Dangerous Snakes and Aeradio Operators
A Boeing proceeding from Sydney to Darwin
A little green oasis amongst the parched outback land
So why a little green oasis?
In the long hot summers of New South Wales’ Central West the ground grows hard and cracked. The water holes dry up and the river shrinks to a trickle. Tar bubbles along the highways. Crows pant, beaks open in dead and leafless trees. And the grass in the paddocks is sparse and filled with dust.
It is at these times that the frogs and snakes of the region remember the relative comfort which awaits them out back of the Dubbo Aeradio shack. Yes, the little control room set well apart from the airport’s terminal building. It’s an Oasis. It’s in this little red-and-white chequered building that the aeradio’s operators ‘talk to the aeroplanes.’
"Speedbird 704 Juliet three zero at 54 Flight level 330 estimating Juliett two zero at 27, copy?”
"704, call Charleville on 6540 at the Queensland Border..."
An aeradio operator at work
A country aerodrome. The little green oasis would be out back of the dunny.
Frogs and snakes, snakes and frogs.
Out back of that tiny aeradio shack there is an even smaller building; an outhouse; a real country dunny. Everything except a choko vine. And behind the dunny, a great big sullage pit which, even in the deepest of droughts, was always lush and green. It was a place just made for frogs and snakes.
This tiny patch of moist earth, this oasis, becomes the summer home of a hundred frogs. At night, the aeradio operators at Dubbo Airport, of those days, could hear the burp and croak as a background, rivalled only by the the background static to their radio receivers.
At night, the only light for many square miles shines weakly into the night. And the insects see that light and home in on it like an international airliner on the Norfolk Island radio beacon. And the frogs home in on the insects. And the snakes follow the frogs.
Airlines of New South Wales used to service Dubbo using F27As
"We're three zero on the DME and on descent"
The Focker Friendship was inbound Dubbo from Sydney. It was letting down from 15,000 feet. It was at about this time that I found I had an unexpected visitor.
“Dubbo, this is Fox-trot November Golf, three zero DME this time, on descent. Estimating Dubbo on the hour.”
“Fox-trot November Charlie. Roger. Surface wind is light and variable. Altimeter setting for landing QNH 1012.”
“November Golf, roger.”
And at that moment I heard the mousetrap snap in the console drawer!
‘Gotcha, I thought. We’ve gone and caught ourselves a mouse.’
I reached across to switch on the runway lights
I hadn’t set that mousetrap. One of the other fellows earlier in the day had done that. Apparently some rodent had been rifling the fellow’s Devon sandwiches, and it could only have been a field mouse that had wondered in. Tucker was getting scarce, even for field mice.
I reached across the control console to switch on the airport’s runway lights, momentarily changed my mind, thinking I’d best check that big console drawer first.
I slide the draw wide open. A bad mistake. There, curled up in the drawer, taking up the whole damn drawer with its massive coils, was the biggest brown snake I’d ever seen.
Australian Brown Snake - Yep, very venomous
I tried to slam the door shut but it was too late
I gulped. The adrenaline flooded. Then, quickly, I tried to slam the drawer shut again. Too late. half a metre of that huge reptile had already come over the edge of the drawer. The drawer edge hit its body but it didn’t slow it up.
I lurched back, knocking my operator’s swivel chair onto the lino floor.
Bang! clatter! The noise and the movement must have startled the snake for, instead of coming right out of the drawer as expected, it unflexed its length onto the table-top of the control console, right in front of my control panel, along with all its important switches.
Slowly, warily, I eyed the snake and it eyed me. More and more of it came out of that drawer. Now, it was coiled, it head and neck poised ready to strike.
A cranky brown snake. Keep back!
The inbound aircraft must have been wondering why those runway lights weren't on
A minute passed. Then another. I started to sweat profusely. The service from Sydney was inbound. He’d already be wondering why he could not, as yet, see that twin row of parallel lights on the main runway. But there was a bit of middle level clouds about. Maybe the pilot of Fox-trot November Golf was still in cloud.
I couldn’t use the microphone. It was on a short boom right over the control table in which the snake lay, menacingly. All the transmitter button were in the off position. I couldn’t use the VHF link to inform Sydney Air Traffic Control, or any other ground station -or aircraft, for that matter- that Dubbo Aeradio had been rendered immobile by a belligerent and now seemingly very active and angry brown snake. Even the telephone was too close to that damn snake.
This wasn't my first encounter with a brown snake
Snakes had never worried me much up until that time. We’d killed a couple already that summer. They find it hard to dodge a wide-bladed shovel. But this one was different. Inside. Hardly any room to move. And every time I leaned towards that control panel to try any of those switches it would cock its little head back, jaws open.
A lot of people think snakes strike very quickly. They do. But, generally, a man’s reflexes are quicker. I remember once swiping at a big brown snake out on the tarmac. It missed with my broom handle, and it struck. But I managed to pull my arm back more quickly than it could brings its head down. I remember the top of its head just touched the cuff of my sleeve.
"Never use a stick on a snake, mate. A shovel's the go"
But then one of the snake-slaying experts showed me how it was done.
“Never use a stick, mate. Shovel’s made for the job. Whack ‘em, and chop ‘em. Simple as that.’
“Fox-trot November Golf We’re still IFR. (In layman’s language, still unable to see visually) We intend doing an NDB let down onto runway zero five.”
I’m unable to reply.
“Dubbo, Fox-trot November Golf, reading?”
I had to do something. Should I try smashing my swivel chair onto the brute. Hardly a good weapon. Beside, the top of the console was covered with glass. It’s sure make a mess.
Then I saw it: the CO2 fire extingisher
Then I saw it. It gleamed in the pale light. The CO2 fire extinguisher on the side wall. Quickly I pull it from it from the wall. Tearing off the wire seal I pointed the wide, funnel-shaped nozzle and pressed the trigger.
Cchhssssssss! The snake moved. It moved quickly. It dropped it head over the side of the console and started for the floor. I gave it a blast full in the face from underneath. It turned. Undulating quickly it headed back for the partially open drawer. It’s head slid in, quickly followed by the rest of it.
Quickly, without stopping to think, I slammed the drawer shut tight.
The aircraft was still in cloud and yet to notice the runway lights were not on yet
“Fox-trot November Golf, now eight miles out passing through three thousand.”
I leap forward, depressing the VHF transmitter button.
“Roger, Fox-trot November Golf.:
I then pull out a brass toggle. I click it down. There is a momentary flickering of lights as the town’s electrical supply is backed up by our diesel generator. (Be dreadful if the town’s supply failed right on touch down) Next, I pull another toggle switch. The main runway lights come on. I look out the window and see a parallel line of lights angling off into the darkness. Lights on okay.
The fire engine moves into position...
At that moment the duty fire-fighter calls me on VHF
“Tender One, standing by."
“Thank you Tender One. I have a reptile problem. When Fox-trot November Golf has departed please call into the office. And, bring that wide shovel.”
“Tender One. Understood.”
I go to the door of the aeradio shack and see the Friendship letting down over the nearby hill to the Southwest. Squeak! squeak! Tyres touch the tarmac. There is a whine of aero engines.
“Fox-trot November Golf landed zero one.”
I watch his navigation lights as he turns and taxies to the terminal building. Just another evening at the office, really.
I hope you enjoyed, Of Dangerous Snakes and Aeradio Operators. Oh, and don't keep any food in your office...
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