Tuesday, May 19, 2020

"Good-bye now. I am off to Aussie": Frederick Demchy's short and disastrous flight, 1945

"Loading Lockheed Lodestar 'Karoro' aircraft." May 1945.Ref: WA-01296-G. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. /records/30628079

(Auckland Star, 14 May 1945)
The total destruction by fire of Union Airways' 15-passenger Lodestar monoplane, Karoro, on the Mangere airfield about 9.30 last night, was followed by the arrest of a young man on a charge of stealing the aircraft. The big machine after taxi-ing on the field about 300 yards from the Auckland Aero Club's building, crashed into a dummy aeroplane and immediately caught fire. The single occupant extricated himself without injury. Later Detectives W H Cromwell and F G Fraser went to a house in Mangere and after interviewing a young man employed as a mechanic by Union Airways, arrested him on a charge of stealing the plane, which was valued at about £40,000. The incident caused much excitement in the district, a large number of Mangere residents being attracted to the airfield by the fire, which was visible for miles around.

Engines from the Onehunga and Otahuhu fire stations answered the call, but the machine could not be saved. Within an hour, after burning furiously, it was reduced to a heap of molten metal and twisted spars. Mr C R Osborne, a fireman from the Otahuhu station, suffered slight injuries when he was knocked down by another fire engine arriving on the airfield.

 The loss of the Karoro was the subject of the following official statement by Union Airways this morning:— "At approximately 9.30 last evening a junior engineer of Union Airways, without authority, broke into the hangar at Mangere through the garage and over the top of the oil store. He opened the hangar doors from the inside and took the Lodestar out, thereafter careering round the aerodrome with lights switching on and off, eventually hitting a dummy 'plane on the aerodrome. The aircraft burst into flames and was totally destroyed. "The hangar was securely locked by the station engineer before leaving the aerodrome at about 5 p.m. on Sunday.

 "With the aircraft available Union Airways will carry out every possible service to the original timetable, with only those alterations necessary, in the readjustment of which due notice will be given."

 The young man arrested was Frederick Demchy, described as an assistant air engineer, aged 19. He appeared in the Police Court this morning before Mr J H Luxford, SM, charged with stealing on May 13 a Lockheed Lodestar monoplane valued at about £40,000, the property of Union Airways. Detective-Sergeant Aplin asked that accused be remanded until May 21. Mr P B Fitzherbert, who represented accused, applied for bail. "He is only a youngster and he lives at Mangere with his mother," he added. "The facts will be admitted. It is a very serious charge that has arisen out of this incident.

 Mr Luxford: It is a most unusual type of allegation.

Detective-Sergeant Aplin said that in view of all the circumstances it would seem that the matter of bail should be dealt with by the magistrate in chambers. Mr Fitzherbert agreed, and the question of bail was discussed in chambers. It was later announced that bail had been refused. The Lodestar destroyed last night was Union Airways' first machine and the biggest civil transport operated in New Zealand.

(Auckland Star, 22 May 1945)
Mrs Fanny Irene Gardner said Demchy, who was at her home on Sunday night, May 13, seemed uneasy from the time the Air Training Corps' "quiz" came over the radio. He went out into the kitchen about a quarter past eight and when she followed shortly after she saw him by the sink, mumbling to himself, saying: "It's a good night for it, there aren't many stars." She asked him what he was talking about, but he wouldn't say. Witness described how accused went from the house.

After she saw the fire from the aerodrome she returned to the house and made a cup of tea. While she was awaiting Brain's return, accused walked up the steps on to the verandah. He was covered in mud and soaking wet. He was given a cup of tea and said something about it looking as though he couldn't fly after all. Later witness found a note on the table written by accused which said: "Good-bye. I am off to Aussie. By the time you get this I will be circling over the house." The note was signed, "Pilot Demchy."

To Mr. Fitzherbert witness said she had known Demchy for a long time. He was considered "one of the family" His behaviour that night was not his usual behaviour. It was not normal and she would say he was temporarily unbalanced.

Statement to Detective Detective W H Cromwell said he saw accused at Mrs. Gardner's home after the destruction of the Karoro. Asked if he realised what he had done that night, Demchy said he did. He said he was "fed up" and had taken the plane. Demchy appeared quite normal apart from being slightly upset after his experience. Demchy said he wished to make an explanation to clear up the whole matter. In a statement made on the night of May 13, accused said he was 18 on November 19 last and had a secondary school education. He lived with his step-mother in Watea Road, Mangere, and had been employed at Mangere by Union Airways for the last three years as a ground engineer assistant.

On Sunday afternoon Demchy said he went to Mrs. Gardner's place in Mangere Central. The family was at home, also one of the Air Force guards from Mangere Aerodrome. Bill Brain. After tea they all played cards. There was no drink in the house. Demchy said he neither drank nor smoked. "The conversation was general," continued Demchy. "I have been more or less fed up for some time past. I had applied to join the Air Force Reserve, but there had been some hold-up to my application. I spoke to Bill, half-joking, and told him there was a special trip to-night about midnight and I asked him if he would give me a hand to push the plane out of the hangar. I knew that Bill would be on guard at the aerodrome and I said this more or less to put myself on side with him. I told him I was expecting an urgent phone call from head office in Wellington in respect of this special night trip. I had not made up my mind about taking a plane, but after hearing the news on the radio I thought that I would take her up and show them that I could fly. As a matter of fact, I intended to fly to Australia in the plane.

"After hearing the news I kept on playing cards but I was not interested in them," accused continued. "I kept on chewing it over in my mind whether I should take the plane, or not. Finally I decided I would and I went into the sun porch where I wrote a note saying, 'Good-bye now. I am off to Aussie. By the time you get this I will be circling over the house.' I left the note on the settee, then climbed through the window and ran down the road. They must have found the note quicker than I expected, and I heard someone coming down the road on a cycle. It was Bill. I ran down a drive and hid behind a bush. He could not find me and circled about on his cycle. He came back to the corner and I heard him speak to someone. I got into a paddock and made my way towards the aerodrome. I found the hangar was locked up so I went round to the back, broke the padlock on the garage door with my hands, climbed over into the oil store and got into the hangar then switched on the lights and cleared all the engine trays away. Then I opened the hangar doors, got into the cockpit and started the two engines. I put my landing lights on to see where I was going and when I was taxi-ing out of the hangar I caught the star-board wing tip on the corner of the hangar.

I kept the engines running but I had to get out and get a small tractor to pull the plane clear of the obstruction. "I got back into the cockpit and locked the cabin door and pilot's door. Then I taxied out but could not find the runway for a while. When I finally found it I started to take off. When I thought I had sufficient speed up for flying I went to pull the undercarriage up but in doing so I accidentally knocked the port engine throttle, causing the port engine to go slower, making the plane swing to the left. I must have skidded across the ground sideways for quite a distance. I managed to cut off the port motor but the starboard motor was still going and the next I knew I had hit a bank and there were flames all around the cockpit. I had my safety belt on but I got this off. Then I had a bit of trouble opening the cockpit door. I finally ran backwards and opened the cabin door and got out of the aircraft, running towards the back of the 'drome. When I was about 75 yards away, one of the tanks blew up."

 Demchy said he had had no flying experience but had watched various men working on the plane and had a fair idea what to do. He admitted he had no authority to take the plane. "I don't know why I took the plane," he said. "1 was fed up and thought that if I took her and flew her to Australia they would take me into the Air Force. I have two stepbrothers in the forces—one is in the Navy and the other in the Army."

 (Demchy reiceived a fine of £100, paid back in instalments of 15s a week, and three years probation)