Let­ter from the past

Hil­lary pi­lot ‘di­shev­elled, dis­or­gan­ised’

Sunday Star-Times - - FOCUS / PEOPLE -

Pathol­o­gist and climber Michael Gill ac­com­pa­nied Sir Ed­mund Hil­lary on many ad­ven­tures, and was given un­par­al­leled ac­cess to the Hil­lary fam­ily archive for his new bi­og­ra­phy. In it he writes how a let­ter sent 40 years af­ter the death of Hil­lary’s wife and daugh­ter in a plane crash re­veals how the tragedy could have been avoided.

In 1974, with the Ever­est re­gion hav­ing a school in each vil­lage, a hos­pi­tal at Khunde, and an airstrip in the grow­ing vil­lage of Lukla, Sir Ed­mund Hil­lary gave his full at­ten­tion to the dis­trict of Solu. Just north of Sal­leri was the lit­tle Sherpa vil­lage of Phaplu, where a ne­glected airstrip needed im­prove­ments.

One day Ed re­ceived an in­vi­ta­tion to lunch at the home of Ang Kazi Lama, head of the wealth­i­est Sherpa fam­ily in Phaplu.

The lav­ish scale of the ban­quet in­di­cated that it would be the oc­ca­sion for a very spe­cial re­quest.

Length­en­ing the airstrip was part of it, but more im­por­tant was a pe­ti­tion to build a hos­pi­tal in Phaplu on land the Lama fam­ily would do­nate.

Ed looked south at the high school he had just built, west at the airstrip he would im­prove, east at a su­perb hos­pi­tal site among pine for­est, and north at the two mag­nif­i­cent peaks of Num­bur and Kary­ol­ung fill­ing the head of the val­ley. The in­vi­ta­tion was ir­re­sistible.

Plan­ning and fundrais­ing were pro­ceed­ing through­out 1974 when Ed’s imag­i­na­tion lit on the idea that the whole fam­ily could base them­selves in Kath­mandu dur­ing the build­ing of the hos­pi­tal in 1975. He al­ways missed Louise when he was on his own in Nepal.

So at the be­gin­ning of 1975 the house in Re­muera Rd was let out and an­other in Kath­mandu rented for the year. Louise was soon proud of the abun­dance of veges and trop­i­cal flow­ers in her Nepalese gar­den.

Louise wrote an­i­mated let­ters about her new life. There was the Coro­na­tion of King Biren­dra on Fe­bru­ary 24:

At the air­port huge jet af­ter huge jet is land­ing bumpily on the un­fa­mil­iar strip. The whole val­ley is over­run with po­lice and soldiers bristling with weapons and com­pletely un­trained … What a marathon the day it­self was … Lunch with PM… Palace re­cep­tion for 3000 peo­ple … Mrs Mar­cos of the Philip­pines is the bad lady of the Coro­na­tion and brought a party of 45 when she was told to bring 11 … Din­ner at Bri­tish Em­bassy at 9.30pm … I had Kirin op­po­site me and he was drunk and his huge row of medals fell off … Charles is re­ally nice, so were all the Roy­als …

Then there were the nu­mer­ous trips to the air­port where a New Zealan­der, Peter Shand, had come on the scene a month ear­lier as a newly em­ployed pi­lot with Royal Nepal Air­lines. He had a rep­u­ta­tion for be­ing dis­or­gan­ised, as Louise’s en­coun­ters at­test:

March 22… Went to Peter Shand’s for din­ner. Noth­ing was ready and place a mess … a cou­ple of odd young men and an RNAC me­chanic and two girls – one NZ and the other Nepalese. Peter showed us some lovely slides … March 23. A very busy day – Ed in a frenzy – ev­ery­thing is start­ing to hap­pen madly now … Jim Rose wanted us to sign our wills and get them wit­nessed by June. They were signed and wit­nessed at the air­port with pi­lots won­der­ing a bit … March 24 … Ed and co to air­port to­day but were sent back be­cause the pi­lot – Peter Shand – was lost … It was not a good day but fi­nally they de­parted … I feel as though we are op­er­at­ing an air­line.

