Recently at Caboolture, Qld Ron Lee’s beautiful Mk3B DH Drover VH-FDU was refurbished and fired her engines up again to take place in a display in aid of the Royal Flying Doctor Service. The aircraft was visited by one of her Royal Flying Doctor Service (RFDS) pilots, Jimmy Murtha who was photographed next to “his” old charge.
Ron and his son Stuart polished the skin of the old girl and she looked resplendent in her original RFDS scheme. She was spirited as she taxied about the airfield and was much admired. FDU is not currently flying but could easily do so with a little work however Ron is currently hard at work on Ralph Cusack’s DAP/Bristol Beaufort so this will have to wait a while longer. It last flew in 2010 on relocation from Wangarrata, Victoria.
VH-FDU was built by DHA at Bankstown, NSW as an Mk 1 C/n 5012 in 1952 and was registered to the Commonwealth Department of Health as VH-AZM and commenced operation as a Northern territory Royal Flying Doctor Service aircraft operated by Trans-Australia Airlines (TAA) on contract to the Northern Territory Medical Services.
The aircraft was powered at that stage by 3 four-cylinder Gipsy Major engines and later that year due to problems was converted to Fairey Reed Propellers with a designation change to Mk1F and later that year to Mk2. In 1958, the aircraft was gifted to the RFDS, Queensland as VH-DRF and served in Queensland until 1961 when she was re-engined with Lycoming O-360 horizontally-opposed engines driving Hartzell feathering constant-speed propellers.
This resulted in a great improvement in the aircrafts performance and she went back to the RFDS Qld as VH-FDU and remained there until 1967 when she was converted to Mk3B standard. The RFDS Mk. 3s were configured to carry the pilot, two medical staff and two stretcher patients and were operated in the Northern Territory and outback New South Wales and Queensland.
The aircraft was sold on to a series of airline owners and operators throughout the South Pacific and Australia and suffered several accidents. The aircraft fell on hard times, but eventually was spotted by Ron Lee at Parafield, South Australia in 1984 and purchased by him; it was then dismantled and transported by road to Schutt Aviation where Ron restored the aircraft. In 1991 re registered as VH-FDU the aircraft flew again and was operated out of Moorabbin. In 2001, when Ron moved to Wangarrata, Victoria the aircraft moved with him and was displayed in the Ex Airworld hanger until 2010 when she again moved with Ron to Caboolture, Qld where she remains to this day.
The de Havilland Drover is an iconic Australian aircraft, being as entwined as it is in the history and folklore of the most emotive of Australian institutions, the RFDS. It was only built in small numbers (20 aircraft) but its reputation and the regard it is held in by the public far outstrips its production history.
Ron Lee’s rescue and restoration of this aircraft was a real coup for Australian aviation preservation.
His dogged determination to keep and care for the aircraft has seen it return to Queensland its spiritual home, where it is hoped it will remain forever and perhaps soon return to the air to delight new generations.
Well done Ron and Stuart and thanks for preserving this historic aircraft.
© John Parker 2013