NPR/NGS Radio Expeditions
15 Jul 1999
Stereo=1; Dual-Channel Mono
Show: Geographic Century
Log of DAT #: Steven Barrinka
ng = not good
ok = okay
g = good
vg = very good
Would you please say who you are and what your role was on this expedition?
My name is Steven Barrinka. I was recruited by Russell Rogers, Dr. Archbold¿s chief pilot, to join up with the expedition, and this was in the early part of, or rather, the later part of 1967, 1937, excuse me, and my, I was a working for O.J. Whitney, Incorporated, who ran a charter operation and a flying school at the North Beach Airport which is now the Laguardia Airport. And prior to that, I had worked with Pratt Whitney doing engine overhaul and that¿s why Russ Rogers was interested in me joining. I also carried the airframe and power plant licenses and licensed pilot and so he thought that it¿d be to his advantage if I could join, because it would fill two roles, someone knowledgeable with the engines and someone who could serve in the role of co-pilot. If that¿s enough for you to start with.
Oh yeah, that¿s great. Well, tell me, what did you know about this expedition when you set off?
Well, of course, I didn¿t know too much about, because I was mainly interested in the flight operations portion of the thing. I understood that the interior of New Guinea, along with the Antarctic at that period of time, was uncharted territory. In fact, it had never been explored before. So, but, that didn¿t mean too much to me because again, like I say, I was mainly interested in the operation of the airplane and my role was to maintain, help maintain the airplane and help fly it as co-pilot, naturally, under the direction of the chief pilot, Russ Rogers.
But you, were you excited to be going? I mean, if you knew that this was an unexplored part of the world, that must have had some¿
Of course I was very interested. I¿m not too sure excited about the thing. I had been well-traveled before and so forth and the, it was kind of interesting to be able to fly across the Pacific and stay in New Guinea for a period of a year for the scientific exploration.
How long did it take you? You flew from the west coast in the plane, in the actual plane you were going to use to explore with?
That¿s right. The Goobah was a PBY patrol airplane, naval patrol airplane, which was, the Navy allowed the museum to use for the expedition, the expedition under Richard Archbold and Biological Explorations, which was his little explorations firm, bought the airplane and paid for all of the equipment and so forth to maintain the airplane for the year in New Guinea.
And while you were, so you were there and the plane went into Port Mosby, is that correct?
No, the, we flew from, we left San Diego, and about an 18-hour flight into and we landed at Pearl Harbor and we stayed at Honolulu for several days and then we were refueled by the Navy and went on into Wake Island, which at that time was a Pan-American stop and we were again refueled at Wake Island, and the next stop was into Hollandia, New Guinea, which would be our base operation for the exploration.
When you were getting ready, well, first of all, can you describe what it was like to be on this plane, what kind of size was it and how was it outfitted?
Well, the airplane was completely equipped for any overseas operation and we had special equipment. We had the top of the line radio communications, and our, that was run by Ray Booth, our radio operator, who was a former maritime radio operator, one of the best in the business. We had with us as a navigator Lon Yancey, who was a maritime captain and who had served on the New York to Rome flight, I forget the name of the person who made the flight, but Yancey was the operator on a New York to Rome flight. He was our navigator and he was one of the top navigators. And of course with Russ Rogers, who I knew personally from many years before, which I consider was one of the top sea plane pilots in the industry. And it was an honor to be with him because at the time, even though I was licensed and so forth as a pilot, I had an awful lot to learn, and prior to leaving San Diego, I was rated in the PBY to, you know, to fly. But it was a, the trip across was fairly routine from San Diego to New Guinea.
Well, tell me, what was it like once you got there and started actually flying over New Guinea? Did you meet Richard Archbold then?
Richard Archbold was with us on the flight. (AC: He was.) On the flight from San Diego, there were six of us aboard. That would be Dr. Archbold and Russ Rogers, the chief pilot, Lon Yancey, as I mentioned as the navigator, Ray Booth as the radio operator, and then Jerry Brown and myself, who had served as flight engineers and co-pilot.
