The loss of VH-VQQ: Derek Crisp

This is transcribed from the original typewritten manuscript. The original appears in a number of illustrations in the Photo Gallery “One of the Early Birds: Derek (Jos) Elwyn Crisp”, starting with this page.

It was Sunday the 16th December and I had started flying early in the morning and the weather was more or less typical of what we get here daily, i.e., a clear cloudless sky in the early morning gradually clouding over until about 2 or 3 p.m. it becomes impossible to fly. I had completed my third trip to Wau and back that morning and was returning to Wau on my fourth. The clouds had gathered to a height of about 8,000 feet when I came out on my third trip, so decided that before climbing to that altitude to get in on the following journey I would firstly have a look underneath them. This I did and had satisfied myself that all was clear right through to the “Gap” at the Wau end.

The flight from Salamaua to Wau is usually made up a valley called the Bitoi. This valley rises from about 1,000 feet at the Salamaua end to 6,000 feet at the Wau end. The 6,000 feet portion is known as the “Gap” and once clear of this you can descend rapidly to 3,500 feet, the level of Wau aerodrome. I had proceeded well up the Bitoi valley and was about 4 miles from the Gap when I noticed that I was not climbing as fast as I should be; in fact the natural rise in the ground was greater than that which the ‘plane would climb at. I could not circle and get extra height because I was flying under a heavy layer of clouds and was almost as high as their lower reaches. Eventually I decided that to go on would be fatal (as I was still losing height comparative to the ground) so decided to turn and scoot out. To make a turn with a full load on you require a fair amount of room so I chose the junction of another valley with the Bitoi in which to do the turn. However I was losing height so quickly that I found myself hemmed in by the sides of the Bitoi and without enough turning radius in which to complete the turn. I then made for an adjoining valley to temporarily give me time and space to manoeuvre the bus, but unfortunately the valley I turned into rose even quicker than the Bitoi so that I had neither height, speed or room enough to turn out. I realised I was trapped, but decided to give it a go, hoping I might just miss some of the higher trees and manage to complete a turn. It was no good however for I was only about half way round when I collected a pretty high tree and crashed in on one of its limbs, the whole plane sliding towards its trunk. The accompanying sketch will give you a fair idea of the way it happened.

Scanned from original typescript narrative

When the ‘plane was pulled up by the tree trunk, the engine, cargo (3 cases of Victoria Bitter Ale and a case of starch) and cabin all carried on and fell to the ground. The wings and centre section draped themselves around the limb, and the rear portion of the fuselage with myself strapped by the safety belt to it remained right way up on top of the limb.

I was quite conscious throughout the crash and heard only too well the breaking of branches in the tree and the rending and splintering of the plywood and spruce of the ‘plane. On pulling myself together and looking myself over I was much relieved to find that I had got off with a slight cut over my left eyebrow and a bruised feeling on my left side which I thought at the time was a broken rib, but which turned out afterwards to be a general bruising and straining of the stomach muscles.

This was caused by my full weight being stopped in the crash by the safety belt which was fastened around my tummy. My next impressions were the smell of fresh beer and that I was quite a height above ground. I looked over the side and saw that I was well and truly up a tree and had my doubts about being able to get down. It was just 12 o’clock so decided to stay up the tree in case I was missed and a ‘plane came out looking for me. I would have much more chance of attracting a pilot’s attention from the tree than from the ground which was almost completely closed in by heavy growth. I then took stock of what I had about me and found that all I had was a revolver and some bullets and half a Smith’s Weekly, so I settled down to a quiet half hour with Smith’s

About an hour later it began to rain in true tropical style and the clouds closed in the Bitoi valley, so I knew that the would be rescue ‘plane would not be able to do any good. The rain continued and I tried to get what shelter I could from the pieces of three-ply-wood and fabric about me but without success. At about 5 p.m. I began to figure out ways and means of getting down but as I had no tools—they were thrown to the ground together with my emergency rations—I could not loosen the control wires which I had hopes of using in letting myself down. The height from the ground to where I was perched was 75 feet. The tree has since been cut down and measured, so you can see I was up against a problem. After much taking of observations I decided that by transferring to two other trees I could just about make it. This I eventually did. Firstly I lowered myself a few feet down the tree I was in so as to salvage the ‘plane’s compass which I thought might be useful. From this position I climbed on to the second tree, scrambled a few feet down it, then on to a third and thus to the ground. By this time I was thoroughly wet and covered in moss I collected coming down the trees. Managed to find the emergency rations and tools but had trouble in getting a fire going. You must remember that I was almost 5,500 feet above sea-level and at night time it can get very cold. By the time I collected things and got a fire going it was getting dark.

