By JO-MARIE BROWN
A New Zealand pilot who pleaded with his girlfriend to save herself as he lay dying from dreadful injuries after a plane crash is in line for an Australian bravery award.
Badly burned Geoff Henderson survived nearly two days in remote New South Wales bush while all the time lifting the spirits of Victoria Friend by explaining how rescue parties would be searching for them.
He even managed to leave a message on the plane's fuselage describing how the aircraft had crashed.
But the rescue, which came 44 hours after the accident, was too late for Mr Henderson, who died from burns and exposure.
The story of his bravery was told in heart-wrenching evidence at a Sydney coroner's inquest this week.
The court heard how Mr Henderson crawled from the burning wreckage of a Piper Cherokee through dense scrub in the Coolah Tops National Park and urged his girlfriend not to give up hope.
He told her that a rescue effort would be under way.
The coroner, John Abernethy, recommended that Mr Henderson, who was born in Invercargill, receive a bravery award for his selfless actions following the crash on January 2, 1999.
The court heard how Mr Henderson's courageous efforts before his death also helped his rescuers to determine what caused the tragedy.
Picking through the charred wreckage, they discovered a section of the rear wing stabiliser on which Mr Henderson had scratched an account of the crash into the paintwork.
His message said: "Accident, 4:10 pm, 2.1.99, 2 POB [people on board], fail 180 turn, stall."
Crash investigator Detective Senior Constable Timothy Seymour said Mr Henderson showed great presence of mind to help investigators while suffering "fairly horrendous injuries."
Mr Henderson was 37 when he died. He moved to Australia in 1980 to pursue a flying career.
His parents, Colin and Bev Henderson, who flew from Christchurch to Sydney for the coroner's inquest, heard how he was due to fly 280km from his home in Walgett to Merriwa, northwest of Newcastle, to collect his two young children for the school holidays.
But 40 minutes into the flight, Mr Henderson struck bad weather which forced him to turn sharply to avoid a ridge that had been obscured by thick cloud.
His four-seater plane then stalled, plummeted to the ground and burst into flames.
A police report into the crash described Mr Henderson as an experienced pilot who was extremely safety conscious and not prone to taking risks.
For two days after the crash, Mr Henderson and Ms Friend lay under the scorching sun listening to aircraft searching overhead.
He explained to her how rescuers would be following a grid pattern and would find them shortly.
On the second day, Ms Friend awoke and placed some of her clothing over Mr Henderson to shield him from the heat, but police believe he had already died. The coroner said Ms Friend's courage and fortitude were also unsurpassed.
She, too, deserved a bravery commendation for the aid she gave Mr Henderson despite her own near-fatal injuries.
Mr Henderson was described by friends and family as a fun-loving man who was a dedicated father to his two children, Georgia, aged 6, and Isabel, 3.
He had worked in the New South Wales countryside for the previous 10 years and was thrilled to become a full-time agricultural pilot in 1996.