So how was, of course, he wasn¿t actually, he never actually did get his doctorate, so he was actually just Mr. Archbold, I think.
I have no knowledge of that. Latter years, he was referred to as Dr. Archbold.
Tell me, tell me when you get to New Guinea and start flying on there, what¿s happening?
Well, when we got to New Guinea, we had quite a bit of work, preparation work to do before we could fly inland. We had to get the airplane prepared for flight because we had just got through flying from San Diego. We had to build a sea plane ramp so the airplane could be beached, and with that, we had to fly in lumber from Lake Santani, which is right adjacent to Hollandia. There was a sawmill there, and we had to bring in the planking to line the ramp with, and, which was lined over coconut tree logs, and the airplane had to be beached and we had to perform our services and get everything ready for the flight. Then we had to load the airplane. We had a raft sent out, oh, about 20 by 20, preassembled raft, which we would load all the supplies on the load the airplane. So many of those things had to be done before we began the actual flights inland, which was, took about 2 to 3 weeks. Then we started the exploration or the survey flights inland, which we flew over the three camps that we were going to operate from. The first camp would be the Eidenberg River and the second camp would be the Lake, Lake Habima, which is at the 11,300 foot level, and incidentally, that would be the first time that a sea plane has even landed and taken off from that level, and from there, then the third camp would been the Balim River. This is a river running through the heart of New Guinea there where we saw a compound of about 50 to 60,000 natives that had never been, been identified before. These people were primarily in the Stone Age, they carried their stone axes and so forth.
Let me just ask you, let me ask you a little bit more about that if I could. First of all, were you on the flight where they first saw the people in the valley?
Yes, yes. That was a survey flight. We saw the, they were particularly a farming community and we could see the landscaping and the terracing, which actually looked a lot like New England. The people were very astute as far as their land, the land was built on the, the farms were built on hillside with terracing.
But you didn¿t expect, I mean nobody knew those people were up there. When you saw them down there, what did you all say, what happened?
Well, it was a complete surprise to any of us because we naturally knew nothing about the interior. We didn¿t know how many people were there and so forth, but we could see from the amount of farming that there was a substantial amount of people that resided there and the Balim River run right through that area and we were surveying it for a possible landing site to bring our parties in, which the river looked feasible for landing and takeoff, but the river was at a 7000 level, so we had to be very careful as to how we operated out of there because we don¿t have sea level power, you know, going out of 7000 foot, so we had to be sure that the, the river itself was long enough and so forth that would support our landings and takeoffs, which it looked like it was.
You know, people have this idea or, you know, people writing stories about lost civilizations and coming upon undiscovered peoples and you actually had that experience. When did you all sort of realize what you¿d done? I mean, when you first landed in the valley, did you say, ¿Golly, we¿ve found these people.¿
Well, as part of the flight crew and so forth, I don¿t think any of us were too excited about the prospects of the thing. I think the scientific party were more excited about the news and so forth than we were. And incidentally, on that survey flight, we had the scientific party aboard, they could see the valley and the farmlands and so forth there, and actually, we took pictures of the area and some of the pictures are in the National Geographic. That was, I think, the March issue, 1941.
When you, so you see that this lake is down there¿
No, it¿s a river. It¿s a river. We¿re talking about the Balim River now. We had already surveyed the Lake Habima for landing and that looked feasible there. The only thing we had to determine on the Lake Habima was it deep enough, and we had to make another flight in there to check the depth of it, which we accomplished by a float with about six feet of line on the thing, and if the float showed on the surface of the lake, then we had less than six feet. If the floats were underneath the water, then we had six feet of water, which gave us the okay to land.
And the floats didn¿t show and down you went.
The floats didn¿t show. No, we didn¿t go down at that time because we were on a survey flight then, and to go in and make our landings and takeoffs on the first time, before we would go into any of the camps, we had to first provision that camp with three months of supplies, so in case that something should happen to the airplane, the people who were at the camp would then have enough subsistence to guarantee their way out.
