Thursday, October 17, 2013

THE PLANE THAT DISAPPEARED: Search continues 32 years on - Cessna 210, VH-MDX, Barrington Tops - Australia


On Sunday, August 9, 1981, a Cessna 210 with five people on board disappeared over the Barrington Tops. 

The weather conditions were horrific and the terrain was some of the most rugged in the state.

No trace of the Cessna, VH-MDX,  has ever been found. Thirty-two years later, it remains Australia's only unsolved civil aviation incident. Today,  the search resumes.

Reports by Liz Tickner and Luke Horton.

It was 7.25pm on the Sunday when the little single-engine Cessna 210 – with its cream wings and fuselage and green trim – lost radio and radar contact over Craven, just south of Gloucester.

The pilot of VH-MDX, had just reported difficulties.

The plane was icing up badly and there was a possible fire in the cabin, its artificial horizon had also ceased functioning.

Conditions in which the aircraft went down were shocking and would severely hamper the search operation over the following days.

Snow had fallen across the Barringtons, the winds were bitter, and cloud and mist hung over the peaks of the heavily forested mountains.

Taree police reported that fixed-wing aircraft involved in the search, which had centered on the Berrico Tops, south-west of Gloucester, were icing up and might have to withdraw.

Five fixed-wing aircraft, including one from Maitland, three helicopters, 12 Taree Division police, the Newcastle Police Rescue Squad, State Emergency Services personnel and about 20 civilians were involved in the huge operation.

These numbers would increase in the following days – along with the fears that all five men had perished if not on impact, then as a result of the sub-zero conditions – to include 19 aircraft .

On board the missing Bankstown-based Cessna – which belonged to the Marrickville firm Canopy Manufacturing but was on a private flight – were the pilot Michael Hutchins, 52, and his four passengers, (pictured) Inspector Kenneth Price, 54, of Sydney Water Police, and Noel Wildash, 40, Philip Pembroke, 43, and Rhett Bosler all of Sydney.

They were on their way home to Sydney after a weekend fishing trip in Queensland when the crash occurred.

As the Mercury reported, it was unlikely that they would have been dressed in any clothing “that would even offer token resistance to the severe winter conditions in which their aircraft disappeared.”

SES began looking for the wreckage that night, visiting Forestry Commission lookout towers in the vicinity, and calling on the public to come forward if they had perhaps heard the crash or spotted a fire.

Over the following days, hopes were raised – and dashed – as the search continued.

On August 11, 1981, the Maitland Mercury reported that an aircraft wreck near Carey’s Peak – one of at least six other plane crashes in the Gloucester-Barrington Tops area since World War II – had been mistaken for the missing Cessna.

On August 14-15, the paper said that a Nomad transport plane reported sighting broken trees to the west of Mount Cockcrowe, north of Chichester Dam.

And on August 17, another report stated that a suspected oil slick on Chichester Dam was revealed to be some sort of fungi.

They were just three of a number of “leads” – all that over time would amount to nothing.

Mercury journalist Bob Baird joined in the search.

In the edition of August 12 Baird wrote: “I can’t think of a more inhospitable or lonely place in this state to crash in an aircraft, be lost, or die.”

“The feature which struck me most was the basic sameness of the region – the wave after wave of straight up and down hills, the lack of real landmarks, the incredible density of the scrub and forest, the colour only broken by the mottling of cloud,” he said.

At dusk on Monday, August 17, 1981, the week-long search for the Cessna and its occupants was suspended.

Rhett Bosler, a real estate broker from Drummoyne, was only 33 when he met his fate.

Speaking to the Mercury this week from his home in Oran Park, Rhett’s first cousin Ian Bosler said Rhett had only been married to his wife Gail for six months at the time of the crash.

“I had two daughters so we were looking to Rhett and Gail to produce a son to keep the family name going on; but that was not to be,” Ian said.

A memorial service was held for Rhett in Vaucluse; his parents, Clive and Anne, died years later without ever having closure on their son’s death.

Thirty-two years after the crash, police and emergency services, will today commence one final search, a three-day multi agency search and rescue exercise in an isolated area within the Barrington Tops National Park.

More than 150 police and emergency service personnel will take part in the exercise including NSW Police Rescue Squad, the National Parks and Wildlife Service, Fire and Rescue NSW, NSW Volunteer Rescue Association, Bushwalkers Wilderness Rescue Squad, Ambulance Service of NSW, NSW Rural Fire Service, Police Aviation Support Branch and Marine Area Command, and WYCEN (Wireless Institute Civil Emergency Network).

Superintendent Peter Thurtell, from Manning Great Lakes Local Area Command and Operation Wittenoom Commander said new technology and an unbreakable commitment to find closure for the families of those involved had rekindled the latest effort.

