New search for P51 Mustang last seen over Dargaville in the 1950s

Noel Hilliam views scanned images of the depths of the  Northern Wairoa River in his search for the missing P-51 Mustang.
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Noel Hilliam views scanned images of the depths of the Northern Wairoa River in his search for the missing P-51 Mustang.

The whereabouts of a young pilot, and his aircraft, who mysteriously disappeared around Dargaville's shores 60 years ago may soon be revealed.

Amateur historian Noel Hilliam, who is leading the search, is on the hunt for a boatie who could help him uncover the possible wreckage of the P51 Mustang from the depths of the Northern Wairoa River.

"The wreck is possibly lying at a depth of over 20 feet [6 metres] with another couple of feet of silt covering it," Hilliam says, who has extensive experience in locating and salvaging shipwrecks.

The P-51s were the American equivalent of the English spitfires. The missing aircraft was similar to this one pictured ...
Derek Flynn

The P-51s were the American equivalent of the English spitfires. The missing aircraft was similar to this one pictured at an airshow in Blenhiem last year.

"I have a team of keen divers all ready... just need the use of a jet boat to help blast the silt off."

Hilliam began his search for the Mustang by compiling witness accounts he has collected over the years from long-term residents who reported seeing the aircraft at the time of its disappearance in 1955, with other known information.

The statements include witnesses seeing the aircraft flying at a low level over the Dargaville Bowling Club and river while another resident, who lived by the  shoreline in the 1950s, said he saw a "massive water spout" rising from the river around a similar time of the other sightings.

Through his research, Hilliam was able to determine an area of the Northern Wairoa to scan and, with help of friend Keith Gordon who owns a subservice interface radar scanner, were able to pin-point an approximate site where the aircraft went down.   

On viewing the scanned images of the wreck, Hilliam says the Mustang appears "to have split into three sections and is lying upside down with the wings torn off".

On speculating about possible crash scenarios, he says one theory is that the "pilot possibly flew too close to the river and clipped a wing into the water while banking around a bend". 

The missing pilot, Ian French, was a member of the Territorial Air Force and a student at Ardmore Teachers Training College.

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He was on a return journey from Hokianga to Whenupai airbase when he vanished.

The official conclusion after extensive searches, was that French and the P51 Mustang had crashed into the Tasman Sea. 

 - Stuff

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