Plane crash at Takaka

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Max Heath survived World War II as a fighter pilot, came home to Takaka and not long after, was killed in a plane crash.1

The 25-year-old warrant officer from Rototai Rd became New Zealand's first postwar casualty of a civilian air crash when the Tiger Moth he was flying solo crashed in Golden Bay on November 16, 1946. Mr Heath was aiming to make his civilian pilot's licence operative, so was on a training flight.

Max Heath third from right in back row with some of the takaka aero club members at Puramahoi in 1946Max Heath third from right in back row with some of the Takaka aero club members at Puramahoi in 1946.
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He took off from Takaka Aerodrome in the plane that belonged to the Nelson Aero Club, and which had been flown over that morning by the club's pilot/instructor, John Reid. Mr Heath had flown dual with Mr Reid before he was checked out at 1.15pm that day on a solo flight.

The Nelson Evening Mail reported that a number of people along the Golden Bay coast saw the distinctive navy and sky blue plane as it flew over the boat, the MV Nikau, near "the Tata Islands" about half an hour after Mr Heath took off.

The aircraft had enough fuel for a two-hour flight, and because it was seen over Takaka township at about 3.30pm, it was thought it had run out of fuel and was forced down. The Moth was, by that stage already overdue, having been expected back by 2.30pm. It was reported missing at 3.19pm to Air Control at Nelson and Wellington and an extensive land and air search began.

Mr Reid was involved in the air search that covered an area from Golden Bay to Nelson. On the Saturday afternoon Takaka residents joined the search along nearby beaches, and almost 100 people joined a search party organised by Constable Strawbridge at Separation Point. A launch carried further searchers along the coast.

By the following day the Royal New Zealand Air Force had joined in, with three aircraft flying in relays in the hunt that stretched from d'Urville Island to Separation Point, and from Stephen's Island to Golden Bay. Meanwhile the Nelson Aero Club's pilots combed the inshore areas of Golden and Tasman bays, and the valleys around Takaka and Riwaka.

Parts of the wreckage were found by a land party just before 6pm on the Sunday, but Mr Reid made another flight to Takaka and a close search of the area around Whariwharangi for more of the aircraft and in the slim hope he might find Mr Heath, but without result. Amongst the wreckage found was a six-foot spar, a piece of three-ply wood, and numerous small fragments, identified as being from a Tiger Moth by two former air force officers.

A decade later the Nelson Aero Club's Tiger Moth was trawled up  by Nelson fishermen Lionel Wells, now 93, and Noel Jones, now 82.2 They said recent publicity around the search in Awaroa for the missing aircraft Aotearoa had prompted memories of their discovery. They had not at the time placed much significance on their find.

Max John Richard Heath had qualified as a flight engineer and was working in Hodginkson's garage at the time he was killed.  His nephew, Gary Bowden of Takaka, who was  5 at the time of the disappearance of his uncle Max remembers ".. meeting him a few times, and what a handsome devil-may-care personality he was."3  His uncle had qualified to work as an engineer on Lancaster bombers, but the war finished before he had time to put his training into effect.  "He was engaged to the winner of the Miss Nelson contest at the time, who lived close to our family in Allan St, Nelson," Mr Bowden said.

Mr Bowden said they recalled how he "buzzed" his sister and brother-in-law's farm at Rototai Rd as they worked in the field, scaring them flat to the ground, but remembers too the great alarm when he went missing.

The 25-year-old warrant officer from Rototai Rd was New Zealand's first postwar casualty of a civilian air crash.  "Luckless, indeed, to survive the war but not the peace."

nelson mail

This story was originally published in two parts in the Nelson Mail, February 2014.

Sources used in this story

  1. Neal, T. (2014, February 1) Pilot’s luck ran out after the war. Nelson Mail, p.4
  2. Neal, T. (2014, February 4) Pilot had Miss Nelson in his sights.  Nelson Mail,  p.3
  3. Interview with Max Bowden February 2, 2014

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