Saturday, 4 July 2015

Flashback: DC3 crashes in Kaimai Ranges in 1963

The sound of 23 deaths was like the distant closing of a door.

Flight 441, on a slow jaunt from Auckland to Wellington, had slammed into a rock wall in the Kaimai ranges at 140kmh, exploded, and tumbled down the rock face.

All on board on July 3, 1963 - 52 years ago - died.

It was and remains the deadliest plane crash on New Zealand soil.

Norman Morris was among the dead.

On the 50th anniversary of the accident, his daughter Joanne Fitzsimmons remembered the day she returned from school to find her mother waiting at the gate.

She was five years old and the weather was awful.

"I can remember going inside and seeing all these worried faces and concern.

"The plane was only missing at that point and all we could do was sit around the radio and listen and wait."

She was too young to attend the funeral.

National Airways Corporation (NAC) flight 441 had taken off from Whenuapai airport in north-west Auckland at 8.05am that morning.

The DC3 - a veteran of World War II - was scheduled to stop at Tauranga, Gisborne, Napier, and Palmerston North, before eventually arriving in Wellington in the early afternoon.

It was an era when people dressed up for air travel.

Their best clothes would soon be scattered among wreckage.

At 9.06am Tauranga air traffic control was in contact as the plane began its descent.

Workers at a quarry at Gordon, between Te Aroha and Matamata, heard it pass low overhead.

Then there was the sound, compared to a door banging shut far away.

Bad weather and rough terrain meant it was almost 48 hours before the plane was found.

The impact and fire was so bad that a pathologist was needed to identify the charred, blackened remains ot the 20 passengers and three crew.

An investigation into the crash found that while weather in Auckland and Tauranga that day was not too bad there was an easterly gusting to 150kmh between the two.

In zero-visibility, with dodgy radio compasses, the pilots were effectively flying blind.

Pilot Len Enchmarch and first officer Peter Kissel likely thought they tracking down the eastern slopes of the Kaimai ranges but they were in fact further west.

Investigators came to the conclusion the plane was descending and turning for its run into Tauranga but got caught in powerful down draughts and got slammed into the rock face.

Tauranga air traffic control called again at 9.14am - eight minutes after the first call - but there was no reply. There was effectively no plane.

Apart from the 23 dead, the crash would go down in New Zealand aviation history as the first time helicopters were used in a search and recover operation in this country.

Aviation historian Richard Waugh, who has written a book on the tragedy, said news of the crash dominated newspaper front pages for about five days.

New Zealand's post-war optimism was shattered by "this great tragedy" in a normally reliable DC3 being flown by our national carrier.

"It really was quite appalling. It just literally hit a rock face."

In recent years he has clambered to the crash site.

He drove most of the way but the last few kilometres were a steep and wintry walk almost 1km above sea level. The final descent was down ropes.

The fuselage was gutted in 1963 but the wings were flung free.

The bodies have long since been removed but the rugged terrain meant some wreckage remains, some buried in deep undergrowth, to this day.

For 15 years it was New Zealand's worst air disaster.

That record was shattered when Air New Zealand flight TE901 slammed into the side of Antarctica's Mt Erebus, leaving a smudge in the snow and 257 dead.

That day, November 28, 1979, flight 441 became our worst ever air disaster on domestic soil, Waugh said.

"Hopefully that will be the case for a long, long, long time."

New Zealand's Worst Air Disasters

Nov 28, 1979 - Air New Zealand DC10 crashes on Mt Erebus in Antarctica, killing all 257 passengers and crew.

July 3, 1963 - NAC DC3 crashes in the Kaimai Ranges, 23 dead.

Mar 18, 1949 - NAC Lodestar crashes on approach to Paraparaumu, 15 dead.

1942 - Liberator bomber crashes near Whenuapai, 14 dead.

Aug 21, 1944 - Two Lockheed Hudson bombers disappear, 14 dead.

Oct 23, 1948 - NAC Lockheed Electra crashes on Mt Ruapehu, killing 13.

Jan 7, 2012 - 11 die when a hot air balloon plunges to the ground in flames near Carterton. Two who died tried to leap to safety.

Aug 8, 1989 - Britten-Normander Islander crashes between Milford Sound and Wanaka, 10 dead.

May 12, 1988 - Piper crashes into hills near Whanganui, killing nine.

Oct 25, 1993 - Nomad 23 crashes near Franz Josef Glacier, nine dead.

Sep 4, 2010 - Fletcher FU24 crash kills nine people near the Fox Glacier airstrip.

Saturday 4 July 2015


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