1971 Assorted Flood Adventures

In February 1971 the call came to save the population of Northern NSW from inundation by the worst flood in 25 years and a huge effort was mounted by the Army and the RAAF, operating from Moree and Dubbo. As the best pilot in the squadron at the time (everyone else was away) I was selected to attend this disaster with a Pilatus Turbo-Porter as part of the Army contribution along with Barry Dick in the ubiquitous Sioux helicopter.

The helicopter had departed a few days before me and, when I arrived at Moree, I was greeted by the Sioux which had been converted to a sports model with no bubble. Barry, who had been caught by a telephone wire, completed a windswept trip all the way back to Amberley with the remnants of the bubble held together with 14 rolls of gaffer tape. Peter Vincent arrived with a replacement chopper the next day.

Our role was to attend to the needs of the population while the RAAF fittingly looked after the sheep. The organisation was outstanding, with none of the local infighting between Police, State Emergency Service (SES) and Shire Council that was a feature of every other disaster with which I was involved. Trucks were flowing into the airport heaped with hay bales for the trapped animals and the locals were almost running alongside the soldiers, loading C 130 Hercules, from dawn till dark.

As the Porter was needed in the air until after dark every day, flying regulations went out the door, and it was very painful in those early years of flying to leave about 50 hours out of my logbook at the end of the job, as a less expansive-thinking senior officer had issued specific instructions not to exceed the rules. The job had to be done and RAEME ground crew, when checking the paperwork later, did not draw his attention to the huge number of hours the aircraft had completed.

There were a number of emergency evacuations from isolated farms, landing on the driveway or a nearby paddock and I was most disappointed to miss out by seconds on having the first child born in a Porter. A woman, who decided to produce, was trapped about 60 kilometres from Moree, so I went to pick her up from another job – solo. Her husband was away and she staggered out to the Porter which fortunately, I could land right at the front gate. Halfway back to Moree the action started. I had seen all the movies and knew it was no good landing on a road to help as I didn’t have lots of boiling water and sheets to rip up. After a powerlever-bending straight in approach the lady was tossed into an ambulance where the baby was delivered on the tarmac. She wanted to name the baby in honour of the occasion but didn’t think my suggestion of Pilatus O’Hara was very good.

This was the first time we had used the spinning heliboxes developed by the Victorian Forestry for light supply drops and found these simple cardboard devices to be highly accurate for small loads. As I was loading a selection of goods to be either landed or dropped around the district the SES Controller came up and asked if I would mind dropping a bottle of Scotch to “Old Tom” whose whole world collapsed when his last bottle was finished.

After delivering the other stores I flew over Tom’s house to find the whole area covered in water. Fortunately, the front lawn looked like it only had a few inches on it, so my dispatcher launched the helibox containing a bottle of the finest Scotch directly at the foot of the flooded steps. Old Tom, who we could see lurking in safety on the front verandah, moved out to pick up his precious bottle but, just as he reached the bottom step, we saw him throw his arms in the air and fall face down in the shallow water and lie motionless. Luckily Peter Vincent in the helicopter was very close by so, I called for him to bring the Sioux over but not to hurry for, if the apparent heart attack had not killed the old boy, he would be drowned by now in any case. Peter landed in a few inches of water and as we circled we saw the two helicopter crew carry the body up onto the verandah. After some time Peter came up on the air and in answer to my question said, “No he is not dead. The Scotch broke when the box landed and the old fellow threw himself down to drink as much as possible before it became too diluted! He did a marvelous job because he is as pissed as a parrot!”

One of the Hercules pilots was a US Air Force exchange officer named Tom Bradley whose voice was always the loudest in the bar each night. After a bit of boasting, a local farmer bet Tom he could not put a drop of hay bales into his tennis court – one carton of beer. The next morning, with the farmer standing between the pilots’ seats in the Hercules, Tom did an approach to claim his bet. On seeing how small the tennis court looked from the air, the farmer upped the ante to 5 cartons, which was accepted. On the signal, the Army dispatcher kicked 6 bales off the ramp and they sailed down directly into the centre of the tennis court.

