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Sunderland NZ4111 and the Chatham Islands incident

In 1959 an RNZAF Sunderland was damaged and eventually abandoned on the remote Chatham Islands east of New Zealand. In this blog, we explore the story of that incident, using recently-digitised historic photographs from our archives.

The RNZAF’s Maritime Operational Conversion Unit (MOCU) was based at Hobsonville in Auckland from 1955-1965, and operated Short Sunderland flying boats to train air crews for flying with No. 5 Squadron in Fiji. MOCU frequently flew around New Zealand on training flights, and from December 1958, one regular run was carrying mail, passengers and freight to the Chatham Islands, via Evans Bay in Wellington.

Sunderland NZ4111, from the Maritime Operational Conversion Unit, making a low pass during the open day flying display, for the 21st Anniversary of the RNZAF, at RNZAF Station Ohakea. From the collection of the Air Force Museum of New Zealand.

Sunderland NZ4111, from the Maritime Operational Conversion Unit, making a low pass during the open day flying display, for the 21st Anniversary of the RNZAF, at RNZAF Station Ohakea.

From the collection of the Air Force Museum of New Zealand.

On 4 November 1959, Sunderland NZ4111, with three civilian passengers on board, was taxiing in Te Whanga Lagoon in the Chathams to prepare for the return flight to Evans Bay when it struck an uncharted rock. As the aircraft immediately began to take on water, the pilot, Flight Lieutenant Barney Dwyer, taxied it as close to shore as he could and radioed for help. The next day a second Sunderland was dispatched from New Zealand with ground crew on board, to collect the stranded crew and assess the damage.

Aerial view of the aircraft in Te Whanga lagoon, Chatham Islands. Image ref: PR2183-R2-10-59 ©RNZAF Official

Aerial view of the aircraft in Te Whanga lagoon, Chatham Islands.

Image ref: PR2183-R2-10-59 ©RNZAF Official

Salvage of Maritime Operational Conversion Unit Sunderland, NZ4111, after it was holed and sank in Te Whanga Lagoon, Chatham Islands.
Sunderland lying low in the lagoon.

Sunderland NZ4111 in Te Whanga lagoon, 1959.

 Image ref: PR2183-R1-19-59 ©RNZAF Official

Salvage of Maritime Operational Conversion Unit Sunderland, NZ4111, after it was holed and sank in Te Whanga Lagoon, Chatham Islands.
The Sunderland lying low in the water.

Sunderland NZ4111 sitting semi-submerged in Te Whanga lagoon, Chatham Islands.

Image ref: PR2183-R1-2-59 ©RNZAF Official

An underwater survey of the hull was carried out and it was decided to salvage the engines, radio and radar equipment, and fuel. The salvage was carried out in early 1960 and as the RNZAF News reported, “persistent high winds and low temperatures made conditions for the working party extremely uncomfortable.”

Salvage of Maritime Operational Conversion Unit Sunderland, NZ4111, after it was holed and sank in Te Whanga Lagoon, Chatham Islands.
Wing Commander Henry Lionel Homer, Director of Aircraft Engineering, doing an exterior underwater inspection of the Sunderland, while Squadron Leader Robert Emery Weston (?) watches from the starboard horizontal stabiliser.
NB. this negative deteriorating resulting in poorer image quality.

An underwater survey of NZ4111 in progress in Te Whanga lagoon, 1959.

Image ref: PR2183-R2-6-59 ©RNZAF Official

Salvage of Maritime Operational Conversion Unit Sunderland, NZ4111, after it was holed and sank in Te Whanga Lagoon, Chatham Islands.
Wing Commander Henry Lionel Homer, Director of Aircraft Engineering, doing an exterior underwater inspection of the Sunderland.
NB. This negative deteriorating resulting in poorer image quality.

An underwater survey of NZ4111 in progress in Te Whanga lagoon, 1959.

Image ref: PR2183-R2-6-59 and PR2183-R2-7-59 ©RNZAF Official

The subsequent court of enquiry found that while the aircraft “was operating in an area which is promulgated by the Civil Aviation Administration as an approved operating area for military seaplanes,” there was some question about the position and accuracy of marker buoys. The Court found that the accident “was either caused by NZ4111 striking an obstacle in an area promulgated as being clear of obstruction” or that it “struck a known obstacle through the marker buoys being incorrectly positioned.”

Salvage of Maritime Operational Conversion Unit Sunderland, NZ4111, after it was holed and sank in Te Whanga Lagoon, Chatham Islands.
Unknown serviceman working to remove the inner starboard engine.

Removing an engine from Sunderland NZ4111.

