214. PITTENDRIGH and HAMRE.

"They had never seen the sandhill country before and had a bad attack of aerial whirligigs and were promptly lost".
Blakeley, F. Dream Millions. 176.

 

In late November 1930 the Central Australian Gold Exploration Company made arrangements to continue the search for Harold Lasseter and his reef. Phillip Taylor, accompanied by Paul Johns with eight camels carrying additional supplies and petrol, was instructed by the Company to proceed to Illbilla, refurbish the camp and airstrip and expect the Golden Quest II sometime between the 15th to 20th of December. The plane would be flown by Leslie Pittendrigh with S. J. Hamre, the Company's mining engineer, as his passenger. It was a difficult journey for the men with frequent lengthy delays caused by very wet weather and fractious camels. Taylor arrived on the 15th and found the camp fairly intact although Lasseter had removed a sizeable quantity of supplies. The following day Taylor had cause to reflect on the folly of the open ended arrangements regarding Pittendrigh's expected date of arrival, "not knowing where the plane is, or when it will arrive; most unsatisfactory and dangerous".

Taylor spent the next six days tidying up the camp and airstrip, attending and photographing Aboriginal ceremonies and pottering about, wondering how he and Johns might enjoy Christmas with frequent thoughts on cool English winters as the Australian sun blazed directly overhead. On the 20th, Aboriginals camped in the vicinity of Mount Russell, reported to Taylor that they had seen a plane to the north and flying east earlier in the day, that afternoon Rolfe Entata arrived in camp and told Taylor that he had seen a plane to the south of Illbilla flying in the direction of Alice Springs. Taylor concluded this was Pittendrigh and Hamre and having failed to locate Illbilla had returned to Alice Springs for the night, all things being well he could expect them to return to Illbilla the following day. The Golden Quest II did not arrive the next day and on the 22nd, "Still no sign of the plane, am afraid he ran out of petrol when looking for this 'drome, & had a forced landing between here and A. S.".

Phillip Taylor was only too right, but, not knowing what arrangements Pittendrigh had made, there was very little he could do from Illbilla for the time being. Pittendrigh and Hamre had left Alice Springs at 8.45 a.m. on the 20th and after three and a half hours flying, arrived in the vicinity of Illbilla but apparently had mistaken Mount Russell, located about seven miles to the north of Illbilla, for the Ehrenbergs, and failing to locate the airstrip or sight any smoke signals after a wide circuit of the ranges, decided to return to Alice Springs. The plane ran out of fuel about ten miles north  west of Haast Bluff and Pittendrigh made a safe landing in a small clearing surrounded by mulga, "Pittendrigh climbed from the cockpit, remarking, 'that's that' as he scratched his ear". And much of what happens to these misguided adventurers over the following three weeks is from the pen of Idriess in Lasseter's Last Ride. No doubt Idriess interviewed Pittendrigh and Hamre on their return to Sydney and devotes over forty pages of his bestseller to their misfortunes.

After tying the plane down in a narrow laneway between the mulga the grounded travellers boiled the billy and had a meal while planning their next move, "they decided to attempt the walk back to Alice Springs" with five tins of meat, a bottle of malted milk tablets, eight biscuits and four gallons of water and carrying the planes compass in the billy can. The revolver was left in the plane, they had not been able to find any ammunition to fit it in Alice Springs. The following day the tinned meats were discarded thinking their saltiness would increase thirst. Two days after the forced landing the water bags were empty and Hamre prepared for the inevitable when a local thunderstorm arrived, wringing water from their clothes and and refilling the bags with muddy liquid Hamre and Pittendrigh marched on east. That evening the men arrived at the Dashwood Creek, "and walked right on to a decent pool" apparently several hundred metres downstream from Houston's Soak. The trek continued next morning, the 24th, but by Christmas day and within sight of Mount Hay the exhausted men realised that they had no hope of reaching their goal and returned to the Dashwood. On Boxing day, feeling 'decidedly hungry' they retraced their steps west in search of the tinned meats discarded on the 21st and after many hours located the supplies, one tin was scoffed immediately leaving three tins and sixteen milk tablets. They returned to the Dashwood, the water bag was empty when they arrived.

Back at Illbilla Taylor had decided that if he had not heard anything by the 26th then Johns must travel to Hermannsburg and raise the alarm, the day arrived with no word from Pittendrigh or Colson and Johns was on his way at first light, arriving at the Mission on the evening of the 29th. Messages to Carrington, the Government Resident, and the Company were sent next morning. Carrington, now very alert to the possibility of another publicity stunt by the Company thoroughly checked Johns story via Hermannsburg and satisfied that the Golden Quest II was missing contacted Arthur Blakeley, the Minister for Home Affairs, late that day. Blakeley received the telegram that evening and immediately contacted the Royal Australian Air Force, Flight Lieutenant Charles Eaton had his orders by noon the following day, in company with Flying Officer Gerrand he was "to proceed in 'Moth' aircraft A-34 and A-37 to Alice Springs at dawn on 1/1/31".

