to feed all the cattle in the country. However, next year and the following year there may nor be any flood at all, so it creates a problem when it involves moving stock such vast distances
You can fly over water for distances of seventy to ninety miles in a straight line across these rivers when they are in flood. remember once flying from Innamincka to Birdsville, approximately 160 nautical miles and, for the whole distance, only odd red sand hills were above water, and many of these almost covered with cattle. At Birdsville, Mr. Hughes the owner of 'Clifton Hills' in the north of South Australia said that he could fly from his place for three hundred and fifty miles in a straight line over muddy water. That was in 1963 the year when for the first rime in white peoples memory the flood waters broke through the sand hills and flooded Lake Eyre.
After drought a storm can be responsible for moving thousands of starving kangaroos for miles to the fresh feed. Much is made of kangaroos being killed out and becoming extinct in Australia, but personally I consider that nonsense. Only a natural disaster like a plague could make that possible.
The Outback of Australia is vast and I have witnessed the wild basalt country north of Hughenden and Richmond covered with seemingly millions of kangaroos on almost every bit of ground and on every rock in sight. It would be impossible to travel in much of that country on a horse, let alone a vehicle. Kangaroo shooters can't, but the kangaroos can. Early one morning I flew over drought-stricken stunted scrubland near Yaraka and, for miles, I watched thousands and thousands of kangaroos fan Out left and right in front of the plane as it approached. I believe that these animals were starving and uncannily sensed that there had been a storm and were traveling towards it.
Down the Queensland South Australia border, and also in the area southwest of 'Davencourt Downs', it was not uncommon to see groups of camels and wild donkeys ping along. These are a problem to grazers as the donkeys encourage station horses to stray, and the camels, in trying to get over fences, get their legs caught and because they are so powerful they will pull and kick and tear down great stretches of fencing.
Generally though, to a large extent, both the donkeys and the camels are tolerated, unless it becomes a matter of survival. I guess all of us have heard plenty of fish stories, but if you go out west you will hear the very best of them. We had heard of fish coming down in the rain and had smirked behind our hand, as you probably would. Well, when the big wet started in '63, it was no time before our children were coming in and putting in our laundry tubs little fish that they had caught out in the road gutters. Even better, people found them on the tops of 44 gallon drums standing in their yards. My own belief is that when streams begin to dry up, the fish out west find a soft, muddy patch and bury down very deep, lay their eggs and they wait for the next wet before they hatch and immediately begin to move.
Even more amazing fish stories come from the Richmond Julia Creek area where bores are very deep and the water comes to the surface at about boiling point. From time to time live fish emerge from these bores. They have no eyes, are transparent, and die almost immediately they come to the surface. I imagine this would be the case in other areas with similar bores. One thing that I have witnessed on dozens of occasions out west are lonely graves. These are not uncommon along Outback roads, but also at the sites of deserted homesteads that dot the whole of the Outback. I have often stopped at such graves, some of them honoring tiny newborn babes or young mums or young men who died in the prime of life, and I would reflect on the wonderful hopes and aspirations many of these people would have had nearly a century ago when they beaded out west to start a whole new wonderful venture in life. Many had no names or inscriptions, it is just a cross or a marker in that vast country, miles from anywhere. It is all too true that man proposes but God disposes.
Of Eagles, Pigs and Dingoes
Grazers out west have a lot to contend with. Not only do they have droughts and floods, but fires, mice, eagles, dingoes and pigs.
These are a very great problem in some areas, especially at lambing time, and for many years a great deal of time and expense was incurred in trying to deal with these pests. In the area north of the Townsville to Mt Isa railway there are hundreds of miles of bush, and at lambing time big wedge tail eagles would move down to the sheep country around Richmond and Julia Creek and gorge themselves on new born lambs.
