Another story from the past from Mark Whitton shared by Mr Willie Teo

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Another story from the past from Mark Whitton shared by Mr Willie Teo

The adventures of a young Harrisons & Crosfield employee working in Labuan, and his duties at the airport 1950-1952. An insight into how things worked (or didn’t) in those days.

When I landed by Skymaster from leave in Sydney, just before Christmas 1950, Labuan was a fairly important place in the estimation of those who resided there, at the crossroads of the world, or to be more exact, on the great circle route from Japan and Hong Kong to Australia, and Europe/Australia with an airfield capable of handling DC4 Skymasters, that aviation workhorse of the period. It also provided the only deepwater port for the distribution of supplies to Brunei and North Sarawak, where there were oilfields of considerable importance, and heavy equipment, piping et cetera, had to be transhipped onto barges in Labuan as the roadstead in Miri was an open sea and risky in poor weather, and Brunei had no port either. This provided the means of existence for the 8000 or so residents who enjoyed the sea-girt island of 35 square miles with numerous beautiful beaches, offshore islands for launch picnics, jungle expeditions and wildlife with a mixed population of Bruneian, Malays, Bajau, Indian, Chinese and Europeans who got on well together and were as integrated as was reasonably possible.


I think Qantas must have been running two services a week at that time as my first recollection on arrival is the scene at the recently built airport hotel, which incorporated all the airport functions, including customs, immigration and the control tower. The whole public area, restaurant and veranda were occupied by stretcher cases from the Australian contingent in Korea, where the war had started in July. The wounded were unloaded while the aircraft was refuelling, and the Labuan Red Cross and St John’s volunteers did what they could to make them a little more comfortable. Such flights with wounded discontinued shortly after my arrival, as other arrangements were made, presumably in Japan.

Shipping was Sandy’s job and he divested himself of the aircraft handling agencies to me with a minimum of instruction as we had a very knowledgeable traffic clerk who made out load sheets and other documentation required with each aircraft movement. As I had to sign the load sheets I learned to make them out myself very quickly and to be sober when I did. With two others checking, it seemed we should be fairly foolproof. I also learned not to trust what had been entered on the previous load sheet on all occasions, particularly from Jakarta and Manila. Qantas called twice a week, once northbound and once southbound. During northern winter they night-stopped in Labuan southbound and northbound in summer. There was a ‘longhouse’ built of round timber and palm leaf, partitioned into 40 cubicles, known as the Qantas rest house which accommodated passengers, with the overflow in the hotel. H&C ran a converted Army ambulance as a bus between the rest house and the hotel for the convenience of passengers, but it was all primitive and I had to field many complaints, some humorous, but some serious and cutting from passengers who were denied hotel accommodation which was normally reserved for married couples, single ladies and VIPs, my PR must’ve been reasonably effective as I was never actually assaulted. The bus also ran a trip for passengers to Layang Layang beach on the other side of the island where Tom Marshall had a ‘Pub’. This consisted of a timber and palm leaf building with a large lounge and veranda looking out to sea and two double rooms for guests who wished to stay overnight or for a holiday. It was a lovely spot and many locals patronised Tom’s pub.

Our agencies usually covered any aircraft on international flights, as we were the only people equipped to handle larger aircraft. Malayan Airways had by this time a service which called at Kuching, Brunei town, Labuan, Jesselton and Sandakan, as all had by now airfields which could accommodate DC 3’s. They handled their aircraft at these destinations. My routine on days when we were handling aircraft was to check with Kenny the traffic controller in the tower as to the expected time of arrival, remind Shell as to fuel and the time required, check the bus and labourers were all ready, then join Kenny in the tower until the plane arrived when he and I would park the plane. The stairs which belonged to Qantas, were placed at the cabin door and the passengers alighted and were shown to the hotel, where refreshments were available and if a night stop was involved, rooms were allocated. I would be told the amount of fuel required and pass this to Shell and the assistant traffic officer for the load and trim sheet. The whole crew would usually repair to the bar where they would have a very public orange juice, and if night-stopping decide who would be taking off the following morning. This individual was then ‘in purdah’ and not allowed out. The remainder would make suggestions as to what to do that evening, and while I still had Brodie’s car we usually went into town to the club, the crew out of uniform. Night stop mornings were early up to ensure the bus was on the job ferrying passengers to breakfast, that the crew were up and ready to go, that the load sheet was complete and correct, and any cargo loaded. The crew would embark first and give me the signal when they were ready for the passengers to straggle over like brown cows and embark. The cabin steward would check numbers aboard and agree on this with the manifest, the steps removed and the door shut. If not a search was made for the missing body, usually in the bar, or coming out of the toilet but sometimes still in bed which meant a wait, while all stewed in the sun. This happened once when most of the passengers were service personnel who, grouped under the wing, were seen all looking up then bending down every minute or so “they are indulging in a peculiar Australian form of worship”, I was told, “A swy school, all that is necessary is three pennies.” Passengers loaded, George Lake the resident Qantas engineer would attach the battery cart and the captain would start the starboard inner engine, followed by the other engines in sequence, George disconnecting his batteries and trundling them off to his shed. On some occasions, an engine would prove reluctant to start, which meant priming it by hand, by rotating the propeller signalled by a wave from the cockpit followed by three fingers for three blades or more if considered necessary. On one occasion a port engine wouldn’t start though all three others were alive and well. I got the three blades signal, pulled them over and started walking backwards, noticed the look of concern on the face at the cockpit window. It was just as well that the port outer was set back a bit from its companion and I realised just in time I was walking back into a revolving propeller; the second near-miss of my life. As the plane taxied out, I would repair to the tower and watch the takeoff to make sure it had gone, then back to the office to catch up with other work, merchandise sales and a bank agency with which I was also involved.

