Island in the Sky
Prinzberg was a remote primitive outpost. A regal teutonic name, but a strange misnomer for a pathetic violation that defied vast expanses of New Guinea jungle. It was two sweltering hours since our helicopter collided with the vine-strangled rain-trees near the helipad. A Tarangau Airlines plane had crashed here and we were delivering a sonar unit to speed my partner’s underwater search. As an aircraft engineer and part-time pilot, I took the time to inspect the damaged rotor-blades.
An astonished audience of inquisitive naked warriors watched us suspiciously, but warily stood their distance. Kevin the pilot scanned the sky and caught sight of our rescuers. He grabbed the hand-mike from the bubble cockpit of the Bell 47. “Yeah, Dave Stark from Avmar Salvage is here with me. He said it doesn’t look good.”
As we shielded our eyes from the blinding tropical sun, the rescue helicopter approached and hovered above our stricken machine. “Dave, Jim’s too lazy to land upstream,” Kevin shouted. “The stupid bastard’s gonna try and squeeze it in here! I’ll hold our blades out of the way—it’s bad enough trying to land one chopper here!”
Jim seemed agitated as he carefully jockeyed his pulsating Bell 47 over the bank of the Ramu river and down onto the narrow pad alongside our sister-ship. Kevin held our damaged blades firmly to prevent downwash spinning them into Jim’s manoeuvring space. The intruding jungle growth whipped and surged in the rotor blast; my nostrils accosted by the rank smell of exhaust efflux and rotting vegetation. I turned my back to a stinging lash of dust and debris, as Jim’s blades slashed the air a mere metre away.
After touchdown, Jim foolishly left the engine idling. He jumped angrily from the bubble cockpit, crouched under the slashing blades and stomped over to Kevin. “You dopey prick!” he yelled above the din of the engine and rotors. “What a shit of a place to have a rotor strike! I warned you not to get too close to those bloody trees.”
I ignored him, while Kevin tried to shout back an explanation.
Jim hurried over to the front of our damaged chopper and checked the mangled blade tip. “Well, that’s one new blade we’ll have to fly in—how’s the other one?” Without thinking, he pushed the forward rotor away, to inspect the rear blade. By the time Kevin shouted, it was too late; he made a futile attempt to stop the motivated blade, but it swung out and clashed with the whirling rotors of Jim’s idling chopper. Instinctively we both ducked to the ground.
The noise was incredible; a series of sharp percussions as the fragmented blades peppered the jungle around us like shrapnel. Jim’s chopper began to tremble. With the blades severed and out of balance, it bounced onto its side, the engine still roaring. The remaining blade segments flayed the ground, detached chunks thrown high into the air. The stumps of the rotor acted like broken spokes on a cartwheel and jerked the crumbling machine awkwardly around itself.
Suddenly, it toppled over the river bank and fell ten metres to the water’s edge.
As the noise ceased, we stood and surveyed the now peaceful clearing. There was little to show of the sudden violence, except for a swirl of churned grass, littered with metal and perspex fragments. Not a word was said—the only movement a swaying rotor on Derek’s helicopter, one blade bent and raggedly severed to half its original length.
Jim sat down on the river bank, shaking his head and mumbling self-abuse. Fortunately, no one had been hurt, but white smoke carried up the pungent odour of an electrical fire. Before anyone had the sense to grab an extinguisher, there was a muffled thud as the ruptured fuel tank exploded. The smashed remains erupted in a billowing knot of orange flame and smoke.
We extinguished what was left of the charred wreckage and noticed that most of the inquisitive native bystanders had run off when the two choppers collided. Brave warriors they might be, but faced with such strange and unpredictable technology, fools they were not.
Many of them had seen a white man and flying machine for the first time this day.
There was little else we could do, so Kevin helped unload the Sonar unit from his helicopter and we shuttled the rest of my gear upriver to my partner’s base camp. “Couldn’t have happened to a nicer bloke,” said Kevin. “At least now we might get rid of these antique 47’s and buy some turbine-engined Jetrangers.”
Kevin was short and stocky; he laboured through a thatch of tall springy ferns. I was slim and broad-shouldered, no fat, no bulging muscles, just a sinewy six-footer; a result of my strenuous outdoor lifestyle. I took the lead, cutting a swathe through the new growth.
My partner, Fang, was out of camp, so I did what I could to make the two helicopter pilots comfortable in the oppressive noon-day heat and humidity. Jim was despondent as I radioed his main base for a third rescue aircraft and delivery of two new rotor blades for Kevin’s Bell 47. Fang was underwater at the time of our dramatic arrival and unaware of our lucky escape. Jake, our native assistant, said he heard the distant noise and saw smoke, but his attention had been on the serious task of monitoring Fang’s search for a missing twin-engined plane in the muddy depths of the Ramu river.
