The land slipped and crumbled beneath his feet. It had been several hours since Gerry Tonkin began the search and while the topography around him had shifted wildly – rolling from shallow gravel gullies, to sharp gorse ridges - the scene in front of him had not. Dust and dried leaves and blackberry bush layered the floor, and thick woody vines of supplejack wrapped and sprawled their way through regenerating forest. “Spider web gullies,” they were called.
“We told ourselves we are going to find this thing,” Tonkin said, grabbing the exposed roots of a beech tree to haul himself upright. There weren’t any easy paths. Holding a small rusted scythe he cut away at the branches that fell constantly into his face.
Patches of prickly “bush lawyer” – so named for its tendency to grip you until it drew blood - only added to the struggle. Some of the other search groups, Tonkin learned through his radio, had managed to cover only 100 meters in an hour. Even if they saw what they thought they were looking for, it was possible they wouldn’t recognise it. It was the cruel paradox of this search: they were too busy concentrating on scrambling to really focus on what the bush might be hiding.
It was also hard to know what their target might look like after all these years. It was meant to be thin metal tubing crisscrossing its way down to a tapered end. They were told it might look like a windmill fallen on its side. All searches were different, but this one was of the few times that the volunteers weren’t racing to find someone alive.
Deep in the thick green labyrinth, a few kilometres from the Awaroa Inlet, they were searching for a piece of aviation lore lost for 85 years. It represented the forgotten heroism of an age - where an individual could aspire to great feats at great peril. A find would rewrite a little known piece of New Zealand history. It would give two young men credit for conquering the unconquered. And it would bring closure to two families who have long lived without an answer to the question: What happened to George Hood and John Moncrieff?
“Death by a thousand needles,” Tonkin’s colleague Bevan Bruce said pulling out a branch that had snapped back into his exposed forearm.
To maintain morale, the pair, separated by only five metres, called out regularly. Even at that distance they were almost invisible to each other save for the sound of branches crunching underfoot.
They cantered down the hillside. Light broke through the canopy and illuminated the thin streams of dust that puffed up behind the men. In a gully, surrounded by the monotonous buzzing of wasps, Bruce pulled out a map and compass. Tonkin thought that his GPS unit, which had been pre-programmed with their search area, might be acting up. Its reading didn’t seem to correspond with where he believed they had searched. The pair had come down the western boundary of their area – a shape Tonkin described as an “equilateral triangle that somebody sat on” and were working their way south to cover off all possible options before they headed back north.
Bruce stared at his compass. Then his map. He flipped it the other way round before turning his gaze to Tonkin.
“Even SAR teams get lost,” he joked.
Tonkin attempted a grin. On a previous mission he had been stung once too many times by those wasps that now droned about them. His leg had swelled up as if he had elephantiasis. It took several days to return to its normal size. That was why he was now wearing full leg length, high visibility, Tasman Search and Rescue overalls.
They had been searching for hours now and had nothing to show for it. But to be a SAR volunteer you had to be an optimist. Sherp Tucker, the longtime and unofficial leader of the group, had a saying: if you don’t think you are going to find anything, go home. To him the glass was always half full. It was always a quarter full. It was always an eighth full.
“You have to believe that,” he said before the search began. “It helps you believe in yourself.”
John “Scotty” Moncrieff stood at the railings of the steamship Maunganui and grabbed at streamers that were thrown over the narrow stretch of water separating the vessel from land. The gathered crowd cheered and hollered. It was almost like a farewell for any ocean voyage embarking from Wellington. His name had appeared recently in public calls for donations to aid his task but, save for his wife and several family members, few people on shore had any idea of the great venture Moncrieff was about to embark on.
He was, noted a reporter, grinning like “Peter Pan”.
The throng was a welcome sight that Friday, December 9, 1927. After days of boisterous weather in the capital, an anti-cylone had brought what the local newspaper called “fair and favourable” conditions.
At 29, Moncrieff was wiry and muscular. He earned a wage as a mechanic at a local garage workshop but for the past several years had been dreaming of something much more audacious. He had come to New Zealand from Britain when he was 16 and learned to fly in Canterbury before joining the Royal Air Force.
Next to him stood George Hood, who Moncrieff had met as a fellow founding member of Territorial Air Force Reserve. Occasionally Hood, a 35-year-old farmer from Wairarapa, would catch sight of a friend in the mass and a smile would break out across his face, exposing a chipped front tooth. Hood had crossed oceans to get to Gallipoli and France to fight Turks and Germans during World War I and in 1919, thirteen days after qualifying as a service pilot, his DH5 fighter plane crashed after he entered a spinning nose dive during a flying exercise. He was pulled bleeding from the wreckage. He was unaccountably fortunate to have survived but the lower half of his right leg had to be amputated.
