|Lae airport in its heyday in the 1970s|
The old Lae airport
The old Lae airport has played a significant role in the history of the town, Papua New Guinea, and the whole world for that matter.
Mordern day Lae and PNG grew because of the airport.
The greatest airlift the world had ever known started from Lae to the Bulolo goldfields in the 1930s.
World attention was focused on Lae in 1937, and continues to this day, when it was the last port of called for the famed American aviatrix Amelia Earhart before she disappeared somewhere over the deep-blue South Pacific ocean.
Lae airstrip was bombed out by the Japanese on January 21, 1942, however, recovered to become a major player in the development of post-war PNG.
I still have unforgettable memories – as a child - of flying to Wewak, Rabaul, Buka, Kavieng, Goroka and many other places in those trusty old Ansett, TAA and later Air Niugini DC3s and F27s.
The old Lae airport started losing its thunder in 1977 when Nadzab, an American World War 11 strip, became operational.
Fierce political squabbling over the pros and cons of Lae and Nadzab continued until 1982, when, in an unsolved mystery (just like Amelia Earhhart), the Lae airport terminal was burned down.
Nadzab had taken away its glory; however, Lae continued to be used by Air Niugini and other third-level airlines until 1987.
Lae continued to be used as the base for the PNG Defence Force Air Transport Squadron until it was transferred to Port Moresby in 1992.
After that, one of the greatest icons of PNG history was literally left to the dogs, and became covered by bushes.
It was only recently that the land was sub-divided for commercial purposes as well as given back to the traditional landowners.
The story of the old Lae airport is a fascinating one, and is well-documented in the book Lae: Village and City, written by pioneer University of Technology lecturer Ian Willis.
The discovery of gold at Edie Creek above Wau in 1926 sparked off a gold rush which led to the exploitation of the rich deposits of the Bulolo-Watut river system by large-scale mechanised mining.
The rigours and cost of the eight-day walk into the goldfields and the difficulty of building a road from the coast led to the early introduction of an aviation service.
The driving force behind the development of the goldfields was Cecil J. Levien, a former Morobe District Officer who has been described as a “rare and formidable combination of opportunist, practical man and visionary”.
Levien persuaded the directors of Guinea Gold N.L. that startling profits would be made by any aviation company that could provide a service to eliminate the arduous walk between Salamaua and Wau.
He secured an option on a small DH-37 plane in Melbourne and engaged a pilot, E. A. “Pard” Mustar, to bring it to New Guinea.
He then selected Lae as the best place for the coastal airstrip and without bothering to obtain official permission, took on about 250 labourers to clear and level a landing ground under the supervision of Tommy Wright, the foreman of the agricultural station.
The construction of the airfield was perhaps the biggest enterprise ever undertaken at Lae and greatly perturbed the local villagers, who watched amazed as a vast area of bush was torn down and gardens were flattened.
They were in for further surprises when Mustar and his mechanic, A. W. D. Mullins, flew in from Rabaul, where they had been assembling and testing the plane.
Their arrival brought the full power of Western technology home to the villagers with a shock.
Mustar's account of his landing in Lae on 30 March 1927 gives a sharp sense of their mixed excitement and confusion:
“Our staff welcomed the machine . . . And the Kanakas! Good Lord! They came in droves to see the `big feller pidgeon'. My engineer, Mullins, was over six feet tall, while I am only 5ft. bins. short, and the Kanakas couldn't understand why the little man was `Number one masta longa pidgeon'. They examined the machine and decided it was `strong feller too much. Me no savvy this feller fashion belong white master'. Some of these natives had travelled for days down the mountains to see the 'pidgeon' .. . They took full measurements of the wings and all parts of the machine with lengths of cane to carry back to wondering villagers.”
The mastery of Europeans, previously seen in their goods and possessions, was now indisputable.
The aviation service was a success from the start.
After two unsuccessful flights around the mountains south of the Markham no one knew exactly how to find Wau from the air.
Mustar landed at Wau for the first time on 16 April.
He began the service the next day with a shipment of six 100 lb bags of rice, charging a shilling a 16, and, making two trips a day, five days a week, carried 84 passengers and
27, 000 lbs of cargo in the first three months.
Rival aviation companies were not long in arriving to share the profits.
Ray Parer, the proprietor of Bulolo Goldfields Air Service who had been competing keenly with Mustar to be the first to land at Lae, came from Rabaul after many delays, and A. “Jerry” Pentland and P. “Skip” Moody soon joined them.
There was ample business for all, and by April 1928, a year after the service began,
Guinea Airways (the aviation company that grew from Guinea Gold N.L.) had acquired two extra planes and was employing three further pilots and two more mechanics.
Then in March 1929 a new company, Morlae Airlines, began a weekly Lae-Port Moresby run, meeting ships from Australia and bringing passengers and frozen foods across to Wau, Bulolo, Salamaua and Lae.
This service cut the time needed to get from Port Moresby to the goldfields from six days to one.
The town developed quickly as the volume of traffic increased.
What had been a rough clearing in the bush in early 1927 soon acquired workshops, hangars, storage sheds, offices, houses and barracks.
At first the growth was unsupervised and chaotic.
