Natalie Akoorie is a reporter at the NZ Herald based in Hamilton.

Kaimai crash: Disaster's scars still fresh after 50 years

On a stormy winter morning in July 1963, a DC-3 airliner took off from Whenuapai Airport in Auckland bound for Tauranga. It never made it. The plane, with 23 passengers and crew, nose-dived into a ravine 30m from the summit of the Kaimai range near Matamata, killing all on board. The tragedy is recorded as New Zealand's worst internal aviation disaster, and second only to Erebus. Exactly 50 years after the accident, which had a profound effect on the families of those who perished, Natalie Akoorie tells their stories and those of strangers forever linked.

The New Zealand National Airways Corporation DC-3 Skyliner that crashed into the Kaimai Rangers 1963.
The New Zealand National Airways Corporation DC-3 Skyliner that crashed into the Kaimai Rangers 1963.

The aviation historian

Flight 441 left Whenuapai Airport at 8.21am on Wednesday, July 3, 1963, for a 40-minute flight to Tauranga, according to aviation historian Richard Waugh, who wrote the book Kaimai Crash about the tragedy.

One man who was supposed to be on the flight, Roger Okeby, swapped to an afternoon plane and kept his ticket for years afterwards as a reminder of his close call.

The plane, with 20 passengers and three crew on board, set off in bad weather which deteriorated rapidly just minutes out from Tauranga Airport.

At 9.06am the crew called Tauranga control tower and requested permission to descend but worsening weather had already blown the plane off course.

"As the pilot turned and descended the aircraft really plunged downward in the dense cloud and the driving rain, and severe turbulence of the worst kind grabbed the aircraft as the pilots battled for control," Dr Waugh said.

Moments after air traffic controller Murray Christophersen cleared Flight 441 to descend, he lost contact.

"He turned to his assistant controller after trying to reach them for minutes and minutes saying, 'I've lost an aircraft'."

At the foot of the Kaimais, Gordon quarry worker Errol Board heard the plane go over followed by the "woof" of an impact at 9.09am. He immediately phoned police.

A public inquiry found several factors contributed to the crash including inferior navigation equipment, stormy weather which was not adequately forecast, and the fact that the Kaimais were not classed by Civil Aviation as mountainous terrain which meant the pilot believed it safe to descend, and did so according to regulations.

The main cause, though, was a severe downdraught that pushed the plane down faster than it could accelerate out.

"The pilot would have known in the last half-minute he was going down and no matter what he did with the controls and the power, he couldn't pull out of it."

Dr Waugh called the crash "the Erebus of the era".

"It was front-page news for days and days."

The girlfriend of the travelling salesman

Julie Harris was 21 when her boyfriend Graham Flyger, a 22-year-old Berlei lingerie salesman, was killed in the crash.

"I was really sick at the time with glandular fever and he had come round the night before and brought me this beautiful big bunch of carnations and irises.

"So I looked at those from my sickbed for a week or 10 days which was quite hard."

The couple met through church youth activities, and had been dating for a year.

"We weren't actually engaged but we had talked about marriage."

Mrs Baker, as she is now, said a phone call from her sister a few hours after Mr Flyger's plane took off was the first hint something was amiss.

"She told my mother there had been a plane gone down in the Kaimais and she wondered if it was Graham's. My mother said, 'Don't be silly, Julie's not well it won't be him."'

By noon the terrible news was all over the radio.

"I thought, 'There will be people that will come out. They'll be all right, they'll be alive."'

But hope faded with each news bulletin.

"As more information came out, we realised it was a very bad crash and maybe there wasn't people that had come out alive. You just hoped, until there were bodies found."

When she finally found out that Mr Flyger had been killed, Mrs Baker said she sunk further into her depressive illness.

She managed to attend Mr Flyger's funeral and after months off work at Teal the forerunner to Air New Zealand she returned part-time.

The atmosphere was strained because colleagues didn't know how to treat her.

"It was hard because it really took me two years before I felt I was able to get out and enjoy myself and pick up life again."

Now 71 with two daughters and several grandchildren, Mrs Baker said she often thought of Mr Flyger and wondered what her life would have been like had he not been on that plane.

"It kind of changed my life. You think, 'What if?' It's something you never forget."

The wife and son of the last survivor

One man survived the wreck of Flight 441, only to die of exposure before rescuers could find the downed plane.

John Hardley, a successful Auckland businessman who was married with two young children, miraculously escaped from the burning wreckage.

