12 April 2010

Westland Flying Services - The Coast's Own Airline

In September 1976 two Hokitika men, Norm Bishop and Pat Pascoe, applied for licence for an air charter and air taxi services from Hokitika to any suitable licensed aerodrome or authorised landing place in New Zealand with one Piper PA32 or one Gardan Horizon (GY80/180) or one Cessna 172 aircraft. 

The Air Services Licensing Authority heard the application on the 20th and 21st of October 1976. A considerable volume of supporting evidence from business people and also from those connected with the tourist trade in Hokitika was presented. The hearing decision noted that the majority of the support will be from sightseeing or joy rides by tourists, a considerable number of whom stopover in Hokitika in the course of touring the West Coast attractions. Since the opening of the Haast Pass road the West Coast has become a major tourist route. In addition to sightseeing work, there was evidence of about 60 hours of charter flying being available annually. It is not possible to quantify hours which will come from sightseeing and joyrides because this is a catch trade. The applicant estimates the latter work should return about 350 hours per annum. We are satisfied that the scenic attractions of the alps could result in a considerable amount of sightseeing work. 

There is no resident operator at Hokitika. Coast Air Charter Limited has the right to operate air charter and air taxi services out of Westport, Reefton, Greymouth and Hokitika. It carries on this aspect of its operations with a three passenger seat Cessna Cardinal 177 aircraft which is based at Greymouth and with a two passenger seat helicopter based at Reefton. Mr. Waghorn a director of the objector said his company does little work out of Hokitika. The Company's chief pilot put it at about 20% or approximately 90 hours per annum. Its operations are financially marginal and any substantial loss of hours could affect its ability to carry on. As its main volume of work is done other than at Hokitika, we are of opinion that the applicant's operations will not conflict to an extent which outweighs the desirability of having an operator with an aircraft domiciled at Hokitika. We are satisfied the service is necessary or desirable in the public interest. Coast Air Charter Ltd. has only the three passenger seat Cardinal and a two passenger scat helicopter to service four aerodromes and of necessity can give only a limited service to Hokitika. A resident machine of the type offered by the applicant should fill a need in this developing centre of the West Coast. Notwithstanding a few minor adjustments necessary to the applicant's budget, we are satisfied that the applicant has the financial ability to carry on the proposed service and is likely to carry it on satisfactorily. Both the Piper Cherokee Six and the Cessna 172 are suitable aircraft. The application is granted for air charter and air taxi services from Hokitika to any licensed aerodrome or authorised landing place in New Zealand. The authorised fleet will be one Piper Cherokee six or one Cessna 172. 

The licence will not issue until the certificate of incorporation and evidence as to insurance has been produced to the Licensing Authority. Westland Flying Services Ltd was subsequently formed and acquired Piper PA32-300 Cherokee 6 (ZK-ECV). Tom Sunnex was appointed as the first full-time pilot with Ray Sweeney, a local pilot also being rated to fly for the new operator. 

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

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. Ray Sweeney recounts that on the 4th of February 1977, I did an urgent ambulance flight involving night landings at Westport and Greymouth in ZK-ECV. I did not have a night rating and had to submit a report to CAD with 48 hours to justify the flight. Unfortunately the patient died in Grey hospital, the victim of a road accident.

Westland Flying Services presents flying in Westland

The company soon started flight training. Initially a Cessna 172 was used.

