Memories revive hopes in Aotearoa mystery

NAOMI ARNOLD
Last updated 13:00 28/01/2014
Aotearoa

LOST PLANE: The Aotearoa before the ill-fated Trans-Tasman flight attempt.

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Aviation enthusiasts hope that an engine once spotted on a bluff south of Karamea may belong to the lost plane Aotearoa, a discovery that would change history if confirmed.

Nelson aviation buff Andrew Mackie and his Hastings counterpart Gavin Grimmer have discovered that two people saw a radial engine on a rocky bluff, as well as a plane tail in a different location.

Coupled with reports from local people who recalled stories about hearing an engine cutting out, a crash, and smoke pouring out of the trees in 1928, they felt the find warranted further investigation.

"It's very unlikely to be two crashes in the same place," Mr Grimmer said. He did not want to reveal who had seen the engine.

Mr Mackie did not think the engine could have come from any other downed aircraft.

"It's very likely to be a much earlier plane like the Aotearoa, so that's why I'm personally quite interested in it. There may be a few different bits strewn through the bush there."

The Aotearoa's engine had external pushrods and would be quite distinctive, he said.

New Zealanders Lieutenant John Moncrieff and Captain George Hood attempted to make the first trans-Tasman flight in the Aotearoa, a Ryan B-5 Brougham monoplane, in January 1928, but disappeared somewhere between Sydney and Upper Hutt.

Despite many sightings and searches over the years, including a big Land Search and Rescue operation at Awaroa in January 2013, no trace of the wreckage or the lost aviators has ever been found.

If the plane was found on land, it would prove that Hood and Moncrieff had beaten Charles Kingsford-Smith and the Southern Cross across the Tasman by eight months, despite dying in the attempt.

Mr Mackie was still researching the information and topography, and was considering going to Karamea to try to find the engine.

The terrain was rough and the people who had found the engine had not been able to find it again, he said.

"The information I have is quite preliminary, [and] there's no point in getting all excited about it unless we have some serious facts to go on," he said.

"We've got to find something. That's the proof of the pudding."

Mr Mackie was also working on a remote-control drone that would carry a metal detector underneath it to make searching for aircraft easier in remote locations.

But searching was expensive, Mr Grimmer said. "If we had unlimited finance to draw on, then I'm sure we would find them."

Nelson search and rescue volunteer group training officer Sherp Tucker, who co-ordinated last January's unsuccessful search in Awaroa, said a find would be great. "They should be able to identify the engine. There's only one of those that ever came out here and crashed," he said.

Aviation historian Richard Waugh said a confirmed find would be hugely important.

"Not only in terms of trans-Tasman relationships but in aviation history," he said. "It would rewrite the history books [and] would be a huge story both in New Zealand and Australia."

He said Hood and Moncrieff were Kiwi heroes. "It would be amazing if they were found."

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Contact grgrimmer@inhb.co.nz if you have information on lost aircraft.

- © Fairfax NZ News

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