Arthur Johnson; Fixed Wing Pilot

Aerodist and Laser 1970-1971

Arthur Johnson was an outstanding pilot who flew Rockwell Grand Commander twin-engine fixed wing aircraft in support of National Mapping’s Aerodist measuring field operations and Laser Terrain Profiling field operations in 1970 and 1971. 

Aerodist field operations 1970

Arthur Johnson first flew with National Mapping as the pilot of Executive Air Services’ Grand Commander VH-EXZ on Aerodist measuring operations in the Northern Territory in July 1970; mainly based at Alice Springs and Tennant Creek.  Arthur’s arrival in the field that year was timely as he replaced two earlier pilots who were relatively inexperienced and had occasional difficulty with aircraft handling and with navigation.  In mid-June, one of these pilots had unfortunately run VH-EXZ out of fuel on one engine on the final approach to Boulia airstrip in the western Queensland Channel Country; his eventual recovery of the situation was less than confidence inspiring.  The fuel shortage was due to the pilot failing to appropriately transfer fuel between the aircraft’s tanks during the Aerodist measuring flight.  In sharp contrast, party members quickly appreciated Arthur’s highly competent and much more experienced approach to the daily measuring flights and Nat Mappers also appreciated Arthur’s easy going nature and ability to readily fit in with the field party.

Con Veenstra became the Director of National Mapping in 1982 and was the senior surveyor in charge of Aerodist and its field operations in the early 1970s when Arthur was one of VH-EXZ’s pilots.  Con still remembered Arthur well and recalled him as an outstanding and very competent pilot who contributed greatly to the overall success of Aerodist field operations.  Con remarked that Arthur’s valued contributions were not solely from his skill as a pilot but just as much from his easy going can-do attitude.  As Con recalled Arthur’s work ethic was manifested along the lines: if it needs to be done, let’s do it now!

Executive Air Services’ Grand Commander VH-EXZ during Aerodist measuring operations.

In September-October 1970, Arthur flew VH-EXZ out of a base at Docker River Aboriginal community (now Kaltukatjara) in the far south-west of the Northern Territory.  Here the Aerodist measuring party was also using a Hughes 500 turbine powered helicopter (VH-BLN) to position two-man parties on to survey control marks.  The helicopter pilot at the time was Lloyd Knight, a former Royal Australian Air Force officer.  (It transpired that Squadron Leader Knight and Lieutenant Commander Johnson had only recently participated together on an inter-services cultural training course at an Army base on Sydney’s South Head.  The cultural training was essentially aimed at equipping serving officers with some skills to deal with possible prisoner of war interrogations.  Apparently neither the RAAF nor the RAN was aware that both Lloyd and Arthur were separately planning to shortly resign their commissions.)

On 2 October 1970, the turbine compressor on VH-BLN failed and the helicopter was grounded for engine replacement.  The helicopter’s grounding left several Aerodist remote-unit survey parties stranded on isolated survey control marks with only limited supplies of food and water.  Fortunately all but one of these parties could be recovered by vehicle. 

The remaining party (Nat Mappers Laurie McLean and Frank Ayers) were at survey point NM/G/301 in the sandhills north of Lake Neale that was not readily accessible by vehicle.  This party had to be resupplied with food and water (ice) dropped from VH-EXZ.  Lloyd Knight went on the air drop flight in the right hand seat of VH-EXZ with Arthur Johnson to help guide the aircraft to the isolated survey mark where Lloyd had previously landed the helicopter.  During the low level air drop, Lloyd had to take the controls of VH-EXZ as Arthur became unwell (from food consumed the previous night at the Ayer’s Rock facility where the ice was prepared).  Arthur’s sudden illness had caused the first drop attempt to be off target.  With Lloyd temporarily at the controls of VH-EXZ, the subsequent drops were completed successfully.  With Arthur still unwell, Lloyd continued flying the aircraft while a number of Aerodist measurements were undertaken.  (The survey party at NM/G/301 was later recovered in helicopter VH-BLN after the engine had been replaced.)