Can you tell me about the landing on the valley in the river, when you set the plane down, did you people come out and look at you or¿
Yes, they did. They were very excited, because to them it was a big bird and they were, they were sort of naturally surprised to see white people, who they¿ve never seen before come out of it on our first landing in there. And the people were very interesting. They were very friendly, there was no, nothing antagonistic about them at all. They visited in and out of our camp frequently and we had good relations with them.
How many people came out to see the plane and how soon after it landed did they begin to assemble?
Well, I¿d say there was about, something like about a hundred. When we first landed in there, we laid anchor, laid the airplane to anchor and then got one wing ashore so we could take the supplies out over the wing and drop it off at the shore and of course, they were amazed at all of the stuff that came out of the airplane and they naturally would be surprised, what never seeing anything like that before. Course, we were surprised to see them. They were in the stone ages, in the Stone Age, and the, you could see them carrying their stone axes over their shoulder.
What did the scientists, who did you all think they were?
Well, we, of course we knew they were interior New Guinea natives. They didn¿t seem to be much different from the natives on the coast. They were the same features and so forth, but we had no natives that actually had gone up into that valley from the coast. Most of the trading that they did with people on the coast would be from native camp to native camp and, but they had nothing that would indicate that they had any contact with civilization.
Have you thought, since then, that, ¿Gee, you know, we found the lost world,¿ or something?
Well, I guess in retrospect after everything was all over it was surprising that we saw these type of things and, of course, it was so many things that we were seeing, I don¿t think any of them stood out much more than the other.
Okay, I¿ll come back to this, Mr. Berrinka. (SB: Steve is good, Steve is good.) Okay, Steve. I¿ll come back to that, but you know, actually, we¿re talking about a century of exploration here, and you were there at the moment of the first contact with the last group, last real group of people that the outside world is ever gonna find on this world, I mean, this was a pretty neat discovery, you must have been quite a young man back then.
Well, I was about 25 years old and I¿m 86 now.
Heck of an adventure. Tell me this, were you ever on the plane when Richard Archbold flew the plane?
Oh yes. He was a qualified pilot. Of course, he wasn¿t the, he wasn¿t the type of pilot the chief pilot was because he didn¿t have that type of experience. Russ Rogers had been flying for many, many years, probably twenty, and Russ was very qualified in not only the flight of airplanes, he and his brother had actually been in the manufacturing of the sea plane business. This is in the early 20s, so Dr. Archbold was a private pilot at that period of time, which, I don¿t know how many hours of flight he had, but certainly nothing that would compare to the chief pilot. Neither myself, I didn¿t consider myself anything more than a novice pilot at that point.
But he could fly the plane. He could get it up and get it down.
Well, there was four of us that could do that. It would be Rogers, Dr. Archbold, myself, and Jerry Brown. We were four all qualified to fly the airplane and all had been checked out by the FAA or the CAA in those days as qualified pilots.
One of the things that strikes me about him is that, I guess it was, well, he had narcolepsy. He had this kind of condition where from time to time, he would drop off to sleep even¿
Yes, that¿s a fact. And that¿s why the, he could only serve as co-pilot on short flights. On long flights and so forth, I served up in the cockpit most of the time with him. We flew, on long flights, two hours off and two hours on between myself and Russ Rogers, but my turn for the two hours, Dr. Archbold was always up front with me.
Did you ever fly with him when he fell asleep?
Yes, actually. Well, nothing demeaning about the thing. It was just something, with the type of illness that he had, would happen. Anything that was uninteresting, which on a long flight just sitting there, tending to the autopilot and so forth, can become very dull, and he would sort of go off on and a nap and he would do that at suppertime a lot of time, when we went out to dinner. About halfway through the meal, he would have the same condition. But as long as he was interested and doing something, he could be, stay up as long as the rest of us.
He really seems like quite a character. I mean, it¿s hard to imagine this guy leading these expeditions and I guess he was really quite brave and extremely level-headed, because things would go wrong, certainly on the expedition before the one that you went on, things went badly wrong. They lost a plane and they gotta get this party back down and here is a pilot who falls asleep, but still you go on and do these things. I mean, quite a guy.
