MMA Air Beef Scheme


Air Beef Pty Ltd - Douglas DC-3s VH-MMF and MML.


The ‘founder’ of the Air Beef concept is generally stated as being Mr. Ian H. ‘Grab’ Grabowsky who was the Manager for Planning and Development with Australian National Airways. A.N.A. considered such a scheme for Outback Queensland but it never commenced such an operation. However Ian Grabowsky remained an enthusiastic promoter of such a scheme. However, separately, Mr Gordon Blythe, whose grandfather had taken on Glenroy and Mount House stations, in the remote Kimberleys in the 1890s, pondered the use of air transport for transporting cattle from remote Kimberley stations to an abattoir, whilst at a camp at Bougainville during WWII. 


Glenroy and Mt House stations, with an assured rainfall, were ideal for cattle. They covered some 1250000 acres (505862 ha) and were capable of pasturing 20000 cattle. But the distance from the nearest meat works caused major problems.  Even in the best season, it took a month to drive cattle on foot to the killing works at Wyndham. Cattle under five years old were not strong enough for the long journey and those of an appropriate age lost up to 36 kilograms in weight on the road. Stations could not sell and replace their young stock.  


Blythe considered whether air transport might overcome the problems. After preliminary enquiries he satisfied himself that air freighting of beef was technically and inancially practical. Blythe’s plan was to slaughter cattle at an abattoir at Glenroy Station, store the meat temporarily in cool rooms then fly it to the government abattoir at Wyndham where it would be kept in freezers until shipped overseas. Blythe chose Glenroy because it had a natural shale, all-weather air strip.  He even designed an emblem for such a scheme and began discussions with the State Government, MMA and other interested parties. Gordon Blythe was later the Managing Director of both Air Beef Pty. Ltd. and the Derby Meat Processing Co. Ltd.


The only previous example of such a scheme had been operated in Venezuela under much more ideal conditions. Flying just 40 minutes it did not involve chilling of the meat.


In May 1946 Gordon Blythe approached MMA to take a load of beef from Mt. House to Derby in what would have been the possible forerunner of Air Beef Pty. Ltd.  MMA agreed to provide an L-10 free-of-charge, as an experiment. But unfortunately the Derby freezing works caught fire a week before the planned flight.


However, in July, Lockheed 10-A VH-ABV, provided free-of-charge by MMA, did fly 4 unchilled bullock carcasses from Mt. House to Perth to prove the viability of such flights. Despite a 10-hour flight the beef arrived in ‘perfect condition’ and was sold at a Perth meat market for £50, which was donated to the Red Cross.


Both MMA and A.N.A. also submitted plans to the Western Australian and Federal Governments for the subsidised carriage of beef. Russell Dumas, the W.A. State Government Director of Works, suggested that A.N.A. and MMA become partners in the venture since Gordon Blythe had already submitted the idea to him. He recommended that the abattoir be built on or near the Blythe family stations and serve 6 or 7 other stations in the area. The trial flight and the publicity it brought persuaded the State Premier, Mr Ross McLarty, of the merits of his plan. McLarty offered an interest-free grant of £10000 for five years provided that the partners and the two airlines pledged a similar sum. The airlines agreed to provide £5000 each and when the State Government announced a subsidy of a penny a pound on all meat carried for one year, Air Beef became a reality.


On 04 November, 1948, Air Beef Pty. Ltd. was founded by A.N.A., MMA and a group of Western Australian pastoralists, led by Gordon Blythe, with the aim of transporting beef from the remote West Kimberley stations from Glenroy to Wyndham, during yearly 'Killing Seasons' - generally running from May to August / September. The Company had an initial capital of £15000 (equally provided by A.N.A., MMA and the local pastoralists), plus a £10000 three-year, interest-free loan from the W.A. Government. The State Government also agreed to a subsidy of 1d per pound on all meat carried for one year. The Board which was selected immediately so that it could direct all the necessary planning, included Lindsay Gordon Blythe, Horrie Miller and Edward Cyril Gare (representing MMA), Geoffrey Mewett, (ANA's Western Australian Manager) and a nominee from the Mac.Robertson confectionery company (still a major shareholder in MMA). The Perth accountant Clive Evan was appointed as Secretary.


The first job of upgrading the airstrip at Glenroy to DCA specifications, proved not too difficult because of its firm, shale base. The cost of rendering the Glenroy airstrip to acceptable Civil Aviation standards was estimated at only £100.


An abattoir was built at Glenroy with construction commencing on 02 January and completed by the 2nd week of May, 1949, at a cost of some £30000. This including additions and alterations. Building a modern meat works at remote Glenroy was extremely difficult and complex. As there was no water nearby, initially for the mixing of concrete or for use by the abattoir, the use of a water-boring plant was offered free.


