A missing part of an almost 70-year-old puzzle over a plane crash in Golden Bay has fallen into place, with two Nelson fishermen revealing the location of what was New Zealand's first fatal civilian air crash after World War II.
Lionel Wells, now 93, and Noel Jones, now 82, were fishing in Wells' boat The Majestic in the late 1950s when they trawled up the remains of what turned out to be the fuselage of a Tiger Moth aircraft.
It was almost certainly the same aircraft that crashed on November 16 1946, killing pilot and sole occupant, 25-year-old Takaka man Max Heath.
Wells and Jones said recent publicity around the search in Awaroa for the missing aircraft Aotearoa had prompted memories of their discovery. They had not at the time placed much significance on their find.
While news reports of the day said a portion of the Tiger Moth's wing was found in Whariwharangi Bay, west of Separation Point, neither the aircraft nor Heath's body were found.
After all this time, Wells and Jones have lent a clue over where the Tiger Moth went down, which was some distance further out to sea from where the wing fragment was found.
Neither could recall the date of their find, only that it was one day in the late 1950s, while on a regular fishing trip from Nelson. They had steamed to Golden Bay from Port Nelson and were in a spot where they regularly fished.
"We'd trawl in a line with the cement works [in Tarakohe], out towards Farewell Spit. I'd say we were four or five miles offshore when we winched in the wreckage - a guy wire off the plane had become attached to a shackle on the winch.
"I wrenched off a spar and later gave it to the [Nelson] Aero Club, who said a Tiger Moth had crashed in the bay," said Jones, who was the vessel's mate that day.
Aero club vice president Kevin Allport said this week he had no knowledge of where the part might be and that sadly, anyone who might know, was no longer around.
Wells recalled the part they snared was a "good part of the fuselage", and that the only thing he knew about it, was that it was a Tiger Moth.
It had clearly been in the water for "a good many years", and was mainly just framework left.
"We were quite amazed. We were fishing in about 16 fathoms [29 metres] and we felt the trawl start to pump with the weight of something heavy which was why we dragged it in," said Wells while pointing to a spot on the chart he once used of the area.
They hauled the wreckage into the shallows of Wainui Bay, where they dumped it after taking the remnant from it.
Wells had a vague recollection of events surrounding the crash
"We did hear someone say they had heard the plane go overhead, the next thing it revved hard and then there was no sound.
"They thought it had gone into the hillside but it had gone into the sea. They searched and searched but never found any sign of the body," Wells said.
According to New Zealand Defence Force serial records, the downed aircraft was built at Rongotai in March 1941. It was used in training at Harewood from 1943-1944 and then sold to the Nelson Aero Club in June 1946. It entered the New Zealand Civil Aircraft Register as ZK-AKD in June 1946.
NZDF recorded it missing on a flight from Takaka on November 16 1946, and it was presumed that the aircraft had crashed into the sea in Golden Bay. It was recorded as the first fatal civilian Tiger Moth accident in New Zealand.
The Nelson Evening Mail report of Monday, November 18, 1946, said part of the wreckage of the Nelson Aero Club Tiger Moth plane ZK-AKD which was reported missing in the Takaka district on the Saturday afternoon, was found at the high water mark in Whariwharangi Bay.
Nelson aviation history author Graeme McConnell recalled it was a well-documented crash at the time, and in the weeks following, a few small pieces of the plane washed up at Separation Point.
Reference to the crash is included in the book Mr McConnell co-authored with Richard Waugh, on Nelson's aviation history launched recently to mark Nelson Airport's 75th anniversary. They wrote that Heath disappeared after taking off from Takaka on a local flight.
- © Fairfax NZ News
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