LAST FLIGHT OF THE DRAGONFLY
A mystery from inside the Pacific’s Bermuda Triangle
In February 1962, an ageing bi-plane on a scenic flight became the first victim of an area they’re calling the Pacific’s Bermuda Triangle. Six planes have vanished never to be seen again, taking with them 23 men, women and children. Now in this extract from aviation writer RICHARD WAUGH’s new book, Lost Without Trace?, comes the story of the missing Dragonfly, and details of a $4,000 reward for its discovery.
From a gentle idle Brian Chadwick closes down the Dragonfly engines. The ground running warms them up before the flight and is a last check for any obvious faults. Everything is fine and there is plenty of fuel aboard. Stepping away from the Dragonfly, Chadwick looks toward the distant Alps. It’s a habit. There is total cloud cover and he can feel the southerly wind.
With the Flight Plan filed he walks into the imposing terminal building and greets two men already waiting at the Inquiry Desk. “Hello, I’m Brian Chadwick, your pilot for today’s flight,” “Gidday mate, I’m Louis Rowan,” “And I’m Darrell Shiels.”
Elwyn Saville soon joins them and his new wife Valerie emerges from the powder room. ‘A happy young lot; they’ll love the flight,’ thinks Chadwick as they head off chatting, toward the parked Dragonfly. Louis quickly works out his older brother Bill had worked with Darrell at a Sydney brewery.
“Yes, she’s not the newest plane,” says Chadwick, “But you’ll have fantastic views and we’ll be slow enough for you to use all the film in your cameras – I guarantee it!” He soon finds out where they’re from, and puts Elwyn and Valerie together on the rear bench seat, Louis in the front seat next to him, and Darrell in the middle seat. They listen attentively as he gives the safety instructions and points out the First Aid box, barley sugars and four small blankets.
Chadwick eases into the pilot’s seat. He has just over 6,000 flying hours experience. There is friendly banter in the cabin and they all laugh when he says, “On board we have a Pom, three Aussies and a Kiwi – not a joke – but it’s going to be a memorable flight!”
The Dragonfly had been refuelled the evening before by Ken Froggatt who worked as an assistant to Chadwick. Following instructions Froggatt had filled the wing tanks to capacity (30 gallons each) and put 15 gallons in the rear fuselage tank, and the aircraft was all ready for the morning’s flight. After ground running the engines, Chadwick went to meet his passengers. The four tourists were all from New South Wales: Elwyn & Valerie Saville from Wahroonga, Louis Rowan from Granville and Darrell Shiels from Balmain. Valerie was a New Zealander who had married Elwyn in her home town of Gisborne just two months earlier.
The Savilles came to the South Island as part of their extended honeymoon holiday in New Zealand, wanting to see some of the renowned scenery. They were intending to return to Australia in late February. Sidney Elwyn Saville, known as ‘Elwyn’, was born on 8 October 1941 at Casino on the north coast of New South Wales where his father Roy owned and ran a dairy farm. He was the third of five children. The family were Seventh Day Adventist and Elwyn attended Casino High School and then went to work at the Wahroonga Sanitarium and Hospital in Sydney. This is now the Sydney Adventist Hospital.
Valerie Gay Bignell was born on 27 June 1939, the second youngest of twelve children of Fred and Jessie Bignell at Tokomaru Bay, north of Gisborne. Fred was a foreman and slaughterman at the local Freezing Works. Valerie attended Tokomaru Bay School and from the age of 14, the New Zealand Missionary College (later Longburn College) near Palmerston North. She returned to Gisborne and worked in the office at Cook Hospital as a typist. Valerie’s family remember her as “a loving kind person, quiet, who loved children.”
She decided to go to Australia in 1959 as several relatives were there including a sister, Patricia. Valerie soon got a job as a secretary-clerk at the Adventist Sanatorium and this is where she met Elwyn. Engaged in the winter of 1961, they set a wedding date in New Zealand, took extended leave from their jobs and the couple left Sydney by air for New Zealand on 21 November, along with several other friends and were booked to return to Sydney by sea on the Canberra, leaving on 28 February 1962. It was a return trip they would never make.
Born at Junee in New South Wales in 1928, Darrell Stanley Shiels was the youngest of Warrie and Doris Shiels’ three children. His father worked on the railway. He attended Drummoyne Boys High School. Darrell’s older brother, Allan Warren Shiels, aged 19, was killed in wartime England on 19 June 1944 in a plane crash whilst serving with the RAAF.