Dealing effectively with these eagles only became possible with the advent of the airplane, and even so only a few mastered the art. Ian Mc Clymont on 'Morungle' station was one of those who studied the habits of the eagles and used that knowledge to deal with them. He claimed that he bought a new Cessna 182 and paid for it in one year just from eagle shooting. Ian said that almost to the minute, each evening, the eagles arrived at the paddock where the ewes were lambing and would kill a lamb and begin to eat until the crows arrived in great numbers. Then the eagles would leave that carcass for the crows and kill another. It was a fascinating thing to fly out on an eagle shoot, far from what you may expect! The right-hand door would be removed and with an anti-slip strip on the outside footrest and heavy tape on the wing strut for the gun rest, the seat belt
extended to allow the shooter to move out to get a clear shot. Then knowledge of the eagles' habits came into focus. It was an art form, as the time of the eagles arrival, the time for the first lamb to be killed, then the second lamb and then the time for the eagle to eat sufficient for it to be too heavy to fly well but still hungry and not satisfied. The flying time from the strip to the paddock was calculated and then they would fly out for
The first run would be straight over the area and the noise of the plane disturbed the eagles and they flew straight onto the nearest tree. Then with a notch of flap down and a speed of 70 knots, a second run would give the shooter his chance to take them out of tree tops of the trees. Hundreds of eagles were shot in this way. I really love the great Wedge tails but I well understand the situation of the man on the land battling to run his property at a profit. Very seldom did the shooter miss a shot. I must add that he had been trained for just what he was doing. There was a dam on 'Morungle' with a post out in the water and as Ian would fly over the dam the shooter would fire. He very soon learned whether he had a tendency to fire too short or too long by the splashes, and with such experience he became a real expert. I was on a number of occasions I offered big money to fly 'expert' shooters on properties down south of Longreach, but they had no idea of what was involved. They just wanted to fly around and spot an eagle then try and shoot it! It would be hopeless and apart from the fact that I would not do charter or hire work I did not want to see them waste their money, so I gave them Tan's address and told them to go and have a talk with him. A number of properties used aircraft in this way, but I doubt that any were as effective as Ian. Not far from 'Morungle' on the south side of the railway, the problem often faced at lambing time, was dingoes or wild pigs. Jack and Max Morton were both pilots and were widely acclaimed for some amazing feats of flying during floods and other emergencies out west. They were also very expert in hunting down wild dogs and pigs. With Jack flying and Max shooting from the Auster that they used as their 'Jeep', they could outwit the most cunning dingo, and they were often called in by neighbours to deal with these pests. Jack used a 16 foot blade to plough firebreaks around all of his paddocks, and they could land and take off in that little Auster almost anywhere at all on their properties. Mention flying and rescues in that area even now and I am sure it would not be long before Jack Morton's name would come up.
The Pretty Face of Flying
To take off early on a lovely morning, and climb and climb out over the vast western plains, and see the small hills and trees touched by glorious early morning sunlight - to see the long clear cut shadows quickly beginning to shorten as you slide over them. is a sensation that I know most pilots treasure dearly.
Leaving Longreach and flying west, you soon come to the beautiful golden colours of the western escarpments and the many, small, conical hills that begin to pale as the sun climbs higher, is always to be remembered and treasured in my memory.
To climb abeam of the broken cloud touched by the rays of the early morning sun, or the late evening sunset is so beautiful that you are conscious that only God could create such a beautiful picture. To weave gently, and soar your way through the highways and highways, through the tunnels and chasms of towering masses of cloud that are constantly moving and changing in shape and colour is unforgettable.
To glide along just above the peaks and ranges of cloud with a full circle rainbow, and an airplane shape in the centre of it skimming right beside you, then suddenly dropping into the depths of an abyss, a second later right back up beside you again, makes you so conscious of your freedom in flight that you break out in song, then begin to dive and climb and soar in abandon as you enjoy the ecstatic freedom and liberty that your little plane brings you.
Low flying can he tremendously exhilarating, exciting and enjoyable, but it can also be very dangerous. At low level and high speed every thing seems to come up to meet you, then suddenly swirls around you and vanishes in a moment. To be able to follow the contours of the ground, then swerve into gaps in the foliage and zoom up over a ridge and around an obstruction. To scream through a really narrow gap between tall trees or between two rocky walls is very heady stuff. I feel sure that most pilots have tried it at sonic time in their lives.
