Air crash: Witnessing the country’s deadliest air force crash

Plane crash witness Peter Smith at Wigram Museum with one of the air force Devon planes.

A memorial plaque dedicated to those who died in the 1953 air force crash, in Wigram will be unveiled later this year. Reporter Matt Salmons talks to former Prebbleton resident Peter Smith who remembers the tragedy

Peter Smith remembers the day of October 15, 1953, well. It was the day he witnessed the country’s deadliest domestic air force crash at the age of 14.

Living in Prebbleton and with an uncle in the Royal New Zealand Air Force, Mr Smith said seeing aircraft overhead was a common thing at the time.

While out on his bicycle with a friend, an odd engine noise alerted him that something was amiss that day. When he looked up Mr Smith said he saw one of the Devons go down.

Mr Smith said the boys grabbed their bikes and in spite of no smoke to follow they “rode like mad down a shingle road” towards the crash site, coming to within 150m of the wreckage.

Mr Smith said ambulance officers already on scene told the two boys to stay back.

“I didn’t see a body, which I’m very glad of as that would have haunted me,” Mr Smith said.

He estimated that including emergency services there would have only been around 20 people in the field, most of whom were asked to leave when police arrived.

“Police ordered people off the site, naturally, there were bits of aircraft around. We asked if we could help, but we were happy to go.”

After being turned away, Mr Smith said they found a wheel from one of the Devons in the grass 30-40m away, strapped it to his bike and took it home.

“When my father found out, he was pretty cranky about it and took it back to Wigram the next day.

“We should never have taken it.”

Efforts by retired engineer and Halswell Residents’ Association member Ron Fensom to have a memorial plaque placed near the crash site brought the event back to the forefront of Mr Smith’s mind.

“It brings back a lot of memories. It’s never stopped flashing through my mind. I’ll always remember the crash.

“At the time, I wasn’t sure how I felt . . . but as the years have passed I often think of those brave young pilots who lost their lives while on duty for their country and how it must have affected their friends and family, then and now.”

Mr Fensom said he was receiving feedback from people interested in the unveiling and the crash. The unveiling is set for the afternoon of October 15, to coincide with the date and time of the crash.

Mr Fensom said he hoped to soon get in contact with the families of the pilots who had died, so they would be able to attend.

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