Cessna Missing Barrington Tops and the 2013 Search
Special thanks to Mark Nolan who filled me in on this and made scans of the original investigation available to me so that I could use primary sources for this post.
On the 9th of August in 1981, a Cessna 210 registration VH-MDX was on a booked flight from Prosperpine to Bankstown, with a refueling stop in Coolangatta.
John Challinor owned the company to which the Cessna 210 was registered. He also owned a motor yacht which sailed from Sydney on the 31st of July. Noel Wildash and Ken Price were two of the crew members. They picked up Challinor, Rhett Bosler and Phillip Pembroke on the Sunday night and headed for Prosperpine.
Challinor had arranged for pilot Michael Hutchins to fly VH-MDX from Sydney to Prosperpine on Saturday the 8th of August to fly everyone back to Sydney.
Saturday night, Hutchins arrived and spent the night on the boat. The next morning he refueled and shortly after 10am he departed Prosperpine for Coolangatta with four passengers on board: Wildash, Price, Bosler and Pembroke.
The aircraft had been serviced from new and had just completed a 100 hourly inspection. It was approved for IFR operations but not for flight into known or forecast icing conditions, as it was not equipped with suitable de-icing equipment.
At Coolangatta, Mr Gordon Grieg, an experienced pilot, was manning the refuelling pumps when VH-MDX taxied in. From the investigation notes:
He said he was surprised at the amount of power used – about 1500 rpm. When the five occupants left the aircraft, he found he knew one of them, Ken Price – well. They looked a bit scared. The pilot looked pale and a little tired. They all went to the Clubhouse and chatted for a while. The pilot seemed impatient to get away again.
Mr Greig said that the wind was making the flight bumpy and unpleasant. The pilot remarked that there was some problem with the gyros or electrics and it was suggested by Mr Greig that they remain overnight at Coolangatta but this was not acceptable to the pilot. They boarded the aircraft, Ken Price taking the right front seat, two medium weight passengers in the centre seats and the largest – a man with a black beard, the left rear seat. The pilot had trouble with the engine start, cranking and cranking, and eventually it fired. The aircraft then taxied and departed. Mr Greig estimated the weight of the men as – Pilot 11 1/2 stone, Ken price 16 1/2 stone, the two centre seat passengers 11-12 stone and the rear seat passenger (he had a black beard) 16 stone.
VH-MDX picked up weather forecasts while they were there.
Weather forecasts indicated a strong west-southwesterly airflow over northern New South Wales, with considerable cumulus or cumulus up to 6000 feet to the east and over the coast. The freezing level was expected to be between 4000 and 7000 feet above mean sea level, and moderate icing was forecast in cloud above that level. A SIGMET (forecast of significant weather which may affect aircraft safety) was current, indicating occasional severe turbulence existed below 12,000 feet to the east of the mountains.
The flight was planned Night VMC (remaining in visual conditions).
They departed Coolangatta and proceeded “without recorded incident” to Taree. Their flight plan had them track along the coast to Taree, then inland via Singleton and Mt. McQuoid in order to avoid the controlled airspace and military restricted areas surrounding Williamtown.
Note: All times are in GMT: add ten hours for Australian EST. I have added punctuation and dropped some of the standard callsign references from the official transcript for clarity.
08:50:31 VH-MDX contact Sydney Flight Information Service 5 on 121.6 to report that they are cruising at 8,000 feet and estimate overhead Singleton at 19:30 EST.
MDX: Ah, Mike Delta Xray was at Taree at five zero eight thousand estimating Singleton at time three zero.
FIS 5: Mike Delta Xray would you prefer a clearance via overhead Willie if it’s available?
MDX: Mike Delta Xray would prefer Williamtown.
08:53:00 Sydney FIS 5 contact Williamtown Tower and then speak to Sector One for clearance.
Sector One: Before you go on, we’re not night VMC so clearance would not be available in controlled area.
FIS 5: It won’t?
Sector One: It won’t be available in my airspace, anyway.
The airspace in Sector One did not have the weather conditions to allow for the night visual flight. However, they agree to check with Williamtown Approach to see if it’s possible for MDX to fly low level along the coast.
FIS 5: Approach, you have Mike Delta Xray, a Cessna 210. He’s overhead Taree at this stage. Sector One advises his airspace is nonVMC. Would there be a clearance available for that aircraft coastal?
Williamtown Approach: I’ll check on the weather and let you know.
FIS 5: OK then and if you could advise the highest level that he could expect.
08:54:30 Sydney FIS 5 call MDX back to let them know the options.
FIS 5: I have checked you with Sydney Control and they advise their airspace high level is non-VMC. A clearance coastal at a lower level may be available, I will advise. So would you prefer to take that or track now via Craven, Singleton?
VH-MDX: I prefer to go coastal.
08:56:00 However, a few minutes later, MDX calls back.
VH-MDX: Rather than wait for the clearance, we’ll track via Craven, thank you.
09:01:13The controllers continue to discuss the weather conditions and the possibility for clearance on behalf of MDX.