There are many pilots, though, with whom I would never get in a plane for such an exercise. One pilot I knew loved low flying, but after a short time of low flying he became just a zombie, and I simply would not fly with him. He survived a potentially fatal accident and I feel sure that he changed his habits after that. As years have passed, power lines have been strung across those western plains, and low-level flying has become a no-no, which is sad. I am thankful that I grew up in the 'good old days'.
Morning and evening flying can be, and usually is, a really wonderful and delightful experience. Especially after good rains when the open country is a beautiful vivid green and the farmlands are patterned with reds and browns on ploughed paddocks. On such mornings, and in such conditions, there are usually no bumps. You feel like you are on a magic carpet. Coastal flying is great, and we have had the thrill of flying-much of our beautiful coastline. I think the flight from Cairns to Cooktown in the late afternoon is one of the most beautiful. The lush green rain forest falling right down to the sea, with gems of small white sandy beaches tucked into secluded bays, and splashes of brilliant red flame trees scattered through the rain-forest is truly beautiful.
Another one our family always considered a favorite trip, is along the south-west coastline of Victoria from Cape Otway past the Twelve Apostles and on along the Coorong to Victor Harbor. One of the most colorful areas that you can fly is along the north-west coast of Tasmania.
It is a most magnificent countryside and coastline.
I would say that because most of my flying has been over vast expanses of hot, flat, dusty and arid Outback country, with extreme heat and turbulence and with dust devils thrown in, farm lands and coastal flying has seemed very special to me. We, as a family, have enjoyed many wonderful trips through mountain ranges, along rivers and coastlines, over lakes and islands in Australia as well as much of Papua New Guinea, and we all thank God for those very special times. A particularly memorable trip in the school holidays was to the Gulf country. I planned to visit around station properties, so I initially flew to Karumba and taxied right to the edge of the beach and put up our tent on the beach itself. Val and the children stayed there through the day while I visited and returned to join them at night. It was a wonderful experience and the folk from the Karumba Lodge took us over and gave us royal treatment, including dinners of prawns and barramundi, then more to take home.
Unfortunately in more recent times the airstrip has been fenced in, making it impossible to taxi to the beach area and sleep in the plane.
Flying has its dark face and its unpleasant times!
Flying did not teach me to pray, but it certainly encouraged it, and it certainly taught me a great deal about prayer.
For me, the most unpleasant aspect of flying would be bad weather, and those things associated with it. Extreme heat and turbulence in outback summers is a dark one in my memory. I have spent many hours with one hand on the control column, my elbow wedged on the armrest, and my right hand holding on to the bottom seat frame between my knees and the seat belts pulled as tight as possible. There have been times when the belts were just not tight enough and I have hit bumps so hard that my head has been banged onto the cabin roof and I have headed for a property and landed to inspect my head, and any possible damage.
In the monsoon season, very violent storms can come up so rapidly around you, that it is all too possible to get trapped. You always try to have an escape route open to a solid strip that you know in the area. Once safely on the ground forget about the rain, just get those pegs in as quickly as possible, for heavy rain like that is frequently followed by extremely high winds. I carried summer pegs and winter pegs, and always some extra ones as I considered them cheap insurance.
Huge wet fronts, sometimes stretching for hundreds of miles are frightening and have been the cause of many accidents out west. It is an amazing sight to see the roll cloud in front, and great streamers of dust curving up into the front. Such fronts need to be kept as far away from as possible. It is not only the low cloud and high winds that you have to consider, but visibility will go down to cr0 and could remain that way for days.
Electrical storms with dust and rain are part of life in the summer, but as the country is so open it is generally possible to skirt around them. Great grassfires frequently lit by electrical storms sometimes travel on a huge front. The smoke can be dense and cover a huge area, but the most dangerous aspect is that smoke, like dust, does not have a base. You can not let down through smoke or dust into clear air underneath as you generally can with cloud. In the vicinity of fires it is usually very turbulent in smoke. The power of storms is truly awesome and they are no playground for small airplanes. Always give them a wide berth.