The Proserpine 'Pie Cart' - 1977

By long tradition, mobile Control Towers are known throughout Air Traffic Control as 'Pie Carts'. Retired Air Traffic Controller Don Muir tells the story of the Proserpine Pie Cart:

"This Pie Cart is pictured at Proserpine Airport [ICAO:ABPN, now YBPN] in late 1977.and the temperature was probably about 36 degrees C.

In the 1970s when Hamilton Island was still a bush wilderness, Ansett Airlines had two Sikorsky S61 helicopters (VH-BRI & VH-BRH) based at Proserpine which were used for the transit of holiday makers to resort islands in the Whitsunday group. These helicopters would depart Proserpine each morning and pick up passengers at Hayman Island (Ansett owned), Happy Bay, South Molle Island and Daydream Island, and then make the 35 minute journey down the coast to Mackay Airport to connect with Ansett's jet services to the southern capitals. I believe they were configured to carry 18 passengers.

The choppers exchanged their homeward-bound passengers for a new load of happy holiday makers, then returned to Proserpine via the Islands. On weekends it was often very busy with several jet flights in and out of Mackay, and multiple trips to and from the Whitsundays by the choppers. This was a very expensive service given the fuel and maintenance costs of keeping all those moving parts and twin turbine engines in the air.

Trans Australia Airlines (TAA) based a Fokker F.27 at Mackay on weekends during the holiday season to ferry passengers between Mackay and Proserpine (connecting with the coach to Airlie Beach) in support of their 4 regular DHC6 Twin Otters which operated from Mackay to Shute Harbour and Brampton Island several times daily. Lindeman Aerial Services had two Britten-Norman Islanders, an Aero Commander 500 and a Piper Aztec, which were used to ferry passengers between Mackay and Lindeman Island (then owned by the Nicholson family).

In an effort to reduce transit time and costs, Ansett decided to streamline the service by reaching an agreement with the local council to develop Proserpine aerodrome to be capable of supporting jet movements. Hayman Is. was only 15 minutes by helicopter from there.

During this era it was considered that any Regular Public Transport jet aircraft should receive a full Air Traffic Control service at all destinations; and this was strongly supported by the Australian Federation of Airline Pilots (and the ATC Union). So, with the introduction of jet operations into Proserpine (Boeing 727s and Douglas DC9s) ATC was provided by the then Department of Transport. This was before the days of cost recovery and 'user pays'.

It all happened very quickly and the DOT could only initially provide a mobile Tower. This 'Pie Cart' was towed up on to a man-made earthen mound in the middle of the aerodrome where only the eastern half of the main runway (11/29) was visible to the Controller. We occasionally cleared jets to land with cattle, unseen, on the western end. The 6-man ATC roster at Mackay Tower was adjusted to accommodate the ATC service at Proserpine, initially on Tuesdays and Thursdays but it soon grew to six days per week (not Fridays). We gained an extra member on the roster at this stage.

Our initial rating check at Proserpine was 'interesting'. Kev Dollery (Flying Ops) arrived at Mackay after flying VH-CAB (the Departmental Bonanza) up from Brisbane. He then took us in two groups on a flight to Proserpine, making a short familiarisation flight around the Control Zone and an approach to each runway. We landed and were shown by Bob Carter, Mackay OIC and Check Controller, how to open the Tower (window shutters etc.), how to switch on the radios and teleprinter, which water tank to obtain our drinking water from at the old Proserpine Terminal Building (Ansett had built a flash new building at the other end of the field adjacent to the new apron and taxiways). We also needed to know how to operate the useless airconditioner which froze our feet whilst our upper bodies baked behind the glass in the searing heat.

There was a mobile builder's toilet provided in the undergrowth at the bottom of the mound - but no-one ever used it because of the taipans which were prolific on the aerodrome. Scary!!

We then flew back to Mackay and were required to pass a short written rating exam pertaining to operations at Proserpine. That was our rating endorsement, without ever speaking to an aircraft, before operations commenced from the Pie Cart. The opening of the 'new' controlled aerodrome was celebrated with an airshow on the 31st of October 1977 with Premier, Sir Joh Bjelke-Petersen officiating.

Then the fun started...The ATCs were provided with a Departmental car. Our first, the HQ Holden Wagon pictured above, was old and worn-out even then. At the start, our 7 hour shift consisted of a 4 hour allowance for driving the 120km from/to Mackay (2hr each way) and 3 hours on duty in the Tower - just for the movement of the jets. Later, we would be rostered for 2 days at a time, staying overnight, with 5 hours Tower duty and only a 2 hour drive each day.

The roads in those days were less than ideal and many narrow escapes were had during that dangerous drive on the Bruce Highway. For a short period we were using a brand new Holden Wagon with "radial tuned suspension". It was the best and safest vehicle we ever had for the trip but it was considered far too good for us by the Admin Officer - believing we would wreck it in short course - so we were relegated to a series of used Cortina wagons. One of our newer Cortina wagons was written-off in a head-on crash. Our Controller broke his kneecap and the occupants of the other car were quite seriously injured. Another Cortina glanced off a roadworks barrier with a weary Controller at the wheel on the way home.

There were many other narrow escapes and the unofficial land speed record from Proserpine Tower to Mackay Tower stood at 56min (in a 2 litre Cortina). It may even still stand although the roads have improved enormously over the years. A visit to the Proserpine Aero Club after work before the long trip home could be a very tiring experience indeed!!

During one particularly wet monsoon season, the Bruce Highway was closed due to floods for 6 weeks and the car was marooned at Proserpine. During this time we were usually ferried to and from Proserpine in the Lindeman Aerial Services Aztec. Spending the whole trip bouncing around inside dark clouds with heavy rain and watching the water sheet down the inside of the windscreen and behind the instrument panel was enough to make one consider taking sick leave the next time a Proserpine shift came round.


In the Pie Cart we had a moulded plastic kettle for coffee making. One Tuesday I unknowingly boiled a green tree frog who had sought refuge in there - the tea did taste a bit odd but I thought it was just the old tank where we obtained our water. The following Thursday a brown mess was discovered floating in the neck of the kettle by the oncoming Controller. He didn't drink any tea that day.

We survived the Pie Cart for about 9 months at which time the more permanent structure (known as the 'temporary Tower') relocated from Port Hedland had been erected and commissioned. It had an excellent airconditioner and even had a toilet and running tap water in the equipment room at the base of the tower structure.

Unfortunately it became the favorite haunt of a taipan - which was seen on two occasions around the cab at the top of the external stairway. It seems he would climb the wiring duct which ran from the equipment room up the centre of the structure to the Tower cab. A little unnerving. A 7ft taipan was eventually discovered hanging from an elevated wiring loom in the equipment room. He was striking at the Electrical Technician below but was killed before he could inflict a bite. The electrician was shocked!!......

There are a lot of stories from that era in Proserpine - some of which should remain untold. I left Mackay in December 1980, a few months before Hamilton Island Tower was commissioned. The three jetports (Proserpine, Hamilton & Mackay) coexisted for a period but finally the ATC service at Proserpine could not be sustained."

(Photos: Don Muir)

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