It’s an 85-year-old mystery that would rewrite aviation history. Charles Anderson goes deep into South Island bush to chart the fateful journey of the Aotearoa and the obsessive search for a plane lost for almost a century.
For an extended interactive multimedia version of this story, including a short documentary, visit www.lostplane.co.nz
2013 -Awaroa: The land slipped and crumbled beneath his feet. It had been several hours since Gerry Tonkin began the search and while the topography around him had shifted wildly - rolling from shallow gravel gullies, to sharp gorse ridges - the scene in front of him had not. Dust and dried leaves and blackberry bush layered the floor, and thick woody vines of supplejack wrapped and sprawled their way through regenerating forest. "Spider web gullies," they were called.
"We told ourselves we are going to find this thing," Tonkin said, grabbing the exposed roots of a beech tree to haul himself upright. There weren't any easy paths. Holding a small rusted scythe he cut away at the branches that fell constantly into his face.
It was hard to know what their target might look like after all these years. It was meant to be thin metal tubing crisscrossing its way down to a tapered end. They were told it might look like a windmill fallen on its side.
All searches were different, but this was one of the few times that the volunteers weren't racing to find someone alive.
Deep in the thick green labyrinth, a few kilometres from the Awaroa Inlet, they were searching for a piece of New Zealand history lost for 85 years. It represented the forgotten heroism of an age - where an individual could aspire to great feats at great peril. A find would rewrite a little-known piece of New Zealand aviation lore. It would give two young men credit for conquering the unconquered. And it would bring closure to two families who have long lived without an answer to the question: what happened to George Hood and John Moncrieff?
Tonkin and his colleague Bevan Bruce cantered down the hillside. Light broke through the canopy and illuminated the thin streams of dust that puffed up behind the men.
In a gully, surrounded by the monotonous buzzing of wasps, Bruce pulled out a map and compass.
"Even SAR [search and rescue] teams get lost," he joked.
They had been scrambling for hours with little progress. But to be a search and rescue volunteer you had to be an optimist. Sherp Tucker, the longtime and unofficial leader of the group, had a saying: if you don't think you are going to find anything, go home. To him the glass was always half full. It was always a quarter full. It was always an eighth full.
"You have to believe that," he said before the search began. "It helps you believe in yourself."
1927 - Wellington
John "Scotty" Moncrieff stood at the railings of the steamship Maunganui and grabbed at streamers that were thrown over the narrow stretch of water separating the vessel from land. Save for his wife and several family members, however, few people on shore had any idea of the great venture on which he was about to embark.
Moncrieff was, noted a reporter, grinning like Peter Pan.
At 29, he was wiry and muscular. He earned a wage as a mechanic at a local garage workshop but for the past several years had been dreaming of something much more audacious. He had come to New Zealand from Britain when he was 16 and learned to fly in Canterbury before joining the Royal Air Force.
Next to him stood George Hood, a 35-year-old farmer from Wairarapa. Occasionally he would catch sight of a friend in the mass and a smile would break out across his face, exposing a chipped front tooth. Hood had crossed oceans to get to Gallipoli and France to fight Turks and Germans during World War I. After the war finished he lost his leg in a flying exercise gone wrong.
This next journey would be much less perilous. In the two men's pockets were one-way tickets to Sydney. When they returned home, they hoped it would be by air - arriving to the fanfare of a country in celebration.
Moncrieff wanted to be the first pilot to cross the Tasman between Sydney and Trentham, Upper Hutt, a 2300-kilometre expanse of sea described by one airman of the time as a "dirty stretch of water, breeding a vicious type of young storm".
Only eight months earlier, Charles Lindbergh had made history by flying a Brougham Ryan aircraft non-stop from New York to Paris.
Moncrieff had confirmation from financial backers and his plane, the same make as Lindbergh's, had been ordered from San Diego. It was a Ryan B-1 Brougham monoplane, made largely of wood with a thin pipe frame and metal panels. The engine was a metre-long cylinder of steel, aluminium and bronze. It weighed 240 kilograms.
A cable was sent to America with the aircraft's name. Along the side of the polished metal cockpit, in thick black capitals, the word "Aotearoa" was painted.
Moncrieff wanted to be the next on the list of aviation record breakers.
A flight from Richmond, Sydney, to Trentham Racecourse would take about 14 hours by their calculations. They took 20 hours of fuel aboard and, during assembly in Melbourne, they installed an extra fuel tank to more than double the plane's capacity. It was placed where the front wicker seat would normally have been. The seat was discarded meaning it would be impossible for the pilots to swap places during the flight.
