18 July 2010

Westland's Commuter Airline - Coast Air

Bert Waghorn, an earthmoving contractor from Reefton, had learned to fly in a Cessna 150 with Nash Taurau's Westland Air at Greymouth in the early 1970s. Having completed his PPL he was able to fly to the North Island to pick up parts for broken down machinery, often saving up to a week for it to be delivered by normal means. To help facilitate this he bought a partnership in a Cessna 172. In April 1973 he and Frank Hallaran formed Coast Air Charter Ltd which in July 1973 took over Westland Air's air charter licence.

Coming from Westland Air into the new Coast Air were a Cessna 172 ZK-CKN, which was soon sold, and a Cessna 177 Cardinal, ZK-DIH. The Cardinal was based in Greymouth and John Royds was employed as the pilot/manager. One of the features of the aircraft was that it was fitted with stretcher capability and it was used extensively for air ambulance duties.

Coast Air Charter's Cessna 177 Cardinal ZK-DIH at Hokitika on 23 April 1984.

In February 1976 Jeff Rees moved to Hokitika as a resident instructor. This was the first time in several years that the West Coast had had a full time flying instructor. Bert Waghorn bought Cessna 172 ZK-DHQ in late 1976 and this was used by Coast Air until it was sold in late 1978.

Cessna 172 ZK-DHQ operating for Coast Air at Hokitika in 1978
Greymouth Evening Star, 4 February 1976

1978 was a year of expansion for Coast Air. The air charter and training fleet was grown with the addition of Cessna 172s ZK-EKF and ZK-ELH (which replaced ZK-DHQ), Cessna 207 Skywagon and Cessna A152 Aerobat ZK-ELC which was registered to the Reefton Aero Club but was used by Coast Air. While Coast Air was primarily Greymouth based aircraft also operated from Hokitika, Reefton and Westport. In addition to the air charter and training work, they aircraft were also used for air ambulance and aerial photography as well as being available for private hire.

Cessna 172 ZK-ELH at Hokitika in January 1980

Cessna 207 ZK-EJD at Greymouth on 25 November 1984. 

Cessna 152 Aerobat ZK-ELC at Greymouth in 1981

From its early days Coast Air was interested in operating a regular air service. In 1977 it tried, unsuccessfully, for a temporary licence to transport passengers, on demand, between Greymouth and Christchurch. In September 1980 Air New Zealand announced a proposal to axe flights between Westport and Hokitika thereby cutting the connection between Westport and Christchurch and also to reduce flights to Wellington. Coast Air Charter announced plans to start daily feeder services to Westport. The company announced that after the arrival in Greymouth of the morning Westland Flying Services flights from Christchurch a Coast Air plane would fly passengers to Westport. The same aircraft would later in the day fly a return service to Hokitika to connect with the Air New Zealand flight to and from Christchurch at Hokitika. The plane would then fly back to Greymouth to connect with the Westland Flying Services flight to Christchurch. As things transpired the revised Air New Zealand service saw Westport linked to both Wellington and Christchurch via Hokitika on Mondays Wednesdays and Fridays. Coast Air Charter did offer a feeder “air taxi” service linking Westport with the national airline on the other days of the week. There seemed, however, to be little interest in the service, the people of Buller being more interested in the reinstatement of a daily Air New Zealand service.

The company’s next attempt to establish a scheduled service was in December 1983 when the company applied to Air Services Licensing Authority to operate a scheduled air service between Christchurch and Greymouth with a De Havilland Canada Twin Otter. While the authority was satisfied that the proposed service was necessary and desirable, it was not satisfied that the company had the financial ability to run the service. The company set itself to furnishing the evidence, reapplying in the new year. However, in the interim, new legislation in the form of the Air Services Licensing Act of 1983 had come into force. This meant that Coast Air Charter had to replace its existing charter licence by the 31st of March 1984. The new legislation also required that the company obtain a new “B licence” to operate a Twin Otter. There was a complication, however, in that they could only apply for the new licence after the 1st of April when the new act came into force.

By late July 1985 the company had obtained the necessary licence and had raised the capital for the hire purchase of a Twin Otter. The original choice was for an ex-Canadian Government aircraft, which once imported, was expected to cost around $1.5 million. The Mayor of Greymouth, Dr Barry Dallas, being very hopeful for the future of the service told the Greymouth Evening Star that previous efforts at providing such a service had been laudable, but had failed through under-capitalisation and unsuitable timetables. "The present enterprise has been thoroughly researched and has a healthy financial backing. The timetables will enable Coasters to do same day business in either Auckland or Invercargill.” At this time the company was also exploring a daytime Greymouth-Glaciers-Mount Cook tourist connection service to increase utilisation between the planned morning and late afternoon trans-alpine services.