There is no record of Eaton's or Gerrand's thoughts on missing New Years celebrations, but the pilots left on schedule and arrived in Marree shortly after 6.00 p.m. that day, and landed in Alice Springs at noon the following day, a little under 17 hours flying time. The search for Pittendrigh and Hamre was now in the hands of the most competent inland pilot of the era, and Eaton wasted no time in making thorough preparations. After interviewing Carrington, Littlejohn and Colson and learning that the plane had a fuel capacity of 30 gallons, Eaton concluded that the plane had made a forced landing somewhere north of the Macdonnell Ranges and north of Hermannsburg therefore he would base the search from the Mission, the pilots arrived there late that afternoon, there Johns and Rolfe Entata were closely questioned, Rolfe confirming that he had seen the missing plane at about midday on the 20th about 12 miles east south east of Illbilla and flying towards Mount Peculiar and Haasts Bluff. Tomorrows first search flight would be to Illbilla to interview Taylor.

Eaton and Gerrand left the Mission at 8.00 a.m, flying via Mount Giles, Mount Chapple and Mount Peculiar, searching all possible landing grounds on the way and arriving at Illbilla mid morning, locating the aerodrome immediately. Taylor was unable to add any new information except that he was sure the Golden Quest II had a fuel capacity of 39 gallons, therefore the plane could have landed much closer to Alice Springs than first thought. The afternoons flight was along the northern slopes of the ranges but near Mount Liebig, Eaton's plane developed a fuel leak forcing both planes to return to Hermannsberg for repairs. Meanwhile on Dashwood Creek, Pittendrigh and Hamre had been reduced to supplementing their meagre rations with tadpoles and water weeds, they had no success at hunting cockatoos, ducks or goannas. Perhaps the great starve had weakened their mental faculties, they had not prepared any smoke signals or ground signs for the searching aircraft and that morning the drone of aircraft disturbed their introspection, "They shrieked and waved fragments of clothes". was their best effort at attracting attention.

The R.A.A.F. pilots carried out two searches a day over the 4th and 5th of January and attempts were made to contact any Aboriginals living north of the ranges as well as Station owners in the area. On the 6th Eaton and Gerrand returned to Illbilla to check if Taylor had any further contact with the Aboriginals, when landing at the bush airstrip Gerrand damaged a lower wing of his aircraft and was grounded until repairs could be carried out. Freddy Colson had arrived the day before carrying out his own detailed search along the route followed by the original expedition. If nothing else Taylor welcomed the company but he could supply no further useful information, only the opinion, after discussion with Colson who saw the Golden Quest II being refuelled at Alice Springs, that the plane may have been carrying only 28 gallons of petrol . Eaton returned to Hermannsburg where he contacted the Air Board for the necessary spares for Gerrand's plane and the assistance of two more aircraft and confirmation of the fuel capacity of the missing plane. Flying Officers Evans and Dalton left Laverton air base the following day and landed at Mildura that evening. Vic Carrington, the Government Resident also arrived at Hermannsburg to discuss the progress of the search, it was decided that Archie Giles should be contacted and the expertise of his Aboriginal stockmen brought into the search. There was some consolation for Eaton that evening, the Airboard confirmed the fuel capacity of the Golden Quest II was 28 gallons therefore the missing plane would be closer to Illbilla than Alice Springs.

On Dashwood Creek Pittendrigh and Hamre had no success in hunting game, both men now becoming very weak, Hamre especially despondent and given to black moods and certain that the planes sighted on the 3rd  and 4th would not return as they had already searched this area and their only hope of rescue would be a ground party. The deadly waiting idled away by feeding flies to a couple of pet lizards and playing paper cricket. By the 7th the men were only capable of crawling about the camp although they did have the wit to enlarge their ground sign in the shape of a large letter 'T' filled with white ashes and flying a rag fixed to a pole from a nearby hillock. Their waterhole was steadily evaporating and the supply of tadpoles and waterweed exhausted, the remaining supplies were one tin of Rex pie and three milk tablets. That evening they wasted precious energy trying to catch a duckling, the bird escaped.

Flying Officers Evans and Dalton continued north in moth aircraft A7-41 and A7-42 arriving in Alice Springs at 8.00a.m on the 9th and reported to Eaton, the three aircraft then proceeded to Hermannsburg arriving late morning, on the way a message was dropped at Archie Giles station asking him to search in a north westerly direction towards Dashwood Creek. Early on the 10th of January the ninth search flight left Hermannsburg for Illbilla arriving there at 1015, during this flight Dalton saw the 'T' ground sign made by the missing airmen but at the time thought it was a signal made by Aboriginal searchers from Hermannsburg, but after discussions at Illbilla it was decided that the sign must be from Pittendrigh and Hamre. After refuelling and lunch Eaton, Evans and Dalton," proceeded direct to Dashwood Creek where the missing airmen were located and food and water dropped by parachute", they were instructed to remain where they were and wait for a motor vehicle from Alice Springs. By this time Pittendrigh and Hamre were in no position to travel anywhere, by now very weak and down to their last two milk tablets, the supplies from the air had arrived just in time, they spent the rest of the day and that evening cautiously enjoying cheese sandwiches and savouring cigarettes, rescue was expected tomorrow.