Laser field operations 1971

Rom Vassil was Nat Map’s senior surveyor in charge of the Laser Terrain Profiler and its field operations in the early 1970s.  Rom very well recalled Arthur Johnson and clearly remembered him as a superb pilot.  In Rom’s view Arthur was the best pilot Nat Map had on Laser operations.  Arthur was remembered not only for his considerable flying skills but also for his cheerful, cooperative disposition and his ready responsiveness to Nat Map’s day-to-day operational flying needs.

Executive Air Services’ Grand Commander VH-EXP during Laser Terrain Profiling operations.

Rom Vassil remembered starting the 1971 Laser field season with Arthur at Broken Hill in the Grand Commander VH-EXP.  Soon after, Rom, Arthur and Nat Map senior technical officer Des Fahey had to undertake a terrain profiling task in North Queensland.  The task was to obtain a terrain profile for the sites of microwave towers for a proposed telecommunications link to Weipa.  The task was for the then Post Master General’s Department and was completed successfully.  During the flying operations the aircraft was based at Bowen and Rom recalled the warm hospitality of Arthur’s parents, Ernest and Rita Johnson, who kindly accommodated the field party in their family home.

During VH-EXP’s take-off from the Bowen airstrip one morning it suffered a bird strike when well advanced into its take-off run.  Rom recalled Arthur instantly aborted the take-off and brought the aircraft to a safe and well controlled stop before the end of the runway so the aircraft could be checked for any damage. 

Rom also recalled another incident when flying a Laser test from the Royal Australian Air Force Edinburgh air base about 25 kilometres north of Adelaide.  As well as Rom Vassil, other people on the flight were Nat Map’s supervising surveyor Bob Bobroff and the Weapons Research Establishment’s Mike Penny and Alf Gossling.  Just as VH-EXP was becoming airborne for the flight an engine failed.  Arthur Johnson recalled that he quickly feathered the dead engine and completed a circuit of the airbase on the single working engine and landed as per the book.  He remembered that VH-EXP performed as it was supposed to during the incident.  Rom Vassil recalled that the RAAF provided a full airbase emergency response in case something went wrong.  Rom added that fortunately none of the emergency response teams were needed as Arthur put VH-EXP down in a perfect 3-point landing.

Aerodist Coral Sea survey 1971

In October 1971, both Arthur Johnson and Graham Galliott were the pilots of VH-EXZ when it supported a major Aerodist survey operation in the Coral Sea led by then Nat Map senior surveyor Con Veenstra.  The survey covered an area extending from Cairns out to Willis Island and north to Daru Island in the Torres Strait off Papua New Guinea’s Western Province and involved over 30 Nat Map field staff.  Numerous reefs, cays and atolls in the Coral Sea were occupied by Nat Map survey parties.  The overall survey operation also involved at various times three Department of Transport light house tenders: MV Cape Pillar, MV Cape Don and MV Cape Moreton (to position the survey parties off shore).  As well, a piston engine Bell 47J-2A Ranger helicopter (VH-THH) was supplied by Adelaide based Australian Helicopters.  The helicopter pilot was Keith McKenzie and the engineer was Roy Rayner.  It was used to position a National Mapping Aerodist ground remote unit measuring party (Eddy Ainscow, Lawrie O’Connor and Laurie McLean) on to several survey control marks along Cape York as the survey progressed.  During this survey VH-EXZ was based at Cairns and Horn Island.

Initially, for this survey Arthur alone flew VH-EXZ, but had soon reached his mandated maximum number of flying hours; a major safety and fatigue management issue.  Accordingly, Arthur requested Jim Wilson the owner of Executive Air Services to send a relief pilot.  However, Jim believed it would be less costly if a local Cairns based commercial pilot who Jim had recently checked out on an Aero Commander was engaged for a few flights to give Arthur the necessary relief.  Jim Wilson then proceeded to put that arrangement in place.

Unfortunately this arrangement came very close to a disaster.  As pure luck would have it, the first flight that the local relief pilot flew was a short Aerodist height check flight at Cairns airport.  Arthur decided to go along on that flight as a passenger in the right hand seat mainly to satisfy himself that the relief pilot was up to the task.  But even before VH-EXZ had taken-off the prospective relief pilot’s skill and experience on an Aero Commander 680FL were found to be inadequate. 