This next journey would be much less perilous. In the two men’s pocket’s were one-way tickets to Sydney. When they returned home, they hoped it would be by air - arriving to the fanfare of a country in celebration. They had just come from the Parliament Buildings where Prime Minister Gordon Coates farewelled them in a an informal and little attended ceremony. A photo was taken. The director of Civil Aviation Thomas Wilkes escorted the pair to the port.
Two years earlier, in 1925, Moncrieff had tried and failed to raise 8,500 pounds to purchase a 450hp “open-sea reconnaissance machine”. He wanted to be the first pilot to cross the Tasman between Sydney and Trentham, Upper Hutt - a 2300km expanse of sea - described by one airman of the time as a “dirty stretch of water, breeding a vicious type of young storm that rampages up and down for days before the meteorologists get wind of it”.
Moncrieff yearned to be a pioneer of the sky - lauded for helping establish a Trans-Tasman mail service, for promoting ties between the two countries and, most of all, for being an adventurer in the model of Charles Lindbergh himself.
Only eight months earlier, Lindbergh had made history by flying a Brougham Ryan aircraft non-stop from New York to Paris. There was a prize of US$25,000 and a ticker tape parade down Fifth Avenue when he arrived back home.
Moncrieff's first proposal foundered. But now he had confirmation from backers consisting of three main patrons: his uncle, a Dannevirke sheep farmer and the editor of the Dannevirke Evening News. About 60 members of the public had also lent various levels of financial support declaring they knew there was no prize other than “putting New Zealand in the forefront of aviation and the splendid honour” the achievement would bestow on the country.
The plane, the same make as Lindbergh’s, had been ordered from San Diego. It was now dismantled and on its way by ship to Australia. It was a Ryan B-1 Brougham monoplane, made largely of wood with a thin pipe frame and metal panels. It would be powered by a Wright J-5 Whirlwind - a nine-cylinder air-cooled radial engine, known for its reliability and modest fuel consumption. The engine was a meter long cylinder of steel, aluminium and bronze. It weighed 240kg.
A cable was sent to America with the aircraft’s name. Along the side of the polished aluminium cockpit, in thick black capitals, the word “Aotearoa” was painted. It was the native Maori name for pilots’ home country - The Land of The Long White Cloud. The plane was registered as G-AUNZ. The ‘G’ denoted it was registered in Great Britain. The last four letters linked together Australia and New Zealand’s roles in the historical flight attempt.
The past several months had seen the birth of a new age of aviation pioneers. Pilots, in solid aircrafts and armed with an explorer’s courage, were conquering vast distances. Lindbergh was the first of a roll call of record breakers that year - California to Hawaii, West Africa to Brazil.
There was something inherent, the Evening Post newspaper noted, “in any Britisher”. It was the “call of the unknown that made men explore territory in which no man has travelled before”.
Moncrieff wanted to be the next on the list and he felt the pressure of time. In November he learned Australia’s best known civilian pilot, P.H Moody, had resigned from his job with the country’s famous carrier, Qantas, and announced an intention to be the first to complete a Trans-Tasman crossing. He had already travelled to the United States to test fly a Ryan monoplane.
There had been ominous signs, however, that the Australian government might call for bans on the Moncrieff flight. Already it had stopped an attempt to fly from Hobart in Tasmania to Bluff at the southern tip of New Zealand. The authorities intended to prevent any flight greater that 50 miles that was not undertaken in a sea plane. Moncrieff asked the Prime Minister if the ban would apply to New Zealand aviators leaving from Sydney. As long as the pilots were licensed, the reply came back, and the machine approved by the New Zealand government “they would be given every assistance”.
On the day Moncreiff, Hood and another pilot, Ivan Kight, stepped off the Maunganui onto Australian soil, news came through that Lindbergh had just completed another 24-hour flight from Washington D.C to Mexico. Kight, a well-known lawyer from Dannevirke, was a keen aviator who, on hearing of Moncrieff’s plans, threw himself into the chief fundraising and organisation for it. He also hoped that it might be him who was chosen to fly the Aotearoa home.
Moncrieff’s plane arrived and was assembled in a Melbourne workshop. It had a rounded rudder, a single door and an undercarriage with a large aerodynamic cover over shock absorbing rubber cords.
A flight from Richmond, Sydney, to Trentham Racecourse, would take about 14 hours by their calculations. They took 20 hours of fuel aboard. They would need an extra fuel tank to more than double the plane’s 83 gallon capacity. It was placed where the front wicker seat would normally have been. The seat was discarded. It meant, however, that there would be limited room on the flight. The co-pilot would become little more than a navigator sitting behind the man at the controls. During the flight it would be impossible to swap places.
Global radio navigation was still several years off. The only way to find your way in the air was by adapting maritime techniques.These were well established in the water but using them in the air, where planes were more unstable, travelled faster and the environment more confined, was challenging. All the Aotearoa had was a simple wireless radio which would send out a long static dash for five minutes every quarter of an hour. This could be picked up by various post offices to attest to the pilots’ safety.
