There’s an old saying in Outback Australia: Any really good piece of equipment that never breaks down is said to be “a bit like Pat’s ax: It may have had two new heads and four new handles, but it’s the same ax!” That description exactly fits an Auster J5 being restored near Brisbane, Australia—a war veteran spared from rotting in the tropical jungles of New Guinea.
Perhaps the Allied equivalent of the Feiseler Fi.15 Storch, the Auster was legendary in the southwest Pacific particularly in New Guinea during World War II. A single engine STOL (short takeoff and landing) aircraft, it was used to deliver anything from spies to spare parts into grass paddocks that could hardly be described as airstrips.
In the years following the war, Austers were among the aircraft that rebuilt the territory of New Guinea, and Australian-registered KSK was at the front line. At its control was the first woman to earn a commercial pilot’s license in that hard country, Pat Graham. In fact, in the early 1950s, she was likely among only a handful of full-time female commercial pilots in the world. Now barely 70, she looks back on her work for Gibbes Sepik Airways with a laugh: “Oh, flying in New Guinea in the ’50s was a lot of fun. We worked hard, and we played hard and flew several days a week. We operated mostly into one-way strips. You only got one go at it because you couldn’t go ’round. So you had to be pretty spot-on with your approaches. You know, a patrol officer would walk in and select what he thought was a reasonable site for a strip, and get all the natives to cut the grass. They’d stamp it down a bit, and then one of us would go in and land on it!”
Starting her professional life as a hairdresser, Graham battled male chauvinism as well as split ends, eventually scraping together enough money to gain a commercial license in Australia. Once she soloed, she discovered aviation Down Under apparently didn’t have room for a woman. But Royal Australian Air Force Curtiss P-40 Kittyhawk ace Bobby Gibbes did in his bush airline. So Graham headed north to fly over the jungles and mountains of the Sepik Delta and western highlands.
Gibbes’ time in Africa’s Western Desert had taught him the need for sturdy aircraft, and he established his bush airline with single-engine, high-wing Noorduyn Norseman and Auster types. If the aircraft were tough types, so were the men who flew them. Some were less than impressed with “that flying girl,” as she became known throughout the highlands. Many wondered why the owner of Sepik Airways had gambled on a 22-year-old girl who had only recently gained her B Class (commercial) license, had minimal hours in her logbook and had never before seen New Guinea. One former colleague described his first impressions of her as “a slip of a girl with ‘shiny wings’ and only a few hours, getting her aerial baptism over some of the toughest flying country in the world.”
Old hands tagged the clouds over New Guinea’s western highlands “The Chocolate Box Clouds”—they never knew which had hard centers. An article in a 1950s edition of Goodyear magazine noted: “Here are mountains towering 9,000 feet into the steaming tropical cloud base. The airstrips are short, too short always, and the approach is never direct, or into the wind, but all too often a sudden, sliding turn around the edge of the mountain. One must get down the first time and then unload quickly and get what’s going back and up and away before the afternoon cloud closes down on the top and there’s no getting out before tomorrow.” In the 50 years that have passed since that time, I’ve spent enough time flying RAAF de Havilland Caribou transports in those same mountains to know that nothing has changed.
The first aircraft under Graham’s command was an Auster. As Pat recalled, her career almost crashed on takeoff: “I’d only been in Port Moresby two weeks when Marinus Zuydam, the chief pilot, said he had to go through to Wewak to change over an aircraft and would I like to go. I said, ‘Yeah, sure, how long are we going for?’ He said, ‘Oh, a couple of nights.’ So, not knowing New Guinea, I packed a weekend bag—and I got back to Port Moresby 18 months later! We arrived in Wewak and were asked if we could do a trip to Angorum that afternoon, which we did. But we lost an engine, just ran out of noise. It took us 10 minutes to get to where we landed and 10 hours to walk back.”
That unfortunate flight took place on Friday, June 13, 1952. Fortunately there was a kunai (long grass) ridge nearby, and the Dutch pilot executed a safe but very heavy landing.
Years later, Pat Toole recalled: “We had fourteen ‘repats’ on board. We were loaded to the gunnels with everything from axes and knives to all the bits and pieces they were bringing home after working away for two years, and they were all out before Rinus and I were, and we had a door each to get out! We didn’t waste any time either, but they just vanished into the bundu. I don’t think they’d ever fly again! Or maybe they thought that was a normal landing.”