The 680FL needed about 3,500 feet of runway to reach a safe take-off speed.  As VH-EXZ picked up speed down the runway during the subject take-off in early October 1971, the new relief pilot rotated the aircraft (ie lifted the nose wheel) to put the aircraft into the take-off attitude as usual prior to reaching take-off speed.  The pilot then inexplicably retracted all three wheels in the undercarriage.  This left the aircraft in a very precarious situation: it was moving fast and was barely above the runway with all wheels retracted but not yet at take-off speed.  Fortunately Arthur Johnson took command in an instant and set the throttles and engine boost settings to their absolute safe maximum levels.  But rather than calling my aircraft to announce he was taking control Arthur used another shorter expression which had the same affect.

Nat Mapper Mick Skinner was to have been the Aerodist master operator on that flight.  He later mentioned he was idly watching the main wheels running along the ground as they went down the old gravel runway at Cairns.  Then unexpectedly the main wheels started to retract!  Nat Mapper Paul Wise was also on the flight and remembered VH-EXZ somehow lurching and wallowing very close to the ground before eventually seeming to stagger into the sky.  It was a very close call indeed with disaster only averted by Arthur’s acute situational awareness, quick thinking, rapid reflexes and decisive action; as mentioned previously he was an outstanding pilot.

1974 Balgo Mission : VH-EXZ (front) and VH-EXP (rear) during operations.

To the present day, Arthur Johnson cannot explain just how VH-EXZ managed to stay in the air.  Suffice to say Executive Air Services staff pilot Graham Galliott was soon on a flight from Melbourne to Cairns and he and Arthur shared the flying duty for the rest of the survey.  (Graham was a well respected and very capable pilot who had previously flown VH-EXZ on Aerodist survey operations.)

Arthur Ernest Johnson was born in Melbourne on 3 June 1940.  He was the second of four children born to Ernest Charles Johnson and his wife Rita Irene Johnson (nee White).  Arthur’s father Ernest Charles Johnson was a plumber by trade.  Arthur’s three siblings were his older sister Lois and younger sister and brother Bronwyn and Robert.

In 1951, the Johnson family moved to Bowen on North Queensland’s Whitsunday coast between Townsville and Mackay.  Arthur completed his school years at Bowen State High School.

Royal Australian Navy Service 1957-1970

Arthur Johnson joined the Royal Australian Navy in 1957 at the age of 17 years.  Arthur completed RAN recruit training at HMAS Cerberus at Crib Point on Victoria’s Western Port Bay about 35 kilometres south-east of Melbourne.  Afterwards he was posted to the Royal Australian Naval Air Station Nowra, HMAS Albatross on the New South Wales south coast.  For his initial two years of service at HMAS Albatross, Arthur trained as a Navy Aircraft Mechanic.  However, in 1959 he seized an opportunity to commence flight training as an Observer (the RAN term for navigator).  Arthur graduated as an Observer in 1962 and was promoted Sub-Lieutenant.

Between 1962 and 1966, Arthur flew as an Observer in RAN Fairey Gannet AS.1 carrier-borne anti-submarine warfare training aircraft.  The Gannets were powered by Double Mamba Armstrong Siddeley turbine engines operating coaxially mounted counter rotating propellers.  The Gannets were operated from HMAS Albatross and when carrier-borne were embarked on HMAS Melbourne (II), the Royal Australian Navy’s modified Majestic class light fleet carrier with a full load displacement of 20,000 tons.  During this period Arthur undertook three cruises on HMAS Melbourne.

1960s : Arthur Johnson with Gannet aircraft on the deck of HMAS Melbourne.

During 1966-67, Arthur undertook pilot training; initially at the Royal Australian Air Force’s No 1 Basic Flying Training School at Point Cook about 22 kilometres south-west of Melbourne.  Owing to the RAAF’s need to train aircrew for Australia’s commitment to warlike operations in Vietnam, around this time No 1 BFTS had some 34 instructors and 40 single-engine A85 Winjeel aircraft.  Student pilots were generally sent solo after about 8 hours of flying and had to complete over 120 of flying including 40 hours at night. 

