By Peter McCullough
This story is based on ‘Buckley’s Chance’, a biography written by Bob Stevens in 1998 and republished several times. Its subject is Ben Buckley, the legendary bush pilot from Benambra on the Omeo high plains. Eighty-five year old Buckley died on 17 February and his reputation was such as to warrant a front page obituary in the Bairnsdale Advertiser while the Herald Sun devoted two pages to Andrew Rule’s tribute ‘Larrikin, Legend and Lifesaver’. Although Buckley earned a living as a crop duster, his diverse community work endeared him to all. All, that is, except the aviation authorities who took exception to his tendency to take liberties with the rules and regulations.
Pearse Edward Buckley , known always as Ben, was born in Hastings on 31 May, 1936. He was the third child in a family of seven born to Jock and Molly Buckley who ran a dairy farm on the corner of Stumpy Gully and Myers Roads in Balnarring (now regarded as Bittern).
Young Ben attended Balnarring Primary School and Frankston High School but he subsequently acknowledged that he was a “worse than average student” and left school at 15. Over the next four years he had a number of jobs as a labourer and a chainman in the Northern Territory and Queensland.
Learning to Fly
In 1955 Buckley crossed the Tasman and earned enough money from employment as a shooter, culling wallabies and deer, to put himself through flying school. After several years employed as what the Kiwis referred to as a ‘top dressing’ pilot, Buckley returned to Australia in 1960, obtained his commercial pilot licence, and commenced employment as a crop duster.
Working his way up Gippsland’s Tambo valley, Buckley eventually arrived at Benambra where he discovered there was great demand for aerial services in the surrounding high country. The upshot was the formation of Alpine Aviation in late 1960 with Buckley as chief pilot and director.
Low Flying, Hastings 1960
Throughout his flying career Buckley took delight in poking the bear. In his biography Bob Stevens provides a detailed account of the first recorded incident.
“A Tiger Moth flew at 50 feet for 100 yards over a stream of traffic on the Flinders Highway last Boxing Day”, Mr. Kean S.M., was told in the Hastings Court House.
The witness, Mr. Dudley, said he was driving towards Balnarring when the aircraft came straight down the highway at his car at a height of about 50 feet. Earlier Buckley had flown low over part of Hastings, reportedly at 40 feet, in order to wish some family members a Happy New Year.
Buckley was charged under the Air Navigation Act with his low flying over Hastings and Balnarring and with having flown in a manner dangerous to people and property. His excuse for unauthorized treetop flying – that he had an emergency and was seeking a landing area – was disbelieved by the Magistrate.
Possibly because it was his first offence, Buckley escaped with a fine. However, this was the forerunner of many clashes he would have with the aviation hierarchy in the years to come.
First Aerial Medivac
On 28 December, 1964 a serious accident north of Benambra left a five year old boy severely injured. The need for hospital treatment was urgent and Buckley offered to fly the lad in his crop duster. It was 7.20 p.m. when they took off, heading for Albury. There were no runway lights at Albury and an urgent police call over radio station 2AY saw motorists rushing to illuminate the airstrip with their headlights. A specialist surgeon was on standby and as a result the life of young Wayne Dyer was saved. Although Buckley’s actions were seen as heroic, the Department of Civil Aviation became involved. Buckley was required to show good cause why he should not be served with a Flying Infringement Notice as he had contravened the law by piloting a single engine aircraft after the last light of the day!
Other Mercy Flights
In 1972 a toddler named Ido Calvi had one of his feet cut off when he followed his father who was slashing grass. The experts said there was a 50-50 chance if the boy could be flown immediately to St. Vincent’s Hospital. Ben Buckley was quick to respond. “They hit bad weather in the Latrobe Valley. Then came a radio message from Melbourne: the city’s airports were closed because of fog. Air control ordered Buckley to turn back. He ignored the order. It was a mercy flight, he said. Fog or no fog, he was coming in. He demanded an ambulance be waiting at Essendon airport, the closest to the city hospitals. Flying by instinct, instruments and radio guidance, he headed for Essendon, approaching the invisible runway through a wall of fog. He pulled off a perfect landing. By 3 p.m. Ido was at St. Vincent’s. A team of microsurgeons operated all night. It was the first successful operation of its type, world wide.” (Andrew Rule ‘Larrikin, Legend and Lifesaver’)
Another mercy flight took place in 1986 when 18 month old Jodie Gilmore was bitten by a snake. Buckley flew the little girl and her mother from Benambra to Bairnsdale but again was forced to contravene an Aviation Regulation as he carried his passengers in an agricultural aircraft which was unapproved for such a role. His offence went undetected on this occasion.
