The lost boys

4024
Illustration of small aircraft flying towards valley
Illustration: Juanita Franzi | Aero Illustrations

The deaths of a low-hours pilot and his passenger in a wilderness less than 90 km from Bankstown Airport involved much more than youthful misadventure

If my husband had died, there might be another, and a son by another man if I had lost my children. But my mother and father were gone, I could never have had a new brother.
Antigone, Sophocles. circa 440 BCE

From Sarah Hundy’s sub-thesis

…..

Socata TB-20 Trinidad, VH-JTI
Boyd Range, NSW
Sunday 3 October 1993

…..

The long weekend was half over and Scott Grezl’s plans were falling apart. After months of paying for flying lessons by washing aircraft, Grezl, 21, had held his unrestricted licence for three weeks. On Friday he had hired a fast, modern Socata Trinidad retractable single from Nowra and flown to Bankstown Airport, in Sydney. The plan had been to fly from Bankstown to Forbes, in central western NSW, with his friend Hamish Wallace, 19, and stay with Wallace’s grandparents. But Saturday had been a wipe-out – low cloud made VFR flight over the Great Dividing Range impossible.

On Sunday, Grezl checked area weather forecasts and an aerodrome forecast for Forbes. They showed fine weather at Forbes but low cloud en route. At Bankstown he heard that 2 helicopters bound for Bathurst had turned back in poor visibility. But Sunday’s forecast predicted improvements after 9 am and, after a phone call to an experienced helicopter pilot who was his aviation mentor, Grezl decided to take off and see if the forecasts were accurate. He did not file a flight plan and did not have to. That requirement had been removed by the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) in 1991. Nor did he request a SAR watch or leave a flight note. The Trinidad took off at about 8.30 on Sunday morning.

About half an hour later, bushwalkers in the Kowmung River valley, in the Kanangra Boyd wilderness, saw a single-engine light aircraft flying south down the valley and turning west to enter Christys Creek gorge. The walkers remembered how an unbroken cloud base obscured the tops of the ridges and the aircraft was flying about midway between the valley floor and the cloud base.

Only at 8 pm on Sunday did Wallace’s mother, after a series of increasingly tense inquiries, report the aircraft as missing. Apart from that appalling fact, there were no other details to report. The families knew nothing of the aircraft type, planned route or planned time of flight.

The aircraft was flying about midway between the valley floor and the cloud base.

By Monday the bushwalkers had returned from their trek and read about a missing aircraft, possibly in the Blue Mountains. But the Sydney Morning Herald misreported the date of the flight as Saturday and for several days, the walkers presumed they had been looking at a search aircraft. One walker persisted and called the CAA at Bankstown. The receptionist knew nothing about the search and suggested he call Sydney Airport, which he did. He also called the police but gave up after the number rang out.

The first step in the search was police checking every airport and landing area on or near the route. Next, the CAA search and rescue office made an aerial search of the Bankstown-Forbes direct route using 44 aircraft and covering 38,000 square km. It found nothing and, after 3 days, the authority informed the young men’s families it was suspending the search.

‘Our response was, “are you kidding?”’, says Wallace’s sister, Sarah Hundy. The Wallace and Grezl families mounted their own searches. ‘We had donations of time and money, we did doorknocks, there were around 20 four-wheel drive clubs offering to help, as well as bushwalking clubs, and we did a deal with the media,’ she says. ‘We were convinced Hamish and Scott were alive and the TV networks liked the idea of finding them with their helicopters and getting a scoop.’

In retrospect this was a Faustian bargain, Hundy says, but the families were desperate. Grezl’s father, Richard, a former Royal Australian Navy aircrew observer, was told the southern routes had been exhaustively searched. Reluctantly, he investigated a route north of the Great Western Highway. Reflecting during a later flight, he made a melancholy note of the helicopter pilot’s body-carried survival kit.

Airline founder Max Hazleton, who was assisting the Wallace family’s search, suspected Grezl might have attempted a similar southern route to one Hazleton had been forced down on in 1954, flying an Auster. It took him 6 days to walk to human settlement.

The fruitless search went on for more than 2 weeks and Hundy discovered 2 things: she was resistant to air sickness despite having no aviation experience, and context could make the unbroken vistas of the Australian bush seem a pitiless enemy.

Discovery

On Sunday 24 October, a bushwalker noticed something unusual reflecting through the trees about 2 km away on the opposite side of a valley. Two days later helicopters found the spot and initially reported an aircraft with 2 bodies in the front seats. This had to be corrected when searchers rappelled to the site. The seats were burnt but empty. Helicopters lowered experienced bushwalkers at several points above and below the crash site. They found the bodies 2 km downstream.

The Trinidad had covered about 10 km in a straight line from where the bushwalkers had seen it. The aviators had probably turned up Christys Creek thinking it was the Kowmung River, which crosses the mountains from its source near Shooters Hill. Instead, they flew into a trap. Christys Creek, then Wheengee Whungee Creek, rose steeply to the Boyd Range, hidden in the mist. At some point, seconds before the end, they must have seen it coming. It’s awful to reconstruct: a yelped oath of concern, the yoke hauled back, the strident synthetic shriek of the Trinidad’s prominent stall warning, then all pretence of composure gone as trees ripped the wings off in a flash fire. This would have been no more than 30 minutes after take‑off.

