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A Cessna 210. Photo from Wikipedia.

The last flight of Mike Delta X-ray

THE only unsolved aviation mystery in Australia since World War 2, the crash of Cessna 210 Mike Delta X-ray on August 9, 1981, has attracted hordes of searchers and spawned a myriad strange conspiracy stories.

In 2005 I joined one of the annual searches for the missing plane, stumbling around the steep gullies and ridges of the Barrington Tops with a group of volunteers and returning wearied but none the wiser. I joined the search because I wanted to write about the crash for The Newcastle Herald, and thought visiting the area where the plane was believed to have gone down might help. To be honest, all the experience did was help me understand why the plane hasn’t been found.

“Barrington Triangle”

Some UFO enthusiasts and lovers of the paranormal talk of a “Barrington Triangle”, a supposed zone of mysterious aviation phenomena. But pilots familar with the area put its bad reputation down to rough terrain, low cloud and notoriously unpredictable weather. The rugged hills and their dense clothing of bush are also a bad place to hunt for a crashed aeroplane.

When the green and cream Cessna 210 light aircraft known as Mike Delta X-ray (MDX) crashed on a flight from Coolangatta to Bankstown on that Sunday night in August 9, 1981, MDX was being flown by Michael Hutchins, 51, of Dee Why. He was a highly experienced pilot who had logged thousands of flying hours over 15 years in Canada, Fiji, Oman and New Guinea before he set up his own charter business in Australia.

Seated from left: Ken Price, Rhett Bosler, Noel Wildash and Phillip Pembroke. Standing: John Gleave and Ken Hart. Photo supplied by John Gleave.

Among the missing passengers was Inspector Ken Price, 55, a former chief of Newcastle Water Police. Also on board were 40-year-old company director Noel Wildash of Frenchs Forest, Newcastle-born nursing home operator Phillip Pembroke, 41, of Drummoyne, and Rhett Bosler, a 33-year-old finance broker also from Drummoyne.

The MDX mystery has spawned enough rumours and conspiracy theories to fill a small book. There are tales of gold bullion, of a fortune in cash, of bags of illegal drugs and of military secrets. But according to those who know most about the final days of the men whose lives ended with the crash, the truth is far less remarkable.

Quirks of fate

The four passengers had been sailing up the coast, acting as a volunteer crew on an 18-metre steel yacht, the Islay G, owned by Sydney businessman John Challinor. Mr Challinor also owned Mike Delta X-ray, which he had bought to fly to and from a farm he owned. He had sent the plane to Queensland to fly the volunteer crewmen back to their homes and jobs and, but for a quirk of fate, he might easily have been aboard himself.

Marine engineer John Gleave was the organiser of the trip. He had volunteered to take his friend John Challinor’s yacht to Shute Harbour, where Mr Challinor was planning to entertain some American guests. Mr Gleave was to organise a crew and deliver the yacht in return for being allowed to use it for a short holiday with his wife and daughters. The deal involved Mr Gleave’s family being flown up to meet the boat when it arrived at Queensland, while the other crew members would be flown back to Sydney in Mr Challinor’s plane.

The initial plan had just three men crewing the boat: Mr Gleave, his best friend Noel Wildash and water police officer Buster Brown. The numbers expanded, however, to include former policeman Bob Fellowes and Buster Brown’s boss at the Water Police, Inspector Ken Price. Islay G left Newport on Friday, July 31, with the five men aboard. A few days later John Challinor sent word that he and some friends were planning to join the yacht at Mooloolaba, on the Sunshine Coast. To make room, latecomer Bob Fellowes was put ashore at his home town of Coffs Harbour.

On Monday, August 3, the boat arrived at Mooloolaba. Buster Brown left to go to the side of his gravely ill father, while the boat’s owner John Challinor came aboard with his friends Ken Hart, Rhett Bosler and Phillip Pembroke for the last leg of the voyage to Shute Harbour and the Whitsundays. Shute Harbour was reached on Saturday, August 8. John Gleave stayed aboard and was joined by his wife and daughters.