Then in 1986 eight-year-old John Hunt suffered terrible injuries, including a fractured skull, when dragged more than a kilometre by a bolting horse on a remote property north of Benambra. Once again it was necessary for Buckley to break the rules to land in a paddock to fly the boy to hospital.
On 6 December, 1967 a bushfire started in inaccessible forest in the Mitta Mitta catchment area in the eastern high country. Buckley and fellow pilot (Bob Lansbury) made history in Australia that day by attacking the blaze from the air. The two pilots flew to the scene fifteen times in their Piper Pawnees to drop fire retardant. Forest Commission ground crews, after driving and then walking for seven hours, found that they only had to mop up to make the area safe. The two aircraft had successfully contained the blaze.
The Forest Commission never forgot this milestone event. Thirteen years later, when a fuel reduction burn near Briagalong got out of control, they were quick to call on Buckley and several other pilots who soon extinguished the blaze.
Apart from crop dusting, fire spotting and fire-fighting with his agricultural aircraft, over the years Buckley was called upon to participate in combating vermin in the high country by dropping toxic meat for wild dogs and carrots laced with 1080 poison for the rabbits.
Alongside all of Buckley’s good deeds were actions which justified the first word that Andrew Rule used in his heading – Larrikin. After his adventures in Balnarring and Hastings in 1960, Buckley seemed to escape the scrutiny of the authorities for a decade. The larrikin spirit was, however, never far below the surface. For example, in 1968, at Buchan, players were at football practice at the local ground when Buckley flew down the hill with his wheels touching the ground occasionally. On reaching the fence he opened the throttle as players hit the ground.
Then, in 1970, “just to prove a point” (in fact, it was to win a bet with a Bass Strait oil rig chopper pilot) Buckley did a ‘touch-and-go’ landing on the Esso helipad at Longford. Workers on site were shocked, the local SM described his behaviour as “incomprehensible”, and Buckley lost his licence.
In 1973, when flying an agricultural aircraft back from Perth, Buckley had to make an unscheduled stop at Ceduna to refuel. It took the authorities a few days to catch up with the errant pilot as flight details had not been lodged. Buckley’s licence was suspended but was reinstated a month later after he had successfully completed a written exam.
The Orbost newspaper ‘Snowy River Mail’ carried a report in June 1975 headed ‘Daredevil Pilot Goes Under Snowy River Bridge’. The incident, witnessed by a gang of men building the new Snowy River bridge, was stated in the police report to have involved an aircraft which flew under the old bridge and between two large cranes working on the new bridge. Some reports even had terrified workers throwing themselves into the water. Buckley was spraying in the area at the time but denied all knowledge of the incident. Although federal police became involved, he was never charged.
Buckley aroused the interest of the Department in 1981 when he fire bombed a group of bush walkers on the Bogong High Plains, and when he flew low over a group of skiers at Falls Creek. Then in 1983 he was in trouble for flying with a broken leg which had resulted from a parachute jump. His licence was suspended again in 1984 when the Department of Aviation received reports that he was operating off Lake Omeo Parade in Benambra; the subsequent court proceedings on this occasion were in his favour.
With his many indiscretions, Ben Buckley was a marked man. His licence had been cancelled on one occasion and suspended several times but he was still poking the bear. In late 1986 Buckley’s licence was again suspended as the Department claimed, incorrectly, that he had not taken the compulsory audio test for commercial pilots. Then, in February 1987, Michael Willisee arrived in the area to film a human interest story for ‘A Current Affair’; Ben Buckley, the crop dusting Shire President, was cast in the lead role. The temptation to provoke the authorities was just too great: Buckley flew over the Benambra football ground while the team was training and bombed them with a white powder. The Department was incensed, claiming that while his licence was suspended he engaged in low flying, low level aerobatics in an unapproved aircraft, unapproved dropping of articles from an aircraft and activities that were to the jeopardy of persons on the ground. The upshot was the cancellation of his licence in June 1987.
