Tales from the era when the Air Age met the Stone Age.
- By Tony Reichardt
- Air & Space magazine, November 2004
National Anthropological Archives Smithsonian Institution
(Page 4 of 7)
The air was fairly ringing now with shouts and cries, and five or six canoes with about 25 men were paddling out into the river about 400 yards above us, armed with bows and arrows and gesticulating wildly. In a couple of minutes we saw an equal number of canoes on the river below paddling vigorously upstream toward us.
There being only two of us, we decided that it was high time to evacuate. At this crucial juncture, we saw that the radiator was leaking, so I filled a five-gallon kerosene tin with water while Hans climbed up on the engine and poured it into the radiator. We did not dare put in more as the canoes were slowly working nearer to us.... After closing the radiator cap, Hans started priming the engine and in his haste burned his arm on the exhaust pipe. We then let loose our line and threw it with the anchor into the cockpit.
Now the problem of taking off! With the line off, I had to hold the wing of the plane inshore, while Hans got on the wing to crank the engine. As the Liberty was still hot from her long pull, this was no simple task, and as is usual when in the biggest hurry, the engine refused to start. It is heavy work and Hans, already tired, was soon almost exhausted...
In the meantime the Papuans above began shooting arrows at us, some of which bounced off the aluminum side of The Ern. I fired my 45 into the air, and the Papuans dove into the water from their canoes and the arrows stopped coming. On reflection, I think they were shooting at the plane rather than us.
It was probably about five minutes, though it seemed an hour, when the engine caught. The welcome roar of the Liberty at that moment was one of the sweetest sounds I ever heard in my life. I swung the nose of the pontoon into the stream as Hans gunned the engine and made a dive for the end of the wing as the plane headed into the stream, her tail barely clearing the tree below us....
Stirling's expedition was marred by violence: 16 members of his party and an unreported number of tribal people were killed during encounters before the American and Dutch explorers finally reached the highland pigmies, who were friendlier. As for the Ern, it lasted only as long as the glue on the pontoons held out. When that dissolved, the airplane was abandoned on a river bank. Peck removed the propeller and engine (which, according to Stirling's diary, he "pickled" in Vaseline) and shipped them back to the States, along with some 8,000 artifacts from the New Guinea wilderness.