19 June 2011

Great Barrier Island's Aviation History - A Brief Overview

Great Barrier Island lies some 90 km from Auckland, close enough to Auckland and yet, being an island, retaining its isolation. This isolation is perhaps its safeguard from being inundated by tourism but at the same time the isolation is something to be overcome.

In terms of aviation history Great Barrier Island’s history is fascinating… in fact New Zealand’s aviation history could be said to begin on Great Barrier Island. In 1897 the country’s first air mail service was established with pigeons (birds - not aeroplanes!) flying letters between Great Barrier and Auckland. This service flew until 1908 when a phone link was made to the island.

For more on the pigeon post see

In September 1929 Jim Hewett, a World War I pilot, established Falcon Airways Ltd, using a De Havilland DH60G Moth, ZK-AAR. In 1930 he flew this aircraft from Dunedin to Auckland in 10 hours setting a New Zealand record for distance flown in one day. Then, in October 1931, he made the first powered flight (i.e. non pigeon flight) to the island, again in ZK-AAR. Jim Hewitt went on to become well known on the West Coast as one of the pilots for Air Travel (NZ) Ltd, New Zealand’s first airline.

For more on Jim Hewitt see :

Jim Hewitt (rear) taking joyrides with De Havilland DH60 Moth ZK-AAR on Great Barrier Island in October 1931.  The passenger (front) is believed to be Rowlie Sanderson. Photo Source : Barrier Bulletin
Great Barrier Island has two airfields at Claris and Okiwi
– for a map see : http://www.thebarrier.co.nz/map.htm

The Public Works Department began construction of Claris airfield in 1938. The machinery the PWD used was great as shown in the picture from the Barrier Bulletin and at Don Armitage’s site - https://sites.google.com/a/aotea.org/don-armitage/Home/great-barrier-island-history/air--sea-transport-tofrom-great-barrier-island/air-transport/history-of-claris-and-okiwi-airfields/claris-airfield/the-making-of-claris-airfield-1938  

Photo Source : Barrier Bulletin
One of the most exotic early visitors to the new airfield was a visit by Union Airways’ Lockheed 10 Electra, ZK-AGJ, named Kahu, which visited the island on the 21st of December 1938. The visit was arranged by Bill Claris, the engineer in charge who wanted to be able to get his staff home in time for Christmas.

Lockheed 10 Electra ZK-AGJ at Great Barrier Island on 21 December 1938. From left: Bill Claris, Snowy Porter, Stan Blackwell, Billy Porter, Mrs Porter, John McCormack, Jack Murray, Jack Kenny and far right, Les Waiters. Photo Source : Barrier Bulletin
Bill Claris has been immortalised at the airfield he built but in sad circumstances. On the 17th of March 1939 he was a passenger in the Auckland Aero Club's Miles Hawk Trainer III monoplane ZK-AEX which crashed into marshland near the aerodrome boundary. While pilot survived Bill Claris was killed. The airfield continues to bear his name cast in stone at the airfield gates. Since then the airfield has developed... it now has a NDB for instrument approaches, a sealed runway which was opened on the 22nd of April 1996 and a new terminal building which was opened on the 21 December 2010.

Above and below Claris airfield, 3 March 2009 : Photo D Paull

The headstones at the Claris Airfield gates - Photos : D Paull

Great Barrier Airline's Britten Norman Trislander ZK-LGC at Claris on 3 March 2009. Photo : D Paull
Okiwi, the other airstrip on the island is a grass strip which both Great Barrier Airlines and Fly My Sky use on demand, runway conditions permitting.

Perhaps one of the most stunning airfields in New Zealand. Fly My Sky's Britten Norman Islander ZK-DLA at Okiwi. Photo Source : Kay Stowell, Great Barrier Information NZ (GBINZ)
Despite the provision of Claris airfield and the success of this first charter flight in 1939 it was to be some 16 years before a regular air service began to the island. This was brought about by the removal of the shipping service operated by the MV Coromel. And so began the story of regular air services to the island which will form the basis of the next series of posts.

The history of air services to the Barrier mirrors the development of of more mainstream air services in New Zealand. Prior to World War II New Zealand had its four pioneer airlines; Air Travel (NZ), Cook Strait Airways, East Coast Airways and Union Airways. For the Barrier the pioneer airlines were the Auckland Aero Club (and its successor NZ Air Charter) and NZ Tourist Air Travel (and its successors Mount Cook Airline’s amphibian service and Sea Bee Air).

After the Second World War a national airline was formed in New Zealand, the National Airways Corporation. Great Barrier Island’s “national” airline is surely Great Barrier Airlines which bought a modern, efficient air service to the island. As NAC/Air New Zealand faced competition from triers like SPANZ, Skybus, Ansett NZ, Qantas, Origin Pacific and Pacific Blue so Great Barrier Airlines has faced competition from those trying to break into the main trunk Auckland-Great Barrier service. Competition came in the form of Air National Express, Gulf Air, Northern Air, Tikapa Air and Trans Island Air.

While NAC and Air New Zealand have concentrated on main trunk services and services from the provincial towns and cities to the main centres there have always been the 3rd level airlines that have tried to find a niche flying between provincial centres and trying not to be squashed by the major carrier, airlines like Air Central, and Eagle Air in its early years. So too there have been a number of operators that have tried flying to Great Barrier from other centres; Ardmore Air Charter flying from Ardmore, the North Shore Aero Club and NZ Air Services flying from North Shore, Sunair, Island Air and Air Discovery flying from Tauranga and Whitianga, Parakai Aviation flying from Helensville, Waiheke Airservices, Waiheke Air and Air Discovery flying from Waiheke Island, the Northland Districts Aero Club flying to the Barrier from Whangarei and the Hauraki Aero Club's brief attempt to operate a service from Thames.

If you have any stories, photos, facts and, later corrections to these posts, I would love to hear from you. Cheers, Steve - westland831@gmail.com

The following are posts on the individiual airlines that have flown to Great Barrier...









Air National's Service to Great Barrier Island
Profile on Air National




Sunair's service to Great Barrier Island:
Profile on Sunair:








No comments:

Post a Comment