While waiting for Fang, I checked myself in the camp mirror for injuries after the chopper collision. My sun-weathered face already carried the legacy of a plane crash; a ragged scar and rough stitching spanned my forehead. Another pale scar under my right eye never tanned—a result of a brawl in Saigon. My untidy brown hair was lank and sun-streaked, badly needing a barber’s attention.
When Fang finally returned and heard our story, he laughed. Then his bearded sunburnt face lit up as he spied the Sonar kit. “You got it! We’ll find our sunken plane wreck now, Dave. I’ll dive again after lunch. But first, I’ve gotta see these wrecked helicopters.” He smiled.
I had never seen a coin like it before—shiny gold, elaborately decorated, and embossed with foreign words. As I picked it up, it flashed in the tropical sun. I was far too busy to study it further. “Where did you get it?” I asked Bill.
Bill was the ‘Kiap’, or Patrol Officer, for Prinzberg and surrounding tribal villages.
“I traded with Ramu warriors down south,” he replied evasively, crushing his cigarette with a clay-encrusted jungle boot, and changed the subject. “I thought salvage companies were only interested in ships and war disposals? Didn’t realise you went after plane wrecks too.”
Before responding, I returned the coin he’d dropped, and turned back to the brown Ramu waters to see if Fang had surfaced, then checked the compressor.
“Yeah, we even get location write-offs. A plane might crash-land, undamaged, hundreds of kilometres from the roughest and most remote access roads. Insurance companies quite often consider them uneconomical to retrieve. Quite common in Papua New Guinea. Did you see this one ditch in the river?”
“Yeah. It never left the ground, the wheels ran right to the edge of the riverbank. What a splash! I thought it’d float, but lucky they got out fast, ’cause it sank in less than a minute.” Bill mopped the sweat off his face and continued. “What’s the gadget your mate took underwater with him?”
I hesitated and turned off the compressor. Fang’s spare scuba bottle was now refilled. “A side scan sonar unit, like a small magnetometer,” I replied. “He can’t see in that silted water, so he listens on earphones. He can then tell when he’s close to the sunken aircraft. Sort of like a geiger counter.”
“Hardly seems worth the trouble.”
“It’s not a lot of trouble when you consider it’s insured by Boyds of Bristol for 200,000 bucks. We work for AVMAR, Aviation and Marine Salvage Company, the agent for Boyds, and also act on their behalf as insurance investigators. If we find it within the next few days, I think we could have it flying again for less than fifty grand.”
“Shit! Why that much? It only pancaked on water, not hard ground. I thought once you got it back on the airstrip, all you’d do is knock out some dents, hose her down, change the battery and fuel her up?”
“I wish it was that simple.” I glanced back at the turgid brown waters, caught sight of Fang’s air bubbles downstream and returned to Bill’s conversation.
“First, water is as hard as rock to the relatively light belly structure of an aircraft. Second, a lot of expensive equipment would be unserviceable now, including instruments, radios and engines.”
“Why the engines? It ain’t salt water.”
“Well, the engines were running when it hit the water, weren’t they?”
“Yeah, props threw up a real spray.”
“That means the engines ingested masses of water while they were running. Unlike fuel-air mixture, water won’t compress, so . . .”
Bill interrupted. “Things start bending and breaking.”
“Yes, broken pistons, bent conrods and valves, overstressed crankshaft, cases and cylinders.”
Bill gave a cynical chuckle. “I can see where the expense comes in now. Reminds me of the villagers up in the foothills. Ran into a bit of money and decided to treat themselves to a new Landcruiser. No roads up there, mind you. It was flown up and assembled by a mechanic from Madang. None of them knew how to drive—real bushies—can’t even speak Pidgin. Don’t wear nothing ‘cept a bone through the nose, arse-grass and a few feathers. They were using the ‘cruiser around the local villages on goat tracks and tore the sump out. No one told them to check the oil, so they just kept driving it and burnt the arse out of the motor. Get this—after paying cash for the cruiser, they simply had a complete new motor fitted and again paid cash!”
Bill was starting to arouse my curiosity. “Where’s all the brass coming from?”
He looked me in the eyes, very seriously. “Not brass, mate—gold. They might be primitive, but they’re not stupid. They’ve made a small fortune so far. The assayer told me it’s the finest pure gold he’s seen. It might be only dust and small nuggets, but it’s the quantity that counts.”
Having panned for gold myself, whenever the opportunity arose, I now gave Bill my full attention. “Where are they getting it from?”
Bill laughed. “Do you think I’d be here if I knew. All I can say is, it’s somewhere in the Ramu foothills of the Bismarck Ranges, up behind their villages. They won’t tell a soul.” He lit a smoke and continued, mystified. “Every time I go on Patrol in the Ramu, I pan at likely creeks and I’ve never found anything worthwhile.”