The only navigation equipment aboard was a radio that would send out a long static dash for five minutes every quarter of an hour. Radio operators who picked up the signal could attest to the pilots' safety. They would instead use "dead reckoning" to calculate their position. Wind speeds and previous fixed positions would help deduce their flight path. Dead reckoning, though, was subject to cumulative errors. Some navigators joked its derivation came from "dead wrong".
There was no question that Moncrieff would be going but Hood and another pilot, Ivan Kight, flipped a coin to see who would join him. On Friday, January 6, after a couple of short test flights, Hood won the right to fly the Tasman Sea.
They would, said Moncrieff, undertake the journey "cheerfully and confidently". The mechanics and engineers checked the engine. It was running "smoothly and perfectly". They checked the radio. There were some concerns that it was not considered up to specifications. It was never tested during flight.
Nevertheless, early on the morning of January 10, messages were sent to the pilots' wives that they should expect them back in the capital that night.
The tanks were filled and at the engine was started. With minutes ticking over, Moncrieff gave the order to start. They did not want to land at Trentham in the dark.
Mechanics pulled the chocks and revolved the propeller. At 2.44am with the engine revving at cruising speed, Moncrieff unleashed the throttle. Within 100 yards Aotearoa had risen into the night sky. It turned and started heading for New Zealand.
1960s - Awaroa
It was dawn when Rex Lankshear and Donald Hadfield woke. When the school holidays arrived Rex would head out to his cousin's homestead in Awaroa to hunt and explore the vast, isolated terrain.
On this morning the teenagers took their knives and their dog and left the farm in search of pigs, walking across the beach and up the hills into the scrub.
It was about 1963. Before long the dog, who had marched far ahead of the pair, started to bark. It had the pig bailed up in a scrubby gully. The teenagers scuttled down a hill and past a clump of skinny manuka. For a split second Rex thought he saw what seemed to be a structure settled within it.
"What the bloody hell is that?" he thought.
In the heat of the hunt, the pair carried on down to the dog. It had the pig cornered. They stuck it with a knife, cleaned it up, cut off its hind legs, and then made their way back up the slope for a closer look at what Rex had seen.
It was a pipe frame, several metres long, with sticks of manuka growing up through it. At first they thought it was a windmill, but Rex had grown up at the nearby Nelson airport and knew what an aeroplane was shaped like - even one that had no wings, no fuselage, no propeller, no engine or tail. This was just a frame.
That evening around the dinner table, with pork for dinner, Rex told his family what he had seen.
His uncle, Bill Hadfield, was unconvinced. Nobody else lived up there, except for Jimmy Perrot, an old sailor who jumped ship at the turn of the century and swam ashore. He lived, in an old hut, on the ridge overlooking the Awaroa Inlet. But when Bill asked his father, Fred, about it, he said Jimmy had seen something like that too, years ago.
When summer ended, Rex went back to school and never bothered mentioning his find to anyone.
A few years later, Donald died of cyanide poisoning as he was mixing possum baits in a shed at Awaroa. Rex, by that time 17 and living in Nelson, couldn't bring himself to go to his funeral. There was no reason to ever mention the plane again. He never went back to the area.
Rex became an engineer, married, raised children, and established a wrought iron company near Nelson.
In about 2003, he and employee Steve Newport were discussing Newport's hobby - searching for relics of New Zealand history. Steve would park up on the side of almost forgotten highways and trudge alone for hours looking for old trains and planes. He always found them, tucked away in overgrown landscapes, lost to everyone except those who went looking.
"I saw a plane in the bush one day when I was a youngster," Rex said.
Newport didn't know what it was. But his heart quickened. It could be a great find.
He spent the next few years tramping the hills and gullies around Awaroa, making seven or eight separate searches. He enlisted his brother, Mark, and friend Ian Mortimer.
The trio found marijuana plots, beer cans, and old fence posts, but no aircraft.
After a few years of struggling, they started to joke that they should pretend to be lost themselves - they could get Search and Rescue out there to help them. Actually, they thought, enlisting SAR wasn't such a bad idea. So in September 2011, Mark told Andrew Mackie - a local aviation enthusiast who had once worked as a driver for SAR. He knew of almost every aviation disaster in the country's history. As soon as the Newports told him, Mackie felt a chill of recognition. There was only one unaccounted for wreck it could be.
