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Kalgoorlie Kapers

Back in Kalgoorlie.

Aircraft Type – Cessna 210
Location – Kalgoorlie, Western Australia

Kalgoorlie – even the name sounds dry and dusty. Situated smack-bang in the heart of the West Australian goldfields, Kal (as the locals call it) is a rough and ready gold town. It’s got the reputation of being the richest square mile of dirt on the planet. Back in 1893 a bloke named Paddy Hannan and a couple of his mates struck gold here. The place hit the map straight away and was soon inundated with prospectors seeking their fortune. Some did – most didn’t. The place is still a magnet for people looking to make a quick buck – either in the mines, (or in the case of ‘ladies of the night’) in one of the infamous brothels in Hay St. If Hay St doesn’t spin your wheels there’s always a game of two up (a uniquely Australian gambling game involving – guess it, two coins!!) to be had. Or grab a metal detector and try your hand at a bit of laid back prospecting (much easier than getting your hands dirty with that pesky gold-panning!). Oh and quite incredibly Kal sports some excellent eateries – the best feed of succulent, juicy escargot I ever devoured was at a local French restaurant.

When approaching Kalgoorlie from the air the dominant feature of the townscape is the ‘Super Pit’. This massive open cut mine is 3.5kms long by 1.5kms wide and over 1,000ft deep. If those numbers didn’t make your jaw drop these will – it produces around 28,000kg of gold per year (that’s around $900 million worth).

Being a reasonably remote town Kalgoorlie has always relied on its air services to get people to and from Perth and other towns and outback communities. Back in the 80’s the main charter operator based here was Goldfields Air Services (GAS). The company operated an all Cessna fleet made up of 210’s, 310’s and 402’s. [As a side note two of GAS’s aircraft were stolen by individuals with little or no flying experience. In 1989, UQR a Cessna 310, was stolen in the early hours of the morning and flown south west towards Bunbury. It ran out of fuel and ploughed into a forest area killing both on board. In the early 80’s a Cessna 210 was stolen and (again in the early hours of the morning) this one stalled on takeoff, diving into the ground and killing the sole occupant.] In addition to its Supplementary Airline activities the company carried out a wide variety of ad hoc charter work – ranging from multi-million dollar gold bullion deliveries to Perth, flying police and other government personnel to remote Aboriginal communities, to dance troupe tours of the Central Desert region. The main thrust of their bread & butter charter work however was mining support. It was on one of these mining support charters that this story is focused.

One cold windy winters morning I was tasked with flying an empty C210 up to a strip about 100nm NW of Kal to pick up a load of miners. I’d been into this strip only once before and I knew it was fairly “tight” (at around 750mtrs). [Extensive searching on Google Earth has failed to locate this strip. It’s possible it was an exploratory camp and the strip has since been abandoned and become overgrown.] The strip direction was about 09/27 and the surface wind was swinging around but predominantly south westerly at around 15-20kts. I landed and taxied back to the “terminal” at the eastern end. Like a lot of mining strips the terminal area on this one was a cleared area just off the runway with a carport-style shelter in the corner. Parked beside the terminal was a white Toyota Troopy and standing around it and the terminal were half dozen rough and ready miners drinking cans of Emu Lager (“bush chooks” as they were fondly known). They all had baggage with them (mostly duffel bags) and I did a quick weight calculation and loaded them in to the rear of the 210. I filled in a pax manifest form, gave a copy to the Troopy driver, and then got on with the loading of the miners. A couple of them were already half cut from the “bush chooks” and were adamant they wanted to drink in the plane. I didn’t object (it was only a 40 minute flight and I know how good beer can taste after a solid couple of weeks work).