A MMA DC-3 flew it there within two days and water was struck at a depth of some 40 metres. Aggregate for the concrete was gathered by Aborigines and carted to the strip. Cement, steel and other materials were shipped from Fremantle to Derby. A MMA DC-3 (flown by Capain Cyril Kleinig) flew building materials from Derby to Glenroy, beginning 05 January, 1949. Building began in mid-January and work continued without pause despite the arrival of the Wet Season. The job was finished in the 2nd week of May. The building project covered abattoirs with slaughter floor and a chilling department, men’s quarters and a canteen to accommodate 16 butchers, 2-3 engineers, a cook, government meat inspectors, a storeman, a clerk and visiting pilots.


Air Beef Pty Ltd - MMA Operations.


DC-3 VH-MMF was acquired with Federal Government approval and help to cover the Air Beef operations. Lloyd Butcher, then an engineer with MMA (and later Ansett’s W.A. Manager) was made responsible for achieving the maximum weight reduction for the aircraft, consistent with safety. Its auxiliary fuel tanks went first as its regular tanks carried more than enough petrol for the 75-minute flight. Then its main fuel tanks were cut in half and rewelded, which still allowed an adequate safety margin. As there was no risk of icing, all its de-icing panels were removed from the fuselage. The automatic pilot went along with the cockpit sound-proofing, making the 75-minute journey noisy but bearable, if ear plugs were used.  


Its heavy metal flooring was replaced by a lighter, but still safe material. Finally, every bolt was checked to ensure that it did not extend more than one and a half threads from the nut. If it did it was immediately replaced with a shorter bolt. Similarly screws used in the panelling were checked and replaced if they extended more than necessary. VH-MMF thus became the lightest DC-3 in the world - confirmed by the Douglas Aircraft Corporation. Empty, it weighed just 6852 kilograms compared with the normal 7355 kilograms for a standard DC-3 freighter. Most importantly, VH-MMF was now able to carry 4540 kilograms of beef instead of the previous 4080 kilograms. With three planned trips daily, that allowed for approximately up 9 additional tonnes to be carried each week.


On 13 May, 1949, the Air Beef Scheme began operations, with MMA DC-3 VH-MMF operating Glenroy - Wyndham.  Cattle were slaughtered and chilled at Glenroy, starting 11 May. Glenroy was used as the base for surrounding stations, such as Bedford Downs, Fossil Downs, Gibb River, GoGo, Mt. Hart, Mt. House, Karunjie, Lansdowne, Springvale and Tableland. Initially some 3 round-trips were operated per day from Glenroy Station, near Mt. House, by air to Wyndham (297km north-east), plus a few trips to Derby (254km south-west) from 1955, using the non-refrigerated aircraft. They operated for a period of some 4.5 months per year during the Dry Season, usually from May to August. At Wyndham the beef carcusses were quartered, frozen and wrapped at the Government abattoir, mainly for shipment to the United Kingdom (the early operations to Derby were mainly for transhipment within W.A.). MMA stationed 3 pilots at Glenroy for the season (Captains Cyril Kleinig, Sturdee Jordan and Bill Pepper) while A.N.A. provided Captain John Bunstead as co-pilot and photographer.


One immediate result of the scheme was the upgrading of meat going to the abattoir. Young beef, which would not have survived the walk to Wyndham, experienced no loss of weight of suitable cattle, meant better quality and quicker returns. That allowed station owners to improve their stock and their properties. In addition, the backloading of the DC-3s were able to fly in fencing wire and other heavy cargoes which would have taken many days to drive overland in the Dry Season, but would have been impossible to transport in the Wet Season. Not only was this backloading convenient, in terms of time saved and the fact that they arrived undamaged and dust-free, it was also cheaper than other forms of transport. Goods flown Derby - House cost £10 a ton, against £16 by land. Similarly goods flown Derby - Gibb River Station paid £10 a ton, against £25 by land.


During 1949, 1776 cattle were carried by Air Beef. Mt. House alone, put through some 1098 head (647952 lbs/293906kg), compared with the 494 head it had sent to Wyndham by road in the 1948 season. A study suggested that the average head of cattle lost some 80 lbs (36 kg) of body weight during an average drove, which took some 3 weeks. The 75-minute DC-3 flights to Wyndham eliminated any such loss.


In 1950 A.N.A. Bristol 170 Mk. 21 Freighter VH-INL was used, after a severe drought caused far more cattle to be sent for slaughtering. Pastoralists also wanted a larger aircraft to backload bigger freight items. During 1950, 3676 head of cattle were carried by Air Beef.


During the 1951 season, A.N.A. Bristol 170 Mk. 21 Freighters VH-INJ and VH-INL were used.  4080 head of cattle were carried by Air Beef. During one record day, 46200 lbs. (20955kg) of beef were carried, the aircraft back-loading with general stores.


During the 1952 season, Bristol 170 Mk. 21 Freighters VH-INJ and VH-INL were again used.  There was an extreme drought in the Kimberleys. Despite the Wyndham State Meatworks 'kill' being reduced by some 40%, the Air Beef abattoir was unable to handle the demand, and 5186 head of cattle were supplied to Air Beef. It was estimated that had there been no Air Beef it was debatable whether even 1000 head of cattle would have gone to market from the region. The figures were broken down into 2756504 lbs (1250.33 tonnes) of beef, 202577 lbs (91.88 tonnes) of hides and 4117 lbs (1.87 tonnes) of pork.


