He's well known as an investigative reporter - and for being punched by Sir Bob Jones. Now Rod Vaughan, who lives in the Bay of Plenty, is back in the headlines again - this time after making an emergency landing in his plane a few days ago. Samantha Motion catches up with him

What's an investigative journalist to do after surviving a terrifying crash-landing seemingly caused by a midair collision with a mysterious object?

If you're a former television broadcaster with more than 40 years experience in current affairs investigations, you're probably not going to patiently twiddle your thumbs until the official report arrives.

Rod Vaughan didn't even wait until the bandages came off to start digging.


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Tanner's Point

It is less than a week since I first met Vaughan for an interview the day after his March 28 crash-landing in a Waihi farmer's cropped maize field, when I return for round two.

The tide is out in Shelly Bay, overlooked by his home at the tip of Tanner's Point, a few minutes north of Katikati.

He and his wife of 37 years, Lois, bought it three years ago after deciding they wanted to leave Auckland, but not go too far.

They were days away from flying to New York to visit their son Nicholas - Vaughan also has two children, Larissa and Richard, from his first marriage - when they heard their offer had been accepted.

"Panic set in."

The decision, however hasty, proved a good one.

The pair were among the first of a wave of "Auckland refugees" to flood into the little clifftop community.

They loved Tanner's Point immediately; from the many and various honesty boxes lining the streets to the boat-owning neighbours who popped round with fresh fish - "filleted, can you believe it" - or bounty from overflowing gardens.

"We haven't got a shop and we don't need one," Vaughan says.

"They don't call it the Bay of Plenty for nothing."

When, one year in, they decided to do away with the house's original 70s brown Formica and "rickety" deck, neighbour Beverley Owen - an experienced doer-upper with several renovations under her belt - organised everything from the design to the tradies.

"She basically project-managed the whole thing."

Preferring flying - which he learned as a teen and returned to about a decade ago after a 40 year hiatus - to fishing or gardening, Vaughan has repaid some of their generosity by taking them on sightseeing flights around Tanner's Point.

He might be taking a break from that for a while, though.

Rod Vaughan used the crash to draw attention to the dangers drones could pose to pilots. Photo/Andrew Warner
Rod Vaughan used the crash to draw attention to the dangers drones could pose to pilots. Photo/Andrew Warner

A rare pilot interview

The bandage 'cap' Vaughan was wearing when last we met is now off, revealing a jagged wound through his white hair, like Edward Scissorhands did his parting.

Vaughan moves around easily; the stitched scalp the only visible sign he almost died in rather newsworthy circumstances days earlier.

He is full of compliments for the "exemplary attention" St John Ambulance and Tauranga Hospital staff gave his son, Richard, and himself.

Rod Vaughan is full of praise for the medical staff who stitched him up after the plane crash. Photo/Andrew Warner
Rod Vaughan is full of praise for the medical staff who stitched him up after the plane crash. Photo/Andrew Warner

It does not appear he has spent much time dwelling on how close they came to death, though he's thankful it didn't happen earlier in the day when he was flying with his grandchildren, and that he was able to bring the plane down safely.

"It could have gone a lot of other ways."

He did admit, however, to feeling a bit of a jolt when a Civil Aviation Authority safety investigator mentioned it was "unusual to be able to interview the pilot" in his line of work.

As both father and son walked away from the crash without even a broken bone it would seem unusual for the CAA to send an investigator up from Wellington for an in-person interview and assessment of the wreckage, but for one thing.

Vaughan believes a drone brought down his rented plane, and if his theory is borne out, that it might be a first for New Zealand aviation.

He did not see the thing he believes glanced across the Plexiglas windscreen at about 1600ft over the mine in Waihi, but a process of elimination - no bird feathers or blood, the extreme rarity of windscreen failure in Aeroprakt Foxbats ("less than 0.5 per cent of 1000 aircraft worldwide"), the increasing popularity of drones and the mine as a place to fly them - has only strengthened his first instinct.

"I'm trying to keep an open mind."

The shattered windscreen of the plane. Photo/Andrew Warner
The shattered windscreen of the plane. Photo/Andrew Warner

Brutal and savage

Vaughan is reluctant to be labelled as a retiree - "semi-retired, I still freelance" - and describes his age as "70 years young".

