Why They Called Him “Sundown”

This song of John Williamson brings back memories of the Mt Isa based pilots for the North Australian Pastoral Company (NAPCo) during the peak of the BTEC Scheme in the 1970’s.

Mt Isa at Sundown

In 1973 the Federal Labor Government had cut existing subsidies on far-western routes for mail services and air freight. The following year the fuel subsidy was also withdrawn and regular air services to stations by Bush Pilot’s and the like were severely curtailed.

This prompted NAPCo to purchase theirs own aircraft, a Cessna 206, in 1974, to be based in Mt Isa and to provide weekly mail and freight runs to the NT property Alexandria, with outstations, Soudan and Gallipoli on Tuesday and on Thursday another run to the Queensland Georgina River channel country properties of Glenormiston and outstation Herbert Downs, Marion Downs and Coorabulka as well as Monkira on the Diamantina River.

Map showing NAPCo properties serviced by the Cessna 206 VH-EFI in 1976
(Map from Book “You Can’t Make it Rain” by Margaret Kowald and W Ross Johnston)

The aircraft was registered VH-EFI and became affectionately known as “Effie”. As well as carrying mail, spare parts and perishable foods on regular runs it was also utilised by the station managers for spotting cattle during mustering and other water and property inspections.

With the Brucellosis and Tuberculosis Eradication Campaign (BTEC) that commenced in 1969, well under way, “Effie” also flew the Vets to and from properties to blood test the herds, so she was busy nearly 7 days a week and usually clocked up a 100 hourly maintenance inspection every month. It also soon became evident that two pilot’s were needed.

Phillip Packer had been the first “Effie” pilot and in 1975 Peter Lehmann had taken over and, as he had previously been with Primaries, he gave Greg Blackmore a good rap and knockdown for the job of second pilot in March 1976.

Greg arrived on the job, with about 900 hours private time plus a new Commercial Licence and an Instructor’s Rating, to find out that Peter Lehmann was “crook” and that he was at Glenormiston, with “Effie” and that Greg should go and get them. Greg chartered a Victa Airtourer from the local Aero Club and, with a club instructor onboard, flew out to Glenormiston to bring Peter and the aircraft back to Mt Isa..

Greg’s next introduction was to the company Vet, Doc ‘Leethal’ Lee McNichol. Lee was also a qualified pilot and had flown “Effie” from time to time however no longer did this due to his veterinary workload. Apparently, on one occasion, Lee had ended up with a flat battery in “Effie” so, having removed the top engine cowl to get access to the battery for a jump start from a vehicle, had difficulty replacing the cowl with the engine running so it was placed on the back seat for the flight back to town.

Doc Lee McNichol testing cattle at “Monkira”
(Image from Book “You Can’t Make it Rain” by Margaret Kowald and W Ross Johnston)

On Greg’s first flight with Lee as a passenger, he also had also brought along his dog, that sat unobtrusively between the two front seats for the flight. That is until it passed wind. Fortunately the Cessna had good air vents from up near the wings and a pilot could hold his nose to the vent to obtain fresh air.

These vents proved useful on another occasion when “Effie’s” battery collapsed and fumes entered the cabin.

A second Vet, Murray Cameron was also employed on a contract basis.

The pilots had to advise the Vets of the latest departure time, based on flight time and last light, that would allow them to return to Mt Isa, rather than having to stay over, which none of them wanted to do.

Invariably, they would turn up to the aircraft late and here is where the “Sundown” thing came in as, in the words of the song, it was always “Bloody near dark when we reached the strip”. More than often it was actually dark and it was not unusual for us to call the Mt Isa tower some 30 miles out with “On long final, please cancel Sarwatch” to which the tower would reply “Sarwatch cancelled – Clear to land”. Probably not a ‘thing’, these days!

The testing of the blood for the BTEC scheme was done in Alice Springs and on one occasion we must have missed the last regular commercial flight from Mt Isa that would get the blood there in time. As a consequence Greg had to fly the blood over in “Effie” and Peter Lehmann came along with Dr Lethal McNichol and the other Vet, Murray Cameron.

Although it was to be a one day trip over and back, there was time to have lunch and a couple of ales, so that when they departed for the 3 hour trip back to Mt Isa most bladders (except for the designated pilot’s) were soon in need of relief. The aircraft carried a number of emergency supplies including some little resealable plastic bags with sponges in them. Maybe these had been selected with extreme foresight as on that day they were used with great difficulty and then despatched via the side window towards the ground, somewhere near Jervois.

To facilitate freight handling, the company had bought a small Honda Van and the pilots alternated flying with running around town in the Van picking up mail bags, spare parts and other freight, as well as undertaking shopping requests for the ladies of the stations, for the next day’s flight.

