This Mini Mystery revisits the case of the World War II bomber, which disappeared on a training flight, then turned up again over 30 years later

We ordered takeaway coffees at the Whangamomona Hotel and sped off towards Stratford. Pushing the car hard through those hairpin bends west of town probably wasn't such a great idea.

This was to be the second in a series of adventures for myself, my wife, Debra-Rose Charman, and our trusty sidekick, BMW Group NZ's Mini Cooper S.

But the Mini could handle the treatment, the sun was getting low in the sky and I was determined to keep our next appointment.

A Stratford identity, the late Errol Clince, had agreed to recount the day he solved what was once New Zealand's greatest aviation riddle.

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As a 20-year-old, Errol discovered the crash site of the Airspeed Oxford bomber which vanished with four crew aboard during World War II.

They took off from Bell Block Airfield, New Plymouth, on a cloudy day in 1942 and lost their way following a routine gunnery exercise. The ranges must have suddenly risen before the pilots, then their plane smashed into huge trees. A later search petered out after a few months and the wreckage lay undisturbed for three decades.


It was a coffee at the hotel, then straight into a Taranaki Mini Mystery.

Then in January 1974, Errol made his famous find.

When I was ushered in to see him last month, he was obviously ill and confined to his easychair, but he became animated as he brought his great adventure to mind.

Errol had already hunted goats in Egmont National Park over two years, plus done two pest eradication expeditions to Raoul Island.

He was in the Pouakais, "heading nowhere in particular", when he climbed up the side of a waterfall and began forcing his way through some thick king fern.

"Suddenly I was staring into a machinegun mounted in a perspex gun turret," he said.

"There it was and I began playing with it all. It was sort of everything at once. I pulled the machinegun out of the turret and ruined the magazines. I waved it round, carrying on like Rambo.

The well picked-over debris of the 1942 plane crash was hard to find, even with the help of a DoC ranger.

"First I was going to take the gun home, but then I just threw the rusty old thing down. I pulled parachutes out of boxes, found the [flight] controls and changed them all. I ruined a lot of stuff, which I shouldn't have, but I had no idea I'd been the first to find it."

When his dog brought him a bone, a chilling truth began to dawn.

Heading home on Mangorei track, Errol met a tramper and mentioned the find. The man gave him a lift and pumped him for information.

Errol's diary entry that night: "Hunted Mangorei Stream, got 10 goats. Got a ride in a Cortina 2000 Automatic. Found old bomber below Mangorei Hut somewhere. There were a lot of 303 bullet shells, a machinegun and an old parachute still not undone ... I also found the leg bone of a human then I buggered off from there fast."

Early next morning there was a knock on the door. Errol was soon guiding Alpine Club members, the police and Air Force personnel to the site. Former Daily News photographer Dave Hallet was in the party which hiked in to remove the remains.

"I was impressed with Errol's navigation skills in that rugged country," Hallet recalled.
The Chief Inspector of Air Accidents, Ron Chippindale, arrived at the crash site by helicopter, and scratched his head at the odd settings of the flight controls.

Errol said nothing.

The day after my chat with Errol, senior DoC ranger David Rogers kindly guided me to the crash site. We hiked through thick forest for hours, clambered up and down steep banks and waded through boulder-filled streams. Even Dave lost the track for a while.

It was great to finally locate the scene of such a sad but fascinating story. I see this historic location as a memorial not only to the airmen who lost their lives but also to Errol, for sadly he died earlier this week.

But a "mini" mystery still remains in my mind. Errol reported finding only one Browning machinegun at the site, but search parties apparently removed two. Chippindale took one away in his helicopter and Hallet packed another out on foot.

The Daily News reported two guns, but official records say the plane carried only one.
The rusty old weapon (or weapons) were apparently beyond use, but such vagary following a military crash seems puzzling.



As a young hunter Errol Clince guided search parties to a WWII Airspeed Oxford.
Errol John Clince 16/2/53 - 8/9/14

Errol Clince shot more tha 5000 goats during a 16-year career working for the former NZ Forest Service as a professional hunter.

Most of this valuable work was carried out in the Egmont National Park.

Following a long hunting career, Errol worked at the Stratford Mountain House, for many years helping to facilitate tourism in the National Park he'd invested so much of his life in.

An inventive and gifted engineer, Errol worked in steel, building trailers, woodsplitters, whimsical objects such as "replica canons" and even a girocopter aircraft.

This last machine, Errol piloted himself logging more than 300 hours flying time.

He spent much of this time flying high above routes and locations in the National Park, places he'd previously walked through as a young hunter years before.

• Paul Charman was a guest of the Bella Vista Motel New Plymouth, and was loaned the Mini by BMW Group NZ.