War historian Neil Frances, left, and author Bill Conroy, with a model of the Ryan aircraft flown by George Hood and Lieutenant John Moncrieff in their failed attempt to cross the Tasman Sea. PHOTO/HAYLEY GASTMEIER

 

HAYLEY GASTMEIER

hayley.gastmeier@age.co.nz

 

On January 9, 1928, Masterton’s Captain George Hood and Lieutenant John Moncrieff assured their wives they’d be home the following day.

Instead, they disappeared without trace.

The pair set off from Sydney at 2.44am on January 10 in a Ryan monoplane, named Aotearoa, attempting the first flight across the Tasman Sea.

The journey to Wellington was expected to take 14 hours.

Thousands of people gathered at Trentham Racecourse to welcome the men home – the crowd waited, scanning the sky, for a plane that never arrived.

To this day, it has never been found.

How Hood and Moncrieff came to meet their fate is explored in a new book by Bill Conroy, with the working title ‘The Nation Waited’, which will be launched next year at Wings Over Wairarapa on February 22.

While Conroy, of Tauranga, was born a few years after the tragedy, he remembers his mother talking about it, sparking his life-long interest in the mystery.

He has spent the last 30 years researching the flight in depth.

“It started by trying to fill in the gaps in my own knowledge, but it’s turned into a duty to ensure the information I do have is available for future generations,” he said.

While his research has not been rewarded with any definitive answers, he has drawn his own conclusion about how the men met their ends.

“We believe the most likely cause of their failure to make the New Zealand coast was they fell asleep.

“They had no sleep the night before, they got into the aircraft at 2.45am and flew, we think it was about 12 hours-plus that they were airborne … the aircraft was sound and smooth, the motor hadn’t been running for a great deal of time.”

Conroy said, in his opinion, Hood, 35, and Moncrieff, 29, were not well prepared for their mission, in comparison to the “meticulous” and lengthy preparation carried out by Charles Lindbergh, the first person to fly solo non-stop across the Atlantic, from New York to Paris.

There was one particularly emotional side to the story, Conroy said.

“The final message these two guys asked newspaper reporters to convey to their wives was the words ‘I will be home tonight’, and it never happened.”

Wairarapa war historian Neil Frances said Conroy’s book was unique in that it was the first manuscript ever written which focused solely on Hood and Moncrieff’s flight and the subsequent search and rescue efforts.

Frances said the Aotearoa travelled around 160kmh, and a radio signal being transmitted from the plane was heard up until 12 hours into the flight.

“At that stage they were probably a couple of hundred miles from the coast of New Zealand, and then it stopped and nothing more was heard, and the plane never turned up – no wreckage or evidence was ever found, despite a big air and sea search.”

Frances said over the years there has been a lot of speculation about where the plane crashed.

“There were rumours that it crashed in Te Kuiti, and then there were rumours it crashed along the west coast of the South Island … the Marlborough Sounds.

“Lots of people have gone into the country and looked for the wreckage or people have reported wreckage, but it’s never turned out to be the Aotearoa.”

Moncrieff was the pilot on the Aotearoa’s fateful flight, while Hood was in the rear seat.

Two additional seats in the aircraft were removed to accommodate the extra fuel needed for the journey.

Frances said the men had adequate petrol for about 19 hours flying, anticipating the trip to take 14.

A third man, Ivan Kight, was not onboard the aircraft, but was very much involved and invested in the attempt.

Often forgotten in the retelling of the story, Kight’s involvement is covered in Conroy’s write-up.

He died in 1931 when the plane he was onboard crashed near Wairoa in northern Hawke’s Bay.