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Part Six: Air Tasmania (and David Darbyshire)

May 1, 2017 Headline News No Comments Email Email
I answered an advertisement for Marketing Manager -Transport in January 1980 which led me to a meeting with a man called Allan Schwartz and another one called David Darbyshire; which led to a job offer and me starting work at Moorabin Airport with a small charter airline called Bassair that at that stage was operating between Melbourne and King Island.

I spent two years at Bassair and they were two of the best years of my working life as we built the small charter airline into a second level domestic air service and operated multiple services out of Tullamarine, Essendon and Moorabin to King Island, Smithton, Wynyard, Queenstown, Launceston and (of course) Hobart.
We started by acquiring Air Tasmania – in a merger deal that very quickly morphed into a takeover (which in the end cost us dearly, but know one knew that at the time) – and operated as Air Tasmania across all the routes.  Now Air Tasmania was an RPT (Regular Passenger Transport) operator so they operated under different rules to Bassair – which was a charter operator.  So first off we had to upgrade systems and services to make sure we complied.
On my side – which was the passenger carrying side of the operation – that was all about booking systems, supporting documents, agents who could sell our product; agents who could handle our passengers at remote (read Tasmanian) airports and marketing the airline.
For the operations and maintenance side of the business the upgrade was huge.  New pilots, new training systems, new manuals – both operational and maintenance – were all required and a whole new regime of operations had to be set up.  On the freight side – we needed customers and ground handlers alike and this was the task of John Swift who started the same day I did.  To say we all worked our buts off was an understatement but it was fun, in fact it was exhilarating and for the most part rewarding in the results – if not the returns – as the vision that we were building grew before our eyes.
We hired a new Chief Pilot Neil (“Off load”) Storen – sometimes also known by his ex Bizet colleagues as Doctor Death – and a new Check and Training Captain Danny Murphy.  They supplement the existing flight crew of Gordon Keyser, Bob Thorpe, Gary (“Tubby Lust”) Love, Ken Russell and John Collins and were added to by the guys that came over from Air Tasmania, including Nils Powell and Kevin McGrath.
We went from three services per day out of Melbourne (Moorabbin) to King Island – one of which extended to Smithton for a KI – SM – KI roundtrip, in the middle of the day,  to those three – plus two Melbourne (Tullamarine and later Essendon) KI per day – one Melbourne Smithton (direct) per day; plus extensions of all the regular Air Tasmania services to link with the ex Melbourne services as we “hubbed” in Smithton every morning.  So we could offer a one stop Hobart/Melbourne – Melbourne/Hobart service every weekday – via Smithton and we got traffic on it.
We hired stewardesses, one from Smithton, one from King Island and two from Melbourne plus ground staff for both Moorabbin and Melbourne Airports, including my old colleague from my P&O days – Michael Kevin Patrick O’Leary Quinn; who alternated between Station Manager at Melbourne Airport and Freight Operations Manager at Essendon depending on what shift he was working at the time.
They were heady days, and we made a difference to air operations in Northern Tasmania; we must have – because the “big two” Ansett and TAA reacted by dropping fares and competing with us.  That was a fight we were never going to win and as a result of that and the pressure on Dave Darbyshire – and other shareholders – of the buy out of Air Tasmania we simply ran out of money and had to shut up shop in late 1981.
KI – The End:
I well remember the town meeting in Currie when Dave announced we were pulling out and the business was closing, it came at the end of a debate over allowing a third operator into the market (flying an old style DC3 I might add) and the pressure that would put on fares and freight charges.  The locals were all for it and it was that – in the end – that persuaded Dave and us in the management team that the time was up.  The locals were shocked and offered all sorts of (way out) solutions but it was all way too little – way too late.
Tall Tales (but) True from Air Tasmania
The Goat and the Cage:
As I mentioned in my narrative we hubbed every weekday morning at Smithton – where we had three Banderante’s (EMB P110’s) and one Piper Chieftain all on the ground at one time, mainly so that we could move aircraft around and manage the maintenance schedule, but (as I have said) it also gave us a through service between Melbourne and Hobart.
With four aircraft all on the ground a Smithton Airport (it’s not very big you know) it was chaos and often things went wrong….and on this one day they did in a spectacular and a most amusing fashion.
