Missing Aircraft - Aircraft Down! Search Master called in
This is true to how I remember it. Missing Aircraft - Aircraft Down - Searchmaster called in, is a true story
It is 7.00am on New Year’s Day, 1964. The location? - The little township of Madang, on the northern coast of Papua-New Guinea. Specifically? Madang Airport’s operations centre, a small, white-painted wooden building boasting two stories with a tiny twelve-by-twelve foot control-tower on top. It had probably been built on World War Two.
There isn’t a single aircraft moving on or around the airfield. Not a truck, not a car, no human figures – not even a stray dog. Even the birds seem to be resting. The airport is disserted. Dead. Or sleeping. As indeed is the township itself- sleeping. The previous night’s festivities had worn everybody out. Every office, every store, indeed, every home whether White, Chinese or Native, is closed up for purposes of recovery. The partying had been heavy. Still, in the Aeradio Room it is to be ‘duty as usual.’ Some communications facility, somewhere in Papua-New Guinea has to stay open, after all. What if there was some medical emergency?
“No, nothing will happen today,” I think to myself. “ Not a single aircraft movement is expected. No, not at Madang, or any other aerodrome right throughout the whole Papua-New Guinea Flight Information Region.” And that covered a big, big area. New Years’ Days in ‘The Territory’, as they use to call the region back in 1964, were like that, apparently. Nothing happened.
Outside, it is already hot, that cloying heat which saps one’s energy, rots clothing and grows green fungus on leather boots. Moist as a lung, Madang, New Guinea, has a climate that turns people prematurely old. It is a place of malaria, denghy fever, and elaphantitis. Its jungle environment induces lethargy, addles brains, even seems to destroy souls with its remorseless atmosphere. A dangerous place.
Missing Aircraft - Aircraft Down - Searchmaster called in.
Through the open windows I can see the steam of last night’s torrents being sucked back into the atmosphere. To the east, Kar Kar Island, an active volcano rises, a giant pyramid, its 4,000 feet peak already swathed in cloud. I glance along the single, crushed coral strip which runs below, stretching from a steep, tree clad hill inland along to the waters of the harbour. The shoreline is fringed with slender coco-nut palms, and the Bismark Sea shines like burnished silver. Madang is one of the most beautiful places on the planet. But most Whites don’t like to live there for long.
“Fancy a beer?” asks Ken Wiggins, my workmate, a smile on his bearded face. I’m aghast. Even a whisp of alcohol on the breath means instant dismissial. “Don’t worry. No one will come in here this morning. This is New Year’s Day, mate. Have a hair of the dog.”
The raspy fizz of a beer can being punctured.
“A coldy’s just what yer need.”
Ken and I chat for a while. Outside it’s now even hotter. We close the windows and turn on the wall-mounted air-conditioners. It is certainly quiet all right.
That’s when we hear the voice.
The voice comes weakly but clearly, cutting across the hiss of static from a console-mounted loudspeaker. Far away, two hundred miles up along the northern coast towards the West Irian border, the voice calls.
“Madang, Madang, this is Fox-trot Romeo India taxiing at Sissano for Aitape.”
I swivel my chair to face the control console, a flick of a switch, and I reply, speaking into the boom microphone. “Fox-trot Romeo India.”
My acknowledgement is heard, apparently. There is a reply as, miles away, a pilot in a tiny Cessna 185 does his take off run. It is understood that he’ll call again as soon as his plane is airborne. The pilot is bound for the Catholic Mission at Aitape, a mere sixteen miles further along the crocodile infested coast. This, incidentally was the same area to be ravaged by a huge tsunami a couple of decades later.
Ken and I go back to our conversation. Both ex-sailors, we have a lot of common friends and much to yarn about. Time ticks by. Then, with a start, exactly ten minutes after Fox-Trot Romeo called, Ken says to me:
“You did hear Foxtrot Romeo India taxiing Sissano for Aitape, didn’t you, Tom?”
“Er...I did.” Or had I? “Yes, he called.”
We had broken a fundamental rule. Nothing had been written down. But as trained aeradio men, its is almost instinctive to recall such a taxiing call. A departing aircraft is allocated exactly ten minutes to report his departure from the time when he calls taxiing. There had been no departure signal.
“Give him a call, Tom. He’s probably so hung over he’s forgotten to tell us he’s departed.”
“Foxtrot Romeo India, this is Madang on 5499, reading?”
Missing Aircraft - Aircraft Down - Searchmaster called in
“Foxtrot Romeo India, Madang?”
