Centenary Bulletin 9 – Airchart Flying Services
October 14, 2018
AFS was a direct spinoff of the OMET Simpson Desert operation. A very large profit had been generated during our year in the Simpson, and the OMET tax bill was going to be severe. The company’s Accountants suggestion that we should purchase a general aviation aircraft, had been considered for some time, as an attractive tax incentive was available at the time for aircraft of this type.
We consequently purchased a Piper PA24-260 Comanche (VH-RTJ), which was delivered on 28th March 1967. The aircraft was handed over to “Pipeair” who were a flying, training and charter operator at Moorabbin Airport.
By the end of that financial year, we added a Piper PA23-250 Aztec (VH-RYR), which was the first fully IFR light aircraft to be registered in Australia. It was placed under control of the Royal Victorian Aero Club for training and charter. It was soon joined at RVAC by the Comanche. Both aircraft were heavily utilised, but very badly treated. When we got paid for the operations, we found we had spent more to maintain them up to the required regulations than we actually received from their Charter.
Les Smith, another aircraft owner, had a Piper Arrow, a twin Comanche and a Cherokee 6 in service with RVAC. On several occasions we discussed better alternatives for our aircraft, than allowing RVAC to gradually destroy them.
In the meantime, we had added another IFR Aztec C to the fleet (VH-RAR). As this was also being badly treated at RVAC, the incentive to do something was strong. After extensive discussions with the Department of Civil Aviation, we obtained our own Charter and Training License, and commenced operations, in conjunction with Les Smith, as Airchart Flying Services Pty Ltd, operating six late model Piper aircraft.
We employed Clem Atkins, formerly Chief Flying Instructor at RVAC, as our Chief Pilot/Manager, and this got underway on 1st July 1968. As soon as we opened the gate we were joined by Brian Hurley, who owned a PA24-400 Piper Comanche, which was a very quick aeroplane. He joined in anticipation of getting better utilisation, with ultimately less damage to his aeroplane.
Airchart operations progressed very favourably, and we were developing a very good following of experience pilots. Firstly, because we had Clem Atkins, and secondly, because ours was the best fleet in Australia at the time. Norman G Clark set pretty tough standards for anyone to fly our aircraft. They had to be qualified and experienced, as we had had enough of the typical aero club members the RVAC were happy to turn loose at anytime, in any aeroplane.
Les Smith, however, was much less concerned with restrictions on qualifications and more interested in utilisation. This was until his brand new Piper Arrow was hired and flown to WA. The pilot made the journey and landed on a friend’s farm. Soon after arrival, he decided to take off again on a relatively short strip, with a row of 60 foot pine trees at the end. The Piper Arrow was not exactly the quickest thing off the ground, and he only managed to get it to about 30 feet by the time it arrived at the pine trees. He proceeded to wipe the aircraft off and kill himself in the process. This was all terribly sad, and bad advertising as far as Airchart was concerned. There were a lot of meetings and criticisms of training qualifications, etc. From then on, we were short of one aeroplane, because Les decided to keep the insurance money in his pocket and did not replace the Arrow.
The second near disaster occurred again, with a Les Smith aeroplane, when his twin Comanche was hired by a pilot with very limited experience. He managed to fly into some very heavy cloud with the inevitable result that disorientation was followed by loss of control.
A twin Comanche is not easy to fly on instruments, and is a fairly lively bit of aircraft. Apparently, after some fairly spirited aerobatics in the cloud, it came out the bottom going straight down, with the ground rushing up to meet it. The pilot violently applied maximum back elevator, which miraculously took effect, and the aeroplane managed to level out at tree top level.
The only trick associated with that manoeuvre was that the wings were pulled away from the fuselage four inches on each side at the wing root, with some very severe stresses being applied to important parts of the structure. Even though the aeroplane was ultimately repaired, it was not the most attractive piece of flying machinery around Moorabbin airport, and its utilisation dropped to pretty well zero. It was subsequently removed from the line and sold.
Brian Hurley also had very tough standards for people who were allowed to fly his aircraft, which kept his utilisation down to unattractive levels. It reached the point where he decided there was no future in owning the aircraft, so he sold it and retired from the struggle.
Norman G Clark’s three aircraft were getting a lot of work from very experienced pilots. The two Aztecs were all weather aeroplanes, and were doing fairly well in Charter. The Comanche, in limited IFR, was also a very popular travel aeroplane with experienced pilots.
With the departure of Les Smith, Airchart was down to three aeroplanes, and this was not sufficient to cover operating costs. About all we seemed to be doing by this stage was wearing out the aircraft for no return. The only attraction was the tax saving incentives.
About this time, Peter Cooper offered his Beechcraft Baron B55 to operate. We were very happy to have this aeroplane, as it was in good shape, was IFR and equipped very nicely for general charter work. It was an old aeroplane, but Barons’ are fairly popular even though there is very little room in the cabin. Compared to an Aztec they are extremely noisy in flight. Beechcraft fans will always point out how much quicker the Baron is than a Piper Aztec, and they are dead right, as the Beech has about 10 knots at cruise on the Aztec. Their load lifting capacity, however, was not anything like as good as the Piper, and therefore, if the aircraft was full of passengers you had to take fuel out to bring it within legal weight requirements. We were regularly flying charters between Melbourne and Merimbula, and often used an Aztec and a Baron in tandem.