In the end the Canadian aircraft fell through and instead an Alaskan short nosed Twin Otter was sourced. The Twin Otter, N250CM, (c/n 250) was built in 1969. Crowley Maritime obtained it in 1979 and used it for supplying their operations on the Alaskan North Slope oilfields as well as flying ice flow patrols for shipping. It left Alaska under the command of Canadian pilot Jim York who flew her from Anchorage first to Oakland in California, then via Honolulu, Pago Pago and Auckland to Ashburton arriving on the 22nd of November 1985. Plans to land in Greymouth on the way south were thwarted by the West Coast weather. The Twin Otter spent a week in Ashburton being refitted for passenger operations, obtaining its certificate of air worthiness and it was placed on the New Zealand aircraft register as ZK-OTR. A further week was spent on pilot training and route proving.

The De Havilland Canada Twin Otter in its American registration the day after it arrived in New Zealand at Ashburton on 23 November 1985. 

The company, meanwhile, was preparing to launch the service on the 9th of December 1985. The original plan saw a Greymouth to Christchurch and return twice a day on weekdays and daily in the weekend. Single adult fares were to cost $69 with children under 14 half price. The company also envisaged a door-to-door freight courier service. Once again, however, problems beset the company. They rescheduled their start date to the 9th of January 1986 but then the Civil Aviation division of the Ministry of Transport announced the airline did not have the air service certificate which allowed it to fly the Twin Otter commercially. Civil Aviation also said the Category B air transport licence was also in abeyance while waiting for the difficulty over the air service certificate "to be sorted out." The situation was further complicated by the sudden resignation of Coast Air's chief captain, Captain Fred Holtkamp. The planned inaugural trans-alpine flight was cancelled and the 20 special guests who were to take the VIP flight to Christchurch made do by enjoying a short scenic flight.

The Press, 10 January 1986

DHC Twin Otter ZK-OTR at home at Greymouth on 23 February 1986.

The service finally got airborne on the 17th of January 1986 when the Twin Otter, named “The Province of Westland”, departed Greymouth for Christchurch at 7.00am. The return flight arrived back in Greymouth at 9.15am. The afternoon service left Greymouth at 4.40pm, returning at 6.30pm. By March 1986 the company was looking for more work for the Twin Otter. Originally the company had planned a middle of the day service south from Greymouth to Franz Josef and over to Mount Cook. However, at Franz Josef, the Waiho River had burst its banks and had destroyed the Mercer Airport and this effectively washed away the plans for a Glaciers and Mount Cook service.

The original timetable for the service that began on 17 January 1986

In the week following the first flight Les Bloxham, the travel editor, of the Christchurch Press reviewed the service...

Coast Air, Flight No. 12 Christchurch to Greymouth.
Wednesday, January 22.
Scheduled departure: 8.30 a.m.
Actual departure: 8.31 a.m.
Est. flight time: 45 min.
Actual flight time: 54 min.
Seating capacity: 20.
Seats filled: 4.

Check-in procedures, handled by Newmans Air, were done efficiently and in a friendly manner. A boarding call was made at 8.23 a.m. and passengers were directed to the de Havilland Twin Otter parked at Gate 2. The aircraft has 20 seats made up of five rows of one plus two, one row of two seats, and a row of three at the rear. The seats are basic and narrow with limited leg room, but they are adequate for such short duration flights. (Incidentally, the best seats as far as plenty of space is concerned are the three at the rear.) Passengers were personally welcomed on board by one of the pilots who also gave the safety briefing. Biscuits with pate and packets of fruit juice were available on a self-help basis. As a non-smoker in a relatively confined area I was pleased by the prohibition on smoking for the duration of the flight. Smokers unable to survive without lighting up for 45 minutes might not be so happy. The noise level was tolerable - in fact, this Otter was a lot quieter than others I have flown in around Fiji and Canada. Twenty-five minutes after take-off we were at an altitude of 10,000ft and crossing the Main Divide slightly to the south of Arthur's Pass at 170 knots (183 miles an· hour). Ten minutes later we were overhead Hokitika. (A dense layer of cloud on the West Coast forced the pilots to use I.F.R. (instrument flight rules) procedures and to home in on the Hokitika beacon before starting their let-down along the coast to Greymouth.) We landed on Greymouth's sealed strip at 9.25 a.m. The flight was smooth and pleasant. In clear weather a feature of this service will be the magnificent mountain scenery flown over at comparatively low altitudes. Unfortunately, viewing is impaired at present by the badly crazed and scratched state of most of the windows. Shooting satisfactory photographs would be impossible. (I was told later that Coast Air is considering replacing the damaged panes with new glass.) Over all, this new link between Greymouth and Christchurch should prove popular with businessmen and tourists alike. Having spent four hours driving the route through Arthur's Pass the previous week, I am now in no doubt about the way I will prefer to go in future.  

