Since 1911, when the first powered aircraft rose into the New Zealand sky, 23 men women and children, along with their aircraft have been lost without trace. lists 18 planes that have disappeared and despite rigorous searches, no trace of them has ever been discovered. The public are both frustrated and fascinated by mysteries. In the case of lost transports, they are keen to know what happened to those who are missing. They conjure up stories of gruelling survival in dense bush. They consider if the deaths of the missing were fast or if sinister behaviour was exercised in the quest for survival. I’ve listed brief reports on six missing New Zealand aircraft to give you an overview of these losses. Some involve one person (the pilot) while others involve the deaths of passengers of all ages.

DH 90 A

Arguably the most publicised aircraft disappearance, with the loss of five lives, is that of a tourist plane that is continued to be searched for today. At 9.52 a.m. on the 12th of February 1962, the de Havilland DH.90 Dragonfly, a beautiful 1930s British twin-engine luxury touring biplane belonging to Air Charter (N.Z.) Ltd, left Christchurch for a 5-hour scenic flight over the Fiordland area. Weather conditions were changeable, which is usually the case in this spectacularly rugged part of New Zealand. Besides pilot Brian Chadwick, who had flown over 100 times on the same Fiordland route, the aircraft was carrying Louis Rowan, 25, a cabinetmaker from Australia, who had been booked on a previously cancelled flight, but had rescheduled, trusting the weather would improve. Darrell Shiels, 33, also from Australia, was a nervous passenger, because his brother had died in a plane crash in England during World War II. Darrell must have felt somewhat comforted when he saw the aircraft he would be flying in had two engines. The other passengers on this flight were Kiwi couple Valerie Saville, 22, and Elwyn Saville, 20, who were on their honeymoon. Five hours after departure the plane was due back in Christchurch but had not returned and fears began to rise for those onboard the flight. To this day, no trace of the Dragonfly or its occupants has ever been found. In a quest to find it, 34 planes flew nearly 400 hours in 167 searches and covered an area of 17,000 sq. miles, (44,029 sq. km) making it the most extensive air search in New Zealand’s history. Although no cause for the disappearance could be established, the official inquiry suggested shortcomings in the plane’s maintenance.

Dragonfly (


Nearly 60 years after the plane went missing, groups of searchers are still looking for it. Fixated on finding the wreckage, Bobby Reeve and his family make yearly searches. The discovery of a woman’s boot in a remote mountain location has led them to believe the plane was about 8,000 feet up, deep in the permanent snow. “I think if it had been in the bush the whole time, the boot would be covered in moss—but it wasn’t, which is why I think it’s come down off the snow.” Bobby has asked the mountaineering community to help continue the search in the treacherous and unforgiving terrain. “It’s too dangerous—both of my sons have fallen off the side of the mountain already,” he said.

The total disappearance of the beautiful little aircraft remains one of New Zealand’s greatest mysteries.


On the 16th of August 1978, a Cessna 180 was on a flight from Big Bay in South Westland to Riversdale in Southland with four passengers onboard. An opossum trapper on the ground heard it fly overhead in an area known as Hidden Falls then saw it through the trees heading towards Lake Wilmot. He could hear it for about 20 minutes in the stillness found in this part of Fiordland before he noticed a change in the engine pitch as though it was on full power. He noticed an echo effect indicating it was passing the mouths of valleys. Then he only heard silence. The plane simply disappeared. Despite numerous exhaustive searches, no trace of the plane or its occupants has ever been found.


On the 16th of May 2010, four members of the Turner family, including their four-year-old toddler, were on a flight from Tekapo to Fox Glacier but they never arrived. The aircraft left Tekapo just after midday and was last seen heading toward Mt Cook. Arthur Turner made the last radio message to Flight Service in Hokitika 32 minutes into the flight. This call was also picked up by the Timaru Flight Service. Nothing was ever heard from the Turners again. The plane was heard flying in cloud above the village of Okarito before a crash sound. Despite ground and air searches, no wreckage or bodies were ever found.


On the 11th of November 1944, as the Second World was in its dying stage, four Royal New Zealand Air Force Corsairs from No.16 Squadron departed Ardmore for Christchurch on an exercise. During the flight, they decided to change course and include a fly over Westport where they arrived later that morning. The four planes circled the town for five minutes to give the locals a thrill then set off flying in formation on a course direct to Christchurch. A short time later, while flying in cloud, one of the aircraft developed a motor problem and they all decided to return to Westport. In the process of turning in the cloud, Corsair NZ5517 slipped out of sight and was never seen again. To this day, no wreckage has ever been found and the body of the pilot has also never been recovered.


On the morning of the 7th of June 1947, twenty-two-year-old John Tacon departed Hastings airfield heading for Taupo. It was just a one-hour flight and he had three hours of fuel on board. There were numerous sightings of the little aircraft as it flew towards Taupo. Oddly, there were also sightings of it as far away as the Tarawera area. After that, it simply disappeared from the sky. The plane was painted bright yellow so it should have been easy to spot in an area of New Zealand with a modest population and reasonably accessible terrain yet vigorous searches over the following weeks failed to find any sign of the plane or its pilot.


On the 29th of December 1978, a Cherokee Six, with seven people onboard, was on a scenic flight to Queenstown, Milford Sound, Preservation Inlet and then back to Dunedin. It was last seen flying past Milford Sound Aerodrome on its way from the Sunderland Falls. The low cloud further south was virtually down to sea level. Later that day an aircraft fitting the description of this one was seen flying out to sea over the Moeraki River mouth, before turning around and heading back up the river again. At this point, the weather was drizzly and it was getting quite dark. Investigators suggested that the pilot had mistaken the river for the Haast River and was looking for the Haast Aerodrome. Despite air and land searches using the latest tracking equipment of the day, not a trace of this aeroplane or the seven people onboard has ever been found.

It seems extraordinary that so many aircraft have simply disappeared from the skies over New Zealand. I have had numerous flights in small aircraft all over the southern areas of the South Island. I was never anxious about my safety as there always seemed to be plenty of communication devices onboard as well as areas that would be suitable for emergency landings. In fact, I did experience one when our light aircraft made an unexpected landing in a farmer’s field because the young pilot was hopelessly lost and needed to find out where we were as the weather worsened and he was concerned about low fuel. However, all went well and we were able to reach our destination in one piece.

I want to again acknowledge Gavin Grimmer and his website: for providing the information I have presented in this blog.

Ceidrik Heward

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