Like myself, Bill had pale blue eyes, faded by a thousand suns, but I knew I had a steady eagle-like gaze that intimidated people and I used it to my advantage unashamedly. Bill withered but said little else before we were suddenly interrupted by Jacob, our stocky New Guinean assistant. We simply called him Jake.
“Masta Dave, Fang he come up.”
Jake was right. The taut quivering rope indicated Fang was hauling himself to shore against the river’s current. He surfaced in full scuba gear, panting heavily. To the naked, astonished natives, he must have looked like an alien space creature. The primitive warriors were incredulous, unable to comprehend how Fang stayed underwater so long.
“No luck?” I asked, knowing what the answer would be. He pulled his face mask off and brushed water out of his hair. “You’re joking! It’s so full of mud, shit and corruption, you can’t see a bloody thing. The current’s running ten knots. If it wasn’t for the safety rope, I’d be halfway to the Bismarck Sea by now.”
“Any impulses at all?”
“Nothing, the bottom’s like porridge—a river of mud below a river, moving slightly slower.”
“Okay, take a break and we’ll try again tomorrow. You’ll be glad to know the pilots flew the other chopper out a while ago. A plane arrived this morning with the spare blades.”
“Good, should be some room to spread out in the tent tonight.” As he removed his scuba gear, I introduced him. “Bill, this is Chris Mitchell my partner, better known as ‘Fang’.”
“I’m glad it’s you going down there and not me.” Bill said with a grin.
“You don’t have to be mad, but it helps. I wonder why I do it sometimes.”
“Two hundred bucks an hour is a pretty good reason,” I said.
Bill was stunned. “What! All the time you’re here?”
“No, that’s a special underwater hourly rate for Fang.”
We talked on as Fang lugged his gear over to our camp. The tent was set well back from the river bank, beneath a wall of dense jungle draped in vines and verdant top foliage.
“Muscular bloke,” said Bill, watching Fang towel off. “Looks like a bearded brick with eyes.”
“Do you spell that with ‘B’, or ‘P’?” I gibed.
Bill laughed. “Why do you call him ‘Fang’?”
“Should see the way he eats—anything, anytime. Appetite of a starved shark.”
While our evening meal simmered, we relaxed around the campfire and listened to the sunset. As the sky darkened, the surrounding forest came alive: a chorus of howls, bird calls and the pulsing drone of a myriad of insects, chirping in anticipation of their own nightly feast.
“Goroka, Goroka . . . Prinzberg.” I released the microphone call button on the two-way radio. After a few seconds I keyed the microphone and tried to contact our head office again. Fang stood up impatiently and tugged at the aerial wire. “Probably a poor connection again.” He walked outside but returned a moment later, bashing his head on the Tilley lamp as he ducked back into the tent. “Useless bastard of a thing,” he growled, and backhanded it as he sat down on his sleeping bag.
“What did you expect, a suite in the Prinzberg Hilton?” I said. The nearest resemblance to a hotel was over a hundred kilometres away, in Mount Hagen.
“Yeah, if it means room service and a cold beer, Blossom.”
‘Blossom’ was a sarcastic reference to my battered features and almost permanent tan, due in part to Polynesian blood three generations back. Never handsome, I was once described as rugged by a Cairns waitress. She had liked my dimpled chin; Fang told her it was actually my navel after a dozen facelifts.
The Tilley lamp was still oscillating wildly; weird gyrating shadows danced across the walls of the tent and the rain forest nearby. I called our Goroka base repeatedly over the next hour, still without success. Finally I decided to try again next morning. Fang stuffed another enormous spoonful of mashed potato and bully beef into his mouth and attempted to talk through it. “I think I know where it is.”
“What?” My mind was on another subject.
“Tarangau Airlines’ missing plane—the Cessna 402. I discovered today that the river-bed slopes deeper downstream. A ten-knot current would carry it further than we first thought, to about here.”
“Shit no, not in the undercutting?” I studied the map. A small ridge diverted the course of the Ramu sharply west. On the outside bank of the curve, the racing waters had undercut the jungled bank, forming a deep turbulent backwater.
Fang punched a neat hole in the end of a raw egg with a matchstick. He sucked out the contents, savouring every mouthful, then washed it down with a warm beer. “Well, Blossom, tomorrow we’re gonna find out.”
The downriver side of the backwater was tightly packed with floating logs and jungle debris. It was compressed to the sheer wall by the fury of the river’s current. Tangled vines trailed in the water from the towering wall of vegetation above. We hadn’t seen any crocodiles on this venture, but even so, I checked the safety catch of my .22 Colt Woodsman automatic. The light, well-balanced Colt was a ten-shot repeater. Though I doubted its ability to penetrate a croc’s skull, it could ward off attacks.
