50th Anniversary of Flight 441 Fatal Accident. Part 1: Visit to Crash Site

Memorial Plaque with Pilot's and Cabin Crew Wings
from Fly DC3.
On 3 July 1963 at approximately 9:09am, National Airways Corporation Flight 441 from Whenuapai to Tauranga flew into a near-vertical rock face in the Kaimai Ranges. The crash site is near Mount Ngatamahinerua, at an altitude of 2460 feet. The aircraft was a DC-3 with New Zealand registration ZK-AYZ.

Flight 441 was carrying 23 people, all of whom perished in the crash. At the time this was New Zealand’s worst air accident, and remains New Zealand’s worst internal air accident.

To mark the 50th anniversary of the crash, on Sunday 30 June 2013 we hiked in to the crash site and placed a set of pilot’s wings and cabin crew wings from Fly DC3 at the memorial plaque. Fly DC3 operate one of New Zealand’s last two remaining airworthy DC3s, and their aircraft is part of the official memorial service.

The pink tree that marks the start of the
track to the crash site. The track is “visible”
to the left of the tree.
A long hike on rugged tracks in the Kaimai ranges brought us to the saddle beside Mt Ngatamahinerua and the tree prominently marked with orange DOC triangles, old weathered pink paint, and “DC3” carved in to the bark.

Past the tree the tracks were no longer marked with orange DOC triangles but with various ribbons – small old, dirty pink ribbons, pieces of white tape, and pieces of yellow hazard tape. Heading in the direction of the arrow past the tree, we promptly missed the ribbon that marked the track to the crash site, took the wrong track and started up the mountain. It didn’t take too long to figure out we were heading in the wrong direction, as we were going up rather than down.

Looking down on the saddle below Mt Ngatamahinerua
as the cloud momentarily clears. The crash site is down
the gully to the right.
Turning back towards the saddle we were treated to views of low cloud whipping across the saddle. The photo to the left looks sunny and pleasant, but the reality was cold and windy, with low cloud, and not much sun. The conditions gave us a real appreciation of what it might have been like on the day of the crash.

Continuing down towards the crash site we repeatedly lost the track and ribbons, but after a bit of hunting around regained them again.

Tree silhouetted in the low cloud.

Looking down the slip at the top of the gully, cloud
shrouding the hill side.

The track down from the saddle initially follows a slip before diving into dense bush. The visible wreckage is in a steep rocky gully. Just above the wreckage it is necessary to climb down a small bluff of perhaps 20ft. Previous visitors had placed a rope here to assist.

Looking back at the bluff. The rope is
visible snaking its way down the face.
As not all the bodies had been recovered after the crash, the site was declared a burial site by the Department of Internal Affairs. To prevent souvenir hunters from taking parts of the aircraft and desecrating the site it was decided that the NZ Army (the SAS) would blow up a cliff face to cover the wreckage. It was easy to imagine that this steep and narrow gully might have been the very place that the SAS blew up the cliff face.

Down the rope and right in front of us is one of the landing gear, including the upper undercarriage truss. A few metres further down the gully is a wing section with the registration AYZ clearly visible. Immediately above the wing another section of undercarriage is wedged under a boulder.

Landing gear

Upper undercarriage truss

Wing with "AYZ" registration

On the rock wall beside the wing is the memorial plaque placed at the 40th anniversary. This was very clean and in good condition, so perhaps someone had recently attended to it in preparation for this anniversary.

We placed the pilot’s and cabin crew wings above the plaque, took a few more photos, and then commenced the climb out.

Landing gear wedged under boulder

One last look down the slip