Darrell was 5’11” tall of medium build and played tennis, but his favourite occupation was playing the piano. He took after his grandmother who was a very good pianist. Darrell worked in a railways office and later as a clerk in the office of Tooth & Co Brewery in Sydney. Darrell was single but had been engaged for a short time a few years earlier. While at Tooths Brewery he lived at home with his mother at Balmain, Sydney.
Louis Rowan had been working in New Guinea before returning home to Australia for Christmas 1961 and then took a trip to New Zealand with the prospect of working for a while.
“Louis was a very outgoing and popular man who had close mates and a wide circle of friends,” remembers his brother John. “He was generous by nature and a willing helper to anyone who needed it. He was popular with the girls and flirting was a trademark. He played tennis regularly and kept himself very fit. Louis was 6’1” tall, lean and about 170lb. He was a member of the Granville RSL and really enjoyed a beer and a smoke. He owned three cars, the first a Vanguard, the second an FJ Holden and the third, his pride and joy, a Dodge Kingsway. He was never short of family and friends to fill these cars for any occasion.”
Rowan’s date with destiny happened by chance: the possibility of a scenic flight to Milford Sound came up while he lingered in Christchurch awaiting a flight back to the North Island and thence home to Australia. When the opportunity came to board the Dragonfly, he seized it, leaving his luggage behind in a bed and breakfast establishment he never returned to.
As the group of five boarded the Dragonfly, Don Eadie, a 24-year-old licensed aircraft engineer with Airwork, was ready to help. In 2004 he remembered: “I was on tarmac duty when Brian Chadwick loaded up AFB with the tourists for the trip to Milford. At that time, the engineering staff at Airwork wore grey overalls, and I always kept a clean pair of white ones for ‘tarmac duty’. My job was to assist the pilot ‘load up’ and having shut the door, stand by with a fire extinguisher while the engines were started. I often wondered what I would do if one caught fire! However, I was never put to the test. The Dominie and Dragonfly engines always started and ran smoothly after a short warm up. A testimony to the care with which they were maintained.
“I seem to recall that it was a warm day at Harewood. I can still see the young couple in the Dragonfly, lightly dressed and quite excited at the prospect of flying to Milford. After a wave from Brian, I pulled away the wooden chocks and he then taxied out to the runway. That was the last I was to see of him.”
Dragonfly ZK-AFB was airborne just over 10 minutes late. George Blackett reported, “Upon Captain Chadwick’s departure from Christchurch the Control Tower sent the Flight Plan to Communications for onward transmission and sent the Control Centre a plaque to inform the Centre of the actual time of departure. The aircraft left at 9.52am and was to set down at Milford at 12.37pm.”
Christchurch Airport received no further radio reports from Chadwick as the Dragonfly began the long climb toward the Southern Alps.
As expected, many other pilots were flying in the lower South Island that day. From Hokitika, Brian Waugh took off mid-morning on the scheduled West Coast Airways service to Haast. He later wrote: “Dominie ZK-AKT lifted off into a light cloudy sky. It was early morning, and Hokitika looked quite sleepy beneath me. Another typical day I thought. Little did I realise that 12 February 1962 would be a day not easily forgotten. Just over an hour later I landed at Haast in sunshine, picked up six passengers and headed home on the return trip. Jim Harper was right: while the coast weather was good, it was pitch black in the ranges. I smiled smugly: ‘Chaddy will not be carrying any scenic passengers to Milford today,’ I thought.”
No radio reports were received from Chadwick after the Dragonfly took off but this was quite normal as his next designated radio reporting point was the Mt. Eliede Beaumont area, assuming his “Usual Route”. While there were no radio messages there were a number of reported hearings and sightings of the blue and white Dragonfly as it droned its way over the Canterbury Plains and headed south-west. In this sense the aircraft did not disappear ‘without trace’ as these observations were made by a range of people at many different places. These reports indicate that the progress of ZK-AFB for part of its intended journey can be confirmed with reasonable certainty.
In 1987 Eric Gillum contacted the author recording his memories of 12 February 1962: “I was digging a drain with a dragline working on Mr Walter Elliot’s Omahau sheep station that day, which is about 6 miles south from Lake Pukaki Village and about half a mile from where Twizel village was later established. I had just stopped work a few minutes before midday when I heard a plane going over, it was far too low and one engine was spluttering and blowing out smoke. I thought then that if it got as far as Lake Ohau it would be as far as it would get.