Their adventures soon hit the headlines around the world, with stories from the Women’s Weekly to the Christian Science Monitor. The banners read: “That Flying Girl” and “Our First Girl Bush Pilot.”
If flying in New Guinea could ever be described as uneventful, the next 12 months were at least without mishap. Pat flew Austers and Norsemans loaded with anything from mission supplies to government officials. The only thing she never had on board was a radio.
Her close encounter of the hard kind came on a flight without passengers to Tadji and on to Lumi. Pat discovered just how quickly the weather could change in the mountains. She explained:
I was five minutes out of Lumi. I could see it. Then all of a sudden, voomph! Blacked out completely. I’ve never seen a buildup as quick.
So I just stayed in the air as long as I could while I was looking for somewhere to put it down, because I couldn’t get back over the range and I was trying to find a way through to the Sepik flats. But I couldn’t find anything.
Then I saw a gap and a riverbed down there, and I thought, “That’ll do me!”
I swung the aircraft around and made for a clearing, and when I got low enough I could see steep banks on both sides of the Keang River. I eased the aircraft down and landed on stones and shingles. The Auster bounced along the riverbed, and the trees got closer, so I pulled the aircraft round in a ground loop.
I had about one gallon of petrol left in the tank, so I was very lucky. I had a good idea where I was and I thought about walking to Dreikikir, which I thought, was about 13 miles away. But I stayed with the plane, and a search patrol from Lumi arrived two nights later.
The Christian Science Monitor recorded that “about 100 naked natives with bows and arrows came racing down the river bank towards her. It was a relief when she saw they were all grinning broadly, for she knew then that she had not landed among head hunters!” “That flying girl” was rescued, and so was the Auster.
Graham had earned a reputation for courage and airmanship—and the respect of the male bush pilots. In fact, the Gibbes Sepik Airways manager, former paratrooper Colin Toole, was so impressed that he proposed. The newly married couple would go on to establish a coffee plantation, together pioneering a new industry for the fledgling nation of Papua New Guinea.
After surviving that rocky river landing, the sturdy Auster was pulled apart and carried to the nearest airstrip. A new propeller was brought in, along with a new undercarriage leg. Workers spliced a new piece of timber into the main spar, after which the plane was flown back to the airline base at Wewak. Pat contended that it actually flew better after the accident, insisting that it was much easier to trim.
Fifty years later, while this article was being researched, that same Auster was discovered in a barn in Australia, less than one hour’s drive from where Pat Toole now lives in retirement. Learning of the restoration project was a huge thrill for her—especially since she has decided to get back in the air. “It’s terrific,” said Pat. “It treated me very gently in that riverbed, and I just used to love flying it. It’s been flying on and off over the years. I saw it once in an episode of the TV series The Flying Doctors. Apparently at that stage a fellow in the Air Force owned it, and I think he must have pranged it. It’s been rebuilt several times. It had been out in a severe hailstorm, so that’s why it’s being repaired this time. Oh, it’s a bit like Pat’s ax, and yes, I intend to fly it. That would be fun.”
Fun is a recurring theme in Toole’s life, and that isn’t about to change. During a recent trip to New Zealand to attend a Women in Aviation conference, she was offered the opportunity to try hot air ballooning. During that outing, instructor Rhonda Tulk asked why Toole hadn’t got back her fixed wing license. Her response was a typical “Why not.” She said later: “So I thought if I’m going to fly again I’d better throw myself in at the deep end. But oh those bloody radios! Oh, voices bleating in my ear all the time. You’ve got three changes of frequency before you even get in the air. The flying came back reasonably quickly. I went solo in seven hours, which I thought wasn’t too bad after more than 40 years.
“I remember my first solo very distinctly, but it was different this time, because, you know, I’m older. I still had a great adrenaline rush. And yes, it’s still fun.”
Australia’s civil aviation authorities reactivated Toole’s original pasteboard license, with its endorsements for the Auster and Norseman. Her first passenger after her solo was her 11-year-old grandson, Jacob. He’s bent on following in Grandma Pat’s footsteps, or flight path, as the case may be.
Originally published in the January 2006 issue of Aviation History.To subscribe, click here.