After his time at Point Cook, Arthur was posted to RAAF Base Pearce located at Bullsbrook about 35 kilometres north-east of Perth in Western Australia.  At Pearce, Arthur was attached to No 1 Applied Flying Training School.  Here he undertook a further 125 hours of flying in A79 DHA Vampire trainer aircraft powered by a single de Haviland Goblin 35 jet engine.  Following his graduation at the successful conclusion of his pilot training Arthur was promoted Lieutenant.

Around 1968, Arthur was posted back to HMAS Albatross at Nowra. Here he mainly flew the Grumman S-2E/G Tracker which was a twin-engine carrier-borne anti-submarine patrol aircraft.  The Grumman Tracker was powered by two Wright Cyclone engines that each developed 1,520 horse-power.  (Arthur would later operate a more powerful version of these engines in a Super Canso PBY-5A Catalina flying boat.)  When carrier-borne the Grumman Trackers were embarked on HMAS Melbourne (II).  In 1970, Arthur was promoted Lieutenant Commander.  However, later that year he left the Royal Australian Navy to pursue what would be a very successful nine-year career as a pilot in commercial aviation.

During his time in the Royal Australian Navy, Arthur developed an interest in soaring and during the 1960s participated in the national gliding championships at Narromine in central New South Wales.  Here Arthur was supported by other RAN personnel; their aircraft was a Schneider ES-56 Nymph of which only four were built.  Also while with the RAN, Arthur came to know Les Matterson who had joined the RAN in 1948 in Australia’s first intake of Naval Airmen that were needed for the then pending commissioning of Australia’s first aircraft carrier HMAS Sydney (III).  (Les Matterson joined the RAN at about the same time as Roy Rayner who, as mentioned above, later worked in the field with Nat Map as a helicopter engineer; more details on Roy Rayner are available via this link.)

Executive Air Services 1970-1973

Soon after leaving the Royal Australian Navy, Arthur took up a pilot’s position with the Melbourne based Executive Air Services Pty Ltd that operated from Essendon airport.  EAS operated a number of aircraft on charter and other commercial operations.  Between 1965 and 1977, Executive Air Services chartered fixed wing aircraft or supplied aircrews to support the Division of National Mapping’s Melbourne based field operations as listed below:

·       1965: Rockwell Aero Commander 680E (VH-EXY) for Aerodist measuring operations

·       1966-1974: Rockwell Grand Commander 680FL (VH-EXZ) for Aerodist measuring operations

·       1966: Dornier Do 28B-1 Skyservant (VH-EXA) for spot photography operations

·       1970-1975: Rockwell Aero Commander 680FL (VH-EXP) for Laser Terrain Profiling operations

·       1975-1977: Nomad N22B-25 (VH-DNM) supply of aircrew only for this Nat Map owned aircraft that was used on aerial photography and Laser Terrain Profiling operations.


As mentioned above, during Arthur Johnson’s time flying with National Mapping in 1970 and 1971, he was at various times the pilot of VH-EXZ and VH-EXP.

On a typical Laser Terrain Profiling flight in VH-EXP, as well as the pilot there were three Nat Map crew members, namely: the profile line navigator, the strip camera operator/booker and an electronics technician.  A typical flight was of around five hours duration and was flown at around 8,000 feet above sea level at an indicated air speed of 120 knots.  Owing to the need to hold the isobaric surface for accurate terrain profiling, VH-EXP was fitted with an autopilot to hold height and heading.  The autopilot was so important that the contract between Nat Map and Executive Air Services provided for the aircraft to be declared unserviceable if the autopilot was not working properly. 

For the pilot, the typical operational Laser flight may have seemed rather routine or even a little boring.  Generally the pilot navigated VH-EXP to start of the lines to be profiled and then navigated the aircraft back to base at the end of the day’s work.  During the day’s operations the pilot would have to make small heading corrections as called for by the Nat Map navigator to correct any drift away from the line being profiled.  

The pilot would have to turn the aircraft around at the end of each line and bring it to the start of the next line.  Routinely the pilot would have to radio scheduled operations normal calls to air traffic control that maintained a safety watch for aircraft operating in remote areas.  The pilot would also have to keep a watchful eye for any other air traffic and monitor the aircraft’s performance including balancing fuel load and usage between its tanks.  Sometimes good pilots such as Arthur Johnson would also keep an eye on any new or inexperienced Nat Map navigators to help ensure they did not get lost on a profiling line.