If they both left together the Baron would get into Merimbula about five minutes ahead of the Aztec, but to get back to Moorabbin, would have to refuel. The Aztec could turn straight around and go back with plenty in reserve. At the end of the exercise, the Aztec would be half an hour quicker than the Beech on the round trip.
Airchart had a DCA license for instrument flying training, and was also an initial flying training school. With two Aztecs and the Baron, we had plenty of instrument training capacity, but believed we could save quite a lot of money using cheaper aircraft. Consequently, we decided to purchase a Piper Cherokee PA21-180 (VH-AFS), which was in limited IFR category. We used it extensively for initial instrument training, and it also trained several students to private pilot category.
We next started a big drive to pick up State and Commonwealth Government contracts. The first attempt picked up the Premier’s Department in Victoria, who used the Aztec fairly regularly for travel to regional areas around Victoria.
The best turned out to be a National Mapping contract, which we held for about three years. The contract involved an aircraft to be made available for approximately 100 hours per month for six months of the year. A very elaborate aerial camera was to be mounted in the aeroplane, and this thing was to take pictures of the ground, through a very large hole, which was cut in the middle of the main cabin. The first hole was approximately 26 inches in diameter and the WILD camera weighed approximately 300 pounds. Consequently, there was quite a structural problem, but we eventually got it all screwed together and the thing behaved extremely well. It was used by National Mapping for two years with great success.
We had decided, that if we got the National Mapping contract, we would buy another Aztec – and this we did, the aircraft being an Aztec D. It was fitted with long range fuel tanks which was a National Mapping requirement, giving it 165 Imperial Gallons and 10 hours total endurance if required.
When we acquired it, VH-PRB was an extremely nice looking aeroplane, but after it returned from its six months with the National Mapping outfit, it was looking pretty tired and required careful attention to get it back up to the standard of a good charter aeroplane.
We carried the original WILD camera for two years with National Mapping. For the third year, they told us that we were likely to get the contract again, but would have to carry another camera which was better than the old one. It had a 120-degree lens angle coverage and was quite a bit heavier. We asked all the questions about mounting, and whether it would fit in our 26 inch hole, and the answer of course was “yes”, no problem at all. Eventually the thing turned up and we plugged it into the aeroplane. We took a few test shots, but only got some fantastic pictures of the inside of the fuselage, which unfortunately made the exercise completely unacceptable.
In discussion with the suppliers of the camera, we learned that to mount it in the aircraft we would need a 32 inch diameter hole which would mean that there wouldn’t be much of the floor of the fuselage left.
However, after lots more discussion, we decided it was possible – DCA basically approved the plans. We informed National Mapping that we could carry the new camera in the aeroplane, and they said “OK, you have got two weeks to do it”.
The next nasty shock was that the flying controls ran through the under floor section of the fuselage on the starboard side of the aircraft, and with a 32 inch diameter hole, we were going right through were these were located. The only alternative was to take them sideways and run them past the hole to one, and then bring them back into their position in relation to the centre line of the aeroplane. This was a pretty messy operation, and involved all sorts of pulley idlers etc., etc., to be mounted on the side of the aeroplane. However, after getting it all together, we then found that we didn’t have an Auto Pilot, which was needed for this particular operation. We then had to add a few more wires and things to the system so that everything could work properly without any problems.
Eventually, in about three weeks, it was all finished and looked quite attractive, although it was one heck of a big hole. We mounted the camera, went flying and took some photographs. Everything was perfect, the thing was in the air, and we didn’t see it again for 600 hours.
In retrospect, it is fairly obvious that there is no other light aircraft that could possibly have carried that particular camera, as nothing had a wide enough cabin. If we had appreciated this from the beginning, the whole exercise might have been a lot more lucrative, as we would have increased the flying hour cost to make it a little more attractive.
We still had the Premier’s Department contract, and were also doing regular charters for Peter McCallum Clinic, a bush fire patrol for the CFA – and for a while, a pipeline inspection for the Gas and Fuel Corporation. The ABC and CSIRO regularly used our Aztecs, but used their own pilots, which was something that never appealed very much to us – particularly when the ABC did something wrong at Wave Hill, in the middle of nowhere, and taxied into a 40 gallon drum, severely damaging a very expensive propeller. Sure we had a spare propeller, but of course it was in Melbourne, and not Wave Hill, and the cost and delay of getting it from one location to the other didn’t thrill anyone very much.
Naturally we had a fairly big argument with the ABC, and although they paid some part of the cost of repair, it was nothing like what it actually cost us in loss of use of the aeroplane. That was the last time they were permitted to hire an aeroplane from us, and they sought other sources of aircraft to hire.
