Gault at controls for documentary about air tragedy

Simon Gault stands proudly by his Thunder Mustang.
Simon Gault stands proudly by his Thunder Mustang.

We're more used to seeing him in the hot-headed kitchens of MasterChef, but in his precious spare time, celebrity chef Simon Gault cameos as a daredevil aerobatic pilot.

He has even represented New Zealand in aerobatics and still flies a Thunder Mustang at air shows.

It was this passion for flying - which started with glider flying at Drury, north of Auckland, in his teenage years - that led to an invitation to front a documentary about the 1963 Kaimai plane crash, the deadliest on New Zealand soil. It is the 50th anniversary of the crash on Wednesday.

Gault spent weeks interviewing relatives of some of the 23 people who died when the DC-3 crashed into a steep ravine in the Kaimai Ranges, which separate the Waikato and the Bay of Plenty.

A Court of Inquiry found the plane was caught in unexpectedly bad weather, meaning the crew were likely unaware of their location. The plane was then caught by a down draught described as too turbulent for the pilot to climb out of, and the DC-3 slammed into a ridge on Mt Ngatamahinerua.

During his research for the show, Gault learnt he had connections to the crash: he knew the pilot who flew the aircraft the flight before it crashed.

"It was quite poignant with my involvement with flying gliders and with flying over that bit of dirt where it crashed."

During the documentary, Gault is shown walking to the crash site, a notoriously rugged piece of terrain - an experience he said "nearly killed me".

"The guide said, ‘Are you an experienced tramper?' "

Gault found meeting the family of the victims emotional.

"It brought everything home. You just got attached to everybody that you met.

"I learnt about the people on the aeroplane and how the forecast was wrong. They didn't know where they were. It was really unfortunate."

He said he loved making the programme, as it was a "document of history in New Zealand".

"I'm about to have a kid and I would like her to watch it. I think it's important."

His father, Bryan Gault, a former airforce pilot, also stars in the documentary, having worked with the original accident investigator.

The Descent From Disaster series starts on TV One on July 16. The Kaimai crash episode will screen on July 23.

Sunday Star Times