Now, 6 bales of hay travelling at 140 knots have a certain amount of inertia and the dispatcher watched out the back door with a certain amount of joy as the bales bounced, ricocheted into the court fence and proceeded to tear the entire tennis court surround out by the root – chain wire, posts, gate – the lot. When they came around to look at the results , the farmer saw, about 40 metres past the now naked tennis court, what looked like a giant skein of wool with 20 badly bent silver knitting needles amongst the mess. To add insult to injury, one of the bales had missed the court and landed on top of the farmer’s wife’s new car, pushing the roof down onto the back of the seats! He paid up!

A trip to Weemalah, a small township north west of Moree was nearly my undoing in more ways than one. The town had been cut off for days and was running short of food so I took a load of fresh vegetables, which can’t be dropped, expecting to find “somewhere” for the Porter to land as usual. The only spot to land was a wheat storage shed – the type which is built using flat ground with outwards sloping walls and either roofed or covered with tarpaulins – this one had no roof and was about 150 metres long. With great concentration I landed the Porter in between the walls, which looked a bit narrow. On stopping the aircraft I found we could not turn it around!

The bottom of the walls were 15 metres apart – the same as the Porter wingspan and it was only the outwards slope which gave me about 2 metres on each tip from the 4 metre high walls. After pushing the aircraft back, unloading the supplies to the cheering townsfolk and considering changing my underwear I took off, very careful to keep in the middle! I got away with it and resolved to carry the story to my grave, unfortunately the SES controller who had come for the ride had other ideas.

Within two hours my wife was getting phone calls from all over Australia saying they had just heard the newsflash on the ABC about 2Lt Lang Kidby heroically landing INSIDE a wheat silo to save the town of Weemalah. It didn’t take two hours for me to get a phone call from the Army Aviation Corps Director in Canberra “What in the bloody hell is going on up there!’  and from Major Frank Markrow, who was the “Area Commander” based in Dubbo “What in the bloody hell is going on up there!” I was told to get the measurements of the silo (no doubt to be used at my execution).

“There is one of those silos across the road from the Moree Airfield. Get a tape and I want the EXACT measurement!”

I knew something that the Inquisitors didn’t – there were two standard size silos, 15 metres and 25 metres! I had been ordered to measure the one opposite the airfield so who was I to disobey an order?  “The silo only gives you about 8 metres on each wingtip so you must ask the townspeople to remove one of the walls before you next trip to increase your safety margin”.

I did.

Every disaster attracts politicians like bees to a honey pot. Sir Robin Askin, the Premier of NSW, was no exception. The Army air dispatchers deserved medals for their work as the weather was very hot and humid and the Hercules did not stop from dawn til dark with the soldiers going out, time after time in the back of the aircraft, in a living hell of whirling dust and straw. They could not wear goggles because they steamed up with sweat and they toiled back and forth carrying bales of hay onto the open ramp while the pilot pressed them to the floor in his procedure turn at the end of each run. Slipping on their own vomit and constantly in a violent dust storm they carried on, only to collapse onto the grass under the wing while the aircraft was being reloaded and the doctor handed out eye drops and injections for airsickness.

To one such filthy group came Sir Robin surrounded by reporters. The SES Controller had spoken glowingly of the dispatchers’ work and, not one to miss an opportunity, the Premier did his stuff. I was sitting about 20 metres away and saw Sir Robin wait for the tape recorders to start then launch into his address to the exhausted bunch who had not risen from the prone position. With plenty of emphasis on “We” the politician waxed lyrical about the troops who, having suffered enough pain for one day, slowly started to leave. Looking a little perturbed at his dwindling audience Askin warmed to the subject and, as the recorders were still going, became positively Churchillian along the lines of “Never in the course of human conflict…..”.

By the time he had finished his audience had dwindled to a 17 year old private and the detachment sergeant who lay in his filthy green rags on the grass and had not opened his eyes during the whole performance. There was an embarrassing pause while the Premier looked down for some recognition of his oratory. Another moment of silence, then without opening his eyes, the sergeant delivered a stentorian fart!