Aerodist flying was more complex.  Prior to undertaking an Aerodist measuring flight, four separate two-man ground parties with microwave remote transponder units would have to be positioned at survey control marks.  In a simplistic configuration these survey marks would be at the four corners of a quadrilateral that was one degree of longitude wide and one degree of latitude deep with each corner being close to the intersections of degree meridians and parallels.

Such a nominal configuration would thus yield six unknown distances or Aerodist lines to be measured, namely the four lines along the sides of the quad (each about 60 miles long) and the two diagonals that braced the quad each about 80 miles long.  VH-EXZ usually had two Nat Map operators on board and the pilot would fly the aircraft at an oblique angle through each line roughly at its centre so the line could be measured by the on board Aerodist master measuring equipment. 

For each Aerodist line being measured there would be a minimum of seven good runs with the goodness of the measurement being determined by the quality of the traces on the automated recording chart.  Each measuring run would start about 7,000 metres on the approach side of the actual line crossing point and continue for a similar distance on the departure side of the crossing.  The aircraft would then come around and start the next run.  During each run the pilot had to strictly maintain aircraft height and heading to optimise the measurement.  Usually the first run across a line was the most difficult as the master operator would give height, heading and even aircraft positioning corrections to get the best simultaneous return signals from the two ground station transponders.  Generally the aircraft flying height was 5,000 feet above sea level but if necessary due to weak signal strength such as on the longer lines in the Coral Sea surveys the aircraft would fly higher; even to 13,000 feet above sea level.

After getting a minimum of seven good measuring runs on an Aerodist line, the aircraft would ferry to the next line crossing point and start the procedure again.  In its later years VH-EXZ was configured with an endurance of around seven hours; thus the working day could be quite demanding for the pilot and for the Nat Map on-board operators.  Once an initial configuration (as in our example above) was completed the aircraft would return to base while the ground parties were repositioned for the next day’s measuring operations.  To some extent day-to-day Aerodist operations were like playing chess across Australia’s remote interior or off shore territories. 

VH-EXZ would also be used to take spot photography of the survey control marks.  This photography was carried out either in conjunction with line crossing flights or on dedicated spot photography flights.  The aircraft was equipped with a Vinten 70mm format reconnaissance camera for this purpose.  Each survey mark would be photographed from several different heights, namely: 500, 1,500 and 3,000 feet above the terrain to facilitate the later transfer of the survey mark position on to smaller scale aerial photography used in the map preparation process.

In all areas of Aerodist activity, Arthur Johnson was always a pleasure to work with, he readily dealt with the complex demands of the flying and had an unfailing ability to make things happen smoothly.  He was also good company at the end of the working day.

Arthur’s other flying assignments during his time with Executive Air Services included piloting Aero 500A Commander aircraft VH-EXW and various other Aero 500 series Shrike Commanders for tasks that included air ambulance work in Victoria.  Another assignment in a Shrike was target towing for Royal Australian Navy gunnery practice.  On such assignments Arthur would tow a drogue target from Sydney’s Mascot airport down the south coast off-shore from Jervis Bay where it was used as a target by RAN destroyers during gunnery firing.  The other Aero 500 series aircraft Arthur flew on various assignments included registrations: VH-EXK, VH-EXO, VH-EXQ, VH-EXR, VH-EXS and VH-EXV.

During 1972 and 1973, Arthur flew a Super Canso PBY-5A Catalina flying boat (VH-EXG).  The aircraft was built in April 1944 by the United States Consolidated Aircraft Corporation as PBV-1A Canso and delivered to the Royal Canadian Air Force from where it became surplus in 1961.  In 1966, the aircraft was converted to a Super Catalina in tanker configuration.  The conversion included modification of the tail and replacement of the engines with Wright RF-2600 Cyclone units that produced 1,700 horse-power.  In August 1972, the Catalina was registered to Executive Air Services as VH-EXG.  It was operated on permanent charter to Geoterrex Pty Limited, a subsidiary of the Ottawa-based Terra Surveys Limited.  VH-EXG was used on geophysical survey work throughout Australia.

