On 23 April 1984, the mighty Cessna 206 EPL was further around Australia on our flying trip. We were at Mitchell Plateau. In those days a lonely dirt landing field, far up in the North West Kimberley region of Australia. We had flown from Broome the day before stopping at Derby for fuel.
This area of Australia was known as a ‘designated remote area’. We therefore had to carry a SAR time to go into the area. Flying in the early 80s was a very different ball game to today. Flight Service Offices and their personnel were scattered throughout Australia. They had extensive flight briefing facilities. If you landed at a location where there was such an office, pilots were required to physically visit and have a chat with the briefing officers. It was usually a pleasure to speak to these people. Perhaps they were keen to speak to a new face, particularly in remote places like Derby. Being local these officers could provide great tips about what to see and the best routes to take with the current weather.
EPL had no working HF at this point of our trip. I don’t recall what happened to it but it had fallen off line - not transmitting somewhere after departing Perth. We still had the VHF radio but this radio was an issue with us going to Mitchell Plateau. There were in those days no VHF repeater stations. The line-of-sight VHF transmission meant we would not be heard by a ground station and therefore we would not be able to cancel a SAR.
Mitchell Plateau was in those days was I’m told a war landing area carved out of the vegetation and rocky ground, mostly bauxite. It had a long strip made of crushed rock which I suspect is mostly bauxite. We were standing around in the Derby office contemplating the possibility of not being able to fly into this remote area. Then the head of the Office suddenly spoke, coming up with the concept of using a two-day SAR! The man is a genius. I’d never heard of such thing but I was for it. This would fix the legalities if not the practicalities of a crash in the meantime. I grabbed at it. The risk of crashing during the first day with no one looking for us for another day, was decided as well worthwhile. We were young and invincible - what could go wrong? We taxied out to the runway heavy with absolutely full tanks, food, water and our gear for sleeping under the wing. There were going to be no fuel stops on this two-day leg. What fuel we had on board was going to have to do right around to Kununurra. We hoped to make it up and around the top of the Kimberley, to then go east and down the coast into Kununurra via Wyndham.
It was a hot day as we left Derby. We used a good length of the runway getting up to take off speed. I remember well the now common none climb performance. On take-off runway, it was mud flats to the sea. By reducing power quickly after take-off, we saved some fuel in our very slow climb. On reaching the ocean, comfort returned as did the more usual flying performance.
The flight along the coast from Derby was on a day of absolute stillness. Magnificent rock formations appeared to come straight up out the sea. With no GPS or NDB out there, I very carefully followed the coast line, matching the points and coastal formation on the map. To locate Mitchell Plateau, I flew to a predetermined location being a certain headland which I had hoped would be easy to recognise from the air - it was. I then turned to a compass bearing as we flew inland, hoping to intercepting the Mitchell Plateau landing area.
It was getting late in the day when we made the turn inland. The sun was behind us. We had to find Mitchell Plateau! We spotted it almost as predicted, just a bit off to the left. This last leg also took us close to the Mitchell Falls, such that we saw then clearly off on our left.
The plan was to break the flight for a night in this remote part of Australia. Remote it was. When we turned on our portable AM/FM radio, the only stations being received were what we assumed to be from Indonesian. Certainly, no English being spoken. There were at first no AM English stations up there. However, after dark we did receive some Engish, thanks to the skip effect of the ionosphere.
The Derby Flight Services Office had suggested I try calling QF2. Apparently, it would be in range that evening. That way they could relay that we had made it to Mitchell Plateau, thus reducing the search area if we failed to cancel our SAR. They gave me a particular frequency. I probably should have called them immediately on landing but I have a memory of it being suggested to do it later. Anyway, when I called, I sat in EPL with the Master Switch and Radio on, but given the fuel situation, I didn’t start the engine. Whether QF2 was delayed or my signal did not get out with enough strength remains a mystery. I made no contact.
There were no other human soles around. A small shed being the total of any life up there - save for the birds and mosquitos. After a meal cooked on a fire, we slept on our mats or air mattresses under the wings - our mosquito nets hanging from the wing.
Annie and Jick setting up their beds
Camp site the next morning Mitchell Plateau
We woke to a warm still morning. The sun even early had a bite to it. The humidity that morning was incredibly bad. After breakfast we packing up, cleaned our campsite and packed the plane. I did a careful pre-flight check. We were ready to fly. Damn, it was hot and humid even at 9.00am. When I dipped the fuel dipstick into each tank, I saw we had enough fuel to make Kununurra and retain some reserve. The amount of reserve was a concern for me. I always like to carry 45 minutes reserve on any take-off. This was going to be tight if I was to avoid going into reserve! It was different not getting a weather report or NOTAMS – but I had an active flight plan in the system.
Given the fuel concerns, I announced we would have to push EPL to the end of the runway. The announcement was not met with enthusiasm. It was hot work pushing along the bauxite gravel and occasional patches of grass. Sweat poured off us. EPL was no light machine that morning. I mentioned the sun - it was worse now. The difference between shade and sun was astounding.
We turned the plane to face down the runway. Climbing on board was like climbing into a sauna. Being in the confines of the still cabin – with no moving air, was worse than being outside pushing the thing. Someone demanded - “Start the fan!”
The engine fired up first turn. There was virtually no warming of the engine. Why would you need it – it was so damn hot. Engine checks complete, the long runway allowed me to look after the engine by apply power slowly with the usual 10 degrees of flap. We left the ground easier than at Derby and still had plenty of runway left. An excellent thing given we had to climb over the surrounding jungle.
King George River
A lovely coastal flight followed - around the very top of the Kimberley, past Kalumburu and around the top. We flew past the King George River entrance. Given our fuel situation we could not fly up to the falls. I said to myself I would one day do just that (it happened in 2003).
Being low on fuel meant burning out the left tank. We did this as we flew down the coast before crossing the Scambridge Gulf and down to Wyndham. Wyndham in those days had a huge meat processing plant, the water was red with blood. There we turned inland to Kununurra.
I made a straight in approach to runway 12 at Kununurra. In those days straight in approaches were not the go. There needed to be an issue this day - I was not going to do a circuit. It is a horrible thing being concerned about the engine stopping due to lack of fuel. I was confident of making it, but there is that remaining little bit of doubt. The right tank needle still had movement when we lined up to land. Concerns remain until touched down. The thought of pushing EPL off the runway did not phase me. Reaching the point where I knew I could glide to the runway, was a relief. I remember staying high on final! On refuelling there was a difference between what the left tank took and the right took, but not enough difference!
Once the aircraft was parked and tied down, I found a phone and cancelled my two day SAR. I had a couple of hours to spare.
© C.P. McKeown 2021.