Fifty years ago today, New Zealand suffered its worst domestic aviation disaster when 23 people died in the Kaimai Ranges. Brendan Manning reports on the anniversary.
The 50th anniversary of New Zealand's worst internal air disaster will be commemorated at a memorial below the crash site in the Kaimai Ranges today.
Twenty passengers and three crew members were killed when National Airways Corporation (NAC) Flight 441 slammed into the side of a rock face in the Kaimai Range west of Tauranga on July 3, 1963.
A 40-minute service to commemorate the crash will be held at 9am today, conducted by aviation historian and chaplain to the Air Pilots Guild of New Zealand, Reverend Dr Richard Waugh.
Up to 200 family and friends of the victims and members of the public are expected to attend the service.
Thirty-eight children lost a parent in the tragedy.
Reverend Waugh has also written a book on the disaster titled Kaimai Crash and previously led a campaign to install a permanent plaque commemorating the crash - unveiled at the 40-year anniversary.
Following today's service two low-altitude memorial fly-pasts will be flown "lights on, wheels down" in a historic DC-3 aircraft, he said.
The 1963 disaster occurred after the Douglas DC-3 Skyliner, named 'Hastings', had left Whenuapai Airport in Auckland at 8.21am on a scheduled 50-minute flight to Tauranga.
Twenty-two passengers were supposed to be on board, but three passengers made last-minute changes to their plans and did not catch the flight.
Conditions were stormy with low cloud.
As the flight progressed wind speed increased and the rain became more intense.
Heavy cloud then wrapped itself around the DC-3, forcing the flight crew to fly by instruments.
At 9.06am the pilot contacted the Tauranga aircraft control tower, giving an estimated arrival time of 9.08am and requested permission to begin his descent.
However, when the control tower tried to make contact at 9.14am and again at 9.16am, there was no reply.
From the ground, at the foot of the Kaimais, several people heard an aircraft, with some witnesses reporting they had seen the plane flying low.
One man later said that given the foul weather he was surprised to hear an aircraft in the area.
A reconstruction of the final moments showed the plane had rammed into a 760m peak at its normal cruising speed of at least 150 knots.
It exploded in flames, destroying all but the tail section and the tip of one wing.
However, atrocious weather meant it was more than 24 hours before the charred skeleton of the aircraft was found.
The following morning the crew of a searching RNZAF Bristol Freighter spotted the wreckage in a ravine high in the ranges. One crewman recalled with a burst of sunlight breaking through, the wreckage had the appearance of a large metallic cross.
Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) investigators found a downdraft had carried the aircraft below the level of the crests of the range, where under poor weather conditions the aircraft encountered an area of extreme turbulence from which it was impossible to recover altitude.
Local lawyer Paul Cooney said he was only 5 years old when his aunt Sheila was one of those who perished in the crash.
"She was a small person, which in those days you called a dwarf," he said.
"She was quite an identity in the area because of her stature, but also because she drove a rather large Ford Customline car, and she had specially adapted foot pedals in order to drive it."
Sheila was on her way back from Auckland where she had gone to see off a friend when the plane crashed, Mr Cooney said.
She would have been in her late 30s or early 40s at the time of the crash, he said.
Mr Cooney said his parents spent a long time waiting to hear whether there were any survivors.
"I think that was the real upsetting part of it."
NAC later merged with Air New Zealand in 1978.
An Air New Zealand representative, chief flight operations and safety officer Captain David Morgan, will be at today's service to lay a wreath on behalf of the company.
The country's worst aviation disaster occurred in late 1979 when 257 people on board Air New Zealand Flight 901 perished when the DC-10 they were flying in smashed into the slopes of Mt Erebus in Antarctica.