“Tunnel Vision” Review – Part 1

Max Hill’s “To the Ends of the Earth” is a book that, if its central thesis were true, would require a complete rewrite of human history. It is a big book (literally) in which the author makes bold claims, none of which stand up to scrutiny. Martin Butler’s “Tunnel Vision” is also a largish tome but it is not a bold one: if Butler’s thesis were true, then a small part of New Zealand’s aviation history would need to be revised-and we would have to question the conduct of the New Zealand Government, the Navy and Air Force and the Department of Conservation-but it wouldn’t be world shattering in its scope.

I’m talking around the subject, I realise, but the point I want to start out by making is this: Hill’s book is bold and, because the evidence does not support it’s central wacky caper, it is all the poorer for it (especially given just how badly written it is). Butler’s book in no way rewrites the entirety of human history and thus the evidence he amasses for his claim of conspiracy seems, on the face of it, much more plausible. Whilst I think Butler fails to make his case, it’s a much better book than “To the Ends of the Earth” and it does contain some new evidence worth following up.

Long time readers of this blog will be well aware of my interest in the conspiracy theories about North Head, a military installation in my home town of Devonport. Since the early Eighties, stories about a hidden complex of tunnels deep within North Head have been reported both in the local and national press. The story became so big towards the end of the Eighties that the government launched a series of enquiries which came to the conclusion that there was no hard evidence of additional tunnels deep within the Head. This didn’t stop the stories and it certainly didn’t stop the conspiracy theories about why said tunnels were being hidden from us. If anything, the denial of the tunnel hypothesis by the various investigative bodies (the New Zealand Defence Force, the Department of Conservation and a judicial review by Judge Sian Elias) just amplified the size of the conspiracy. The entire government seemed to be in on it.

Over the years people have talked about writing the definitive book on the subject (even I’ve thought about it). Butler’s book, charmingly titled “Tunnel Vision” has managed to be published first and it’s… Well, “interesting” is one way to put it. “Conspiratorial” is another.

Butler’s interest is in what happened to the two Boeing and Westervald Corporation seaplanes, Mallard and Bluebill, which, legend goes, were placed into storage in a tunnel in North Head.

Mallard and Bluebill were purchased by the Walsh Brothers Flying School in the early 20th Century before disappearing after the flying school was closed and its assets shipped off to Torpedo Yard in Devonport. The first half of “Tunnel Vision” is an attempt to work out whether there is sufficient to evidence to counter the official theory that the two Boeings were deliberately disposed of over in Mission Bay. Butler amasses some circumstantial evidence which he says makes it plausible to claim that the planes made it to Devonport after all, and with that in hand, claims of conspiracy come into play. ((I’m not sold on the notion that the two Boeings ever left Mission Bay in part because what I’ve read of the archival evidence seems to indicate that the Boeings were likely destroyed. There’s no one piece of documentary evidence that states this either way, so we have to rely upon inferring to the best explanation, given the available evidence.))

One of Butler’s rationales for thinking that the planes were surely saved is that they are not just valuable artefacts now but they were highly valued and famous back then. However, whilst there are a whole host of meanings for “valuable” which span from “are famous (valuable in a social sense)” to “valuable (worth something to the current owners)” and really the only sense of valuable which the military are likely to have been interested in was “Have these any value to us now.” It seems the answer in the archival material is a simple “No.” Indeed, on page 40 Butler even describes them as being obsolete by 1921, well prior to the move. ((I also find it interesting that Butler doesn’t talk about what happened to the engines of Mallard and Bluebill, since the fact that we know the engines were sold (and where they ended up) seems to strongly suggest the planes were deemed surplus to requirements and thus disposed of. This seems like important, but inconvenient evidence and it just gets glossed over.))

Still, Butler’s account of what might have happened to the planes is nicely written and features a lot of interesting details about the life of the Walsh Brother’s Flying School. As such, “Tunnel Vision” ends up being two books. One is an historical narrative about the fate of two planes. The other is a lengthy diatribe against the holders of the official theory, that the planes were destroyed and that North Head is not riddled with hidden tunnels. Whilst elements of the author of the second half of the book appear in the first few chapters of “Tunnel Vision,” the first half is (relatively) measured and historically focused in tone. It is in the second half, where Butler moves away from the investigation of the archival record to eye-witness testimony and speculation, that the book becomes didactic. Butler admonishes those who hold to or promote the official theory that the planes were destroyed and slams those who claim there is insufficient evidence to support the notion of a hidden tunnel complex deep within North Head. As such, in the next part I want to focus on the second half of the book, because it’s there that I think most of the troubles arise.