Riddle of lost flight

Last updated 12:30 22/09/2012

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Sally Kidson and Naomi Arnold report on efforts to find an old plane wreck in Golden Bay . . . which would force a rewrite of aviation history.

Searchers are gearing up to solve an 84-year-old aviation mystery over the fate of a plane and its two crew who went missing as they attempted the first trans-Tasman flight.

Armed with modern-day techniques and a 1960s sighting of wreckage by a pig hunter, volunteers are preparing a major search for the Aotearoa in Golden Bay this summer.

The plane, crewed by New Zealanders Lieutenant John Moncrieff and his radio operator Captain George Hood, went missing on their attempt to make the first trans-Tasman flight in 1928.

Discovery of the wreckage would prove that they were the first people to fly across the Tasman. The Aotearoa left Sydney early on the morning of January 10, but it never arrived at Trentham airport where an estimated 10,000 people, including the aviator's wives, were waiting to witness history.

Sydney airport is named after Australian pilot Charles Kingsford Smith who successfully flew to New Zealand eight months after Hood and Moncrieff's attempt.

Nelson Bays search and rescue volunteer Sherp Tucker agreed to the search after he interviewed a Nelson man, now in his 60s, who stumbled across metal plane wreckage while pig hunting in Golden Bay in the 1960s as a teenager.

His description of what he saw matched information they had on the plane, Mr Tucker said.

"It was bloody indentical.

"I don't usually get too excited about things but the chap who gave us the information has no angle at all - absolutely no angle."

Mr Tucker wanted to hear from anyone who may have heard something about a plane crash in Golden Bay in 1928.

"What they've heard from their grandparents, an uncle, a rumour . . . that's the kind of thing we're going to be looking for."

He said the search would take place in Golden Bay, but he did not want to reveal specific locations that might influence any information provided.

The Aotearoa's planned route was to head directly to Farewell Spit and follow the coast to Blenheim and then to Trentham.

Radio signals from the plane were lost after 12 hours.

Search and rescue groups would first meet on October 3 in Motueka. The search for the plane would be carried out in February after planning and research operations.

This would include looking at old aerial photographs of the possible site and matching them with the witness' recollection of the bush.

It was unknown what would remain of the largely wooden plane, but some parts were metal.

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"To me it's a damn good opportunity for our team to have a good training practice. It's too good an opportunity to miss out on. If there does happen to be a find at the end of it, there will be great leaps up and down all over the country."

Mr Tucker was alerted to the mystery of the Aotearoa by Nelson aviation enthusiast Andrew Mackie. In turn, Mr Mackie was told about the plane wreckage by Nelson brothers Scottie and Mark Newport, who were in his 4WD club.

Mr Mackie believed others in Nelson might have information on the crash.

He said many historians had written about the Moncrieff-Hood flight, but he believed they had got the flight time wrong and had miscalculated the plane's power and speed.

Signal was lost with the plane at 5.20pm - a time which would marry with the plane crashing in Golden Bay, he said.

"A number of factors look good for this search, but in saying that, a Tiger Moth did disappear from Takaka and its remains have never been found."

Mr Mackie said there were reports that Moncrieff had not slept for 22 hours before the flight due to the demands of preparations.

A big fuel tank separated Moncrieff and Hood, which meant Hood was unable to assist Moncrieff during the flight, he said.

"There's a distinct possibility New Zealand history will be re-written. For me it's pretty exciting for someone to step forward and give you details about the first recorded air accident in New Zealand."

Mark Newport said he and his brother's interest in the story was sparked by the pig hunter - his brother's former boss. They had been looking for the lost plane on and off for 10 years and planned to launch another search on their own before Christmas.

"We just like looking at old stuff and finding old stuff and that."

Mr Newport described the area where they were searching as "pretty rugged".

Diane Moncrieff, of Stokes Valley, said the pilot was her grandfather's brother. She had grown up knowing that the aviator and his fateful flight was part of her family history.

She was excited about the search and said she would be watching with interest how things unfolded. "They might need my DNA," she joked.

She said her grandparents were from the Shetland Islands and believed her great uncle had made the flight.

Anyone with information about the flight is asked to call Mr Tucker on 027 570 6098.

- The Nelson Mail

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