From Flying Fowl House to Spirit of Kokoda: The long and continuing journey of Papua New Guinea’s Ford Trimotor

20 October 2020

ANDREW CONNELLY AND GREGORY BABLIS

Just inside the front gate of the PNG National Museum & Art Gallery (NMAG), next door to Parliament House, Independence Drive, Port Moresby, sit three historical aircrafts, a Lockheed P-38 fighter, a Bell P-400 Airacobra, and the subject of this paper, a Ford 5-AT-C Trimotor with many stories to tell.

The Ford Trimotor series was developed in the mid-1920s from designs by William Bushnell Stout, something of a visionary designer and engineer, but also something of a copycat since his Trimotor was based on the work of Professor Hugo Junkers who pioneered all-metal aircraft construction, and Stout’s airframe closely resembled that of the fabric and plywood-skinned Fokker F.VII. Henry Ford had invested in the Stout Metal Airplane Company in the early 1920s, and bought the company outright in 1925. Junkers sued and won when Ford attempted to export his Trimotor to Europe in the late 1920s.

Earlier versions, the 4-ATs, were powered by three 300-hp Wright Whirlwind radial engines, but the 5-AT sported more powerful 420-hp Pratt & Whitney Wasp radials. All models were clad in corrugated aluminum alloy, and unlike most aircrafts of the 1920s the control surfaces were also aluminum. Metal control cables ran along the exterior of the airframe, and engine gauges were mounted directly on the engine, to be read by the pilot through the cockpit windows.

Nicknamed the Tin Goose, the Ford Trimotor was a popular commercial aircraft in its time and carried the Ford reputation for ruggedness and reliability. Over 100 airlines around the world flew Trimotors with various models carrying 12 to 18 passengers. Trimotors accomplished many notable feats: Commander Richard E. Byrd and three other crew first flew over the South Pole in one in 1929, Franklin Roosevelt campaigned via Trimotor in 1932, and despite achieving fame in other aircrafts both Charles Lindbergh and Amelia Earhart also flew Trimotors.

The Trimotor on display at the NMAG is part of the Modern History Department collection. The Museum’s Trimotor was built in 1929 in Dearborn, Michigan, and flown to Croyden in the UK in 1930 as a demonstration model under the serial number NC401H. In 1931 it was at the Aero Show in Paris, where it was bought by Peter Malcolm King, the 4th Earl of Lovelace. On 28 December 1931 the Earl departed Le Bourget heading for his ranch in Tanganyika, after which the trimotor was suitably dubbed the Star of Tanganyika, serial number G-ABHO. After two years flying around East Africa, the plane returned to the UK having been sold to the British Air Navigation Company (or BANCO), registered in November 1933 and stationed at Heston Aerodrome in Hounslow, now part of the western greater London area. Renamed Voyager, it serviced BANCO’s summer routes to the Channel Islands and Le Touquet and Deauville on the French channel coast. In late October 1935 it was one of two Trimotors bought by Guinea Airways to join its fleet in the Antipodes, servicing flight routes around colonial Papua and New Guinea, as well as the trans-Torres Strait Australia-New Guinea route.

During the 1930s, Papua and New Guinea had the highest level of aviation activity of anywhere in the world, due to a burgeoning mining industry in a rugged region with very few roads. Sometime in the late 1930s, as more modern passenger aircrafts came in, the Trimotors were converted into freight carriers, a role they generally transitioned to worldwide in the 30’s and continued to fill for decades due to their rugged simplicity. During this time, the Museum’s Trimotor also spent some time in service in Australia.

In May 1937 the museums Trimotor was, “….. given a certain expressive name in the centre of Australia, as the result of a special cargo carried from Darwin to Tennant Creek. The cargo consisted of 30 garbage tins which the Administrator found could be carried more cheaply by air than by special truck which would have been necessary for the long journey overland.” The Tuesday 25 May 1937 edition of the Townsville Daily Bulletingoes on to read that, “….. at one time while on service in New Guinea the Trimotor was popularly known as the ‘Flying Fowl House.’ That nickname was gained as the result of a quantity of live stock being transported by the machine. In the course of its normal duties, it has carried everything from motor cars to sucking pigs.”  

But by 1942 it had returned to Port Moresby, having been impressed into military service by the RAAF, under the serial number A-45-1 (VH-UBI), along with Guinea Airways’ other Trimotor, the A-45-2 (VH-UDY) which was destroyed in March 1942 during a low level strafing attack on 7-Mile Drome (now Jackson’s International Airport) by five A6M2 Zeros. A-45-1 was first used for general transport, then converted into an air ambulance by June of ‘42.  

This is a toy model of what the Trimotor looked like during its RAAF days as an air ambulance.