One piece

Socata, successor to the storied French manufacturer Morane-Saulnier, designed and marketed the Tampico, Tobago and Trinidad series as premium light aircraft. One feature for sales staff to boast about was the main spar. Neither pressed nor cast, it was produced from a single billet of aluminium by the then novel technique of computer numeric control machining. That Sunday morning, this immensely strong component fulfilled its design brief to the last by keeping the Trinidad’s cabin intact.

Grezl and Wallace found themselves in steep dense country where, 190 years earlier, the explorer Francis Barrallier had been forced to turn back. Apart from the Uni Rover track, less than one km away uphill, the landscape would have been little changed from that time. For a few hours at least, before rain and cold set in, they may have thought themselves fortunate.

By a combination of luck and skill that will never be known, Grezl had got them, if not the aircraft, down in one piece, despite not configuring for slow precautionary flight. Examination of the wreckage found the landing gear and flaps retracted and the propeller indicated that the engine was at low power when it hit the ground.

But behind the seats their luck ran out. A removable emergency locater transmitter had been destroyed by intense fire which gutted the cabin area. Post-mortem examination found burns on the bodies but was unable to establish if their airways were burned. Hundy strongly suspects they were.

Catharsis, culture and analysis

In 1998 Sarah Hundy completed a Master in Australian studies degree with a sub-thesis on the cultural context of the crash and its aftermath. The work is unusually raw for an academic treatise and remarkable in how it reaches similar conclusions to aviation human factors thought while using an entirely different vocabulary.

Mawkish reporting provoked Hundy to insight. TV host Derryn Hinch told his viewers Grezl and Wallace had shown ‘Aussie guts and courage’. ‘Their final hours were heroic; their efforts evoke memories and names like Burke and Wills and Mawson of the Antarctic,’ Hinch said. The reality of their deaths – with Wallace found tangled upside down in tree roots protruding from a steep creek bank and Grezl facedown in a creek – was censored from this narrative.

Hundy’s sub-thesis cites how the archetype of the bushman was ‘firmly enshrined in both the literary and popular imagination as the culture-hero upon whose characteristics many Australians tended – consciously or unconsciously – to model their attitudes to life’.

Scott Grezl and Hundy’s brother were influenced by this while alive, and reported according to its conventions after they died, she argues.

‘The production of their image as the egalitarian, unpretentious, laid-back mate from the bush demonstrates a desire for society to believe in the national identity and a national type which can be located in history and real life … ,’ she writes. ‘They were ready to “have a go” and, and in doing so, evidence the combination of lawlessness and morality that is “essential” to the traditional construction of the Australian identity.’

Her conclusions are broadly similar to an idea forming in the mind of an American sociologist about the time her brother died. In The Challenger Launch Decision (1996), Diane Vaughan proposed the idea of normalisation of deviance, a slow, seemingly harmless drift from stringent best practice, propelled by strong and often unspoken organisational and social pressures. The larrikin bushman, sceptical of authority, is a prime candidate for such a drift. And the bushman myth influences all Australians, including pilots.

However, with 107 hours in his logbook, Grezl would literally not have had time to drift, individually. At least some of the drift that contributed to his death was therefore in the aviation system and culture of the early 1990s. This was a time of administrative turmoil that also saw a spike in general aviation crashes – Monarch Airlines at Young in 1993 and Seaview Air near Lord Howe Island in 1994 are 2 fatal examples.

Coming to terms

Over harsh years of contemplation, Sarah Hundy and Richard Grezl have separately adopted converging, nuanced views about the crash, which each states with dignity and composure.

Exactly what influenced Scott Grezl’s decision to take off can never be known. But it certainly did not happen in isolation. His father wonders if his passenger contributed to the decision. ‘Not pressuring, but maybe asking, “when can we go?”,’ Richard Grezl says. But he is quick to add that his son, as pilot in command, held final responsibility. ‘I place no blame on Hamish, absolutely none,’ he says. ‘They were 2 mates heading on an adventure.’

Hundy doubts her brother would have strongly pressured Grezl. ‘He was mature, very often the calming influence,’ she says. And she has no ill-will towards the young pilot. ‘Our family has nothing but sympathy for Scott and his family.’

She is less forgiving about CAA’s search (as is Richard Grezl) and says inadequacies in the post-mortem examinations mean the family has no date of death to commemorate. Instead, every October is marked by a three‑week period that looms like a cloud. ‘You wonder, was it today, yesterday, tomorrow?’ she says.

Richard Grezl lists the psychological pressures Scott would have faced, having already delayed by one day. The instructor at Bankstown who told of the helicopters turning back was about the same age and his warning would have lacked authority and status; this phone discussion with the mentor meant each was looking up at a different sky. ‘He was authorised remotely. We had to be authorised on site in the navy’, Richard Grezl says.

