You’ve Got Mail!
21st century communication and transport methods have come a long way from the days of horse and cart.
In contrast to the old days, the remote regions of the Cape and Western Queensland are now serviced by West Wing Aviation mail runs, delivering mail and freight on a weekly basis. In January 2009 I tagged along on a flight from Mount Isa for a first hand experience of the Gulf mail run and got a little more than I bargained for on a wet season run!
The day starts out with pilot, Scott, reviewing the incoming strip reports from the stations en-route. The strip reports indicate the condition of the air-strip at each site, playing a vital role in the development of the flight plan for the day. If the air strip is damaged or under water this will warrant the strip unserviceable. Today, 3 stations report an unserviceable strip, which meant another ‘no mail’ week for themL Scott can’t contact one of the stations, but decides to take the freight on board in the hope of an all-clear report after take-off…
The mail van arrives at the airport. Sue, the delivery lady, gets to work unloading the 450kg of parcels and mail bags that are ready for the next stage of the journey.
Out on the strip, the parcels are sorted to a logical sequence to keep the turnaround at each station as smooth as possible. The awaiting aircraft, a Cessna 402, is stripped of its back seats to make room for the oncoming freight. Scott checks off the number of items for each stop as they are loaded in.
Aircraft pre-start done, refuelling completed, luggage loaded, flight plan in place and we are all set to start the roll out for take-off. And so begins the start of the amendments to the flight plan… as Scott receives a text message indicating that the final strip report came in and that we are all-clear to land at Lawn Hill Station. Today’s weather forecast indicates 40% chance of storms and this means that we need to have at least one hour of holding fuel on board, in case we have to hold in the air due to the weather.
First stop at Gregory Downs Station and we are met by the pickup crew, including a faithful blue heeler dog.
Owen, from Ringrose Transport, has a quick chat to Scott about the roads as he waits for another freight plane to land to take food supplies by road in his refrigerated semi.
Up and onward to Century mine for our first fuel stop. We are met here by Dave, the refueller, and a not-so-welcome brown snake, curled up in a compartment of the fuelling staion. After some gentle persuasion, the snake slithers off, not acting too bothered by us being there. With fuel tanks full and a quick check to make sure we didn’t end up with a little brown snake on board, we take off for our next stop at Old Hebert Vale.
There is certainly a friendly, relaxed greeting at each stop and an air of excitement as the freight is collected. In some cases, in the remote regions, the mail plane pilot may be the only face-to-face contact in the week, especially during the wet season when flooding causes such isolation. The recent rain in the region has transformed the normally dry and dusty landscape to a spectacular scene of fresh green grass, interspersed with meandering
creeks and rivers that come alive at this time of year.
Another takeoff and this time we are met with darkening skies and patchy rain all around as we land at Lawn Hill Station. It’s a quick turnaround as the rain starts falling from the skies. The sandy airstrip is no place to be in heavy rain so we take off for our next stop at Bowthorn Station, followed by an attempt to land at Hells Gate Station.
The one thing certain about the wet season is that you can’t always predict the next move that Mother Nature has up her sleeve. We were quickly discovering that she had a bit more of a challenge to present for us today as we held in the air, watching torrential rain falling directly over Hells Gate. 25 minutes later, unable to make contact with the station and no real movement of the rain, Scott decides that we have to forfeit our attempt to land, which also meant skipping our lunch stop, and travel on to Burketown for another drop-off and re-fuel.
We now had a chance to make up some time, as there is only one scheduled stop in the afternoon, rather than the regular 4 stops. Touchdown at Iffley Station, and a quick turnaround of greetings and collection of the eagerly anticipated freight and we are back in the air for our final leg of the journey.
However, the weather could hold no longer. As we head toward Mount Isa a massive storm cell looms ahead. The skies are no longer smooth sailing. I reach for a ‘little white bag’ as my stomach can no longer hold out either. The rain pelts down and the thunder and lightning are scarily close. Mother Nature was certainly showing us who had the final say. Another amendment to the flight plan and we divert East toward Cloncurry. The storm cell seems to spread across the entire sky and there is little chance of a safe entry to Cloncurry as we see bolts of lightning directly over the town. This left the option of trying to get around the storm to head back West or taking the clear skies and divert further East to Julia Creek. I am thankful for Scott’s experience and judgement as we head further East and make an unscheduled landing at Julia Creek.
Stepping out from the plane, I feel the effects of motion sickness really kicking in as Scott sets about to find a payphone to call in and re-evaluate the plan of attack. Looks like we have a wait on our hands as the stormy skies rumble to the West. The flies are the only other signs of life at the lonely airport so we decide to take a hike into town to bide some time. It must be close to a thousand flies that decide they would hitch along with us also! In good old outback fashion, we were met a few hundred metres from town by a local fireman, on his way to town for dinner with his wife and son. Thankful for the hospitality, we took a lift into town and settled in at the roadhouse. Within minutes of arriving, our new found friend arranged a lift back to the airport for us and offered his phone for Scott to call in and check on the weather situation. There is certainly something to be said for the spirit and hospitality of outback folk!
Scott eagerly tucks into the house special of chicken curry and rice. It had been a long time since breakfast!
The skies were still rumbling away but seeming to be less aggressive as we make our way back to the airport. The light was fading and night would be soon upon us. There is a gap in the storm in a direct path to Cloncurry so we take the chance with a plan B to return to Julia Creek if we can’t get through the storm. As we head through the cloud there is a welcome relief as we see the lights of Cloncurry ahead and make a landing in the rain to re-fuel before the final leg home. The motion sickness was still in full force and I thought I would need to start rationing the sick bags at this point.
The final take-off for the day and the last 20 minutes of flying time couldn’t go fast enough. Relief was the overwhelming feeling as we finally touched down in Mount Isa at about 9pm.
I walked away with a whole new respect for Mother Nature and the mail run pilots that brave the wet season, serving the people of the remote and rugged outback regions. For me, the day had been an adventure to remember. For Scott, it was all just part of his job and another day in the life of an outback pilot.