“Mr Elliot came out that afternoon about 3 o’clock and told me a plane had been reported missing. I asked him if he knew what sort of plane it was and when he said it was a Dragonfly I told him it had gone over with one engine spluttering. I had met Captain Chadwick and found him a very levelheaded person. If the plane had kept on course after it flew over where I was it would have had to gain a lot of height to get over the Ben Ohau Range, but I couldn’t see that being possible with one sick motor, he could have flown around the Ben Ohau Range at the bottom of Lake Ohau and got back on course from there.
“About 11 o’clock that same day my sister, Eileen Harrington, was at Jim O’Neil’s farm on Clayton Road, Fairlie, when that plane passed overhead, therefore he was right on course and the timing would be right too.”
One of the earliest reports received by Search and Rescue on the Monday night was relayed from deercullers at the head of Lake Ohau. This was further investigated on the Tuesday. Evan Blanch in 2004 wrote this detailed account:
As a 20-year-old, I was employed by the New Zealand Forest Service doing deerculling in the Hopkins River watershed. There were eight shooters covering the Hunter, Ahuriri, Hopkins and Dobson Valleys – two to each, plus a Field Officer and under the control of the Otago-Southland office in Queenstown. On the day Chad- wick’s aircraft went missing we were all at the NZFS Waitaki Base Camp on Huxley Gorge Station. This camp is at the base of Ram Hill at the south end of the Hopkins Valley. We would meet up once a month to collect and send out mail, fill in our monthly report cards and have our tallies counted.
“The weather was, to say the least, terrible, with a very strong southerly coming up over Lake Ohau with low cloud and rain showers. I don’t remember now the exact time but it was in the middle of the day. I was at the time repairing the driveshaft on my Chevrolet pick-up truck and was surprised to suddenly hear an aircraft overhead in the cloud. It was clearly twin-engined and working very hard against the wind but at no time did it become visible. I stood and listened until it could no longer be heard. It flew directly up the Hopkins Valley and my impression was that some mountain tops must have been visible to make it possible to fly up the valley. The plane sounded as if it came out of the Dobson Valley and around Mt Glenmary, when the sound of the engines ceased – they stopped very abruptly.
“Everyone at the camp heard the plane but as they were indoors they did not take a lot of notice. It was not until the 6 o’clock news came over the radio saying that a plane was missing that we realised that what we heard was probably it.
“The Hopkins River is almost North to South and has a gentle curve over most of its length. The Huxley River is quite a large valley on the west of the Hopkins with the Elcho Valley a bit smaller. These would be an absolute trap in bad weather for any plane but they do give access to the Landsborough River, via the Brodrick Pass, which in turn gives a route to the West Coast and Haast. So we heard the plane going north away from its intended destination and into an area of high mountains and dense forest. In two years working in the area there was a lot of the area I never visited. A blue fabric covered aircraft could easily still be there!
“The Police were interested in what I heard but I didn’t see any – but officers in charge tend to take over in these situations. I have never been asked for my story and this is the first time I have put it to paper.”
A total of 17 civilian and 17 military aircraft – including both RNZAF and USAF aircraft from Operation Deep Freeze at Christchurch – combed Fiordland for any trace of the aircraft. All up, they logged more than 630 flying hours across more than 250 individual sorties. To this day, it remains the largest air search ever conducted in New Zealand history.
The whereabouts of Dragonfly ZK-AFB, its pilot and passengers, quickly became a persisting mystery spawning wide interest, and this has continued to the present day. Based on what many people reported seeing or hearing, the Dragonfly’s progress south west is reasonably certain but its final resting place is still elusive, despite a number of search initiatives over the years. Adding to this Dragonfly mystery is the subsequent disappearance in the same lower South Island region of five further aircraft which have never been found (see sidebar story).
With the official Dragonfly search being suspended, the families of those on board the missing aircraft were compelled to face the reality that their loved ones had died. It was a traumatic week.
Telegrams had been sent from the New Zealand Police in the late afternoon and early evening of 12 February notifying relatives in Australia that the aircraft was overdue and missing. Darrell Shiels’ mother told newspapers the following day that her husband had been put on sedatives to help cope with the shock.
For the Rowan family it was just as devastating with the family making desperate attempts to obtain more news. Every news bulletin on Sydney radio was listened to and reception of late evening radio broadcasts from New Zealand were sometimes successful. But the distance and lack of news was heartbreaking for all involved. Support for the families from relatives and friends was encouraging with care and prayers being offered all across Australia.