Hood and Moncrieff would have to rely on “dead reckoning” to calculate their position. That meant using information they already knew - wind speeds and previous fixed positions - to deduce how their flight path had been influenced by the elements. Dead reckoning, though, was subject to cumulative mistakes. If you made one small miscalculation you could quickly compound an error. Some navigators joked that its derivation came from “dead wrong”.
Still, on the test flight which transferred the plane from Melbourne to the Richmond Aerodrome in Sydney, any concern about the mission was downplayed. Inside the Aotearoa was a small rubber dinghy, a pair of oars and some chocolate. To lessen any fears for their safety, Moncrieff inflated the dinghy at Richmond, got in and posed for a photograph. But if the plane was to crash at sea there was little chance its inhabitants would survive.
There was no question that Moncrieff would be going but Hood and Kight flipped a coin to see who would join him. On Friday January 6, Hood won to join Moncrieff on the first flight of the Tasman Sea. Kight, was “naturally disappointed” but accepted the decision in a “most sportsmanlike manner”, a newspaper reporter noted.
It would be Hood and Moncrieff to make history. Neither had any children but were recently married. Laura Hood and Dorothy Moncrieff were said to have had great confidence and courage in how they handled their husbands’ exploits. When Hood and Moncrieff left for Australia the wives vowed to be, as much as possible, in each other’s company. There was no attempt to stop the pilots and word of their anxiety never reached Australia.
There was worry in the flying community, however, that the two were making a foolish decision in rushing the machine out so quickly. There were even murmured doubts about the compass the pair planned to use. It was thought in certain conditions that it varied considerably from its true course. Even the wireless radio, by some reports, seemed have a defective generator. It would make its signals erratic and useless. The pilots, critics said, were running low on money and did not have the finances to make sure all their equipment was in proper working order.
The pilots brushed off any concern. A reporter declared Moncrieff and Hood to be physically fit and “in good spirits”. They would, said Moncreiff, undertake the journey “cheerfully and confidently”.
On the morning of January 10, the mechanics and engineers checked the engine. It was running “smoothly and perfectly”.
With favourable weather, messages were sent by radio to the pilot’s wives that they should expect them back in the capital that night. The tanks were filled and the engine was started at 2am but an overflow of lubricating oil spurted out across the windscreen. The flight was delayed while it was cleaned up. With the minutes ticking over, the pilots gave final interviews to newspaper reporters. Then Moncrieff gave the order to start. They did not want to arrive at Trentham in the dark. It would make landing a difficult affair. Mechanics pulled the chocks and revolved the propeller. At 2.44am, with the engine revving at cruising speed, Moncrieff waved his hand. The plane was given the all-clear and taxied into open space. Moncrieff unleashed the throttle. Within 100 yards the Aotearoa had risen into the night sky. It turned and started heading for New Zealand.
It was dawn when Rex Lankshear and Donald Hadfield woke. When the school holidays arrived the teenage Rex would head out to his cousin’s homestead in Awaroa. The pair, of similar ages, would vanish for days at a time. Rex would follow Donald, who in Rex’s words, was born with boots and no socks - just shorts and a pocket knife in hand. Together they would fish, hunt possums and explore the vast isolated land around the Hadfield farm. They would head out into the bush, raising a white cloth flag up a manuka pole each time they set up camp. Bill Hadfield, Donald’s father, would look out from the homestead with binoculars and see the boys were safe. It was about 1963.
On this morning, the teenagers took their knives and their dog and left the farm in search of pigs, walking across the beach and up the hills into the scrub. The terrain was reasonably open and they made good distance in a short time, bounding along the ridge line. It did not take long before the dog, who had marched ahead of the pair, started to bark. He was onto something. Donald took off, and Rex followed him across Awaroa Rd, down a slope, changing direction three or four times in pursuit of the animal. The dog barked again. He had the pig bailed up in a scrubby gully. The teenagers scuttled down the hill and past a clump of skinny manuka. For a split second Rex thought he saw what seemed to be a structure settled within it.
"What the bloody hell is that?"' he thought.
In the heat of the hunt, with adrenaline pumping, the pair carried on down to the dog. It had the pig cornered. They stuck it with a knife, cleaned it up and cut off its hind legs - the only thing they usually took to eat. The pair left the pig in the gully while they made their way back up the slope for a closer look at what Rex had seen.
It was a pipe frame, several metres long, with sticks of manuka growing up through it - “tomato sticks” the boys called them. At first they thought it was a windmill, but Rex had grown up near Nelson's airport and knew what an aeroplane was shaped like - even one that had no wings, no front fuselage, no propellor, no engine, tail, or casing. This was just a frame.
They looked around for the missing pieces - seats, an engine, bodies - but found nothing.
Rex almost always took a camera with him on the hunts. This time, though, he didn’t think to take a photo. He just threw the pig’s legs onto his back and, with a fern nestled between the heat of the meat and his skin, set off back to the homestead.
