The Alice as a great small town

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Connellan Airways engineers. EJ is in the centre, with hat.

REVIEW by ERWIN CHLANDA

Looking for a job? No worries.

Get a light aircraft, fly 20,000 kilometres criss-cross the outback looking for agricultural land. Find some. 

The author, pictured at the launch with a hand-driven concrete mixer used to make bricks for the Araluen and Narwietooma homesteads.

Start a 300 acre orchard. Start an aerial mail service contracting also to the Royal Flying Doctor Service. 

Get more planes and begin an airline. 

Lease 2500 square kilometres and develop a cattle station. 

Set up an aviation workshop with a staff of 100 and equipped to “re-life” 14-seat de Havilland Heron aircraft by giving them new wing spars and engines. 

Have dinner with the Queen. 

Over a business life of more than 35 years employ thousands of staff. Have the nous to enthuse investors in your projects.

Luck played a role: During that first  exploration flight EJ “Eddie” Connellan had a chance meeting with John McEwan, Commonwealth Minister for Northern Development, who asked EJ to start a mail service in the area.

“Connellan Airways was the result,” reports son Chris in a book just published which is much shorter than the 420 page autobiographical tome by EJ, introduced and edited by Peter Donovan.

Chris Connellan’s The Way It Was is looking back with fondness and humour at a small town getting bigger, with locals applying their determination and willingness to help each-other to cope with the massive distance from the rest of the country.

Araluen homestead.

The author said during the launch he wasn’t focussing on the “highbrow movers and shakers, so to speak. I was trying to acknowledge those who punched above their weight or status, that’s the less acknowledged.”

Compared to the current entrepreneurs in Alice Springs, who mostly move and shake if they get government handouts (Supreme Court, multi story health staff accommodation, juvenile detention facility, re-location of police, women’s refuge, Aboriginal art gallery, Kilgariff suburb and so on) the life story of EJ is breathtaking.

It starts with no parts of the town being west of the railway line – except Araluen, about two kilometres away, the house EJ built, adjacent to the town’s first airport, where his aviation activities started. 

Its dirt runways are now the main thoroughfares of the town’s west. 

Most of the enthusiastic crowd of 100 at the launch of the book were old enough to remember much of what’s in it.

Dust storms darkened the daylight so fully “that the roosters didn’t crow”.

The Connellan family lived in a flat in Hartley Street in 1948, the year he was born. His mother told him “she didn’t have a fridge but Mick Heenan used to walk around town with a basket of veggies he had grown.

“Later you could buy a block of ice from the ice works built next to Mick’s new shop, known as ‘Heenan’s’.

“My first memories were of the grandeur of this shop … southern vegetables (if they survived the train trip from Adelaide), ice cream sundaes at sit-down chrome tables and even milkshakes.

“Each year, Mick shouted every school student … a treat if you walked from your school. 

“The nuns at the Catholic primary school did a sterling job in regimenting the grade-one kids into a disciplined line.”

“The general merchandise shop, owned by an Afghan over the road, blew up one day and broke windows in the flat some distance away.

“Percy Lake, with his six kids, lived on the other side of the ‘Afghans’.

“Hettie Perkins and her son Charles lived next-door.

“On the corner was Ralph Tunck’s grocery store, which I remember sold a pretty good selection of lollies for a penny.

“ANZAC Oval was the sporting and event focus for the town. The Sidney Williams hut, being used as change rooms at this time, later became the Totem Theatre.

“It was sometime in 1958 that Luigi Ruffino came to town and set up a restaurant next to the Memorial Club … I don’t remember the menu being more complex than steak and eggs with chips on the side.”

Mr Ruffino started a delicatessen stocking cheeses and salami “previously unseen in Alice Springs”.

When that business burned down he “started an even better restaurant”.

It was where the wake for EJ was held in 1984.

The open air cinema – “I don’t remember it ever raining” – was where Dust in the Sun and A Town Like Alice premiered, and where Jedda had its second screening. 

Chips Rafferty, actor, and Nevil Shute, novelist and aeronautical engineer, had links to Alice Springs via the Connellan family. 

The book creates a picture of the town with small details: A big crowd at the soap box derby on the Stuart Highway, closed for that purpose for several hours. 

The “awesome” opal collection owned by Elsie Jenkins. The Araluen pool becoming a social centre for the town.

Araluen served as a mess and accommodation for airline employees. 

Pilot Dave “Freddo” Frederiksen told the launch crowd he stayed there and remembers well a cactus in the courtyard. One night an engineer returned from the pub, disrobed and knocked on the door of a female staff member.

She opened the door and pushed him into the cactus.

The air service expanded largely with the use of a Silver Ghost Rolls Royce used for transport and grading airstrips. The vehicle is now displayed at the Alice airport.

There were many contacts with Aboriginal people – as staff in Alice Springs and on Narwietooma Station where EJ provided land and water to a group that included the now world-famous painter, Clifford Possum Tjapaltjarri AO.

Nita who frequently looked after young Chris.

The Connellan Airways story does not have a happy ending, mostly because of events outside its EJ’s control.

The author’s brother, Roger, was killed on January 5, 1977 by a suicide pilot deliberately crashing a stolen aircraft into the Connair office at the airport, also killing Liana Nappi, Mark Chittoni and Ron Dymock. Chris dedicates the book to Roger’s memory. 

The other obstacles to Connair came from the aviation bureaucracy, becoming increasingly “irksome” as the organisation grew. As the EJ autobiography, Failure of Triumph reports: “EJ was offered a guaranteed subsidy [from the Federal Government] for 15 years, provided the level of profit … was limited.”

In March 1980 Connair was sold to East West whose subsidiary, Northern Airlines, closed down at the end of that year, despite having been given government contracts and routes denied to Connair: “Main route services were then taken over by an Ansett subsidiary … while outback services were abandoned to charter operators. 

“The major engineering workshops that Connellan Airways had developed at Alice Springs were downgraded in mid September 1982.”

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