I depress a few more switches on the control console.
“Foxtrot Romeo India this is Madang on 5499, 3008 and 8929. Do you read me?”
The silence is frightening.
Another voice. This time it’s one we’re familiar with. It rolls across hundreds of miles of open water to the east. “Foxtrot November India, this is Rabaul. Do you read Rabaul, over?”
Soon, Port Moresby, way to the south also starts calling the pilot of the little Cessna, but with negative results.
“Tom,” says Ken. “You’ve been on since 5.00am. My turn to take the ‘Hot Seat.’ Now, it’s been fifteen minutes since that taxiing call. Make out the Form 668, will you. We’d better do everything right. After all, we’re on audio tape with time injection. There’ll be an inquiry if this bloke is really missing.” I knew Ken had was more experienced than I, and he’d come into the office to let me go home anyway. We change seats.
“Yeah, see you in court.”
“Don’t joke about it, mate. We might both be there yet.”
Suddenly the quiet New Year’s morning was no longer quiet. An aircraft was missing! One aero plane flying in the whole of Papua New Guinea and surrounding waters. Yes, waters that stretched from 330 miles north of the Equator – half way to Guam in the north – one aircraft! Only one! And it had to go missing now, of all times.
I was a relative newcomer to New Guinea, having arrived with wife and family less than a month earlier from Sydney. Ken, however, had been in Madang for over two years. I was an experienced air-ground man, but mainland Australia was a lot more civilized than PNG. I was only too happy to let Ken take the chair – the Hot Seat, as we used to call it.
“All right, Tom. I’m on the blower to the OIC. “ A smile. “Don’t be late with the 668.”
“Right, I’ll get in touch with Moresby, Goroka, Lae and Wewak and let ‘em know what’s going on. “
“Good, oh. I’ve already put out a verbal declaration. Made it an Uncertainty Phase. I think I’ll upgrade it to an Alert Phase. That pilot should have called in the circuit area at Aitape by now. It’s only a spitting distance down the coast.”
“Sixteen miles, or thereabout, I reckon.”
The phones start ringing. No, we’re not the only ones awake after all. The manually operated switchboard at the post office is putting through outside calls.
“Ted Lonsdale” –the Senior Communications Officer – “What’s going on?”
“This is Ansett-Mal Operations. You need any help out there?”
“Lieutenant Brice, Police Barracks. Can we be of assistance?”
The soft squeak of brakes as a Landrover pulls up outside. Thudding footsteps on the wooden staircase. A tall, worried looking air-traffic controller in his forties, Ken Wilkinson, the Officer in Charge of Madang Airport, hurries into the room.
“All right, Ken, brief me,” he says.
By now I’ve made a number of calls and additional radio operators and air-traffic control staff are hurrying to the airport. Hangovers forgotten, they drive recklessly along the dusty, crushed-coral road to pull up outside the tower building.
By 9-30a.m. the place is a alive. Rows of old DC3s, lined up like bull-frogs one behind the other are starting to turn over their engines. On the tarmac people are running this way and that.
“Madang Control this is Sierra Bravo India, radio check.”
“Madang, this is Mile Alfa Lima, we have observers onboard...
Our OIC – now being referred to as the Search Master – has opened the Search and Rescue Room The situation has been upgraded once more. It is now a Distress Phase. A dozen pilots, some in uniform, most in casual clothes, are sitting before him as he briefs them.
“All right, you blokes, you know the drill.”
The Search Master points to a large wall chart, already marked out with a heavy marker pen. Much of the chart is blacked in and marked ‘Unexplored Territory.’
“Foxtrot Romeo India said he was taxiing for takeoff at 8-38am. He didn’t report departure. So, gentlemen, we have to assume he intended to track direct. Our search area therefore straddles a line ten miles wide from west of his departure point to east of his destination with overlap at each end as shown.
“Corridor of the search? We make it ten miles as shown. Now, I want five fixed wing aircraft at this stage – only five. Oh, and we’ve got an Army helicopter coming down from Goroka. Also, Helicopter Utilities are sending down another chopper from Mount Hagen.”
Outside, on the tarmac area, aero-engines cough into life. There is mcuh movement. With the sun shining dazzlingly on its long silver wings, a big Bristol freighter, undercarriage squeaking on the uneven ground, roles along the taxiing area. Another aircraft follows it towards the single, crush-coral runway. The holiday is over. Madang International Airport, one of the busiest airport in The Territory, is back in business.