That evening around a large table, and with pork for dinner, Lankshear told his uncle Bill what he'd found.
Bill was dubious - until he spoke to his father, Fred Hadfield, who used to come around to the farm on Sundays. He would ride in on the back of his horse, his waistcoat tied together with lengths of string threaded through the gaps where the buttons had popped off. The family was the last to farm at Awaroa - when the last Hadfield died, the land would be sold to the government and subsumed into the surrounding national park. Nobody else lived up there, except for Jimmy Perrot, a sailor who jumped ship at the turn of the century and swam ashore. He lived in an old hut on the ridge overlooking Awaroa Inlet. Fred said Jimmy had seen something like that too, years ago.
When summer ended, Rex went back to school and never bothered mentioning his find to anyone. A few years later, his cousin Donald died of cyanide poisoning as he was mixing possum baits in the shed at Awaroa. He was only about 17.
Rex, by that time living in Nelson, couldn't bring himself to go to his cousin’s funeral. There was no reason to ever mention the plane again - it never came up, he hardly thought about it and he never went back to the area. Rex became an engineer, married, raised children, and established a wrought iron company near Nelson.
In about 2003, he and employee Steve Newport were talking at their smoking break. They were discussing Newport’s hobby - searching for relics of New Zealand history in the bush. As a child Newport’s father would take him and brother Mark tramping. They found old abandoned gold-panning sluices sticking up out of lakes and the remnants of broken logging tracks winding through the bush. The sons kept up the enthusiasm. As an adult Steve would park up on the side of almost forgotten highways and, while his partner waited in the car, bushwhack alone for hours looking for old trains and planes. He always found them, tucked away in overgrown landscapes, lost to everyone except those that went looking.
“I saw a plane in the bush one day when was I was a youngster,” Rex said.
Newport raised his eyebrows. He didn’t know what it was. But it could be a hell of a find.
After hearing Rex’s story Steve and Mark spent the next few years tramping the hills and gullies around Awaroa, making seven or eight separate searches. They enlisted their friend Ian Mortimer. They wanted to find Rex’s plane themselves. The trio found marijuana plots, beer cans, and old fence posts, but no aircraft.
After a few years of struggling through the bush, heading in about eight times in total, they started to joke that they should pretend to be lost themselves - that way they could get Search and Rescue out there to help them. Actually, they thought, enlisting SAR wasn’t such a bad idea. So in September 2011, Mark told someone who had a connection to the organisation - a man named Andrew Mackie. Mackie was a local aviation enthusiast who had worked as a driver - taking in search and rescuers by 4WD into hard to reach spots. He knew of almost every aviation disaster in the country’s history. As soon as the Newports told him about Rex and where he spotted his “windmill”, Mackie felt a chill of recognition. Putting together the estimated flight time, the speed of the aircraft’s modified engine and the time of its last transmission, there was only one unaccounted wreck it could be.
he first report of the plane was made as it left the shores of Australia. It was the steamer, Manganui, heading back to Wellington. The officer of the watch said he heard the “soft, regular, whirr,” of the aircraft’s engine but did not see it. The regular dispatches of static from the Aotearoa’s radio were picked up by postal offices around the country.
The news of the takeoff filtered back home and by late afternoon on January 10, 1928, about 10,000 people had gathered at Trentham. Wellington people, The Evening Post said, were “notoriously backward” in working up any excitement about anything. But here, special trains were put on and an estimated 600 cars clogged the roads around the racecourse. Men wore suits and hats. Women wore frocks and fur coats. They found seats on the grandstand, others stood or sat on the grass by the course railings. They brought piles of stacked up hay to be lit as landing beacons at the appropriate time. And every now and then a seagull, looking vaguely like a plane in the distance, would draw the gaze of the crowd. The people were patient and quiet.
“Any news?” gatherers asked the notice board attendant who would make announcements through a loudspeaker. There was none.
The wives, Dorothy Moncrieff and Laura Hood, stood at the railings and posed for photographs with the Mayor of Wellington. Dorothy looked continually at her wristlet watch.
“I’ll be glad when I see him alive,” said Hood’s mother, Jane, who had also made the trip from Masterton. “He is a good boy, full of nerve.”
But at 5.22pm, 13 and a half hours after takeoff and with twilight coming on, the whines from the Aotearoa’s radio stopped. It was expected the flight might arrive at 7pm. Now and then crowd scanned the horizon. No sign. At 8pm someone announced the pilots still had five hours of petrol left.
“They will get here,” Dorothy said to a reporter, “and if they don’t get here then they will be all right. They will land.”
The roaring of a passing motorcycle drew hundreds in a rush. Then the crowd became silent. Slowy, it began to disperse. When darkness came, those remaining brought their cars into the centre field and turned on their headlights to illuminate the landing area. The last special train left the course at 9.56pm. Its seventeen carriages were crammed.