We often carried animals (critters) between King Island and Tasmania, and also between King Island and the mainland and we had critter cages that enabled us to  do this safely.  This day we were to carry a prize Angora Goat from Smithton to KI – BUT we forgot to transfer the cage between planes – when we switched aircraft round – and by the time we realised our mistake the cage was halfway back to Hobart.
No worries says pilot John Collins – we will just tie the goat down with tie downs and away we go.  So after much manoeuvring of a very large and smelly goat – we got him (yes it was a male) into the aircraft and tied him down with elastic tie downs.  So far so good and we took off for KI about 30 minutes away.  Ten minutes into the flight there is a massive thumping sound from the back cabin and JC sends me (I was riding the right hand seat at the time) back to have a look.
I returned to report that the goat had got it’s head loose and was bashing it’s horn on the inside of the planes fuselage.  No good says JC – you will have to go back and hold it’s head still – it could cause some damage.  “What” says I “hold its head still – you are kidding me?”  But no he was not so back I want – grabbed a hold of the goat horns (he loved that as you can imagine) and tried to hold his head still or at least stop him bashing the fuselage in.
After 15 minutes of this as we approached KI to land – JC decided to be a smart arse – he first put the aircraft in a short- sharp climb, then very quickly pushed the nose down, as you would to start your descent.  The effect of the brief upwards movement followed by the descent was to make me (momentarily) weightless – which meant I floated up towards the ceiling with my feet in the air and my hands on the goat horns a very very weird feeling indeed.
I of course came almost straight back down again – with a thump – and we landed safely – even if my end of it was a bit rough.  After JC had off-loaded our passengers and opened up the freight door to get the goat – I was greeted with a pilot laughing so hard he had tears in his eyes and a ground crew trying to work out exactly what was going on.  To say that I was a bit smelly after that event was an understatement – BUT the goat was safely delivered in the end.
King Island Arrivals:
Our crew were pretty experienced at flying to King Island and they were also pretty experienced at flying in KI weather – but the first time I ever experienced a KI countdown arrival I admit to getting a bit of a shock.
Lets set the scene – the KI Butter Factory had a sort of tower/silo thing at the ocean end sitting right on the coast and on the standard KI arrival (subject to winds) you flew past the butter factory and the tower on the base (90 degrees to the runway) leg of your approach.
Flying this particular day (I was in the right hand seat again) with one of our most experienced pilots (Bobby Thorpe) the weather was terrible – rain/mist and low cloud was obscuring our vision of the coast and making it very hard to pick out land marks.  No worries says Bob – we will do a butter factory – countdown arrival; “a what” says I, that’s a manoeuvre I have never seen in any of our manuals.  Just watch was the response.
First he dropped the plane even lower than normal along the edge of the coast – and there in the mist we could pick out the butter factory tower – as we came absolutely level with said tower – Bob started counting 1/1000 – 2/1000 – 3/1000 and so on; after he reached 10/1000 he turned hard left – dropped the aircraft lower and there underneath us was the active runway.  We landed safely and on time, off loading both passengers and cargo – this on a day when the Ansett Fokker (Ansett were still servicing KI then) could not get in because the cloud was ‘technically’ below approach minimum.
It may well have been below approach minima for Ansett but with our patented KI Butter Factory – Countdown Arrival we at Air Tasmania were still in full operation.
Duck River DME:
Similarly there were occasions that the weather in Smithton was pretty crappy as well and a couple of our guys (Bob Thorpe was again one) implemented what they called the Duck River – DME arrival in order to get the plane on the ground safely and deliver our passengers and freight as they expected to be delivered.
In this case when the weather was ‘crappy’ at Smithton – and it was often, in winter, our guys would turn on the weather radar and (basically) refocus it so that they could identify the mouth of the ‘Duck River’ on which the town of Smithton sat.  Once this was located they flew the straight line up the middle of the radar screen – gradually losing height until they spotted the ‘river end’ of the main street, now I do stress that only years and years of experience allowed them to do this safely.
Once main street was spotted the countdown 1/1000 – 2/1000 – 3/1000 began and once again went all the way up to 10/1000 – before a quick right hand turn and there was the runway – directly ahead.
