Chapter OneChris ‘Fang’ Mitchell felt restless as he flew across
the Papua New Guinea border into Indonesian airspace. Somehow,
it all seemed too easy.
The emerald jungles of West Irian
province slipped beneath the wings of his twin-engined Invader.
Built during World War Two as a
formidable attack plane, Fang had modified the old
wreck to a
swift armoured gun-runner. Though heavy with fuel and illicit
weapons, the rugged Invader droned on.
He landed his fourth
delivery of munitions at a remote grass airstrip alongside
the Mamberamo River. Only two years to the new millennium,
yet development had not reached this primitive
Most villagers here still lived in the stone age, the local
separatist rebels strongly allied with sympathisers across the
eastern border. They called themselves ‘West Papuans’.
bedraggled rebel dressed in filthy shirt, shorts and shabby
jungle boots emerged warily from the jungle. He slung his
machine-gun and helped Fang drag out the first box. Ripping off
the lid, he tossed a few M16 automatic rifles aside and selected
one at random. As the rest of the rebels arrived, he slammed in
a clip and fired a burst into the sky. The guerilla leader
over, stabbed his finger to the north and cursed the
negotiator for the disturbance.
Both desperate men argued
in their own dialect. Fang reasoned that either would turn
their weapons on him with as much remorse as stepping on a
bug. He lit a cigarette and brushed his
elbow against the
butt of his Colt automatic for reassurance. The rebels
carried the thirty boxes of M16 and Kalishnakov automatic
rifles away quickly, vanishing into the jungle. Fang only wanted
his money and a quick escape. He followed the gun-laden rebels
to their canoes hidden at the riverbank.
Fang felt relieved
as the nervous negotiator grudgingly thrust a grubby bundle
of notes into his hand. They smelled as if they had been
unearthed from the floor of a native hut. It would be a
deadly mistake to tell them this was the last delivery.
Continuity of supply and his pistol were his only insurance.
The transaction was far too hasty. Something intangible
seemed to agitate the rebels. Fang quickly counted the mixed
Australian and American dollars. Good thing he looked an
imposing figure with his big build and broken nose. Untidy sandy
hair and a close-cropped beard framed his battered face and gave
him a rough appearance.
Gunshots and shouts erupted from the
direction of the airstrip. The rebels scattered frantically
and paddled their gunladen canoes downstream. Fang drew his
pistol and moved furtively into the sanctuary of the jungle
fringe. He crept ever closer to his Invader, always on the
alert. A disturbance just ahead obstructed his escape.
glanced through the foliage. The body of one of the rebels
lay in a spreading pool of blood. Nearby, three other rebels
kneeled on the ground, hands tied. An Indonesian officer in
camouflaged fatigues stood behind them waving a pistol. He
questioned the terrified rebels and shouted abuse as his
soldiers threatened them with rifles.
The officer quickly
lost his temper. He raised his pistol and shot two of his
captives in the back of their heads. Swirls of gun smoke
mingled with the sinister red mist as both bodies flopped
grotesquely forward onto the dusty ground.
The last rebel
babbled frantically. He pleaded with the officer and pointed
down the airstrip to where Fang’s Invader lay partly hidden.
Fang swore and slipped away, heading for the Invader as
inconspicuously as possible. It appeared unguarded. He studied
the surrounding bush for a moment, then crouched and waited
on ground baked hard from the harsh dry season. The Invader’s
hot exhaust crackled through the fragile silence, disturbing a
nervous tree kangaroo in a nearby raintree. The kangaroo licked
its arms in some primeval ritual. The hot desiccating wind would
evaporate its saliva to ease its body heat.
As an experienced
bushman, Fang recognised its agitation. Its ears twitched and
rotated like miniature radar scanners searching for an
approaching predator. Another distant gunshot
kangaroo and it scampered up the tree, seeking sanctuary.
Fang, too, sensed an almost imperceptible drone. He carefully
scanned the dusty sky. Only low cloud scudded beneath a towering
thunderhead. Amber edges highlighted the anvil cloud and it
glared indistinctly in the dust-laden haze. The jungled
foreground was reduced to a tangle of featureless
Fang could wait no longer. He glanced at the oil
dripping from the Invader’s hot radial engines. The large
pool beneath the right engine concerned him. It was hard to
keep the old engines
maintained with the scarcity of antique
spares but there was no time to investigate. He sneaked
across to the plane, settled his muscular frame into the
cockpit and started the left engine. While taxiing, he
lowered the clear overhead canopy. A second cloud of smoke
puffed rearward as he cranked the other engine into a rough
A brief glimpse showed a clear run down the
jungle-edged strip. Two insect-like shapes grew larger in the
northern sky. A Jetranger helicopter materialised and charged
straight at him.