On the 7th of July 1977 the Hokitika Guardian reported on some night flying... Hokitika by night is a wonderful sight, especially when seen from the co-pilot’s seat of Westland Flying Service’s beautiful new charter plane. In fact it was a short but most fascinating flight, with the stars twinkling above and the lights of Hokitika twinkling below, and on the airport 20 hurricane lamps twinkling along the runway – in fact this trip alone would be well worth making as a scenic charter flight. The flight last night was piloted by Mr Tom Sunnex, the company’s pilot who had just flown in from Christchurch, making a transalpine night flight after obtaining his Night Instructor’s Rating. The Westland Fling Services charter plane is a most luxurious six seater plane, each seat being equipped with its individual overhead light and air vent. The plane has an auto pilot and all the instruments and navigational aids of the large planes. Mr Norm Bishop, Director of the Company told the Guardian that for a party of five to go to Christchurch a charter compares very closely with the cost of flying NAC and with the added advantage of personal convenience as to timing and a greatly increased visibility on the journey. He went on to talk about the present work and future plans of the company. Quite a number of people from Greymouth and Westport, as well as from Hokitika, are learning to fly at present. So far they have hired a training plane, but negotiations are currently in hand to buy their own. At present night flying is for flying training only, but the potential is there for commercial flights once the airport is equipped with runway lights, The hurricane lamps carefully spaced along the runway were amazingly effective to see from the air, but surely the time is approaching when the Airport needs a flare path for night flights. With the new terminal building soon to come into use, with NAC providing a daily two-way main route, and with Westland Flying Services providing an efficient charter service, and with great plans for the future, Hokitika and Westland are moving into the jet age worthily continuing the traditions of Westland’s early pioneers in aviation and following in the footsteps of Captain Mercer and his co-pilots.

In February 1978 the Cessna 172 was replaced by Piper PA28-140 Cherokee ZK-DBT. In early 1979 this was replaced by Piper PA28-140 Cherokee ZK-EBY

As a high school student a friend and I rang up about the possibility of doing a local scenic flight – we had the princely sum on $5 each... Norm Bishop suggested instead of a local flight there were a couple of seats going on a charter flight to Motueka in the Cherokee 6 ZK-ECV 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.

Cessna 172 ZK-DKH on the line with Westland Flying Services. Photo taken at Hokitika in January 1979.

In 1979 the company saw the need for an IFR-equipped aircraft and looked to acquire a Piper Seneca. The delivery of this was delayed and so Westland Flying Services and so in August 1979 applied to operate a Cessna 320 Skyknight for an interim period of three months. It told the Air Services Licensing Authority that This will enable us to continue operating our air charter and air taxi business. At the moment we have only a 3 seat aircraft available. Our six seat Cherokee Six was sold in anticipation of taking delivery of our Seneca II from the USA. The delivery of this will now be in approximately two to three months time. The Cessna 320 aircraft has a very similar performance to the Seneca II. With one less passenger seat this aircraft is available on a very favourable dry hire basis until the other aircraft arrives. We have experienced considerable resistance by the public to the hiring of single engine aircraft for business purposes since the rash of single engine aircraft crashes and disappearances over the past few months. The aircraft will be maintained and operated to our maintenance and operations manual which we have already drawn up. He had hoped that this aircraft would have been acceptable as a substitution to our air services licence no. 1115 rather than an amendment as its carrying capacity is not more than 25% greater than a Cherokee six and its seating capacity is only one seat less. The Cherokee’s sixth passenger seat can only be occupied by a small person, or when the flights are of very short duration. 

The company subsequently hired Cessna 320E Skyknight ZK-EGN. The year before, on the 30th of June 1978, Capital Air Services had cut its West Coast service. During 1979 West Coast business people were promoting the idea of an air service to the Christchurch. In October 1979 Westland Flying Services applied for a licence. It told the Authority that business people require to travel to Christchurch from Greymouth on business and return on the same day or vice versa. The existing Air New Zealand flights from Hokitika do not cater for them as those flights are scheduled for mid-afternoon and this includes a 25 mile trip from Greymouth to Hokitika. These people cannot afford the time away from their business as is required by these schedules. Therefore they usually drive. This involves a four to five hour drive each way over the alps. This can be extremely hazardous in the winter and spring because of snow and flooding. Plus it requires a very early start and a late night return, if any useful time is to be spent on business. Also there is usually only one person per car which is most uneconomic use for Transport and Petrol. The proposed Flights will provide a Link for Tourists wishing to travel to the Glaciers. There is no linking Service at the moment. The aircraft which is to be used initially is a Cessna 320 Skyknight turbo-charged twin engine six seat aircraft with performance ideally suited for this operation.  The aircraft.. will also be used on charter and scenic flights in place of the applicants' Cherokee Six single engine aircraft which has been sold in anticipation of taking delivery of a Piper Seneca II Twin for which the Company has an import licence. The proposed additional Service would operate two returns trips daily, on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. These flights would depart Greymouth as early as practicable with regard to civil daylight requirements, fly to Christchurch and return after a short stop over. The afternoon flights would be timed so as to depart and arrive back at Greymouth late afternoon thus giving as much time as possible to passengers in Greymouth and Christchurch. This operation would be fully IFR and the Chief Pilot will be a former Manager of Capital Airlines. He is fully conversant with the route and in his opinion the operation has every chance of success, if properly promoted. He feels that it has a greater chance of succeeding as the company is wholly West Coast owned, with a greater knowledge of the needs of the community.

