MEMBERS of the Australian Defence Force (ADF), NSW Police Rescue and other agencies will launch a large-scale search of the Barrington Tops next week in a bid to locate the lost Cessna aircraft VH-MDX which went missing 32 years ago.
‘Project Wittenoom’ has been several months in the planning and hopes to use new information and new technologies to locate the plane which went missing shortly before 8pm on August 9, 1981, somewhere over the Barrington Tops.
No trace of the plane or the five men on board has ever been found. To this day it is the only unsolved aviation disaster to have occurred on mainland Australia.
But now a joint-agency project involving NSW Police Rescue, the air force, NSW Ambulance, the SES, RFS, National Parks and Wildlife Service, VRA and the Bushwalkers Wilderness Rescue Squad is hoping it can succeed where so many previous attempts to find the missing plane have failed.
“The Bushwalkers Wilderness Rescue Squad was involved in the original search for the plane in 1981,” member Glenn Horrocks says in a new YouTube video about Project Wittenoom.
“What’s different about this particular search is Police Rescue has come onboard which has allowed us to research evidence behind the crash in much greater detail than ever before.”
The man who will be coordinating Project Wittenoom is the State commander of the Police Rescue and Bomb Disposal Unit Brenton Charlton.
Commander Charlton contacted the Gloucester Advocate in April seeking more information about the missing plane after the paper published several articles with local aviation historian and VH-MDX expert Don Readford.
“We’ve conducted two recos (reconnaissance missions) in the past couple of months mainly to address safety and ease of access concerns,” he said.
“Project Wittenoom has two main objectives. The first is closure for the families of the five missing souls still onboard the aircraft and the second is to exercise, coordinate and test all our LandSAR (Land Search and Rescue) capabilities in a remote area.”
Corporal Mark Nolan, a pilot in the Australian Army, has also been heavily involved in the effort to find VH-MDX.
He said new information discovered in the National Archives earlier this year had given members involved in Project Wittenoom renewed optimism that the plane could be located.
“The information we discovered was new information and unreleased information that had been kept in the National Archives,” he said.
“Using that information and tools such as Lidar, which was not available during the original search, we believe we have a better than average chance of discovering the location of the aircraft.”
Mr Horrocks said the members of Project Wittenoom had also been using Google Earth to help track the plane’s final flight path.
“We use Google Earth to visualise what the flight path may have been over the ground, which means we can have a look at how the altitude is tracking against the ground,” he said.
“And that has allowed us to ... really limit the area down to where the plane is likely to be.”
Damian Hofman, from the NSW SES, said those involved in the ground search for the plane would need to be in peak physical condition.
“We’re looking for people with experience in overnight walking,” he said.
“They need a high level of fitness and preferably some level of medical training. The terrain we will be searching in is extreme.”
The ABC has already recorded a significant amount of footage as part of Project Wittenoom, which it hopes to make into a documentary.
A short five-minute film of the progress so far is now available on YouTube.
Corporal Nolan said he believed that there was a very good chance the plane would be discovered.
“I think 2013 is the year for it,” he said.
“There’s been a real concerted effort and there is a lot of professional and personal interest in finding it.”
The search will take place from October 17 to 21.
Read the Gloucester Advocate's story with local aviation historian and VH-MDX expert Don Readford here