To Bankstown via Coolangatta

Mr Challinor’s six-seat Cessna 210 was ready on Sunday, August 9, to take a group back to Bankstown via Coolangatta, with Mike Hutchins in the pilot’s seat. Because there was one man too many for the seats on the plane, John Challinor and Ken Hart opted to stay overnight at Shute Harbour, leaving a spare seat on the plane and incidentally saving their own lives. At Coolangatta Phillip Pembroke’s pregnant fiancee Yvonne, who had been staying there while her husband-to-be sailed from Mooloolaba to Shute Harbour, booked a commercial flight back to Sydney. She toyed with the idea of insisting Phillip fly with her, instead of on John Challinor’s Cessna, but to her lasting regret she didn’t. Ken Price, who had told John Gleave that he didn’t like flying in light aircraft, phoned his wife, Joyce, from Coolangatta and told her he was considering making his way home by road. He didn’t.

While the five passengers were preparing to board their flight, John Gleave and his family were looking forward to their week sailing in the Whitsundays. “On Sunday afternoon we headed out towards Whitsunday Island,” Mr Gleave recalled. On Monday they got a call that sent them back to shore. “When I heard about the crash it hit me hard. It still hits me hard every day, 23 years later,” he told me in 2005.

For the next 10 years he admitted, the tragedy “enveloped” him. Between then and 2005 he estimated he’d been on six searches. I asked him if he thought the plane would ever be found. “I hope so. There are five families out there who’d like to know the truth.”

Deteriorating weather inland

THE Cessna 210 is a high-performance single-engined plane capable of carrying six people. Produced in the 1960s and 1970s it remained popular for many years, though pilots familiar with it say it is so quick it has a habit of “getting ahead of you” if you aren’t used to it.

When MDX left Coolangatta that Sunday afternoon the plan was to pass over Taree, track inland to Singleton via Craven and then down to Bankstown. On the coast the weather and conditions were fairly good, but unknown to those aboard MDX, the situation inland – especially around the Barrington Tops – was deteriorating. Cloud, turbulence, sleet and powerful gusting winds were sending the residents of the towns, villages and farms indoors.

The cockpit of a Cessna 210.

As MDX flew above Taree and Mike Hutchins touched base with Sydney radio, he was invited to change his flight plan and track south via the coast, where there was no cloud and navigation would be a simple matter. At 6.54pm he told Sydney he’d prefer the coastal route. But he was racing towards the restricted airspace of Williamtown RAAF base and he wanted a quick clearance. Told that clearance was not immediately available (apparently there was a jet in the air at the time), he was instructed to stay outside the restricted area while clearance was sought. At 6.55pm, while Williamtown and Sydney radio were discussing what altitudes MDX might be allowed to use on a coastal flight, Mike Hutchins decided to go back to his original plan. “Rather than wait for a clearance we’ll go via Craven thank you,” he told Sydney radio.

A simple decision to save a few minutes circling while Williamtown granted clearance. But because of that simple decision, in just over half an hour the plane would be destroyed and all its occupants killed. Many who have examined radio transcripts from the night have speculated that the plane’s navigational gear may have already been malfunctioning. That might explain why MDX was oddly late in reporting its arrival in the vicinity of what the pilot thought was Craven.

Considerable turbulence

At 7.17 MDX was contacted by another light plane: “Are you experiencing any moderate turbulence at your level?” “Negative! It was a little bit worse further north and nearer the coast,” replied Mike Hutchins. Seconds later he amended that comment: “Cancel that last remark. I’m just getting it now.” At 7.19 Hutchins was telling Sydney radio: “We’re experiencing considerable turbulence and quite a lot of downdraft.” At 7.23: “MDX in the clag, in turbulence and would request clearance to 10,000 from 8000.”

Less than a minute later the pilot realised his problems went much deeper than a spot of bad weather. 7.24: “This is MDX. Just to compound the little problem, I’ve lost my artificial horizon and directional indicator and ah, if I can get 10 and also radar steerance to Bankstown.” At 7.25pm MDX told Sydney radio: “My ADF (automatic direction finder) is going all over the place.”