FIS 5: OK, he couldn’t wait, he ended up virtually on the boundary so he took off back to Craven.
Williamtown Approach: Was it that critical, was it?
FIS 5: It was that close, yes.
Williamtown Approach: He was running out of gas or something, was he?
FIS 5: No, he just didn’t want to hang around. He was virtually on controlled airspace and he didn’t want to hold in the area, so he’s tracking down to Craven.
Williamtown Approach: Which way is he going? Craven-Singleton or something?
FIS 5: Yes, he was going to go Craven-Singleton.
09:19:19 MDX confirm to Sydney FIS 5 that they are overhead Craven.
VH-MDX: Sydney, Mike Delta Xray at Craven at one eight, 8000, Singleton 36 and we’re experiencing considerable turbulence now and quite a lot of down draught.
FIS 5: Mike Delta Xray, roger. Standby.
09:23:25 FIS 5 is dealing with other flights in the area and discussing the turbulence and clouds at different levels when MDX call back.
VH-MDX: Sydney, Mike Delta Xray is in the clag, in turbulence and would request a clearance to ah 10,000 from 8000.
FIS 5: Echo Sierra Victor, Sydney. Understand the winds at 9000 are westerlies about 70 knots. Are there any clouds in that area?
ESV: Ah negative, there’s no cloud at all above 8000 feet.
FIS 5: Mike Delta Xray, Sydney. Echo Sierra Victor advises no cloud about 8000 feet; however the westerly winds are about 76 knots.
VH-MDX: Just to compound a little problem, I lost my AH and DI and if I could get 10, I’d appreciate it and also a radar steer to Bankstown.
FIS 5: No traffic at one zero thousand. Report cruising one zero thousand. Can you maintain a rate of climb without your artificial horizon?
VH-MDX: Yes, affirmative, I’ll go to ten thousand…
09:25:41 He’s lost his artificial horizon (AH) and his directional indicator (DI). Sydney FIS 5 contact him to make sure his other instruments are working and that he has visual contact with the ground, which means he could work around the failure.
FIS 5: Just to confirm your ADF and VOR on board the aircraft are operating normally.
VH-MDX: My ADF is going all over the place.
FIS 5:Roger. Just confirm in VMC at this time.
(It doesn’t matter how often I read that exchange, I feel sick every time.)
09:26:51 Sydney FIS 5 don’t bother to respond to that call; they go straight for radar identification.
FIS 5: Uncertainty phase declared Mike Delta Xray 0926 in IMC VFR
FIS 5: We’ve got an aircraft who’s in IMC on climb to one zero thousand, without an artificial horizon on track Craven Singleton with a wonky ADF. I’ll see if he’s got a transponder, or which he has, if I can get him to squawk, what code for you, for us, thanks, if we can identify him.
09:28:28 MDX is radar identified thirty-six miles north of Singleton on the Mt Sandon-Singleton track.
But the pilot has a new problem: the aircraft isn’t climbing.
VH-MDX: I’m struggling to get to 85.
FIS 5: Mike Delta Xray Roger
VH-MDX: Ah Sydney, Mike Delta Xray. Can you give me a vector to West Maitland please?
09:31:08 Sydney FIS 5 relay the request to Sector One, who confirm that the aircraft has turned southbound and ask FIS 5 to get his current heading.
FIS 5: Mike Delta Xray, present heading?
VH-MDX: Mike Delta Xray is averaging somewhere around 220.
Sector One: 220, tell him I don’t know what it’s like for cloud. He’s in cloud at the moment, is he?
FIS 5: Yes, mate.
Sector One: And he’s lost his artificial horizon.
FIS 5: And his ADF by the sound of things.
Sector One: And his ADF.
FIS 5: Yes, he’s got problems, this boy.
09:34:15 Sydney FIS give MDX a track for West Maitland and is trying to find out what the cloud cover is like over Williamtown when MDX call back.
VH-MDX: We’ve picked up a fair amount of ice and I can just make out a few towns on the coast. I’d appreciate it .. Oh hell, we just got in a down draught and we’re down at about a thousand a minute.
FIS 5: MDX, roger. Is the aircraft equipped with pitot heating?
VH-MDX: It’s a single (engined) and we’ll try to continue our flight plan.
FIS 5: Roger. The lights are on at Maitland, the lights are on at Maitland.
VH-MDX: Say again Maitland?
FIS 5: The lights are on at Maitland, if you wish to divert and make a landing at Maitland.
VH-MDX: No, we thought we had a … just to compound things, we thought we had a cockpit fire but we seemed to resolve that little problem. West Maitland but would appreciate it if you could leave the lights on for a while.
FIS 5: Mike Delta Xray Wilco.
09:35:43 The only copy of the audio transcript that I could find was very hard to understand. But by now, you can hear the stress in the voices.
FIS 5: Mike Delta Xray, Sydney. If possible could you squawk code now 3000 with ident?
VH-MDX: We’re squawking 300 ident and we’re up and down like a yo-yo.
FIS 5: Roger, we’re looking for you.