The soles of his feet were burned from walking about 50m from the plane, where he later died as he sat waiting.

His wife, Robin Hardley, was 29 when her husband died.

"Because the plane was not found for so long it was a matter of never ever giving up hope."

As she waited anxiously for information, Mrs Hardley's mother suggested they polish silver to fill in time.

When the terrible news did arrive, Mrs Hardley said she couldn't face it.

"I didn't cry for two weeks, because something like that just did not happen."

She considers herself lucky to have been "amazingly happy" with her full-of-life husband and two children and said that looking back now, she feels she had "the icing on the cake" in her nine-year marriage.

"But you never get over it. Ever."

The two years after the crash were a blur.

It wasn't until some time later that she realised how supportive family, friends and virtual strangers were in the food, flowers, and telegrams that were sent.

She is also extremely grateful to the searchers and those in Matamata and Te Aroha who helped co-ordinate the effort.

Her son, Simon, was 6 when the crash happened.

He and his older sister, Mary-Jane, were taken in by family friends while their mother waited for news.

"I can remember being told that my father had been killed and I remember the disbelief.

"I remember going to school and everyone looking at me saying, 'That's the boy whose father died."'

The family sued the airline, National Airways Corporation, and won compensation which was calculated on Mr Hardley's income as a textile technologist.

Simon Hardley said that despite being able to keep their family home and continue at private schools - unlike other families who lost everything - his family unit was still badly damaged.

"It was really tough. The impact on the families just goes on and on."

Recurring dreams that his father was still alive haunted Mr Hardley throughout his youth, and the loss was made much worse by his treatment at school.

"They [the teachers] thought, 'No father, he obviously needs a lot of discipline.' So they were really hard on me at school. It made it so much tougher."

The fact that his father initially survived the crash was another blow for the family. He walked away. But he died of exposure not long before rescuers got to the crash, so it was like a double loss.

"He was just a hair's breadth away from a miraculous survival."

The daughter of the co-pilot

Genevieve Kissel was 2 when her father, Peter Kissel, the plane's co-pilot, died in the crash.

"Mum had three of us under 5. We knew that our father had passed away in an aeroplane accident, but Mum didn't speak about it overly much."

Now Genevieve Lawton, the 52-year-old said her mother, now Susan Bory, was only 17 when she married 35-year-old Mr Kissel and 23 when he died.

Fortunately she had good support from her own mother, a war widow, after being left a widow with three children.

Mrs Lawton said she found the 40th anniversary, when most of the 38 children who lost a parent on the plane met each other for the first time, very emotional because she never knew her father or much about him.

"I can't remember anything about him at all. Nothing.

"It's pretty traumatic. It's the loss of a father that you never really knew."

The searcher

David Gauld, now 72, camped near the crash site on the Kaimais last night so he could mark the anniversary at the scene of a memory seared into his young mind forever.

An Auckland University student in 1963, Mr Gauld was a keen tramper and hours after Flight 441 disappeared the 21-year-old was summoned by the university tramping club to help in the search.

"I was asked if I could go down as part of an advanced group from Auckland.

"We had search practices every year and in fact we'd had one for a crashed plane earlier that year."

Teams of searchers spent that afternoon and the next morning in miserable conditions trying to locate the plane and any survivors.

By lunchtime, word came through that the wreckage had been sighted from the air but it wasn't until the next day, on Friday, that Mr Gauld and other searchers were flown by helicopter into the area.

"We made our way through the scrub and eventually got to the crash site. The image of the crash is seared in my brain. There's no way I can remove that."

The plane lay mangled and burned out, with many of the victims still strapped into their seats.

"It was a horrible sight. A little way away from the crash site there was a man who wasn't burned. He looked as if he had sat down for a rest and died on the spot. Presumably he was badly injured. It was very sad."

Now a mathematics professor at Auckland University, Mr Gauld said he felt drawn to relive the event by hiking into the site and camping there.

"It's the same day of the week, Wednesday. The desolation of the place ... it's something in a way I feel I have to relive myself. I will go to the crash site and sit there and think about what happened there 50 years earlier."

The Kaimai crash will feature on a six-part television documentary series, Descent From Disaster, which will screen on TV One this year.

In remembrance

What: 50th anniversary of the Kaimai air crash
Time: 9am, today
Where: At the memorial plaque on Old Te Aroha Rd, north of Matamata
What: A 40-minute memorial led by Rev Dr Richard Waugh followed by a DC-3 flyover.

- NZ Herald

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