avdev airlines 1983

My favourite place - lord howe island

Avdev Commuter Airlines had routes around a lot of New South Wales (NSW) Toowoomba in Queensland (QLD) and to Lord Howe Island 427 nautical miles northeast of Sydney.

They had three Kingairs, VH-AAZ, VH- KZL and VH-KTE, two 4- engine Herons VH-CLV and VH-KAM plus two Bandeirantes. VH-WDI, VH-WDF.  Avdev Airlines also did night freight newspaper runs to Brisbane and Melbourne in the Kingairs.  

I had been working at Navair at Bankstown Airport conducting ab-initio flying training, multi engine instrument rating training (IFR)  and doing the odd charter in Twin Comanches, Navajo’s, Barons and the odd flight in their Kingair VH-MYO

Avdev Airlines was having trouble manning their day and night time operations due to the scarcity of Kingair pilots, so Richard Katsch and myself (both at Navair at Bankstown) were happily roped in to do the night freight newspaper runs to Brisbane and Melbourne.  We flew in all weather and conditions, fought the ground crews over the true weights of the newspapers, supervised the loading and paper work in order to make the flights legal.  It was great experience.  Freight does not talk.  No one knew whether you did a good flight or a bad flight – but you sure got your experience very quickly in the gas turbine pressurised Beech 200 Kingairs. We, Richard and I did this for many months.  Sometimes we were in tandem going to Melbourne and sometimes returning back at the same time early in the morning at Sydney from opposite directions i.e., one from Melbourne and one from Brisbane.  The topic of conversations was always, what went wrong with the aircraft during the night flight.  Pressurisation, engines, door seal leaking, instrument failures (if any) gear, flaps. Whatever went wrong we had to work it out, fix it up, talk to engineers as to what happened and these varied and frequent failures caused us as pilots to know our aircraft, fix the challenge and land safely. I think I have had every failure it is possible to have in a Kingair from minor incidents such as gear not going down whilst conducting an ILS into Brisbane, an engine over torque, depressurisation, engine failure and ultimately a gear collapse, but that was much later in my time at Avdev Airlines.

I learned to read radar screens which was always a bit ‘howse your father’ for me.  One night I came back from Brisbane and kept asking for higher altitudes to get out of the weather that appeared to be showing on my radar screen.  When daylight dawned with me at 35,000 feet, I realised that there was no weather and that the green showing on the radar was something else.  One of the technicians told me that sometimes the metal in the nose of the aircraft would show on the screen.  Never really understood why but I learned to read the radar over time with more accuracy!! And ignore the fake weather at the bottom of the radar rings.

The fact that the Kingairs were going flat chat all night on freight and all day on the commuter passenger runs meant that only essential maintenance occurred.   We were left to cope with minor failures.

Meanwhile Ray had been asked to check and train at Avdev as they had yet to train one of their pilots up.  He did this for some time. 

Then I was asked whether I would like to join the airline full time.  Kingair pilots were few and far between at that time so it was really a case of anyone would do, man or woman, Johnny on the spot.

I was now interviewed by the Chief Pilot.  It was the only time in my life that I have ever been asked to show my licence and qualifications.  He noted that I did not have DME Homing on my licence.  I said to him, “well Bob, I have trained probably about 15 pilots for a DME homing procedure and they have all passed their tests with CASA Examiners and it is on their licences.”  So, he sent me down to the simulator to get it put on my licence!!

This meant that I was now no longer on night freight and was more or less full time on the Lord Howe Island run.  This I loved.  The challenge of Lord Howe Island operations, probably one of the most difficult airstrips in the world to land on safely in certain wind conditions.

When the winds were on the islanders would come out in their droves to watch the aircraft coming and going. 

I had been going to Lord Howe Island on the odd occasion before joining the airline and was always super cautious.  However, flying the airline, you just went.  On one of my very early trips a man came and sat in the co-pilots seat.  We chatted away and I discovered that he had lived most of his life on Lord Howe Island, he was the Harbour Master and was well versed with the wind and the waters around the island.  He could see that we were going to have to land on runway 10 in very rough conditions so he rather tentatively and politely asked if he could make a comment on the current conditions around the runways, and how to tackle this approach in these conditions.  I said “go for it I need all the help I can get.”  He said OK “I suggest you do not conduct a straight in approach but curve around over the bay and fly inside of Rabbit Island. This will mean that you have to straighten up at the last minute on final.  He said it will be difficult and will require a great deal of rudder work in the last 200 feet. What did I think?”  I said “mate will try anything, makes sense to me.”  So, I did just as he had suggested, avoided the turbulence curving around the bay  turned inside Rabbit Island, straightening up at around 150 feet from the threshold in order to land in the huge cross wind from the left.  We became long-time friends after that.  He had lived his life on Lord Howe, been a seaman and held qualifications relating to ships and boats.  He could read the water and the wind and he was very knowledgeable.  I used to call him the Lord Mayor of the island which he was not, but he may as well have been. I would always ring him before going to Lord Howe and he would give an update of the conditions.  He never ever said that you should do this or that – he would just present the information and say what do you think? I would answer “looks like an inside rabbit island job today day or a straight in approach on another day.” I always made the phone call before leaving Sydney.

