03 February 2010

Bell Air Remembered

Bell-Air Executive Air Travel Ltd was founded in 1968 by Graham Bell as a charter operation based in Whakatane. The company was an air taxi service licence on the 6th of September 1968 and started operating some two weeks later with Cessna 185C ZK-CGH (c/n 185-0751). The charter fee for a Whakatane to Auckland and return charter flight was $50!

Bell Air's first aircraft, Cessna 185 ZK-CGH photographed at New Plymouth on 8 November 1972
Cessna 207 ZK-DNG was added to the fleet in July 1973. Alan Wooller photographed it at Kawerau in November 1973
Over the years a number of single-engine aircraft were used for the company's various air charter activities including fish spotting. In the mid-1970s Piper Aztec ZK-DUB was added to the fleet. Among other uses this aircraft was employed as a back-up aircraft for Air North.

Piper Aztec ZK-DUB at Auckland along with Shrike Commander ZK-PAT at Auckland on 10 May 1978
Bell Air's Cessna 172 ZK-EHJ at Whakatane in August 1981

On 23 October 1979, following the purchase of Rockwell Shrike Commander 500, ZK-PAT (c/n 500-S-3137), Bell Air introduced a scheduled twice a day morning and evening return weekday service between Whakatane and Auckland. The service enabled business people to do a day’s business at either Auckland or Whakatane, something the Air New Zealand service, with a midday flight to Wellington via Wanganui and an afternoon service to Auckland, didn’t offer. Soon after a second Aero Commander 500, ZK-DCF (c/n 500-A-1274-97), was added to the fleet.

Taken at Hokitika on 5 July 1983 Shrike Commander ZK-PAT, its registration in honour of Graham Bell's wife Pat

The second Commander, ZK-DCF taken at Whakatane in August 1981

The scheduled air service proved to be popular, to the point of at times using both commanders so the decision was made to purchase a 15 seat Beech 99. ZK-LLA (c/n U-52)was a 1970 model purchased second hand in the United States for around $640,000. The Beech 99 was welcomed by air show at Whakatane attended by some 1500 people from Whakatane and surrounding districts. The aircraft took local dignitaries and the press for sightseeing flights.

Flying over its home town, the sleek Beech 99 ZK-LLA flying over Whakatane. Photo : Bell Air

In these years Air New Zealand were supportive of the service with many business passengers to and from Wellington transshipping between Bell Air and Air New Zealand. This relationship soured, however, in February 1990 when Air New Zealand announced that it was to replace Whakatane’s Friendship service to Auckland and Wellington with Eagle Air Bandeirantes flying three flights a day between Whakatane Auckland.

Beech 99 ZK-LLA in Hokitika on 19 July 1983. In 1983 and 1984 the NZ Forest Service used Bell Air to carry tree seedlings from North Island nurseries for planting in South Westland. This was to fulfil a Government promise to plant up to 10,000 ha of special purpose trees in South Westland after Okarito and Waikukupa forests were added to Westland National Park.
An undated Bell Air timetable from the 1980s with Bell Air running to Auckland seven days a week.
The pilot on the right is Peter Vincent, founder of Vincent Aviation

LLA again in its new colour scheme while on a charter to Christchurch on 31 August 1986

The Whakatane Beacon of 16 February 1990 announced Bell Air’s response; “We are going to fight.” With these words, Mr Graham Bell, the head of Whakatane’s third level airline, Bell Air, joined the battle of the airways. The ‘fight’ took the form of Bell Air aligning itself to Ansett New Zealand as well as entering into debate in the local paper. Bell Air contribution to search and rescue and air ambulance work was well known and it was suggested the loss of the scheduled service could put this community work at risk. In addition, Bell Air argued that their jet-prop Beech 99 was superior to the Bandeirante being both faster and quieter. The reality was Bell Air needed local support to continue operating. The Ansett New Zealand timetable of 11 March 1990 showed Bell Air aligned to Ansett NZ with it’s Beech 99 operating three weekday services and two Saturday and Sunday return services between Whakatane and Auckland using Ansett flight numbers.

Founder of Bell Air, Graham Bell (right) with Ansett New Zealand’s manager of marketing operations David Squires (left) and commercial sales manager, Tony Terrill (middle). Photo : Whakatane Beacon, 13 March 1990

Bell Air aligned with Ansett New Zealand... Timetable effective 5 March 1990

On the 2nd of April 1990 Bell Air inaugurated a new air service between Palmerston North and Whakatane in conjunction with Ansett New Zealand. The service operated thrice weekly on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays using the Beech 99 for the 70 minute flight. Flight ZQ365 departed Whakatane at 10.00am arriving at Palmerston North at 11.10am while the return flight, ZQ368, departed Palmerston North at 2.20pm arriving back at Whakatane at 3.30pm. The service was not successful, however, and was short-lived.

Bell Air timetable with Tranzair style script, effective 24 June 1990

For Bell Air this alignment with Ansett initially proved successful. Graham Bell told Wings magazine in 1991, “We enjoy parochial, loyal support from this area... Since our alignment with Ansett, loadings have increased.” The airline continued to operate in its own right and colours with the advantages of linking into a main trunk carrier. By January 1992, however, the Beech was repainted into Tranzair titles but with smaller “Operated by Bell Air” titles on the side of the aircraft.

Taken in its home patch ZK-LLA at Whakatane on 18 December 1993 in Tranzair colours

The Beech 99 flew its last Whakatane-Auckland-Whakatane service on the 6th of November 1995 under the command of Tony McKevitt. This was the last Tranzair flight operated by Bell Air. After this date Whakatane's Tranzair service was then taken over by Rex Aviation using Bandeirante and Chieftain aircraft. Beech 99 was positioned to to Dennis Thompson's at Ardmore on the 5th of February 1996 and it was subsequently exported to the United States.

Ironically both Malcolm Campbell of Eagle Air and Graham Bell of Bell started a small charter operation and took them into the turbine age. The difference between them was that Eagle Air had grown beyond one route. When Air New Zealand looked for companies to operate their new commuter services only two were chosen, Eagle Air and Air Nelson. Sadly, despite the alliance with Ansett New Zealand, Bell Air was the casualty.

The same aircraft - Bell Air's Cessna 172 ZK-LLB. Above, ZK-LLB wearing the registration ZK-ENY while being engaged on marijuana spotting for the police. Photo taken at Nelson on 14 January 1995. Below ZK-LLB taken at Whakatane on 17 April 1996.

Tranzair continued to operate an Auckland-Whakatane service into 1996. On 29 February 1996 the Tranzair name was changed with the airline adopting a new logo and colours for the Ansett New Zealand feeder operation as Ansett New Zealand Regional. Flights continued to Whakatane until Ansett 3 November 1996 when Ansett pulled out of Whakatane citing economic factors.

People Included
Graham Bell - Pilot/Managing Director
Pat Bell - Office Manager
Tim Dennis - Pilot
Greg Dragicevich - Pilot
Dellis Eades - Reservations Officer
John Eades - Reservations Manager
Tim Jeffares - Pilot
Steve Kingsbury - Pilot
Craig Steele - Pilot
Cliff Stockwell - Pilot
Peter Vincent - Pilot
Murray Wellington - Pilot


  1. It's Craig Steele. Still flies out of WHK

  2. Hi Tim, its Grant J can you call us back.