Does God also Fly?

In July 1975 Greg Blackmore had taken his own aircraft, a 1957 Cessna 172 VH-RDP to aircraft engineer, Kerry Charlton, at Longreach, for a major service. As the aircraft would be out of action for a couple of weeks, Greg needed a lift back to Gregory Downs. By good fortune, or God’s grace, Lionel Parker, the local flying Padre, with the Salvation Army, based at Longreach, was going up to the Gulf and offered Greg a lift and also arranged his itinerary to pick him up again in a couple of weeks and return him to Longreach.

Lionel Parker carrying out checks on Cessna 180 VH-DJS at Longreach in 1973 (Photo credit Lionel Parker)

The aircraft that Lionel flew at that time was a Cessna 180-G tail dragger registered VH-DJS.

Cessna 180-G VH-DJS at Floraville Station near Burketown. (photo credit Sara Beck)

Lionel Parker, previously a baker by trade, spent 17 years as the Flying Padre with the Salvation Army in the Australian outback, based at both Longreach (Qld) between 1971 and 1977 and Darwin (NT) from 1982 to 1992. During the 1974 floods, Lionel with the help of flying padre Hilton Morris, normally based in Darwin, accumulated over 100 hours doing food drops for people and livestock as well as delivering mail and searching for stranded motorists.

Lionel Parker with his Cessna 180-G VH-DJS

The Salvation Army’s flying padres have been visiting isolated grazing families in north west Queensland since 1965. The service covers from around Longreach, down to Birdsville, up around the Gulf and into the Cape, an area of about 800,000 square kms. It provides basic support to people on the land, they call in and sit down and let them remote people talk about the issues they’re going through. They also do weddings and funerals as well as dedicating things like bores and new plant and equipment.

Lionel Parker with Captain Martin at Mt Isa in 1977 with Darwin aircraft, Cessna 182 VH-TUJ

The Origins of the Flying Padre Service

In 1945, Victor Pedersen pioneered The Salvation Army’s Flying Service over the wide spaces of northern Australia. At the outbreak of the Second World War he joined the Royal Australian Air Force and became a qualified pilot. As Red Shield Representative (Sally Man) with the RAAF Operational Base Unit, based in Truscott WA, he was for a time the unofficial Chaplain.

Whilst on leave in 1945 he was involved in the purchase for The Salvation Army of an ex-RAAF Tiger Moth, registration VH-ASA, which was flown from Melbourne to Darwin, then on to Truscott, where it was used to make pastoral visits to staff at radar stations in the region.

This proved to be the link between The Salvation Army’s war work and post-war activity in the north. With the end of World War II, Vic’s work changed from providing Red Shield service for servicemen in isolated areas, to inaugurating a new kind of Salvation Army work among outback cattle stations and settlements.

Victor Pedersen became the first of a line of Flying Padres, officer pilots appointed by The Salvation Army to minister to the needs of people in remote areas of the Australian outback and servicing the NT and northern WA from Darwin. In 1949 the service was extended to the remote Queensland Outback.

The Australia Eastern Territory Outback Flying Service

An Australia Eastern Territory Outback Flying Service was established at Longreach commencing in May 1965 with Padre Alf Dawkins there for the first 6 years with the first aircraft being an Auster Autocar VH-BTF.

Lionel Parker took over from Alf Dawkins in 1971 and the aircraft around 1973/74 was upgraded to a Cessna 180-G VH-DJS.

The Eastern Territory base was moved to Mt Isa in 2000 and another base opened at Dalby in 2012.

In 2011, following the experience of the Cyclone Yasi floods, the Salvation Army purchased a Robinson 44 Raven 11 helicopter for the Mt Isa base. This purchase and operating expenses were enabled by a bequeath from the late Keith Dawson, known as “Wild Horse Dawson” of “Kiddel Plains” near Moura.

This helicopter was later relocated to Toowoomba and another Robinson 66 Turbo was purchased for Mt Isa funded by the processors of Paul’s Milk.

A Wing and a Prayer

An interesting observation on reading the Salvation Army Website for the NT and WA is that since 1945 there have been 10 aircraft comprising, 2 Tiger Moths, 3 Austers, 1 Percival Gull and 4 Cessna 182’s.

All except 2 of these aircraft suffered accidents, however, only one of those accidents involved any injury to a pilot. In March 1966, on a return trip to Katherine, NT, an Auster Alpine VH-UED ran out of fuel a few miles north of Katherine: a forced landing was attempted into trees in very rugged country. Considerable damage was done to the aircraft as well as a broken kneecap to the pilot, Victor Pedersen. (A similar Auster painted in the same colours as VH-UED is now on display at the Darwin Aviation Museum)

During the period 1945 to 1972 Northern conditions were harsh on aircraft and 2 of the Austers and 1 Tiger Moth were so badly damaged they were struck off the register.

By 1950, the original Salvation Army Flying Padre, Victor Pedersen, had, since 1945, been involved in 5 aircraft accidents in Northern Australia. (Possibly 2 more by 1970)

These accidents did not involve Lionel Parker and the Cessna 180 mentioned above or any aircraft used at Longreach or Mt Isa in the Salvation Army’s Eastern Territory.

To be fair, most of these accidents or incidents occurred with the older, less reliable aircraft of the early days and considering the distances they flew and the poor condition of some landing areas, it is probably not a bad record. Of the more modern Cessna aircraft, one was lost in cyclone Tracy and only one other one VH-SVA was written off after a hand starting runaway accident at Darwin in 2002.

Lionel Parker’s Books

Former Flying Padre, Lionel Parker, self published two books in 1994 and 2000 detailing the history of the flying padre service, his own work and interesting anecdotes about the Flying Padre & Outback Services ministry to remote communities. Although both books are now out of print, a search of online bookstores may secure a secondhand copy.

Shadow of a Tiger
Lionel Parker’s first book published in 1994 is a historical account of the flying padre service with chapters by Vic Pedersen, Alf Dawkins, Hilton Morris, Hazel Parker and Lenore Camp from “Floraville”, Burketown.
Grass Strip Landings
Lionel Parker’s second book published in 2000 is a selection of stories and anecdotes from Lionel’s own time as a flying padre.

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