Pioneering bush pilots, encouraged by the exploits of famed Australian aviators Charles Kingsford-Smith, Bert Hinkler and others, began reaching out to service pastoral properties and mining crews as outback airstrips were laid down and commenced to dot the countryside in the 1930s. The early aircraft performed indifferently in the harsh conditions of Australia's wide open spaces and unplanned landings were the norm on a day's flying.
Succeeding Cobb and Co and the Afghan cameleers as the cargo and passenger handlers of choice, it wasn't until the arrival of reliable 4WD vehicles developed for WWII that universal travel beyond the rail networks was possible and the combination of air and road access swiftly opened up the wilderness areas.
It was a rare breed of pilot who would tackle flying in and out of the Simpson, Australia's One True Desert, on a daily basis. Graham Wright was one such journeyman flyer. On occasions he flew for South Australian Air Taxis Aerial Services (SAATAS), at other times he performed aero-magnetic survey work for the State Government or carted personnel, stores and mail in and out for other clients such as the mining companies involved in oil search in the region. Graham is pictured preparing to ferry supply truck driver John McFayden from CGG's desert campsite to Birdsville. Graham's wife Trisha has been sightseeing with her husband, making her possibly the first genuine tourist to Poeppels Corner.
SAATAS was the contractor for French Petroleum and Compagnie Generale de Geophysique (CGG) during the period in the sixties and beyond, when the French jointly explored the Great Artesian Basin prospect and built the French Line across the Simpson in the process. They flew Cessnas - a C182 with tricycle undercarriage and a C185 which had greater ground clearance and a more powerful engine. At another time they used a C337 push-pull but they couldn't get this one down on the claypans. The SAATAS operators were Dick Cavill (Caterpillar distributor for SA) and Kron Nicholas of Adelaide Aspro family fame, which was entirely appropriate considering the headaches due to be faced by the Australians on the seismic team following the Cat D7 bulldozers as they carved a path through the desert.
Helicopter on Saltpan
Rick Wilkinson writes in his major Australian oil exploration work "Where God Never Trod" (David Ell Press) of the difficulties faced by light aircraft pilots :
"Water running down creek beds ... lies for months until dissipated by soakage or evaporation. Rising water requires the dyking of airstrips ..." On Lake Callabonna a Baron was swamped and "when they got to it they found that rats had eaten the ignition harness and wiring ..."
In the dry, things could be just as hairy. It was considered that breaking the surface of clay or salt like many people do on the ground to help a pilot get down in an emergency, is a grave mistake because too much swirling sands sucked up by the prop could damage the engine on takeoff. Kron Nicholas describes the process a desert pilot uses to test the surface of claypans prior to landing :
"The crust could go up to six inches and if you were in doubt you used to run your wheels along it first and then you'd go around and come back in again, and if you could see marks you knew you couldn't land there and if you didn't see marks you were right because it was solid."
Reg Sprigg Farewells Sir Mark Oliphant from Arkaroola 1994
Reg Sprigg formed his company Geosurveys Australia in 1954 and he directed the firm in the active exploration of minerals throughout the country and overseas for the next forty years. On the occasion of the company's 40th anniversary, Reg gathered in his old industry friends and joined with the Geosurveys past and present employees in celebrating at his Arkaroola sanctuary home. Son Douglas Sprigg, who had been the first schoolboy into the Simpson when he accompanied his Dad in 1962, this day piloted Reg's mate Mark Oliphant and myself to Port Augusta at the end of festivities.
Reg Sprigg described another Simpson Desert strip,
"We measured the length of the claypan. No aircraft could lift off on this, unless into a particularly strong head wind and with lots of pluck or luck or complete insanity on the part of the pilot. The fact that trees had been pushed over suggested genuine appreciation of the brevity of the strip."
Welcoming Party for SAATAS Pilot Graham Wright
Campsites advanced eastwards every ten days or so and to find the new site from the air, pilots employed a practice they called 'putting in an obvious error'. They'd steer for the French Line and plot to be say, thirty or forty miles out and then once they came upon the 'Line, they'd turn left or right and follow it along until the camp came into view. Then they would 'buzz' the camp, urgently waggling the wings until someone on the ground confirmed sighting the plane with a wave. Having picked out a likely clearing, pilots hoped to quickly draw a vehicle to the chosen landing spot so they wouldn't have so long to wait to get picked up with the stores.
Shooter John Blaney-Murphy had a complaint to make about Kron Nicholas on one occasion :
"He shortened my life by five years one morning. He was buzzing the camp to let us know he was in town and at the time I was standing on the roof of my truck working on the radio antennae, which was fully extended to five metres and all of a sudden, there he was. I hurtled off the truck and I swear he missed the antennae by only a couple of feet. A wild man!"
Getting a Cessna Started on a Claypan
Kron Nicholas' log for 1963 shows that he came up from Adelaide on 17th August 1963 to take over from Graham Wright ferrying fuel and water to the beleaguered oilworkers. Over the next eleven days he spent thirty seven hours in the air and made sixty five takeoffs and landings, two-thirds of these on claypans.
Reg had the last word on Geosurvey's pilots:
"The short field takeoff was known by pilots as a Jesus Christ takeoff."
Graham and Trisha Wright Camping Out in the Simpson
Anyone landing or stacking anywhere on the ground in the Australian outback are in varying degrees dependent upon the Royal Flying Doctor Service (RFDS) in a medical emergency, but in the Simpson Desert the repatriation of personnel is restricted by the lack of suitable landing fields. With regard to commercial tourism, no less at risk are the skilled pilots and their passengers or the well-equipped ground parties and their clients who find themselves temporarily incapacitated mechanically in the Simpson. Of lesser importance, hardware (planes and/or vehicles) can be recovered only with great difficulty, and salvage is costly.
Further, the demands on the RFDS are growing year by year as the population of remote residents is increased by anthropologists, archaeologists and surveyors. Significantly, the service is now a lifeline for the huge numbers of international as well as Australian tourists who visit the inland. RFDS aircraft, based at 13 remote locations, can reach in 90 minutes or less any of about 5000 outposts scattered through the most remote and isolated areas of Australia yet none of them are equipped to land in the Simpson Desert.
Well-Hopper Graduates to Qantas Flight Deck
In between assignments for CGG, Kron Nicholas chummed up with Jack Gaffney for some well-hopping on Alton Downs station beside the Eyre Creek. Kron called the property the most miserable station he had ever seen in his life, right on the edge of the Simpson Desert. Jack hired Kron to take him around his wells in the aeroplane, a job he normally did on his own in his car. Jack would go down his wells 40, 50 and sometimes 60 feet to fix the buckets. He'd change them and clamber all the way up again, hand over hand on a rope. When he got stuck, he was lucky Kron was on hand to help haul him out, else Jack would never have got out alive. Even more of a hazard to life, Jack swotted venomous snakes coming out of his wells as he was entering.
After a zillion years as a senior pilot flying with Qantas, Kron retired to his farm on the Murray River early in 2001, to concentrate on growing grapes for the quality wine trade. His memory of those early days darting in and out of the Simpson has been refreshed regularly over the years when overflying the French Line at 30,000 feet piloting a passenger jet.