THE BIGG TREASURE HUNT (PART THREE)
We’ve previously learnt that the pieces of yellow- and khaki-painted aluminium found in the long grass are pieces of the cockpit of a P40 Curtiss Kittyhawk, and have established that it was assembled at the RNZAF’s Hobsonville base (designated NZ3240) during World War II in 1944, was crashed, then repaired, and then languished after the end of hostilities from 1945 at the Wigram Air Force Base. So, how the hell did it end up on a farm just outside of one-horsetown Fairlie? Enter David Patton. Patton was — long before living in Fairlie — apparently a trained pilot and flew during World War II. His 1950s post-war life involved living on the outskirts of Fairlie and working as an agricultural contractor, which then, as it still does now, involved the use of all kinds of different mechanical machinery. Patton knew that surplus aircraft had some equipment on them that he could put to good use on some of his machinery. He wanted to build a cab for his tractor to make tractor work during the Mackenzie District’s harsh winters a little easier. He could use some hydraulic gear (hard to get your hands on in New Zealand in the years immediately following the war) for a digger he was repairing, and he needed some thick steel plate for another piece of machinery that he had. So, sometime during 1953, David Patton drove to Wigram Air Force Base in Christchurch to attend an Air Force surplus auction. By the day’s end, Patton had bid for, and won, a P40 Curtiss Kittyhawk World War II fighter aircraft, less engine and wings but otherwise complete. He paid £25 for it. Without its wings, the Kittyhawk was no wider than the single lane of a highway, and, after constructing an A-frame to connect the back of the aircraft to the tow bar of his vehicle, he set off for the four-hour drive (all gravel roads back then) back to Fairlie. It must have been quite a sight for motorists going in the opposite direction to see an old aeroplane being towed backwards along the road by a car. I’d love to be able to tell you that Patton towed the P40 home behind his ’47 Ford V8 sedan or something interesting like that, but I can’t, because we don’t know what he towed it home with. That’s one of those little details that is lost forever. It was probably an old Pommy shitbox like an EIP Vauxhall. Once home, David dismantled the Kittyhawk, setting aside the cockpit canopy with which to fashion a cab for his tractor, the hydraulic system (which operated the undercarriage on the P40) for use on his digger, and the bulletproof floor for his other project. After removing the unboltable components like the main spar (which the wings would have attached to), rudder, elevators, flaps, and ailerons, David then set about cutting up the aircraft into three sections in order to ease its disposal: the main cockpit part of the fuselage, the rear fuselage from the cockpit back, and the tail section. He then cut the cockpit into three sections (which are the three pieces that Ash found this year) but, for whatever reason, didn’t cut up the big rear fuselage or tail section. Looking at the cockpit, it would be interesting to know what Patton used to cut the sections, because the cuts are all very clean and thin, as if made by a cutting blade on an electric grinder — except, of course, such a device didn’t exist in the 1950s. The aircraft ended up in two different places. The main spar, rear fuselage, and tail section were too big to move, so Patton left the aircraft (effectively, a pile of yellow-painted sections — which is what Ash’s father-in-law remembers seeing from the road 40 or 50 years ago) sitting right where he dismantled it and where he intended to bury it. However, for whatever reason, he never did bury it. There it all sat, we think, for some 20 or so years. By the time a subsequent owner of the property tidied up the place (probably in the late 1970s or early 1980s), flooding, caused by heavy rains some years previous, had collected the three smaller sections (the main cockpit) and swept them away to elsewhere on the farm (where Ash discovered them some 40 or so years later). This left the main spar, fuselage, and tail section — which were too heavy for the floodwaters to sweep away — in their original resting place. The new owner of the property (it had to happen, didn’t it …) brought in a contractor with a 20-ton digger, dug a huge hole, and in it all went. Thank goodness the floods carried those three cockpit sections away onto another part of the farm, otherwise the whole aircraft would have been buried forever, its story never to be learnt. The timing of the events around this discovery is nothing less than eerie … Ash found the cockpit sections — missing for 64 years — in June of last year. He spoke to 95-year-old David Patton — the only man on Planet Earth and still alive who knew the story — in July 2018. Within 90 days of his conversation with Ash, David Patton died, taking any final remnants of the story to the grave with him. So … where are the sections of the aircraft that were buried? Ash has got that figured out. He’s talked to previous owners of that block of land and finally dragged an admission out of the farmer who arranged the digger operator to bury the rear sections of the aircraft back in the 1970s or ’80s. This farmer was able to point Ash to roughly where he thought it got buried. During September of 2018, Ash got the use of a big commercial metal detector — a clever one that can tell the difference between steel and aluminium. After a day trawling over a paddock, inch by inch, the detector said to Ashley — in metal-detector language — “there’s some aluminium right there, and there’s a shitload of it”. Bingo. So, Ash now knows exactly where the rest of the P40 Kittyhawk is buried. And, in a perfect stroke of luck for Ash, the land that the back of the P40 is buried in is now part of Allandale Station — so Ash owns the land in which it’s buried. Yes, good question — what, indeed, will it be like? We know from the cockpit that the quality of the aluminium used in the construction of American World War II aircraft is phenomenally good, and there’s every chance that, despite being buried for 40 or so years, it could still be quite free of corrosion. The big unknown, however — and this will make or break this whole discovery — is what the digger operator did just before pushing the fuselage into the hole. Best digger practice is generally to reduce the object being buried to the smallest possible size to enable it to be buried in the smallest possible hole. A farmer would rather pay a contractor for two hours of digging and backfilling than four hours of digging and backfilling. So, there’s every chance that the digger driver flattened the rear fuselage down with his digger bucket, and then track-rolled it to crush it right down before he pushed it in the hole. A horrific thought, but, sadly, an entirely realistic one. Until we know the answer to that question, we can only hope he didn’t. A date was set for the first weekend of December for Ashley to excavate the rear fuselage, to which I (obviously) invited myself! However, unseasonal wet weather postponed that. At time of writing, it’s looking like late January or February now, so we may well have unearthed the last pieces of this amazing puzzle by the time you’re reading this story. Cross your fingers for my mate next door!