Late in 1972, a rather strange event occurred. The Department of Aviation contacted us and suggested that there was an RPT (regular passenger transport) commuter service available from Melbourne to West Sale. The Department claimed they were hoping we might be interested in applying to operate the service, and perhaps, even add a Melbourne, Corowa and return service at a later date.
The statistical data they provided on passenger use, suggested that it was a service that could be fairly effectively operated by a five passenger aeroplane, so we decided to proceed to the paper work stage. We were slightly shocked by the speed with which our application was processed, as it all came to pass before we were really ready to do anything about it.
We got underway about two weeks after the official starting date. The Shire President and all the other big shots from Sale, were out there waving flags and assuring us that the locals would support our service – and how happy they were that a company such as ours had decided to look after their aviation requirements and run a passenger service to Melbourne on a daily basis.
We were approached by a Travel Agent in Sale who was very keen to handle our bookings, and at the other end of the system we got into bed with Ansett, who handled our arrival and departures from their Tullamarine terminal. Ansett basically did a fairly good job, and provided several passengers who had interest in flying on to Sale.
Initially we ran at pretty good seat loadings, and when the Corowa run came up in the latter part of 1972, we agreed to take it on as well. We programmed the timetable so that we were able to carry on to Corowa from Tullamarine, after the return from Sale, and then back to Tullamarine and Moorabbin, which effectively took up all morning for the aeroplane.
Around about 2.00 p.m. the aeroplane started on the reverse cycle, which usually finished about 7.00 p.m. at night. The problem was that anyone who was planning to use the commuter from Corowa to Melbourne, and back in a day, could effectively expect to have only an hour and half in Melbourne, which was not really enough for anyone who wanted to come to town to shop or do business. if they stayed longer they would miss the return flight.
The moment of truth really came when we got into winter, when the weather around Sale was traditionally lousy. Even our most courageous users had a careful look at the Piper Aztec when it appeared out of the general murk, and decided that maybe today wasn’t the day they really wanted to go to Melbourne.
We can remember a number of occasions when there would be eight or ten people theoretically booked on the Sale, Tullamarine leg, and because we believed in fairies, we always scheduled a second Aztec so that the customers would be happy with the service.
Having gone to that sort of extravagance, it was more than normal when two aeroplanes wheeled into Sale to collect all the enthusiastic passengers – only to find that maybe one or two might have shown up. The rest would have taken their cars because of the weather, or decided they really didn’t want to go to Melbourne anyway.
These situations were of course a disaster, as we simply took two Aztecs back to Melbourne with two paying passengers, and did our shirt on the morning part of the operation.
The next interpretation of the law was that if we get eight passengers who thought they wanted to go to Melbourne, then we will still show up with a five-passenger aeroplane. On such occasions you could believe that everyone showed up and the poor unfortunate pilot in charge spent a rough morning explaining why the second aeroplane had not arrived, and promising “of course that such a situation would never happen again”.
It normally took two days for the poison pen letters to appear from dissatisfied commuters, which were then followed up with demands to Department of Civil Aviation that our licence be revoked, as we were doing a lousy job looking after the travelling public from Sale.
Our final extravagance was to purchase a Piper (VH-WHE) Navajo, on which we traded VH-RYR, our original Aztec.
The Navajo was a beautiful aeroplane, which was much more attractive to charterers, as it was an air-stair entry aeroplane as against the over the wing entry of the smaller twin engine aircraft. The aircraft had done approximately 600 hours total time when we purchased it, and was being operated in Adelaide by Williams General Aviation, primarily on VIP charter.
VH-WHE had the best special three axis coupled Auto Pilot, which made it a delight to handle in any weather conditions. It was fitted with deluxe executive all leather interior trim, Gold Crown King avionics, De-icing and long-range fuel tanks which gave it about 9 hours total endurance.
The aircraft was painted navy blue and looked terrible. With a total of about 600 hours on the clock we made our deal and purchased it. At that stage it was set up with the regular eight seat commuter interior. Together with the high-quality avionics and navigation equipment, it really was a very attractive and comfortable touring aeroplane. We put up with the navy blue for about six weeks, and then arranged to paint it white. In the next couple of years, we put 2,000 hours on the clock, which was heavy utilisation.
Airchart never made money. As the aircraft aged, and became more expensive to maintain, it was obvious that Norman G Clark could not afford to be in the airline business. The decision to sell out was not taken lightly, but was inevitable.
On 29th November 1976 John sold the Navajo to a dealer at Moorabbin Airport for $90,000. Over that weekend the Federal Government devalued the Australian dollar by 17%, which effectively meant that we had given the aeroplane away. The purchaser was happy as he walked across the aerodrome on the following Monday and sold it again to another prospect for $125,000. Certainly, that was not the ideal way to begin winding up Airchart Flying Services.
The remaining aircraft were sold, and at this point, we wound down the company completely and presented Clem Atkins with the licences. We then eventually sold off the lease on our office building to Phoenix Airways, who wanted premises on Moorabbin airport.