15 May 2011

Air West Coast - Flying on a Wing, a Prayer and a Dornier

Air West Coast was established by the Gloriavale Christian Community in 2002. This community had its origins at Cust in Canterbury and moved to Lake Haupiri on the West Coast in 1991. Among its other activities the community established an airstrip and maintenance base at Lake Haupiri.

Air West Coast began scheduled operations on the 8th of November 2002 offering flights to Wellington and Christchurch. On Mondays and Fridays a Greymouth-Westport-Wellington service was flown, while on Tuesdays and Thursdays a Greymouth-Westport-Christchurch service was flown. Both routes saw the aircraft leaving Greymouth early in the morning and returning in the late afternoon/early evening. Initially the company used Piper Pa31-350 Chieftain ZK-VIP (c/n 31-7405482) and Piper Pa34-200 Seneca II ZK-KAE (c/n 34-7670251) to fly these services.

Air West Coast's Piper Seneca ZK-KAE at Greymouth on 24 November 2002

Piper Chieftain ZK-VIP arrives back in Greymouth from Wellington and Westport on 9 March 2005.

Timetable effective 8 November 2002

The Seneca was replaced at the end of 2003 with Piper Pa31-30 Chieftain ZK-EBT (c/n 31-7552044). About the same time Cessna 210-5A (c/n 205-0570) was added to the fleet for scenic and charter work. The Wellington service continued to grow and from the 1st of November 2004 the Greymouth-Westport-Wellington service became a five day-a-week Monday to Friday service. On the 8th of June 2006 ZK-EBT made a forced landing at Lake Haupiri. The necessitated the lease of Piper Pa31-325 Navajo, ZK-NOW (c/n 31-7912032), which was used as a backup aircraft, as needed, until the end of the year.

Piper Chieftain ZK-EBT at Greymouth on 19 July 2004. 

Timetable effective 1 November 2004

In February 2007 Air New Zealand Link doubled the frequency of flights through Westport offering a morning and late afternoon Wellington-Westport-Wellington service using Eagle Air’s Beech 1900s. This was rather unfortunate for Air West Coast who had been preparing for some 18 months to extend their service with the addition of a 19-seat Dornier 228 to replace the Chieftain. While unpressurised, the aircraft was fast and had STOL capabilities making it suitable for Greymouth’s short runway. The new Eagle service immediately impacted on Air West Coast’s loadings out of Westport, however, Air West Coast’s operations manager, Samuel Valor, told the Westport News that, “We believe that there will be enough traffic out of Greymouth to fill up the plane. (But) We’ll stick with Westport for a wee while to see how it goes by putting on this big plane, and see how the customer acceptance is and we’ll evaluate it as we go.”

The introduction of Dornier Do 228-202 ZK-VIR (c/n 8100) into service was not without difficulties. It began operating between Greymouth, Westport and Wellington on the 19th of March 2007. A few days later, on the 30th of March, fumes overcame the two pilots while on a training flight with the aircraft making an emergency landing at Christchurch. This effectively grounded the aircraft but despite intensive inspections no cause was found for the incident. The following month it was revealed that Air West Coast had not been granted CAA permission to operate the aircraft and were therefore not licenced to fly fare-paying passengers. The subsequent investigation found that passengers had been flown on a "promotional basis" and had not been charged. Air West Coast’s upgrading to the sophisticated Dornier necessitated a higher operating standard than that required for Chieftain operations and it took some months for this to be completed. Air West Coast chief executive Fervent Stedfast said “We had to go through the same process as a big airline does. There were many issues and we had to get everything right down to minute details. Senior personnel had to be recruited, including a flight manager and a quality assurance manager. ” The Dornier finally entered into regular service on the 8th of October 2007 when it flew the Greymouth-Westport-Wellington return service under the command of Captain Tom Sunnex.

The Dornier 228 ZK-VIR on Wellington operations... Lining up for departure on Runway 34 on 15 November 2007 and the following morning on finals to land on Wellington's runway 16.

Timetable - supposedly effective 19 March 2007

While the flights had good loadings and the Dornier had good passenger appeal it also had high overheads. On the 16th of June 2008 the company announced that the Greymouth to Wellington flights would no longer stop in Westport from the 27th of that month. Air West Coast cited a lack of patronage from that town and competition from Air New Zealand’s Eagle Air operated flights. The following month Air West Coast announced it was reviewing the future of its daily flights from Greymouth to Wellington citing high fuel and compliance costs. Another factor was that the aircraft the plane sat idle in Wellington after arriving in the capital in the morning until its late afternoon return to the West Coast. The Gloriavale community had always sought to run the airline as a community service but the rising costs, the demands of running such a sophisticated operation and the demands placed on the community's own pilots made continuation of the service increasingly difficult. Despite the best efforts of the Grey District Council to ensure the viability of the service the service could not be saved and the last flight to Wellington operated on the 1st of August 2008.

While the scheduled services have ended Air West Coast continue to operate charter flights from Greymouth using their refurbished Piper Chieftain ZK-VIP and Cessna P210N Centurion ZK-VIR (c/n P21000482), the latter being registered to the company in June 2009.

The new ZK-VIR - Air West Coast's pressurised Cessna 210 departs Greymouth on 9 April 2013 on its weekly doctor's flight to Karamea.

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