~At The Heart of The Kimberleys~

Written and posted on-line 20th February 2011

Sadly major accidents sometimes occur out here in the remote, rugged terrain of the Kimberleys. Here is a story about how Mt Hart and her airstrip has seen its share of use as the base for emergency operations...

Banjo who used to fly for Peter Leutnegger, from Napier Downs Station (my next door neighbour on the southern boundary – about 140 kms away as a crow flies), was piloting a helicopter. Jack Nixon from Beverley Springs Station (my next door neighbour on the Northern boundary about 120 kms away as a crow flies) was with him as passenger.

The two of them were doing what is necessary in such vast country as this, they were culling out some of the wild scrub bulls and cows (domestic cattle gone wild) in an area called Pantagen (about 100kms as a crow flies north of Mt Hart)

This day their helicopter had failed to come back to the base they were flying from. There base was located up on Beverley Springs Station.

With fear and trepidation screaming in everyone’s minds, a full on search was mounted out of Mt Hart, by the emergency search and rescue authority. This operation attracted about 8 helicopters, 5 planes, and around 30 people were all involved in conducting the search.

When the helicopters & planes go up on these search and rescue missions, every chopper & plane has a pilot and a spotter. This is so the pilot can concentrate on flying with safety in treacherous terrain, (the country up here is 'tiger country' to any pilot), and the spotter’s job is obviously to look out for signs of a crash site.

Normal search procedure in such operations is for one plane to fly at a higher altitude to co-ordinate all the other low flying planes and the choppers. This is similar to the control platform system used for aerial fire fighting. The pilot & spotter of the highest plane are responsible for aligning and directing all the planes and choppers beneath them at set distances. This ensures the helicopters and planes maintain safe distances from each other at set elevations.

During this particular emergency search & rescue mission, I was up with my mate Frenchy in his helicopter, as 'spotter' for the crash site. This mission flew some 12 long tiring & stressful hours before Jack and Banjo were eventually located alive in very rugged country.

Their chopper had suffered a catastrophic engine failure and Banjo had no choice but to emergency land the helicopter on the flattest surface he could see, within a split second timespan. Banjo chose a big flat rock, but with the weight and speed of the helicopter's descent the rock tilted, causing the chopper to tilt sideways. The rotors struck the ground, and the helicopter burst into flames.

The helicopter was now virtually upside down. Jack managed to scramble out, but Banjo was still stuck in the bubble cockpit when the helicopter ignited.

Jack Managed to undo the buckle on Banjo's safety harness, which was holding Banjo inside the helicopter. Because of the sheer intensity of the heat of the flames, Jack burnt his hands very badly in the process. Banjo had a nylon shirt on (and after this he has never worn one since) which set on fire, melted and stuck to his skin.

These two Kimberley men were in the most rugged bit of country you have ever seen. Luckily, only meters away from where the helicopter had crashed there was a rock hole with some water in it. So Jack (who is a skilled & talented bushman) picked up Banjo and submersed him in the water to stop the burns getting any worst. Then, under terrible circumstances, Jack attempted to make Banjo as comfortable as possible.

Jack, had also managed to keep a little fire going, and had gathered a pile of green leafy branches so in the event of hearing a helicopter or a plane fairly close by, he could make smoke signals instantly.

Whilst lying in the waterhole and enduring incredible pain from his burn’s, Banjo looked up and asked Jack, "How did you manage to get a fire going, because we don't have matches or a lighter - everything was destroyed in the helicopter crash?"

Jack turned around and said, “Well Banjo, I had quite a good fire to start off with…from when the helicopter was on fire. I got a couple of Branches and put them in the flames of the crash until they smouldered, and got our fire going from there…"

Anyway, after around 12 hours of intensive searching the crash site was spotted, and we found Jack and Banjo...They were both bought back to Mt Hart.

Anthea Henwood who owns helicopters herself, and is a doctor, was at Mt hart on the scene. She dressed Banjo's wounds from Mt Hart’s expansive first aid kit, which is thoughtfully supplied by the Royal Flying Doctor Service.

The Royal Flying Doctor service flew into Mt Hart and evacuated Banjo and Jack to Derby Hospital. Banjo was in intensive care for quite a while with 3rd degree burns to most of his body, face and arms. He was lucky, very lucky.

Banjo from the Kimberley’s is alive today, because of his skill as a chopper pilot in tiger country, the bush ingenuity of his mate Jack who understood survival techniques, the tenacity of his aerial searchers and the RFDS crew, and Mt Hart’s Airstrip - which makes Mt Hart Station's infrastructure both valuable, and essential beyond it's role as a tourist destination.

I hope this story helps show you what Mt Hart, & the role I have performed out here over the past 20 years as "Station Manager" and "Honory Ranger", means to the wider Kimberley community. Mt Hart is here because I have dedicated 20 years to developing, restoring, building and maintaining the facilities. Just Terms is all we are after, just “Just Terms”...that’s all. ~Taffy~