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The Saga of Snake Creek Bore

A yarn from the 1964 and 2004 ...

A later model of the Cessna 210
A later model of the Cessna 210.

"I could have perished in that desert!" Nixon gushed those words out involuntarily when he met the man who headed him toward disaster in the Australian outback. The story covers forty years of time, and several fascinating characters.

IFR Renewal: John was the examiner when Les Nixon flew his IFR renewal at Sydney's Bankstown Airport in October, 1995. John was the patient, understanding and considerate check pilot. He'd been around for a very long time; he knew all the tricks, heard all the excuses, and, yes, regardless of Les's average fist of it, made it first time with a suggestion to go back and practice those NDB letdowns again!

During debriefing, John talked about bush flying, desert navigation, survival, etc., and seemed to recall something that mildly troubled him.

"I used to know that fellow who started the outback mission. That's thirty years ago; he flew a Dragon. We rented him a C210 from Rex, and he finished up lost in the desert with a crook compass!"

Nixon rolled his eyes in surprise.

What a coincidence? Could it possibly be?

That was me, John! He remembered the incident of the C210 with the skittish compass, quietly looked his examiner in the eye and announced, "That was me, John! I could have perished in that desert!"

The time was July, 1965, the C210 was RBC, Richie Gunston was the passenger, and the place, 43nm NE of Oodnadatta, in the remote far north of South Australia where airmen have perished. Up there on the way to Alice Springs "Snake Creek Bore."

It is indelibly embedded in Nixon's memory, and is clearly marked on the WAC wall map at Outback Patrol HQ at Sydney's Georges Hall, as a record, as well as a warning to novice pilots; take nothing outback for granted!

Les playing the accordion
Les ministering with his accordion.

How it happened They had left Bankstown for Alice Springs, loaded with guitar, accordion, literature and an itinerary for a score of meetings around Australia. It was the early days of Outback Patrol. They flew on with the confidence of Psalm 121:6 as it says, "He will protect your going out and your coming in, from this day henceforth, and even for evermore!"

Flying phenomena After Broken Hill, they tracked via Leigh Creek, but struggled with a variety of flying phenomena; dust, electronic disturbance in the air, and magnetic interference from ground metals, strong westerlies and poor radio reception.

What they did not know was that the Cessna's compass had deflected considerably with wear, 30' off-course, and had not been corrected. All it took was for Rex Aviation to swing the compass. They'd have known that.

The aircraft was due for it's major rebuild at the end of the trip.

Along the track, even the Cobar, Broken Hill and Leigh Creek NDB's were weak and the aircraft ADF needle floated aimlessly.

The men were troubled they could not define their track; they looked for the huge Lake Eyre—fifty miles of glistening salt—but could not see it. The searched was on for the dried-out Wariner and the Neales Rivers, but they were lost in the haze, too.

Ded Reckoning The lonely Ghan Railway track headed west 30 miles from Marree, then north, so they didn't expect to see it again till Oodnadatta. And the Oodnadatta NDB seemed unreachable, so, they continued ded reckoning and map reading. This of course, was light-years before the comforts and ease of the S GPS!

When Oodnadatta ETA passed, they reckoned on being lost, and instigated a search pattern grid, and spent an hour looking for something familiar, without any success whatsoever. Two men nibbled on rations and sipped their supply of water, keeping a log of tracks, times and results. Their radio calls were ignored, and nothing was heard either. It was "one-of-those-days."

A star-shaped water hole came up; near huge sand ridges. They knew it was the Simpson, but the gushing water out of a chuck looked good. Even from 100' they decided to attempt a landing on the rocky hillside. Les said, that's our life's verse right there! "I will even make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert" from Isaiah 43:19! Richie added his favourite, thanks, and repeated out loud with a chuckle, "God is not a man that he should lie; he doesn't change his mind as humans do. Has He ever promised without doing it!" Both fell quiet.

"Present position unknown." Ten minutes later, Nixon called Alice Springs FIS on HF with the ominous words, "Present position unknown injury," with a detailed description of their track, intended destination, search grid, and surroundings. And they had sixty-minutes of fuel left in the tanks.

For a pleasant change, the HF radio went wild with offers of assistance. "Why didn't they hear us before?"

Silence was eerie after the noisy plane engine. No living being, beast or bird. 25 metre-high bulldust-sandhills where they slid two-steps back for every one forward! And the blow. Dust. It got into everything.

It was 12.30pm—est and for the rest of the day, the men began a reconnoiter of the area, gathering sticks and branches for a fire, and reconsidering their dilemma. Richie undertook a two-hour search, and found a plank from an old crate. Every hour, they radioed Adelaide Search, who used radio calls and sent all kinds of aeroplanes to search, without any success.

"West of track" Later, two Viscount airliners were redirected to search, as Adelaide assumed the men were west of track. The reason that location was chosen is that a less-fortunate flyer perished there in the desert a couple of years before.

But nothing.