Eaton and his men returned to Hermannsburg and notified the Air Board, then proceeded to Alice Springs, where arrangements were made to bring the missing airman back to civilisation. Carrington and Eaton in one car and Dr. Kirkland and Colson in another set off at 9.30 on the 11th and arrived at the Dashwood five hours later, the road west now well beaten down. Archie Giles and his men had already arrived and Evans had landed in a nearby clearing earlier that morning to check the condition of the airmen, finding them weak but otherwise normal he and Dalton immediately returned to Hermannsburg. The next search may be for a certain missing prospector somewhere in the Petermanns. Dr. Kirkland decided the men were fit for travel and Pittendrigh and Hamre were in Alice Springs by 7.00a.m the following morning. "A boisterous welcome awaited them at Alice Springs when the pitiable-looking scarecrows arrived". Pittendrigh and Hamre made a slow recovery, leaving Alice Springs by train on the 27th. But Eaton and his colleagues still had much work to complete, the Golden Quest II had to be located and Gerrand's plane repaired.

Fred Colson set off for Illbilla the following day with the replacement mainplane for Gerrand's aircraft, a delicate trip although the road to Illbilla was now well travelled. He arrived there three days later and work began immediately on repairs, one of the more fortunate circumstances was the presence of Phillip Taylor to overseer the work that was completed that afternoon and the plane satisfactorily test flown. Evans and Daltons plans to search for the missing aircraft had been delayed by bad weather but on the 16th they were in the air flying direct to Illbilla where they picked up Gerrand and the three aircraft searched along the flight path of the Golden Quest II, the missing plane was located about ten miles north west of Haast Bluff, well hidden in a laneway between the mulga thickets, the position was accurately plotted for later recovery, and the aircraft continued onto Alice Springs but not without incident. Fifteen miles north of the Macdonnell Ranges the engine of Dalton's aircraft disintegrated, "I noticed my oil pressure drop to zero, at the same time the engine lost its revs, and pieces of the engine were flying past the cockpit.", after making a safe forced landing he inspected the engine and noted, with perhaps dry humour that, "the connecting rod appears to have disappeared". Fifteen minutes later Gerrand made a forced landing in a creek bed about two miles north of Alice Springs near the Telegraph Station, his problems apparently caused by an overheating engine. At least Evans made it to Alice Springs were he reported to Eaton that his mates were safe although temporarily grounded.

Eaton had also been grounded for the past few days with severe conjunctivitis caused by a pieces of metallic grit lodging in his eyes, nevertheless he found time to inspect Carrington's proposed site for Alice Springs new aerodrome, which he pronounced as excellent and recommended to the Air Board, as well as organise the rescue and recovery of his planes and pilots. Daltons plane was beyond immediate repair and tied down and left in charge of a police tracker while Gerrand's aircraft was towed to a nearby clearing where he took off safely and landed at the aerodrome later that day. Perhaps the truest words written by Coote in Hell's Airport, "A better man than Eaton could not have been commissioned for the search. Cool-headed, and an expert organiser, he demonstrated in no uncertain manner that the Air board's choice was the best". Eaton and Gerrand left Alice Springs on 18/1/31 and arrived at their Laverton base evening the following day. Evans and Dalton remained in Alice Springs for several more days waiting the replacement engine for A7-42. Eaton had a very well written report on the successful search operation completed by the 20th. The Minister for Defence, Texas Green signed the report without comment a fortnight later, once again the Central Australian Gold Exploration Company had caused him and his colleagues acute embarrassment.

But the search for Pittendrigh and Hamre did not rest on the Ministers desk, on the 14th of May, Mr White MHR asked Minister Blakeley a very direct question in Parliament, "what has been the cost to the Commonwealth of assistance given to the Central Australian Gold Exploration Company in searches by Royal Australian Air Force aeroplanes for lost airmen?" Blakeley's reply only partially answered the question, out of pocket expenses were 358.00 in the search for Pittendrigh and Hamre and 7.10/- to search for Coote, Blakeley ignored the cost of depreciation and salaries and the replacement engine and wing for the Air Force planes. Mr. White didn't bother to pursue the issue further, his point had been made.

 LASSETERIA

R.Ross. 1999-2006

Blakeley, Fred. Dream Millions. 176,177,178. Coote, Errol. Hell's Airport. 234-247. Idriess, Ion,L. Lasseter's Last Ride. 123,140-144,146-183. N.A.A. Royal Australian Air Force-Report on Operations in Connection with the search for and Finding of Messrs Pittendrigh and Hamre in Central Australia. Series,A9376. Control,55. B/C,1102440. and Series,A705. Control,153/1/737. B/C,533698. Aircraft VH-UGX D.H.60G No.425,Series,A705. Control,35/6/2681. B/C,398925.