Once again – not in any operations manual but it worked well and the flights always landed safely.
Easter Air Strike:
By far the biggest event ever during my time Air Tasmania was the Easter Air strike in 1981 – now I have zero recollection of the reason for the strike – but it affected both major airlines – and nobody was flying, which meant of course that Tasmania was isolated….which meant ‘Air Tasmania’ to the rescue.
From memory – it all started on the Thursday and by Friday morning we – at Air Tasmania in Moorabin – we basically running round the clock operations linking – Hobart and Launceston with Melbourne, as well as maintaining our regular services.  We chose to operate all of our extra services out of Moorabin – because that was our base, we could access extra aircraft (cross charters) from there and we did not have to move a whole lot of staff to either Melbourne or Essendon, Melbourne would have been a tad lonely anyway.
So we hauled in every aircraft we had available – put two of our three ‘bigger’ (Banderante) aircraft on the Hobart and Launceston runs – working one from each end. We left the third on the King Island and Smithton route, but with a slightly different schedule – linking with two Tassie based Chieftains for through passengers to Northern Tasmania (Burnie and Wynyard) and Queenstown.  We left the third on Tassie local duties and used mid sized charter aircraft to back-up Launceston.
We ran services all day Friday, Saturday, Sunday and Monday – when news got out, and we made sure it did, that we were operating and people could still fly to Tasmania we had passengers arriving from all over the world.  We pulled ticket coupons on international airline tickets – in the hope that those coupons would be honoured by the airlines concerned – and in the most part they were – and in the couple of occasions were they were not – I remember one was Pan American – we went back to the passengers (we had got full name and address details -just in case) and they all paid up.
With Ansett and TAA we knew that they would never pay us for their passengers – so we needed to charge those passengers again – BUT – very early on we made a decision not to price gouge (although it was tempting) and we simply charged the standard one way fare offered by both domestic carriers to every new passenger.  No-one winged or complained, everyone understood that we were trying to fill a gap and were doing it in the best way we could.
It was just as well that the strike ended late on the Monday and things went back to normal on the Tuesday – because we had basically run out of pilots with flying hours available, we had run out of steam in the passenger area as we had been working 16+ hour days (starting at 0600 and finishing around 2200) and we had aircraft that had maxed out their flying hours (because of the extra services) and needed maintenance.  By the end we were exhausted but exhilarated because we had managed to provide an extraordinary service in what was a time of crisis for the little island that we serviced.
It took us 2/3 days to get our own services back to normal but with the help of cross chartered aircraft – and some extra pilots helping out we managed to keep almost all of our schedule for the rest of the week – and finally caught up the next weekend.
We had an extra large crayfish BBQ (it was a regular Friday thing) the following Friday to celebrate the events of the Easter weekend and the performance of our little airline – it was the highlight of my time at Air Tasmania – which (as I have said) was one of THE highlights of my working life.
KI Football League
King Island had a football competition all of it’s own and boy what a weird competition it was.  There were just three clubs in it – Currie (The main town), Grassy (the second town and home of the King Island Scheelite Mine) and Norths (the rest). They played one match per week – at Currie Oval – so Norths would play Currie, then Currie would play Grassy then Norths would play Grassy and they would do this six times per year – so eighteen rounds of football with each side playing twelve games.
At the end of the ‘home and away’ season Third would play seconding the ‘preliminary final – the winner would then play the side that finished on top in the grand final.  Support was keen – matches would get good (well for KI which had a population of around 2500 in those days) crowds of 600/700 and much fun was had by all.  “Dollar Thief” would faithfully report the match – spread over all four pages no doubt – in the KI News the next Wednesday occasionally with photos (usually blurred).
History has it that one year Norths failed to win a single match during the home and away season and so finished third – but they (legally apparently at that stage) imported a few players for the finals and won both the preliminary and the grand final and so took out the premiership.  Must be the only time any team – anywhere in the world – has won a premiership without winning a single match before the final series. I understand that the rules were later changed to make it impossible to repeat that effort.
KI Football had a special place on what was an Island that played a big part in my working life.
Next Instalment: Characters in the Room; a few of the weird and the wonderful people that I met on my King Island Journey and with Air Tasmania.
Written by: Peter Watson

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