Elwyn Saville’s parents stayed with Valerie’s sister, Patricia King, at Cooranbong, and it was from there that Mrs Saville wrote a letter to the other bereaved families. Her heartfelt letter of 20 February to the Rowan family said:
“We are writing a short note to you in hope that by being parents of the young couple in the same plane as your boy has disappeared, we may be able to offer some comfort in knowing that the one sadness covers both our homes. We do not know each other but may God bless you with his love in our sad time, it is very hard for us to understand but I do feel that God must have a purpose for it all, may we put our trust in him.
“We contacted the New Zealand Commissioner of Police asking if they considered it would be of any gain for us to go over to New Zealand or if my husband and son could be of any assistance in the search, the reply wasn’t just what we’d have liked but they have really made a wonderful effort in the search for them.
“The reply stated that they have searched 17,000 square miles six or seven times. The search has been suspended in the meantime and will be taken up immediately if information comes to hand. No point in coming to New Zealand at present. We cannot expect more of them even though we’d like them to go on searching. We can only have faith in knowing that if we should not see them again in this world we will meet our loved ones when Jesus comes on the Great Resurrection Day. May your faith, courage and health, as well as our own be built so as to face the future whatever God has in store for us.”
In Christchurch the news had filtered out more quickly. The Isles family, where Valerie and Elwyn Saville had been staying, heard about the aircraft being overdue by late afternoon but Valerie’s parents, Mr and Mrs Fred Bignell and their family in Gisborne, weren’t contacted by police until later that evening.
Two weeks later Mrs Bignell and her daughter Joyce went to Christchurch, stayed with the Isles, and collected the luggage, including wedding presents, that the couple had left behind.
For Sylvia Chadwick and her two sons, the news was also unbelievable. At the naval training establishment in Auckland, Tony was convinced that his father would turn up unscathed after a couple of days, and had to be virtually ordered to go home on compassionate leave. Then there was a sense of helplessness, as there was nothing that could be done to assist the search.
Certainly the performance of the Dragonfly in alpine flying conditions, especially at the required altitudes in the lower Southern Alps, was very poor. Not only was there an appreciable difference in the actual single engine performance of ZK-AFB when compared to manufacturer’s claims, but by 1962, in comparison with other newer aircraft available, the veteran Dragonfly was clearly unsuitable for such trips. When the aircraft’s known poor single-engine performance and susceptibility to icing, is combined with the mountainous terrain and deteriorating weather, a whole new meaning is given to the term “margin of error”.
The reality was that the Dragonfly had little or no margin of error to cope with any major weather deterioration or mechanical failure en route to Milford Sound. Chadwick may not have originally envisaged using the Dragonfly for his Milford Sound flights, as his larger Dominie aircraft was more suitable, but in practice the aircraft regularly flew the Glacier and Milford Sound charters. With hindsight it can now be said that flying a Dragonfly aircraft on regular commercial charters over the rugged Southern Alps to Milford Sound, sometimes in deteriorating weather, was risky, if not a tragedy waiting to happen.
In spite of the passage of time, local pilots continued to keep watch for the Dragonfly, looking for anything unusual in the dense bush and trees, especially in more isolated areas. Brian Waugh was prominent, but there were many others.
Nancy Stokes, widow of Mt Cook skiplane pilot John Stokes, who was based at Fox Glacier 1961-1964, recently commented: “John always kept an eye out for Chadwick”. Ray Sweney from Hokitika also deliberately flew over many likely areas. The same was true for Canterbury-based pilot Jim Pavitt, who continued to fly Milford Sound charters, “After Brian Chadwick went missing, every time I flew to Milford I scrutinised the terrain for any signs. I even varied the route to cover as much as possible, but there is such an extensive wilderness it was fruitless. One day I hope a tramper or someone finds something; then we might learn what happened.”
In January 1975 a deerstalker, N.L. Duncan reported seeing what looked like aircraft debris in the headwaters of the Rangitata River. A fully equipped six-man team, led by two police constables, completed a search accompanied by Mr Duncan but nothing was found.
On 8 August 1980 Paul Beauchamp Legg and his wife Frances were flying with Dr Paul and Jean Monro in the Middle District’s Aero Club’s Piper Cherokee 180 ZK-ECR. Paul Monro recounts: “We were on a flight from Franz Josef to Milford Sound with Paul Legg flying. I remember us flying well round Mt. Aspiring to the south of the West Branch of the Matukituki River. We then headed for a point a few miles out to sea from the entrance to Milford Sound and flew over tall bush-covered undulating country which I assume may have been the Dart River. As we descended towards Lake Alabaster, before crossing its southern end, Jean, who was sitting in the left rear seat, saw what looked like the white tail plane of an aircraft semi-hidden in the bush.” Beauchamp Legg was quickly alerted and he recalls: “We were in a severe down-draught at the time and I was more interested in staying with the living than joining the dead and was working hard to get into an updraught. I only had time to make a quick glance in the direction Mrs Monro indicated. I marked it on the map and passed the information to Air Department but as far as I know nothing was done about it. I was told much later, at Queenstown, that one of the helicopters had dropped a fridge in the bush somewhere about there but Mrs Monro was still adamant that it was an aeroplane she saw.”