Sydney radar took a fix on the troubled plane and estimated its position at 40 nautical miles north of Singleton. Now Mike Hutchins knew he was badly off course but things were getting worse. Ice was forming on the plane and it couldn’t climb. “I’m struggling to get to eight five,” he told Sydney radio. By now Mike Hutchins and Sydney radio were thinking he should head to Maitland. He was in cloud, he’d lost his artificial horizon and his automatic direction finder.

“He’s got problems, this boy.”

In the words of one of the Sydney staff: “He’s got problems, this boy.” If he wanted to go to Maitland, they told him, he’d have to turn hard left. In retrospect, that change of course could have been fate’s coup de gras. On paper it might have seemed the most direct route to the safety of Maitland airstrip. But it took him straight back into the thickest of the mountains and the terrible weather.

At Upper Rouchel a farmer’s wife may have seen the fatal turn. The woman, now dead, reported going outside just after watching the 7pm news, having heard what she thought was a tractor coming up the hill. She was shocked to see it was no tractor, but a light plane roaring overhead nearly low enough to touch. She thought it was going to land in her back paddock but it banked left and disappeared again into the low, wind-buffeted cloud.

At 7.34 Mike Hutchins radioed Sydney again: “We’ve picked up a fair amount of ice and I can just make out a few towns on the coast. Hell . . . just caught in a downdraft now and we’re down at about 1000 feet a minute.” The lights were turned on at Maitland airstrip in readiness, and Sydney radio informed MDX. At 7.35 MDX, now minutes from destruction, replied: “Just to compound things we thought we had a cockpit fire but we seem to have resolved that little problem. West Maitland? We’d appreciate if you left the lights on for a while.”

Fingers of radar

Fingers of radar were reaching into the difficult wilderness from Sydney and Williamtown, trying to find the doomed plane. Williamtown got a last fix on the plane at 7.36pm, about 80 kilometre distant and “just in the Barrington Tops”. At the same time Mike Hutchins broadcast that the plane was “coming down like a yo-yo”. Seconds later he added: “We have a little bit of a problem in that our standby compass is swinging like blazes.” At 7.37, asked if he could maintain a gyro heading, Mike Hutchins replied: “Negative. We’ve lost the AH and the DI. The vacuum pump’s stuffed. And we’re picking up icing.” He reported his height at 7500 feet (2280 metres) and the transcript noted: “Pilot sounds worried.” “We’re having strife up here,” Mike Hutchins said. “We’re losing a hell of a lot of . . . We’re down to six-and-a-half. [sounds scared]”

Sydney warned him the lowest safe altitude over the Tops was 6000 feet (1830 metres) and told him to sprint for the coast. But it was too late. His second last broadcast was just the call sign “MDX”, but the faraway radio men noted: “sounds very scared”. At 7.39 the final word from Mike Hutchins and from Cessna 210 Mike Delta X-ray was the word “5000”.

Somewhere in the freezing night

Somewhere in the freezing night the plane was down. Next day the mountains came alive with searchers in a massive but futile operation. Former Newcastle police rescue squad chief Peter Anforth, a friend of crash victim Ken Price, was quickly on the scene. More than 70 searchers on the ground, several helicopters and fixed wing aircraft combed the valleys in the area for the wreckage without success. “We did the best we could with the resources available at the time,” Mr Anforth told me in 2005.

John Tonitto of the Bushwalkers Wilderness Rescue Squad, said his group had been searching for MDX since it first went down. He had personally been involved in searching since the mid-1980s. “The trouble is, there have been so many searches by so many different groups that it’s hard to know what areas have been covered and how well,” Mr Tonitto said.

According to Mr Tonitto, it was the left-hand turn at the end of the plane’s known flight path that sealed its fate. “That’s where the error was, in my opinion,” he said. “Perhaps he should have been given a greater angle. When you consider his compasses were playing up and he had a westerly blowing up his butt I’d say he should have been directed around the mountains, not back over them.”

“One day it will be found and the mystery will be solved. It is important for the families we keep searching and bring those men home to rest.”

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