The undergrowth was very thick and thoroughly wet. After about an hour all the beer case timber was so wet it would not burn so my fire just went out and I was left standing in the rain in pitch darkness in the big bush of New Guinea. All the wogs in the world came out and gave their war cry and made weird noises. Many of the trees had patches of phosphorous on them which glowed like bright lights. I got practically no sleep and did a shiver all night. I did not feel hungry so did not open the rations, although I had nothing since breakfast that day. After a very long and uncomfortable night the first peep of dawn showed up. An hour or so later I heard and saw ‘planes passing overhead and from the way they were flying I knew they were searching. The crash was pretty well hidden and I had little hope of them spotting it from the air, in fact I had made up my mind to walk to the mining camps in the Bitoi; I knew the direction and had a compass. However I thought better of it and decided to stay at least one day near the crash and assist with a smoke fire in the aerial search. During the night I figured out a scheme whereby the attention of a searching pilot could be attracted.

The petrol tank was still held in the crash up the tree. My scheme was to put a shot fired from my revolver into it as soon as a ‘plane circled overhead, the petrol would then run out the hole and I would just have to light it at the ground and the flame would travel up to the tank and wreckage in the tree and cause a good flare and smoke. Well the ‘plane came over early Monday morning and started circling high over the vicinity. I drew the revolver, shot at and drilled the tank, out ran the petrol and when I went to light it my matches were too wet: they refused to strike. So all I could do was watch the precious petrol run to waste. Very loud curses. Seeing that I couldn’t do anything in the way of fires, I thought I might just as well have breakfast. So had about six prunes and four Sao biscuits and a drink of water. Bonza! felt much better. Later I managed to dry out my matches under my helmet and got a fire going. Took some of my clothing off and wrung it out and dried it before the fire. It stopped raining at daybreak, so things were looking brighter. I noticed ‘planes from all the air companies participating in the search and thought what a good lot they were. I learnt later that these individual pilots on hearing of a ‘plane and pilot missing simply took it upon themselves to search, they did not wait for orders from their respective chiefs. A very fine spirit.

As the day wore on I got a heavy smoke fire burning (after drying the matches) and the ‘planes seemed to be concentrating over the spot but they did not give me any signal that the wreck had been sighted. Furthermore owing to the abnormal down currents in this vicinity (which was the prime cause of the crash) the smoke from the fire simply would not rise but just floated down into the valley and dispersed amongst the heavy timbers. I poured oil on from the oil tank and heaped on some material from the beer cases, but it was no good, I judged that my smoke would never be noticed from the air. By night-fall on Monday I had rigged up a humpy at the foot of the tree, had a dry bed of case material, had a fire going, and had dried my clothes so had no trouble in enjoying a good night’s sleep after snacking on another half dozen prunes and four Saos.

The emergency kit did not contain a billy so was unable to make a hot drink. Strangely enough dozens of perfectly good beer bottles were spread all about me but I did not have the slightest inclination for a drink. It was only by a stroke of good luck that I had matches. As you Know, I am a non-smoker so do not carry them and the ones that should have been in emergency kit must have been stolen by the natives at the hangar for they were not there. On the Saturday night I went on board a German ship in port and was handed a souvenir box of matches by the steward. I took them home and threw them on my dressing table and before I went flying the next day I put them in my pocket. Why? I don’t know. To continue the story. By Tuesday morning I decided to walk to the Miners’ camps in the Bitoi so packed my kit, wrote a note on some fabric in charcoal and left it in my humpy, giving reasons for crash and in what direction I had walked and that I was uninjured. I set off at 7 a.m. and walked by compass in the direction I had estimated. I have never walked through thicker, steeper and wetter bush in my life. The slope of the grades made it hands-and-knees work and for every two yards I would climb I would slip back one. Whenever I slipped and grabbed something it either had thorns or was of the stinging variety. My footwear was ordinary shoes and one heel went missing very early. I thought that once I reached a ridge I would be able to see how I was going, but when I did get there I could not see a thing for the thick high trees; so all I could do was to keep going. Once I thought I heard somebody call, so called back and fired a few shots without effect.

