Saturday, May 9, 2009

Underwater Explorer

Bills note:the following is a scanned piece from a newspaper clipping....

WHEN Clifford John LeCouteur flew TEAL'S first flight to Tahiti recently, natives along the route looked at him as though they had never seen him before. Passengers too, who marked his correct uniform, could not have recognised the man who had made the survey flight of these less accessible Pacific Islands some months before.

With' several days' beard on his face, a deep shade of sunburn and a pair of swim trunks, LeCouteur, a well-kept 39, looked much like another native. The only obvious signs of civilisation he wore during his working day were swim flippers and mask to aid diving operations.

For months his life followed the pattern of daydreams most men have at some stage of their lives. He had his south sea island beach, a native boy—or sometimes girl—to wait on him, and in addition, the comfortable feeling that his wife and three children were waiting for him in his modern Auckland home.

As the flying-boat on the Coral Sea route touches down at Suva, Satapuala (Western Samoa), Aituaki (Cook Islands) and Papeete (Tahiti) few passengers realise that it took months to carve the solid coral from the runways. LeCouteur's job on the survey flight was to make alighting areas which would come up to ICAO (International Council of Aircraft Organisations) standards — 13,000ft long, 750ft wide and 10ft deep. To do it he had a working team of 11, consisting of the flight crew and representatives from the Civil Aviation branch, the Ministry of Works, and the Lands and Survey departments of the NZ Government. He also had a handful of natives recruited in the islands.

Equipment, such as coconuts used as markers, was primitive. Strip surveys were made by two extraordinary contraptions christened Kon Tiki Mark 1 and Mark 2, in memory of Thor Heyerdahl's Transpacific raft. They were triangular in shape with crossbars supporting 14ft of pipe hanging down to check the depth. According to the state of the tide the pipe could be raised or lowered to give a mean level. The survey of a strip was controlled by walkie-talkie radio from the beach.

The Catalina LeCouteur used for survey had the advantage of being able to land in 6ft of water, a big factor in uncharted lagoons where coral might be anything from 3ft to 30ft under the surface. In this respect he was more fortunate than once during the war when as a flight-lieutenant piloting a Sunderland, he tore the bottom out of the craft from bow to gun-blisters in a heavy sea on take-off. He carried out his patrol and returned with inflated rubber dinghies wedged in the battered belly of the plane.

LeCouteur's survey is thought to be the first to touch Palmerston Island since Captain Cook fixed its position. Other parts of the flight were also navigated from old Admiralty charts. McGreal, first officer on the flight, announcing arrival at the island with its latitude and longitude, said over the plane intercommunication system, "And I will have you know Captain Cook and I are in complete agreement."

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