There was a large audience of inquisitive villagers around our campsite, some naked, others daubed with bright ochres, wearing feathers and furs. A simple length of string stretched between stakes served as a ‘banis’, or fence. As tribal people, all respected this symbol, and not one ventured beyond.
Fang had searched for two hours. Now he was returning after only eight minutes below the surface. Thinking the worst, I organised our labour gang to haul on his safety line. The current drove him to the bank. He was jubilant, and stood up in the shallows with his thumb pointing skyward. A second marker line snaked back into the torrent.
“She’s there, Dave, right-side up across the current!”
“Can’t tell, but basically everything seems to be in the right place. Props are bent and I can feel the top of the wings through the slime. But they’re really stuck in the mud. Lucky she’s low wing; it’s kept the fuselage out of the muck. I shouldn’t have any trouble getting airbags inside, even with a layer of silt.”
“Okay, let’s get back to camp. I’ll radio Tarangau Airlines to airfreight the equipment we’ll need to surface it.”
Tarangau Airlines Manager, Alf Campbell, was optimistic and full of plans. All salvage gear would be flown in tomorrow, accompanied by one of Alf’s engineers.
By mid afternoon, Fang had tethered the aircraft to a tree on the nearby bank. A prefabricated cable with a pulley block was clipped around the prop hubs. The aircraft, when floated, would centre on a running leash, as the water current acted on the tail fin.
Fang had made an odd discovery after securing the cable to the Cessna. As he emerged from the swirling brown depths, another light harness line trailed from his hand; his amazement was obvious.
“There’s another bloody plane down there!” he shouted, looking somewhat bewildered.
I frowned. “Two planes? Sure you didn’t bump into the 402 again?”
Fang looked at me with contempt, hawked and spat on the ground. “Listen, Blossom, on my way back my securing line snagged. I untangled it and found a bent prop blade. Below that I could feel cowls and cylinders of a radial aero engine. I didn’t have enough air to check it out, but it’s small. I’d say it’s an old wartime wreck, part buried in the mud.”
That seemed likely. PNG was littered with wartime wrecks. “This backwater’s a natural junkyard. As the river changes course, everything gets dumped near the outside bank by the undercurrents and whirlpool action.”
“What about I float it? Might be something valuable on board for us. AVMAR or Tarangau don’t own it, and there’s nothing left to do on the Cessna until our gear arrives tomorrow anyway?”
“Okay, Fang, you’re the one risking your neck in there. Have we enough drums to lift it?”
“There’s a stack of old fuel drums over at the strip and we have the air compressor and hose ready.”
While Fang prepared for another dive, we repositioned the air compressor close to the water and fitted a long hose over the outlet. Within an hour, Fang had secured a heavy rope to the prop hub of the mysterious plane. Soon Jake had returned in the dugout lakatoi canoe towing numerous empty Avgas drums from the airstrip. He lashed a rope cargo net around each and removed the plugs.
The muddy water was cool and pleasant as Jake and I submerged the drums, forcing out all the air. Fang looped each net over the aircraft securing line and towed out the submerged drums, one at a time. Finally there were three tugs on the signal line. I started the compressor, returned the signal and started feeding out the air hose. It snaked across the surface, spurting a brown trail of bubbles. It was now up to Fang to fill the drums with air. My thoughts were disturbed by the shrill roar of a plane across the river. A wrinkled phantom gyrated in the dense heat waves rising from the dirt airstrip. The graceful streamlined shape of another Cessna 402 took form and banked slightly toward us. The tropical toreador red and golden yellow colours of Tarangau Airlines flashing brightly in the slanting glare of a late afternoon sun. The purring whistle degenerated into a throaty snarl from the exhaust, as it passed low overhead and began a shallow climb out toward Madang.
The roar of the plane was again replaced by the staccato putter of the compressor. I looked back at the river to find Fang staggering from the water. No drums had broken the surface. “No luck?” I said with disappointment.
“No worries,” said Fang confidently. “Still pretty turbulent down there. With the river working on it all night, the drums will gradually pull her up.”
At sunset, the river turned a burnished liquid bronze, the surface reflecting fragmented golden clouds to the west. The vast jungle backdrop was reduced to a featureless dark silhouette, topped only by myriads of huge black fruit bats, darting about in search of prey. We packed up and moved back to camp for the night, content with the day’s progress.
A torrential downpour flooded our camp that night. We had dug water trenches around our tents, but such a deluge was unexpected. We hung our bedding to dry in the pleasant early morning cool—that time in the lowland tropics before the sun reached full strength and the dense humidity sapped the energy from your very soul. The Ramu had risen substantially, owing to the heavy rain, and I thought that our securing lines to both aircraft might have parted. Not only were they still secure, one was taut, the air-filled drums bobbing on the surface. Judging by the depth of submergence, it appeared the mystery plane was suspended beneath.
