It's 35 years since a Cessna aircraft carrying four men from the Riversdale area crashed on a flight home from hunting and fishing at Big Bay. A host of pilots, hunters and trampers still hold faith to a search that has never, really, stopped. Nor will it, any time soon. Michael Fallow reports.
When Father Syril Crosbie seized the day, the day got seized all right. He was a robust Catholic priest with an adventurous streak and nary a trace of puckered piety.
Legend has it that, in his rugby playing days as Marist's fullback, he made the parting shot to a referee who'd given him his marching orders: "You should introduce me to your parents. I'll marry them for you."
Before that, in the 1960s when I was an infant pupil at St Joseph's in Invercargill, we all understood that Crosbie was somehow cut from a different, and to our eyes clearly more heroic, cloth than the more strict and hierarchical religious figures.
Once a bunch of us piled into a van parked in the school playground for a trip. Crosbie picked me up and plonked me between himself and the steering wheel, and told me to drive it.
I drove the hell out of that van, emphatically turning the wheel left-right- left-right because in my naivety I still thought that was how you made it go. As he unobtrusively worked the pedals and gears we lurched and screeched on an intrepid route, easily missing little smatterings of schoolmates, but narrowly missing the rather more implacable obstacle posed by St Mary's Basilica, until we at last made it out to the street where he hit the anchors. Then he deposited me sideways and gently suggested he might take it from there.
Later, when I fell in that playground and sprained my ankle, he took one glance at my overwrought distress, swept me up and piggybacked me at a gallop - while I yelled at him, fist raised, to giddyup - out of the school grounds, down the banks of the Puni Creek, across Elles Rd, down behind Marist Primary and all the way home to Islington St, in through the wide open back door, where he flung me on to the bed and headed off to find, engage, and reassure any handy adult.
Come 1978, when I was a trainee reporter with a holiday job at Gore's Ensign, I failed to get a coherent interview from a Mataura local body official who ignored my questions on some worthy, tedious council subject and instead turned to a large, unfolded Fiordland map on his desk. He stabbed part of it, emphatically, with his finger. "Here. I reckon they're here. Write it down."
Crosbie's plane had gone down while he was flying three of his Riversdale mates back home from a hunting- fishing trip to Big Bay. Twice that day the weather had turned them back but undaunted they had tried a third time.
Now they were missing. People wanted to help. Not just Riversdale folk, bereft though the district suddenly was, and not just Fiordland and Southland people either.
Because, as everyone acknowledged, there had been a lot of life in that plane. Collectively, they were a musketeerish crew. Four robust sons of Southland - sporty, active and deeply engaged with their communities.
Atop his clerical role, Crosbie had made the Town rugby team and for five years had been refereeing (so there can't have been ill feelings from that parentage wisecrack). He was also an army chaplain with the rank of major. And he was a fairly experienced pilot.
As everyone acknowledged, there had been a lot of life in that plane. Collectively, they were a musketeerish crew. Four robust sons of Southland – sporty, active and deeply engaged with their communities.
Trevor Collins had been well-known for his rugby abilities in his early days, was involved with the Northern Southland Trotting Club, and one of the district's leading bowlers. Grant Sutherland played rugby for Riversdale and hailed from a well-known trotting family, driving at non-totalisator meetings. Peter Robertson was a keen rugby player, fisherman and deerstalker.
As headlines in The Southland Times took the familiar, dismal trajectory of such stories: "Four on lost plane" ... "Fears mount" ... "Hope fades" ... it became increasingly clear that people just weren't prepared to turn away in sorrow and leave it at that.
When the official search stopped after four days, a startling sum for the time, $17,000, was raised in a matter of hours for a private search to be continued. The Times in an editorial declined to marvel at that, choosing instead to recognise it as an expression of collective character.
It had not been a matter of complaining about the search being stopped, the editorial's writer said.
"Caring about people in ways more than words express, joining together not only in prayer but also in generous giving and resolute action . . . are responses typical of Southland people, particularly in the country."
Inevitably there was second-guessing about aspects of the search and particularly the control through the Rescue Co-ordination Centre. Some local pilots felt under-used, and bridled that an air force training aircraft had been brought in while some of the locals were not called in.