Only four Westland Flying Services' aircraft carried titles, the Piper Cherokee 6 ZK-ZK-ECV, Cessna 172 ZK-DPN (above as photographed at Greymouth on 10 February 1979), Piper Cherokee ZK-EBY and the Cessna 402 ZK-DHW

On the 8th of November 1979 is was announced that the Air Services Licensing Authority had approved an application by Westland Flying Services for the running of a non scheduled air service between Greymouth and Christchurch. Norm Bishop, on the directors of Westland Flying Services, told the Greymouth Evening Star that the service will be started in the next few weeks. The five-seater Cessna 320 will leave Greymouth early each morning for Christchurch, giving travellers the opportunity of connecting with other early flights at a single flight cost of $33. The operation will be run on a non-scheduled basis and Mr Bishop said that meant that if there were no seats booked on the plane, then the flight did not have to take place. A new six-seater plane is expected to be delivered to Westland Flying Services about Christmas and that will replace the Cessna 320. All West Coast bookings will be handled by West Coast Travel Centre.

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

Meanwhile the airline had arranged the purchase of Cessna 402A ZK-DHW from James Air. Unfortunately it was not available in time for the company's first flight. The new service began on the 5th of December 1979 using Air Charter (Christchurch)’s Piper PA23 Aztec ZK-DHB. Instead of the timetabled Greymouth-Christchurch-Greymouth service the Aztec flew Christchurch-Greymouth-Christchurch flights on the 5th and 7th while the company waited the arrival of the Cessna 402. The Greymouth Evening Stat reported that The new West Coast-Canterbury air service providing a direct link between Greymouth and Christchurch made a flying start for patronage on its flight on Wednesday (5 December 1979). The morning flight had only one spare seat and the afternoon flight was fully booked. Meanwhile, bookings are “rolling in” for flights on the Monday – Wednesday – Friday service according to principal agent, Mr Harry Kitchen, of West Coast Travel. Run between Hokitika, Greymouth and Christchurch the service is being operated by Westland Flying Services. The operators have a former Capital Air Services Cessna 402 for the run but its arrival on the Coast has been delayed by weather at Nelson. A plane with room for five passengers was used for the first flight  on Wednesday by the West Coast-owned firm.

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 while on a local flight killing all four on board.

The ill fated Piper Cherokee 140 ZK-EBY at Hokitika in September 1979

"The Coast's Own Airline" - The original summer timetable. Hokitika Guardian, 7 December 1979

Cessna 402 ZK-DHW soon after delivery from James Air. Photo taken at Hokitika in January 1980

With the arrival of ZK-DHW on the 7th of December 1980 the company was able to begin 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. 

My first flight to Christchurch on the Cessna 402 in January 1980

The service operated on a return basis twice daily on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. The aircraft operated VFR on the short hop from Hokitika to Greymouth. The flight then flew to Christchurch using the 3YZ/3ZA station at Kumara Junction for the IFR flights. The stop at Greymouth for the flights to Christchurch was a little longer while the weights were done for the flight across the Alps. The stop on the return flights was long enough to unload the passengers before the plane departed to Hokitika. 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' first timetable, effective 3 December 1979.

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. On occasions Air New Zealand would cancel their Friendship service to Christchurch and Westland Flying Services offered seats on a charter flight to Christchurch. It certainly beat four hours on a bus! 

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 lack of runway lights at both Hokitika and Greymouth meant the morning flights had to leave 30 minutes later in the morning and the afternoon flights and the afternoon flights 70 minutes earlier. This restricted the amount of time business people going in either directions could have in Christchurch, Greymouth or Hokitika. It also limited options for those going beyond Christchurch to Wellington and Auckland.  

