WILSON da SILVA
Last week the Department of Aviation called off a seven-day search for a missing Cessna 172. It had spent, together with the Army and the RAAF, almost $1 million trying to find it.
On Saturday, three friends of the missing pilot, flying in a similar aircraft and attempting to simulate the flight, found it after two hours and $70 worth of fuel.
Yesterday afternoon a helicopter carried the bodies of the four occupants to Hastings District Hospital for examination. The aircraft had crashed in dense bush near Mount Banda Banda in northern NSW.
Peter McDonnell, of Sydney, was the pilot. His passengers were Ross Stockman, 66, his son Michael, 41, and his grandson Darryl, 11, from Gubbata, near West Wyalong in central NSW. They apparently died on impact.
A police spokesman said rescuers reached the plane on foot to remove the bodies but because the bush was so dense at the crash site the bodies had to be carried for two hours to a spot where the rescuers could cut a clearing to enable a Polair helicopter to land.
The wreck was not burnt out and the bodies were found inside the cabin.
Reports of finding the crash site after a farmer had heard “a child’s voice” in the area were incorrect. The searchers had no contact with the police until after they found the wreckage.
It was around two on Saturday afternoon when Mr Brian Chapman turned his aircraft 180 degrees to return to Tamworth, guessing that Mr McDonnell might have done this on April 23 when he saw the conditions were deteriorating.
Mr Rod Hemming, the dead pilot’s workmate, was the one who saw the wreckage strewn on a ridge.
“There was the red upholstery, the white fuselage,” said Mr Hemming, a friend of Mr McDonnell for 10 years. “I felt a drop in the guts when I saw it.”
“It wasn’t just a fluke, you know,” said Mr Gary Darnell, the owner of the searching aircraft. “This is what the department is trying to put it down to. We had a plan that we were following. I’m sure that if the department had tried it this way they would have stumbled across it too.
“This is what makes you fume a bit. I mean, in this case there was no chance of there having been survivors, but if there had been, they could have found it earlier. But they wouldn’t allow any single-engined aircraft in there. Their theory is that they don’t want another single-engined plane going down.”
Mr Darnell said the department cordoned off the area surrounding the plane’s last known radar contact during the search and would only allow helicopters and twin-engined aircraft to take part in the search.
“Searching with twin-engined aircraft is just a waste of time,” he said. “This is what we were trying to get through to the department. They evidently don’t go along with this using light aircraft (to simulate the incident). It’s the only way to really do it.”
The trio left Tamworth Aerodrome at noon on Saturday, intending to simulate as much as possible the course of the flight up to the point where it was lost to radar. They flew low, as the plane had flown, and tried to think of the things Peter McDonnell might have done in such terrain and in poor conditions.
Mr Hemming was reluctant to criticise the department’s handling of the search: “I reckon the department has done a top job. Although they didn’t find him, they were on the job with everything they had. It’s just that fast fixed-wing aircraft was not the way to go.”
A spokesman for the Department of Aviation, Mr Ralph Sharman, discounted Mr Darnell’s suggestion that the plane could have been found sooner had the department tried to “recreate” the flight using a similar type of aircraft.
“It’s an unfair criticism,” he said. “In theory the flight was re-enacted. It was carried out on paper in the search co-ordination centre. They tried every possible angle ... every theory was worked through. That area was throughly searched.”
The department, he said, had spent $600,000 of its own money hiring aircraft and co-ordinating up to 40 aircraft in searching 9,500 square kilometres of terrain in conditions of low cloud and occasional drizzle.
Mr Darnell still rejected the idea of using fast twin-engined aircraft. He was one of the observers on the department’s seven-day search.
“Those planes were travelling at 6,000 feet and at 200 knots. And then all you can see is the wing below you. We, on the other hand, used a slower plane travelling much lower, and with no wing in the way.”
And the fact remains that the missing plane was found within two hours by three men in a single-engined aircraft trying to guess the last movements of the Peter McDonnell and his passengers. And they found it a mere eight kilometres east of where it had disappeared from radar screens.