N.Z.’s FIRST FATAL AIR CRASH

New Zealand’s first regular scheduled passenger service began in 1930 when a small enterprise called Air Travel launched a tri-weekly service between Christchurch and Dunedin. Using a De Havilland DH50 borrowed from the government, the company offered 3 flights a week between the two South Island cities. The service was poorly received and the company closed down after just 9 months. A matter of weeks later, Dominion Airlines Ltd began a daily service between Gisborne and Hastings to keep the areas ravaged by the Hawkes Bay earthquake in contact with the rest of New Zealand. For the service, they chose a British built Desoutter Mk2 monoplane.

Desoutter MK2 (Alchetron.com)

ABOUT THE AIRCRAFT

The Desoutter Aircraft Company, based in Croydon, Surrey, England, was formed in 1928 to manufacture planes designed by the Dutch company, Koolhoven who were known for the modern design of their aircraft. The ‘Dolphin’ as the plane was initially called was quite successful and was popular with British flying clubs who referred to the aircraft as a Desoutter and the name stuck. The company produced a total of 28 Desoutter Mk1 and 13 Mk2 aircraft before folding in 1932 due to its main customer, the National Flying school, going bust. Three models of the aircraft have been preserved, one in England and two in Australia.

DESTINY OF THE THIRD MAN

A few days before Lieutenant John Moncrieff and Captain George Hood attempted to make the first flight across the Tasman Sea (as I featured in my second last blog) there was a discussion about whether George Hood or Ivan Kight would accompany John Moncrieff. A coin was flipped and Ivan missed out. Three years later, the same pilot made New Zealand aviation history when he crashed near Wairoa, killing himself and his two passengers. It was the first fatal crash involving a scheduled passenger air service in New Zealand. Sadly, it happened just 5 days after 253 people were killed in the Hawkes Bay earthquake which cut off Napier and Hastings from the rest of the country.

After the earthquake, Dominion Airlines quickly started running its Desoutter Mk2 monoplane three times a day between Gisborne and Hastings to keep the communication and supply lines open. On February 8 1931, Ivan was piloting the third flight of the day, after fellow pilot Captain George Bolt needed rest after flying the previous two trips that day. (it was hard work controlling aircraft in the air back at that time) There were two passengers on the flight – local man Walter Findlay and William Charles Strand of Lower Hutt. As part of his duties, Ivan had to also air drop a bag of letters and telegrams at Wairoa on the way to Hastings. It was during the bag drop that things went horribly wrong. Ivan reduced altitude to about100 feet [30 metres] for the mail drop then continued flying at a low altitude as he turned the aircraft into the wind. During the turn, the plane suddenly stalled and nose-dived.

“The machine crashed at terrific speed into the side of a road at the North Clyde railway yards in Wairoa. The nose of the aeroplane was driven deep in the ground. Men worked frantically to extricate the occupants and they had to break a portion of the right wing to get to them. However, the victims were past relief. Two had been killed outright and the third died within a few minutes.” reported a local newspaper.

OFFICIAL INQUIRY

A Court of Inquiry declared the crash was caused by pilot error because he attempted to turn while flying too low and too slow when the Cirrus Hermes engine (manufactured from surplus Renault parts) failed.

Dominion Airlines appeared in the Wellington Supreme Court a few months later sued on the basis that Ivan Kight was not competent enough to fly passengers, making the company guilty of negligence. “The aeroplane was so incompetently and unskillfully handled and piloted by Kight that it crashed,” one newspaper harshly declared.

During the case, the court heard from Wing-Commander S. Grant-Dalton, then director of the country’s air services, who didn’t approve of Kight being granted a “B-licence” to fly passengers and goods. “I didn’t think he was the right type to hold a commercial licence. I had seen him flying, but I wasn’t satisfied.” Grant-Dalton told the judge.

The judge eventually decided negligence on the part of Ivan Kight caused the accident and the airline was to pay £3000 plus costs. A year later that decision was overturned by the Court of Appeal where it was argued the crash should have been viewed in the context of the emergency situation following the Napier earthquake, which necessitated Dominion Airlines to fly three daily flights in rapid succession. The Chief Justice of the Appeal Court thought the Supreme Court had not placed enough weight on engine stoppage as a contributing factor. Dominion Airlines was awarded costs by the Court of Appeal, but it wasn’t enough to keep the airline in business and it was forced into liquidation a short time later.

Ceidrik Heward

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