Nixon repeated his descriptions of surroundings, location, the water hole, the few local curiosities like a neglected cattle yard, no tire tracks, rocky outcrops, but to no avail. He kept a log.

Even the NBD coordinates they calculated from their portable radio were ignored by Adelaide, and they repeatedly pleaded for someone to believe them. Kalgoorlie FIS did, also Rockhampton.

The night shall be light about me They turned again to one of the Bibles going outback: "If I take the wings of the morning, and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea; even there thy hand shall lead me and thy right hand shall hold me. If I say, surely the darkness shall cover me, even the night shall be a light about me."

If there's one traveler's aid that beats all, it's the Scriptures. They had a plane full of them, but the one hidden in their hearts was best.

"Smithy's Coffee Royalle" But the Adelaide Searchmaster resolutely clung to his belief, "the lost airmen are west of track."

Nixon and Gunston commented it's a rerun of the departmental chaos when Charles Kingsford Smith landed at the now famous "Coffee-Royal" incident in the late 20's. Without help, the men may have perished there.

Our intrepid heroes from Outback Patrol forty-years after Smithy, at Snake Creek Bore were not so sure either.

Even FIS at Suva International Airport offered to stand by, as did a dozen other stations.

Meanwhile, Bob Stokes rushed to the Melbourne FIS office and demanded something be done to save those men. "They're friends of mine," he admitted, "And I want to see them again!" But no one seemed to listenS

That is, except Mr. Jack Kempe.

Mr. Macumba Himself Jack was Macumba Station Manager and he heard Nixon's calls in the Oodnadatta FIS shack an hour to the station, convinced he knew where they were. He radio'd his wife his intentions.

Picking up black stockmen and a few good dogs, with a hamper, he headed west around 5pm into the sand-hills. "I think those men are at the Snake Creek Bore cattle yards," and he headed that way.

Black Trackers Snake Creek Bore is the water hole on his place, but it's on the edge of the Simpson, and 500 miles east of the main search. It is exactly in the coordinates radioed to Adelaide during the 1/2 hour schedules. When they were so obviously ignored by FIS, the men settled down to prepare for a very long night.

Adelaide were arranging 4WD's to start at dawn, and black trackers were already out to find them? But the men hopefully held that their reports would save them. Anyway, what good would a black tracker do to track a plane through the air???

Wait Upon the Lord It seemed important they reserve their energies. Hot days, but dead cold nights. 'They that wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength." This did it. As darkness descended, Nixon and Gunston, laboured from their searching, trudged toward the plane for the next sched., bowed to pray-a-prayer.

They were OK with provisions and good water. Not like Burke's "Dig Tree," but with impending disaster, nevertheless ... Richie threw on the radio master switch ...

Richie Gunston
Richie Gunston

At the same instant they saw dust rise from an old station jeep clawing over a sandhill, too far to hear, close enough to chase; then a sluggish descent in the other direction. Both men took off across the outcrops like banshees through space itself, forgetting radio calls, stumbling for their salvation before the jeep got away!

It was Jack Kempe, and he saw them too.

"We'll report our position" By the time they stumbled back to the plane, every FIS in this half of the globe thought the men were close to death and stepped on each other to make contact. They heard voices from Fiji, Cocos Island, Pt. Moresby, Singapore and Madras, and numerous Aussie units.

But the men were too elated to consider it important and they almost hugged the life out of Jack Kempe and his mates.

"This is Romeo Bravo Charlie, the downed plane, and if you'll clear the channel, we'll report our position!"

That was not enough. Melbourne and Darwin continued calling, until someone told them to shut up.

"Our location is on the WAC charts is Snake Creek Bore, 43nm NE of Oodnadatta, as we reported—and Mr. Jack Kempe, Macumba Station Manager believed us and drove out. We are not west of track, or in the assumed search location. This station is closing down to save battery power, and we'll phone Adelaide Search master from Macumba Station, and ask for an explanation!"

Jack said the strong westerlies Nixon had crabbed to correct, laid inches of dust on everything and visual navigation was just about impossible.

"But I knew where you were instantly I heard the location," he smiled.

Then, stockmen and their families for a hundred miles around drove through sandhills to Macumba immediately, some arriving after midnight.

Jesus Survived in the Desert too! Guitar and Accordion provided a western Gospel Concert from 10pm after they'd been fed and watered by a relieved Mrs. Kempe. And a scrubup. Then, directions from Adelaide Searchmaster, and they talked to their wives, and Bob Stokes.

They simply continued their work at Macumba instead of Alice Springs, which resumed one day later.

"The desert is the place to KNOW AND GO," Nixon said, for that's where man is tested against the elements, like the Lord Jesus in Luke 4. It's Eremos in the Greek. Means 'desert-without-life, until watered and nurtured, and it can produce grain, fruit and feeds the stock, with water. And it's the place to GROW, just like Jesus. Tempted of the devil for forty days, he grew weak in body but strong in spirit, and defeated the forces of evil. We obtain that strength too, when we worship Him. Bush people revere the Jesus of the Bible, as they live close to the earth, too.