A slight sensitivity around the subject appears to be a hangover from his bitter forced exit from TVNZ in 2003 when he was 58, after 35 years at the network.

"I'd just hit my straps. I was in the prime of my life and I felt I still had an awful lot to contribute."

He was an award-winning member of the team making Assignment, a half-hour prime-time current affairs show on TVNZ and "the best gig in town" when it was axed, and him with it.

"They wanted to sex it up," Vaughan says, a little scornfully.

He was on assignment in Ottawa, Canada, when his wife Lois called him after hearing on Radio New Zealand that Vaughan was among the journalists being made redundant.

It was days before he was officially given the news, he says.

"Redundancy is a brutal process. It's savage and demoralising,'' he says.

"It took me two or three years to get over it."

Faced with selling himself to a new employer, Vaughan said he considered "everything" - even a move to public relations - but within a couple of weeks he had jumped to TV3 to work on60 Minutes.

Then after eight years, "it happened all over again".

Later, Vaughan emails me hoping he didn't come across as a "bleater" when talking about his rough exit from New Zealand television.

A bit scarred, for sure, but not a bleater.

"Mum, there's bits of glass falling out of the sky"

The day after the crash Vaughan started putting out feelers for any tidbits of information that might help solve the mystery of what happened.

"I am determined to get to the bottom of it, though I know I probably never will. I'm going to give it my best shot."

He was contacted by a woman who was passing the mine on the afternoon of the crash with her daughter when they noticed "bits of glass falling out of the sky".

After seeing the news they realised it was probably shattered plexiglass from the windscreen. Chunks of it were also found a few hundred metres away at the Waihi Fire Station.

Broadcaster Rod Vaughan says a drone may have collided with the plane he was flying moments before he was forced to make a terrifying crash landing near Waihi.

Vaughan reckons he might have made it to an airstrip even with the broken windscreen, but the air rushing loudly into the cockpit blew out the side windows and he was afraid something would wrap around the tail and he would lose control, so in seconds he decided to try an emergency landing.

It all went pretty well until the nose wheel hit a hump in the ground and broke, causing the plane to flip over its nose and leaving father and son dangling in their harnesses in the upside down wreckage.

That was when he suffered the head injury, splattering blood around the cockpit.

Later, it riled Vaughan to see people commenting on stories about the crash suggesting the blood was from a bird that actually smashed the windscreen.

"The armchair pilots really annoy me."

The plane flipped over it's nose and came to a stop upside down. Photo/Cliff McChesney
The plane flipped over it's nose and came to a stop upside down. Photo/Cliff McChesney

After seeing photos of him bloodied in the back of an ambulance, a former colleague emailed to point out he had "cornered the market" on that particular brand of journalist image.

It was a reference to a clip of Vaughan so infamous in New Zealand television history that he put a still from it on the front of his 2012 book: Bloodied But Not Beaten: The Stories Behind 40 Years of Investigative Journalism.

Rod Vaughan says his book was a retirement project. Photo/supplied
Rod Vaughan says his book was a retirement project. Photo/supplied

Vaughan is sitting in a helicopter, a column of blood down the middle of his face. Future knight Sir Bob Jones had just broken his nose after the journalist tracked him down to the Tongariro River for an interview.

War zones

In his last Auckland job, a 15-month three-days-a-week stint at the National Business Review, Vaughan helped compile two Rich Lists.

The lists, while cross-checked by an accountant, were "a bit hit and miss" but he reckons the order was usually "pretty close to the mark".

Since moving to the Bay, Vaughan has continued writing as a freelancer for the New Zealand Listener magazine and the Law Society, and previously for the Bay of Plenty Times.

Early in his television career he had ambitions of becoming a high-flying producer.

He tried it for a bit but was back "on the frontline" before long.

Rod Vaughan in 2012 promoting his new book. Photo/Dean Purcell
Rod Vaughan in 2012 promoting his new book. Photo/Dean Purcell

Vaughan is a pragmatist for sure, and does not seem interested in the perceived glamour of television journalism.

He went to war zones but never put his hand up for those assignments.

It's just the only job that could satisfy his inquiring mind.

"It's a great thing being a journalist because it gives you licence to poke your nose into all sorts of places."