A few months after having been promoted general manager and chief executive, and re-married a few months before, I decided to join the sales manager, and a director for the presentation of the annual trophy to sales staff, in Hamilton, New Zealand.

Staying overnight we were at the airport early, keen to get back home that Saturday morning, but finding the airport packed as all flights out had been cancelled because of fog.

After waiting several hours we were advised a flight would become available soon to Auckland (the opposite direction to Wanganui) and there were long delays in Auckland for an Auckland/Wanganui flight. Debating this we decided against it as it would see us home late in the day.

Next we considered hiring a car but as this would take almost as long, we hired a small plane. A single-engined Beechcraft was available, as was an experienced Boeing DC4 pilot.

Although still foggy it was clear at our flying altitude—no problems at the Wanganui end—and thus we took off. Just past the airport area, above the hills surrounding the airport the problems started.

As we levelled out we received the first of many reminders to fasten our seat belt. We had of course expected the opposite for a relaxing flight. This was followed by other urgings“ tighten you seatbelt” . In the meantime I could have sworn seeing briefly a flame licking around one of the engines. This was confirmed when the pilot used his mike to issue a May Day call (SOS). I heard him reply that he did not know where he was but the engine was breaking up.

We received more commands to tighten our seatbelts with the pilot’s comment that he was having a bit of a problem. It was getting very hot inside the plane and the sales manager complained, asking for the air-conditioning to be turned up. I told him that the heat was the last thing to worry about and that we were in serious trouble.

The pilot asked the tower whether he should turn the engine off. However, the decision was made for them, as at that instant the windscreen blanked out, being covered with black oil. The engine was fully on fire by now and being partly kept under control because of the speed at which we were descending.

The pilot was circling ever lower trying to find a gap in the clouds, which appeared every so often. Unfortunately all we saw was the tops of hills, but then a small, sloping area appeared—and then disappeared.

This is where we landed, or, rather, crashed. The top of the hill removed the undercarriage; way further below a thick hedge slowed and turned the plane around back up the hill where we stopped. The plane was now fully on fire. The pilot jumped out and started running, yelling over his shoulder for us to get out of the plane as it was going to blow up.

Speedily, we got out but realised that our director was still in the plane. Getting back we helped him undo his seatbelt, dragging him out. We got just over the top of the hill when the fuel tanks blew up.

The results of the seat belt tightening were evident a few days later—all the colours under the sun over my body where the seatbelt touched.

During the brief period when it was absolutely clear that we were going to crash I sat there analysing—was my life flashing before my eyes? No. Did I have a religious experience? No. No light at the end of the tunnel either. Just wondering whether I was going to be dead or not.

We had crashed not far from the airport but it took a while for the rescue people to locate us. After a while we did see all the vehicles on a road, way above us, but it seemed ages before we were face-to-face with the rescuers.

The plane was totally burned out. All that could be seen was an outline of the plane in the grass with some rounded tubes being what was left from the pilot’s seat.

The sales manager was wandering in shock round and round the burned-out plane, mumbling that he was looking for his diary. A fire officer took his arm and let him away confirming that his diary was definitely burned up.

I can’t remember how I got home. No doubt shock had set in by then.

©Hennie van Dyk 2003
Hennie van Dyk

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