The reasons for the difficult landings were due entirely to the geography of the place. The airstrip was on a thin bit of flat land jammed between hills on the left of the picture 1200 feet high (365 metres) and a mountain called Mt Gower on the right, 2871 feet high (875 metres). The runway was east west.  This meant that when the winds were from northwest, north and north east there was tremendous turbulence on the runway rolling off the hills.  Sometimes the windsocks at either end would be pointing at each other, which then required a debate: Do you approach into wind and end up with a downwind component on the ground or do you approach with the downwind and end up into wind on the ground? If the winds were from the south west, you would have enormous turbulence due to the wind coming across Mt. Gower. The knowledgeable Lord Howe Islanders noted that Ray and I were the only pilots that took the headwind on the ground when landing.

Coping with the landings were a real work of art.  Did you line up on a long straight-in final approach for either runway and get thrashed on the way down?  Or, did you curve around on to final avoiding much turbulence, but which required a lot of rudder work in the last turn below 300 feet to straighten up and align with the runway and conduct a x-wind landing. Another huge debate. Again, Ray and I always curved in.

Meanwhile the Civil Aviation Authority in their wisdom had created a non-Directional beacon approach that meant you got thrashed if you even thought about conducting it because the start of the approach was right over the top of the island itself in between the hills.  That lead to another great debate.  Did you conduct the official approach or get visual out over the ocean 20 miles from the island and crawl in over the sea at 500 feet if required?  

When the Global Position system came in the Authority decided that they would only make straight in approaches all over Australia. No GPS approach in Australia is offset unlike in other parts of the world. ‘Policy, you know Aminta.’ That meant you had long straight in approaches to get thrashed in the turbulence. Personally, I never ever conducted the official approaches and always got visual 20 miles out 500 foot above the ocean and came in curving onto final approach.  I can remember one day the weather was bad, the cloud was low and I was down on the water coming in onto runway 10. Our agent called up and said “Aminta I know what you are doing, but a number of yachts arrived yesterday and they have very tall masts, so be careful.” I was careful.

Another time the winds were so bad that on take-off after applying full power I was pinned to the runway for about 2 seconds before the aircraft started moving to build up to take-off speed.

There also was a south-westerly wind from one direction only that was perfect for landing into the west. That was a wind from 220. The reason it was perfect was that the wind came whistling through the gap of flat land between Mt Gower and over the airport terminal. No turbulence and when you were on the base leg you were absolutely into wind. You then curved onto final straightening up around 200 feet over the sand bar, for a pretty straight forward cross wind landing from the left.

We carried passengers from every walk of life. Obviously, the Lord Howe Islanders, many politicians, sports people, Princess Di’s mother you name it, military personnel, navy personnel, pilots. Over a period of time, you flew all kinds of people. The Islanders were always interested in who the pilot was when the winds were raging because they knew who gave them a good, bad or indifferent ride.


I never wore a tie and I never wore the captain’s stripes.  It took a long time for the chief pilot to notice. The chief pilot finally said I had to wear a tie, I replied ‘women don’t wear ties Bob.’  Then he said ‘I had to wear the epaulettes.’  I got away with the tie but not the epaulettes.  Then one day a young kid came up to the cockpit and said ‘my dad says to give you these epaulettes, they are much nicer than yours, they are purple and they are the engineers epaulettes.’ His father had been a flight engineer with Qantas. They looked good and so I thanked the young kid and later on his father. I put them on then and there.  I wore them from then on and believe it or not no-one in the company ever noticed that they were a different colour.

Meanwhile Ray was finding juggling the Navair Kingair and flying for Avdev tricky and they had now trained up a check and training guy.  They did ask him to stay but he said no ‘you are not doing your maintenance properly’.  They were doing stupid things like towing the aircraft on to the ramp making sure the canvass in the tyre was no showing.  Ray would ask the engineers to move the Kingair forward then told them to change the tyre.  These were daily battles. Finally, Ray left. He told me why but I opted to stay as I wanted the gas turbine time.  I certainly got that.

The last week of November 1983 saw the northerly winds raging over the hills and causing great turbulence on to the runways.  It required skill and quick decision making to make a safe landing. On yer toes!!!!