I gave the mandatory safety briefing (which to the lads was probably about as welcome as an hour of Oprah) and then cranked the engine to life. Like the airframe, the big 310HP Continental engines were robust and reliable and hardly ever missed a beat. I had another good look at the windsock and wasn’t overly impressed with what I saw. The wind, which had been a quartering head wind, now indicated just about all crosswind but was still swinging around and gusting. I knew from my P-chart calculations back at base that I could pull this load out with zero wind. I did have a couple of other concerns though. As was the norm I’d used standard passenger weights of 77kg (totally legal if not impractical) but it would have been obvious even to a redneck from Deliverance County that these boys were anything but standard weight. Concern number three was the trees that surrounded the strip and especially the ones at the western end. Although they weren’t 100 year old giant Kauri’s the scruffy gum trees at the far end stood around 15-20 feet tall. Worse still the tree line started a few feet from the 09 threshold. To counter these issues I planned on a short field takeoff (obviously) and then upgraded that to an overly short field takeoff! I’d taxi to the 27 threshold using every last foot of available clearway, start bringing the power up in the turn and then exit the turn under full power. During the takeoff roll I’d hold a bit of rear elevator to keep the nose wheel light, get her airborne as soon as possible, accelerate to 72kts and blast off over those damn trees. An awesome plan right? So what happened? You’ll have to wait for the next instalment (only kidding!!).

Well I did exactly as explained above. I selected flaps ten, taxied to the far end using every last inch of clearway in the turn, brought the engine up to power in the turn under brakes and then pumped in the last few millimetres of throttle as I swung her nose onto the centreline. The Continental roared as we accelerated down the strip, dust billowing out behind us. I love the sound of those big sixes under full power – much sweeter than a V8. The initial acceleration was reassuring even with the gusty crosswind tugging at the airframe. I switched my attention between the ASI and the view ahead with one final check that the mixture, prop control and throttle were all at maximum travel. I was rapidly assessing acceleration rates, airspeed, distance travelled and distance remaining and all was looking good. The nosewheel was light on the runway as I eased back on the column. I expected to get airborne at around 65-70kts and was just about at that speed when…. the acceleration stopped. I remember it quite distinctly – it was like driving into a pool of shallow water on the road, a marked deceleration. I couldn’t see the windsock – and I didn’t need to – I knew exactly what had happened. The wind had swung briefly to a quartering tailwind and my perfectly planned takeoff had gone to hell.

There was no decision to be made – I swung into the abort drill. Heavy braking, yank the throttle closed, haul the mixture to idle-cutoff, slap the flap lever to full down. The remaining distance to the tree line didn’t look good. I virtually stood on the brakes. Then a flash of creativity – I hauled the door lever up on my side and heaved the door open with a straight arm. I yelled at the guy beside me to do the same. Surprisingly he did. The effect was immediate and very noticeable. The view from the western end of the strip would have been impressive – a fully loaded 210 barrelling down the dirt runway under full flap with both doors flung wide open like two massive airbrakes. She was shuddering under very heavy braking and the sweat was starting to break from the skin on my forehead. The trees actually started to look like 100 year old Kauri’s and I had a fleeting vision of the C210 crackling and burning as we smashed into one of them. Finally we crunched to a stop about 20 feet short of the treeline still barely on the strip. I switched the ignition off, flipped the master off and climbed out. Smoke was pouring from both brake assemblies after my Schwarzenegger-style abuse of them. By now the miners were climbing out (better make that stumbling out) wide eyed and shaky. I was trembling slightly myself – more from the adrenalin rush than anything. As the boys talked excitedly amongst themselves I did a quick inspection of the aircraft and apart from the still smoking brakes everything was A1. I knew the brakes would need a good thirty minutes to cool before anything else could be considered though.

The next step was to explain to the lads what had just transpired. I was just starting to run them through the details of the wind shift versus strip length versus nasty treeline when one of the miners (lets call him Bruce) asked me in a very agitated voice why the hell I was about to jump ship halfway down the strip! His take on the throwing open of the doors was that yours truly was going to dive out of the runaway train and leave them to their doom. I continued with my explanation of events with Bruce frequently chiming in (while chugging on his newly opened Emu Lager). Even after labouring the point about the aerodynamic benefit of the “airbrakes” Bruce was adamant that I was a maniac who was intent on deserting ship. He insisted that he would never fly with me again and hurried off to organise ground transport into Kal. His decision was extremely well received as it meant I didn’t need to make any further weight reductions (given the other conditions) in order to get off this damn strip.

About half an hour later we blasted off the strip like a Hornet off an aircraft carrier and headed back to base. Back in Kal I had the engineers give her a once over (especially the brakes) and all was found to be AOK. The only real bruising suffered in the incident was to my ego – and possibly to Bruce. I can only hope that he wasn’t too emotionally scarred by the experience. On reflection the best course of action that day would have been to off-load some weight initially and/or wait for an improvement with the wind. But hey, I’m only human and we all make mistakes now and then. Happy flying.

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