“Mike Alfa Bravo, ready”
Alfa Bravo, cleared for takeoff - Bravo, India, line up. Bravo Victor Charlie, enter holding bay...” And so it went on. Two hours earlier there wasn’t a soul around. Now Madang Airport is a hive of activity
The search planes go out. They drone between high mountains at Bena Gap, moving up the Markham and then the Ramu Valleys. They descend across the mighty Sepik River. Forming up, the search begins. It is a search for one tiny, fragile, single-engined aero plane lost amidst the lush green jungles of New Guinea. A needle in a haystack is an understatement. How can anything be found in that?
The hours drag by. The search goes on.
“Has the mission station at Aitape called in yet?” There are three radio scheds a day where the scores of missions, plantations, and sundry settlers call in with weather reports and landing strip conditions.
“Affirmative. The sister there was that Foxtrot Romeo India did not arrive.”
“Right. Now we know it’s not radio trouble. He gone in all right. We have an aircraft down. But where? Along the coast? Inland? The sea? You did say there were definitely no other calls but that taxiing call?”
“You asked that five times already!”
Tempers are beginning to fray, people getting jittery.
Everyone wants to help. In fact, too many people want to help. Radio calls are coming in from Kavieng on New Ireland, from Finchhaven, even the Indonesians up at Kota Baru say they are listening in. There are phone calls from the police, the Posts and Telegraphs, the Army. Thankfully there are no Press. Not yet! The nearest newspaper office is in Port Moresby. But they’re now trying for the story anyway. Keep harassing the Search master on the radio phone- But Kenny Wilkinson is giving nothing out.
2.00 p.m. The searching aircraft refuel at Wewak. They return for what must be their twentieth traverse of the search area. No sign. Not a glint of light on a wing. Not a trace of a fire. No wreckage along the foreshores.
“Sierra Delta Alfa. We’ve sighted what looks like wreckage below.”
“Delta Alfa – you’re location?”
“Three nautical miles southeast of Sissano.”
Hopes lift. A helicopter is on the way to take a closer look.
“Madang. We’re on the ground at the wreck site. This is not, repeat not, the missing Cessna. Looks like we’ve got a Word War Two Lockheed Lightning down here. American markings. This crates been here for twenty years at least.”
3.00 p.m. The mountains and valleys are now swathed in cloud. A dense mist creeps steadily down into any low pocket of land. No chance of really seeing anything. Yet still the aviators search on, unwilling to relinquish the chance of finding alive one of their own.
4.00 p.m. Only two hours of daylight remaining.
“You heard about the wreckage? “
“Don’t get excited about it, mate. Remember when that Piaggio went in up there in the Owen Stanleys a year or so back. They found three World War Two wrecks. Never found the Piaggio. Lost forever, cobber. This is New Guinea, remember?”
“Yeah, I know. Clouds up here have rock’s in ‘em.”
5.00 p.m. The Search Master is rubbing his eyes. He goes over everything he has done, thinking aloud, getting confirmation from his colleagues that he has tried everything in the book and more. Has he overlooked anything? Hope is fading fast. The Search Master has to call in the search aero planes, bring them all home before last light. There is no night flying in Papua-New Guinea. No nav aid. Just too dangerous.
6.00 O’clock. Hope gone. The big Bristol Freighter, the DC3s, the little Cessnas and Piper aircraft return. One after another they are landing. They have searched all day in vain.
Inside the Aeradio room an operator busies himself taking down the scores of weather reports radioed in from the outlying plantations and mission stations. It is a cacophony of sound; voices clamoring to be heard. Even this dies. It is almost black outside now. Then, at 6.20 p.m. comes the last radio call on the busy circuit. A voice – a woman’s voice.
“Madang this is Aitape.”
“Go ahead, Aitape.”
“Sister Madeline, here.”
“We have found our pilot. He’s safe.”
“Confirm you have found the pilot of Foxtrot Romeo India.”
“Yes. The boys...our native boys...They pick him up this morning. ‘Balus go boom’ the natives said. Dip feather in water.”
“He crashed in the sea? Was he the only person onboard?”
The pilot? Yes, he was alone. He’s safe now. The boys found him miles out at sea and well down the coast. Strong offshore current. Chance in a million actually. The boys were out spearing turtles. They just saw his head bobbing by.”
And so that is how I remember New Year’s Day 1964. The day started out so unremarkably, so quietly- but it was to become one etched forever in my mind.
The Search Area was just west of Wewak
- Marty Ware Online Management and SEO Systems
Marty Ware Online Management and SEO Systems helping small business and individuals succeed online