The crowd of thousands at the Riccarton races fell silent as a wing on a plane performing stunts high above them collapsed, sending the machine into a fatal dive to the ground.

The pilot and sole occupant of the locally made two-seater biplane, Cecil McKenzie Hill, 34, was killed instantly. It was New Zealand's first fatal plane crash, on Saturday, February 1, 1919.

Hill, from England, was the chief instructor and a competent mechanic at the Canterbury Aviation Company at Sockburn aerodrome in Christchurch - later to become the Wigram Air Force base - about 2km from Riccarton Racecourse.

Canterbury Aviation made its own biplanes, one of which was destroyed in New Zealand's first fatal plane crash in February 1919. Photo / RNZAF Museum
Canterbury Aviation made its own biplanes, one of which was destroyed in New Zealand's first fatal plane crash in February 1919. Photo / RNZAF Museum

Company chairman Sir Henry Wigram, a Member of the Legislative Council and a former Mayor of Christchurch, had organised the exhibition flight the night before with the chairman of the Jockey Club.

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As horses and their jockeys raced for the Lyttelton Plate, Hill began his afternoon display of aeronautical skill in a plane only just built at the company's Sockburn hangars.

He circled the racecourse, flying in and out of low cloud, according to a Press Association report in the Herald. The plane dived and flew low as the pilot waved to the crowd. He climbed to about 600m before "diving prettily" and throwing the machine into a loop.

"... he did not come very well out of the loop, and had to put the nose of the machine down sharply to come out of it.

"Then he dived for another loop. This time he was diving directly towards the crowd. He rose to take the loop, but as he did so there was a palpable snap, and one wing collapsed."

Hill tried to regain control but the plane lurched and "turned lazily". An object, possibly a hat or helmet, fell clear, and the machine dived and crashed beyond a belt of trees, between the racecourse and Yaldhurst Rd.

"The crowd was speechless with horror …"

Cecil Hill flew about 2km from Sockburn to the Riccarton Racecourse. Map / Google
Cecil Hill flew about 2km from Sockburn to the Riccarton Racecourse. Map / Google

An inquest into Hill's death found the wing collapse was probably the result of bracing wires having snapped. The plane was built mainly from American ash and cedar timber, with canvas covering. The wings were braced with wire.

"The machine was built under the personal supervision of the deceased, who was a competent mechanic and he expressed himself satisfied with the machine," said the coroner, Mr T. A. B. Bailey, a magistrate.

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The plane was built by Mr J. G. Mackie, who had previously built planes in Auckland.

The Christchurch Star reported that Hill had planned to fly the plane to Invercargill but hadn't completed its testing. Its first flight was a fortnight before the crash. Initially Hill had said he wasn't sure of the machine for stunting.

A Star reporter speculated: "It was possibly for this reason that he had not allowed anyone else to fly the machine. On the first occasion on which he tested the machine for steep banks the side slipped and started a spin, but Mr Hill pulled it out of the spin very promptly. The collapse was evidently due to an internal weakness which could not survive the second loop."

The company's assistant instructor, James Mercer, told the coroner the plane that crashed was one of several built at Sockburn.

On the day of the fatal flight, Hill had told Mercer he would not do anything risky, and that there would be no risk in flying loops. Mercer told the coroner Hill had not looped the machine before and that the manoeuvre would put an unusual strain on the plane.

Wigram had set up the company in 1916, during World War I, to train pilots for military service.

Hill was hired in May 1917, having been a flying instructor at Hendon, England. By the end of the war, in November 1918, the Canterbury company had produced 182 pilots.

In a 1918 report, the company said its trainee pilots all helped out with the construction of new planes, the first was which was named "Whitewings".

"Mr Mackie came to us from the Auckland school [at Kohimarama], where he had already established a reputation as a builder of aeroplanes. Since he has been with us he has built several more planes, which are not only cheaper than the imported models, but considerably lighter and possessing greater stability, so much so in fact, that we are now importing engines only, and building our own planes.

"Mr Mackie has been equally successful as a maker of propellers …"

Aviation historian Richard Waugh told the Herald today that Mackie wouldn't have been alone in DIY plane-building during the early days of New Zealand aviation.

"... a number of young men all over New Zealand, beginning probably with Richard Pearse, were building heavier-than-air machines.

"For example in Nelson ... the Hunter [brothers] were reported in local newspapers in November 1910 as experimenting in Takaka with the building of an aeroplane. The home-build was also displayed at the Richmond A&P Show."

In a booklet, Canterbury Aviation in 1919 offered passenger flights starting at £5 ($515 today) for 10 minutes. Source: Christchurch City Library
In a booklet, Canterbury Aviation in 1919 offered passenger flights starting at £5 ($515 today) for 10 minutes. Source: Christchurch City Library

After the war, Wigram's aviation company turned more to civilian flying, offering pilot training in a three-month course for £100 ($10,300 today). Ten-minute passenger flights cost £5 ($515), and cross-country trips £30 ($3090) an hour.