I only flew on the Twin Otter once... it was, apparently, the first time it had had a full load. The aircraft took an hour flying into a punchy nor-wester with the plane letting down on the Hokitika beacon before flying VFR up the coast to Greymouth. Nowadays Greymouth has a GPS approach.

The airline was keen for more work for the Twin Otter during the middle of the day and it was approached by Timaru interests who wanted a direct air service to Christchurch. On the 26th of March 1986 Coast Air announced that a new service would be commenced linking Christchurch and Timaru. It was also announced that during winter the Twin Otter would be based at  Christchurch instead of at Greymouth. As Greymouth Airport did not have landing lights the first flight was to be timed to reach Greymouth just after daybreak. The aircraft would then return to Christchurch with passengers and be available for flights to and from Timaru before the afternoon flight to Greymouth and return Christchurch.

The Press, April 1986

Coast Air began its winter schedule on the 21st of April 1986. The basing of the Twin Otter in Christchurch and the addition of the Timaru service meant several compromises had to be made. With a 7.15am departure from Christchurch the new timetable meant business people from Auckland or Wellington couldn't connect with the morning Coast Air service to Greymouth. The return flight to Christchurch did not arrive back until 9.15am and this meant there was not a lot of time for business people to fly to Auckland or Wellington for a same day return. In the same way the Timaru flights were not scheduled well. The first flight left Christchurch at 10.50am  and the afternoon flight at 2.35pm and these times did not suit business people going in either direction.

Coast Air's first flight to Timaru on the 21st of April 1986. Source : The Press

The winter timetable with Timaru flights, effective 21 April 1986

The Timaru timetable was not popular and failed to generate enough traffic. One week had only six passengers and the inevitable happened on the 28th of May when Coast Air's Christchurch-Timaru service was discontinued.

Following the short-lived Timaru service the company Air looked to Nelson and at the end of June 1986 a new twice Christchurch-Nelson service was announced. The company’s’ director, Mr Bert Waghorn, told the Greymouth Evening Star that "Coast Air's east-west flights were doing well but the company was still making a loss. He noted that that Air Albatross had been making five return trips a day between Nelson and Christchurch with an 82 per cent load factor before it went into receivership. All we need is 50 per cent to make a profit."

The Press, 8 July 1986

Coast Air’s Twin Otter service between Nelson and Christchurch, which had to compete with Air New Zealand’s Friendship service and Goldfield’s Air Piper Navajo service, began on the 21st of July 1986. The Twin Otter was based at Nelson with southbound flights leaving Nelson at 7.20am and 2.20pm with northbound flights leaving Christchurch at 11.20am and 6.20pm. The Twin Otter was not fast, with a scheduled flight time of 75 minutes as opposed to 50 minutes in the Friendship. The Christchurch-Nelson link also necessitated changes in the timetable for the Greymouth flights. These now left Christchurch at 8.55 a.m. and 4.00pm and from Greymouth at 10.05am and 5.10pm, times that were not so suitable for business people travelling from the West Coast.

Coast Air timetable, effective 21 July 1986

Within days of Coast Air commencing on the Nelson-Christchurch route Goldfields Air ceased. This, however, did not improve the economics of the Twin Otter operation. The Twin Otter's STOL performance was ideal for operating in and out of Greymouth’s short runway but in all other respects it was the wrong aircraft. It’s fixed undercarriage made it slow and it's lack of pressurisation on both routes made it an undesirable option for the travelling public. With the aircraft Nelson-based, the timetable to Greymouth didn't suit local business traffic. Despite the best efforts of Coast Air the airline averaged only 7.6 the passenger per flight resulting in incurred losses of around $1 million. A major rethink was called for and the decision was made to replace the Twin Otter. Its last scheduled flights were flown on the 24th of December 1986 under the command of Captain Bruce Riddell and First Officer M Clarkin flying the afternoon Nelson-Christchurch-Greymouth-Christchurch Nelson service. After Christmas the Twin Otter positioned to Ashburton where it was prepared for sale and eventual departure for Vanuatu.

