09 May 2010

NZ's Southern Most Airline: Part 2 - Southern Air

In early 1981, after Britten Norman Islander, ZK-IAS, was written off, Stewart Island Air Services was rebranded as Southern Air. While a replacement aircraft was sought a replacement Islander was leased from Mount Cook Airlines to service the Stewart Island route. Two Islanders, ZK-DBV and ZK-MCE, did a stint with the company. The replacement aircraft for both the Islander and Cessna 402 came in the form of GAF N22 Nomad ZK-SAL which entered service in August 1981.

GAF N22 Nomad, ZK-SAL, at Invercargill on 16 November 1982.
An early Southern Air timetable

The Nomad, which was the only aircraft in the fleet, proved to be a problematic aircraft. The 30 nautical mile sector across to Stewart Island was too short for the turbo-prop Nomad and the aircraft gave the company a lot of engineering problems while they had no backup aircraft. Added to this, poor weather during the 1982-1983 peak summer season effected loadings and revenue placing further pressure on the company’s financial situation. Things came to a head when the Development Finance Corporation placed the company in receivership on the 15th of March 1983. Receivers were appointed and they decided to trade the company back to profitability. The Nomad was sold in Australia and a Mount Cook Airlines BN Islander and a Piper Aztec, ZK-DUB, were leased as an interim measure. The Aztec was used mainly on the Dunedin run and was with the company until sometime in the first half of 1984. Meanwhile a second hand Britten Norman Islander was obtained and this, ZK-FFL, entered service in June 1983.

ZK-FFL, still reflecting her previous ownership by Air Fiji, at Invercargill on 10 November 1983.
On the 27th of January 1984 a massive flood inundated Invercargill disrupting services from Invercargill. Southern Air was able to recommence operations quickly, albeit from a topdressing strip. On the 7th of February their flights resumed flights from Invercargill Airport, but with the aircraft confined to the runway. Passengers were taken from the city by bus to the aircraft on the runway. Until the airport was open to Air New Zealand Southern Air aircraft flew additional flights to Dunedin.

ZK-FFL at Invercargill on 24 May 1987.

A second Islander, ZK-FGR, was added to the fleet in March 1984 and two months later, in May, Southern Air Ltd was released from receivership after trading its way out of its financial problems of early 1983. An injection of $250,000 in new capital in late 1983 was a major factor in the company turn around. Under the restructuring the four Southern Air directors, who made the cash injection, S. C. Nichol, K. A. Smith, H. G. Cave, and W. N. Hazlett, took over the company and held 85 per cent of the shareholding.

In June 1984 the company announced it would cease its Invercargill-Dunedin flights from the 6th of July. The death knell to the service was losing a courier contract to road transport and there not being enough passengers to keep the service viable. The company said it would concentrate on its Stewart Island service and charter work.

Southern Air timetable, 1st November 1985

This paid off for in late December 1985 the company told the Southland Times that. “during the 1983-84 financial year, about 14,000 people were carried by the airline. In the past year, traffic volume rose to 22,000 people and the forecast for the current year is 30,000 passengers.” To some extent this situation was helped by the demise of the Stewart Island ferry service. In November 1985 Southern Air had taken delivery of its third Britten Norman Islander, ZK-FLU. Also used was a Cessna U206G, ZK-ETN, owned by Brian Hore and a Cessna 172M, ZK-FSI owned by Bruce Forde. Both were used for about 3 years, mainly for beach work but they were also used on the run quite a bit.

BN Islander ZK-FFL at Ryans Creek on Stewart Island with one of the yellow Transit vans in 1985.

In the late 1980s Southern Air diversified. A helicopter division was added, with the company operating two Squirrels, first an Aerospatiale AS 350B ZK-HBH and later an Aerospatiale AS 350D Astar ZK-HZP, from 1988 to 1991. Then in 1989 Keith Smith along with Dick Langdon, established another Southern Air operation, the $500,000 Shearwater Inn on Stewart Island. This 28-room, 80-bed complex provided backpacker and budget accommodation, doubling the existing visitor accommodation capacity on the island.

Squirrel ZK-HBH at Invercargill with Richard Mills and Keith Smith. 
ZK-FFL on the beach (above) and on Dog Island (below) both in 1987.

The company was busy in other directions as well. The Ryans Creek airstrip was extended in 1990 by 200 metres to 800 metres with the removal of a hill. The company also opened the airstrip to private aircraft.

Ryans Creek Airstrip on Stewart Island after the hill was removed and the runway extended to 800 metres.
BN Islander ZK-FLU arrives at Ryan's Creek, 3 July 1993.

The Southern Air stroy is to be continued next week... A big thanks to Jordan Kean for his help on this piece and for the great photos from his collection... One of the dangers of posting a piece like this is making mistakes or having omissions. For historical accuracy could you please write a comment or e-mail me (westland831@gmail.com) with any errors or omissions.