On the morning radio call to Goroka, we were advised that because of heavy rain and cloud in the Asaro valley, the salvage gear would not arrive till noon. Fang and Jake took advantage of the delay and were back at the river site before I had completed my call. By the time I joined them, they had looped a second drag line over the first and, with the help of our labour gang, had hauled the drums ashore, simply by walking downstream around the backwater.
With a surge of muddy froth, the load bottomed near a pebbled slope, free of vegetation. A bare metal wing tip broke the surface and exposed a Hinomaru, a large faded and abraded red disc. Nicknamed ‘The Meatball’, this was the wartime Japanese identification sign. With sheer brute force, we hauled the Jap plane ashore until the drums no longer supported the weight. As the bent upper prop blade appeared, we looped a rope over it and began dragging it out of the water.
Gradually, the single-engined fighter emerged onto the beach, first exposing the engine, then fuselage, then the wings. The tail was still submerged, except for the top of the fin and rudder. Coffee-coloured water poured from numerous shrapnel and bullet holes. The cockpit canopy was missing and water impact damage was evident at the front of the abraded airframe.
Fang jumped onto the wing and climbed inside. “Dave, it’s full of mud. Get Jake to fit the water pump to the compressor and I’ll hose her out.”
The dreaded Mitsubishi Zero, scourge of the Pacific air war. Even now, it had a disturbing and deadly animal-like grace. The lower buried skin had suffered only light abrasion. Patches of paint were clearly visible.
“Zeroes are as rare as rockin’ horse shit now,” Fang muttered, “Probably bring over twenty grand from an aviation museum.”
“You’re right, but it’s after eleven. Check it over and get the mud out. I’ll have to meet the flight from Goroka.”
Jake and I stepped into an outboard-powered lakatoi and pointed the elaborately carved crocodile-headed prow into the Ramu current. Ten minutes later, we arrived at the end of Prinzberg airstrip. Briefly, we were free of intimidation from the endless insects that inhabited the wet and stinking jungle thickets surrounding our riverside camp.
The aircraft circled and inspected the strip before landing. I studied the practical but ungainly Islander with mute interest. A door opened and out stepped a tall sinewy man in t-shirt, shorts, a faded ex-army ‘giggle’ hat and shining new Centurion bush boots, the uppers not yet wrinkled.
He held out his hand. “I’m Pete Simpson from Tarangau Airlines. Are you Dave Stark?”
“Yes. Glad to meet you, Pete. Did you manage to bring everything we need?”
“I think we’ve got it covered.” He indicated the load of ropes, winches, patrol boxes and a pile of large polythene bags.
“What took you so long? Just the bad weather?”
“A few scattered storms, but we had ‘Seagull’ for our pilot. You’ve practically got to throw stones at him before he’ll fly.”
I laughed and looked at the Islander plane again. “What are these like?”
“We call it 50 000 rivets in loose formation. Seriously though, they turn a good profit.”
To save time the pilot moved the Islander up to the riverbank; it was then a simple matter to load the motorised lakatoi straight from the aircraft.
“Did you hear we lost a Cessna 206 around Omkalai somewhere?”
“Don’t know yet. Better wait and see your boss in Goroka. He’s been co-operating with Tarangau’s Manager. I heard the word ‘sabotage’ mentioned.”
I didn’t ask any more of Pete, but as we surged across river toward the towering rain forest, I mentioned the salvaged Jap fighter plane. He was genuinely surprised and, as it turned out, an authority on wartime aviation history. After a brief inspection and making notes from identification plates, he assured us he could supply a complete history of the Zero within a week. Fang was pleased and relished the thought of selling the ancient machine to the highest bidder.
The task ahead of us this afternoon was to float the submerged 402. It would be a difficult task, as the much larger twin-engined plane was at least twice the weight of the nimble Japanese fighter. Fang had shuttled the polythene bags to the sunken aircraft and had begun the laborious task of opening each and filling them with air in the cramped confines of the fuselage. Tell-tale compressed air bubbles reached the surface downstream of the wreck site.
Pete and I were bored as we waited silently, contemplating Fang’s labours beneath the murky surface, I wondered about the sabotage he had mentioned earlier. “Pete, what do you know about this sabotage business?”
“Have you heard the rumours?”
“Yes, but no details.”
“During the last month someone has been tampering with Tarangau’s aircraft and equipment. There were three major incidents—the first at Goroka, a fire in an aircraft parked overnight in a hangar. Luckily a police patrolman put out the fire before it took hold. Afterwards we found a peculiar ash which was later identified at a laboratory as Condy’s Crystals and glycerine residue. A very efficient fire bomb that gives up to ten minutes’ getaway time.”