The day before my flight one of the pilots was conducting an approach and was landing on runway 28 into the west.  On final approach and over the runway he was apparently thrown up into the air, he came back down to the correct height to land but started to run out of runway. He put on full power to go around and try again but the power did not spool up.  The reason being, the bottom of the power indication on the instrument is 400-foot lbs.  If you drop below that 400 ft lbs for any length of time the power is very slow to spool up.  He had fallen below the numbers when he went to go around, the engines did not spool up in time, so in order not to run off the end of the runway into the bay he went into full reverse from about 150 feet and did a very very heavy landing. He then completed his run, returned to Sydney but never told the engineers of the heavy landing.

The next day I was in the aircraft, fortunately being checked by the check and training pilot.  On final approach for a landing on runway 10 I put the gear down. We had three (3) greens, confirmed by the chekky.  Upon touching down in the enormous crosswind, I had to put the left wheel down first.  As the aircraft slowed down and the right wheel touched down on the runway it collapsed and the aircraft slewed to the right.  I managed to keep the aircraft relatively straight and ended up half on the runway and half on the grass. In fact, looking at the picture it was pretty straight – we could have ground looped which would not have been a good outcome.

As I shut the engines down the Chief Pilot leapt down the back of the aircraft to open the back door and get the passengers out. He was worried that the aircraft might go on fire.  I was shaking so much that that had not even crossed my mind. There was a man on the rear seat with a cast on his broken leg. He was shouting “don’t throw me out, don’t through me out.” The Check and Training guy said “you will have more than a broken leg if we go on fire.” Meanwhile our agent had coming running down the runway and helped evacuate the passengers.  We did not go on fire. Everyone was safe, but I was shaking.

There were to be several flights arriving but if they arrived, they could not land so I called the boss at Sydney to tell him what had happened so that he could recall any flight that was airborne. The airport was officially closed.

Permission was granted to move the airplane off the runway by the Civil Aviation Authority. Out came the cranes and much equipment.  During the course of the next two or three hours which was what it took to move the aircraft off the runway I got hold of some tough tape and taped anything I found to the runway so the bits and pieces did not get blown away in the winds. There was going to be an investigation and I was not inclined to get the blame. I went from end to end of the runway.  The Check and Training guy told me that as the right leg touched down the right green light went out.

This whole episode put me into a state of shock.  The Lord Howe Islanders were great and looked after me.  The next day I went back to Sydney on the passenger flight and the pilot Neil Millet had brought me out my special tea that he knew I liked in a thermos flask.  But really, I was in no shape to fly, but I did not realise it.

The interesting thing is that no-one, not one person ever asked, “are you OK” nobody in the company, nobody at the airport, nobody from civil aviation not the chief pilot, not the check and training guy, no friends. No one.  I was not alright. I was hurting and no-one knew. Amasing what a face can cover up. At one stage in the next few days, I found myself talking to 3 people in the old Navair building on Bankstown Airport, but I was out of my body up on the ceiling looking down at this conversation.  I thought “wow” I need help – but the question was where? Mental health 1983 style, no one knew anything about it. I knew one to one was not a good idea for me so the question was who, what, where, when and how?

I was still being rostered on to fly and yes, I went. No idea why? I knew the checklist by heart, was functioning and was making decisions, but really in retrospect I should never have been flying.

It was now December. Sydney closes down mostly around this time.  I can remember walking the streets in the city and ending up in my favourite book shop the Adyar.  Was there a book that would help?  On the way up to the first-floor bookshop were all kinds of notices on the walls.  I did go to the counter with a book and the guy behind the till said.  “Wow you look as though you need help”. I said “I did.”  I asked him did he know anything about the courses and information on the walls of the staircase.  His words were that “Adyar allowed people to put their information on the walls of the staircase but they had no connection with any of them.”  As an afterthought he said – “maybe you should go next door and talk to an organisation called Self Transformations, I think they would be able to help you”.  Interesting is it not that the only person in Sydney that could see I needed help was the young man behind the Adyar bookshop counter manning the till!

I went next door and discovered they had information evenings so I went to one that night.  I had no idea what they were talking about, I did not understand one word of what they said.  The thing that I did notice was that there was a great calmness about the two people talking, they were smiling and their eyes were bright and full of fun, despite the seriousness of the information they were imparting.   Funnily enough a friend in trouble was at the bookshop the same day and so we both went to the information evening. At the end of the information session her words were “this is dangerous stuff I am not going,” I said “I am going. They look and feel as though they know what they were talking about.”

I always believed the name “Self-Transformations” was not a good name for a self-development course.  It allowed certain types of people who could benefit to think it was all a bit ‘cooky’. 

