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HomeVolume 28When pioneers were flying high

When pioneers were flying high

By ERWIN CHLANDA

No region in Australia was more dependent for its development on aeroplanes and the people flying them than The Centre.

And now this spirit of self-help is carried on in the Aviation Museum, run entirely by volunteers, just 20 of them, proof of the old adage that if you want things done properly you have to do them yourself.

Christine Davy, now in her 80s, flew her Tiger Moth from the ATC to Alice to start her career with Connellan Airways in the 1960s. She became Australia’s first woman airline check and training captain.

About half of them have direct links with aviation or with people associated with it.

They are headed up by president Franca Frederiksen, herself a former “hostie” and married to “Freddo”, a former pilot of the Territory’s own airline, Connair, closed down in 1980 but firmly embedded in our history.

The museum’s two hangars, in the Araluen Cultural Precinct, are jammed full with planes, some big, such as the DC3 (at top), and small, such as the yellow Kookaburra glider (pictured at bottom) made from wood and fabric.

Most displays are inevitably linked to a yarn.

One is about Kurt Johannsen’s propeller (pictured by Ken Johnson). This is the story.

Kurt was hired by two prospectors for a top-secret mission: Looking for Lasseter’s gold reef.

They told no-one, drove to the edge of Lake Mackay, made camp and Kurt brought his Tiger Moth biplane. 

With one or the other prospector on board Kurt flew grid patterns looking for the fabled reef – non-existent as it has turned out to be.

Landing on a dry salt lake to refuel he hit a soft spot and one tip of the prop broke off.

You can’t fly a plane whose prop isn’t balanced, but all Kurt had to deal with the problem was an axe which he used it to shorten the opposite wooden blade correspondingly. 

The modified prop, of course, provided less propulsion. So to give himself the best chance to take off everything that wasn’t essential had to be left behind – including the prospector.

Kurt, quite uncertain whether the plane would fly or crash, fabricated a still from three empty jerrycans to convert brine to drinking water for his companion while waiting to be rescued.

Kurt took off, staggering into the air and looking for lift – rising air – to circle in and gain height.

He made it, and lived a full life in this country of adventure and opportunity, including developing the self-tracking road train.

How does a significant volunteer operation work?

With young and old members, explains Franca, with people from all backgrounds and a common fascination with the task at hand.

Quite a few of the people running the museum have either known the aviation pioneers or have a story or two to tell about their own aerial exploits, being “exhibits” themselves, bringing to life for visitors the flying history around The Alice region.

With minimal government assistance (ongoing funding for a “sitter” has been stopped but there are grants available for displays and improvements) Franca says the volunteers are either rostered on in the hangars or occasional helpers.

They open the museum from 11am to 3pm daily except Mondays and Tuesdays.

As Franca tells it, St Philip’s Community Service Year 9 students come fortnightly. Caleb Nicol and Ethan Seneca have been doing “a terrific job cleaning planes inside and out”.

Kevin Roberts is soon to repair the damaged fabric of the Blanik glider.

Eugene Blom produced an image (at left) showing runways of the “town site” aerodrome placed over current suburbs.

Experienced pilot Jim Thomas is a founding member and the treasurer, with wife Alison “the power behind the throne” doing the books.

Chris Connellan, son of the airline’s founder Eddie, was Franca’s predecessor as president, helped by partner Julie Sutherland. Tragically Chris died suddenly earlier this year.

Heather Robinson is one of the mainstays as the secretary and is on the roster three times a week, with sister Lesley forming a twosome.

Helen Miller, Connair pilot Damien Miller’s daughter, is another foundation member and on the committee.

Here’s another yarn: Damien flew Connair’s Heron aircraft, old planes which had been “re-lifed” with new wing spars and four modern Lycoming engines. The work was done in the airline’s highly sophisticated engineering section in Alice Springs. It had employed about 100 people but regrettably, no longer exists, shut down when the government decided to favour Ansett for the Darwin to Alice “milk run”.

Damien’s plane was on the ground on the dirt strip alongside Ayers Rock (Uluru). It was around 40 degrees. The plane was full of American tourists, waiting. No air conditioning. Damien, in shorts and T-shirt, was sitting in the back seat, reading a newspaper.

After what seemed a very long time he jumped up, saying: “I’m sick of this. Where is the pilot?”

He walked to cockpit, got into the captain’s seat, started the engines and took off.

Behind him was a plane load of very shaken Americans.

David Hewitt, who has in interest in the museum as a heritage activist, is “a hands-on person, super practical. I can do that,” is how Franca describes him.

Daughter of a former Connellan pilot Maxine Cook is rostered on twice a week. Private pilot and skydiver (ret) Brian Eather is the public officer.

Frankie So, the youngest volunteer, is a “techy sort of guy”.

Sherie Barnes, also a former Connair hostie, helps with social media and is often there at working bees.

Diane Bramich is chipping away at cataloguing and Gae Constable is helping develop and install displays.

Gavin Connaughton and Sirimon Pruanguiriya are on the weekly roster.

As vice president, Alex Nelson gives advice on heritage matters as well as being on the weekly roster. 

Edward Connellan, grandson of the founder of Connellan Airways, is also a committee member.

Retirees Peter Bannister and Gary Bentley are all-rounders and both on the weekly roster.

The Rotary Club of Mbantua is coordinating the development of a display for Blue Streak Rocket pieces that have fallen from the sky.

A Rolls Royce, owned by Eddie (at right), previously displayed at the airport, has no wings but a link with aviation nevertheless: Bernie Kilgariff, who later became one of the two NT Senators, when he was 16 drove the Roller towing a drag, building bush airstrips for the expanding Connellan Airways network of destinations, transporting people, the Flying Doctor Service, mail and freight.

Covid reduced the annual visitor numbers from about 6500 to 2000, but Franca says the Aviation Museum is resolved to see them take off again.

UPDATE June 4

Christine Davy will be inducted into the Australian Aviation Hall of Fame on 21st October this year.

1 COMMENT

  1. A piece of connecting history. My uncle, the late Maurice Knight formerly of Waikerie flew DC3s from Adelaide to Darwin for Guinea Airways in the 50s and told many stories of landing in Alice at that time.
    One I remember well was of complaints made by Olive Pink about planes flying low over her dwelling so they could spy on her while she was showering!
    He also had a friendship with the Connellan family and considered moving here to work with them.
    Also it’s such a small world as I believe the Heron on display is the same plane as flew me from Suva to Labasa in Fiji when I moved there in 1970.
    If that is so, I was scared out of my with when sitting in the copilot’s seat. I flew from Labasa to Savu Save in Fiji and thought we were going to crash when approaching SavuSavu as we skimmed the tops of the coconut palms with only meters to spare before swooping down to the strip. Great memories!

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