The wives remained. They heard messages of “sightings” - of sounds and noises in the night over Paekararirki, from Stephens Island and Wairarapa Lake. At 1am, Dorothy once again looked at her watch.
“Their petrol is out,” she said.
wenty-six searchers filed into the hall behind the Ngarata homestead - a 1914 bungalow that had been converted into an education centre at Totaranui. Today, it was SAR base. Some of the volunteers had been with the organisation for years - most were outdoor enthusiasts, who enjoyed trekking and exploring. They joined for the camaraderie and the thrill of finding someone alive. The previous evening they had opened beers, perched themselves on the open tailgates of utility trucks and talked past searches into the night.
Sherp Tucker stood in front of a screen, the light from a projector imprinting his stout body with a map. He started volunteering for SAR in the 1960s where, as a younger man, he would bash across the countryside in search of lost trampers, hunters, climbers and children. Now Tucker said he was “too old too blind and too damn tired to get in there with the boys”. He started working for the police in 2000 and until the previous year had been the police district’s assistant search and rescue coordinator. Then he was made redundant in a round of police restructuring. Now, he had come full circle. He was back working on the case as a volunteer.
Officially, Tasman Land Search and Rescue chairman Graham Pomeroy was leading the search. However, when Tucker spoke, the room still fell silent. Huddled with the search’s senior members, he explained the plan.
“Look at that hillside,” Tucker said moving out of the projector’s beam, “It’s full of them.”
He pointed to small clumps on the map of what seemed to be manuka trees - trees that Rex Lankshear insisted he had seen the plane’s body resting in.
“We are just going off one joker’s memory,” Tucker said. “We are here on his memory so let’s listen to it.”
At 66, Lankshear was no longer a wiry teenager. He now had thick grey hair, skin as brown as a nut, and blackened fingernails from years working with wrought iron. Tucker had met him months earlier after Andrew Mackie relayed his story.
Over the course of several interviews Tucker learned the old pig hunter could tell a yarn. Lankshear was a genuinely nice bloke, he thought. But he had to be sure.
Tucker asked Lankshear to come into the Tasman Police district headquarters in Nelson. In an operations room, with Pomeroy, Tucker asked him to tell his story. Ten minutes in Tucker asked Lankshear another question.
“What are you like at drawing?”
“No good,” he replied.
“Ah well, have a go.”
“What do you want me to draw?”
“What you saw.”
On a square whiteboard Lankshear sketched the outline of the frame in black marker. It started thin and widened towards the end. It was tubing lying on hill sloping from left to right. It looked like what the shell of a plane might look like - no wings, no engine.
Lankshear told his story with such conviction that Tucker was left with little doubt: Lankshear and Donald Hadfield had definitely seen something. With no farm roads or tracks to reach it, it was something that shouldn’t be in the bush.
“The only way it could have got there is falling out of the sky,” Tucker said.
He taped the interaction - he let Lankshear tell his story. In the next interview, Tucker went to Lankshear’s home - a two storey house that he shared with a golden retriever named Louis. As he unloaded two laptops onto the coffee table, Tucker was careful not to say too much. He knew memories were not exact recordings of the past - they were built up from incomplete perceptions filtered through beliefs and biases. Over time they morphed and merged. There was only so far you could push before you started putting things into a person’s head.
But family members had corroborated Lankshear’s story. They remembered talking to him on the day he and Donald came home after the hunt. Those family members were still alive.
Lankshear’s memory, however, relied on a place that no longer existed. At least not as it once had. Fifty years was a long time. The place he and Douglas had hunted in would now, in Tucker’s words, “look like Mars”.
The more Tucker investigated, the more he thought finding Lankshear’s windmill would make a good training exercise for the region’s SAR volunteers. The organisation regularly had refresher courses but these were almost always based on hypothetical situations. This search, however, would be real and have real life consequences. If they were successful history would be rewritten. Hood and Moncrieff would be the first to have crossed the Tasman. And most importantly, the relatives of the pilots would have an answer. In his career, Tucker had seen the “not knowing” tear families apart. They started to believe the “ifs” and the “buts” in their minds. Tucker thought it was giving people an answer which drove most of the volunteers in their work. This search would give the team time to reflect on decisions, to critique their actions and best of all, nobody would lose their life over it.
But in some ways, the search for an inanimate object could be even more challenging. When you are looking for a person there is a process. Missing people act in certain ways. The type of person you are looking for can dramatically affect how a search should be conducted. Studies of “lost person behaviour” divided the ways people act into 41 different categories. A child aged 1-3 would behave differently to a child aged 4-9 who would behave differently to a hiker or a climber or a caver. A child would try to return to a familiar place. Just over half of children would use paths, the rest would scoot under bushes. “Despondents” or those seeking solitude were usually found within sight and sound of civilisation near prominent locations like a scenic lake or a lookout. Hunters would follow streams downhill. Only two per cent of lost people would stop and wait for help.
