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Part Seven – Air Tasmania – Characters – Along The Way

May 2, 2017 Headline News No Comments Email Email
At Air Tasmania – Neil Storen: 
Neil became Chief Pilot at Bassair/Air Tasmania in mid 1979; he had previously held that role at Bizjets, when they were operating between Essendon and Smithton.  He had a number of nicknames – “Offload” – because of his tendency to ensure he flew at the correct weight and not a bit more, so excess freight had to suffer.  He also wore the title Doctor Death – mainly because of his skinny face and he is deathlike gaze when he was angry.  You have to agree that Doctor Death was not a good name for a pilot.

He was also occasionally referred to as “Stock-whip” – an epithet he got because his wife Kitty liked thigh high leather boots and there was much supposition about exactly what she did and too whom when she was wearing them.
Neil was a good pilot – a great chief pilot and a genuinely nice bloke who taught me a lot along the way – especially about how to handle a problem and the fact that the first solution is not always the best solution – you need to asses effect of the actions that you put in place before proceeding, especially when rerouting airplanes.
We had some good times and the airline ran well under Neil’s leadership.
Danny Murphy:
Danny (Irish) Murphy joined at the same time as Neil – he came on board as Check and Training Captain with a responsibility of maintaining the high standards required of pilots of an RPT operation.  Danny was of Irish heritage, with red hair and could be a bit fiery at times but he was a good bloke and made a major contribution in running the airline.
Danny loved a glass or two after work and we spent more than a few hours at the aero club bar at Moorabbin at the end of a long day.  Danny was – with Neil and YT part of the management team that ran day to day operations of the airline.
Gary Love:
Gary (Tubby Lust) Love was a pilot and my best mate at Air Tasmania – he was there when I started at Bassair as a new “rookie” pilot and he was still there when it all ended, still ostensibly a junior but someone who was well respected and had a degree of input into the operations.
He was a “big lad” Gary – hence the nickname, and a lot of fun to be with.  I flew with him as often as the schedule would allow me to and as often as he was happy for me to sit in the right hand seat.  Along the way he (and Bob Thorpe another of the pilot crew) taught me to fly a Banderante – although no-body ever taught me how to land one.
Gary also loved a beer and a glass of wine – so we often overnighted together in Smithton or in Hobart so we could enjoy a night on the town.
Stuart Darbyshire:
Stuart (The Son) Darbyshire was – as the nickname implies – the eldest son of David and Mavis Darbyshire – and he had great hopes for the future of the airline.  Stuart ran the Tasmanian end of the operation but was a tad unrealistic in his expectations of what the business could deliver and where it was heading in the future.
In short Stuart wore rose coloured glasses and he rarely took them off.  He was also the worlds worst snorer – I had to share with him once and I refused to do so ever again after just one night – he was deafening in the sound he emitted and it (apparently) led to his early divorce from his long suffering wife/girlfriend Jan.
In short Stuart was a PITA as his assessment of events and the results of his intervention was rarely accurate and his influence with his Dad was a problem.
Bob Muir:
Bob Muir was the long suffering Chief Engineer for Air Tasmania and his challenge was to keep the airline flying whilst complying with all the rules and regulations, as well as handling a couple of “Prima Donna” pilots who could create trouble when the Chief Pilot was absent.
Bob was always under pressure to get the aircraft out of the hanger and into the air (airplanes basically cost the same whether they are flying or not – other than the cost of fuel – so the trick is to keep them in the air to reduce the standing costs as much as you can) quickly – a pressure that I have to say he resisted until he was happy that the aircraft was safe to fly.
Don Wells:
Don Wells was the owner of Air Tasmania until Dave D came along – I have always likened Don to a used car salesman and had to continuously resist the temptation to count my fingers on every occasion that I shook his hand.
Happily Don did not hang around for long after the acquisition but he walked away with funds which is more than you can say for the other investors in the end.  That was Don – a survivor!
King Island
I spent almost two days per week – for two years of my life on KI and got to know the residents and those involved with the airline very well – whilst KI produces characters by the score a few of them stood out.
Tommy Johnson:
Tommy was (what?) – I guess Station Manager KI for Bassair and he “just” assumed that role when the operation switched to Air Tasmania and Dave was too (scared) to take it off him as he was a favourite with the locals.  Tommy’s job was to load the plane, load the passengers, refuel (when needed – which was rare) the plane, liaise with Air Traffic Control, maintain the schedule (that was a real challenge) ex KI and man the office in Currie (the main township) – whilst getting business for the airline form the locals.
It was a challenge and Tommy (a bit like Stuart Darbyshire) had an unreal expectation of what the airline could deliver and how often.  When the time came to part company with Tommy it was a real challenge and one that we all – happily – left to Dave D.
Ken Dorafeef:
Ken (dollar thief) Dorafeef was the editor of the King Island News – the weekly newspaper of KI – and what a paper it was. Like no other paper that I have seen before or since the KI News had a certain editorial and layout style that was “special” and that is a Bruce McAveney type special!
A story about Air Tasmania – when he bothered to write one – could  start on Page One, then because of space be continued on Page Four, then revert to Page Three with the final paragraph being jammed into a corner back on Page One again.
The paper – that was rarely more than four quarto sized pages was a mish mass of stories, badly taken photos, sports results and highly overpriced (hence the nickname) classified and display ads that essentially filled in the gaps.