Typically for geophysical surveys, VH-EXG was equipped with a Barringer Mark 7 input system, a Geometrics 803 nuclear precession magnetometer, a Honeywell visicorder, a Sperry Stars RT-220 altimeter, a 50 Hertz monitor (to help detect powerlines), and a Geocam 35mm continuous tracking camera.  As well as a pilot and co-pilot the aircraft usually had a flight crew of 4-6 technical operators. 

The aircraft usually flew at a height of only 400 feet above the terrain with the ground sensing apparatus (or bird) for the magnetometer trailing about 200 feet below the aircraft.  (The retractable yellow bird can be seen on the tail end of the Catalina hull in the image below.)  Typically flight lines were spaced at 500 metre intervals.  Flight line navigation was usually assisted with airphoto mosaics.  Nevertheless it was very demanding flying for the pilots.

Arthur Johnson flew VH-EXG on mineral surveys in north-west Western Australia, New South Wales and Tasmania during 1972 and 1973.  At one time during 1973, Arthur was flying Catalina VH-EXG out of Meekatharra in Western Australia when the picture below was taken by Nat Mapper Paul Wise.

1973 Meekatharra : Executive Air Services’ Consolidated Aircraft Corporation, Super Canso PBY-5A Catalina flying boat (VH-EXG) on charter to Geoterrex Pty Limited.

(In 1989, VH-EXG was obtained by the Royal Australian Air Force Museum at Point Cook Victoria.  It was later restored and is now on static display at the Museum as RAAF Catalina A24-104 of No 113 Air Sea Rescue Flight.  In 2006, registration VH-EXG was reassigned to another twin engine aircraft operated by Executive Airlines.  VH-EXG (II) is a twin turbofan Cessna Citation Sovereign mid-size business jet; a vastly different aircraft from the Catalina!)

Maxine Virgo

During November 1970, Arthur Johnson was flying VH-EXZ in support of Aerodist measuring operations in western Queensland and north-western New South Wales.  During some of the third and fourth weeks of November these Aerodist measuring operations were based from Broken Hill.  It was in this western New South Wales mining centre that Arthur first met a local young lady Maxine Virgo who was nursing at the then Broken Hill Hospital (renamed as the Broken Hill Base Hospital in 1981).  Arthur was back in Broken Hill in early 1971 flying VH-EXP in support of Laser field operations.  His friendship with Maxine continued and they have remained partners now for over 40 years.

2011 Hawaii : Maxine Virgo looking out over the island.

(Nat Map’s Con Veenstra recalled Arthur recruiting Maxine to help wash VH-EXZ at Broken Hill in November 1970.  Con never imagined such a courting approach would start a partnership that endured over four decades!)

Maxine continued nursing into the early 1990s and then spent some time as a veterinary nurse.  In the mid-1990s, Maxine started her own business Hanna’s Health Hut which was a health food shop that Maxine operated until 2013 in Townsville’s Castletown Shoppingworld complex.

Air Niugini 1973-1978

In 1973, Arthur and Maxine shifted to Port Moresby where Arthur had secured a pilot’s position with the recently established Papua New Guinea national airline Air Niugini Limited.  The airline was based at Jacksons International Airport about five kilometres to the east of Port Moresby centre.  Initially Air Niugini operated a domestic air service for the developing tropical country that had a paucity of roads and a challenging terrain with numerous mountains that rise above 10,000 feet above sea level. 

Here Arthur flew Fokker F27 Friendship aircraft that had twin turboprops powered by Rolls Royce engines.  The F27 had a nominal capacity for 32 passengers.  Arthur flew these aircraft on domestic flight to various destinations within Papua New Guinea and on international flights to Cairns and to the Solomon Islands.  Arthur continued flying F27s for Air Niugini until 1978.

The Sailing Years 1978-1984

After their time in Port Moresby, Arthur and Maxine were looking for a quieter life in semi-retirement.  They started this with the purchase of a 44-foot yacht in Florida, USA which they then sailed across the Atlantic Ocean.  In the early part of 1979, Arthur and Maxine took their yacht on a shake-down cruise off Florida.  They were accompanied by Nat Mapper Mick Skinner, a good friend from Arthur’s early days with Executive Air Services and Mick’s wife Lily.  Mick had assisted Arthur with the installation of some electronics equipment on the vessel.  More details on Mick and Lily Skinner are available via this link.