Also, if you are interested in more photos of the Nomad, ZK-SAL, check out this site... http://www.qam.com.au/aircraft/nomad/VH-BFH.htm

In 1991 fleet replacements saw two Islanders ZK-FXE and ZK-FWZ being sourced from New Caledonia to replace ZK-FFL and ZK-FGR which were withdrawn from use.

Reflecting its previous New Caledonian owner, Air Moorea, ZK-FWZ, is seen at Invercargill on 2 July 1993. 

The Islander was, as it still is, the perfect aircraft for the Stewart Island run along with being versatile enough for other uses. In 1991, Barry Rhodes, Southern Air's sales and promotions manager told NZ Wings, "The Islander is just what's required. It's economical and versatile, and we can take the seats out and convert it for freight within a few minutes. Perhaps 10 percent of revenue comes from Stewart Islanders, another eight percent tradesmen and business people with the remainder being tourists, both domestic and international, and freight. We carry anything and everything." While the Stewart Island schedule was the mainstay of the operation the Islanders were also to be found on beaches picking up or dropping off fishermen, hunters, or trampers, on air ambulance flights to Taieri, Christchurch, or even Auckland, as well as servicing the lighthouse at Dog Island. The early 1990s saw the start of fish and live crayfish flights starting from the Island. To facilitate this an IFR approach was established for flights into Stewart Island.

BN Islander ZK-FGR on an air ambulance flight to Taieri, 27 September 1991.

The early 1990s saw Southern Air buy the Post Office/depot to serve as a terminal for the waiting passengers. Southern Air bought its own vans to collect and drop passengers at Ryans Creek. Southern Air also bought the South Seas Hotel.

The Depot after its purchase in 1995
The 1992 Southern Air team... Barry Rhodes, Annie Stinger, Philip Kean, Anne Rowley, Keith Smith, Kerry Smith, Michelle, Tony Stewart, Robin Andrews and Murray Donald
The 1996 team - Steve Philips, Robin Andrews, Craig Miller, Jeff Slater, Nathan Helms, Philip Kean, Bill Moffat

In 1997 Southern Air was bought by Allan Aitcheson, and the company was renamed Southern Air (1997) Ltd, the third incarnation of the operation. At this stage the company used two Islanders, ZK-FXE and ZK-FWZ as well as a Cessna 172P, ZK-DNP, and a Cessna 177RG, ZK-DXS.

Cessna 172 ZK-DNP (above) at Ryans Creek and Cessna 177RG ZK-DXS at Doughboy with long time manager of Southern Air, Phil Kean

Southern Air restarted scheduled flights between Invercargill and Dunedin in 1997. The new Monday to Friday schedule saw twice daily flights between the two centres.

Southern Air restarted flights between Invercargill and Dunedin in 1997. Above, BN Islander ZK-FXE advertises the new service at Invercargill on 4 January 1997. Below, newly painted but without titles ZK-FXE on the service at Dunedin on 15 September 1997.

Southern Air's schedule with the reintroduced Dunedin service

Cessna 402 ZK-VAC was registered to Southern Air on 2 April 1998 and this was sued on the Dunedin service. It was also to be used for air ambulance work, the company having gained air ambulance accreditation from the Aviation Industry Association. The aircraft had been modified with a Robertson short-takeoff and landing STOL kit so it could also operate into Ryans Creek. The Dunedin service once again did not prosper and was discontinued in July 1998. It was decided to keep the Cessna 402 and use it to supplement the Islander to Stewart Island when needed. Sadly, this aircraft was to be at the centre of Southern Air’s blackest day.

On the 19th of August 1998 ZK-VAC had a double engine failure on a flight from Stewart Island to Invercargill. A mayday call was made just before five o'clock that evening. The pilot, Robin Andrews, successfully managed to ditch the plane in Foveaux Strait 2.5 nm west of Bluff and he and the nine passengers successfully escaped the aircraft. The aircraft stayed afloat for some minutes after the landing. The pilot, realising that he and three passengers did not have life jackets entered the aircraft to find some to no avail. Due to some confusion as to the exact crash site, it took over an hour for rescuers to reach the spot and in that time five people, including the pilot, died from hypothermia in the wintery cold waters of Foveaux Strait. The aircraft was recovered and while the accident report suggested the cause may have been fuel exhaustion no conclusive cause was ever established.

The Southern Air fleet in 1998 including the ill-fated Cessna 402, ZK-VAC. It was repainted subsequent to this photo into full Southern Air colours but I have never seen a colout photo of this.
Despite this tragic setback the company continued as it still does today in its fourth incarnation “Stewart Island Flights.” A big thanks to Jordan Kean for his help on this piece and for the great photos from his collection...

A beach pick up at Colac Bay sometime around 2000.

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