7.57am, Thursday 26th July, Barrett Drive, Alice Springs, Northern Territory
Morning folks, and it’s a chilly Billy frosty desert morning here in Alice Springs, and boy have I got a story for you! Driving up from the Barossa, we got to Spud’s Roadhouse at Pimba, at the turnoff to Woomera. Parked up was a truck loaded with an aeroplane, and seeing as I spend a lot of my life on those things, I’ve developed a healthy interest in them! This one looked like it had done it tough but had an unusual but stylish cockpit and nose wheel arrangement, so I went over for a look.
Up close, you can just make out the words ‘Belo Vula’ painted just under the pilot’s – much patched! – window.
On the tail plane, there was still an identifying code clearly visible, so I thought that once I had a chance, I’d check it out the Google machine and see if I could find out where the plane had come from, and maybe what it had done.
Well! As luck would have it, I didn’t have to wait long, because Tuesday night the truck was parked right outside our motel room in Coober Pedy, and as we were loading the ute up first thing yesterday morning – we met by chance Mouse and his brother Jeffrey – the two blokes responsible for ‘the last flight of the Belo Vula’ – from the old Australian Aviation Museum at Bankstown Airport in New South Wales (near Sydney) to the Central Australian Aviation Museum here in Alice Springs.
Mouse knew quite a bit about the history of the plane, and what it actually is – it’s a De Havilland DH 114 Heron. So, with what Mouse told me plus a couple of hours on the Internet last night – this is what I’ve been able to piece together.
The De Havilland aircraft company developed this four engined passenger aeroplane after the second World War, and in 1950, released the ‘Heron’ into commercial service. Our plane was built in England with the ‘construction number’ or manufacturer’s identification code of 14108. It was shipped to the new post war Federal Republic of Germany to become part of the Luftwaffe (their military air wing) as CA +001. This made her the transport for the first Chancellor of Germany – Konrad Adenauer – as he flew about the world between 1949 and 1963, setting up a democratic government and restoring ties with France and America. Apparently he was quite the consummate politician and colourful character, being quoted as saying “the art of politics consists in knowing precisely when it is necessary to hit an opponent slightly below the belt”. Any rate, what we do know is that the Heron carried 14 very skinny passenger seats, one pilot, no stewardess, and didn’t have a bathroom. But because Konrad Adenauer spent so much time in her criss crossing Eurpoe, he had seats removed so that his armchair could be bolted in! I like the man already! And here is our first interesting mystery moment, because according to Mouse, that armchair somehow made it to the Central Australian Aviation Museum here in Alice Springs, which is housed in the old Connellan Airways hangar, on the site of the original ‘town aerodrome’.
And before we go on with the next chapter in the career of our ‘Belo Vulathinness what? Our Konrad Adenauer ends his career as such a statesman that the German government named the air transport that is used for their Head of Government to wing their way about the world on official and diplomatic business……the ‘Konrad Adenauer’. It’s a tradition that stands to this day….and it’s currently an Airbus A340 -313 VIP…..made in France, an obvious illustration of the relationship between France and Germany……mainly rebuilt by our Konrad.
So in 1963, Konrad Adenauer finishes his run as German Chancellor, and the ‘Belo Vula’ goes back to the UK and becomes G-ASFI, registered to Shackleton Aviation.
But in 1964, she gets sold and becomes CR – GAT for Transportes Aereos de Portuguesa, the national airline for Portugese Guinea, flying around North Western Africa to such exotic locations as Dakar and Bisseau .
Then in 1970, our bird somehow finds her way into service with Connellan Airways est 1943 in Alice Springs as VH-CLW, just as they change their name to Connair. This regional airline had built up an amazing route structure throughout the Northern Territory and outback areas on the adjoining borders of Western Australia, Queensland and South Australia – which included a lot of station properties and aboriginal communities – pretty much anywhere with an airstrip! So now our bird has flown across post war Europe, the desert of Northern Africa, and most of the desert areas of Australia, and we’re only half way home! It’s also worth keeping in mind that Connair played a big part in evacuating folks from Darwin after Cyclone Tracy devastated the city in 1974, and our ‘Belo Vula’ was probably involved in that as well.
In 1976, our plane is sold to Kendell Airlines based in the rural centre of Wagga Wagga in New South Wales – on the passenger runs to Melbourne, Sydney and Canberra.
In 1981, she moves up into the Central Pacific island of Kiribati and flies for it’s first national airline Air Tungaru as T3-ATA, based in the capital Tarawa – servicing the Gilbert Islands and Fiji.
In 1984 she shifts camp to Fiji and takes on the stunning black and gold livery of Sunflower Airlines and becomes part of their fleet as DQ-FDY, and is named ‘Belo Vula’…….which is Fijian for…..White Heron.At this point in time, she’s flown 18,953 registered hours!! That’s like flying continuously for 789 24 hour days!! This old girl did some serious flying miles for her time, across the oceans, deserts and cities of a huge part of the world.
So she finishes with Sunflower Airlines in 1995 – they went on to become Sun Air, then Pacific Sun Airlines – still flying 12 destinations across Fiji. But the ‘Belo Vula’ is sold to an Australian airline, but never flies again. Why? Back to my mate Mouse for that explanation. They added a laminated steel beam to the wings to re in force the strength of the thing, but didn’t put the modification into the maintenance log, so our girl got grounded permanently by the authorities.
In 1999, the plane is donated to the Australian Aviation Museum in Bankstown NSW, where she fades pretty much away. But wait, that’s not the end of the story. She has been re donated to the Central Australian Aviation Museum here in Alice Springs, so essentially she’s coming home to the same Connellan Airways Hangar that she flew from back in the 1970s.
So that’s why the trip on Mouse and Jeffrey’s truck from Bankstown NSW to Alice Springs NT is ‘the last flight of the Belo Vula’. They’re unloading her today over at the museum, so I might even drop by and see how she’s arrived.
You never know what you’ll see on the road, and thanks Mouse for the yarn.
And yep….she made it home!