London to Sydney Car Rally Charter 1977 by Stuart Darbyshire

Hi Peter, I have written a story about my charter flight for Fiat on the Australian leg of the Rally. I was the pilot involved in the rescue of Christine Dacremont.
I also have some photos you might like. (SEE PHOTOGRAPHS IN CAR 66 PHOTO GALLERY)

Stuart Darbyshire

When the charter request came in I was sub contracting for Trans West Air Charter and based at Jandakot Airport in Perth WA. The aircraft I operated was VH-CFE a Piper PA 31 Navajo twin engine 8 seater. Trans West offered me the job of flying for Fiat on the Australian section of the Rally.

At the time, I was 23 years old, had only been operating for about nine months and didn’t have much outback flying experience but Trans West also had a Cessna 421 going on the Rally with a more experienced pilot flying for the Mercedes Team and he was going to give me some help. As it happened, the other aircraft was recalled from Alice Springs back to Perth so I was on my own from there.
The Fiat team arranged for a CB radio to be fitted to the aircraft so we could communicate with the rally cars as well as the back up vehicles. They had an eight ton truck full of spares and several Land Cruisers.

About two days before the rally was due to leave Perth the team asked me to come into their hotel to discuss their plans. They asked me about the terrain and road conditions and I just “winged it” so they didn’t know I hadn’t been out there myself.

Gigi Farinetti ( Fiat’s Rally Director not sure of the spelling ) would point to some of the cattle stations on the map and ask if they could get Fiat parts there or fuel. Fuel maybe but they would have to bring everything else. I was amazed to see that their maps were Visual Aeronautical Charts which were provided by the organizers. I guess road maps were not available.

The two French girls, Christine Dacremont and Yveline Vanoni had apparently decided not to fit a “Roo bar” to their vehicle as it upset the steering. I thought this was a mistake but they were adamant.

Naturally, on the first night they hit a kangaroo which damaged the front of their car. We caught up with them in Laverton WA and some repairs were carried out there.
From there the rally headed north towards Cosmo Newbury.
We gave the Italian crew a head start and then took off after them as Jack Lesage ( the photographer ) wanted to get some shots of them on the road. We saw a white car amid lots of dust so I did some low fly bys for the photos. I found out many years later that it was the wrong car !!!. In an incredible co-incidence I had a passenger sitting next to me on a charter when the conversation turned to the Rally which he drove in. He said there was a low flying aircraft which scared the crap out of him and his co driver just north of Laverton. They were privateers driving a Holden ( I think ). Imagine his amazement when I confessed that it was me!!!

Everything went pretty well until after we turned north from Alice Springs. We flew up to Wave Hill station and landed there hoping to catch up with the three cars but there was no sign. We then flew south and landed at Hooker Creek NT where two of our cars came through. They were the French crew of Robert Neyret and Marianne Hoepfner and the Italian crew of Carlo Baghetta and Carlotti ( I don’t know why only one name). We waited for Christine and Yveline until it was almost dark but we had to go so took off south for Alice Springs. Just as we reached our cruising height of 10,000 feet we had a call on the CB radio from the girls saying they had an accident and they needed help. Apparently they were having more trouble with the radiator overheating and had turned back to meet up with the back up vehicle.

Unfortunately they had a head on collision with the very last Rally car on the road which was the Citroen team of Andre Stuckelberger and Bernard Cheneviere.
I radioed Flight Service for the Royal Flying Doctor Service ( RFDS ) aircraft to come and to their aid but was told that the airstrip nearby at Kalkgurung NT had no runway lights so the RFDS wouldn’t land there at night. I immediately turned our aircraft around and asked Flight Service to arrange fuel for me at Katherine NT as I intended to fly to Kalkgurung at first light and pick them up.

On the way to Katherine Gigi told me there were some English speaking voices on the CB radio and handed the microphone to me. It was a Police officer who told me that one of the girls was dying and needed immediate help.
I asked him to take her to Wave Hill station as it had a radio beacon and possibly had runway lighting. The officer said he considered that the road was too rough and the journey would certainly kill her.

I then asked him to go to the Kalkgurung strip and point his headlights into wind and I would see what I could do when we got there. By now it was pitch black and with complete cloud cover so I had no visibility with the ground. On the way there I told the guys on board what the situation was re the lack of runway lighting. I also had no strip diagram or elevation so I didn’t know how high we were above the ground. Things were a lot more primitive in those days and there was no central register of outback airstrips. Charter pilots would quite often have very little information about the strip we were going to and we would get information over the phone or figure it out when we got there !!!!

I took a vote between us because I knew very well that a landing without lights was very dangerous but I wanted to give it a try. Gigi and Jack were all for it but the young mechanic sitting next to me was not at all keen. He was outvoted 3 to 1. I must admit I felt for him. He thought he was going to die.