After crossing two ridges and wading through two mountain creeks I came to a clearing and saw the Bitoi mining leases below me and knew that after my four hours’  scramble through the bush I had made the mark O.K. I made for the nearest house which of course was built native fashion out of grass, etc. On coming up to it I saw two natives fast asleep, and they both wore loin cloths of the Territory’s gaol pattern. My first thoughts were that they were escaped prison boys and were hiding in the hills; so imagined I would not be very popular with them. However as I had my revolver handy I decided to wake them and question them, which I did. Their eyes nearly popped out when they woke and saw me standing close to them complete with flying helmet. I asked them where their master was and one answered that he had gone into the bush. Just then I caught sight of another house lower down the hill and asked the native if a white man lived there. His answer I gathered was in the affirmative, so pushed on down the hill with one hand still on my squirt. On reaching the house I saw a typical old miner sitting in the sun reading, so just walked up and asked him how he was, etc. He nearly fainted on the spot and took about 5 minutes to come to. He was a Mr Reynolds and a very decent old chap too. He said that a few hours earlier a party headed by the A.D.O. of Wau and thirty natives had passed through on a search for me (the two boys I met first belonged to this party). Also another party of whites (belonging to Carpenters) and 7 natives were out; and in addition several miners from round about the Bitoi had seen the ‘planes searching, so dropped their search for gold, mustered their natives and set out on their own account. We immediately sent natives out to the various parties to let them know where I was and that I was O.K. (also sent a police boy to Wau with the news). It turned out that the wreckage was sighted at about 11 a.m. on the Monday so the ground parties did not lose any time: they had to walk from Wau, a full day’s walk. Most of them walked the better part of the night with the aid of hurricane lamps and electric torches. Mr Reynolds soon got some tea made and a snack cooked to which I did full justice. Whilst I was there another party arrived headed by the doctor from Wau. He was very relieved to find me O.K. and to be spared further walking, etc. He examined what I thought was a broken rib and said it was only muscle strain.

In a few hours’ time the recalled parties came in and we learnt that they had actually discovered my camp, saw the crash and read my note by 10.30 a..m. They were all annoyed to see me in one piece and could not figure out how I got down the tree. The Padre from Wau was amongst them, he took some snaps of the wreckage, etc. I am enclosing them with this literary effort. The snap of the ‘plane in the tree does not give a true idea of the height because he went up the hill side until it got more or less at the same height then got the natives to clear the trees between him and the crash. The first party that reached the scene were so overjoyed at finding it and learning that I was O.K., began celebrating on the spot and got properly tight on the beer scattered around.

One chap, a miner who I spent the night with that night, got his natives to gather up all the full bottles they could find and bring them back to his camp where he celebrated right through to 3 a.m. that night and then on again at breakfast until I left him at about 10 a.m. Some of the parties went straight back to Wau but the Dr., his assistant and a few others including myself spent the night at Harry O’Kane’s camp about two miles further on from Mr Reynold’s. We were all glad to get to bed that night, that is all but the chap who, as just mentioned, celebrated by himself assisted by a native at the gramophone and many bottles of V.B. until 3 a.m.

The following day (Wednesday) we set out at 10 a.m. to walk to Wau which takes you through creeks, slime, mud and swamp until you eventually reach the Bulolo river. This is more than waist deep and runs that fast that you can only just keep your feet. In fact I could not keep on mine while I had my trousers on so had to remove them and carry on. A frightful sight. Arrived at Wau at about 5 p.m. very tired but very relieved to be back in civilization. I was met by the manager for Carpenter’s Aerial Services who took the whole matter exceedingly well and was only too pleased to know that I was O.K.

The following day I returned to Salamaua in our Dragon ‘plane and received general congratulation from the boys as well as many of the radio variety.

That evening the drinks and a dinner at the Hotel were on me, a very bright show.

The miners say that I can claim distinction in as much as it is the first time in the history of the goldfields that beer has been delivered direct to their camp. Also, together with one other we are the only two who have first come down a tree without previously going up it.

That just about covers the story. Since it has occurred I have learnt that nearly every pilot in New Guinea has had a narrow shave in this vicinity. They have told me so themselves: missed by inches and all that. There appear to be abnormal down currents and I was a bit unlucky. That’s the first damage I have done to any aircraft in my charge, but it certainly is a whole lot: a complete write off except for the engine which suffered little damage and is being rescued.

I have been informed that the cause of the accident has been attributed to “lack of local knowledge”.

I deeply regret any worry and anxiety I have caused you, but so far I do not know how you learnt the news and how long you were in suspense; I hope it was not for long.

The crash scene


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