He says CAA’s abandonment of compulsory flight planning and the disbandment of flight service centres deprived his son of safeguards that would have been particularly important for an inexperienced pilot. He notes how modern technology such as electronic flight bags, mobile phones and ADS-B has made flight planning and following easier and, in some respects, automatic. But he wonders why flight plan submission requirements were dropped before this technology emerged. ‘It’s a bit like COVID-19. Imagine dropping social distancing before a vaccine has been distributed,’ he says.

‘The decision to have a look was ill considered but nothing Scott did broke the rules. Nothing prohibited him from going except a gut instinct that he hadn’t yet developed. In that sense, he and Hamish were lost before they took off.’

He and Hamish were lost before they took off.

Tools for survival

Like insurance, a survival kit is a product you buy and hope never to use. And like with an insurance policy, it’s important to have the right combination of features for your circumstances. If you fly over semi-arid or desert country, your survival problem will be different than if you are stranded in alpine terrain.

Pilot shops sell survival kits for up to 6 people. For a price these offer convenience and the peace of mind of having fit-for-purpose items (including playing cards in deluxe kits!), but a survival kit can also be assembled from everyday items, some of which cost almost nothing.

For example, one advertised single-person survival kit contains:

  • Food and water
    water bottle
    10 water purification tabs
  • Health and first aid
    first aid kit
    dust mask
  • Warmth, lighting and shelter
    lightstick (no batteries to run down)
    thermal blanket
    rain poncho
  • Hygiene and sanitation
    biohazard bag
    hand sanitiser
  • Tools
    whistle
    disposable gloves.

To this you could add:

  • compass
  • signalling mirror
  • fire-lighting flint and striker (safer in an aircraft than matches).

PLB: your go-home-early pass
Some survival kits, presuming an extended time in the wilderness, include fishing line and hooks, but the number one item on any 21st century survival kit could get you home within an hour. It is, of course a personal locator beacon (PLB), costing around A$300–400. In the tradition of redundancy being one of the foundations of aviation safety, it is a good idea to carry one, even if your aircraft has a fixed emergency locator transmitter (ELT). You should carry your PLB on you, just like a phone, so you have it available when you really need it.

9 COMMENTS

  1. I am certain that I was the Bankstown Briefing Officer that day. The pilot was advised, in no uncertain terms, that conditions were unsuitable for VFR flight that day, and his last words to me were, “We’ll go and have a look.” The fact that I recall being told later that they had flown into “the wrong valley” equates with the suggestion from Max Hazelton. I learned a lot about my own flying from the actions of other VFR pilots while working as a Briefing Officer.

    • Human beings are prone to interpret incoming information
      in such a way as to minimise anxiety.
      Pilot Error, The Human Factors
      Ronald and Leslie Hurst, 1976

  2. Sadly, most of us are guilty of the same poor decision making… most of us, but not all, survive to become wiser pilots.
    There is a serious disconnect between the legal definition of VMC and the practical application of VMC which many pilots never fully appreciate. The most important lesson I ever learned, thanks to mentorship from an experienced charter pilot, was to “always maintain a clear horizon.”

  3. A well written and thought provoking article.
    To “err is human”, and good (and competent people make mistakes. As suggested in another comment, many of us are lucky to survive and learn, other are not so fortunate, as in the case of this accident.
    As pilots we learn in a number of ways… by what we are formally taught, what we hear from other pilots and what we experience. It is worth considering the second on – from what we hear – when we dispense opinion and advice. I have no doubt the “mentor” didn’t intend to point the young pilot in the wrong direction, but it seems his advice outweighed the advice of the briefing officer on the day who suggested that it was not a VMC day (I miss those people!!!).

  4. Having attended The Scots school in Bathurst, Hamish was a hugely well respected senior prefect the had not long graduated and the news of this accident rocked the small school hard. At the time some students were also involved in search and there was even reports of another student that fatefully missed the flight. He was a gentleman and a great role model… I’ll never forget the collective loss the school felt! RIP mate

  5. Aviation in itself is not inherently dangerous. But to an even greater degree than the sea, it is terribly unforgiving of any carelessness, incapacity or neglect.
    — Captain A. G. Lamplugh, British Aviation Insurance Group, London. c. early 1930’s.

  6. Dick, I didn’t know you well, but you had the reputation of a careful and conscientious aviator. I am deeply sorrowful over your loss so long ago. I treasure my son, so I can conceive the depth of your loss.
    The only consolation I can offer is that he died doing something he clearly loved.
    I had the horror of being trapped in a box canyon at 480 kts, and had a wingman on the other side of the gorge. We survived, I suppose because the metman told us the base was below the safety height, and I had a plan. The problem was that I didn’t know what I was looking out for. When I recognised it, it was almost too late. I took my wingman IFR without him having a chance to stabilise in close formation. We survived, but it cost me a carpet dance with the SP, and a few beers for Taff (the SATCO) who soothed an irate Canberra approach controller.
    So the lesson is knowing what you don’t know. Always have a backup plan, and managers please listen when somebody flags an issue.

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