In June 1980 the Press reported on the airlines' activities. Westland Flying Services, a wholly West Coast owned and operated company, offers trans-alpine scenic flights, charter services and transport daily from the West Coast to Christchurch. The company operates four aircraft. A single engine Cessna 172 with seating capacity for three passengers available for scenic and charter flights, two light aircraft for pilot training and private flying and a Cessna 402 all weather aircraft with seating capacity for nine passengers. The company's scenic flights to the southern glaciers are a popular service and they are available by arrangement. The flights from the West Coast to Christchurch and· return operate twice daily on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. These flights enable passengers to fly over to Hokitika or Greymouth for the day or alternatively people on the coast can spend all day in Christchurch and return home on the late afternoon flight. The flights with Westland Flying Services also connect with planes flying to Wellington and other parts of the North Island. Westland Flying Services aircraft are available for charter anywhere in New Zealand and in the past six months the company has been actively employed in the delivery of live deer to farms in the North Island. Reporting points: Christchurch Airport, Mt Cook Counter; Greymouth Airport, Aero Club Building: Hokitika Airport, Westland Flying Services' Office.

In August 1980 Air New Zealand were considering withdrawing some of their uneconomical provincial routes. The News from Westport reported that Westland Flying Services is prepared to provide a six-day a week four flights daily service to Westport if Air New Zealand pulls out of the area altogether Westland Flying’s manager at Hokitika Mr Patrick Pascoe confirmed this today in a News interview. Mr Pascoe said his company this morning formally asked the national airline to cancel its plan for a three day a week Wellington-Westport service from October 6. If this happened his company would base a 10 seater Cessna aircraft and two pilots at Westport to link with the present Hokitika-Greymouth-Christchurch service but using a 20 seat Metroliner. While Westland Flying Services is prepared to be flexible at this stage it is offering the people of Buller early morning and evening connections with Christchurch. If there was sufficient public demand the company will also provide flights north according to Mr Pascoe. Westland Flying Services will continue to compete with Air New Zealand or the Hokitika-Christchurch leg because it is getting good loadings out of Greymouth but it wants the airline to withdraw from Westport altogether. This will be necessary if the new service is to operate economically. Mr Pascoe said his Company was surprised at the lack of interest shown by the Westport Airport Authority in its proposals. He indicated there would be opportunities for regional investment in the expanded West Coast Airline "I’d be prepared to address a Westport meeting on the service we could offer,” he added. 

On the 1st of September the company applied to the Air Services Licensing Authority add to authorised fleet one Swearingen Metro and to add Westport as an additional aerodrome from which to conduct air charter and air taxi services to any licensed aerodrome or authorised landing place in New Zealand. and to add Westport - Greymouth, Westport - Christchurch  and Westport - Nelson  as non-scheduled routes.from the 1st of November 1980. Air New Zealand, however, was not interested in withdrawing from Westport. Westland Flying Services were reportedly offered Oamaru but nothing came of this and the Metroliner plans were shelved.

Back to the summer schedule, effective 3 September 1980

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. On the 19th of November  1980 the Greymouth Evening Star reported that Westland Flying Services Ltd is currently “shopping around” with a view to buying a plane with a larger passenger capacity than those in the existing fleet, according to manager Mr Norm Bishop. Its largest plane now is capable of seating only seven passengers and the firm has been thinking about adding to its existing fleet for some time. Mr Bishop said the need for a larger plane was seen well before “Air New Zealand’s attempt to curtail air services on the West Coast.” Earlier this week a demonstration model of a 12-seater Australian made Nomad turbo-prop aircraft was flown to the Hokitika airport for inspection and Mr Bishop said that it had quite a number of advantages over the smaller aircraft.  He explained that the engines needed less maintenance and as it has high wings, it only has a slow stalling speed and needs only a short runway. The Nomad is estimated to cost about $500,000 and each of the airline’s present aircraft costs well over $100,000.