“Kundiawa—a pilot was pre-flighting a 206, turned the prop to check a stone chip and the engine started. The plane jumped the chock, hit a tree and was badly damaged. The pilot was fortunate not to lose his arm or even his life. Later we found the switch wiring to both magnetos cut cleanly. As you’d know, this renders both mags live and leaves the prop in a very dangerous condition.
“Case three was at Simbai—the left brake of a Twin Otter failed on landing. Quick thinking by the pilot saved the day when he used engine reverse thrust and then ground looped the plane. All he did was damage the wing tip on an embankment. Investigators found the left hand-brake line had been filed through till the hose was very thin. It burst as soon as heavy braking pressure was applied.”
Our conversation was interrupted as Fang surfaced and signalled for us to help him reach the embankment. Once on shore, he removed the heavy scuba gear and we all anxiously watched the mass of bubbles on the surface.
“Well Fang, that air’s leaking out too fast. I think you’re going to have to go through your drum routine again.”
He didn’t answer but grudgingly turned to Jacob. “Jake, lash the nets over two of the drums, then put ‘em in the river and fill ‘em with water.”
I’d picked up a can of fuel to top up the compressor when Fang slapped me on the back. “Dave, something’s happening. Look at the securing rope.” The rope was twitching and then suddenly sprung as tight as a bowstring. The tension whipped a fine spray of water from its length.
“We’ve got her,” Pete shouted. “It’s centering on the snatch block.”
The surfacing of the Loch Ness monster couldn’t have impressed me more. The buoyant aircraft leapt from the water in a surge of turgid brown froth, before settling back with wings and engines submerged. The sleek, aerodynamic shape of the large fin and rudder helped centre the 402 perfectly on the cable and snatch block so that it was pointing into the current. The majestic Tarangau eagle’s head motif on the fin again stood proudly above the water. The abstract symbol was totally incongruous, surrounded by muddy water and a jumbled mass of encroaching multi-layered jungle.
A loud cheer resounded from our labour gang and the audience from nearby villages. They thought the event was some sort of magic and showed their appreciation with vigorous hand clapping and thigh slapping. The impromptu response had Fang flourishing his battered and stained Stetson low to the ground in a mock bow. He then stood erect and shouted. “For my next trick . . .”
I laughed and started shouting orders. “Right, let’s get it secured before it does another nose dive. We’ve got two hours to sundown.”
It was a balmy tropical evening, so we opened both tent flaps to allow the light breeze to refresh us. We lit a fire anyway; it made a lonely campsite more homely, while the breeze carried away the insects and smoke.
We relaxed after our hearty meal and little was said as we lay back lazily on our sleeping bags, sipping coffee. Fang was deep in thought as he stropped the razor-sharp blade of his puma whitehunter across the leather uppers of his worn blundstone boots. The sherpa pattern soles were still full of dried clay from the day’s efforts at the riverbank.
Pete tore open a parcel marked ‘Engineers Lubricant’ and we knew what it was straight away; a chilled carton of South Pacific beer. “Compliments of Tarangau. The boss paid for it.” Pete said ripping open a can and taking a long guzzle before tossing us one each.
Pete and I were discussing spare parts to be ordered when the Patrol Officer stepped into the firelight. “Good evening, gentlemen. I thought I heard a can pop.”
Fang gave him a disbelieving look. “You’ve got bloody good hearing if you picked that up from the other side of the river.”
Bill laughed, accepted an open can and sat down near the fire. “I haven’t been over there yet. I’ve been on patrol to the north. I don’t like crossing the river after dark, so I thought I’d join you for the night if you’ve room for another bedroll.”
By the time Bill had eaten and made himself comfortable, we had halved our liquor supply. He wasn’t surprised that we’d found the Jap Zero in his area of jurisdiction, but asked Pete many questions. I asked Bill to relate the story of the gold the natives were bringing out of the hills to the south-east. Jacob and Pete listened in as Bill retold his story, and, tanked up on beer, he did so with gusto and much embellishment.
Fang was spellbound thereafter and any attempt to change the subject was blocked as he probed relentlessly at Bill’s story. It was at this stage that Bill, in a placid stupor, produced a small leather pouch, opened it and poured the shiny contents onto the spread sleeping bags. “My private collection. Know anything about them?” The gold coins rolled erratically to a stop and we each picked up one and began inspecting them. Bill continued. “These eight are Dutch. I collected them around the Ramu this year.”
I recognised the coins immediately. They were identical to the one Bill had dropped near the riverbank. Each 1926 vintage coin carried a woman’s profile stamped inside the wording KONINGIN WILHELMINA and GOD ZIJ MET ONS. The reverse had a standing lion holding a raised sword and a sheaf of arrows. On the left of the lion was a figure ‘10’ and on the right the letter ‘G’. The nationality of the coin was evident by perimeter embossing: KONINGRIJK DER NEDERLANDEN.