1979 Florida : Arthur and Maxine.

Soon after this cruise, Arthur and Maxine set sail for Europe where they spent a few years sightseeing and cruising the Mediterranean.  After their time in Europe, Arthur and Maxine sailed back across the Atlantic to the United States prior to returning to Australia and settling in Townsville.  During his sailing days Arthur spent some time in the Caribbean and here he met Heinrich Eickenbrennen, a fellow sailing enthusiast who was also a qualified and experienced boiler-maker.  A few years later Heinrich was to become the first employee engaged by Rosshaven Marine.

Rosshaven Marine Pty Ltd 1984-2012

In 1984, Arthur Johnson with Nat Mapper Mick Skinner started planning the development of Rosshaven Marine Pty Ltd which was to be a marine repair business in Townsville.  To this end, Arthur and Mick formed an equal partnership with two other essentially silent partners.  They were both Townsville businessmen, namely: Jim Mitchell, a chemist and John Sexton who operated in the development and construction industries. 

Arthur’s inspiration for Rosshaven Marine was the Townsville Port Authority’s call for tenders for the operation of a slipway on the Ross River within the port precinct.  Rosshaven Marine submitted a non-conforming tender that proposed instead of a slipway, the use of a 68 ton Australian built CI Comer Shiplift travel crane.  The Rosshaven Marine tender was successful and preparations were then made for the business to get underway in October 1985 to provide a range of services for commercial fishing, recreational and other vessels including haul outs, repairs and marine and electronic equipment maintenance as well as chandlery and other sales items. 

It was intended that Mick Skinner would operate the travel crane as well as undertake electronics work and other duties.  Mick’s wife Lily was to take on the role of office manager.  However, shortly before the business commenced operations, Mick Skinner was diagnosed with prostate cancer and was unable to take an active role in the business.  He and his wife returned to their previous home in Canberra where Mick Skinner died in April 1987.  In March 1986, Mick and Lily Skinner’s younger son Mark took on the role of Rosshaven Marine office manager and remained in that position for some 15 years. 

Over the first 25 years of its operation, Rosshaven Marine progressed from servicing the (later largely non-existent) local commercial fishing fleet to maintaining and refurbishing Defence vessels as well as various other commercial and recreational vessels.  The Defence vessels included landing craft for the Army, watercraft for the Navy’s Landing Platforms Amphibious (HMAS Manoora and HMAS Kanimbla) and patrol boats donated to island nations under the Pacific Patrol Boats program.  During this period, Rosshaven Marine shifted to a new location within the Townsville port precinct as a new low level road ridge was to block vessel access to its original site.  At the new site, the company greatly expanded its facilities and added an additional travel crane of a massive 250 tons capacity to its plant.  By 2000, it had grown to such an extent that it employed about 70 people.

In December 2012, Rosshaven Marine was sold to Entraco Marine; part of a Singapore-based group of companies.  Throughout its life to that time, Arthur Johnson had remained Rosshaven Marine’s Managing Director.  However, during his later years with the company, Arthur tried to maintain a hands-off role away from the running of its day-to-day operations.

1987 Kambah (L-R) : John Ely, Lily Skinner and Arthur Johnson.

Arthur Johnson and Maxine Virgo today

Since selling Rosshaven Marine in 2012, Arthur and Maxine have continued living in Townsville where Arthur’s interests include sailing and restoring and flying historic aircraft.  More recently Arthur and Maxine have purchased a motor–home in which they toured Tasmania; they plan further road trips in the future.


2012 : Arthur Johnson with the Pietenpol Air Camper aircraft that he hand-built from its 1930 plans.

2012 : Arthur Johnson with his Carbon Cub light weight high performance sports aircraft.

Prepared by Laurie McLean in consultation with Arthur Johnson during June 2014.



Anonymous (undated), VH-EXG Consolidated PVB-1A Catalina C/N CV-369, on website; accessed on 21 June 2014 at:

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