Another Indonesian military chopper diverted
east in an attempt to hinder his take-off. The distant ground
troops found his position and began shooting.
I’m outa here like shit off a shovel!’ Fang shouted to
himself. He knew he shouldn’t have made this last trip. He
should have listened to Dave Stark’s warning of rumours
concerning special efforts being made by the Indonesian
authorities to trap gun-runners. That’s what partners were for;
to watch your back. Sweat ran down his face as he thrust the
throttles wide. He had no intention of stopping until he
reached Port Moresby. The 1100 kilometre flight would be easy
meat for the Invader.
A fusillade of gunfire caught Fang
by surprise. Jackhammer sounds of impacting bullets tore
through the trembling airframe.
Fang accelerated past the
first helicopter and assessed the Invader’s instruments for
indication of damage. The second helicopter turned, almost on
a collision course. They clearly intended to obstruct his
take-off. He’d left his take-off rotation too late to clear
the towering rainforest beyond the airstrip.
jetliners and the occasional ‘biz-jet’, the Invader was one
of the fastest civilian flying machines in the South Pacific
Islands. He wrenched the plane off the strip, turned sharply
right, with flaps up and the control column back on his
stomach. The straining engines bellowed. The huge props
clawed at the humid air. Fang termed the drastic manoeuvre a
‘split-arse turn’. The wings were near vertical as the right
wing-tip grazed the ground.
A vortex trail of dust curled up
off the clearing as he made for the low jungle. The
thundering Invader levelled a little and shallowclimbed away
from the intercepting chopper.
The second Indonesian
helicopter looked far too slow to follow. Fang levelled out,
then winced as more bullets tore through the rear of the
cabin. He accelerated through the thin top branches of the
rainforest canopy. The whirling props mutilated the foliage,
which erupted skyward as he rapidly pulled away.
Rombebai lay dead ahead; twenty kilometres of smooth placid
water. He dived the Invader dangerously low. The downwash
from the powerful props blasted a long turbulent trail across
the mirror surface. The choppers rapidly dropped out of range,
the last random bullets lifting silent geysers of water.
was risky flying. The modified Invader accelerated beyond
five hundred kilometres an hour. Height perception above the
glassy surface was deceptive, the altimeter useless under such
circumstances. Fang’s hands had a vice-like grip on the control
column. The slightest push and the aircraft would fly into the
lake and disintegrate. Fang gave a fiendish chuckle as he
away from the lake. He was well out of the range of
the radar at Sentani military base. His adrenalin surged. The
choppers didn’t have a chance.
He set his course for the
PNG border, flying across the tallest island in the world.
Below, an unbroken spinal range stretched for 2,000
kilometres. He levelled out at 17,000’ to clear the rugged
snow-capped mountains of the Indonesian province. Puncak Jaya
towered five kilometres above the eastern horizon, the tallest
peak between the Himalayas and the Andes.
Fang tuned in on
the air bands. He could not understand the Bahasa chatter so
switched the radio off. Half an hour to the border and
New Guinea is the only tropical island with glaciers.
They sparkled below him like rivers of powder blue opal.
Smooth snowbound slopes almost hid the rocky reality beneath.
the southeastern face of the ranges appeared.
Jagged inclined edges pointed obliquely skyward revealing
prehistoric evidence of titanic rupture. The varying colours
of the earth’s rocky stratum were exposed. Pale veins of
limestone streaked the tawny sedimentary crust. The granite
slopes were dappled with veneers of dark volcanic waste.
The white snowbound contours reminded him of Bianca, his
blonde Danish girlfriend back in Port Moresby. Her beauty,
creamy skin and platinum hair had captivated him from the first
moment he saw her. Their relationship was as stormy as it was
erotic. She had expensive tastes and in turn catered to his
erotic desires. This last run would set them up comfortably
for a long time.
Fang snapped out of his daydream and
checked his watch. He slid a hidden lever fully forward.