“They’re Dutch alright,” I said, “And the ‘10G’ must stand for ten guilders. But how did you get hold of them?”
“Well, in my capacity as Kiap or Patrol Officer, I act as treasurer in the area on behalf of the government. You wouldn’t believe the variety of currencies I’ve seen. Pre-First World War German Marks, New Guinea shillings with the centre hole, Japanese occupation money, Australian pounds, US dollars and even monopoly money. I accepted a couple of these as payment purely as a curiosity. The others, with the holes in the rim, were on a necklace interspersed with muruk bones hanging around the neck of a warrior over at Tribala. I traded the necklace for a small battery shaver I used to carry on patrol.”
Fang was riveted to every word. “Where did they get them? Didn’t you ask?”
I butted in. “Obviously traded in from over the Indonesian border—relics of the Dutch East Indies.”
“No, each one I questioned pointed south and indicated that he had traded with tribesmen from the Ramu-Bismarck foothills.”
The conversation dragged on, only losing momentum as Fang’s insatiable curiosity was gradually appeased. The Tilley lamp exhausted its fuel and the light was partially replaced by the last glowing embers of the fire. Bill and Fang were still speculating on the origin of the coins as Pete, Jake and I crawled under the mosquito nets and into our sleeping bags. We half-heartedly re-checked our strategy for swinging the 402 across the river next day.
I was awakened by Fang and Bill. They had been to the river bank to check the two aircraft and were deep in discussion over how to barge the Zero down the Ramu River and on to Madang. Fang was using his knife to carefully ream a small hole in the end of a raw egg. I left Pete and Fang to organise the ropes and winches while I made the regular morning check call on the radio to Goroka. Jacob, bush-knife in hand, was slashing at the new growth of rapidly advancing vegetation at the perimeter of our camp—the jungle was always anxious to reclaim lost ground.
The radio call ruined my day. Adrian Foster, my boss, had recalled me to Goroka, so the final stage of the salvage would be up to Fang and Pete. Foster dropped hints about unusual circumstances regarding the Tarangau aircraft and said he would arrive on the afternoon flight for a quick inspection before accompanying me to Goroka. Disheartened at having to leave a near completed salvage operation, I protested that I was the only person licensed to sign out the aircraft for a ferry flight permit. Adrian countered by suggesting I return to do my inspection when Fang and Pete had the 402 ready to fly.
Reluctantly I packed my personal things and had them set to cross the river with Bill the Patrol Officer, who was now preparing a motorised lakatoi for the crossing. I informed the men of the situation and in the ensuing discussion we agreed to leave Fang in charge of the salvage operation. Pete would control the temporary repair of the aircraft.
“Why does Adrian want you back in Goroka?” Pete queried.
“I don’t know. Seems troubled. I wouldn’t mind betting it’s got something to do with this sabotage and your missing 206.”
I probed Pete for further details and he said the Tarangau Cessna had been missing for four days. Apparently the pilot had become disorientated in bad weather, climbed above the cloud mass and eventually crash-landed after his fuel situation became critical.
I asked Pete how all these facts had come to light, as the wreck was, as yet, undiscovered.
“He radioed in when he thought he was lost, saying his compass was misreading. He later gave out a Mayday signal and explained he was attempting a landing on the only visible terrain, at about 11 500 ft.”
“Who was the pilot?” I enquired.
“Lance Rudd. Do you know him?”
“When I worked in Goroka we used to share a few drinks and a game of snooker.”
By mid morning, a small diameter rope spanned the river. Laying it was a tricky operation and the small lakatoi took an hour to drag the 300 metres of buoyed twine across the current. A winch anchored to trees near the airstrip hauled back the twine and the attached heavy rope for swinging the 402 to the far bank.
A few simple calculations established the rope required to beach the 402 on the other side. We connected the swing rope to the planes snatch block and attached a drag line to retard the pace across the river. Pete, Jake and eight men waited on the far bank while Fang and I, aided by fifteen others, held the drag line. I fired two shots from my Colt and heard a similar report from the opposite bank, indicating that Pete was ready.
Our concentration was suddenly disturbed as a loud roar made us all look skyward. The Tarangau aircraft banked steeply, the inquisitive pilot obviously checking our salvage of his aircraft’s lost sister ship. The shrill whistle of the turbo-chargers was predominant as it passed overhead, on its approach to the airstrip. The tail motif stood out proudly, a red abstract silhouette of a Tarangau eagle’s head splashed boldly across the entire surface of the swept, shark-like fin and rudder.