In late October, as the Australians pursued the retreating Japanese north along the Kokoda Track, an airstrip was cleared on one of the remote dry lakebeds at Myola near ‘The Gap’ at the crest of the Track, at an elevation of over 7,000 feet (2145 metres, nearly as high as Mt Kosciuszko at 2228 metres).

ln November, a New Guinea Airways civil pilot, Tom O’Dea, was flown up to make an aerial reconnaissance and he subsequently flew back in the Trimotor on 24 November 1942. He took eight patients out in his first flight, as nervous bystanders watched him just clearing the western lip of the ridge. Inexplicably, someone moved the markers at the end of the strip, presumably to make it longer, so that when O’Dea glided in for his second trip of the day, his wheels bogged immediately and the plane did a forward somersault landing on its back. O’Dea sustained major facial injuries but survived. The Trimotor proved to be unrecoverable and whilst stripped of some parts, laid on its back at Myola virtually intact for the next 37 years.

In 1979, the aircraft was recovered by the National Museum with the help of the RAAF, which carried it slung underneath a Chinook helicopter back to Port Moresby, where it was placed on static outdoor display in front of the Modern History Museum in Gordons, Ahuia St.

The Trimotor being airlifted, strapped under a RAAF Chinook helicopter.

 

In 2015, the Gordons Museum was forced to close by the Public Works Department, who demolished the property to put a connector road through as part of preparations for the 2015 South Pacific Games.

Most of the collection was put into storage, but the Trimotor was trucked to the main NMAG property and placed in its current location, gracing the front driveway along with the other two WWII relics. As part of an agreement with the NMAG, the Public Works Dept pledged to procure another suitable property and rebuild the Modern History Museum, but to date has failed to follow through. The NMAG has entertained a couple other plans for this on the main Waigani site, but none have as yet borne fruit.

In 2014 Gregory Bablis identified the Museum’s Tin Goose as the most significant item in the Modern History collection, and renamed it the Spirit of Kokoda. Bablis speculatively valued it at USD$700,000, currently about AUD$1 million or PGK2.1 million. A fully restored, airworthy Trimotor sold for USD$1.2 million in early 2019. Since the Museum’s bird has an intact airframe (albeit in pieces) and all three engines, Bablis’ estimate is likely within the ballpark.

Whilst the Spirit of Kokoda appears to rest peacefully, it remains an object of contestation. The War Surplus Act of 1952 rendered all WWII surplus materials the property of the colonial state, and this carried over to the PNG government post-independence, but with the focus having changed from controlling saleable scrap to protecting historic artefacts large and small. The NMAG is the appointed authority charged with looking after the nation’s heritage, including from WWII. In 2008 the Kokoda Initiative was formed, an enduring partnership between PNG and Australia to look after the Kokoda Corridor, aligned along three pillars: The Track, the people and the environment. In 2018, the NMAG launched a new Kokoda Track Military Heritage Management Plan. Whilst all relics are state-owned, a central tenet of the NMAG plan is the recognition of landowners as the custodians of the artefacts left on their land from the war.

The Trimotor raises some difficult questions, especially as the Koiari-speaking residents of Naduri village who own the Myola area continue to press for the return of the Trimotor, and compensation both for ‘damage’ to the land from its presence and removal, but also for its removal in 1979 without, according to them, proper ‘consultation and negotiation’. They contend that the RAAF flew into Myola on a Saturday (the Sabbath for Seventh Day Adventists), and ‘illegally’ removed the plane before anyone could walk the couple hours from Naduri to the site. The Myola landowners repeat their claims every year, and threaten legal action. A more noteworthy threat is to block the track to Myola and impose a fee for passage, as blocking sections of the Kokoda Track has been a tactic used by disgruntled landowners elsewhere to draw attention to their complaints.

Was the removal of the Trimotor from Myola illegal? Do the landowners have any claim to an aircraft that legally never belonged to them, but was removed from their land? Can the Heritage Plan be applied retroactively? These and related questions must be left to Papua New Guineans. It is interesting to note that the landowners recite language on the significance and value of the plane from Bablis’ 2014 paper, which he shared with them at some point. His valuation perhaps gave them pause and motivated them to make their original claim.

At any rate, the Spirit of Kokoda Trimotor remains an important touchstone for PNG’s colonial and wartime heritage.

The Trimotor as it now rests on the Museum’s front lawn.

A version of this story was presented as a conference paper by Dr. Andrew Connelly at the Heritage of the Air Conference in November of 2019, Canberra.

Published by Ples Singsing

Ples Singsing is envisioned to be a new platform for Papua Niuginian expressions of creativity, ingenuity and originality in art and culture. We deliberately highlight these two very broad themes as they can encompass the diverse subjects, from technology, medicine and architecture to linguistics, music, fishing, gardening et cetera. Papua Niuginian ways of thinking, living, believing, communicating, dying and so on can cover the gamut of academic, journalistic or opinionated writing and we believe that unless we give ourselves a platform to talk about and discuss these things in an open, free and non-exclusively academic space that they may remain the fodder for academics, journalists and other types of writers alone. New social media platforms have given every individual a personal space to share their feelings and ideas openly, sometimes without immediate censure. The Ples Singsing writer’s blog would like to provide another more structured platform for Papua Niuginian expressions in written, visual and audio formats while also providing some regulation of the type and content of materials to be shared publicly.

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