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Mt Ruapehu air crash kills 13

23 October 1948

ZK-AGK Kaka at Wellington, 1945
ZK-AGK Kaka at Wellington, 1945 (Alexander Turnbull Library, 1/2-066105-F)

On the morning of 23 October 1948 two experienced pilots, Commander Max Hare and Second Officer Brian Russell, flew ZK-AGK Kaka, a Lockheed Electra of the National Airways Corporation’s fleet, from Hamilton to Palmerston North. They would make the return journey that afternoon.

At 1.16 p.m., after refuelling and taking on board 11 passengers, Kaka took off and headed towards Whanganui. This dog-leg added time and distance, but kept aircraft away from the peaks of Ruapehu, Tongariro and Ngāuruhoe at a safe cruising altitude, in an area where navigation beacons were scarce. Kaka initially appeared to be on course: it reported its presence at the Whanganui beacon at 1.38 p.m, when it was flying in heavy cloud and rain, and was later seen overhead at Ohakune. Fears began to be held for the aircraft when it failed to report its position 30 minutes north of Whanganui, and it did not arrive in Hamilton as expected.

An intensive aerial search was mounted. Numerous military and civil aircraft searched each day until the light failed or they were stopped by bad weather. But with hundreds of people saying they had heard an aircraft in trouble, their efforts were dispersed across the centre of the North Island. A breakthrough finally came when three deerstalkers came out of a densely wooded area on the western side of Mt Ruapehu. They said they had heard an aircraft’s engines cut out near the mountain on the day Kaka went missing. Eventually wreckage was seen from the air approximately 900 m from the summit.

Search parties left for the site on the morning of 29 October. Little hope was held of finding anyone alive – the weather on the mountain had been poor, and it was now six days since Kaka had disappeared. The searchers who arrived the following day found that the passengers and crew had been killed on impact. The bodies were recovered, wrapped in blankets and parachute material, and carried down the mountain to Horopito.

The board of inquiry into the crash concluded that the aircraft had gone off course because the pilot had made an error in his calculations. According to John King, author of New Zealand tragedies: aviation accidents and disasters, he had corrected for right-hand drift on his flight to Palmerston North, and then, instead of subtracting this and applying it to the other side for the return flight, added another right-hand drift correction. The lack of navigation beacons in the central North Island was a contributing factor. 

Airliners now cruise at significantly higher altitudes, well above the mountains. Smaller aircraft fly through the area at lower altitudes, but only when weather and visibility allows.

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Mt Ruapehu air crash kills 13, URL:, (Manatū Taonga — Ministry for Culture and Heritage), updated