The blade of Fang’s whitehunter flashed as he hacked roughly at the securing line. The river current would coax the plane to the far bank. The line parted and snaked through the air as the full buoyant weight of aircraft and current force transferred to our drag line. At first we had little trouble, but as we fed the line out, the 402 began swinging away into the stronger current.
It was then that the clay bank collapsed under us and two of the forward natives tumbled into the river. In our panic, the line slipped through our fingers, any attempt to restrain it resulting in rope burns. Fang grabbed the loosely coiled rope to our rear and ran it around a tree stump. The Cessna now raced uncontrolled toward the far bank at the whim of the central current.
The rope reached the coiled section on the stump, but instead of retarding the 402, the rope slipped till smoke plumed from the super-heated bark. Fang threw more coils over the capstan-like stump and the rope movement began to slow. Luckily, the aircraft had now reached the slower waters near the opposite bank. It took twenty minutes of cautious releasing before we heard a pistol shot from Pete, confirming that the aircraft was secured with a mooring line.
Fang and I stepped into a lakatoi and headed over to the 402. We left instructions to break camp and to transfer all our gear to the airstrip campsite. Pete, wet and in shorts, was already on the floating aircraft ensuring the undercarriage was still down and locked. The 402 was now ready to pull from the water using the council tractor.
I was surprised to see my boss Adrian pacing up toward the crowd. He had arrived from Goroka on the aircraft we saw landing.
“Everything seems to be going well, Dave,” he shouted. I explained our progress so far with the 402 and, changing the subject discreetly, asked who he thought would want to sabotage the Tarangau Airlines aircraft, and why?
He checked no one was listening before responding. “We want you to find out.”
Adrian’s temper flared a little. “Tarangau’s Managing Director Alf Campbell, Civil Aviation Agency, the Police, myself, Boyds Insurance, the pilots, the travelling public and anyone else you care to name who might be affected by this ridiculous situation.”
“Alright, Adrian, don’t get off your bike. I’m just asking.”
“Sorry, Dave, didn’t mean to bite, but while you and Fang were here in Prinzberg, I’ve been the meat in the sandwich between Tarangau Airlines and the insurance companies. Campbell’s screaming for his claim cheques and Boyds want more details before payout. Campbell is too worried to claim on some smaller incidents in case Boyds wipe their whole policy. The CAA is at Tarangau’s throat after having four incidents in two months and Campbell wants the police to find the reason behind the sabotages. But they threw the ball back into our court, saying we’re the aviation insurance agents and investigators, so they’ll act when we make a positive decision.”
“But surely if it’s criminal action, then it should be up to them to find out who and why!”
Adrian angrily stamped out a cigarette. “Yes, that’s what I reckon, but the silly prick they’ve got on the case wouldn’t know if his arsehole was drilled, reamed, bored or eaten out by white ants! Well, Dave, as I said, they’ve left the ball in our court and as we’ve no immediate work after this Prinzberg salvage, I’m getting you and Fang to work with Tarangau Airlines for a while, just to keep an eye on things and do a bit of prying. Fang can start by giving this 402 a thorough check for evidence of further sabotage. Your story will be that AVMAR is low on work and you’re sub-contracted to help with the overload. Your wages will be as normal, plus a small bonus, and you’ll be based in Goroka, accommodation supplied by Tarangau.”
“That’s okay by me. It’ll be good to settle down in Goroka again for a while.”
Adrian had been watching the proceedings with interest and snapped a few photos as the tractor arrived at the beach site. It was towing a load of old wartime marsden matting, stripped from the airstrip parking bay. We set the men to work at once, building a ramp into the water out of the light perforated steel plates. Each plate interlocked, forming a reasonably firm base for the 402 to roll out of the shallows without snagging in potholes.
We finally linked the tractor to the snatch block and I sent a few labourers to swim out to assist the tractor to extricate the sleek but drum laden machine.
Adrian was at my side again, and he rechecked for eavesdroppers. “By the way, Dave, they’ve found the missing 206,” he announced.
“Is Lance okay?” I queried.
“They think so, but he’s left the crash site. He was nowhere near Omkalai—that’s why it took so long to find him. The search was mainly in the Kubor Ranges to the south. They found nothing there above 11 000 feet so the only other high altitude regions were around Mt Herbert and Mt Wilhelm. A chopper found the wreck at 11 500 feet on Mt Wilhelm. The aircraft was upside down, with a broken back and one wing torn off. The chopper landed nearby and they found that Lance had been living in the wreck. The first-aid kit was basically intact, so we presume he’s uninjured and is carrying the survival kit with him. Lance also left a note which said that the cold, and an attempt on his life, had forced him to try and find his own way down. They’re still looking, but I doubt they’ll find him today.”
“Glad to hear he could be okay, but what’s the attempt on his life?”
Adrian hesitated to take another snap of the 402. “The Doc reckons it could be the result of either shock or high altitude sickness.”
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