Project 964


The mystery of the missing North American Harvard NZ 964.


A wonderful and mysterious love story and a tragic 1942 air accident.
Also including  details of the private search for the
Moncrieff and Hood aircraft "Aotearoa" - presumed crashed in the
Awaroa area on 10th January 1928 at appproximately 1730 hours.

New Zealand has a number of unsolved aviation mysteries - This is just one of them !


On Tuesday 10 January 1928, Moncrieff and Hood set out from Sydney in an attempt to cross the Tasman in an early model Ryan B-1 Brougham aircraft G-AUNZ.  They never made it to Trentham as planned and despite many searches, no trace of the aircraft and its passengers has ever been found and this became New Zealand's first unsolved aviation mystery.


Moncrieff & Hood were regarded as founders of the modern RNZAF and that organisation celebrated  its 75th anniversary in March & April of 2012.


Some accidents like  the Erebus disaster which happened on 28 November 1979 are vividly imprinted in our minds because of both the location and the extent of the disaster. In this incident 257 people perished in the frozen wilderness of Antarctica.

On 7th May 1942 Electra ZKAFE (“Kereru”) crashed on Johnson Peak with the loss of five lives, and observations in connection with the loss of this aircraft have some bearing on this story.

You can read about other interesting lost aircraft on Gavin Grimmer's excellent site:

The Jack Orbell Story

At around 0800 hours on 18th August 1942,(Just over 3 months after the "Kereru" crash) John Ronald Scott Orbell left Woodbourne Air Base (Located close to Blenheim) in a North American Harvard  (Identified as NZ964) for one hours aerobatic training and he failed to return.

No trace of the pilot or his aircraft has ever been found and the Court of Enquiry believes that the wreckage lies in the Mt Richmond Forest Park, or the Molesworth area.

Project 964 is the name given to the operation to locate the missing Harvard and its pilot.

It is important here to state that the purpose of this operation is not to apportion blame or fault as this matter has been considered by a properly convened Court of Enquiry and you will be able to read about their findings on this web site as it is developed.

Locating a crashed aircraft is not as easy as it sounds. Nature takes its course and after a few years there is little trace of what has happened. This Harvard was camoflaged, adding to the difficulty of discovery!

Parts of the Mt Richmond Forest Park are amongst the most rugged territory in New Zealand so how do you tackle a search of this nature ?

For the answer to this you need to consider a classic military problem – how do you detect vehicle and troop movements under a forest or jungle canopy  - other than by destroying the cover using “Agent Orange” ?

Modern technology is such that vehicles and troops can be detected through ground cover, and this technology is also widely used by the military of most countries in the World.

Readers will also remember the search for the late Steve Fossett in which more modern technology was used in the rugged Sierra Nevada terrain. It  did not locate Steve, but other crashed aircraft were located in the course of the search !

Project 964 hopes to obtain access to some of this technology in the search for the aircraft and its pilot. The techniques learned may also be applied in other aircraft searches.

A prototype foligage penetrating radar has been constructed as of October 2015 and this is undergoing testing. It is showing promise however it needs to be refined in order to make sure it works in a typical NZ bush setting, and that it does not interfere with the avionic equipment on the test aircraft.

The use of remote drones carrying home constructed metal detecting equipment were trialled however results were unreliable.

In late 2017 further thoughts as to the possible cause of the accident were revealed after discussions with experts. The possible failure of the pilot's seat belt retaining pins was suggested as a possible contributing factor.

Had the seat belt failed, the mystery remains as to why he did not return as soon as he could. If in fact he was able to regain control of the aircraft after such a mishap it would be a miracle, and he would certainly have been badly injured in the process.

If he was seriously injured and unable to take full control of the aircraft, then it is unlikely that he was able to bale out as was first thought and it is highly likely that the remains of both the aircraft and the pilot will be found in the vicintity of the Mt Richmond Forest Park.

Jack Orbell  had a Fiancee based in Timaru and it appears that his family was unaware of her existence. Sadly she passed away some years ago and so has the story of her secret romance ! Because of the war and the fact they were separated one imagines how hard the romance must have been and it does raise the possibility that there may have been at one time a collection of interesting letters between the parties.

The Court of Enquiry reported that Jack had few friends on the Woodbourne Base and it may well be that the parties did not communicate often as they wished to keep the relationship under wraps !

A sighting of a light on Mt Johnston was never investigated at the time, but we are hot on the trail !

So far no evidence has been found to support the theory that the aircraft crashed and burned and was visited by locals from Top Valley.

Heresay evidence also suggested that the aircraft was resting in a rocky depression of which there are many on Mt Richmond but again no evidence has been found to support this.

Jack's name is inscribed in the memorial at theWigram Air Force Museum.


John Orbell Photo