Friday, July 27, 2018

"We are borrowing one of your 'planes": an early theft from Mangere Aerodrome

(Image: NZ Herald 24 April 1934)

Blood marks on cockpit. 

A Gipsy Moth aeroplane was stolen from the Hangar at Mangere aerodrome about four o'clock this morning. It crashed, and was found after daylight in an estuary on the fringe of the flying field. There were blood marks in the cockpit, and footprints in the mud for some distance round the edge of the estuary. It is believed that two young men who were seen at the aerodrome yesterday were associated in an extraordinary adventure. At the hangar a note was found stating that the men proposed to fly to Australia. 

Two men, whose ages were estimated at 25 and 27, both about 6ft, were seen about the hangar early yesterday morning. They showed intense interest in the 'planes, and climbed into the cockpit of one. Both were unshaven, and are described as of a rough type. They told Mrs Hall, who is connected with the clubhouse, that they were hungry, and she gave them a meal about lunch time. Members of the ground staff at the aerodrome were uneasy about the movements of the two strangers, and when they went up to the clubhouse from the hangar for morning ten they decided to leave someone in charge of the 'planes. 

After lunch the two strangers disappeared, but were again seen about the aerodrome late in the afternoon. When work for the day was completed members, of the ground staff closed the hangar doors and locked the petrol bowser pump which stands outside. The gliding doors of the hangar are never locked. 

 About 3.30 this morning a resident who lives some distance away from the aerodrome was awakened by the barking of his dog. Then he heard a car. The noise faded, and he went off to sleep. In the next half-hour much must have occurred at the hangar. 

About four o'clock Peter Allan, the young son of Flight-Lieutenant D M Allan, instructor to the Aero Club, heard, the sound of a 'plane. He called out, but his father first thought that the boy was talking in his sleep. Shortly afterwards Mrs Allan and the boy heard a crash. They rose and began a search, but it was not until daylight that the 'plane was found with its nose buried deep in the mud of the estuary. The thieves had escaped. 

 Considerable attention to detail was paid by the thieves. After opening the hangar doors, it was necessary for them to wheel out two other 'planes before they could get to the machine of their choice. The stolen 'plane is known as the green Moth, ZKAAT, and is much less conspicuous than the other two machines, one of which is orange and the other blue.

After wheeling the machine out of the hangar, they replaced the other two, and then smashed a lock off the bowser pump. They filled the green Moth to capacity, 19 gallons of petrol, and then wheeled it about 300 yards to the middle of the flying field. They carried chocks with them. Once in the middle of the field, they started the engine, taxied into the north-easterly wind, and took off. The flight lasted only a few hundred yards. 

It appears that shortly after they got the 'plane in the air the engine stalled or choked, with the result that the 'plane dived into the deep mud of the estuary on the fringe of the field which overlooks the Manukau Harbour. One of the men must have been injured, for on the floor of the cockpit there were bloodstains. Tracks in the mud showed the way the men had gone. The tracks were close together indicating, perhaps, that one was injured and was being helped along by the other. The tracks skirted the shoreline, then led to a miniature gully and disappeared on the grass of the aerodrome. 

 When members of the ground staff of the Aero Club first started to investigate they found a note crudely written in pencil on a page out of a note book. The scrap of paper was placed near the telephone in the office of the hangar, and read:— "We are borrowing one of your 'planes. Flying to Australia immediately. C Johnson. W Dawson. "P.S.—We are taking enough petrol to get there." 

When dawn broke searchers found the aeroplane. Its nose was sunk deep in. the mud, one blade of the propeller was smashed, and the cowlings were forced in. Minor damage had been done to the wings, but until the engine is taken down it will not be known what damage has been caused to it. Before the plane could be pulled out of the swamp, it was necessary to strip it of its wings. The machine was pulled out by man power with the aid of a long rope under the direction of Flight-Lieut. Allan. 

 A tin of red paint was found in the cockpit, and officials suspect that the thieves intended to repaint the machine. A dark-brown felt hat and a pair of goggles belonging to a club member were also found, but two other pairs of goggles and two helmets were missing. A pea-rifle was also missing from the hangar. 

Soon after the discovery of the crashed 'plane, police were making inquiries. Detective L Packman, S Brown and Constables Worts and Wilkes arrived by car and were soon searching the district for the suspects. No trace of them had been found up till two o'clock this afternoon. 

 "They could not have known much about flying a 'plane," said Flight-Lieut. Allan. "They apparently started off into the wind all right, but they had no chance of getting far without first warming up the engine. The machine either stalled or they opened up the throttle and choked the engine." Though the thieves filled the 'plane’s petrol tank from the club's bowser, its capacity of 19 gallons would have kept them in the air for only three and a half hours, and in that time, in still air," they would have flown only about 240 miles. 

Aeroclub officers are sceptical as to the suggestion that the thieves intended a flight to Australia. One member said that perhaps the two adventurers were lucky to crash so soon and on a soft surface. "Had they got out over the Tasman Sea,” he added, "they would probably have been well in it by now.” The case is believed to be the first of its kind in either New Zealand or Australia.

(Auckland Star 21 April 1934) 

William George Davis (20) and Charles Young (18) were soon caught on the Puhinui Road at Papatoetoe, and charged with the theft of the £1200 plane. Unemployed farm workers originally from Matamata, they’d travelled up to Auckland, and hit on the idea, after unsuccessfully job-hunting in Auckland, to try their luck in Australia, and use one of the aero club’s planes to do it. They were found guilty and sentenced to a two year term in borstal.