In very early 1984 I did an intensive long weekend course, then an eight-week course that took place once a week, then the next two years two more 8-week courses. After the intensive long weekend course, I woke up on the Monday morning and felt very different. I felt my stomach.  It was different, as though a great release had taken place.  I realised that I had had a knot of tension in my stomach the size of my fist, that I had been carrying around certainly for all my adult life. Deep long-term fear and tension. Do not let anyone tell you your muscles have no memory. Your muscles do have memory – you better believe it. I understand that the receptors in the muscles are much the same the receptors in the brain.  The connection would have to be explained by someone with a medical background.   I just know that muscles have memory and I got rid of many of those worst memories buried in my subconscious and brought to my conscious mind. – What a relief – what unbelievable relaxation.  Just by connecting the subconscious to the conscious mind. 

The most important thing I ever learned was that you cannot change anybody, the only person you can change is yourself.  When you change yourself, other people have to respond and or react to you differently.  I learned in the courses over the next three years, every game that people played without them realising they were playing any games. How to counter them, plus a host of other things – it was an exciting developmental period of my life, all because of an aircraft accident. How good was that accident?  And how good was all this information when running a bunch of students and instructors.  I also learned to ask questions, never blame anyone. Instead, when someone is blaming you ask them to turn that into an “I” statement. Plus, a host of other things. I dumped a whole heap of poor childhood programming and became a much more balanced person. Life skills that a lot of people learn whilst growing up within a balanced family I learned in my 40’s. Instead of reacting and fighting for no reason, now I have a choice. To fight or not to fight.  Mostly not these days. I did not even know I had a choice about anything even though I had been making choices all my life.

At that particular time, I was running the Australian Flight Instructors Association.  Each year I organised a two-day educational seminar. To one of these I invited Walter and Shana from Self Transformations to deliver a one-day seminar.  It was interesting to see and hear the reactions of all the white Caucasian males to this day’s information.  Some were critical, some related, some were bored, some engaged. I had a great laugh I was enjoying watching their experience.

As time went by and the results of the investigation were published, of course, it was the fault of the pilot. The investigation did not ask what the check and training pilot saw, as far as I can make out the maintenance was not looked into, and no investigation took place into the wind the weather and the landings prior to mine.   Some time later I discovered that the company had signed out the undercarriage overhaul, without actually conducting it. The reason nothing happened was simple. Someone in Avdev maintenance had a father in the Civil Aviation Authority. So, what can one say? The pilots fault. The blame game. Good investigation technique.

What had actually occurred was that an horizontal pin in the leg of the aircraft had corroded and had not been replaced during the course of the non-existent undercarriage overhaul – the pin was never found – it was in the bay. Good pre-flight – make sure you look at the pins in the legs for corrosion. 

When the undercarriages were properly overhauled corrosion was found in the legs and pins of all the Kingairs. You would think that operating in a salty environment this would be normal to check.

Despite that accident I continued to fly with Avdev in the Kingairs, four engine Herons and Bandeirantes

In the end I left in a storm and a chosen fight for two reasons.  The Herons were two pilot operations and some, not many of the crews smoked, which meant I always had a cold.  I asked my co-pilot very nicely on this occasion if he would not smoke whilst I was on board, please. He said “what will you do if I smoke?”  I said “I will hop out at Lord Howe Island and you can fly home on your own.”  He said “you wouldn’t do that would you, you know I cannot take it home alone.”  I just said “smoke and watch me.”  He did not smoke and he asked never to be rostered with me again. Good news!

But the final end came a week or two later. I was asked to conduct an illegal flight in the Heron. The Heron had a secondary system of braking which consisted of airbags.  They had to be in tip top condition with no holes and impediments to the braking system.  When conducting the pre-flight check, I found the secondary braking system to be unserviceable so I went to check out the other Heron.  The Chief pilot asked me to go in the original Heron as the whole schedule for the day would be late and the weather at Lord Howe that day was benign. I would not need the secondary braking.  I just said “No, not going to do it and you never know when you may need the secondary braking at Lord Howe.” The round trip in a Heron to Lord Howe was around 6 hours which gave me plenty of time to think about my next move.   When I returned from that flight, I went roaring into the Chief Pilot and told him in no uncertain terms that “you are trying to damn well kill me so I am off never to return.”  He said “no no Aminta take 2 weeks holiday and think about it.” I replied “thinking about Avdev only hurts my brain, a leg has fallen off a Kingair, you are trying to get me to fly with no secondary braking in the Herons. I have had an engine failure in a Kingair, over torque in another Kingair and some of the bloody crews want to kill me with smoke, what else has to happen to me? Good-bye.”   Two weeks later Avdev went broke. 

Back to Bankstown Airport and instructing.  This really led to the start of Clamback and Hennessy Pty.Ltd.