Shute Harbour under cloud


It was 2 May 1984. We had been caught in Cairns for three days due to non VMC weather.


It looked like there was a break, we made a run for it. I filed a plan at the Cairns briefing office. The weather briefing officer was apprehensive. He asked where we had come from. I explained we had flown from Canberra clockwise around the Australian coast. He seemed to relax a bit - he should not have. He told me there would be intermittent rain showers and low cloud getting out of Cairns to the south and that it would improve once we got clear of the Hinchinbrook Island area.


It was very poor visibility getting out of Cairns. We had to stay very low in the valley south of Cairns, flying between huge mountains left and right. The cloud had socked in. We were given a special VFR clearance to track south. With ten degrees of flap, we felt our way south, at a low altitude and around 75 kts, under a complete and dense layer of cloud in showers, sometimes heavy.


Once clear of the valley and as we came onto the coast, we were good to go up to a more respectable height and speed. That is, until the Hinchinbrook Island area where low cloud returned. We flew between the mainland and the island. The island was strangely clear of cloud on the deck but it was terrible out to sea just off the island. Save for this gap (and it is a pronounced gap), we would have turned back! We were still flying under cloud, but after a short time, it was as if someone had turned on the light switch – we were in sunshine. A bit later we were welcomed by the crystal-clear military radio of Townsville Approach. In those days there was a notable clarity difference between the military and civilian towers.


We landed at Townsville, a shared Air Force Base/civilian airport. A taxi took us into town. After buying refreshments and snacks, we boarded the ferry to Magnetic Island. A mini-bus style vehicle dropped us at our pre-booked hostel. I remember well going fishing on the beach at Horseshoe Bay. There was virtually no one around except a small group of hippy looking individuals with no buildings to speak of at the beach. It’s a very different situation today. Our fishing was unsuccessful. The beach was a short walk from our hostel. That evening the mosquitoes were plentiful and large.


The next day we were intending to fly from Townsville to Rockhampton. On arriving at the Townsville airport, I did my usual thing at the briefing office and filed a flight plane for Rockhampton. I remember well a tall gentleman who seemed to run the show. The weather forecast again, was for intermittent coastal showers with low cloud particularly after Bowen.


It was a lovely sunny, smooth flight down the coast. Approaching Airlie Beach, the clouds dropped down to form an ominous greeting. The greeting was too low to continue south into the hilly terrain – yes you might ask, even for a seasoned group like ourselves. The coast around here is unforgiving with hills descending steeply into the sea. We went back to our usual slow speed and beneath hill tops covered in cloud.


I knew there was a strip at Shute Harbour, we set out to find it. I had written down its radio frequency as part of my flight plan. Thank goodness, because there is no way I could take my eye off the main game outside, to search for a frequency. It was a private strip requiring permission to land.


I gave a call seeking permission, citing the state of the weather as our reason to land. I was told to “stand-by.” This is not a reply comfortably accommodated. It was now bucketing down heavy, almost black, as in light depriving rain. I had my landing lights on in case there was another pilot stupid enough to be flying around in this awful weather - they might like to see us.


We continued on to where I thought the strip was. The clouds well covered the tops of the hills. Then there was a reply - “Echo Papa Lima confirm you are Canberra based?” So we are going to have a conversation. I had not mentioned anything of our origin. Passing on a confirmation, I was asked for my name - it was going to be a conversation – albeit short from my end. I gave them my name. Permission was immediately granted to land from the north and to watch the terrain on both sides. They were right on it. The strip sits in a valley between two low ranges, sort of clear at both ends, more so to the south which required a left turn out over Shute Harbour to the sea. Whereas the north had a low hill to fly around on short final. We were coming from the north.


It turned out a flight instructor from my flight training days in Canberra (Vee H Aviation) was now working up here as a charter pilot. He had recognised the call sign of the 206 (EPL) and then remembered me! I was delighted to know we could land with permission - I was considering landing without it.


We turned onto final. In those days it was a thin rough stony strip with, on this day, drenched lush green grass along the edges. Water pooled on the strip. As we came around the mentioned low hill and had our first look at the full length of the strip, we saw a plane entered the runway from a building off to the right, about three quarters the way down.


I gave an alert call - “Alert, Alert, Alert, Shute Harbour traffic, Echo Papa Lima on short final.”. No response! The damned aircraft continued along the strip towards my end. I suspect the pilot was an instrument rated pilot thinking no one would be mad enough to be flying in this. There was absolutely no contact from the plane. With not enough room to land - that’s not quite accurate – we could have landed after the plane resulting in us running off the strip into who knows what - I powered up and went around! This was not an attractive proposition. I slowly retracted some flap, as we flew low over my trespasser. They must have noticed us.


The next issue was the fact I could not climb, having to stay very low due to the cloud. We flew over Shute Harbour and around to the left, all below the top of the hills. I left the flaps at 10 degrees. We stayed slow, damn slow, flying low around the hills back to the north over water close to the land. We had another go. This time I knew the strip’s approach. There were no trespassing aircraft. We landed safely. Mud flew up onto the under-side of the wings from our main wheels. It was relaxing to be firmly on the ground and going nowhere soon. We parked outside at what was then a small terminal or base building. Inside I enquired why such a proficiency test was required before landing.


We unloaded and met the owner/operator but not the Canberra instructor who had left for the day. To this day I wonder whether he was in that trespassing aircraft and giving me a popup test.


The parking area for aircraft was south of the terminal area, over a creek via a thin bridge. I took directions from the operator on how to get there. One of the crew, Antony, came with me when I taxied the plane to park it overnight. As we went down a slope to the creek, I applied some braking given we were moving too fast. The ground was slippery - suddenly the right side of the plane started to move ahead of the left. We were going slightly sideways down the slope with the nose pointing left. I let both brakes go while applying some power and right rudder. We straighten up but at some speed as we went over the bridge.


We stayed at the then small settlement of Airlie Beech with a lift into town kindly provided by one of the staff from the terminal. I had cancelled our SAR by phone in the terminal.


Years later I was to return here – a very different town.


© C.P. McKeown 2021.