A further on-going search initiative has been quietly undertaken by Lex Perriam, a ranger with the New Zealand Forest Service based at Omarama since 1975. Perriam remembers the Dragonfly going missing while attending high school at Mosgiel. In 1977 he discussed the mystery with Stafford Weatherall, owner of the Lake Ohau Station.
Weatherall told him that on the day the Dragonfly went missing he had been mustering east of Lake Ohau on Ben Rose Station and heard, above the fog, an aircraft to the west with engines revving loudly. This account, together with a dream Perriam had of the Dragonfly being in the South Huxley area, and Richard Waugh’s article for the 25th anniversary of the disappearance in 1987, renewed his interest and prompted him to be deliberate about ongoing searching for wreckage in the areas for which he has Forest Service responsibility. In 2005 he reported: “I was encouraged to continue looking for the location of the plane by foot and by air.”
Mason Whaitiri of Bluff reported to the author recently: “In early 1962 I was the Skipper of the Miss Geraldine fishing boat and was working directly off the entrance to Milford Sound at the time the aircraft went missing. It was a bright sunny day and the boat was straight out from St Anne Point about a mile from the Sound mouth. The time was about midday or 1pm and the boat was picking up pots.
“I was in the wheelhouse and two crew members were at the winch – Russell Trow, my brother-in-law, and Allan Strange. In spite of the noise from the freezer and engine in the wheelhouse I heard a very loud aircraft noise which all of a sudden cut out.
“I went out on deck and asked the others who were using the winch whether they had heard the close-by aircraft but they hadn’t heard a thing over the noise of the winch and didn’t see anything. While the weather was sunny and clear it was blowing a 25-30 knot wind from south west coming up the coast. A hard wind!
“Later that day we heard that an aircraft was missing. We also saw smoke in the bush behind Big Bay and steamed for about three hours to get closer but we determined it was Davy Gunn mustering cattle. Some weeks later it dawned on me the possible explanation for the very loud aircraft noise and its sudden end.
“I felt the aircraft would have been very near for the noise to have penetrated the wheelhouse so clearly – maybe within 200 yards. I think the missing aircraft may have been running out of fuel and the pilot had nowhere else to land and so decided to get close to the only human civilisation – the Miss Geraldine – and to ditch in the sea alongside. This was the loud noise I heard as the aircraft came up very close. But unfortunately the pilot ditched on the wrong side and was not noticed. The crew and I were not looking that way as we were concentrating on collecting the pots and were watching certain land features to help determine where the pots were. I am a friend of veteran helicopter pilot Bill Black. On occasions Bill came up close to my boat but if I was in the wheelhouse I only heard his helicopter when he was directly overhead. This whole incident has haunted me for all these years.”
Although many years have passed it is quite likely there will be still more reports made about the Dragonfly. All deserve to be considered carefully. The reality is that the Dragonfly did not just vanish without trace. This book documents many key and credible reports, many dating back to 12 February 1962, which provide strong evidence that the Dragonfly was flying on a southwest route down the eastern side of the Main Divide. The sighting/hearing reports of an aircraft in the Lake Ohau/Hopkins area and the Mt. Aspiring area provide important clues as to its possible final resting place.
Investigate magazine is supporting Richard Waugh’s quest to solve New Zealand’s most perplexing aviation mystery by offering a $4,000 cash reward to anyone who discovers the wreckage and reports it exclusively to Investigate in the first instance. No reward will be payable if news of any discovery is first publicized intentionally or unintentionally in any other media than Investigate. For full details of the likely route of the Dragonfly, purchase a copy of Waugh’s new book, Lost Without Trace? Available at all good booksellers.
THE PACIFIC’S ‘BERMUDA TRIANGLE’?
Since the disappearance of Dragonfly ZK-AFB on 12 February 1962, there have been five other aircraft lost without trace in the same southern region of the South Island; four fixed wing aircraft and one helicopter. In total, including those aboard ZK-AFB, 23 persons – 6 pilots and 17 passengers – have vanished!
