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Still looking for honeymooners

The Gisborne Herald’s Wynsley Wrigley looks back at the tragic story of honeymooning couple Valerie and Elwyn Saville who remain missing, along with three other people, after their scenic flight ended in disaster over the Southern Alps in 1962. Dedicated searcher Bobbie Reeve says he knows where their aircraft is.

Gisborne woman Valerie Saville and her Australian husband Elwyn had only been married for 70 days when their aircraft disappeared 59 years ago in an area referred to by some as the country's “Bermuda Triangle”.

Also still missing since February 12, 1962, despite searches which continue to this day are two Australian passengers and pilot/owner Brian Chadwick, an English World War 2 Bomber Command veteran.

The twin-engine 1930s-era de Havilland DH90 Dragonfly ZK-AFB was on a scenic flight from Christchurch's Harewood airport to Milford Sound.

Elwyn, making his first trip to New Zealand, was only 20 and Valerie, 22.

Valerie was the daughter of Fred and Jessie Bignell of Tokomaru Bay.

Fred, who served in the Medical Corps during World War 1, had been the foreman at the Tokamaru Bay freezing works but in 1962 was farming in retirement at Waipaoa, according to a Gisborne Herald article published the day after the accident.

One of Jessie's brothers was Colin “Uncle Scrim” Scrimgeour, the noted radio broadcaster, Christian socialist, and friend of Labour Party icons John A. Lee and Prime Minister Mickey Savage, but an adversary of Savage's successor Peter Fraser.

Valerie was the second youngest of 12 siblings and was educated at Tokomaru Bay School, Gisborne Intermediate and the New Zealand Missionary College, now known as Longburn Adventists College.

Valerie worked as a typist at Cook Hospital before moving to Australia in 1959.

She met her husband through the Seventh Day Adventist Church and they were engaged by 1961.

They were married on December 4, 1961, at Gisborne's Seventh Day Adventist Church and honeymooned at Makorori Beach for 10 days before travelling around New Zealand.

The couple planned to return to Australia on February 28, 16 days after their tragic scenic flight.

Valerie's late sister Joyce McGarva, speaking to The Gisborne Herald in 2005, said her son had told her at 11pm that the plane was missing.

The Dragonfly took off at 9.52am, was due at Milford at 12.37 and would have run out of fuel at 2.37.

The initial search had been called off at 6.30 because of rain and snow.

Mrs McGarva broke the news to her parents, and with her mother, travelled to the search headquarters.

She described her sister as “the best-looking member of the family” and a “lovely person with a wonderful nature”.

Various people claimed to have seen or heard the Dragonfly on that day but more than 30 aircraft including six RNZAF Devons and a US Navy Constellation searched in vain over 17,0000 square miles looking for it.

The official accident inquiry made no conclusions but drew attention to shortcomings in the plane's maintenance and to it possibly being overloaded.

Other commentators have said the aged aircraft was not suited to flying over the Southern Alps and that Dragonflys struggled if forced to fly on one engine.

There have since been five other aircraft lost without trace in the same southern region resulting in the disappearance of another 18 passengers and crew in the region from Mt Aspiring down to Milford Sound and across to Haast.

Bobbie and Llynnelley Reeve and their sons Adam and Simon have been searching for the Dragonfly for more than 10 years.

The family has put out the call for mountaineers and helicopter pilots willing to assist them as they believe the Dragonfly is 8000 feet up in difficult terrain.

Interest can be expressed via simonreeve@email.com.

Mr Reeve said only a ground search would find the aircraft.

A helicopter could only transport people into the area while a drone could not operate there because the terrain was up and down and uneven.

Mr Reeve said he had met Mr Chadwick on occasions at Harewood where they discussed the American Operation Deep Freeze flights to Antarctic, and once sold him a boat.

High-fashion boot a clue to location

He remembers coming home on that fateful 1962 night to have his mother tell him the buyer of his boat was the pilot of the missing plane.

Mr Reeve said the missing Dragonfly had since become known as “the honeymoon plane”.

He believes the wreckage is located in mountains in the Huxley Valley, just north of Lake Ohau, and is permanently under snow.

Mr Reeve agrees with aviation historian Reverend Richard Waugh, author of Lost without Trace, that the Dragonfly did not make it to the West Coast.

Rev Waugh's father often flew with Mr Chadwick, and is quoted in The Gisborne Herald of February 13, 1962, saying that because of the conditions over the mountains at the time, the aircraft “did not make it to the Coast”.

“I am inclined to think that the aircraft may be down somewhere in the Lake Ohau area.”

Another researcher/author, Gavin Grimmer, believes the aircraft did make it to the West Coast and came down in the vicinity of Jacobs River near Fox Glacier.

But Mr Reeve is encouraged by his own research and his 2015 discovery of a woman's boot in his preferred search area, which has been dated to the era of the tragedy.

He said the bright maroon high fashion boot had probably been in snow as it was not covered in moss.

A sister had told him it was the kind of boot Val would have worn and was the right size.

A new search with chamois hunters will begin in March.

Mr Reeve is confident of finding the aircraft.

His family has been filming their search efforts and hope to release it after discovering Dragonfly ZK-AFB.

“It is definitely there.”

MISSING: DH Dragonfly ZK-AFB photographed shortly before it went missing over the Southern Alps with five people on board including Valerie and Elwyn Saville. Picture supplied
JUST MARRIED: Elwyn and Valerie Saville on their wedding day in a photograph published in the Herald at the time, and 10 weeks later at the time of the air accident. File picture
IN MEMORY: A plaque honouring Elwyn and Valerie Saville can be seen at the Taruheru Cemetery grave of her parents, Fred and Jessie Bignell, and sister Margaret Morey. The plaque says the couple were 'lost honeymooning over the Southern Alps'. Picture by Paul Rickard
HOPING FOR THE BEST: Members of a search party take stock after being dropped by helicopter into the Jacobs River area of the West Coast. Picture supplied
The lost plane. Picture supplied