About every fortnight we had a Garuda service landing for fuel only on a Jakarta Manila run. Their Convair aircraft, which while smaller than the Skymaster, were state-of-the-art at the time, with water injection boost which enabled them to take off on a remarkably short run. They also have steps which folded into the fuselage. Kenny parked all aircraft using the usual ping-pong bats, and on the arrival of the first Garuda, service made the signal for the plane to go back into its parking spot, which to my astonishment it did. Kenny said he had always wanted to do that and he knew the Convair had reversible pitch props. The captain wasn’t that amused, but I placated him with a beer as he was night-stopping to discuss details of services available for the future. Most Garuda pilots at that time were ‘bad boys’ seconded from KLM, who in turn were obliged to recruit Australian and English pilots due to the lack of trained twin and four-engined domestic men. Jakarta was a hard-luck posting.

Air France called once a month on a service Paris to Noumea, and was always good for a bit of trouble, though they never night-stopped thank goodness. The first service arrived an hour early which caused a bit of panic. I think they got their time zones mixed up. We had to get our services marshalled in a matter of minutes. I rushed into the tower just in time to spot the plane coming in from the north, wheels down for landing, which however they did 200 feet above the runway, aborting with a roar about halfway. On arrival, I discovered that the only member of the crew who spoke English was the Vietnamese steward, and as we had to make them out a new load sheet, this complicated matters somewhat, additional to which we found errors in the incoming load sheet as to trim which was out of acceptable limits necessitating the relocation of cargo to get it right, otherwise I refused to sign it. We used to have the same trouble with Garuda who we had to reload often due to trim being excessively nose or tail heavy. The Indonesian traffic staff was either badly trained or just didn’t care. On another occasion, while refuelling Air France, the flight engineer kicked a refuelling ladder down which broke off one of the radio aerials on the belly of the plane. Big panic, the engineer wanting to return to the ground while the rest of the crew shouting abuse at him and anyone close by. I retreated to George Lake’s shed and asked him what could be done. “Don’t ask me. I want nothing to do with it. Let them work it out for themselves.” “But they’ll have tonight stop, and that’s the last thing we want. They are bad enough during the couple of hours we usually have them. They’ll all be drunk by teatime.”

I finally persuaded George to at least have a look at the problem and give what advice he could. It appeared that the aerial was still intact but the short mast attaching it to the fuselage had broken halfway up the aluminium tube. George suggested inserting a suitable piece of bamboo to join up the two broken pieces but the crew rejected this out of and. “Must ‘ave proper repair.” George sloped off to his shed. The crew sloped off to the bar for more whiskey and a conference. I sloped off and did a little PR with the passengers who spoke English.

The crew, after a little more Dutch courage, decided firstly that they didn’t like Labuan, which they made very plain to me and secondly they would risk George’s repair suggestions and would he please do it. Back to George. “I can’t do it as I can’t sign the aircraft out as airworthy, particularly as I have no connection with Air France, thank goodness.” The crew decided they didn’t need the aircraft signed out, or as the engineer was responsible, he would sign the clearance. Consensus flying. George decided that as long as his name wasn’t mentioned he would oblige and brought his bit of bamboo over with some adhesive tape and did the job in about half an hour, during which time the crew repaired to the bar again. In passing, I had commented to an American lady on Air France drinking habits and she confided that it was the same at every stop from Paris. “And they even had wine in the cockpit.” I thought one could take the fear of local water a bit too far.

We finally got the crew and passengers back on board, and I was presented with four small bottles of champagne by the steward, which I tucked into my shirt. As we waved goodbye with a sigh of relief, George came over, “four bottles of champagne.” I exhibited mine. “I was going to split with you,” said George “but now we can go and drink them all in the bar.” “Better be careful of Customs and keep them quiet in your shirt.” Which we did.

KLM started transiting Labuan later in the year with charter flights to Australia carrying Dutch immigrants and we seemed to get one flight every 10 days or so. The crew were usually at least partially Australian, presumably to try and smooth the way through Australian customs, reputedly the slowest and most bloody-minded in the world. KLM night stopped every time in transit, presumably to ensure they arrived at the destination in good time to get passengers through customs and immigration before they went home for tea or on strike. The fact that the crews were predominantly Australian made my job easy PR-wise but it still needed a lot of running around as they came in sometimes with over 100 persons all up which drained accommodation to bursting. Complaints were many as one would expect from the Dutch, particularly from those with small children, and all one could do was fix what one could in the case of a mistake, or apologise and buy a drink, pointing out our inadequate facilities, and that arrival in Australia would be worth the hardships in Labuan. On these occasions, I was busy between rest house and hotel until all had settled down about midnight, and back again at 6.00 am or earlier to sort out any troubles before takeoff at about 8 am.

