On Thursday, 21 November 1957, a Bristol Freighter aircraft disintegrated above the Russley Golf Course, crashed and burst into flames. All four people on board — Robert Hamilton, Helge Torgerson, Tom O'Connell and James McLaggan — were killed. A permanent memorial was erected at the crash site for the 50th anniversary of the accident in 2007.
The flight plan
Woodbourne to Paraparaumu
On Thursday, 21 November 1957 at 9:07am the Straits Air Freight Express Ltd freighter (ZK-AYH) left Woodbourne Aerodrome bound for Paraparaumu.
On board were the captain, Robert Hamilton, two first officers and the company’s founder and general manager, Tom O’Connell. As two officers were on board, training exercises were conducted: one of which was the feathering and unfeathering of the starboard propellor. Two minutes after this exercise there was a sudden and severe vibration through the aircraft. However the flight continued without interruption and the plane landed in Paraparaumu at 9:30am.
The plane was then emptied and reloaded with cargo. Two Aberdeen Angus cows travelled in specially constructed wooden crates. One of the first officers disembarked. James McLaggan, a university student boarded as a passenger.
Paraparaumu to Oamaru
The aircraft left Paraparaumu at 10:09am heading for Oamaru via Timaru. The trip appeared uneventful with routine position reports being transmitted by radio at Wellington, Blenheim and Kaikoura. There were strong north-westerly wind conditions with some severe turbulence.
At 11:27am the aircraft gave its position as 10km north of the Waimakariri River mouth at 914 metres. From there it was intended to begin the descent into Timaru.
The crash: wing separates from fuselage, fireball erupts
A sudden gust of wind registering 33 knots (61 kmh) was recorded at Harewood at 11:33am. At about this time the plane was seen by a number of witnesses on the ground to literally fall to pieces. The starboard outer wing folded upwards and backwards and then separated, falling and landing on open farmland. The nose doors, the floor of the freight compartment (with the freight in position), and the rear portion of the fuselage with the fin and rudder attached all separated from the rest of the aircraft just before impact.
Pieces were scattered over an area of more than a square mile (2.59 square kilometres).
The rest of the aircraft ploughed nose down into a row of pine trees on the south-east boundary of the Russley Golf Course. Here the flight deck and front section erupted in a huge sheet of flame and spread to the trees as the unused fuel sprayed over the area.
The control tower at Harewood did not receive a distress call, but emergency vehicles were soon on the scene. Some golfers, unaware of the disaster, were annoyed at their game being disrupted by heavy vehicles rumbling over the golf course.
One of the four passengers was found to be still breathing but he died before medical aid arrived. The front portion of the plane was still burning and nothing could be done for the rest of the passengers as they were tangled in the wreckage.
The cattle also died instantly; one of the mangled carcasses was found draped across the branch of a blackened pine tree about 3 metres above the ground.
An eye witness account
Pauline Uhr was hanging out washing at her home, on the corner of Harewood and Gardiners Road when she saw the freighter. She reported hearing a harsh rending sound and had seen one wing tear from the aircraft. There had been no rocking or bucking of the plane beforehand and once the wing came off the fuselage plummeted to the ground.
Air accident investigation
An investigation by the Chief Inspector of Air Accidents into the disaster concluded that the cause of structural failure was metal fatigue and the severe gust of wind had just been the last straw. Modifications were made to this type of plane to prevent future failures.
In November 1992, on the 35th anniversary of the crash, a memorial cairn dedicated to the four people who had lost their lives in this tragedy — pilot, Robert Hamilton; first officer, Helge Hall “Harry” Torgerson; and passengers Tom O'Connell and James McLaggan — was unveiled.
This memorial was under three birch trees in the grounds of the Brevet Club, not far from the original site of the crash. In 2007 the Russley Golf Course approved the placement of a permanent memorial to the crash on the original site, at the initiative of club member, Phil Boyd. It was completed by 21 November 2007 in time for a 50th anniversary service.
- “Four killed in air crash : Freighter falls on Russley Links”, The Press, 22 November 1957, p 14
- Phillips, A. A., Guardians of flight Airport Fire Service, Christchurch International Airport, 1993.
- "Plane crash memorial", The Press, 9 November 2007, p A8
- "The day that plane wreckage rained down on Russley: lucky escape for golfers on course", The Star Weekender, 16 November 2007, p A3
- Read a description of the crash on the Aviation Safety network
- Christchurch air force memorial at NZHistory
- Bristol Freighter crash in Today in History - 21 November
- Documents from the accident from Archives New Zealand on Flickr