12 April 2010

Hokitika's Westland Flying Services

Towards the end of 1976 two Hokitika men, Norm Bishop and Pat Pascoe, successfully applied for an air service licence using Piper Cherokee 6 (ZK-ECV) from Hokitika for scenic and charter work. Tom Sunnex was appointed as the first full-time pilot and the company became busy with a range of air charter and scenic flying, the mainstay of the operation in the early days being scenic flights from Hokitika over the Franz Josef and Fox Glaciers and around Mount Cook. The aircraft was also used for local air ambulance work.

Westland Flying Services' first aircraft Piper Cherokee 6 ZK-ECV taken at Hokitika in the late 1970s.

The company soon started flight training, initially with Piper Cherokees but later with Cessna 172s. As a high school student a friend and I rang up about the possibility of a local scenic flight – we had the princely sum on $5 each... it was suggested instead of a local flight there were a couple of seats going to Motueka in the Cherokee 6 if we would be interested... as if we wouldn’t!

A classic old Piper Pa28 Cherokee 140 ZK-DBT was used for flight training. It is seen here basking in the glorious Hokitika sunshine in September 1978.

In 1979 the company saw the need for an IFR-equipped aircraft and it hired Cessna 320E Skyknight ZK-EGN. During this time the company applied for the addition of the right to operate a non- scheduled air service from Greymouth to Christchurch with a connecting air taxi service from Hokitika to Greymouth. This was granted in November 1979. The Greymouth Evening Star reported that the Cessna 320 would leave Greymouth early each morning for Christchurch, giving travellers the opportunity of connecting with other early flights at a single flight cost of $33.

Cessna 320 ZK-EGN was used for a short time on charter work and scenic flights. It is seen at Hokitika in 1979.

At that time the company was looking for a new six-seater aircraft to replace Cessna 320 but in the event in December 1979 the company applied and was granted the right to replace the Piper Pa-32 Cherokee 6 in its licence with a Cessna 402 and ZK-DHW was purchased from James Air. In the meantime the service however began on 5 December 1979 using Air Charter (Christchurch)’s Piper Pa23 Aztec ZK-DHB. The Aztec flew Christchurch-Greymouth-Christchurch flights on the 5th and 7th while the company waited the arrival of the Cessna 402.

The first passengers on the first day of operations, Mrs D Ferguson, Miss V Bannon and Messrs S Orr and R Coburn in front of Air Chater's Aztec ZK-DHB. Source : Greymouth Evening Star 5 December 1979.

Tragedy struck the company a few days later on the 8th of December when its Piper Pa28-140 Cherokee ZK-EBY crashed on the Styx Saddle killing all four on board.

The original summer timetable as published in the Hokitika Guardian on 7 December 1979

With the arrival of ZK-DHW the company began normal services on Monday the 10th of December. The Hokitika Guardian reported that the service departed on time with three Hokitika businessmen and picked up five more passengers at Greymouth. On the return flight besides passengers the plane carried 200kg of urgent freight for the West Coast. The service operated on a return basis twice daily on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. Tom Sunnex had returned to the company with the purchase of the Cessna 402 and he along with Geoff Painter were the main pilots for the air service to Christchurch.

Westland Flying Services' Cessna 402 ZK-DHW retained its James Air origins but carried Westland titles and a small white heron on the nose of the aircraft. Photo taken at Hokitika in April 1980.

In addition to the air service the 402 was used on scenic flights to Mount Cook and the Glaciers, and for passenger and freight charters. It flew both whitebait and live deer to the North Island. The 402 would also occasionally offer charters to Christchurch to fly Air New Zealand passengers when the Friendship service was cancelled. During 1980 negotiations were entered into for Westland Flying Services to take over some of Air New Zealand’s unprofitable services. Local interests soon stymied this as an option.

Westland Flying Services had a counter in the Hokitika terminal but all the flights left using the company's office in the Hokitika Aero Club hangar.

The Cessna 402 was marginal operating in and out of Greymouth. Westland Flying Services faced the same problems as Capital Air Services had operating from Greymouth’s short runway. In summer the aircraft could use the grass overrun (which has subsequently been sealed) but they could not do this in winter restricting the load. Also, at this time, Greymouth and Hokitika were not equipped with runway lights and the schedule had later winter departures in the morning and earlier departures in the evening making it less convenient for business people. In November and December 1980 GAF Nomad, VH-BFH, (later Southern Air’s ZK-SAL) and Mitsubishi Mu2, N671MA, (later Air Central’s ZK-EKZ) were demonstrated to the company. Both the Nomad and Mitsubishi were capable of handing Greymouth but the cost of stepping up to turboprops was prohibitive.

Cessna 402 ZK-DHW awaiting its passengers in Christchurch

In mid January 1981 it was announced that Westland Flying Services would cease its thrice weekly service on the 30th of January citing that costs and poor passenger loadings had made the service uneconomic. The company intended to continue its charter and scenic flights. At this time The Press was told, “two people were on stand-by for yesterday's flight, but there are many days when there has only been one passenger each way." As a high school student who hung around the airport I didn’t mind these light loadings as I was lucky enough to score a few trips to and from Christchurch. On one memorable day when fog in Christchurch had delayed the morning flight I went over and back twice in the one day!

On the 30th of January the Greymouth Evening Star reported the last morning left flight “left with five passengers or a 71 percent occupancy rate. While that may seem a fair passenger loading, therein lay one of the problems of the firm seeking viability for the service. If one or two passengers had suddenly cancelled their flight its economics would have suffered heavily, a problem that is not so severe on the scale for airlines with the 40 seater aircraft... The afternoon flight out of Greymouth again looked like having five passengers and ironically, the last flight back in to the Coast looked like being with a full load of passengers.”

Westland Flying Services was, again, an airline that looked for a niche, that, is to provide Westland with a service suitable for businessmen, something the two mid afternoon Friendship services to Wellington (via Westport) and Christchurch failed to provide. Like a lot of other similar attempts it was thwarted by the equipment used, people not having through fares to other destinations, a poor public perception of small aircraft, in their case an unpressurised aircraft over the Alps and the short, unlit runway in Greymouth.

People: Included-
Jill Bishop- Administration, Reception
Norman G. ‘Norm’ Bishop- Managing Director and Shareholder
Tony Budd- Pilot
Duncan Hamilton- Part-time pilot
Bill Hende- Part-time pilot
Geoff Painter- Pilot
Pat Pascoe- Director, Shareholder and Pilot
Duncan Sharp- Pilot
Tom Sunnex- Pilot
Ray Sweeney – Part time pilot

Cessna 172: DFI, DKH, DPN, DSM, ERK
Cessna 320: EGN
Cessna 402: DHW
Piper Pa28 Cherokee: DBT, EBY
Piper Pa32 Cherokee 6: ECV

Thanks once again to Bruce Gavin for his help with this piece. As always if you can help with any more information or stories on Westland Flying Services or if would you like to write something on any regional airline or regional air service in New Zealand please write a comment below or e-mail me at westland831@gmail.com

And finally, Westland 831 - the morning flight to Christchurch waking me to get to school!

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