Letter from the past
Hillary pilot ‘dishevelled, disorganised’
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.