Well, I wouldn¿t belay the falling asleep and so forth. When Dr. Archbold was interested and doing something and so forth, like I said before, he could stay up right with the rest of us. But the losing of the plane on the expedition before, that was in Port Morsby harbor, there were anchored there, and there was a squall that came up and flipped the airplane over.
Yeah, that was nobody¿s fault, I wasn¿t saying that at all.
That¿s why they, on the next expedition, they decided to go with the larger plane and fly the airplane down there rather than to ship it down and go through all of the difficulty of getting it ready for flight and so forth.
Yeah, but he seems to have been a guy, when things went wrong, when this plane flipped, he lost his plane, he didn¿t go to pieces. I mean, he took care of things.
No, no, he was very level-headed. I mean, I don¿t think that he was any different than the rest of us. We had a highly trained, professional crew on board that airplane, so there was no reason for, you know, anything to go wrong because of inexperience and so forth.
Tell me about the, I mean, there were so many feats that went on there. There wasn¿t just the discoveries that you made. You mentioned the landing on the, you made the highest level, body of water, yeah, and you also completed the first circumnavigation of the globe at the equator.
Yeah, and we probably flew over more land than we did water, in many cases, because that airplane, we flew over the continental United States there, we flew over the continent of Africa, Australia, and some of those things, you know, were no small feat.
Did you think of yourself as a great explorer then?
No. No, it was just part of our job to get the airplane down to New Guinea, supply the scientific crews at their bases with their needs, their food, and so forth, and get ready to get the airplane home. We had to change the engines before we left New Guinea. We had to change the engines for the flight home. But that was all part of our job.
Steve, when did you last see Dr. Archbold?
Oh, I think the last time I saw him was in Seattle and that was probably about ten years after the, I left the Biological Explorations, which was Dr. Archbold¿s exploration group, and we met, I punched a button on the elevator and the door opened and there was someone that looked like Archbold to me, and I, he was going, before I could, you know, stop the elevator doors from closing, he was going down and I ran downstairs in the lobby and met him and we had dinner that night. That was last time I saw him. It was about 10 years after the, after we¿d gone home, so it should have been somewhere in the neighborhood of, it was after the war actually, in 46 or so.
When you came back from the expedition, were you, did you, were you carrying, did you ship all the cargo back, or did you fly stuff back, I mean the specimens and things.
No, everything was shipped back because we had, the airplane itself, with all of the equipment that we had on board, we had quite a bit of equipment on board, for instance, like we carried two 8-foot collapsible rowboats, which we could put together and make a 16-foot boat. We had an extra large anchor, we carried two anchors. We had quite a bit of radio navigation equipment and we had enough spare parts and tools and things like that aboard the airplane. So the airplane was very well-equipped to be self-sufficient in between flights. So, which we carried quite a load in itself, rather than, you know, to try to carry anything back, so the only thing that came back was the crew and their luggage and that¿s it.
Steve, let me ask you, I started to ask you about the high-altitude lake and then I got distracted. Did Dr. Archbold take part in that? Was he the kind of person who wanted to be there when you would go in for that landing which, and takeoff attempt which presumably, was pretty risky? I mean, no one had done this before.
Well, we were pretty sure, even though Consolidated Aircraft had their doubts whether we could take off from Lake Habima. We had run tests up at Lake Tahoe, which is a 6000-foot level and Rogers, being a very practical sort of a person, he didn¿t just go by what the engineers said with their slide rules and so forth. At the altitude of 11,500 feet, we recorded what our full power would be and then we took off from Lake Tahoe at that power and from there, we could see how long it would take for takeoff and we were reasonably sure there¿d be no problem in getting off of Lake Habima. And Lake Habima was large enough, it was several miles long. The only real problem was you¿re up there in high altitude and you don¿t have the same air for the engines, but we didn¿t have any problem on the takeoff. Now the takeoff from Lake Habima, there were four people that were in on the landing and takeoff. They left Hollandia, there was Dr. Archbold, Russ Rogers, Jerry Brown, and the radio operator. Jerry, Dr. Archbold and the radio operator were put ashore with enough food and supplies and so forth to, you know, for three months, and then Russ Rogers and Jerry Brown took the airplane off of Lake Habima because he wanted to take the airplane off as light as possible for the first flight. And they had no problem in taking the airplane off. And they came back and landed and then took Arch, Dr. Archbold and the radio operator back to Hollandia.