During the 1953 season, A.N.A. Bristol 170 Mk. 21 Freighters VH-INJ, VH-INK and VH-INL were used, at various stages. 3524 head of cattle were slaughtered and flown to Wyndham by the Bristol Freighters, which made 14 trips per week, each carrying some 12000 lbs (844kg). During this season there were no mechanical delays.


In March 1954, A.N.A. pulled out of the Air Beef scheme, transferring its Bristol Freighters (referred to by their crews as 'Bristol Frighteners') to the East Coast. MMA secured the exclusive contract for 1954 onwards, using DC-3 freighters VH-MML or VH-MMF. MMA announced that DC-3 freighter(s) would make 16 ‘meat’ trips per week, during the May-August ‘Killing Season’. MMA based 4 pilots, 4 engineers and 2 ground crew at Glenroy, for the season. It was expected that some 4500 head of cattle would be processed, although the season had been 'patchy' throughout northern Australia.  The actual total was 4056.


During the financial year ending 30 June, 1955, Air Beef’s DC-3 VH-MML, based at Glenroy, carried 2583621 lbs (1171.9 tonnes) of meat and backloading supplies for the Kimberley stations. During early July, an Air Beef DC-3 flew cargo, which brought up 1000000 lbs (453.60 tonnes) so far for the season, which had started on 2 May. It had made 113 trips to Wyndham, with 1012.000 lbs (459 tonnes) of beef.


During the 1955 ‘Killing Season’, which ended 31 August, 4295 head of cattle were slaughtered, with a total uplift of 1928091 lbs (874.56 tonnes) in 16 weeks. The total was reduced by ‘abnormal seasonal conditions’. By 1955 MMA was charging backloading freight rates of £12 per ton, compared with a 1948 road transport rates of £28 per ton.


During the financial year ending 30 June, 1956, Air Beef’s DC-3 VH-MML, based at Glenroy, carried 2603100 lbs (1180.75 tonnes) of meat and backloading supplies for the Kimberley stations. By mid May, 1956, a snap-freeze unit was installed at Glenroy, after it became clear that there was a European, Singaporean and probably an Australian market for pre-packed, snap-frozen beef. By the end of May the 1st pre-packed, snap-frozen beef steaks were available in Perth shops, selling at cheaper prices than the ‘local’ product.  Those sent to Europe were in 50-pound (22.6kg) cartons and arrived in ‘excellent condition’ via freighters from Wyndham and again sold at better prices than did frozen carcasses.


During the 1957 season, Air Beef carried 3950 head of cattle, with VH-MML making 182 trips to Wyndham, carrying 1544022 lbs (700.3 tonnes) of beef to Wyndham, and 175539 lbs (79.6 tonnes) to Derby. Nearly 108.000 lbs (81.6 tonnes) of hides were also carried to Derby. Backloading was 418594 lbs (189.9 tonnes) from Wyndham and 130197 lbs (59 tonnes) from Derby.


By 1959, a new abattoir opened at Derby, which was a deep-water port, and all operations were switched from Wyndham to Derby.


During the 1960 ‘Killing Season’, Air Beef uplifted a record some 1950000 lbs (884.5 tonnes) of beef and hides from the Glenroy Abattoirs. 4608 head of cattle had been slaughtered.


During the 18.5-week 1961 ‘Killing Season’, MMA operated 273 trips for Air Beef, uplifting a record 2384000 lbs (1081.3 tonnes) of beef and hides from the Glenroy Abattoirs to Derby, with backloading of 715000 lbs (32.4 tonnes).  Some 5695 head of cattle had been slaughtered (510 more than the previous record, in 1952 and 1087 more than in the 1960 season).  The aircraft also made 33 calls to cattle stations, with stores and backloading from Derby.


During the 16 May-19 September, 1962 season Air Beef operated 239 trips, carrying more than 1840000 lbs (834.60 tonnes) of meat and some 196000 lbs (88.9 tonnes) of hides from Glenroy. More than 692000 lbs (313.85 tonnes) of backloading was flown to Kimberley stations, as part of the operation.


Air Beef operations ceased after the end of the 1962 'Killing Season', after the local roads had improved considerably.


Between 1949 and 1962 Air Beef aircraft flew 1693 return flights from Glenroy to Wyndham and 1149 return flights from Glenroy to Derby, flying 6913 hours, uplifting 55529 cattle (14624 tonnes) of beef and offal and 944 tonnes of hides.  Some 3870 tonnes (8334128 lbs) of cargo was backloaded from Wyndham / Derby to Glenroy and en-route stations.


In January, 2006, the ruins of the Air Beef abattoir at Glenroy Station were recognised by the Western Australian Government for its historical significance. The abattoir and aerodrome were listed on the state's Heritage Register.