Mt Stokes believed to be crash site
Did they try an emergency landing?JARED NICOLL
A Picton man believes Kenepuru Sound is the secret home of the first plane to fly across the Tasman Sea.
Former pilot Paul Beauchamp-Legg has organised numerous searches up Mt Stokes to look for the wreckage of the Aotearoa, a plane used in an attempt to fly from Sydney to the Hutt Valley in January 1928.
The plane was a modified Ryan B-1 Brougham high-wing monoplane, powered by a 220-horsepower nine-cylinder air-cooled engine.
The flight was expected to take about 14 hours. The last radio signal was received from the plane at 5pm and then it disappeared.
Mr Beauchamp-Legg believes the pilots, New Zealanders lieutenant John Moncrieff and radio operator captain George Hood, flew westward from a point in Cook Strait and aimed for the lights of Picton and on to Blenheim, which both were familiar with. They could have been trying to make an emergency landing, he believes.
They may have dropped below the heavy cloud on the night and crashed on the mountain after being caught in a downdraft - witnesses have reported seeing lights and hearing the plane, about then, on Mt Stokes.
Mr Beauchamp-Legg contacted the Marlborough Express after reading an article in the Saturday Express [September 29] about a search for the plane this summer spearheaded by Nelson Bays search and rescue volunteer Sherp Tucker who believes others overestimated the plane's power and that it would have crashed in Golden Bay.
Mr Beauchamp-Legg disagreed and, with help from witness reports at the time by Ken Mabin and Edward Barton, who described the sight and sound of the plane from a launch nearby, believed firmly the pilots would have been exhausted after 15 hours' flying and would have been running low on fuel when the crash happened with low visibility.
Though the plane did not have lights or flares, the lights spotted by Mr Mabin and Mr Barton could have been from the pilot's torch or its hot exhaust pipe.
"All those factors add up to it being there, and my feelings are still very much that that's the place.
"There's not many people alive and well that would remember it.
"The original searchers would have been over 100 by now."
Mr Beauchamp-Legg attempted many times to search the spots marked on a map by Mr Mabin and Mr Barton. He wrote about the experiences in his book, My Masterton Flying Years: The Memories of a Flying Instructor.
Thick bush, steep landscape and the fact that most of the plane would have disintegrated made them futile. A Scout group, territorial army soldiers, friends and family have all pitched in over the years but the closest things found were possibly a piece of burnt notebook and a bit of laminated wood that was likely just treebark.
Some people reported seeing footprints from town shoes on the mountain.
"It's one of those hit or miss things that someone might be up there pig hunting and they kick a rock and it makes a different sound - it'll be an engine."
●Australians Charles Smith and Charles Ulm made the flight in September 1928.
- The Marlborough Express