Was Lon Yancey on that flight with you?
No. He was the, he was on all the overseas flights, but he, Lon didn¿t participate in any of the inland flights. His expertise was navigation over long distances and Lon stayed home for those things.
Let me ask you this. Just what was it like flying over New Guinea, over these mountains, I gather that it¿s a very frequently, there¿s a lot of cloud cover up there, and you¿re flying over dense jungle, really unexplored territory, if you get in trouble, no one can come get you. What was it like to fly over that?
Well, of course, in many ways, it¿d be the same thing if we were flying over the United States. If we got into the Rocky Mountains area and so forth and had the same problem, you¿d be faced with the same type of situation. But the interior New Guinea is sort of hostile as far as trying to get out from the interior to the coast without flying. You¿re faced with mountain ranges and low-level swamp country and so forth. It¿s pretty difficult to live off the land because there¿s no large animals there, mostly. The largest animals that we saw was the pigs that the local tribes had, but there is no large animals in New Guinea. There¿s a lot of snakes and birds and so forth, but that¿s about it, so you couldn¿t live off the land very well. That, of course, was a concern of ours, but we always had enough food and so forth aboard the airplane to try to, if we could land somewhere, make our way out. But if we couldn¿t find water and had to land in some of the hostile areas with mountains and so forth, I guess you just have to trust luck.
As you look back now and as you look ahead, I wondered, Steve, if you could, we¿re trying to think about exploration in the next century, too, and you¿re a very modest guy about what you¿ve done here, but you have participated in something that¿s really, truly historic and it¿s unique now in human culture. I mean, no one is ever going to again have the same experience as an explorer that you¿ve had and I just kind of wondered as you look ahead, what you think of that.
Well, of course, being part of the airplane crew, I didn¿t consider myself as such as an explorer. I was on the exploration trip, but that was, I didn¿t look at it as a function as far as the operation and participation in the flight as an exploration thing. I guess now, thinking back, it probably is a little bit more significant than it was then. But I do think the part of the airplane operation and the part of the aircraft¿s performance is rather significant, and I don¿t think that has ever been told. When you look at the fact that, here is an airplane that we took from San Diego, flew down to New Guinea, operated for a year down there, supported the, the scientific crews inland, in fact, I think we had a total of 168 flights and carried in roughly 600,000 pounds of equipment and then we took the airplane and prepared it to go back home, changed the engines with rather primitive equipment, we had no cranes or anything like that, everything had to be done with gin-pulls made out of palm tree stumps and then they have to survey a flight from Sydney, Australia to Africa for the Australian government, I thought was another significant achievement in aviation history. The flight across Africa, we could have gone across in one flight, but at the, that time, Europe was at war and we couldn¿t get any radio communications across Africa, so we had to go across in small stages, from Mambasa to Lake Victoria to the Goquehatfill in the Belgian Congo, over the Lagos on the west coast of Africa and up to Dakar and, which was a French territory then, and the, the French airlines provided us with fuel and so forth to take off from St. Thomas, the Virgin Islands, and then back up to New York and then we landed and we had a reception at the World¿s Fair for the scientific achievement of the expedition and then back to San Diego. So I thought some of those things, I think, are, the fact that everything went sort of routine all the way through, I thought, was quite an accomplishment for the, for the preparation and the operation of the airplane.
It must have been a heck of a flight back. I¿d forgotten that¿
It was, and actually, when we were crossing from Dakar to the, to St. Thomas, we had about a hundred mile an hour tailwind and the navigator said, ¿Well, let¿s go on to New York and have a long distance flight record.¿ But Roger said, ¿No, we¿re due at the World¿s Fair and we¿re scheduled to stop at the Virgin Islands and that¿s the way we went. It was an awful good flight.