On a wing and a prayer

Normal, Weekender

MALUM NALU profiles veteran pilot Richard Leahy who played an important part in the lives of the local communities he serviced.

If you look closely at the remaining tail section of the ill-fated Cessa 185 which crashed into the rugged Saruwaged Ranges on Morobe province on Dec 30 last year, killing a family of six people, you will see the initials P2 – MJL.
THE plane, in which veteran pilot Richard Leahy almost died , was appropriately registered as P2-MJL, the initials of his father Michael ‘Mick’ James Leahy – one of Australia’s most colourful and successful explorers – and widely revered as one of those pioneer explorers who made first contact with and opened up the Highlands of Papua New Guinea.
Mr Leahy lived on a wing and a prayer, an unsung hero who in his own quite little way, brought about so much development to rural PNG, flying into places where only eagles dare.
This is why Morobe Governor Luther Wenge’s attack on the aging Australian aviator, who calls PNG home, has opened up a hornet’s nest in both PNG and Australia.
Newspaper pages and the internet have been running hot since Mr Wenge – who lost close relatives in the crash – said Mr Mr Leahy should be charged with manslaughter and deported from the country.
Among these is John Pasquarelli, legendary Sepik River crocodile hunter, member of the first house of assembly in 1964, founder of Pauline Hanson’s infamous One Nation Party in Australia, and now artist and political commentator – who has often been called a “racist”.
“Malum, if I’m a racist then this Wenge is the king of the castle!”he told me in typical dry Australian style.
“I hope Wenge is not a relly of yours mate!”
Mr Pasquarelli continued: “I first met Richard Leahy at his family’s farm at Zenag near Mumeng, Morobe district in 1962.
“He was 21 and I was 25.
“Now we are 68 and 72 respectively – how time flies!
“Our friendship continues to this day and I remember many Christmases spent at Zenag with the Leahy family.
“Richard has spent all his life flying apart from a very brief interlude at Sydney University – he often visited air shows in the US.
“I flew with him many times and on one occasion in 1972 he flew me from Lae to Coolangatta in a Cessna 185, dropping me off to see my parents while he went on to Bankstown in NSW to have the aircraft serviced.
“On the return trip we were stopped at Townsville by Cyclone Althea – and then when the weather cleared after a couple of days we returned to Lae.
“Richard visited me many times when I was living on the Sepik and more than not he was flying MJL (Michael James Leahy) – the plane he crashed in.
“His long record of safe flying in a country like PNG with its notoriously-changeable weather conditions and difficult terrain says it all.
“His incredible survival of the horrific crash will not be clarified until he has recovered sufficiently to speak to the accident investigators.
“Well-respected by the locals, Richard played an important part in the lives of the local communities he serviced and when he recovers from his terrible injuries, he will be devastated by the tragic deaths of his passengers.”
I knew Mr Leahy and his first wife Robin from my newspaper days in Lae in the 1980s and 1990s, particularly Robin, who had a deep love of PNG history and culture which she shared passionately with me while her husband was soaring in the skies of PNG.
Richard Leahy’s father Mick Leahy was the feisty figure who led the expeditions in the early 1930s, starting from the historic town of Salamaua in the Morobe province, which established for the first time that the Highlands of PNG were not “empty” but packed with vibrant cultures.
In the 1920s and 1930s, there were adventures to be lived and fortunes to be made by strong young men in the gold fields of New Guinea.
Mick Leahy and his associates explored the unknown interior of New Guinea, seeking gold and making contact for the first time with the inhabitants of the interior mountains and valleys.
Their explorations, recounted in Explorations into Highlands New Guinea, probably represent the last of their kind in the world.
It is a story of five years spent in hot pursuit – not of honor and glory, but of excitement and riches – by one such adventurer Michael ‘Mick’ Leahy, his brothers Jim and Pat, and friends Mick Dwyer and Jim Taylor.
The discovery of gold in New Guinea in 1926 at Edie Creek above Wau lured Mick Leahy (and a short time later his brothers Pat, Jim and Dan) into an adventure that resulted in important geologic, geographic, and ethnographic observations of Stone Age people in a region unknown to the rest of the world at that time.
Mick Leahy – known widely as “Masta Mick” – died 30 years ago at Zenag, on a mountain top in Morobe province, where he is buried.
That adventurous streak and love of PNG passed on to Richard, who was was born in Sydney on June 22,  1941, and returned to New Guinea, only to be evacuated with mother Jeanette (who is still alive) soon after the Japanese took Rabaul.
“I started flying training at Lae in 1959 in a Tiger Moth operated by volunteers from Mandated Airlines and TAA,” he said in a rare interview published on the Pacific Wrecks website http://www.pacificwrecks.com/.
“Finished my training at Archerfield in January 1960 and had a full Australian Private Licence by the end of January.
“I converted onto Cessnas at Bankstown during 1960.
“I bought a Cessna 182, VH-BVE from ANSETT / MAL in 1967.
“This aircraft was originally operated in PNG by Madang Air Services.
“Whilst owned by ANSETT if served as a runabout for the ledgendary Dick Glassey. “Passed my Australian commercial in 1968 and was granted a service licence by the department in the same year.
“I flew the 182 commercially for three years and after that began to operate Cessna 185’s. “I still have one today and have chalked up around 15,000 (hours) on this type over the years.
“I have also operated Cessna 402s, 206s, Beech Barons and Islanders.”
 Papua New Guinea, particularly our neglected rural people, wait with bated breath to see what happens when Richard Leahy comes out of hospital.


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