Engine discovery triggers 91-year-old ex-pilot's memories of fatal crash

By Rosie Mains

Images of a wrecked engine from a Royal New Zealand Airforce Harvard brought memories flooding back to pilot Aubrey Bills, 60 years after he survived the crash that killed his mate.

The 91-year-old Cambridge resident has spent years coming to terms with the crash that killed fellow squadron member George Christopher Nevill Johnson on January 17, 1953 in Mt Aspiring National Park.

They were carrying out a search for two missing trampers when tragedy struck.

"The last thing I saw before we hit the side of the mountain was a great big stag with huge antlers on top of the ridge, then we hit and I was knocked out.

"When I came to we were hanging upside down in our straps and I could hear trickling, and I thought it was petrol and we were done for."

Mr Bills was surprised on Saturday to learn a gold prospector, Ben Lund, had stumbled across the engine and propeller from the plane at the top of a small waterfall in Rough Creek, an hour's walk from the Mt Aspiring hut.

Mr Bills yesterday recounted the fateful trip.

A flight lieutenant for the No 4 Territorial Air Force Squadron, Mr Bills was the only pilot trusted by climber, friend and squadron leader Mr Johnson. "He refused to go unless I flew," Mr Bills said.

"Chris was an experienced climber so was asked to help find them.

"On the night before we went, during the briefing, Chris put his finger on the exact spot where the trampers were eventually found."

Mr Bills had eight years' flying experience, including World War II tours of the Pacific, and believed the Harvard had enough speed and height for the search mission.

But about 8am it hit a down-draft and he had to do a high-speed stall on to the western side of Mt Aspiring at about 1372m.

They couldn't avoid a crash. When Mr Bills came to, he pulled an unconscious Mr Johnson from the wreckage then wrapped him in a parachute and left him by the wreck while he went to get help.

With head and leg injuries, Mr Bills walked to a tramping hut where a police constable was stationed as part of the search party.

"I was out to it. I remember having to get across a cliff and eventually got to a creek, which I flopped into and lapped up because I was parched."

He and the police constable were met by other searchers who walked to the hut.

"They gave me some brandy which tasted pretty good and went to get Chris."

Mr Johnson was dead by the time searchers found him with the wreckage and Mr Bills struggled to accept what had happened.

"It was pretty upsetting. They gave me the Queen's Commendation for brave conduct, but I didn't accept it. In those days, and even today, I've got this thing 'was it my fault?'.

"I don't believe it was, but you have that doubt in the back of your mind and I couldn't talk about it for a long time, although it doesn't worry me like it used to."

Mr Bills lost his passion for flying and became a sales representative for Dulux for 30 years, moving from Dunedin to Christchurch and Hamilton before retiring at 62.

- Otago Daily Times

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