Without his licence, Buckley lost his means of employment. The Department was bombarded with letters and petitions from the locals. Even the local MHR, Peter McGauran, entered the fray. In June 1990, after prolonged court proceedings and after having to undergo rigorous testing, Buckley regained his commercial licence; it had been a harrowing three years.
Buckley resumed his crop dusting and continued to fly for several decades. He avoided any more entanglements with the authorities; perhaps the consequences of his appearance on A Current Affair taught him a lesson. In spite of the many risks that he took, he could claim at the end of his career that he only ‘totalled’ two aircraft. The first of these was in October 1961 when he was flying a Piper PA 25 from Moorabbin to Hinnomunjie. The weather report was favourable but by the time Buckley was over Woods Point he was in thick cloud and everything started to freeze over. He put the plane down in some trees and walked for three hours to Tanjil Bren. He asked for help at the first property and the occupant, observing the flying helmet under Buckley’s arm, enquired, “Where did you leave your motor bike?”
Between 1976 and 1978 Buckley had two stints overseas, crop dusting in the English Midlands with excursions to the Sudan to spray cotton crops. It was in England in 1977 where his plane clipped a fence at high speed. Buckley later said that he had overloaded it as he was hurrying to go to a party after work. A spell in hospital followed as he recovered from burns and having inhaled toxic fumes.
In 1980 Ben Buckley became a councillor of the Shire of Omeo and served for 14 years before standing down in 1994. He was Shire President in 1986-87. Buckley resumed his civic duties after the amalgamation of municipalities , serving on the East Gippsland Shire Council between 2003 and 2020 when he finished as Deputy Mayor. His daughter, Sonia Buckley, is continuing her father’s legacy.
To describe Buckley’s years as a councillor as stormy would be an understatement. During the 29 years that he was a councillor he was a thorn in the side of local government, delighting ratepayers who kept voting him in to the chagrin of some fellow councillors and most public servants. As recently as the election of 2016 he polled the highest number of votes by running on a platform of open and transparent local government. When a showdown occurred Buckley was suspended for four months and VCAT supported the council. However Buckley’s campaign against secrecy gained traction prompting him to announce, “I’m considered by some the most successful failure in the business,”
With an inherent desire to serve his fellow man as reflected in his service as a councillor, Buckley stood for election to both State and Federal parliaments. As an Independent he would speak his mind without offending any Party sensitivities. His credo, perhaps not politically correct, was, “Whether you’re a Mason, a Mick, or a Blackfellow, I’ll represent you.” Although never successful, Buckley always gained sufficient votes to recover his deposit.
While it may be hard to comprehend, Ben Buckley still managed to find time for a number of other community activities. He had an association with the Benambra CFA which extended for over 30 years and had a long involvement with the local football club filling roles of goal umpire and then timekeeper. He was a long time member of the Omeo Historical Society and would conduct tours of the old magistrates court and gaol, dressed appropriately in prison uniform. Ben Buckley was also a life member of the Hinnomunjie Racing Club and often entertained the crowd at picnic race meetings by bombing them with lollies.
A huge crowd attended the funeral of Ben Buckley, the boy from Balnarring, at the Benambra Recreation Reserve on 4 March. As a pioneer crop duster in Victoria’s roughest and most remote country he was widely known; two generations of Gippslanders grew up in awe of him.
However, it was possibly Ben Buckley’s work in the community that really endeared him most to the people; ‘mercy dashes’ of sick and injured patients out of the High Country to receive hospital treatment, fire bombing of bushfires that were raging out of control, his contribution to local government and a host of other community organizations.
And then there was the other Ben Buckley. In his tribute in the Herald Sun, Andrew Rule stated, “He couldn’t help poking the bear. Apart from extreme flying, goading authority was his favourite pastime…Part of the Buckley legend is that his pilot’s licence was cancelled a dozen times by ‘desk flyers’ outraged at his casual attitude to the commendably strict regulations that govern aviation in Australia. ‘The rules are more a rough guide up here,’ he used to
say.” In later years when feature writers would ask him about his numerous escapades Buckley had a simple response: “I can neither confirm nor deny that story.”
