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Bush pilot remembered

Friday, 9th August, 2019

James Howie Debney (1931-2019) James Howie Debney (1931-2019)

By Myles Burt

James Howie Debney was one of the last great bush pilots to navigate the sky above the Far West. 

Born in Adelaide on September 8, 1931, Mr Debney grew up on Arrabury Station 106kms north of Innamincka in the heart of the Channel Country.

He later travelled to Adelaide where he learnt to fly with the Royal Aero Club before joining the Citizen Airforce.

Around 1956, Doug Harrison formed Barrier Air Taxis having purchased a state-of-the-art Beechcraft Model 17 Staggerwing. He employed Mr Debney soon after as the company’s first pilot to fly the aircraft across the West Darling and Southern Queensland regions.

The young pilot transported tourists, property owners, stock agents, Kidman bosses and the mail across some of the most remote areas of Australia. Some locations were just north of Broken Hill, while others stretched across to the far reaches of Bedourie, QLD, on the odd occasion.

Mr Debney was eventually promoted from pilot to a company partner in Barrier Air Taxis.

Mr Harrison said Mr Debney was an incredibly skilled pilot who could perform without the modern luxuries of today’s superior aircraft navigation equipment.

“The only thing you had in those days was just a compass,” Mr Harrison said.

“When you got away from Broken Hill, we use to have to unwind a great big aerial out behind the aircraft to get any communication.

“Then sometimes when you come back to land, you’d forget to wind it in and wrap it around the fence and pull it off.”

Mr Harrison and Mr Debney went through years of flying through the occasional dust storm, where visibility would disappear and they would have to navigate by pure memory.

“Doesn’t matter how thick the dust was, you weren’t able to see in front of you, but if you looked straight down you’d always see a spot on the ground about 100 yards in diameter,” Mr Harrison said.

“So you’d be looking at that spot on the ground all the time to pick up landmarks and things like that when you’re navigating.

“It was a very interesting time.”

Fellow pilot Paul Andrews remembers Mr Debney as a happy and principled man who always set the best example around others during his time at Barrier Air Taxis.

“He was always smiling,” Mr Andrews said.

“I never heard him say a bad word about anybody no matter what the people did, he was highly ethical and that was a bit of a stand out.”

While he was acquiring his commercial pilot’s licence at the local Aero Club, Mr Andrews was offered a job by Mr Debney in 1981.

Mr Andrews said Mr Debney generously held open the job position for months until he officially gained his commercial licence.

Mr Andrews said once starting the job, he became good friends with Mr Debney who mentored him during his time as at Barrier Air Taxis. 

“He was a bit like a second father to a lot of people I think, especially the young pilots out there,” Mr Andrews said.

“He was somebody that everybody seemed to look up to.”

Mr Andrews was taught by Mr Debney how to do the busy air mail runs across the West Darling region, where they would fly to about 30 stations delivering the mail and transporting tourists every day.

“Just myself, I did 12,000 landings on the mail run,” Mr Andrews said.

“Never had a problem, and it was like six landings an hour.”

Mr Debney formed strong friendships with his passengers who he’d charter out to properties within the Far West, according to Mr Andrews.

Being from the bush, Mr Debney was an easy man to relate to for many of his rural passengers.

Mr Andrews said when being taught how to do mail runs, Mr Debney could point out every property, name every family, could recall the family history and where they came from.

“He just knew every story, station and strip in the West Darling,” Mr Andrews said.

“He knew everybody and everybody knew Howie.

“He’s someone that a lot of people miss.”

Mr Debney died on June 22 in Brisbane.

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