This is one of the great unsung tales of Aviation. Ironically, it takes place during Aviation’s Golden Age – the interwar period from 1918 to 1939, when the western world was captivated by record-breaking feats of speed, size, and range. In the mountains of New Guinea, one of the last remaining frontiers in the world, a huge accomplishment in aviation was being quietly undertaken by a group of Australian pilots, demonstrating the practical application of the aeroplane.
Our story begins in 1919 with the Treaty of Versailles. Following the First World War, as the outposts of the the German Colonial Territories were portioned out, German New Guinea came to be under Australian administration. Occupying the north-eastern quarter of New Guinea, little was known by the western world about this newly-held colony’s interior. Steep valleys covered with thick jungle made it one of the most difficult environments in the world to traverse by foot, and indigenous tribes – some of whom untouched by the western world – ranged from friendly to hostile. What this area did have – and would soon to be discovered – was gold. Lots and lots of gold.
In 1921, a small party of prospectors followed up on an illegal survey they’d conducted before the war, examining the gold content in the Morobe Province. Their focus fell on the the village of Wau, some 120 kilometres (75 miles) inland from the northern coast. The prospectors discreetly walked out of the mountains with evidence of one of richest gold fields in the world. Such things do not remain secrets for long. By 1926, a gold rush had exploded in Morobe Province, delivering 200 kilograms of gold per year. The problem, however, was transport. Travelling from the coastal town of Lae was an eight day hike through jungle and valleys, requiring several local labourers to carry equipment. Food had to be brought in as well, and whatever gold was discovered, was likewise trekked out on foot.
But the yields kept growing. In 1927, airborne access finally arrived in the form of a DeHavilland DH.37 biplane. Taking off from Lae, the DH.37 had a cruising speed of 190km/h (120mph), but spent much of the journey climbing. Wau has an elevation of 3500 feet above sea level, and can only be reached through a series of mountainous valleys and ridges. If the DH.37 needed to turn back for Lae due to poor weather, it would often lack the performance to outclimb the terrain in its turn. This was especially a problem when late weather changes could roll in and effectively ‘block’ the escape route home. Once they neared Wau, they approached a grass airstrip on a 10-degree incline. Flying uphill on approach, the pilot faced a ridgeline at the end of the runway, guaranteeing no possibility of a go-around. One way or another, an aircraft landing at Wau would come down.
Perils aside, the gold prospects of Wau made for a rich ticket. The DH.37 carried 600lbs of cargo – a massive reduction in time and labour cost to transport the same load by foot. Alternatively, a paid passenger could be carried for £33. On a per-kilometre cost, the 120-kilometre flight was perhaps the most expensive air ticket in the world.
The success of the Wau to Lae route quickly demanded more aeroplanes. Guinea Airways was joined soon by Bulolo Goldfields Aeroplane Service, operating an Airco DH.4. In 1928, Guinea Airways inducted a Junkers W.34, a single-engine monoplane of all metal construction which had commenced life as an airliner but was later optimised for carrying cargo. Through a side-mounted freight door, the W.34 could take three passengers and a load of one tonne (2200lbs). The Junkers presented another advantage – its robust all-metal construction was an improvement on the wood-and-fabric biplanes that wilted in the humid environment of New Guinea.
The value of the mining operation was blossoming, but its true potential could only be realised if bigger equipment was used in the fields, to get the gold out of the ground and the rivers. After an ore stamp had been delivered piecemeal to Wau by W.34, the question was posed – could larger aircraft deliver bigger pieces of equipment? The Bulolo Gold Dredging (BGD) Company was established to supply and operate dredges – ranging in weight from 1000 and 2500-tonnes – to the goldfields in Morobe Province, where they could reave local waterways for gold and deliver a far greater yield. As the effort of delivering equipment in to Wau had surpassed Australian expertise and capital, Canadian and American interests were soon supporting the mining effort. At a 1929 conference in Melbourne, the BGD Company rejected the idea of constructing a road from Lae to the goldfields, the decision instead being made to continue going by air. The conference gave a deadline of 11 March 1932 to have the first dredge running. No feat like it had ever been accomplished, much less imagined.
Based on the success of the W.34, three Junkers G.31 trimotor monoplanes were selected at the conference for the task of delivering the equipment to the goldfields. Conceived as an airliner, the first G.31 flew in 1926, but for operations in New Guinea the aircraft would be configured for carrying freight. Key among the modifications was a rooftop hatch, measuring 3.6 metres by 1.5 metres (142 inches by 60 inches), through which large pieces of machinery – or even a car – could be loaded by crane. Using a model of the G.31, the BGD Company (and Guinea Airways, who would operate the aircraft) measured the components destined for Wau and how they would fit in the fuselage. From this planning, a modification was made to amend the height of the G.31’s fuselage and allow greater volume for cargo. The loading hatch was situated above the wing, promising some control of the aircraft’s centre-of-gravity. A regular payload was 5800lbs (2.6 tonnes), although in one instance, a 3.7 tonnes (8290lb) load was carried, and 7000lbs (3 tonnes) loads were not uncommon.
The three G.31s were delivered to New Guinea from Germany by sea freighters in late 1930, and on 31 March 1931 the first flight by a Junkers G.31 was made in to Bulolo Airfield (which had been created the previous year). According to the deadline set in Melbourne in 1929, the trio of aircraft had less than one year to deliver the components for a 1000-tonne dredge, a hydroelectric plant, and associated workforce and equipment, to Bulolo Airfield. Two aircraft were primarily utilised – nicknamed Peter and Paul, after the children’s nursery rhyme Two Little Dickie Birds. By operating three G.31s, the BGD Company were guaranteeing at least one aircraft – and often two – available for tasking, with the third acting as an attrition replacement if required.
