Anticipation as crowd waits for plane. And waits

NAOMI ARNOLD
Last updated 12:30 22/09/2012

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On a still, clear, moonless night in January 1928, 9-year-old Bill Hopkins huddled over a wireless set in a Moeatoa farmhouse, listening to the steady whines broadcast from the first airplane to fly over the Tasman Sea.

Sometime between 10pm and 11pm, he heard the sound of the plane in the distance, and rushed outside to see a noisy dark object passing over the farmhouse, a few hundred feet up.

The object he saw couldn't have been anything but the plane, he told the Auckland Star in 1972; in 1928, even seeing an plane during the day was rare. Together with another local man, Mr Hopkins scoured those hills on foot and by air, convinced the plane was buried there somewhere.

He never found it - but neither has anyone else. The mystery of the lost plane sparked so many sightings that it is difficult to pin down what is true and what was speculation - or simply hope.

Its pilot, Lieutenant John Moncrieff, was a New Zealander by adoption, born in 1899 in the Shetland Islands. He'd trained as a motor engineer before taking a flying course, and nursed a long-held ambition to fly the Tasman.

Born in 1894, Captain George Hood was a Masterton boy, fascinated by flying since boyhood. He became an aviator during World War I, and served in Gallipoli and France.

At the end of 1916 he was seriously injured in a crash, which saw his lower right leg amputated; it didn't stop him flying. At the time he met Moncrieff, he was making a living driving a taxi in Masterton. He won the chance to fly in Aotearoa in a coin toss.

January 10, 1928. In Sydney, the plane took off at 0244 and immediately turned for New Zealand. Its radio had no navigational capability, but the pair sent out a continuous tone for five minutes every quarter of an hour. At 1722 New Zealand time, when the aircraft had been in the air for just over 12 hours and should have been within 321 kilometres of New Zealand, the signals stopped.

More than 10,000 people gathered to welcome them at Trentham waited into the night, training binoculars on the sky and straining to hear the sounds of a distant engine. But flares set out to guide the pilots safely to ground were never lit.

Wellington's Evening Post of January 11 reported the two figures of Mrs Moncrieff and Mrs Hood, "plucky wives of plucky men", waiting patiently, "refusing to consider the possibility of failure on their husbands' part" - until Mrs Moncrieff, "so pluckily confident", glanced at her watch at 1am and said simply "Their petrol is out".

Rumours and sightings flew the country until midnight, as they would for days and weeks afterwards; but by 2.30am, the Post reported, "hope for a landing had been given up".

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"It is abundantly clear," the paper closed, "that the principal actors in the great adventure went into the unknown like men, and that if death is their portion, it is nevertheless swallowed up in victory."

- The Nelson Mail

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