But there were, as far as Tucker knew, no studies on how missing planes behaved before they were lost or disabled. All they had to go on was a half-century old memory.
Soon after hearing Lankshear’s story Tucker contacted New Zealand Aerial Mapping - the country’s longest running aerial photography company. He wanted to know what the area Lankshear had seen looked like back then. NZAM had photographs of the area from 1952 and then 1965. They were black and white but the area of concern, overlooking the Awaroa Inlet, could be clearly seen. As Tucker zoomed in he could make out small clumps of young manuka amid the blurred vegetation. Some were on down slopes facing away from the sea. They were similar to what Lankshear described. It narrowed down the probable search areas.
At the Ngarata Homestead, the night before the search, Tony Nikkel pulled up an image from Google Earth. The black and white was replaced with thick green. From first impression, comparing the old aerial photography with the satellite image, the topography of the hills was almost indistinguishable from 1965. Nikkel was a surveyor by trade and had joined search and rescue 19 years ago. Now he was part of the SAR incident management team. His job now was to bring a memory back to life.
By overlaying the points from the original photograph with true points present in Google satellite imagery he could, effectively, travel through time. He could place himself on the ridgeline, zoom in and look around. The key word was “probability”. He needed to give those searchers on the ground the greatest chance of finding whatever it was that Lankshear saw. Nikkel’s analysis focussed on the slope of the hills in the areas that Lankshear said he was close to when he found his plane. Nikkel narrowed down the search terrain to nine adjacent areas based, not only on the pig hunter’s descriptions, but also on how simple they were to traverse. In some places it would be too difficult to cross over boundaries. The ridges were too steep, or the land fell away into holes that seemed to suddenly appear in the earth. It was better to split them up.
In the hall Tucker turned to the men. “We don’t want people thinking it’s going to be piss easy,” he said. “Because it ain’t.”
They would move in teams of three or four. Each would be given a GPS unit that would map where they had searched. Then the sections of the map were divvied up. He thought a group would be able to cover each area in one day.
He pointed to one section of the map marked as “W2”. It was the area which seemed most similar to what Lankshear had talked about.
“That to me, is very interesting,” Tucker said.
Were there any questions?
A hand shot up in the crowd.
“How do we get in there?”
ine-year-old Bill Hopkins hunched over his wireless set in a Moeatoa farmhouse, concentrating on the slow, punctuated static coming from the first airplane to fly the Tasman Sea.
It was after 10pm when he heard a sound in the clear moonlit sky. He rushed outside to see a noisy dark object passing in the distance. It was a few hundred feet up. It could only be a plane, he thought, nearing the far west coast of the Waikato - more than 300km from Trentham.
There were other reports that night. At 12.20am the Arahura steamship, operating a Wellington to Nelson cargo service, reported sighting the plane near Cape Jackson at the north end of Queen Charlotte Sound. Post Office officials at Martinborough and Featherston reported an airplane flying over the Rimutaka Ranges. Three separate witnesses claim they saw the Aotearoa - one at Featherston, one at Masterton and one at Kaitoke about 13km northeast of Trentham, which would have put it just minutes from its final destination. Rockets were shot into the sky from the racetrack at 1am in the hope that the pilots would see them.
At 1.37am someone claimed to see it over Lyall Bay south east of Wellington, only 60km from Trentham. At 2.30am, with the report line silent, the radio station that had been broadcasting the event declared it was presumed the pilots had decided to land on one of the beaches. They would most likely fly to Trentham at day break.
The next day, when the plane still did not arrive, discouraging reports from the previous night began to filter in. A 16-year-old Joyce Pepperell had been standing on the verandah of her parents Paekakariki home as darkness fell when her father called out. He had seen the plane.
“It’s flying too fast and too low,” he said. “It will go into Cook Strait.”
Joyce’s father reported to the authorities that he saw a monoplane on a downward glide out at sea. He did not hear the engine.
Two days after the flight, the Government commenced an aerial and sea search for Moncreiff and Hood.
“There seems to be every reason to believe that they had practically accomplished their task,” Prime Minister Gordon Coates said. “No effort is being spared to locate their whereabouts.”
Two navy warships and a Wellington tug boat patrolled almost 40,000 square kilometres of ocean. Tramping clubs and private search parties scoured the areas where reports had come in. The commissioner of police William Bernard McIlveney sent a simple telegram message to every police station in the country. “Minister Justice directs you arrange all stations your district look out remote places for missing aviators Hood and Moncrieff.”
The wives of the pilots were so convinced by the Pepperell's story that they visited the home themselves and interviewed the family. They seemed convinced the story was genuine. But speculation as to their final resting place continued.
In a letter to the Evening Post, the wives thanked the public for its support. It was signed by both of them.
“We are deeply comforted in our grief by these expressions of interest and goodwill,” they wrote. “Could our husbands but know ...what acknowledgments are still being paid to their venture they would feel that they had not made their sacrifice in vain.”
