John McNamee talks to an amazing 89 year old academic and advenutre author
The young female bush nurse/pilot had just picked up a heavily-pregnant woman from a remote property in the vast outback of Western Australia and was flying her to hospital several hours away.
There were only two of them in the Cessna 182 Royal Flying Doctor Service (RFDS) plane.
Suddenly half-way through the journey the mother began to give birth in the cramped confines of the plane’s fuselage.
Calmly, Robin Miller put the plane on auto-pilot and delivered the new-born infant before returning to the controls and safely landing the aircraft at Perth Airport.
That amazing young nurse, known among local Aboriginal children as the Sugar Bird Lady for her medical mercy missions into remote communities combating polio, was the daughter of pioneer outback aviator Horrie Miller and author Dame Mary Durack. She died tragically of cancer at the age of 35 in 1975.
Her story of heroism is one of the many favourite tales remembered by another former outback pilot and once president of the WA Royal Flying Doctor Service, 89-year-old Desmond O’Connor.
Desmond loves remembering the epic tales of adventure and dedication inspired by the brave people who manned the RDFS aircraft and brought hope and miracles to the outback townships.
Another one of his legendary stories involves a mission in the 1980s when an RFDS plane crash-landed on a remote community airstrip while trying to treat and transport a young Aboriginal man who had a depressed skull fracture.
The plane hit an anthill, cartwheeled, smashing the propeller and wrenching off the nosewheel.
The pilot radioed for help and some hours later an engineer flew in to the crash site, carried out emergency repairs and they were able to fly the crippled aircraft back to WA’s Jandakot airport.
“What happened to the injured Aborigine,” I asked Desmond.
“Dunno, he just disappeared into the bush while the plane was being repaired and they never saw him again,” Desmond told GO55s.
As a former President of the WA’s RFDS and outback pilot himself, Desmond has many similar tales and he’s been able to incorporate some of the amazing adventures into his newly-published novelette, Phantom Wings Over the North.
It’s set in WA’s forbidding Pilbara region and tells the story of two veteran prospectors who along with twin teenagers discover a suspicious mobile laboratory run by Eastern Europeans in the middle of nowhere. They stumble on a plot to import narcotics and export rare Australian reptiles such as the Death Adder, Stimson Pythons and spiny-tailed geckoes.
At almost 90 years of age, what’s an Emeritus Professor of engineering, surveying and environmental science, who for 10 years worked as a consultant at the Pentagon in Washington, doing writing adventure books aimed at the mid-teens ?
“Well I’ve lived a fairly full academic life during which time I’ve written countless technical and scientific publications that now I’ve decided to write for the joy of it. I wish I’d started sooner,” Desmond laughs. “But I still reckon I’ve got plenty of ideas left even though I’m nearly 90.
DESMOND O’CONNOR CHECKS OUT THE PROPELLOR OF HIS PLANE BEFORE ANOTHER FLYING MISSION OVER THE PILBARA
“As a youngster I read avidly, devoured whole books in the local library when I was a kid and took a special interest in Boys’ Own type of adventures. It’s only recently that I thought, well I reckon I can do just as well as those authors,” he says.
I said to him, it’s a pretty difficult market, aiming a book at the mid-teens, as you don’t see too many kids these days walking around with books in their hands!!
“True,” he laughs, ”but I thought , well it’s maybe something they haven’t experienced before and they might just like a change from all the electronic stuff.”
Along with his academic life during which he was founding professor of environmental science at Perth’s Murdoch University, Desmond was a fully-qualified commercial pilot who spent many years flying over the Pilbara province inspecting mine sites for the large iron ore companies.
Before that he was professor of engineering and surveying at the newly established University of NSW in the 1950s and worked for 10 years as a consultant with the US Army’s Corps of Engineering who were then involved in such projects as the Alaskan oil pipeline and Arctic constructions.
But he was born in the Picton area west of Sydney back in the 1920s after his parents settled there following World War I. His father had been badly wounded both at Gallipoli and in France and later while recuperating in London he met and married an Irish nurse.
“They did it pretty tough, especially during the Depression, but I remember having a wonderful childhood although we didn’t have much money or any luxuries,” Desmond says.
“It was there during those early years that I developed my love of reading which has stayed with me all my life.
“I was a real bush boy and my first effort at writing a few years ago was an autobiography called Boy from the Bush, but it didn’t turn out as well as I’d hoped.
“In later years, as a long-term academic, involved in not only engineering, surveying and environmental science, I was able to combine all my love of the bush into exploring the outback, both in field teams and as a pilot.
“It’s out there in that awe-inspiring wilderness that you gain a massive respect for the country.
“It was part of my job to ensure that the mining companies who consulted me were able to manage the habitat issues such as dust control when they sited their iron ore operations.
“I’m pretty happy to say that in all the years I was flying over the remotest parts of this land, I never got involved in any dramatic accidents, so I was lucky,” Desmond said.
“Certainly sitting on the board of the RFDS as president for many years was an exciting and rewarding part of my career as I was able to work closely with all the wonderful pilots, doctors and nurses who devoted their lives to helping outback people,” he said.
Desmond who has a son a doctor and a daughter who’s a specialist nurse has six grandchildren with whom he says he gets on famously and who all help him out with his fledgling writing career.
When he retired from full-time work he went to live on an isolated three-acre property outside Perth but contracted Ross River Fever from a mosquito bite and is now forced to walk with the aid of a stick.
Since his wife died, he’s been living in a retirement village and dreaming up more plots for his next novel.
I ask him what part of the dramatic WA outback which was once his “office”, filled him with the most awe.
Unhesitatingly he answers: “Mt Bruce, definitely. It’s WA’s second highest mountain, part of the Hamersley Range and one of the most majestic areas I’ve ever seen.
“It’s there, just camping out at the foot of the mountain under the stars that you learn to respect and appreciate the vastness of the land,” Desmond says.
- PHANTOM WINGS OVER THE NORTH, by Desmond O’Connor. Published by A&A Book Publishing. Distributed by Dennis Jones.RRP $19.99.
Main picture DESMOND O’CONNOR IN HIS HEYDAY AT THE CONTROLS OF HIS AIRCRAFT