A glint of silver on snowy Mt Ruapehu was the first aerial glimpse of a plane missing for nearly a week with 13 people on board.

It was the shiny metal wreckage of Kaka, a Lockheed Electra passenger plane. It had skidded on a flat section of the mountain, shot over a 40m wide gully, and slammed into a rock wall.

Sixty-nine years ago, the plane named after a New Zealand native parrot broke apart, leaving one wing on a ledge, with most of the rest falling back into the gully. Debris was scattered over a wide area.

The impact was so great it caused part of the fuselage to crunch forward into itself like a telescope. The air-speed indicator in the wreck was found jammed at 150 miles per hour (241km/h).

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The wreck of the National Airways Corporation airliner Kaka in a gully on Mt Ruapehu, 1948. Photo / Herald archives
The wreck of the National Airways Corporation airliner Kaka in a gully on Mt Ruapehu, 1948. Photo / Herald archives

The crew of two and their 11 passengers, including a young boy, were presumed to have died instantly in the crash on October 23, 1948.

The pilot, Max Hare, was found in the crushed nose of the plane, but the body of his co-pilot, Brian Russell, was buried in a metre of snow under the right wing. Two passengers were found in the snow under the fuselage.

The crash of the Kaka, a National Airways Corporation airliner, was New Zealand's worst civilian air disaster to that date. An inquiry later concluded it had gone off course because of miscalculations in navigating through terrible weather.

Herald report, November 1, 1948. Source: Herald archives
Herald report, November 1, 1948. Source: Herald archives
The green marker shows the approximate location of the crash, about 1600m northeast of Lake Surprise on Mt Ruapehu's western side. Map: topomap.co.nz
The green marker shows the approximate location of the crash, about 1600m northeast of Lake Surprise on Mt Ruapehu's western side. Map: topomap.co.nz

After intensive searching from numerous planes, Flying Officer D. W. Gray, a radio operator in an air force Dakota, spotted the Kaka.

"There was a theory that the aircraft might be on the western slopes, and we circled in that vicinity," the Dakota's captain, Flight Lieutenant C. L. Siegert, told the Herald at the time.

"The glint of silver against the snow was what Flying Officer Gray saw, and as we circled at 6500 feet, between 500 and 1000 feet above, it seemed that the Electra had hit the side of the mountain and rolled down into a gully.

"The Electra seemed to have been shattered. We could see what we took to be part of the wing, and another large piece that looked like the double tail assembly. Other parts, not identifiable from the air, were scattered about, between where the Kaka apparently struck and where the bigger bits of wreckage were in the gully."

The wreckage was fairly well covered with snow and from the air there seemed to be no sign of life, nor any trace of fire.

The passengers were Trevor and Helen Collinge and their young son Keith, Margaret Kunz, Gertrude Pease, Lindley Andrews, William Bell, Frederick Follas, Merton Heywood, R. W. Munford and Roderick Phyn.

The Lockheed Electra airliner Kaka crashed into Mt Ruapehu in 1948, killing all 13 people on board. Photo / Alexander Turnbull Library
The Lockheed Electra airliner Kaka crashed into Mt Ruapehu in 1948, killing all 13 people on board. Photo / Alexander Turnbull Library

The plane took off from Palmerston North at 1.16pm and was heading to Hamilton in heavy cloud and rain.

Kaka's initial course was towards Whanganui before a northerly swing to pass west of the high peaks of Ruapehu. The plane was noticed passing over Ohakune. Fear of disaster set in when it didn't arrive in Hamilton.

Wide air searches were made, from Whanganui to Rotorua and Hamilton, and once the plane was found, six days after its disappearance, New Zealand's biggest mountain rescue operation to that date got under way.

Rod Winchcombe, with a mountain club team, was one of the first to the scene of the plane crash in 1948. Photo / Stuart Munro
Rod Winchcombe, with a mountain club team, was one of the first to the scene of the plane crash in 1948. Photo / Stuart Munro

Rod Winchcombe, now 88 and living in Wanganui, was, at age 19, was in one of the first teams to walk up to the scene.

He had heard a radio report that a ski guide from the Chateau Tongariro had ascended to the summit area and, looking down the other, western, side of Ruapehu, had seen the crashed plane in the vicinity of the Mangaturuturu River.

Winchcombe and five mountain club mates from Taihape hopped on the night train north to Ohakune and walked up the southwestern flank of Ruapehu in the dark. They stopped for a dawn brew at Blyth Hut before heading up and around the mountain to find the plane about 1600m northeast of Lake Surprise. Another team arrived, from Horopito, at virtually the same time.

"The left wing was detached from the body of the plane and there was a hole in the side of the plane," Winchcombe recalls. "There were one or two bodies on the outside; most of them were inside.

"There was a rich smell of fuel that was quite strong."

Victims were wrapped in parachute material bound to poles to be taken down the mountain before being carried on horse-drawn trolleys along a bush tramway to Horopito.

Describing the recovery operation, the Herald wrote: "Prophetically accurate would appear to have been the message from three deer-stalkers who, on returning from the densely-wooded area near Pokaka, on the western side of Ruapehu, reported hearing an aircraft in heavy cloud last Saturday. They said it was near Ruapehu, and that its motors appeared to cut out suddenly."