There was never any real newsworthy reports – despite the fact that both Air Tasmania and (our competitor) Kendall Air  often had things to say and report on – and the main feature used to be barely legal – local gossip, with a bent towards the absurd.
The Fisherman of KI:
King Island thrived on Crayfish and Abalone in those days as well as the products of the KI Dairy (I still love KI Cheese) and the export quality KI Beef.  But it was crayfish that made the island’s name and the cray fisherman who controlled the catch and the distribution of it.
Nothing was more important that getting fresh – live crayfish off the island every morning so that they made the Melbourne markets that day.  Even passengers gave way to the hessian sacks full of fresh live crays that were loaded onto the 0900 departure from KI to Moorabbin – or as the airline progressed – on the direct Melbourne service at the same time.
The constant debate between Dave and the Cray fisherman of KI was the price per bag that we charged for the service – for us it was never enough – and for them it was always too much and the twain very rarely if ever met.
The Abalone catch and the abalone fisherman were very similar and although the catch was smaller – the demands were even greater because of the price and the demands of the market – especially the Japanese to which we transhipped regularly.
So life with the Fisherman of KI and with the retailers who ran the stores on the island was very much a whole heap of give and take, it seemed to us that we did the giving and they did the taking – but if you sat in a meeting with them they would no doubt say the opposite. The fact that we all survived the battle for almost two years was – to my mind – remarkable in itself.
Sol Lee (The General Restaurant):
There was no pub on KI during this period – it had long burnt down – and only one restaurant (other than the KI Club – in Currie, and the Grassy Club – in Grassy) on the whole island.  It was The General Restaurant and it was run by a chinaman call Sol Lee – and boy could he cook.  He cooked up a storm one night when I took an ABC film crew to the island to film a show he produced local sand crab – cooked in black bean sauce – served with chilled white wine and huge bibs (to catch the drips).
It was a meal never forgotten and just one of the many memorable meals that I had at his restaurant – I used to eat one night at The General and one night at the Boomerang Motel where I stayed on KI.
Sol was very much a local – at home on KI and very keen to see the island develop a tourist trade – it would be fascinating to see what he thought of recent developments and how KI and Sol could benefit from them.
Peter (The King Island Motel):
Peter (surname forgotten in the mists of time) ran the Boomerang Motel – the only place to stay on the island in those days and he and I became firm friends so often did I stay there.  The Boomerang was a basic motel – with basic services and very little else to offer but Peter was great host – and not a bad chef – especially with Abalone which was (almost) always on the menu.
Nights at the KI motel were a bit dull and boring – the island was only serviced by the ABC as a TV service, so it was the General, the Boomerang or the KI Club if you wanted action or bed if you did not.  A few wines with Peter after a feed of Abalone and then a great KI Steak was the menu for most visits and many the night we stayed up late enough to give me a challenge for the flight the next morning.
The Wragg Family – Smithton
Our operations in Smithton for (almost) the whole of my time there were run by one Elaine Wragg, Elaine was part of the famous Wragg family of Smithton.
The Eldest Wragg – was “Tiger” (don’t ask me his real name I am not sure I ever knew it) who made his name by running the Smithton end of the Bizjets operation.  “Tiger” was a local fisherman – chasing cray, oysters and anything else he could pull from the sea – but he was head of the clan.
The next one was “Wog” Wragg – again I don’t recall his real name and only ever knew him as “Wog” – he was a client of Air Tasmania via the headquarters of the General Jones (part of IXL from memory) food group.  Their factory was located just outside of Smithton and we used to ship wrapping and packing material plus occasional spare parts to them by air – on our midday service to Smithton from Moorabbin.  “Wog” was a character – who loved a good feed and who I enjoyed lunch and/or dinner with more than once.
Finally there was Elaine (married to “Wog”) – who I hired to run the Smithton Operation, manage the office in town and control the airport activities, which was quite a challenge when we were ‘hubbing’ there.  Elaine proved a total success – she ran a great operation, looked after the locals, helped build the business and (for the most part) ran a tight ship at the airport – goat cages excepted.
The Wraggs were all characters and very much part of my Air Tasmania story and it was a very sad day when we shut down the service and Elaine had to close up the operation.
They were just some of “the characters in the room” from my days at Air Tasmania, there were many others who made a major contribution and both King Island and Smithton will both live long in memory as very important parts of my working life; as will the Darbyshire family.
Postscript: Chartering Planes
For the ten plus months after we closed down Air Tasmania I was first of all seconded – under contract with David Darbyshire who continued to employ me – to North West Airlines (the local one not the international one) at Essendon Airport as number two to Gordon Perkins who was Operations Manager.  This was a fun job BUT the travelling from Frankston to Essendon every day – at some very odd times was a killer and after six months I moved back to Moorabbin with Dave.
Here I was responsible for trying to lease and/or charter out his “leftover” aircraft from the Air Tasmania days.  This consisted of one Banderante EMB 110 P1 prop jet aircraft and three Piper Navajo Chieftains – which were surplus to requirements.  I must have been successful because four months later I was out of work having found long term roles for all four aircraft.
So in late 1982 I moved on (again) and answered an advertisement for a Business Development Manager role that was to change my life forever.  The ad was placed by employment agent Jan Hamilton and the company involved was Jetset Tours.
Next instalment: The Jetset Years – Part One
Written by: Peter Watson

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