There was no performance change, no attitude change. On the
rear fuselage, two plates with
the registration letters KJN
slid less than a handspan. The K uncovered a 2, the N covered
a C. What was previously an Indonesian-registered aircraft
PKJNC, took on a new identity. It
was now P2KJN, registered
in Papua New Guinea. There were four Invaders registered
around the Pacific. In reality, only two existed. The reasons
for this anomaly were various and dubious
but typical of
activities in regions far from the eyes of bureaucrats.
the mountains behind him, Fang relaxed in the noisy cockpit.
He felt justified in what he was doing and sincerely believed
in the rebel cause. If he could make some money out of
all the better. Bianca threatened to leave if he did not stop
his mysterious clandestine flights. He wanted to tell her he
was not running drugs but did not want her involved. He
switched on the radio again: more frantic and unintelligible
chatter. The big radial engines droned on, in twenty minutes
he would be safely beyond the Indonesian border near the Star
Mountains. He still held course for Telefomin in Papua New
Guinea and noticed storm clouds building up ahead. He hoped
this wouldn’t force him to make a diversion.
recognised the jumbled terrain below. It looked an incredible
sight. Acute ragged walls of stained limestone leaned beyond
the perpendicular. The summits were capped with tufted
tangles of emerald jungle. A misty primary shelf lunged even
higher, vanishing into the cloudbase. Four brilliant waterfalls
fell unhindered thousands of feet into the mist-shrouded
bowels of the verdant forest. The International border was a
farce, an imaginary line through dense uninhabited jungle.
These people were Melanesian, the length of the island: a
proud race artificially divided by politics.
burst of machine guns shattered Fang’s thoughts of safety. He
stared, incredulous, as an Indonesian Air Force F16 jet
fighter pulled alongside. This was the most feared and advanced
attack aircraft in operation. The helmeted pilot indicated for
him to turn back. If ever an aircraft looked like a shark, it
was this sleek, needle-nosed fighter. Even the large intake
resembled a famished, gaping mouth. Fang felt puny in the
face of this new and powerful threat, like a drowning swimmer
being circled by a White Pointer. He cursed as he realised
the helicopters had radioed ahead. The lethal fighter had
quickly picked him up on radar.
Without hesitation, Fang
pulled the throttles then lowered his landing gear and flaps,
causing the jet fighter to overshoot. Fang raised two fingers
contemptuously, tossed the Invader on
its back and dived
almost vertically for the scattered cloud. His modified
‘pocket rocket’ could reach speeds approaching 600 kilometres
an hour. He often jested that to catch him, they would need a
fire up their arse. His sarcastic reference to jet power had
turned into a nightmare. Fifteen tons of high technology and
death, capable of twice the speed of sound dived on his tail.
He could hear cannon shots as he powered for the shroud of
the cumulo-nimbus ahead. Fang clenched his teeth, expecting
the deadly impact of a Sidewinder missile. Another thirty
and he would reach the sanctuary of the cloud. He
could then fly safely back to Port Moresby and Bianca. He
pulled carefully on the control column, attempting to drag
the Invader out of the dive. Just as he was about to enter
the cloud, the aircraft shuddered violently. Cannon fire
raked the left engine and it suddenly lost power.
Dave Stark lowered his tall wiry frame into a folding
chair near his tent and opened a beer. He was now manager of
Aviation and Marine salvage. Originally specialising in marine
salvage and insurance, Stark had bought Avmar, a successful
aircraft charter company servicing Papua New Guinea and
expanded it into the South Pacific.
The salvage site was in
the Trobriands, a remote island group in the Solomon Sea off
Papua New Guinea’s east coast. A light aircraft landed and
Dave waited for the arrival of Jake Porowefu. Jake was a
stocky New Guinea highlander, his best onsite foreman. His
versatility and loyalty were unmatched.
different nationalities and background, they shared a mutual
respect. Dave glanced at the progress of repairs to the crash
damaged Fokker F28 jetliner, then turned on the radio to
listen to the headlines.
‘… The earthquake was most
devastating along the north coast.
The Madang province has
been declared a disaster area, with volcanic eruptions and
tidal waves reported on Manam Island. Karkar Island volcano
is still venting lava after previous eruptions. Two
vulcanologists monitoring eruptions are reported missing,
Dave had felt the quake. It had been bad even
here at Kiriwina in the Trobriand Islands, seven hundred
kilometres from the epicentre.