“Over the years there have been a number of searches but what makes this one different is that we have spoken to one of the original radar controllers to get a better appreciation of what was happening and perhaps a more detailed idea of where the plane was heading,” Superintendent Thurtell said.

“We have also been working with those members of the community who have dedicated many years in bushwalking and trying to locate the wreckage and drawing upon their experience to identify where we haven’t searched, and that could be the difference.”

“And with the involvement of online and digital mapping, and cross referencing previous search areas, we believe we have narrowed the scope.”

“We are under no illusion about what we are up against. We know the terrain is rugged, covered by thick canopy where no-one has perhaps ever been, but it will test us and if nothing else will enhance our capability.

Superintendent Thurtell said that the families of the men have been contacted about the search.

“We don’t want to give false hope but we had to let the families know what we were doing and they appreciate the effort.”

“If we can provide closure then that would be extremely satisfying, but if not at least we can enhance our ability to conduct extreme searches with full time operatives and volunteers, and that’s something the public can have confidence in,” he said.


Days after the Cessna's crash a Brisbane clairvoyant offered to help police in their search claiming she had a "vision" of the plane - and two survivors.

The medium, known as Zandra Marie, told police she had seen the plane in a vertical position, as if hanging in trees.

According to a report in the Maitland Mercury on August 14-15, 1981, Zandra Marie believed the plane was six to 10 miles on the Queensland side of the main search area in the Gloucester- Barrington Tops region.

"Police say Zandra Marie is well known as a successful professional medium, and predicted the attempt to assassinate President Reagan," the Mercury reported.

A police spokesman told the Mercury they were taking her vision seriously and that they would leave no stone unturned in their attempts to trace the plane.

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 Last ditch effort? 

 A LARGE-scale search involving 150 emergency service personnel begins today in an isolated area of the Barrington Tops National Park in the hope of finding a light plane which went missing 32 years ago with five men on board.

'Project Wittenoom' has been several months in the planning and hopes to use new information and new technologies to locate the plane which went missing shortly before 8pm on August 9, 1981, somewhere over the Barrington Tops.

At 5.02pm that afternoon, the light plane VH MDX carrying the pilot, Michael Hutchins, and his passengers, NSW police superintendent Ken Price, Rhett Bosler, Noel Wildash and Phillip Pembroke, began a three hour flight from Coolangatta to Bankstown Airport.

It was last heard from when it struck bad weather over the Barrington Tops.

Numerous searches have taken place over the years but still the bodies of the five men on board have never been recovered, nor has any trace of the wreckage been found.

But now a joint-agency project involving NSW Police Rescue, the air force, NSW Ambulance, the SES, RFS, National Parks and Wildlife Service, VRA and the Bushwalkers Wilderness Rescue Squad is hoping it can succeed where so many previous attempts to find the missing plane have failed.

"The Bushwalkers Wilderness Rescue Squad was involved in the original search for the plane in 1981," member Glenn Horrocks said in a new YouTube video about Project Wittenoom.

"What's different about this particular search is Police Rescue has come onboard which has allowed us to research evidence behind the crash in much greater detail than ever before.

"The man who will be coordinating Project Wittenoom is the State commander of the Police Rescue and Bomb Disposal Unit Brenton Charlton.

Commander Charlton contacted the Gloucester Advocate in April seeking more information about the missing plane after the paper published several articles with local aviation historian and VH-MDX expert Don Readford.

"We've conducted two recos (reconnaissance missions) in the past couple of months mainly to address safety and ease of access concerns," he said.

"Project Wittenoom has two main objectives. The first is closure for the families of the five missing souls still onboard the aircraft and the second is to exercise, coordinate and test all our LandSAR (Land Search and Rescue) capabilities in a remote area.

"Corporal Mark Nolan, a pilot in the Australian Army, has also been heavily involved in the effort to find VH-MDX.

He said new information discovered in the National Archives earlier this year had given members involved in Project Wittenoom renewed optimism that the plane could be located.

"The information we discovered was new information and unreleased information that had been kept in the National Archives," he said.

"Using that information and tools such as Lidar, which was not available during the original search, we believe we have a better than average chance of discovering the location of the aircraft."

Mr Horrocks said the members of Project Wittenoom had also been using Google Earth to help track the plane's final flight path.

"We use Google Earth to visualize what the flight path may have been over the ground, which means we can have a look at how the altitude is tracking against the ground," he said.

"And that has allowed us to ... really limit the area down to where the plane is likely to be."

Damian Hofman, from the NSW SES, said those involved in the ground search for the plane would need to be in peak physical condition.

"We're looking for people with experience in overnight walking," he said.

"They need a high level of fitness and preferably some level of medical training. The terrain we will be searching in is extreme.

"The ABC has already recorded a significant amount of footage as part of Project Wittenoom, which it hopes to make into a documentary.

A short five-minute film of the progress so far is now available on YouTube.

The search will be undertaken from today until Monday.

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