Guinea Gold N.L. had built the airstrip without permission and had no power to prevent other operators from using the land or erecting buildings.
As a result early Lae grew as a large European squatter camp.
Each new arrival simply set himself up wherever he pleased without concern for ownership.
Levien in particular was concerned at the uncontrolled building, which he believed was becoming a hazard to aircraft.
No one was sure who owned the land, but that the local villagers may have had rightful claims does not seem to have been considered.
The question of ownership was finally settled in favour of the administration.
The government, with might on its side, ended the squabbling between the various contenders by resuming a large area including the airstrip in August 1927.
Earlier the land had been put up for sale by tender by the Custodian of Expropriated Properties, who had control of it because it was the property that had been expropriated from the Neu Guinea Compagnie.
The administration had been a tenderer, but concerned that it might be outbid by an ambitious, go-getting company like Guinea Gold N.L., it withdrew its tender and resumed the land instead.
The government took a huge slice-the entire 11721 acres of the Compagnie's holding stating that it needed the land for an aerodrome, a shipping depot, an agricultural station, and native reserves.
Those wanting to build now had to arrange a lease with the government.
The administration was strongly influenced by an officer of the Department of Civil Aviation, W. J. Duncan, who had been seconded by the Australian government to the New Guinea administration to report on and supervise the founding of aviation services in New Guinea.
Duncan's report, which he submitted in late 1927, recommended that the administration should take responsibility for airport construction and maintenance, that it should sub-divide the area around the airstrip into a series of blocks, each three chains wide and five chains long with a roadway between them and lease each for £20 a year.
Lae thus became the prototype for New Guinean towns built around airstrips.
In such places the airstrip dominates the shape and form of the town, usually occupying the central position. (Later airport towns were Goroka, Mount Hagen, Kainantu and most subdistrict headquarters opened since World War I1).
The airstrip in New Guinea is perhaps analogous to the railway station of an earlier era in America and Australia, because it has generally decided the shape and the settlement pattern of the town.
In early Lae this was obvious: the workshops and hangars clustered between the end of the airstrip and the wharf, the Europeans lived to the east of the strip, near the river terrace, while the New Guinean labourers generally lived on the far or western side.
An important impetus to the growth of Lae was the decision of the gold mining interests to airlift in sections the heavy mining machinery they used for treating the Bulolo and Watut River gravels.
At first Bulolo Gold Dredging Ltd and its parent company, Placer Development Ltd, had thought of building a road to the goldfields, but the length of time it would take and the high cost of construction and maintenance persuaded the companies to accept Guinea Airways' proposition that “skyways are the cheapest highways”.
On the advice of Mustar, Bulolo Gold Dredging purchased three all-metal, tri-motored Junkers G-31 aircraft from Germany, which Guinea Airways was to operate under licence for the gold mining company.
Guinea Airways also purchased a Junkers G-31 of its own.
They were huge planes, each capable of carrying a payload of 7100 lbs or 14 short tons together.
The airlift began in April 1931 and continued for eight years: the first dredge began work in March 1932, the eighth in November, 1939.
It proceeded smoothly because of the spirit of co-operation existing between Bulolo Gold Dredging and Guinea Airways, and because of their streamlined operation.
At Lae they had a wharf 75 feet long, with half a mile of railway running around the foreshore to the storage sheds at the airport.
Because of the unsatisfactory harbour facilities at Lae-unstable foreshore, open anchorage and steeply sloping seafloor-all cargo had to be lightened ashore in barges, which were then unloaded by steam crane.
Another crane at the airstrip lifted the heavy machinery into the planes and a rail crane unloaded them at Bulolo.
Eventually operations became so efficient that nine round trips a day were possible.
The airlift was a remarkable undertaking. It pioneered the use of aviation in the transport of heavy cargo and, in the words of one writer, “in every respect it constituted a world record”.
While it lasted the power of Western technology was daily impressed on the local people, who stood by bemused as the town grew around them.
The airlift stimulated the steady development of the town and by 1942, when it was destroyed by Japanese bombing, it had about 120 European residents, about sixty Chinese and perhaps several hundred New Guineans.
It became a bustling, busy place, and though it remained chiefly a centre of the aviation industry, it developed a distinctive town life of its own.
Something of its busyness can be seen in a 1935 report in the Pacific Islands Monthly:
“Lae is now a township ranking high in the Mandated Territory of New Guinea. It is a centre of great activity . . . and one of the biggest (if not the biggest) aircraft centres in the southern hemisphere. The European population is now around the hundred mark and is increasing with each steamer. Accommodation is being taxed; so much so that a new hotel has been commenced and is expected to be completed in a month or two."
A death that momentarily focused world attention on Lae was that of the American aviatrix, Amelia Earhart Putnam, who vanished with her navigator, Fred Noonan, after leaving Lae in June 1937 on the longest leg of their trip around the world.
Old Lae residents used to recall entertaining the couple in the Hotel Cecil the night before their departure, and then seeing them off the next morning.
Their plane was so overloaded with its eight tons of fuel that it was still barely clearing the waves as it disappeared from sight, flying east along the Huon Gulf coast on its way to Howland Island 2600 miles to the north.On such occasions Laeites, regardless of class or social position, felt they were part of history.