1928 - Trentham
The news of the takeoff filtered back home and by late afternoon on January 10, 1928, about 10,000 people had gathered at Trentham. Special trains were put on and cars clogged the roads around the racecourse. Men wore suits and hats. Women wore frocks and fur coats.
Every now and then a seagull, looking vaguely like a plane in the distance, would draw the gaze of the expectant crowd.
The wives, Dorothy Moncrieff and Laura Hood, stood at the railings and posed for photographs with the Mayor of Wellington. Dorothy looked continually at her wristlet watch.
But at 5.22pm, the whines from the Aotearoa's radio, which had been picked up for hours by the postal stations around the country, stopped.
It was thought the flight might arrive at 7pm. But as the hours rolled on there was still no sign. At 8pm someone announced the pilots still had five hours of petrol left.
"They will get here," Dorothy said, "and if they don't get here then they will be all right. They will land."
The roaring of a passing motorcycle drew hundreds in a rush. Then the crowd became silent. Slowly, it began to disperse. The last special train left the course at 9.56pm. Its 17 carriages were crammed.
The wives remained. They heard messages of "sightings" - of sounds and noises in the night over Paekakariki, from Stephens Island and Wairarapa Lake. At 1am, Dorothy once again looked at her watch.
"Their petrol is out," she said.
2013 - Totaranui
Twenty-six searchers filed into the hall behind the Ngarata homestead - a 1914 bungalow that had been converted into an education centre at Totaranui.
Sherp Tucker stood in front of a screen, the light from a projector imprinting his stout body with a map. Huddled with the search's senior members, he explained the plan.
"Look at that hillside," he said moving out of the projector's beam, "It's full of them."
He pointed to small clumps on the map of what seemed to be manuka trees - trees that Rex Lankshear insisted he had seen the plane's body resting in.
At 66, Lankshear was no longer a wiry teenager. He now had thick grey hair and blackened fingernails. Tucker had met him months earlier after Andrew Mackie relayed his story.
Tucker asked Lankshear to come into the Tasman Police district headquarters in Nelson. In an operations room, Tucker asked the former pig hunter to draw what he saw.
Lankshear sketched the outline of the frame on a whiteboard. The black marker started thin and widened towards the end. It was tubing lying on hill sloping from left to right. It looked like what the empty shell of a plane might look like.
Lankshear told his story with such conviction that Tucker was left with little doubt: they had definitely seen something.
"The only way it could have got there is falling out of the sky," Tucker said.
Tucker was careful not to say too much. He knew memories were not exact recordings of the past. There was only so far you could push before you started putting things into a person's head.
His memory, however, relied on a place that no longer existed. Fifty years was a long time. The place he and Douglas had hunted in would now, in Tucker's words, "look like Mars".
The more Tucker investigated, the more he thought finding Lankshear's "windmill" would make a good training exercise for the region's SAR volunteers.
The organisation regularly had refresher courses but these were almost always based on hypothetical situations. This search, however, would have real life consequences. If they were successful, history would be rewritten and, most importantly, the relatives of the pilots would have an answer.
Tucker wanted to know what the area Lankshear had seen looked like back then. New Zealand Aerial Mapping had photographs of the area from 1952 and then 1965. They were black and white but the Awaroa Inlet was clearly visible. He could make out small clumps of young manuka amid the blurred vegetation. Some were on down slopes facing away from the sea. They were similar to what Lankshear described.
Tony Nikkel pulled up an image from Google Earth. The black and white was replaced with thick green. Nikkel, a surveyor by trade, had a job - to bring a memory back to life.
By overlaying the points from the 1965 photograph with true points in Google satellite imagery he could, effectively, travel through time. He could place himself on the ridgeline, zoom in and look around. He needed to give those searchers on the ground the greatest chance of finding whatever it was that Lankshear saw.
In the hall Tucker turned to the men. "We don't want people thinking it's going to be piss easy," he said. "Because it ain't."
Were there any questions? A hand shot up in the crowd. "How do we get in there?"
1928 - Moeatoa
Nine-year-old Bill Hopkins hunched over his wireless set in a Moeatoa farmhouse, concentrating on the slow, punctuated static coming from the first airplane to fly the Tasman Sea.
It was after 10pm when he rushed outside to see a noisy dark object passing in the distance. It was a few hundred feet up. It could only be a plane, he thought, nearing the far west coast of the Waikato.
