Saturday, June 7, 2014

Sepia Saturday: Neil the fuel agent

Open theme for Sepia Saturday this week had me more indecisive than usual. I think I prefer a theme photo. The family albums hold quite a few intriguing photos so I've selected one from my father-in-law's album that I scanned just a few weeks ago.

Neil understands fuel. When he was growing up in Mitiamo his father had a country store that included fuel pumps and supplied oils and fuel to the local farming community. After his war service, in the 1950s, Neil took over the management of the Vacuum Oil fuel depot in Kerang (and later the Amoco depot). He stayed in the business until he retired.

In the fifties the fuel was delivered from Melbourne to Kerang by train, the steam train shunting the tanker-laden carriages back onto a siding at the depot. The fuel then had to be decanted into tanks at the depot. The fuel and oils were then further decanted into 44-gallon drums so they could be loaded onto a truck for delivery around Kerang and the farms. In later years the fuel was delivered to Kerang by road tanker. This is one of the three trucks Neil and Tom had. It was used to deliver heating fuel. (It still exists - we have it in one of our sheds. It's never been restored but Phil gives the motor a run every now and again.)

N K Phelan and T Henderson, Kerang. The 1948 Morris Commercial
 truck that was used to deliver Amoco heating oil around the town.
It was all a lot of physical work and at each stage the fuel had to be dipped to measure quantities, drums had to be cleaned and painted and labelled, paperwork had to be filled in, accounts prepared, cheques banked. Neil is a very meticulous person by nature so everything was done properly. Neil and his partner delivered fuel out to the cereal farmers - on roads that were unsealed so it was often a slow, bumpy, muddy, slippery, hot or dusty process. They also delivered heating oil to homes in Kerang, they delivered fuel oil to the local power station (in the 1950s before the power came through), they sold fuel at the depot and they refuelled light planes and helicopters at the Kerang Airport.

We don't appear to have any photos of the depots and I checked online to see if there are any other photos of small-town fuel depots, and failed, so this photo probably has historical merit. Neil is the tall bloke in the centre and  he is preparing to load avgas into the helicopter. He had a storage shed at the airport where he kept the hose reel and trolley, several drums of avgas, signs and other equipment. The trolley had four wheels, the front ones on a swivel and the back ones fixed, and had a hand pump attached. The handle that you can see on the ground was used to pull the trolley.

Neil Phelan refuelling a helicopter at Kerang Airport c1960
We have this metal sign (below) from those days - we mounted it on the wood. It was on the wall of the shed at the airport to remind Neil and others of the correct safety procedures when they were fuelling the aircraft. They probably didn't need to read it as they knew the procedures backwards, but... 

...I notice that the sign doesn't mention other OHS (Occupation Heath and Safety) issues such as refuelling when there is a whole class of children clustered around! There are children in the helicopter (who knows what switches they're touching), the trolley handle is in a dangerous position and they are in an extremely volatile work environment.
Aircraft Fuelling Drill. Vacuum Oil metal sign
In the 1960s Neil had the contract to refuel the SEC (State Electricity Commission) helicopters. They were used to check the powerlines. Neil's daughter, Kay, remembers occasionally riding in the helicopter from the airport to the local motel where the pilot and the SEC employee were staying the night - and the helicopter being landed in the grounds of the motel!! It wouldn't happen today. We don't know whether the helicopter in the photo is one used by the SEC.

Now it is all much easier. The roads are in much better condition and the big fuel tankers deliver directly to the farm storage tanks. But Neil is 90 years old and in good health so the physical work doesn't appear to have been damaging.

Click on any image to view larger. You can see other significant photos over at Sepia Saturday.


  1. I love the title of the post. Just think of this weeks' theme as being able to fuel any post you want.

  2. Love the Amoco sign on the door. Isn't it funny the "dangerous" things we used to do before lawsuits took away all our fun?

  3. Interesting post and photos. Handling and delivering fuel was obviously much harder then than it is now..

  4. Fueling us with wonder and fun, great post.

  5. Wendy's right. Now-a-days, viewing the refueling of a helicopter would have the class standing quite a ways back behind a barrier. How in the world did we all survive back in the days before mega safety rules? The truth is, a few of us didn't and even one lost is cause for safer rules no matter how much we may grumble about some of them.

  6. Wendy's right. Now-a-days kids witnessing something like refueling a helicopter would be standing behind a barricade a good ways back from the action. Sometimes I wonder how so many of us DID survive the times we grew up in? Truth be told, some didn't, hence the rules and laws today regarding our safety which we often grumble about, but most of us realize it's - as our mother's used to say - for our own good. :))

  7. I shudder at the thought of a lifetime of the smell and the danger of handling all that fuel. A tale well told.

  8. This was a really interesting post. I never thought of all the steps needed to move fuel from one place to the other so many years ago. Especially awful would have been the bumpy roads (at least that's what I would think). It's great that the truck is still around and running.

  9. Love reading your Wimmera stories, apart from the airport this would have been a situation repeated all over the country. We had to use Avgas in our Jeep when we did an east west crossing of Oz - no unleaded petrol allowed in the aboriginal reserves where we refuelled (they sniff it) We didn't take off and fly though.

  10. A fascinating post on an unusual theme.

  11. Hoorah for notes and photos in such an unexpected genre'. Thanks. I enjoyed reading your blog post.

  12. Notice that it's all the boys who are interested in what the hard-working Neil is doing? They certainly wouldn't be allowed to crowd around like that these days.

  13. How interesting to hear of Neil, but the ‘action’ shot adds a lot to his story.


I love to read your comments. Thankyou for your interest.



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