Image ref: PR2183-R1-1-59 ©RNZAF Official

Salvage of Maritime Operational Conversion Unit Sunderland, NZ4111, after it was holed and sank in Te Whanga Lagoon, Chatham Islands.
Engine being brought ashore in a snall boat.

One of the engines from NZ4111 being floated ashore.

Image ref: PR2183-R1-18-59 ©RNZAF Official

Salvage of Maritime Operational Conversion Unit Sunderland, NZ4111, after it was holed and sank in Te Whanga Lagoon, Chatham Islands.
A member of the salvage party draining fuel into drums.

Draining fuel out of the engines.

Image ref: PR2183-R1-15-59  ©RNZAF Official

Salvage of Maritime Operational Conversion Unit Sunderland, NZ4111, after it was holed and sank in Te Whanga Lagoon, Chatham Islands.
Members of the salvage party stripping the engines for return to New Zealand.

Ground crews working on the salvaged engines.

Image ref: PR2183-R1-16-59 ©RNZAF Official

Salvage of Maritime Operational Conversion Unit Sunderland, NZ4111, after it was holed and sank in Te Whanga Lagoon, Chatham Islands.
Members of the salvage party on a tractor's trailler.

Members of the salvage crew, waiting to drive out.

Image ref: PR2183-R1-5-59 ©RNZAF Official

Ironically, this wasn’t the first incident of this type for this aircraft. In August 1955, in Nukunono Lagoon, Tokelau, NZ4111 struck a submerged coral reef. On that occasion, the hole in its hull was repaired on site and it was flown back to Laucala Bay, Fiji.

Salvage of Maritime Operational Conversion Unit Sunderland, NZ4111, after it was holed and sank in Te Whanga Lagoon, Chatham Islands.
Personnel inside the flooded hull of the aircraft.
NB. This negative deteriorating resulting in poorer image quality.

Inside view of Sunderland NZ4111, after foundering in Te Whanga lagoon, Chatham Islands.

Image ref: PR2183-R2-4-59 ©RNZAF Official

In 1982 the RNZAF went to assess what survived of the aircraft and in late 1993 the Air Force Museum mounted an expedition to the Chatham Islands to recover some of the remaining parts that were left in 1960. They found that the locals had re-purposed much of the aircraft on farms in the area. Two sheds were found to be made from a section of the fuselage, flaps and the skin from one main wing. Numerous other items were found in sheds, in fuselage sections, around a house and amongst overgrown gorse.

No. 5 Squadron Sunderland NZ4111 being salvaged for parts on the shore of Te Whanga Lagoon on the Chatham Islands.
NB. This negative deteriorating resulting in a loss of quality.

The salvaged hulk of NZ4111 onshore at Te Whanga lagoon, 1960.

Image ref: WhG1702-60 ©RNZAF Official

No. 5 Squadron Sunderland NZ4111 being salvaged for parts on the shore of Te Whanga Lagoon on the Chatham Islands.

The salvaged hulk of NZ4111 onshore at Te Whanga lagoon, 1960.

Image ref: WhG1692-60 ©RNZAF Official

With a temporary exhibition in mind, the two main floats, the Flight Engineer’s station, engine cowls, and front turret, among many other parts, were recovered and displayed at the Museum in 1995. Over the years parts of this aircraft have been displayed in a variety of displays and exhibitions and they are now carefully stored in our large object store.

Tuesday guide Laurie Turner looking at the ReCollections exhibition.

Float from Sunderland NZ4111 on display in the ‘Re:Collections’ exhibition at the Air Force Museum of New Zealand, 2012. Image ref: MUS120156 ©Air Force Museum of New Zealand

Now, a local group on the Chatham Islands have gathered what’s left and are building a small museum at Kaingaroa, based around the mostly re-assembled fuselage. One of the propellers is also mounted outside the Waitangi post office.

 

Due to chemical deterioration of the original negatives, many of the photographs shown have recently been digitised as part of the Air Force Museum’s on-going digitisation of the RNZAF Negative collection.

Sources and further reading

Dawson, Bee. Hobsonville, Portrait of a seaplane station. Random House, NZ. 2007.

Harrison, Paul, with Lockstone, Brian and Anderson, Andy. The Golden Age of New Zealand Flying Boats. Random House, NZ. 1997.

RNZAF. MOCU/5 Sqn Unit History, 1955 - 69. Unpublished.

RNZAF Public Relations Officer. RNZAF News. No. 13 February 1960

Court of Inquiry report. Declassified January 1994. Air Force Museum of New Zealand collection.

Our Reading Room and Archive are open to the public by appointment.

Please contact the Research Team at research@airforcemuseum.co.nz to book your visit.

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