Reports rolled in from around the country - Lyall Bay south east of Wellington, Featherston, Kaitoke.
Then, at 2.30am, with the report line silent, it was presumed the pilots had decided to land on a beach. They would fly to Trentham at daybreak.
Two days after the flight, the Government commenced an aerial and sea search for Moncrieff and Hood.
"There seems to be every reason to believe that they had practically accomplished their task," Prime Minister Gordon Coates said.
But by January 17, a week after the flight, Kight had returned to New Zealand by ship and the searches were over. They found nothing. He took the wicker chair, which Moncrieff removed for the extra petrol tank, back home.
Nine months later two Australians, Charles Kingsford Smith and Charles Ulm, became the first men to fly the Tasman. Two hundred and fifty kilometres from their destination at Wigram in Christchurch, they dropped a wreath into the sea in memory of the lost New Zealand pilots.
Kingsford Smith visited Hood's mother in Masterton.
Mollie Iggulden, George's niece, was there that day with her sister. Kingsford Smith was tall and charming, Mollie thought. Her sister held in her hand a small burgundy book with the word "Autograph" embossed in gold on the front. She handed it to Kingsford Smith who smiled, took it from her and signed it in long flowing cursive before handing it back.
The missing New Zealanders continued to haunt their families. Moncrieff's mother saw the pair in her dreams. They were talking to her.
The following February, half buried in silt on the bank of the Pelorus river, two trampers found a bottle. Inside was a note. It read: "Can't land . . . Oh help - Scotty."
Soon after, parts of charred and rusted aircraft, long exposed to salt water were pulled ashore at Jervis Bay south of Sydney. In Adelaide, a fisherman named Taylor found a portion of an airplane wing on the rocks.
They were all hoaxes or cases of misidentification, police found. It was the first missing aircraft case in the country.
2013 - Auckland
Mollie sat in the living room of her Auckland retirement village flat remembering the day her uncle went missing.
She remembered the waiting, the waiting, the waiting. She remembered Kingsford Smith, how her own grandmother never forgot George. She wished she could remember more but her memory was selective these days.
It was a part of her history but a piece that fewer and fewer in the younger generation seemed interested in.
Mollie was 95 now. In a white cardboard box labelled "Memoirs of George Hood" she kept newspaper clippings of supposed sightings and searches that had come up over the years. She was used to disappointment now.
"I always hoped the mystery would be solved while I'm still alive," she said. She wondered though, that if wreckage had been out there, somewhere, over the passage of time, with rain or even earthquakes, perhaps the Aotearoa might have simply disappeared.
2013 - Awaroa Everywhere Rex Lankshear looked was gorse. Everywhere was supplejack. It had been decades since he'd been to Awaroa. He had expected the slopes to look different but not quite like this. The undergrowth baffled him. The landscape teased at the familiar.
"I know it's in here somewhere," Rex said, staring into the bush. "I can feel it."
Gerry Tonkin said nothing.
Rex scampered through branches as if sparked by some faint memory. He would look up into the branches as if his frame, his windmill, his plane might have grown up into the 20-metre forest canopy along with the trees.
Earlier that morning the searchers were told there had been no fires in the area for the past 100 years. But in their area, just a few hundred metres across, Tonkin had repeatedly come across trails of manuka charcoal that lingered on the land like the scars of old cauterised wounds?
In a debrief, Tonkin told Tony Nikkel about the residue of manuka, once burning bright, slow and long at immense heat, littered through the area. "That would melt a metal pipe frame," he said.
If there ever was a plane out there, it would have dissolved into the dust and dried leaves and blackberry bush.
Outside, Rex looked out to the Tasman Sea.
"It's just so sad," he said. "It would be great to bring closure to the families."
Then he said his goodbyes, walked to his car and rattled down the dusty Totaranui track and back to Nelson.
The Newport brothers and Ian Mortimer weren't giving up, though.
Give them a few weeks to recover but they would be back. Yes, they had heard about the charcoal and the fires and the heat perhaps taking the thin metal frame of Aotearoa, the Long White Cloud, registration G-AUNZ. But there was still something else, Mortimer said. That metre-long cylinder of steel, aluminium and bronze weighing a quarter of a tonne.
"That would still be there," he said. "That motor is never going to disappear. Not a big lump like that."
Additional reporting Naomi Arnold
For an extended interactive multimedia version of this story, including a short documentary, visit www.lostplane.co.nz
- Sunday Star Times