By ERWIN CHLANDA
When you get grumpy about how long your flight is going to take from Melbourne to Alice (3 hours and 55 minutes) spare a thought for 24-year-old Frank Briggs: 100 years ago it took him 10 days, with stop-overs at Nhill, Adelaide, Carrieton, Maree, Warrina, Oodnadatta and the Charlotte Waters Telegraph station.
When he touched down in a tiny DH4 bi-plane on what is now Memorial Avenue he was the first to land an aircraft in Alice Springs.
There were many more to come as the flying machines became – logically – the way to conquer The Centre’s vast distances.
EJ “Eddie” Connellan was another young pilot in the region. Aged 27 he also set out from Melbourne, in 1938 flying his Spartan bi-plane to make a 40,000 mile aerial survey of the Northern Territory, assessing its grazing and aviation potential.
As it happened Minister for the Interior, John “Black Jack” McEwan, was looking for a way to deliver mail in The Centre. He got Eddie to turn it into airmail.
Cut to 1960 and Connellan Airways was serving 132 places on schedules ranging from weekly to four times a day, becoming one of the NT’s biggest employers.
In 1974 Connair employed the first woman pilot of a passenger airline in Australia, Christine Davies.
Eddie did not believe in waste. Navigation aids in aircraft at the time were heavy and took up space where cargo could be put. Besides, they were making pilots lazy: A compass, a clock and a map is all a good pilot should need to find his way.
These were supplemented by “mud maps” as John Myers recalls in his book Mess to Mayhem: Up front with the Never Never Mailman.
The book will be launched at the Central Australian Aviation Museum centenary celebrations next month.
It’s an account of Myers’s 10 years as a pilot with Connellan Airlines based in Alice Springs.
The Centre is famous for its great flying weather and uncluttered skies, but there are exceptions: Dust, for example.
Myers left Alice every Monday morning to deliver passengers and freight to Yuendumu, Hooker Creek, Inverway Station and Kununurra, WA.
One day a Warlpiry stockman, Billy, a man of few words, took the seat next to Myers, taking in what could hardly be described as a great view: Fleeting images of the ground 6000 feet below, filtered through billowing red dust.
Myers then entered a phase that some in aviation describe as “position doubtful” and others – more accurately – as bloody well lost. Of course these embarrassing facts must be concealed from the passengers.
Myers, casually, struck up a conversation with the passenger in the co-pilot’s seat (reported here from the book with some editing).
“So you live in Yuendumu, Billy?”
“And you’re a stockman in Lajamanu?”
“You’d know this country pretty well, then, wouldn’t you?”
“Yep,” and pointing out the side window. “That’s Number Three Bore down there. And a little further on and a bit to the right is the airstrip.”
“I knew that,” said Myers aloud.
This he didn’t say: “Thank God for Billy! He’s a lot better than my mud map.”
PHOTOS: • A Connellan Airways plane visiting the Roper River Mission • EJ “Eddie” Connellan • A Royal Flying Doctor Service patient is transferred from a Connellan Airways Fox Moth to an ambulance. Wikipedia.