When we arrived overhead I saw some lights on the ground which looked like a settlement or mining camp. There was a solitary pair of headlights a bit further on which I guessed must be the Police vehicle. I flew a timed circuit over the top and made an approach to land. Although the aircraft has a landing light all you get is a pool of light running over the ground at 160 kph. You can see very little. I thought we were too high so I did a go around and made another attempt. Of course as soon as I pulled the nose up to flare for landing the landing light became useless as it is pointing up into the air. Amazingly it was one of the best night landings I ever did.

The Almighty saved us that night !!!

I taxied over to where all the lights were and saw it was a group of cars. When I got out a woman came up to me and asked what did they do wrong ? I said “nothing you did as I asked”. She said “well we all have our headlights pointed down the main airstrip…….you landed on the short one !!!” From the air there was no way I could have seen that. They had no idea how to arrange vehicles along the airstrip.

I pulled some of the seats out and a motorbike that Gigi had insisted that we carry from Perth and tied down the stretcher that Christine was on and put her fellow driver Yveline, ( who was very badly bruised all over ) as well as Gigi and Jack in with us. Needless to say the mechanic wasn’t coming !!!

The Police officer then asked where I was going to take them and I said to Alice Springs. He said no the best hospital is in Darwin, so that’s where I replanned to. I didn’t have enough fuel to get there so went via Katherine hoping the refueller was still there as we were very late having gone via Kalkgurung instead of straight there as originally planned. Unfortunately the HF radio that night had so much static that I could not get through to Flight Service so they didn’t know where we were. I tried every frequency I could think of but we just couldn’t make contact. We arrived at Katherine and the airport lights were on !!! Thank God.

The refueller said he had to have his call out fee before giving us fuel. I told him we were on a Mercy Flight but he insisted so I threw $20.00 at him and got the fuel. I asked him to phone Flight Service and tell them where we were and that we were going to Darwin but I don’t think he did. On the way the conditions were very rough and I was very concerned the turbulence might kill Christine. But she was obviously very tough and survived.

Once we got within VHF radio range of Darwin Flight Service I told them what was happening and arranged an ambulance for our arrival. We got in around midnight.
As we were taxying in the Tower asked me to phone the SOC ( Senior Officer in Charge ).

I thought “ Oh God my career is over “. So after we got the girls away to hospital I rang him and he asked me what the lights were like at Kalkgurung. I said “they could stand some improvement “ and luckily for me he left it at that.
Gigi and Jack went to the hospital and I for some very needed rest. I had been going since 7.00am that morning. Christine, as I recall, had a broken collarbone, arm, ribs and pelvis as well as internal injuries. The doctors said she would not have survived the night.
I am told she was in traction for six weeks and stayed in Darwin hospital for three months.

To this day I still don’t know if I did the right thing because I risked four lives to save one.

The following morning, at the hotel, a local news crew asked us if we had been involved in the rescue but I had sworn Gigi and Jack to secrecy as I was very concerned I could lose my pilot’s licence.

Of course, while we were heading north the rally was heading south and Gigi was desperate to catch up with it. I had made an arrangement with the Police the previous night that I would come back and pick up my seats and the two Citroen drivers who had been involved in the accident. We arrived over the top and I saw a small settlement which I proceed to “beat up”. ( Fly low over the top ). The aircraft is very noisy and you would have to be dead not to hear it. We landed and I put the seats back in but no sign of the cops. Gigi wanted to use the motorbike to go look for them but there were three roads into the airstrip and I didn’t know which one to use so I made him stay. In the end he insisted and off he went. Five minutes later the cops came in on another road so I asked them to chase after him and “where does the road go anyway”. “Nowhere” was the reply.

I made Gigi wait until the motor was cool before I loaded it back on and we took off. The Citroen drivers were extremely pleased to leave. I don’t think they liked the native community much. I never saw the mechanic again !!!
God knows what happened to him.

We finally caught up with our cars that night just north of the Adelaide SA hills. The rest of the trip was pretty uneventful with us doing the radio relays and crew changes for the back up drivers. I met up with my dad, briefly, at Essendon Airport Vic along the way.

Everything said on the CB radio was in French or Italian so I didn’t know what was going on and had to redo the flight plan many times. It sure sharpened my flight planning skills !!!

Fiat’s directors were so pleased with how it all went that they flew out from Italy for the finish and took me to a slap up meal in Sydney as well as the Opera House for the awards.

I took a couple of days off and flew back to Perth via one of the cattle stations to drop off one of the back up crew. They wouldn’t let me keep the motor bike. Bugger !!!

Thanks to your website I was able to get Christine’s name from one of the newspaper clippings so I wondered if she had a Facebook page. Sure enough she does so I sent her a message from 34 years ago!!! She very graciously responded and we are now Facebook friends. She still drives Rally cars !!!

I found the crew names in your results pages which I assume are correct.” Gigi” I think is his nickname. I don’t know his real name.

I was thrilled to bits to find your website after all these years. I occasionally searched in the newspaper archives because I was told in Sydney that the story was in the papers but I never found them.

Thankyou for giving me the opportunity to tell my story.

Stuart Darbyshire
Chief Pilot Regent Air Services Ret.

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