But the searches, both official and private, were unassailably ardent.
Legendary helicopter pilot Bill Black rated the search probably the longest and most frustrating of his career.
"We searched the whole of the West Coast and every possible likelihood in Fiordland for that aircraft without the slightest clue," he wrote, in his just- published book I Did it My Way
Black said this week: "You'd come home at night your eyes sore from moving them around, squinting and looking . . . "
Then there were the clairvoyants, who perhaps with the best intentions, rather muddied the waters.
Published reports cited 30 calls from people claiming to know the whereabouts of the aircraft.
Former Te Anau constable Lloyd Matheson still remembers those.
"You get all those ones saying the men are all sitting in the sun in tussock waiting to be picked up . . ."
One, in particular, tormented Black with calls in the wee small hours, giving specific locations.
"Oh, don't bring him into it," Black exploded when I asked him about it this week.
"He near drove me right around the twist."
Black recalls one cosmic summons to the Hay River, near Hauroko.
"If you're so sure, you come down here and pay for my aircraft and I shall take you there,"he challenged the man, who did indeed front up - and brought a TV crew with him ("so that's who was doing the paying").
Even after a frustrated half hour at the site, the clairvoyant was pleading with them not to leave: "No, no, they're coming through the bush . . . any minute now . . . "
Any minute? This was fully six months after the disappearance.
The stamina of far more educated searchers continues to this day.
A lot of good local people are still trying to find them, Black says. "They're not stupid. They keep a look out."
Matheson, though no longer still with the police, continues to get calls.
"I must have 'missing aircraft' tattooed across my forehead because I get every person who has now got access to Google Earth ringing me to say he thinks he can see the crash site at a particular spot," he says.
The wreckage is possibly just the size of a Harley Davidson, under giant crown ferns that would rapidly have closed up again over the top of it.
The Cessna headed south from Big Bay, on advice to head down Milford way for starters, which raises the possibility it crashed over the sea.
But few now seem to put store in that theory, and some flotsam discoveries have proved far from conclusive.
Black, Matheson and many others believe it more plausible Crosbie headed inland.
Kevin Hallett had emerged from the bush about a week after the plane went missing with a reported sighting.
He had been on a ridge in the Hollyford Valley when a blue and white plane flew down the valley in the Alabaster area, trying to get through The Divide.
It had passed him so close, he said, it felt like he could almost have touched the wing.
I must have ‘missing aircraft’ tattooed across my forehead because I get every person who has now got access to Google Earth ringing me to say he thinks he can see the crash site at a particular spot.
Former Te Anau police sergeant
It flew back along the valley and headed for the Olivine Ice Plateau. Many hopes were hung on this account and it still has currency.
Private investigator Gavin Grimmer has highlighted a design fault known as "fuel vent system icing", publicised only in 1990 so likely unknown in 1978. Grimmer believes the crash site was probably south of Milford, either east of Percy Saddle in the Takitimu Mountains or Takitimu Conservation Area.
Coroner G A Dumble found the men died from misadventure and added cautionary words about the wisdom of heeding advice from "people who know the area and the conditions so well".
He also voiced concerns about the danger the searchers put themselves in - a point that will never be lost on the families of the men themselves.
Peter Robertson's daughter Katie O'Connor and Grant Sutherland's sister Mary Dillon say the families feel a huge debt of gratitude for the searchers who courageously put their lives on the line, particularly during the first 24 hours.
"It had snowed hard, well over a metre," Mrs O'Connor says.
"But they were searching as soon as they could get off the ground."
The constancy of the search, stretching to the following summer, and the concern that continues to this day, were something for which Mrs Dillon says the families are "so very grateful".
From leftover search funds a transmitter was set up near Milford, serving usefully until just recently.
Family members have themselves made pilgrimages and some continue to do so quite regularly.
Though they have not had the closure that would come from the discovery of the crash site, there was a particularly healing, tender 30th anniversary journey to the coast, where they were flown over the terrain and met people from the search and rescue exercise, still struck and still moved by their sense of resolve not to give up looking.
And they are quick to add that there have been other crashes, other families, that aren't forgotten either.
Fiordland is unforgiving. But its people are unforgetting.
- © Fairfax NZ News