Coast Air decided to replace the Twin Otter with a leased eight-seat Piper Navajo, ZK-JGA, which  Goldfields Air had previously operated. 

Piper Pa31-310 Navajo at Greymouth on 21 December 1986.

The Navajo, like the Twin Otter, was based in Nelson and operated a Nelson-Christchurch-Greymouth return service both in the morning and in the afternoon/evening. However an air war was brewing. In early March 1987 Pacifica Air announced its intention to introduce flights between Nelson and Christchurch with a pressurised Beech Super King and this caused Air New Zealand to ramp up its flights between Nelson and Christchurch. Coast Air was the first casualty of this air war and cut its Nelson-Christchurch service with the last flights being flown on the 27th of March 1987. 

Coast Air's decision to concentrate on its Christchurch-Greymouth link was essentially a good one but the airline still didn't get it quite right. The Navajo was based in Christchurch and from the 30th of March offered three flights each weekday across the alps to Greymouth. The first flight out of Christchurch was at 7.30am which didn't enable business people from Wellington or Auckland to connect with the morning service to the Coast. The earlier departure out of Greymouth offered better connections for West Coasters but it was still not as good as when the Twin Otter was based in Greymouth.  

Timetable as at 30 March 1987

Further changes were made to the company during April 1987. The directors and officers of the company resigned and Hokitika businessman Bruce Smith of Como Holdings was appointed managing director to oversee the financial reconstruction of the company. Pilot numbers were reduced by one, the office manager, Mr Harry Kitchin, who had been with the company since its inception, was made redundant, and the mid-day service was dropped in an endeavour to cut costs.

Timetable as at 1 May 1987

The company continued to incur financial difficulties and on the 29th of February 1988 the Greymouth Evening Star carried the headline “Coast Air Still Flying Despite Suggestion it Might Cease” and detailed the necessity for massive fixed and working capital investment in the airline. At the end of March Como Holdings, itself facing financial difficulties, announced it was going to reclaim and sell the Piper Navajo aircraft it had been leasing to the airline for the past 14 months. In the light of this an announcement was made that the airline was to cease operations on the 15th of April with the directors expecting to incur a loss of some $750,000.

A few days before the air service ended... ZK-JGA departs Greymouth on 14 October 1988. Notice the changed titling.

Despite being placed in receivership the receivers managed to relaunch Coast Air which had actually been operating as a viable concern for the previous 12 months. Once again the airline used Navajo ZK-JGA, leasing it from its new owner Air Nelson. Fares increased by 18 percent and instead of two full-time pilots, the new operation had one full-time and one part-time pilot. The airline restarted services on the 2nd of May. However, having seemingly weathered one problem another was soon to arise when Air New Zealand announced that Friendships would be withdrawn from Hokitika and replaced with three Metroliner daily return flights between Hokitika and Christchurch running at similar times to the Coast Air flights from nearby Greymouth. This was the final straw and an announcement made that Coast Air was going to cease trading. Although Coast Air announced their service would end on the 31st of October, the final flight between Greymouth and Christchurch was on the 17th of October 1988 due to exceptionally light loadings on the final planned services.

Aircraft Operated

Cessna A152 Aerobat
ZK-ELC - c/n A1520787

Cessna 172
ZK-CKN  - c/n 17252194
ZK-DFY -  c/n 17260735
ZK-DHQ - c/n 17261103
ZK-ELH - c/n 17270955
ZK-EKF - c/n 17269923
ZK-EHO - c/n 17269668
Cessna 177B Cardinal
ZK-DIH - c/n 17701900

Cessna A185F Skywagon
ZK-DPG - c/n 18502427

Cessna 207 Skywagon
ZK-EJD - c/n 20700362
De Havilland Canada DHC-6-300 Twin Otter
ZK-OTR - c/n 250

Piper PA-31-310 Navajo C
ZK-JGA - c/n 31-7612102

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