On March 31 Louise and their youngest daugh­ter Belinda, 16, were sched­uled to make one of their reg­u­lar flights in to Phaplu so that Ed could show them progress on the hos­pi­tal site. Ed of­fered to fly back from Phaplu so as to ac­com­pany them, but on March 28 Louise sent him a mes­sage: ‘ALL IS GO­ING WELL. DON’T COME TO KATH­MANDU.’

The flight was due to land in Phaplu at 8am. Three hours later, Ed heard the chop­ping clat­ter of a he­li­copter, not the buzz of a plane.

He had been uneasy about the flight’s late ar­rival, but now he knew that some­thing un­ex­pected had hap­pened. The news could not have been worse. Louise and Belinda were dead, ly­ing in the burnt wreck­age of the plane which had crashed soon af­ter take­off.

Pi­lot Peter Shand had ar­rived late, and with­out a pause had tax­ied into the take­off. Al­most im­me­di­ately af­ter leav­ing the ground, he was ask­ing per­mis­sion to land. Iwasina po­si­tion to have stopped Peter fly­ing on a com­mer­cial ba­sis. This has been on my mind for over 40 years. Please ac­cept my apol­ogy.

One of the plane’s ailerons re­mained fixed by a rod which should have been re­moved by ground staff; its pres­ence would have been dis­cov­ered if he had done pre-flight checks be­fore take­off. Ailerons are used when bank­ing into a turn. With­out them, a plane is un­fly­able. Peter Shand got part­way round a turn, but the plane slewed side­ways into a sick­en­ing dive be­fore burst­ing into flame in a paddy field be­yond the north end of the run­way.

At Phaplu a stunned Ed and Jim Rose climbed into the he­li­copter with jour­nal­ist Liz Hawley and flew back to Kath­mandu.

Ed told the pi­lot that he wanted to land at the crash site. Here he saw the burnt re­mains of his greatly loved wife and youngest daugh­ter. He was told that it would be next to im­pos­si­ble to fly the bod­ies back to New Zealand for a fu­neral, so cre­ma­tion was ar­ranged on pyres at a Hindu non-caste site on the banks of the Bag­mati River. The deaths, those burnt bod­ies, and the grief they evoked, were a de­scent into hell, a source of tor­ment for years to come.

For Ed, it was the be­gin­ning of four years of deep de­pres­sion.

More than in most mar­riages, Louise had been his other half, and now he blamed him­self for her death. ‘‘I knew it was all my fault – Louise had hated fly­ing in small planes, but I had ig­nored her fears. This feel­ing would hang over my head for­ever.’’

To many of his friends he was never the same per­son, even af­ter emerg­ing from the worst of his de­pres­sion. By the be­gin­ning of May, the iso­la­tion of Phaplu was leav­ing too much empty time to think. Ed, Peter and Sarah packed their bags and em­barked on a round-the-world trip to be with friends and fam­ily in Kath­mandu, Delhi, Nor­wich, Lon­don and Chicago.

The three of them re­turned to 278a Re­muera Rd. As Ed had feared, it was an empty shell echo­ing with mem­o­ries.

Painfully too, Ed’s Noth­ing Ven­ture, Noth­ing Win had been pub­lished at the end of March, and re­views were com­ing out within days of Louise’s death:

This is no clas­sic tale of moun­tain ad­ven­ture … It is rather an at­tempt to con­vey in ev­ery­man’s lan­guage the be­lief of one man that life should be more than a suc­ces­sion of spirit-dead­en­ing rou­tines, and that the ex­cite­ment and har­mony that comes from con­tact with the earth’s wilder­ness ar­eas is some­thing that ev­ery­one should – and can – ex­pe­ri­ence. This reader is left with the last­ing im­pres­sion that Ed­mund Hil­lary is, as a re­sult of that ex­pe­ri­ence, one of the san­est and per­haps hap­pi­est men he has come across in a long time.