VH-MDX: Sydney, MDX. We’re having a little bit of a problem in that our standby compass is swinging like blazes.
FIS 5: Roger, are you able to maintain a gyro heading?
VH-MDX: Negative, we’ve lost the AH and DI, the vacuum pump’s gone.
FIS 5: MDX Roger Sydney.
VH-MDX: And we’re picking up ice
FIS 5: And your present altitude?
VH-MDX: Seven and a half.
FIS 5: Roger and if possible, could you give us some idea of your present endurance when available?
09:37:54 MDX is no longer in a position to answer questions.
VH-MDX: We’re having strife up here, we’re…
VH-MDX: We’re losing a hell of a lot of…
VH-MDX: We’re down to six and a half
FIS 5: Mike Delta Xray, roger, Sydney. Your lowest safe in that area is six thousand, at this time if you continue towards the coast, towards Williamstown, Sir.
09:39:23 The last transmission from MDX is received.
FIS 5: Mike Delta Xray.
FIS 5: Mike Delta Xray, Sydney.
VH-MDX: Five thousand!
FIS 5: Mike Delta Xray, Sydney.
FIS 5: Mike Delta Xray, Sydney.
FIS 5: Mike Delta Xray. Mike Delta Xray, Sydney.
A NASA instructor was conducting a Night/VMC dual training flight in the local area. He diverted to Singleton due to “a wall of cloud” lying on a line to Nelson Bay and heard the exchange between final exchanges between Sydney and MDX.
This is from the investigation notes:
He remembered thinking that the pilot’s voice was very casual when commenting that his aircraft was going up and down like something or other and detailing other problems he was having.
The voice became more panicky, however, and on the last call – which was short and said only “Sydney – 5000” or something like that, it was nearly screaming.
He heard no calls from the aircraft after that.
The last known radar position of the aircraft was recorded as over Barrington Tops at 09:36 GMT.
Sydney Air Search and Rescue immediately diverted a number of commercial flights into the area to carry out a visual search. The aircraft were in the vicinity within ten minutes of the last transmission. A full-scale search was in place by the next morning, despite gale-force winds and temperatures at or below freezing. The search area was centred aroudn the Barrington Tops, described in the search report as “the most heavily forested, rugged, inaccessible part of New South Wales”. If the fuel did not ignite, there would be no visible scar, making it difficult to locate the crash site.
The search continued for nine days.
From the search report:
During the period of the search fixed wing aircraft flew 80 sorties totalling 191 search hours and holicopters flew 109 sorties, totally 175 search hours.
In addition, large ground search parties comprising Police, Forestry, Water Board, Bushwalkers, State Emergency Services personnel supported by 4WD vehicles and trail bikes searched a large part of the most probable area.
The extreme cold at the higher parts of the Barrington Tops and the strong westerly winds made the search dangerous both on the ground and in the air.
Assistance of the RAAF was made available to photograph the complete search area, subsequent analysis failed to reveal any significant information. Action to utilise Satelite information from “Landsat” and the U.S.A.F. also resulted in nil information.
Ground search by Police and volunteers also failed to provide any information as to the whereabouts of the missing aircraft.
Search terminated Tuesday 18th August 1981 following a total of 412.75 hours of unsuccessful air search.
The Air Traffic Controller on duty at Sydney that night posted about it on a blog dedicated to collecting information about the crash: Missing Plane Over Barrington Tops.
I was the ATS officer on the Sydney Sector (FIS 5) who had the misfortune to be on duty when these events occurred. It was one of the worst nights of my life.
You may like to know that I was also rostered on the same sector the next day when the search got underway in full with daylight, from memory I think there were 22 aircraft including helicopters involved, I remember afterwards being kept so busy as it stopped one thinking about the events of the night before. They (the search aircraft) found a few older wrecks but never MDX or any indication of the crash site.
There had been numerous accidents where pilots had inadvertently overstressed the aeroplane and pulled the wings off, so it may well be that the wings are in one place or several places and the fuselage body in another and it would be badly compacted either way, so really anybody looking for the aircraft would probably only see perhaps a wing tip or wing and a bit of tail.
The Bushwalkers Wilderness Rescue Squad were involved in the original search and they have never given up. Over the past thirty years, they have been searching through sectors on foot and collating information about the possible crash site.
One of the amazing things about this blog is the friends that I’ve made since I started it. One of those friends is Mark Nolan.
Mark Nolan is a corporal in the Australian Army. He’s also a bushwalker and a pilot. He’s been obsessed with the mystery for years, driven, as he puts it, by wanting to know the end of the story. This year, he found newly released documents in the national archives with new information. Using modern technology, it’s possible that Mark and the Bushwalkers have managed to limit the area where VH-MDX is likely to have crashed. He’s convinced they have a better than average chance of finding it this time, especially because the New South Wales Police Rescue Squad are hosting a full scale search with them:
They will be searching next week, from the 17th to the 21st of October.
Mark, stay safe. We’ll be waiting for you to to tell us every last detail about the search upon your return.
We’re all hoping you’ve cracked it!