Aubrey Bills (91) holds a photograph of himself in uniform
as a 20-year-old, while recounting a 1953 aeroplane crash
in Mt Aspiring National Park, from his home at Cambridge
yesterday. Photo from the NZ Herald.
Images of the wrecked engine from a Royal New Zealand Air
Force Harvard brought graphic memories flooding back to pilot
Aubrey Bills, 60 years after his crash.
The 91-year-old Cambridge resident has spent years coming to
terms with the accident which killed his friend and fellow
airman Squadron Leader George Christopher ''Chris'' Nevill
Johnson on January 17, 1953 in the Mt Aspiring National Park.
''The last thing I saw before we hit the side of the mountain
was a great big stag with huge antlers on top of the ridge;
then of course we hit and I was knocked out.
''When I came to we were hanging upside down in our straps
and I could hear trickling, and I thought it was petrol and
we were done for.''
Mr Bills was surprised on Saturday to learn photographs of
the rediscovered engine and propeller were published on the
front page of the Otago Daily Times, after a gold
prospector stumbled upon them at the top of a small waterfall
in Rough Creek, about an hour's walk from the Mt Aspiring
Although he ''didn't sleep a hell of a lot'' on Saturday
night, Mr Bills yesterday recounted the trip he will never
A flight lieutenant in the No 4 Territorial Air Force
Squadron, he was the only pilot his friend ''Chris'' Johnson
''He refused to go unless I flew,'' Mr Bills said.
Both lived in Dunedin and left Taieri aerodrome about 6am on
January 17, 1953 in search of two missing trampers on Mt
''Chris was an experienced climber so was asked to help find
''On the night before we went, during the briefing, Chris put
his finger on the exact spot where the trampers were
Mr Bills had eight years' flying experience, including World
War 2 tours of the Pacific, and believed the Harvard had
enough speed and height for the search and rescue mission.
But about 8am it hit a downdraught and he had to do a
high-speed stall on to the western side of Mt Aspiring at
about 4500ft. After the crash, he pulled an unconscious Sqn
Ldr Johnson from the wreckage, wrapped him in a parachute and
left him while he climbed to get his bearings.
With head and leg injuries, Mr Bills walked to a tramping hut
where a police constable was stationed as part of the search
''On the way down every bloody tree had a Red Indian behind
it - I was out to it.
''I remember having to get across a cliff and eventually got
to a creek, which I flopped into and lapped up because I was
He saddled a horse for the constable, who ''fired a couple of
shots'' and took off down the gully, where he was spotted by
other searchers who walked to the hut.
''They gave me some brandy which tasted pretty good and went
to get Chris, although they didn't believe me when I told
them the plane was at the bottom of a glacier.
''We crashed and ended up in this narrow crevasse. The motor
sheared off the bulkhead, and we were lucky we got stuck
because it was a long fall.''
Sqn Ldr Johnson was dead by the time searchers found him and
Mr Bills struggled to accept what had happened.
''It was pretty upsetting. They gave me the Queen's
Commendation for Brave Conduct but I didn't accept it. In
those days, and even today, I've got this thing: 'Was it my
''I don't believe it was but you have that doubt in the back
of your mind and I couldn't talk about it for a long time,
although it doesn't worry me like it used to.''
Mr Bills attended Sqn Ldr Johnson's funeral on crutches and
remembered his friend's wife being ''very brave''.
He ''lost convergence'' for flying and became a sales rep for
Dulux for 30 years, moving from Dunedin to Christchurch and
Hamilton before retiring at 62.
Mr Bills revived his passion for horses as a breeder and
maintained his interest in racing even after ''retiring''
''I've been very lucky.''