Our faith in God is never blind It rests upon a solid base, It does not set aside the mind But deals with facts of time and space.

Fuel in the Tanks The FIS investigator landed at Oodnadatta at dawn, and discovered more than a hour of fuel in the tanks, but the men gladly accepted the twenty gallons carried to the site. After a ferry flight to Oodnadatta and Alice Springs, Connellan Airways at the old townsite airport discovered the compass to be "in-error," replaced it and swung a new one, and billed Rex Aviation for costs!

That's why the John of 1995 remembered it.

The Big Question, Why? The men continued their way around Australia, trouble free, but by now S almost famous.

At Alice Springs they were commended for their actions, which Aero Club Instructors since used as living illustrations: "What to do when forced down." Someone took their picture.

At Darwin Airport, FIS said they were heroes. Perth invited them in. But, at Adelaide Airport, the searchmaster was not to be found.

A year later, Nixon and Gunston were on track to Oodnadatta again, this time from Birdsville, and en-route, they circled the place they'd been lost the year before. Photos are quite bare, but they mean a lot to the lost airmen of The Saga of Snake Creek Bore.

Well, why had they so easily disoriented the area, and eventually become lost? The question needed answers Alice Springs FIS repeated what the airline pilots told them. "Those westerlies all week; the glistening salt of Lake Eyre was covered with red dust. Even the homesteads were lost ... you couldn't see a thing!"

Everything We Need In the air the men remembered and repeated the words, "What can we ever say to such wonderful things as these? Since He did not ever spare His own Son for us but gave Him up for us all, won't He also surely give us everything else?"

That is enough

Several years later, Gunston was yodeling his heart out in a meeting at the Mildura Church of Christ. Jack Kempe walked in from the motel next door He'd heard that voice before and wanted to hear it again. They were received by the people warmly, and entered into the spirit of the occasion.

Nixon spoke on, "What to-do-when-you're-lost!" and drew examples and texts of their adventure years before, as a way to draw people to the Lord Jesus Christ, as at Macumba. Jack smiled broadly.

"It's not our work," Nixon said, "It's His!" And as long as we remember we are on God's side all is OK!

Richie Gunston referred to that experience on the "Old-Timers-Patrol" with Nixon and Prout, in Graham Sharman's Seneca in 1992. They flew west again in the quest to share the glorious Gospel of Jesus Christ with inland people.

And, they said, they'll do it all again and again and again.

Except Complaints forty years later ... Fully forty years after the event, an item showed up in the Australian AOPA pilots magazine in Letters to the Editor. June, 2004. One David Irons, the former manager of the Rex Aviation Company of the day complained a story on a web site that questioned the integrity of his managing skills. It's The Saga of Snake Creek Bore. Yet Mr. Irons or his functions were never mentioned in the story. In fact, the mysterious Mr. Irons was never in the picture at the time; only the instructor who checked Nixon out to take the plane.

Irons demanded that VH-RBC did not appear in the aircraft register of the era; pretty much knew where all the C210's were; did not rent anything; not many PPL's had retractable experience; then misreads some of the web text and makes errors in his conclusions. Mr. Irons is fighting hard to protect his integrity. And so he should. But, it was forty years ago, Sir?

After his letter appeared, by sheer coincidence, a former Rex LAME, a Phil Edwards was approached by a Nixon friend who said he'd talked to Irons of the event. Only vaguely recalled details. Observed Rex had the highest Cessna Warranty account in the world, which inferred standards were uniquely high. Also deduced RBC may have been in for a major rebuild, and with the approval of the owner, rented to utilise the few remaining hours on the Maintenance Release. Who knows? Also commented that the new MAF Base at Ballarat became the recipients of many perfectly good spares that did not meet Mr. Irons tests, but satisfactory till time expired.

Mr. Irons would agree though, that even well-serviced aeroplanes go a-wry sometimes, as his own pilots complained. Engineers constantly dealt with magnetic compasses which suffered from severe vibration and work loose internally on the mountings. Pilots reported compasses utterly failing and sliding down inside the casing and becoming stuck. Even John Bressington recalled an IFR into Brisbane at night in an Aztec, requiring a radar vector to an NDB letdown. Same problem.

Well, there is no doubt about the event. It clearly emerges from Nixon's log books; ident, date, time, pictures, etc., But the event came to such a satisfactory conclusion that the DCA of the time did not record it as an incident, nor interviewed Nixon for details.

What is even clearer than daylight is that Mr. Irons in his passion overlooked calling Nixon on the phone and discussing it with him. Even the web page with the story gave contact information. So, there's a missing link in the process somewhere.

So—all's well that ends ....

Nixon has flown many 210's since, and others. His confidence in aviation is still as high as ever, as his confidence in the skills of aviation service crews—and his assurance in the God of the Bible, too.

All things were created by Him—Design (Colossians 1:16-17). All things were created for Him—Purpose (Romans 11:36). All things are reconciled to Him—Reason (Colossians 1:18).

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