Pilot haunted by memories of mountain crash

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.
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 hut.

Although he ''didn't sleep a hell of a lot'' on Saturday night, Mr Bills yesterday recounted the trip he will never forget.

A flight lieutenant in the No 4 Territorial Air Force Squadron, he was the only pilot his friend ''Chris'' Johnson trusted.

''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 Aspiring.

''Chris was an experienced climber so was asked to help find them.

''On the night before we went, during the briefing, Chris put his finger on the exact spot where the trampers were eventually found.''

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 party.

''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 parched.''

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 fault?'

''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'' aged 85.

''I've been very lucky.''

-rosie.manins@odt.co.nz

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