Newspapers said the pilots had become “martyrs to official ineptitude and neglect”. In a letter to the Auckland Star Lindsay Allan said the government’s apathy in allowing the flight to go ahead had condemned the men to their fates. The only consolation the pilots’ friends and family would have, he wrote, was that Hood and Moncrieff’s names would now be linked with those “equally courageous” (and doomed) explorers Scott and Shackleton.
By January 17, a week after the flight, Kight had made his way back to New Zealand by ship and the searches were over. They found nothing. Kight took the wicker chair, which Moncrieff removed for the extra petrol tank, with him and asked the Wellington Aero Club to sell it. It fetched 250 pounds at a Wellington Town Hall wool sale. The money was sent to the pilots’ wives.
Nine months later two Australians, Charles Kingsford Smith and Charles Ulm, became the first men to fly across the Tasman Sea. Around 250 kilometers before they reached their destination at Wigram in Christchurch, they dropped a wreath into the ocean in memory of the lost New Zealand aviators.
When they arrived, Kingsford Smith and Ulm visited Hood’s mother in Masterton. Mollie Iggulden, George’s niece, was there that day with her sister. Kingsford Smith was tall and charming, Mollie thought. Her sister held in her hand a small burgundy book with the word “Autograph” embossed in gold on the front. She handed it to Kingsford Smith who smiled, took it from her and signed it in long flowing cursive before handing it back.
The missing pilots, though, continued to haunt their families. Moncrieff’s mother saw the pair in her dreams. They were talking to her. That July, addled by grief, she desperately asked a reporter of news of her son. “Have they found my boy?” There was only one answer. By then, Dorothy Moncrieff was already planning to change her name and remarry. The Truth newspaper, however, said that pending the near impossible proof that John Moncrieff had indeed died, taking another husband might prove difficult.
The following February, half buried in silt on the bank of the Pelorus river, two trampers from Wellington found a bottle while on holiday. Inside was a note. It read: “Can’t land...Oh help - Scotty.”
Then another message in a bottle popped up in the surf, at Brighton in Christchurch. In clean blue pencil, it also purported to come from Hood and Moncrieff saying the pair had crashed at Three Kings Island, 55 kilometres north west of Cape Reinga. It was the third bottle that had been found asserting the same lost authors.
Soon after, parts of charred and rusted aircraft, long exposed to salt water, were pulled ashore at Jervis Bay south of Sydney. In Adelaide, a fisherman named Taylor found a portion of an airplane wing on the rocks. In Greymouth a report came in that a portion of aeroplane fabric had been found on the top of a terrace.
They were all hoaxes or cases of misidentification, police found. They came to nothing.
Then, in July 1930, William Trimming of Marrickville in Sydney, felt compelled to contact the local Civil Aviation Department. While sitting in a seance, Trimming said the spirit of George Hood had spoken to him for a full five minutes.
“We reached Wellington,” he claimed Hood’s spirit had told him. “Then we were lost in clouds.” The spirit allegedly said the pair crashed in a gully 200 yards from the coast, 22 and a half miles south of Cape Graham and four miles south of Ward, near Blenheim. They died four days later. Moncrieff’s head was in his co-pilot’s lap.
The next headline in the Auckland Star read: “Details show alleged locality does not exist. Geography wrong.” There was no such place as Cape Graham, the article said. Inquiries from reporters with the residents of Ward were fruitless. A farmer, whose property vaguely correlated with the spiritualist’s claim, met the news with ambivalence. There were plenty of scrubby gullies on the farm, he said. A dozen planes could have crashed without him noticing.
“I’ll go have a look when I get the time,” the farmer concluded.
ollie Laycock sat in the living room of her Auckland retirement village flat remembering the day her uncle went missing. She remembered the waiting, the waiting, the waiting. She remembered Kingsford Smith. She remembered how her grandmother never forgot the memory of the flight and how she never forgot George. She wished she could remember more but her memory was selective these days.
There was an intense grief and sadness that overshadowed the family, she said. It was a part of her history but a piece that fewer and fewer in the younger generation seemed interested in. A couple of years earlier Mollie gone on a coach tour of the Wairarapa. She regaled the driver with her family story and the gap in its history. Soon after, without any warning, the driver pulled over. Mollie looked out the window. It was Hood Aerodrome - the first time she had ever visited the monument to her uncle.
Mollie was 95 now. Over the years she had worked as a librarian for the Auckland Star newspaper and as the registrar for the Auckland Teacher’s College. In a white cardboard box labelled “Memoirs of George Hood” she kept newspaper clippings of supposed sightings and searches that had come up over that time. Every couple of decades someone would head into the bush for days hoping to snatch up the New Zealand aviation find of the century. She was used to disappointment now.
“I always hoped the mystery would be solved while I’m still alive,” she said. “I’ll keep my fingers crossed, I might go on for another couple of years.”