Even with two pilots flying alternative days in addition to transporting the vets to and from the properties, “Effie” would fly around 90 to 100 hours each month with the pilots averaging around 40 hours per month.

On one occasion, Peter Lehmann was driving the van and must have been looking away when he suddenly came upon a red stop light. He applied the brakes and locked up the wheels and the van proceeded to slide sideways and then promptly fell on it’s side. Not to be fazed, Peter enlisted the help of some pedestrians to lift the van upright and he was soon on his way again.

Initially, NAPCo pilots worked out of a car saleman’s cubicle at Barkly Motors and later that year the company purchased a pilot’s residence, come depot at Beta Street, Mt Isa.

They often flew heavy machinery parts such as radiators back to town and Greg can remember that the Soudan strip was only 1,000 feet long but fortunately had good approach and departure clearways, the only obstacle being vehicles on the highway at the southern end.

During the year, “Effie” came up for a major overhaul and inspection and to save down time it was decided that a second engine would be purchased so that, in future, there would always be one in stock when a major service came up.

Greg also remembers doing a low level property inspection at Glenormiston one day and after landing he did his usual engine shutdown checks including a magneto check and found that he had one dead magneto. An engineer was flown out the next day and as he replaced the faulty magneto, he also removed and inspected the other magneto and found that it also had a badly damaged nylon drive gear which meant that a total engine failure may have been imminent.

From time to time they also hired other aircraft from John Lanhams Air Charter or the Aero Club to get the work done. These aircraft were Cessna 210’s VH-EUX and VH-ERH; Cessna 206 VH-DPU; Cessna 205 VH-COY and Cessna 182 VH-CDN, (which belonged to the local Southern Cross Rep).

In June, 1976, a private fishing trip was organised to Pat Delaney’s “Wentworth Station” and Tully Inlet in the Gulf by some pilot’s and local Flight Service staff. Greg flew a Cessna 210 with 5 passengers and the Cessna 205, with Peter Lehmann on board, was enlisted to carry 1 passenger and a number of cartons. As is usual with Cessna’s, the “tail test” was done and the loading centre of gravity found to be within limits. (The “tail test” is when you load your aircraft and then push the tail down until it nearly touches the ground. If it then rises again then all is OK). As the C210 was the faster aircraft, they let the C205 take off first and watched it consume a considerable amount of the 9,000 foot Mt Isa runway. Luckily there would be no need to return this freight from Wentworth. That night everyone slept in swags on the sand at Tully Inlet, maybe foolishly ignoring the possibility of Crocodiles.

Pat Delaney’s Wentworth Station homestead (circa 1978), now demolished after the property was sold to “Wollorgorang” in 1981. (Photo from Costas Constantinides)

Greg left NAPCo in September that year. Peter Lehmann stayed on until 1978 and other pilots included John Murphy 1978, Noel Stanley 1978-79, Casey Herman 1981-83, Ian Bean 1979-83 and the longest serving Chris Lilford from 1983 onwards for 35 years until he retired in 2018.

“Effie” with later Pilot, Chris Lilford and assistant Sandra Garland.
(Image from Book “You Can’t Make it Rain” by Margaret Kowald and W Ross Johnston)

“Effie” was replaced in 2007 by a larger aircraft and sold the following year after 33 years and nearly 20,000 flying hours of service for NAPCo and left Australia for a new registration and tourism work in the Philippines. Her registration is now (from January 2013) on a smaller Diamond Aircraft Industries DA40 aircraft at Caboolture. During her time with NAPCo, “Effie” also had a repaint as evidenced in the photo below from a NAPCo Report in 2002 celebrating the first 125 years of the company.

VH-EFI with a new paint job.

In March 2007, NAPCo purchased a larger, Gippsland Aeronautics GA-8 Airvan which was utilised until 2017 when it was sold and is now registered with a new owner and operating in WA. With improvements in roads and road transport, and, as many of the channel properties now have their own aircraft flown by the station managers, the replacement aircraft was a smaller Cessna 182 VH-WLQ that is based at Alexandria, along with a pilot, rather than at Mt Isa.

NAPCo’s Gippsland Aeronautics GA-8 Airvan, VH-OFI

Footnote:- The Sundown song by John Williamson was written about Mt Isa Vet, Doug Cluer. This happened after a Williamson concert in Mt Isa in 1988 or 89. Doug spoke to John after the concert and offered to take him TB testing with him the next day. They got back late, hence the song. (Information from Vets Ron Glanville and Scott Parry)

Remembering Peter Lehmann 2022


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