Crash-landing in the Shotover and other aviation yarns

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Taking the plunge: Brian Waugh's Dominie in the Shotover River in 1967 PICTURE: JIM DIMOFF

Ever wondered what it would be like to over-shoot or under-shoot Queenstown Airport’s runway? Fifty years ago, pilot Brian Waugh crash-landed in the Shotover River and lived to tell the tale. This tale and others will doubtless be retold at an aviation reunion this weekend, Philip Chandler writes

With aviation history being remembered at a Queenstown reunion this weekend, it seems apt that the resort’s most hairy crash-landing occurred 50 years ago this month.

An experienced pilot, the late Brian Waugh literally ‘shot over’ into the Shotover River after his De Havilland Dominie failed to land on the Frankton aerodrome runway.

At the time, Waugh – whose son, aviation historian Richard, is organising the reunion – had recently transferred from Hokitika to Queenstown.

On April 15, 1967, he picked up an American couple, whose flight out of Milford had been cancelled due to weather, in Te Anau.

Coincidentally, both passengers were private pilots.

In his book Turbulent Years: A Commercial Pilot’s Story, Waugh says he quipped to them: “Good, then we’ll be safe tonight with three pilots onboard.”

However 15 minutes into the flight, his port engine started to vibrate, then stopped.

Then, over Lake Wakatipu, nearing Queenstown Airport, the starboard engine also lost power.

Due to the plane’s height, Waugh overshot the runway.

He started to turn back but the plane sank like a stone.

He headed for a shingle bank by the Shotover River, but the Dominie ran into the water and turned over.

Waugh’s harness broke, catapulting him through the smashed windscreen.

He surfaced in the cold water about five metres downriver with a badly injured ankle.

Fortunately, his passengers, who visited him in the Frankton hospital the next morning, were uninjured.

Waugh later mused that he was the only pilot who’d gone goldpanning in an aeroplane.

Son Richard – drawing parallels with US Airways captain Chesley ‘Sully’ Sullenberger, who crash-landed in America’s Hudson River in 2009, and didn’t lose any passengers – says it was miraculous his dad survived.

“But it was a little bit of a sad end to a long aviation career.

“He’d been a wartime pilot and pioneered routes in the South Island.”

Richard, whose father died in 1984, aged 62, says he’s since discovered that he’d had a legal dispute with his airline, alleging negligent maintenance – the starboard engine, for example, had been overhauled only five hours before the flight.

Both parties eventually settled out of court.

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Celebrating careers in the air

About 135 people are attending this weekend’s aviation pioneers reunion in Queenstown.

Former staff and their families who worked for the resort’s pioneer airlines, up to about 1975, were invited.

Organiser Richard Waugh says the timing was influenced by several milestones like the 70th anniversary since Southern Scenic Air Services (SSAS) was formed, and the 60th anniversary since it launched a Queenstown-Invercargill service.

Early pioneer: Former Queenstown pilot Rex Dovey in his Southern Scenic Air Services uniform at Frankton in 1963

“A lot of these old boys aren’t going to make another five or 10 years so we thought, ‘gosh, why don’t we grab the opportunity.”‘

Attendees will include about two dozen pilots – several from Australia and one, Dave Cowan, from the United States.

The oldest, Russell Troon, 84, from Rolleston, near Christchurch, first flew here in 1953. Another, Rex Dovey, 78, retired to Blenheim from Queenstown in 2006.

First flying out of Queenstown in 1961, he notched up almost 19,000 flying hours – about 12,000 on planes and 7000 in helicopters.

Waugh says pioneer airlines included SSAS, its subsidiary West Coast Airways, Ritchie Air Services (RAS) and Tourist Air Travel, which took over RAS and SSAS before Mount Cook Airline bought them in 1968.

“These were the small airlines that struggled and struggled, but helped establish quite a tourist and aviation pattern to Queenstown, which was just remarkable.”

Waugh says the early pilots had to be versatile, not just carrying tourists but also doing topdressing, poisoning and supply dropping jobs.

This weekend’s star will be a restored 1943 Dominie – the main aircraft type used in the resort from the mid-1950s to the early ’70s.

It’s running scenic flights for guests and the public this morning.

Then at 10.30am on Sunday it’ll join four old Cessnas for a flypast over Frankton and Queenstown Bay.

They’ll fly in a ‘missing man’ formation as a tribute to pioneers and those who died in service. – PHILIP CHANDLER