Hugh Pryor – Part One.
Some of my friends say that I am a slow reader and a late developer. Maybe they are right, but I find that when I read something, I tend to remember it better than some of the high-speed readers of my acquaintance do, and when, a bit later in life than some of my contemporaries, I spot some new enthusiasm I tend to fall for it, big time.
I am not one of those lucky guys like Sky Masterson or Rick Drury, who were born with wings and tail feathers and had to wait until they could walk before they were allowed to use them. I didn’t learn to fly until I was 27 years old. In fact I nearly missed out on flying altogether.
I was not around for the Battle of Britain, but I was born before the end of the Second World War. My father was killed during the invasion of Normandy. So, when I was brought up, pilots were still considered to have saved Great Britain, and possibly the World, from the Nazi jackboot and Japanese domination. They were held in awe. A race of such legendary, heroic and chivalrous stature that they were not really considered to be ordinary human beings like you or I.
So, quite naturally, I never even thought about Hugh Pryor as a member of that elite. It never once occurred to me. For me to take up flying would have been rather like me waking up one morning and deciding, “Okay. It’s going to be Winston Churchill. That’s what I’m going to do with my life. I’ll be a Winston Churchill.”
“the highest scoring mountains, in terms of aircraft wrecks”
No, I was forced into flying by the cousins with whom I was farming on the romantic slopes of Kilimanjaro, in Tanzania. My job was to build a dairy. One morning, after breakfast, Sue (now Lady Susan Wood, wife of the late Sir Michael Wood, Plastic Surgeon and protégée of Sir Archibald McIndoe who saved many horrendously burned pilots during the Second World War), the mother of the house, approached me and asked, “Hugh, are you intending to stay on with us here?”
I was alarmed by these words, because they sounded like a prelude to a suggestion that I should look for a future elsewhere.
“Yes, Sue. I would love to stay if that fits in with your plans.”
“Right, Hugh. Well we think that, in order to be a really useful member of the farm team, you should get an aeroplane and learn to fly.”
And that was how it all started.
I didn’t even get into an aeroplane until I was eighteen years old. Even at that age, I felt a bit like a dinosaur among my ‘airline’s-the-only-way-to-travel’ friends. That was in a place called Madang in New Guinea, where I was doing Voluntary Service Overseas, because the British Government had ended compulsory Military Service recently before.
Up to that point I had been convinced, based on a terrifying ‘falling’ dream that I’d had when I was a baby, that I would be killed, the first time I left the ground in an aeroplane. I blame this phobia on my brother Stephen. When we were small he took it upon himself to fill my brain with copious pieces of duff information. “Carnations,” he told me, “came from Australia and that is why you must always plant them upside-down.” He was so plausible that to this day I have a suspicion that there must be some truth in that palpable untruth, in spite of my marked lack of success in growing carnations, over the years. “Plant roots go right to the centre of the Earth,” was another piece of horticultural misinformation which he handed out, but I never questioned how grass grew on bridges.
I just assumed that the roots went right down to the far end of the bridge and then plunged towards the Earth’s core. “People with razor-sharp partings in their hair are good mathematicians,” he sagely advised me one day, when I had just earned myself another ‘Blue’, for bad performance in Maths at junior school. I am a hopeless mathematician and even now, fifty years on, I catch myself taking extra care over my parting in the mornings, in an instinctive, if fruitless, effort to improve my mathematics.
‘ravens of death floating around’
“People who have ‘Falling Dreams’ when they are babies, will die, the first time they fly in an aeroplane.” This was the piece of advice that assured me of my limited future. I even worked my passage out to New Guinea, as the Junior Apprentice on a Tramp steamer, not exactly through a fear of flying, but more because ‘Going by Air’ was still the preserve of the very rich. People still dressed up to go on an aeroplane, in the early sixties.
The year of my first experience in an aeroplane was 1963. It was early one morning at Madang Airport, the home of Madang Airlines, which belonged to the legendary Reg Ansett. I was crammed into the back seat of a Cessna 185, belonging to another pillar of New Guinea Aviation, Dennis Buchanan. This aircraft, if I had but known, was the progenitor of Territory Air Lines. Territory Air lines was to become the backbone of airborne communications throughout New Guinea in later years.
Sharing the back seat with me was the petite little Papuan wife of Simeon Kibikibi, the Medic at Simbai which was our destination. Simbai was an Australian Colonial Administration post 6500 feet above sea level, in the bottom of a valley, with mountains going on up over ten thousand feet all around. The Simbai valley was one of four which flowed into the Ramu River like the fingers of a hand. The little finger was the Kinimbong, the ring finger was the Simbai, the middle finger was the Assai, and the index finger was the Aiome. There was no thumb really, unless you called the main Ramu River a thumb.
People didn’t fly much after about midday in the highlands of New Guinea because the weather clamped in on the mountains and earned them the reputation of being the highest scoring mountains in the world, in terms of aircraft wrecks.
The problem with the finger valleys was that they are narrow, so once you got into one of them, you were committed to a landing. If there was an airstrip at the other end of the valley you would survive. If there wasn’t, you wouldn’t. It had been proved monotonously. Each gory accident had been described to me in lurid detail, by Con Hatters, the Anglican priest, whose guest house had been put at my disposal in Madang, during my week of ‘acclimatisation’. (“Hugh, you’ve got to wear long boots up there in Simbai. 90% of snake bites occur below the knee, young man, so don’t let me see you in those silly little desert shoes again. OK?” HSE advice from Con Hatters.) So I knew, pretty well exactly, how I was going to die.
Sitting, hunched up, in the back of the 185, I couldn’t see the pilot, because the cabin was piled high with boxes of supplies. I was aware of the strong clean smell of washing soap emanating from Mrs. Kibikibi. I wondered if she could catch the whiff of fear emanating from me.
Soon we felt the cabin bounce as the pilot climbed in the front. There was a tinny bang as he slammed the door and locked it. We heard the broad Australian twang in his voice, as he called the controller for start clearance and we heard his reply when he received it. My short span on Earth was drawing to a close and I was resigned to my fate. There was a pause while he set the various controls up for the start and then there was a ‘click’, followed by silence. Then there was another ‘click’ and another and another, followed by a well-known, but unprintable, Australian expletive.
The pilot’s door opened. “Sorry, Folks,” said the Aussie twang, “She won’t play. Starter’s on the blink. Everybody out. We’ll try again tomorrow.” My life had just been extended by one day. Another sleepless night ahead. I knew precisely how the condemned man feels on death row.
More lurid stories from Con Hatters, over the beers that evening. Apparently there had been a dramatic landslide in the Simbai valley. Dozens killed. Dozens missing. So, even if we made it to Simbai airstrip, we stood a fair chance of being wiped out by a landslide. Fate appeared to be closing all the loopholes.
(Madang Airport picture By K. Winarske)