The pride and joy he took in his fam­ily come out time and again ... The tragic death of his wife and daugh­ter in Nepal last week will call on re­serves of moral courage to match his out­stand­ing phys­i­cal brav­ery. No reader of this au­to­bi­og­ra­phy will doubt those re­serves … an over-mas­ter­ing com­pet­i­tive­ness and tremen­dous phys­i­cal en­ergy … his very read­able story may in­spire others to opt out from the dreary tread­mill of ma­te­ri­al­ism and fol­low his star. Mean­while we can only of­fer him con­do­lences and thanks.

In Septem­ber, Noth­ing Ven­ture, Noth­ing Win won New Zealand’s Wattie Book Award for the best book pub­lished in New Zealand dur­ing 1975.

Sarah ac­cepted the prize on be­half of her fa­ther. In the UK it reached third place on the non­fic­tion best­seller list.


Forty years later, an un­ex­pected let­ter to Peter Hil­lary filled in some back his­tory: Dear Mr Hil­lary Peter Shand’s fa­ther bought him a small plane when he was still a teenager. He told me he taught him­self to fly but had a few lessons at a flight school in or­der to ob­tain his pi­lot’s li­cence. He clocked up a con­sid­er­able num­ber of hours fly­ing this plane. In about 1969 Peter came to Africa. He met with three pi­lots where I was liv­ing and heard about a job. He was a very out­go­ing per­son but very dis­or­gan­ised. He wasn’t able to get the job as a pi­lot as he didn’t have the cor­rect li­cence so he had to sort this out which he said would need fly­ing lessons and take about 6 months and a lot of money. Within a month he was back with a li­cence – he had changed his log book to show he had night-fly­ing ex­pe­ri­ence and other re­quire­ments. I flew ex­ten­sively to re­mote airstrips with Peter and ex-Air Force pi­lots and the dif­fer­ence was pro­found. Other pi­lots car­ried a proper case for doc­u­ments and wore a uni­form – white shirt / tie / cap – Peter was di­shev­elled, a typ­i­cal bush pi­lot. How­ever that was not my main con­cern. All other pi­lots took care be­fore take­off, check­ing ev­ery­thing. I asked Peter many times why he never did this and he said ‘they still think they’re in the Air Force’. Peter was al­ways in a hurry. Two events led to Peter be­ing told that his con­tract would not be re­newed. He had a side busi­ness buy­ing goats in re­mote places and fly­ing them back on re­turn jour­neys. This later led to his plane fail­ing an in­spec­tion – the urine from the goats had dam­aged the rear con­trol ca­bles. A more se­ri­ous mat­ter and one I had warned him about was that at re­mote air strips he would leave the en­gine run­ning while load­ing pas­sen­gers and freight. The inevitable hap­pened when some­one walked into the pro­pel­ler killing him in­stantly. When he was put on sus­pen­sion he looked for an­other job and was ac­cepted by Royal Nepal Air­ways. The mo­ment I heard on the BBC that a plane car­ry­ing Ed­mund Hil­lary’s wife had crashed in Nepal I knew it was Peter. Years later I learnt he had not done his pre-flight checks. Mr Hil­lary, I was in a po­si­tion to have stopped Peter fly­ing on a com­mer­cial ba­sis. This has been on my mind for over 40 years. Please ac­cept my apol­ogy. I was very young at that time.


The Hil­lary fam­ily in the grounds of the old Teng­boche Monastery, 1966.


Sir Ed took his fam­ily to Chicago in 1962 and worked for World Book, which spon­sored his 1960 ex­pe­di­tion to the Hi­malayas.

Hil­lary at the crash site where his wife Louise and daugh­ter Belinda died in 1975.

Louise, Belinda, Ju­lia Gres­son and Sarah, early 1975.

Hil­lary mar­ried Louise Mary Rose in Auck­land in 1953.

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