18 July 2010

Westland's Commuter Airline - Coast Air

From the mid 1970s Coast Air Charter started to develop as an important charter operator, based at Greymouth, but with aircraft also operating from Hokitika, Reefton and Westport. They had a range of single engined Cessna aircraft engaged on, among other things, charter, private hire, training, air ambulance, aerial photography.

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

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

From early days the company was interested in some form of more regular scheduled work. In 1977 it tried, unsuccessfully, for a temporary licence to transport passengers, on demand, between Greymouth and Christchurch. In September 1980, following Air New Zealand announcing their proposal to axe flights between Westport and Hokitika/Christchurch and to reduce flights to Wellington, Coast Air Charter announced plans to start daily feeder services to Westport. The company planned to connect with Westland Flying Services flights to and from Christchurch at Greymouth and with the Air New Zealand flight to and from Christchurch at Hokitika. As things transpired the revised Air New Zealand service saw Wesport linked to both Wellington and Christchurch via Hokitika on Mondays Wednesdays and Fridays. Coast Air Charter offered 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 the 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 to furnishing this 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 insisted that Coast Air Charter 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 enough money 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. (See http://www.ruudleeuw.com/guestphotos-10.htm and search for OTR to see a great photo of an early incident involving this aircraft.) 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 poor West Coast weather. The Twin Otter spent a week in Ashburton while registered as ZK-OTR, being refitted for passenger operations, obtaining its certificate of air worthiness before spending another week for 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.

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”, left Greymouth at 7.00am arriving 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 service south from Greymouth to Franz Josef and Mount Cook. However with the Mercer Airport at Franz Josef washed out the company turned its attention to Timaru after approaches from Timaru interests who wanted a direct air service to Christchurch.

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

The following week on the 22nd of Jaunary, 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 southern service began on the 21st of April 1986. Timetabling the service was not easy given that the aircraft was based at Christchurch for the winter. As Greymouth did not have runway lights the first flight was timed to reach Greymouth just after daybreak. Upon returning to Christchurch, the Otter then flew two return flights to Timaru before flying back to Greymouth in the later afternoon to be airborne back to Christchurch before dark. However, the Timaru service did not generate enough traffic. During one week only six passengers were flown so it was inevitable happened on the 28th of May when the service was discontinued.

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

The Timaru schedule, effective 21 April 1986

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."

Coast Air’s Twin Otter service, 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 flight time of 75 minutes scheduled 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 not so suitable for West Coast business people.

Coast Air timetable, effective 21 July 1986

Despite the best efforts of Coast Air, and with an average occupancy of 7.6 the passenger numbers didn’t warrant the Twin Otter which incurred losses of around $1m. Also, while the aircraft’s STOL performance made it ideal for operating in and out of Greymouth’s short runway, it’s fixed undercarriage made it slow and unattractive for the Nelson service.

A major rethink was called for and in late December 1986 the Twin Otter was replaced by a leased eight-seat Piper Navajo, ZK-JGA (which had previously been operated by Goldfields Air - http://3rdlevelnz.blogspot.com/2010/02/photographed-at-taieri-on-6-february.html). The Nelson service was dropped and three return flights were offered between Greymouth and Christchurch on weekdays.

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

Further changes were made to the company in 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. 

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. 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.

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