Saturday, April 13, 2024

Aviation historian searching for relatives of plane crash victim

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The New Zealand National Airways Corporation DC-3 that crashed in the Kaimai Range in 1963. Photo supplied Mannering and Associates via Richard Waugh

One of the organisers of events staged to mark the 60th anniversary of New Zealand’s worst internal air disaster is appealing for information on the relatives of a passenger killed in the crash.

The Kaimai Range air accident on July 3, 1963, claimed the lives of 23 people.

Flight 441 was a DC-3 Skyliner ZK-AYZ ‘Hastings’ aircraft piloted by Captain Len Enchmarch on a New Zealand National Airways Corporation trip from Auckland to Tauranga and then Gisborne, Napier and Wellington.

Flying in what’s describe as “shocking weather conditions”, the plane plunged into a rock ravine near the top of the Kaimai Range, between Waikato and the Bay of Plenty, causing the death of the three crew members and 20 passengers.

Among the people with a keen interest in the tragedy is east Auckland resident Rev Dr Richard Waugh, a leading aviation historian and Honorary Chaplain of the Company of Air Pilots.

He’s the author of a book on the disaster entitled Kaimai Crash – New Zealand’s Worst Internal Air Disaster.

Waugh says the plane’s wreckage was initially discovered 24 hours after the crash during a large search.

“It was the first time helicopters were used in a major aviation search and recovery operation in New Zealand.

“The tragic accident was a profound shock to the prosperity and optimism of a growing post-war nation.

“The accident was front-page news for days.”

Among the other locals with a connection to the disaster is Gary Johnstone, deputy principal at Elim Christian College in Botany.

He helped to rediscover the plane’s wreckage 20 years ago and helped Waugh write his book on the tragedy.

“I got involved when Richard heard I was planning to tramp the North-South Track in January 2003 with some mates,” Johnstone says.

“At that time he was planning for the 40th memorial of the DC3 crash.

“Richard asked me to see if I could discover the wreck, which over the years had been lost in dense bush.”

Johnstone says on the third day of his tramp, his small group descended a gully and climbed down a steep bank into a stream.

“It was there we started locating bits of debris and plane wreckage and finally we came across the [aircraft’s] port wing.”

Johnstone says sadly the location has become known and “souvenir hunters have come to scavenge”.

“The site has a particular feel about it and my thoughts are it should be treated with respect and dignity.”

Waugh wants to hear from any locals who have links to the disaster, or know of the current whereabouts of relatives of the late Bruce Gray, who was a passenger on the flight and died in the crash at the age of 35.

“He was married with two young daughters and lived in Evelyn Road, Cockle Bay, at the time of the accident,” Waugh says.

“He’d been born in Napier and later educated at the University of Auckland’s School of Architecture.

“For a number of years he practiced architecture as an associate of George Tole of Auckland.

“I’d very much like to contact his two daughters, who would be aged in their 60s now, to invite them to the anniversary events.”

Waugh says the 60th anniversary this year is likely to be the final time for relatives of the passengers, and others with direct involvement by way of search and recovery efforts, to gather to pay their respects.

“Already many family members have confirmed their attendance, including the support of 86-year-old Mrs Sandy Saussey, who 60 years ago was the young wife of Captain Len Enchmarch.

“Pastoral support for family members will be paramount and our organising group is grateful to have support from Air New Zealand, the Matamata-Piako District Council, and from many others for this special anniversary time.”

People with information on the whereabouts of the relatives of Bruce Gray can email richard.waugh.rev@gmail.com.

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