Over the years many people would have become involved in aviation due to direct contact with Ben Buckley. Countless numbers would have experienced joy flights in his assortment of aircraft. Perhaps some of the thousands of spectators at air shows who witnessed his super spreading demonstrations, simulated bushfire dousing and aerobic displays would have been inspired to gain a pilot’s licence.
To conclude with the words of Peter McGauran MHR, a one-time adversary in the field of politics, “We will never see the likes of Ben Buckley again. He had a drive and energy as sweeping as his love for East Gippsland and his people.” (Bairnsdale Advertiser, 23 February, 2022.)
In 2015, at the request of the Balnarring and District Historical Society, Ben Buckley recorded some recollections of his boyhood days. One was ‘The Boy on the Box’ which is reproduced below with the kind permission of the Society:
THE BOY ON THE BOX
G.I. Eddie Leonski (G.I. means General Issue Soldier) was hanged in Pentridge Goal 2am on 3rd May 1942, for the crime of murder. Eddie had killed three women in bizarre circumstances and the general public were quite nervous over the issue in spite of the authorities’ efforts to calm things down.
Not long after these ghastly incidents, a little seven year old boy went missing from the Buckley Homestead at Sea View Farm on Stumpy Gully Road. I was that little boy and my absence was not noticed for awhile, with mum (Molly) being very busy with the other five children; the youngest daughter Glenda not having been born yet. Dad (Jock) was away serving as a prisoner of war guard at one of the P.O.W. camps in northern Victoria.
Years later mum used to say that your father always seemed to be away in a crisis, like he was when your sister (Louise) was born at the Roper River Mission as the first European child born in the region. Mum and Dad were Missionaries up there at the time.
On the corner of Stumpy Gully and Myers Roads in Cootes bush, the Americans had established a camp not far west of Balnarring Racecourse.
How I got into the camp or how long I had been there is lost to me now; however I can clearly remember dancing on a large box singing a slightly changed version of ‘Run Rabbit Run’ which went something like – “Hey Mr Hitler, I’m coming to get you with my gun, run rabbit run, run rabbit run”.
There was a soldier with a banjo or something, strumming away and a large campfire burning. It must have been a cold night. There were a lot of soldiers there and they were laughing and clapping and happy.
Suddenly, out of nowhere an Australian patrol appeared; an officer in front, mum just behind him and a section of Diggers in a column behind her with their rifles having fixed bayonets at the ready.
The Officer shouted a command and a deadly silence prevailed except for the flickering and crackling of the campfire. A G.I stepped forward and said to the Australian Officer something like “Hey Sir, you’ve got a great little ‘dude’ here”.
Mum grabbed me off the box and gave me such a hug it all but broke my ribs and she had obviously been weeping with anxiety. The whole camp erupted into cheering, clapping and laughing.
The officer barked an order and the squad about turned and with mum and me right behind him, left Cootes bush as quickly and quietly as they had come.
I could still hear the festivity coming from the camp as we crossed Stumpy Gully road and went up the gentle rise to the pathway leading to the homestead. An old Australian soldier was on guard and the escort patrol slipped away into the cold night.
The old guard gave mum a tired salute and said “Everything alright Madame?” Mum responded with “Oh yes, thank you, thank you ever so much”.
She kept me close to her all the rest of the night and for quite some time after. At the time of the ‘Run Rabbit Run’ incident, there were 250,000 G.I.s in Australia. By the time the war was over nearly one million (800,000+) had served in Australia. The last G.I. left Port Melbourne wharf in January 1946, I think!
Occasionally in my advancing years when I think about it, I wonder what happened to those American soldiers – like ours, there would be very few of them still alive today, that’s just how it is!
Ben Buckley – autumn 2015
“Buckley’s Chance” by Bob Stevens. E-Gee Printers, 1998.
“Ben bids farewell.” Article in Bairnsdale Advertiser, 23 February, 2022.
“Larrikin, Legend and Lifesaver.” Article by Andrew Rule in the Herald Sun, 27 February, 2022.
Photographs: These are used with the permission of Ben’s daughter, Cr. Sonia Buckley, and his sister, Mrs. Eleanor Castle.
Peninsula Essence – September 2022