Jake arrived, threw down
his pack and shook hands. ‘What’s going on, Dave? We got
plenty of work. Why salvage this heap?’
‘Too good a deal to
In reality, Dave also needed to get away from
his tedious business schedule in Port Moresby. The primitive
challenge of field repair work away from bureaucracy was like
Jake studied the damaged New Guinea Airways
jetliner. ‘What happened?’
‘Flew into a hailstorm. As you
can see, it’s hammered in the wing leading edges and
destroyed the nose radar. The windscreens were so bad they
could only just see out.’
‘Why didn’t they fly on to Port
Moresby?’ Jake asked, eager to practise his new skills with
English. After paying for Jake’s education with profits from
a recent venture, Dave paused in admiration. His English was
now excellent. ‘The hail almost snuffed out the jet engines
was the only landing strip in the area. The crew
were nearly flying blind, but did a great job of force
landing in torrential rain. Saved the lives of seventy
‘They must have known it was too short for the
Dave glanced at the Fokker jetliner. With the
nose on the ground and the four huge main wheels bogged to
the axles, the tail was thrust unusually high. It towered
over the nearby coconut palms. ‘No choice, Jake. Over-ran the
strip, through the native garden, then the nose collapsed in
that patch of bamboo.’
‘Where’s Fang? We could do with his
help,’ Jake suggested.
Dave knew exactly what Fang was up to.
‘Said he was too busy.’
He wished he had his assistance,
despite their frequent clashes.
Jake thought the jetliner
looked destined to become a very expensive chicken coop at
the end of Kiriwina’s airstrip. He also knew of Dave’s
legendary persistence and tenacity in the face of
‘This one looks impossible,’ he quipped, almost as a
‘Nothing’s impossible, Jake, subject to three
parameters: cost, time and logistics.’
Jake pushed his
point. ‘Is it worth it? They reckon it’s the oldest plane in
‘I know. The aircrews hate it. New Guinea Airways
were eager to write it off as an inaccessible crash site. I
was just as quick to scoop up the salvage rights.’
think you’re crazy in Port Moresby.’
‘We’ll make a good
profit on the wreck, if I can get it flown out.’ A radio call
interrupted further comment.
Jake took the call. ‘It’s Jan.
She wants to talk to you.’
Her voice was indistinct with
static. ‘Dave, there’s two Japanese men here who want to
charter a plane for two weeks. They want to discuss some
arrangement with Fang.’
‘They seem to think
he’s the boss.’
‘Two weeks. Great. If Fang’s back, get him to
ferry them around in the Beechcraft.’
‘No, they want to
fly themselves. One’s endorsed to fly in PNG.
They want to
charter a high wing aircraft. Fang has some dubious friends
but these guys are strange. The older one is slim and athletic.
The other is a brute of a man. Quite muscular for a Japanese, a
nasty looking character.’
Dave hesitated. A request for a
high wing aircraft could only mean they wanted unobstructed
vision for a ground search. ‘No problems, Jan. Let them have
the old Cessna 207. No one else
wants to charter the Lead
It was a good choice. The underpowered Cessna
was unpopular with pilots. Its nickname resulted from a
comment that the only reason it could take off was due to the
‘Yes, that should do them. Only
have backpacks with them, and said they want your help at a
later stage,’ Jan added.
Dave pondered the strange request
then dismissed the thought. ‘Right, I’ll leave it to you to
organise. Remind them not to overfly the Madang province.
It’s been declared a disaster area
and only aircraft involved
in disaster relief are allowed in. Anyway, how are you
‘Okay, business is going well,’ Jan paused. ‘I’m
‘It didn’t seem that way when I left.’
still can’t understand your death wish attitude. With the money
and power you have you should be thinking of a more comfortable
lifestyle. Instead you’re an adrenalin freak, always looking for
your next hit.’
‘Only one who has cheated death can truly
appreciate the wonders of life,’ said Dave simply.
corny, Dave, and you know it. You take it too far. It’s
almost a pathological obsession with you and Fang.’
you’ll tell me you have no psychological problem,’ Dave
Jan hesitated a moment. ‘I just wonder where our
relationship is going sometimes, Dave.’
Dave noticed that
four tractors had now arrived at the crash site. ‘Jan, I
gotta go. We’re at an important stage now, almost ready to
drag the jet out. I’ll see you in Moresby in a few days.’