In December 1980 a Mitsubishi Mu2G was also demonstrated to Westland Flying Services. The American-registered aircraft did a demonstration flight from Hokitika to Greymouth. Like the Nomad the Mu2 was capable of handling Greymouth's short runway but it also had the advantage of being pressurised for the trans-Alpine flights. However, the costs of both the Nomad and Mitsubishi and stepping up to tuboprop operation was prohibitive for the airline and nothing came of the re-equipment plan. 

What might have been #1 - GAF N22 Nomad VH-BFH (which became ZK-SAL with Southern Air) at Hokitika on 17 November 1980.  

What might have been #2 - Mitsubishi Mu2G N671MA (which became ZK-EKZ with Air Central) at Hokitika in December 1980. I was lucky enough to fly to Greymouth and back on the demonstration flight. 

Cessna 402 ZK-DHW awaiting its passengers in Christchurch

On the 13th of January 1981 the Greymouth Evening Star reported that Westland Flying Services Ltd, will end on January 30 its thrice weekly return air service between Hokitika, Greymouth, and Christchurch, which it has run since November 1979. The Hokitika-based company said that costs and poor passenger loadings had made the service uneconomic. The company would continue its charter and scenic flights. A representative of the company told "The Press" yesterday: "We just did not drum up enough passengers. I think some people just don't like flying in small aircraft. They have been apprehensive when they saw a small plane. But after they I got off they said that the flight was fantastic." The company flew a Cessna 402, which could carry up to eight passengers and the pilot. Two people were on stand-by for yesterday's flight, "but there are many days when there has only been one passenger each way."

Meanwhile, in January 1981, the Cessna 402 was in Dunedin for maintenance and on the return flight home was demonstrated to Goldfields Air of Alexandra. Their licence application was unsuccessful.

An epic day in ZK-DHW... Hokitika-Christchurch to drop off a TV film crew, Christchurch-Dunedin for maintenance, Dunedin-Alexandra for Goldfields Air to check it out, Alexandra-Hokitika past Mount Cook

The final flights were operated on the 30th of January 1981. The Greymouth Evening Star reported...  To the casual bystander, Westland 931 was just another Greymouth-Christchurch flight, but it had special significance as it was the last morning flight by Westland Flying Services Ltd in a service that has run for more than a year. Today was the last of the firm’s Coast-Canterbury and the morning flight piloted by Geoff Painter who is based at Hokitika 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 sever on the scale for airlines with the 40 seater aircraft. Local agent for Westland Flying Services, Mr Harry Kitchin, was at the Greymouth Aerodrome as usual to check out the flight and, for him, it was a sad occasion after all the time and effort that had been put in by those concerned over the past 13 months. 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.

During its 13 month operation the air service carried some 2510 on some 935 flights, however, the feature of the air service was the Hokitika-Greymouth sector which effectively doubled the number of flights, unless as happened at times, the flights flew Hokitika-Christchurch direct. 

The company continued to operate for some time after the cessation of the air service. Training, charter and scenic flights were the mainstay of the business. There was little use for the Cessna 402 ZK-DHW and in July 1981 it was sold to Air Albatross. 

In February 1982 the company was sold to W A "Snow" Thomas but he did not develop the business. By this time the company had just one Cessna 172, ZK-DFI, and on the 24th of May 1982 the manager Duncan Sharp advised the Civil Aviation Division that Westland Flying Services had ceased all operations and the company was for sale. 

In July 1982 Norm Bishop's company Westland Transport took over Westland Flying Services' licence and bought Piper Aztec ZK-DGT. This was used for charter work from Hokitika for a number of years before aircraft was sold. The licence was cancelled operator's request on the 27th of August 1986. 

Westland Transport's Piper Aztec ZK-DGT at Hokitika on 9 December 1984. It carried small Westland Transport titles below the registration. In the background Hokitika Flight Service is on watch.

Westland Flying Services was, again, an airline that looked for a niche, that, is to provide Westland with a service suitable for business people, 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 320: ZK-EGN
Cessna 402: ZK-DHW
Piper Pa28 Cherokee 140: ZK-DBT, ZK-EBY
Piper Pa32 Cherokee 6: ZK-ECV 

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