The 75-mile journey from Lae to the goldfields could be flown by each aircraft up to five times a day, allowing for time to load and unload the cargo at each end. Before they could deliver dredge components, the Junkers needed to carry the cranes required to load and unload the aircraft themselves – piece by piece. Towns needed to be transported in to Wau to house and support workers building the equipment. Vehicles were delivered to expedite movement around the fields, along with tracks that allowed cranes to be more mobile.
The first dredge commenced operation on March 21, 1932 – just ten days over the schedule agreed in 1929. Another dredge opened in October of 1932. The utility of the Junkers were such that a fourth G.31 – nicknamed ‘Pat’ – was added to the fleet in 1934. The feats these Junkers accomplished were staggering. Between 1931 and 1938, the freighters flew 20 times the cargo flown in Australia, and more than the rest of the world combined. From 1931 to 1942, they carried 80,000,000lbs – 36,000 tonnes – of freight, and flew 2,250,000 kilometres (1.4 million miles). Over 14,000 trips, 7,000 passengers were carried. In return, the fields yielded 36 tonnes of gold, and 16 tonnes of silver.
There’s some indication in this video of the conditions the pilots faced. Three 500hp Pratt and Whitney Hornet piston engines powered each G.31, but New Guinea’s hot, humid air, and high-altitude airfields, have a significant effect on an aircraft’s performance. Losing an engine at maximum weights, especially on take off, was not an option. Surrounded by high ground and with no strips of land to put down, a stricken aircraft and its crew would have little chance of survival. This video demonstrates again the terrain and even some of the loads (such as livestock) carried by the G.31s. Remarkably, in 11 years of flying in support of the mines, not one of the G.31s was lost.
The airlift effort proved remarkable for a variety of reasons. Junkers’ G.31 was perhaps the first aircraft capable of loading or unloading bulk items of machinery or vehicles intact, albeit via crane. Once inside, the crew could position the load relative to the Junkers’ centre-of-gravity. Freighters would otherwise continue using side-mounted cargo doors (limiting the size and nature of cargo which could be loaded) until 1941, with the limited introduction of the Junkers Ju-252. An descendant to the G.31, the Ju-252 introduced the ‘trapoklappe’ loading ramp in the rear of the fuselage. This innovation soon spread to other transports like the Boeing C-97, going through several variations to eventually become the staple ‘loading ramp’ of modern airlifters.
Perhaps most astounding was that the airlift and construction of the first dredge, occuring from 1931-1932, was the first time aviation was used to accomplish such a complicated effect that was impossible to do by alternative transport methods. The nearest comparison was the Kabul Airlift, wherein the Royal Air Force evacuated more than 500 people from Kabul Afghanistan to Peshawar in Pakistan in the winter of 1928-29, over ground controlled by hostile tribesmen. A few years later in New Guinea, airlift accomplished a complicated task that was truly impossible otherwise – a feat repeated by the United States Army Air Force in the flights over The Hump from 1942-45; attempted by the Luftwaffe at Stalingrad in 1942-43; and successfully employed by the Allies during the Berlin Airlift in 1948-49.
Sadly, the four Junkers all met their ends in 1942. In January, the Japanese military swept through South East Asia and in to New Guinea, and on January 21, their aircraft cut a swathe through the airfields. G.31 ‘Pat’ was beset by a flight of five Mitsubishi Zeroes, reaching Bulolo Airfield only to crash and burn out on the airfield after it was attacked – destroying its three tonne payload which included a considerable amount of beer. ‘Peter’ and ‘Paul’ were likewise strafed and burnt out at Bulolo, while the fourth, unnamed G.31 – serial VH-UOW – escaped destruction from Japanese guns and was impressed in to RAAF service as A44-1 on January 30, 1942. It served as a freighter with a number of Air Force transport units until it was destroyed on take off from RAAF Base Laverton (near Melbourne) on October 31, 1942, when one of the engines failed to develop full power. Ironically, for an aircraft that spent nearly a decade negotiating high mountain passes in one of the worlds most difficult flying environments, the aircraft collided with the visiting Air Minister Arthur S Drakeford’s car, destroying both vehicles.
The Junkers would ultimately return to New Guinea – following the Second World War, RAAF fighter ace Wing Commander Bobby Gibbes brought three ex-Swedish Ju-52s to the territory as part of Gibbes Sepik Airways.
To flash forward to the present-day, Papua New Guinea still possesses considerable mineral and energy resource wealth, and aviation remains critical to its infrastructure needs. Columbia Helicopters operates a fleet of helicopters for mining companies based in Papua New Guinea, including civilian variants of the CH-46 Sea Knight and CH-47 Chinook – the latter able to lift 11 tonnes vertically. MAF Australia and Samaritan Aviation provide essential connection from remote villages in the country’s highlands for the poor, who often need critical healthcare services. Civilian and military have also proven critical during disaster relief in the country – in recent years responding to droughts, tidal waves, and cyclones.
Special thanks to PacificWrecks.com, which provided some invaluable background in to the Junkers G.31 fleet used in New Guinea. This 1938 article provided much of the detail for this story, and is well worth a read. Lastly, the website for Michael Waterhouse’s Not a Poor Man’s Field – The New Guinea Goldfields to 1942 – An Australian Colonial History proved essential, and can be purchased through the link.