She wondered though, that if a wreckage had been out there, somewhere, over the passage of time, with rain or even earthquakes, perhaps the Aotearoa might have simply disappeared.
verywhere Rex Lankshear looked was gorse. Everywhere was supplejack. It was early afternoon by the time he entered the search area. It had been decades since he’d been to Awaroa. The place had changed. He had expected the slopes to look different but not quite like this. He could still understand the vague outline of where the ridges and hills lay. It was the undergrowth that baffled him. The landscape teased at the familiar. In an All Blacks cap, polo shirt, jeans and black leather shoes, Rex scampered through branches as if sparked by some faint memory. He would look up into the branches as if his frame, his windmill, his plane might have grown up into the forest canopy along with the trees. They were up to 20 metres tall now.
“I can see it in my mind very, very plain,” he said turning to searcher Gerry Tonkin. “But put my finger on a map and say it’s there? I wouldn't have a clue.”
Tonkin said nothing.
Earlier in the day Andrew Mackie, the aviation buff who first told Tucker about the plane, had hypothesised what might have happened that day in 1928. He thought the engine had been modified and the plane would have actually arrived at the New Zealand coastline earlier than first thought. Perhaps the Aotearoa clipped a ridge, the engine still whining, the propeller shearing off and slicing through the bush, the fuselage crashing through the trees and skidding downhill, until it came to rest on a remote hillside, only 174km and just over an hour, if they could have remained airborne, from its goal. Mackie thought the time might have been 5.22pm - the moment the Aotearoa’s radio transmissions stopped.
Maybe, Mackie thought, that is where it stayed for 34 years, with the bush growing up all around it, concealing it in the land. Hidden, until two boys stumbled across it one day when they were out hunting a pig.
“I reckon it slid down the hill, that’s what I reckon,” Rex said, “If they had run out of fuel and were trying to belly it they would pick the flattest land possible.”
He scanned the ferns and young rimu, poking up out of leaf litter blanketing the ground.
“This is it,” he said. “It looks so familiar,"
In the dappled light, every fallen branch could be thin metal tubing.
"I know it's in here somewhere," Rex said, staring into the bush. "I can feel it."
Slowly, as the afternoon wore on, the search groups made their way back to the base. They handed in their GPS units to Tony Nikkel. He plugged in them into his laptop. The searchers’ routes came up on the projected map as multicoloured squiggles across the landscape. The groups had covered a good chunk of the search area. There were still plenty of holes though.
There was something else, too, even more discouraging than how much ground was left to cover. Earlier that morning the searchers were told there had been no fires in the area for the last 100 years. Once it was all farmland – burned off during the 19th century to make way for roaming cattle. Now it was protected by the Department of Conservation - where native trees and plants had sprung up ash of ancient vegetation. But in their area, just a few hundred metres across, Tonkin had repeatedly come across old blackened manuka trees. There were trails of charcoal. If there had been no fires here, what then was the cause of these charred remains that lingered on the land like the scars of old cauterised wounds?
In a debrief, Tonkin told Nikkel about the charcoal he had found. He told him about the residue of manuka, once burning bright, slow and long at immense heat, littered through the area.
“That would melt a metal pipe frame,” he said.
If there ever was a plane out there, a fire would have caused it to dissolve into the dust and dried leaves and blackberry bush.
Outside, Rex looked out to the Tasman Sea.
“It’s just so sad,” he said. “It would be great to bring closure to the families.”
Then he said his goodbyes, walked to his car and rattled down the dusty Totaranui track and back to Nelson.
The Newport brothers and Ian Mortimer weren’t giving up, though. Give them a few weeks to recover, Steve said. They were getting older now and the bush took its toll. But they would be back. Yes, they had heard about the charcoal and the fires perhaps taking the thin metal frame of the Aotearoa, registration G-AUNZ. But there was still something else, Mortimer said - that meter long cylinder of steel, aluminium and bronze weighing a quarter of a tonne.
“That would still be there,” he said, “That motor is never going to disappear. Not a big lump like that.”
Additional reporting: Naomi Arnold.
Story editing: Tom Shroder.
Multimedia: Mike Scott, Lawrence Smith, Anthony Hawkins.
3D Model: Jason Hablous.
Illustrations: Alistair Hughes.
Design and development: Andy Ball, Arie Ketel.
This story is based on interviews with all key members of the Awaroa search and surviving family members of Hood and Moncrieff. Tasman Search and Rescue provided the data to create the computer generated simulation of the search. Dozens of newspaper articles spanning the length of the saga were used as well as letters home from George Hood from during World War 1. Chris Rudge’s comprehensively researched book on New Zealand’s lost aircrafts 'Missing!' proved invaluable. In one of the only times in its 85 year history, the original police file held at Archives New Zealand, was unsealed for Fairfax Media. Special thanks to Debbie Seracini of the San Diego Air and Space Museum.