Fuel uptake had to be sufficient for Darwin direct with Longreach and Camoweal as alternatives, which meant that the necessary fuel together with passenger load, would overload the aircraft considerably. At the request of the captain, these were the only times I made the mistake in the load sheets and signed it, as we needed to take advantage of the 30% safety factor, and the long runway.

In addition to civil aircraft, if one includes Air France which was anything but, later in the year we had a flight of Mosquitoes stationed in Labuan, quite a social asset. They also did a lot of flying, mapping North Borneo, Sarawak and Brunei, and with hindsight probably Indonesian Borneo as well. The law of averages says that there had to be a prang in the fullness of time, this time on landing and Murphy’s Law dictated that it had to happen just before we had a Qantas plane due. Big panic and hasty removal of the wreck with the tractor, while Qantas circled for half an hour. We were also a transit stop for aircraft going to Korea.

Cathay in the early days ran a DC6 into Labuan as an experiment, now with the Borneo Company looking after them and once a PBY Catalina, fascinating anyone with an interest in aeroplanes. Kenny picked up a message one day from what appeared to be the DC6 to the effect that they had engine trouble and were landing on a beach somewhere in the South China sea. Everyone shook their heads and expressed the view that it was overworked, as it was their one and only, that it got no maintenance and it was bound to happen sometime. It transpired that the pilot had been flying a Piper Cub, as a change from airline duties and had quoted his usual aircraft registration number by mistake. Cathay is one of the finest airlines in the world.

There were a few light aircraft which used the Labuan strip, mostly Shell, who owned an amphibian, an ex-service Walrus I think, with the distinctive registration VR_SOL otherwise known as the Flying Fundamental. Another was a very small plane owned by a missionary group at Lawas just the other side of Brunei Bay. The pilot was usually prepared to give one a lift over if asked and many people took advantage of this. The routine was for the pilot to enter the cockpit and switch on, while the intending passenger swung the propeller to start up at the appropriate signal, then get in the passenger side. The pilot, Bruce, would then put his hands together in an accepted manner “now we say a little prayer” after which an immediate takeoff, sometimes direct from the parking area, hedge hopping to Lawas. The reason for the prayer became obvious in the first few minutes. Only the brave or thrill-seekers went a second time.

Charter and occasional scheduled flights increased our handling profits and were very welcome, and in many ways good fun, but the bread and butter were Qantas. They carried all sorts and one met a large cross-section of humanity from generals going up to Korea, with whom one had a cup of tea and a chat, to Russian refugees going to Australia, looking like something straight out of Chekhov, headcloth and stale sweat smell included.

One sometimes became involved in the unexpected. A gentleman decided he would break his journey to Australia from Hong Kong, with his very beautiful Siamese wife and child. He wished to rebook the next week. By the time he came to the office to make the necessary arrangements, we had been advised that he was a prohibited person in Australia, and I had to refuse him a seat. He asked for one back to Hong Kong and was again refused entry. Our policy then became interested and he decided to go to Sandakan, first cashing letters of credit at both our bank agency and the North Borneo Trading Company’s cleaning out both our strong rooms of cash, which he made up into large brown paper parcels of some hundreds of thousands of Straits dollars. I met him sometime before his departure at the hotel, parcel on bar school and joined him for a beer. “How long have you been in Borneo?” He asked. “Nearly five years.” “You must be rich then.” “No? Then you must be honest.”

I saw him again about a year later on the deck of a small tug in Kudat harbour on my way to Tawau and immediately reported it to the police there. I had learnt in the meanwhile that he was a prominent arms smuggler, trading with the Philippines and Celebes, both of which had very active guerrilla wars in progress.

We had an incident over one night stop when I was called very early in the morning and told one of the passengers was behaving peculiarly. I went to the rest house post-haste and found one of the passengers diving out of his cubicle window onto the concrete below, about five feet. He had landed partially on his head and was about to do it again. I asked him not to he said he had to as he needed to punish himself. I persuaded him to sit down on the camp bed and examined himself, and think whether he had not already punished himself enough, and while he perused this train of thought, sent someone for the doctor urgently and shepherded the remaining passengers into the bus to the hotel for breakfast. Meanwhile, the nut had taken another dive and the doctor had arrived. Knowing the Doctor Nigel as I did it was a moot point as to which was the more peculiar. The upshot was that the Captain refused to take the passenger onto Darwin and Sydney, the police would not let him stay in Labuan, and he was to be returned to the reluctant Hong Kong who had booked him and was therefore responsible. He was to go on the next northbound flight sedated and with Doctor Nigel as an escort, meanwhile in a restraining cell in the hospital. Nigel was delighted and spent a week in Hong Kong at Qantas expense.

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