The large area in which these aircraft and people have been lost is among the most rugged in New Zealand, with much of it having World Heritage status. Since the Dragonfly, other aircraft to disappear have been:
• 16 August 1978: Cessna 180 ZK-BMP owned by Central Western Air. The pilot was Rev Cyril Francis Crosbie (aged 37) of Riversdale and the passengers were: Trevor George Collins (aged 50) of Waimea, Gordon Grant (aged 28) of Waipounamu and Peter Alexander Robertson (aged about 40) of Wendonside. The aircraft was on a flight from Big Bay, South Westland, to Riversdale, Southland. It was probably last heard at Jamestown at the northern end of Lake McKerrow and appeared to be heading towards the Jamestown Saddle.
• 29 December 1978: Piper Cherokee Six ZK-EBU owned by the Otago Aero Club. The pilot was Edward James Sinclair Morrison (aged 28) and the passengers were: Earl Blomfield Stewart (aged 40), his wife Elizabeth McGregor Stewart (aged 37), their son David John Stewart (aged 18), Alec Davidson Stewart (aged 38), his wife Rosie Stewart (aged 37) and David Hogg (aged 20). The elder Stewart men were brothers and all the Stewarts were from Dunedin. The aircraft was on a scenic flight from Taieri, Dunedin, to Queenstown, Milford Sound, Preservation Inlet and then back to Dunedin. It was last seen flying down Milford Sound toward the coast.
• 30 July 1983: Cessna 172K ZK-CSS owned by Arthur Roy Turner. The pilot was Arthur Roy Turner (aged 55) of Mt Ruapehu, National Park, and the passengers were: his wife Anne Zelda (aged 33) and children Kim Dorothy (aged 6) and Guy (aged 4). Anne was also a pilot. The aircraft was on a flight from Tekapo to Fox Glacier.
• 8 November 1997: Cessna 180 ZK-FMQ owned by Cascade Whitebait Ltd. The pilot was Ryan Michael Moynihan (aged 23) and he was the sole occupant. The aircraft was on a flight from West Melton Aerodrome, Canterbury to Waiatoto, South Westland.
• 3 January 2004: Hughes 369HS ZK-HNW owned by Featherstone Contracting Ltd, Hamilton. The pilot was Campbell Montgomerie (aged 27) from Hamilton and his passenger, girlfriend Hannah Rose Timings (aged 28) from Cheltenham, England. The helicopter was on a flight from the Howden Hut, on the Routeburn Track, to Milford Sound. A total of 204 flying hours and 2300 man hours were reported as being spent searching the mountainous area for the missing helicopter, without success.
Following the Dragonfly’s disappearance, Civil Aviation officials investigated some overseas developments regarding aircraft radio beacons. A 1962 memo entitled ‘Recommendations Arising from the Dragonfly Accident’ says in part: “Radio in the past has been out of the question, but recently appears to be becoming a distinct possibility. We are currently obtaining data on several emergency transmitters which have recently become available.”
In New Zealand, the Emergency Locator Transmitter device (ELT), to assist in locating missing aircraft, was not finally made mandatory for the general aviation fleet until 1986. The beacon commences transmitting if a certain ‘G’ threshold is exceeded, as in a crash. It radiates on 121.5 MHz for civil or 243 MHz for military, but in the near future the standard will be 406.5 MHz. The signal can be detected aurally if a receiver is set to the appropriate frequency, so overflying aircraft are often the first to report a beacon.
Orbiting SARSAT/COSPAS satellites operated by the United States and Russia are designed to receive the signals and within 90 minutes they can typically determine the location with amazing accuracy and so greatly assist Search and Rescue personnel.
In the case of Hughes helicopter ZK-HNW, the ELT did not function correctly with no signal being transmitted; a rare failure. Phil Timings, father of Hannah Timings, was reported in the New Zealand media in March 2004 calling on the British Government to pay for high tech “Synthetic Aperture Radar” (SAR) equipment that could possibly locate the missing helicopter. He said: “It is like a giant metal detector and the Americans use them for search and rescue. If they can find downed pilots, they can find Hannah.”
Over coming years it will be interesting to see whether the six missing aircraft, Dragonfly ZK-AFB included, can be located by advancing technology.
Note: The author acknowledges published information regarding four of these missing aircraft from the book ‘Missing! Aircraft Missing in New Zealand 1928-2000’ by Chris Rudge (Christchurch, Adventure Air, 2001)