28 June 2011

The Last Days of the Lily at Milford Sound - Mount Cook Airlines

This post continues looking at my one and only visit to Milford Sound on the 14th of September 1997. Once again I am concious that the information I have pulled together for this post may not be a 100% accurate... If you have any corrections or additions please contact me. Thanks - Steve

A regular scenic route between Queenstown and Milford Sound was first established by Southern Scenic Air Services. Ltd. In August 1951 Southern Scenic landed an Auster on a beach at Milford Sound. This was the prelude to the establishment of an airstrip at Milford which enabled regular flights from Queenstown with Austers, Proctors and later Cessnas. In 1956 the airstrip was upgraded to handle Dominies, with the Milford flights becoming the heart of the company’s tourist flying.

In May 1965 Southern Scenic Air Services Limited merged with NZ Tourist Air Travel Limited and on the 1st of January 1968, Tourist Air Travel was subsequently bought out by the Mount Cook and Southern Lakes Tourist Company which became more commonly known as Mount Cook Airlines. For the next 30 years Mount Cook Airlines operated scenic flights to Milford Sound from both Queenstown and Te Anau. Initially the fleet used comprised of a De Havilland DH89A Dragon Rapide (ZK-AHS), De Havilland DH89B Dominies (ZK-AKY, ZK-ALB and ZK-BCP) some Cessna 185s and a Cessna 206 (ZK-CHQ) which were inherited from Tourist Air Travel.

Two aircraft inherited from NZ Tourist Air Travel... above, De Havilland 89 Dominie ZK-ALB and below Cessna 185 Skywagon ZK-CHL. Both photos taken at Queenstown by D White.

By the early 1970s the Dragon Rapide and Dominies were retired in favour of more modern light twin engine aircraft. Mainstay of the Milford route was the Britten Norman Islander which began service in September 1970. They were used extensively on the flights to Milford Sound as well as on the Queenstown-Te Anau and Queenstown-Alexandra-Dunedin routes. In the North Island they were also used on flights north from Auckland to the Bay of Islands and, for a time, to Great Barrier Island, and south to Rotorua. In addition to these "land" operations trials were made during 1974-5 with an Islander equipped with retractable skis. Over the years Mount Cook Airlines operated six Islanders; ZK-DBV, ZK-DBW, ZK-MCB, ZK-MCC, ZK-MCD and ZK-MCE.

The first two BN Islanders. Above, ZK-DBV at Queenstown in the original colour scheme, Photo : D White, and (below) ZK-DBW whilst on a Queenstown-Manapouri-Queenstown service. Photo taken at Manapouri on 17 May 1978 by I Coates.

On the 2nd of December 1969 Mount Cook Airlines introduced a De Havilland Canada DHC-6 Twin Otter, ZK-CJZ to its fleet. This 18 seat turboprop was also on the Milford Sound, Te Anau and Alexandra-Dunedin routes but it proved to be uneconomical and was sold in September 1973.

A postcard of the Twin Otter at Milford Sound with the unmistakable Mitre Peak in the distance.

Even before Mount Cook Airlines took over Tourist Air Travel the air service featured in Mount Cook's timetable. Early timetables show Ritchie Air Services and Southern Scenic flight numbers. When   Mount Cook Airlines took over their own flight numbers appeared.  In addition to the scheduled flights to and from Milford Sound extensive additional flights were operated as and when required for the heavy tourist demand. Apart from Milford Sounds Scenic Flights no other recent operator has published a scheduled timetable for their Milford services.

Mount Cook Airlines timetable for the 1969-1970 summer with scheduled flights offered from Milford to both Te Anau and Queenstown
One of the last Mount Cook Airline timetables, winter 1995
Through the years there was some rebranding of Mount Cook's aircraft flying into Milford. From 1980, reflecting the company's diverse interests, including the airline, tourist and scheduled bus operations, freight services and skifields, the company became changed its branding from Mount Cook Airlines to Mount Cook Line. In late 1984, in the face of impending competition from Newmans Air the company was rebranded Mount Cook Airline.

In November 1983 Mount Cook Airlines reintroduced a De Havilland Canada DHC-6 Twin Otter to its fleet. The company found the Hawker Siddeley 748s were too large for the Auckland-Bay of Islands and Auckland-Rotorua routes and that Britten Norman Islanders or Piper Chieftains were too small. An 18-seat Twin Otter, ZK-MCO, was purchased to provide a medium size aircraft for these runs. In June 1988 it was transferred to Queenstown for the Milford Sound flightseeing and the service to Te Anau. In 1990 an NDB was installed at Milford Sound and this allowed the Twin Otter to offer IFR flights. In January 1995 a second Twin Otter, ZK-TFS, was added to the fleet. Both served with the company until 1998.
Even in to the late 1980s it was still possible to see a Mount Cook Cessna 185 being used to Milford. Above  Cessna 185 ZK-185 ZK-CHL taken at Queenstown the 22nd May 1987 by S Lowe. Below, a rather odd ball colour scheme, newly arrived Cessna 185 ZK-MDA taken at Queenstown on 11 December 1987 by I Coates

ZK-CHQ was one of two Cessna 206s operated by Mount Cook Airlines, the other being ZK-MCG. Both were normally used as floatplanes but here CHQ is seen in a late colour scheme with "Milford Sound Flightseeing titles being sported on the aircraft. Photo taken at Queenstown on 19 March 1989 by S Lowe.
The only Islander to appear in this colour scheme, ZK-MCD at Queenstown on 22 May 1987 with Mount Cook Line and Milford Sound Flightseeing titles. Photo : S Lowe
Another change to the Milford Sound service came with Mount Cook Airline's purchase of Fiordland Travel on the 16th of July 1993. With this purchase two GAF Nomads were added to Mount Cook's fleet, a 12 seat N22 model, ZK-FVU, and a 15 seat N24 model, ZK-FVX. In October 1995 the first of Mount Cook Airline's new ATR 72 aircraft arrived in the country. These were branded as Air New Zealand Link reflecting Air New Zealand's total ownership of Mount Cook Airline. Increasingly the light aircraft operations didn't fit it in with the national carrier's mainline business. By late 1997, when I visited Milford Sound, the days of the Mount Cook lily being seen in Milford Sound were numbered.

GAF N24 Nomad ZK-FVX at Milford Sound on 14 September 1997. The Mount Cook lily on the tail is the only indication that the aircraft is operated by Mount Cook Airline. Photo : S Lowe
The Mount Cook Airline branding as depicted on Islanders ZK-MCD (above) and ZK-MCE (below). Both these aircraft continue to operate into Queenstown as part of the Milford Sound Flights Ltd operation. Photos taken at Milford Sound on 14 September 1997 by S Lowe

Twin Otters were ideal for Milford's short strip. Above ZK-MCO in full Mount Cook Airline colours, and below ZK-TFS in the scheme it wore for its entire time in New Zealand. Both photos taken at Milford Sound on 14 November 1997 by S Lowe

In mid-1998 Mount Cook Airlines’ light aircraft operations were sold ending Mount Cook Airline's service to Milford Sound.

The Queenstown light aircraft division was sold to Tourism Holdings Ltd which traded as Milford Sound Flightseeing. It then became Tourism Flightseeing, a joint venture between The Helicopter Line and Real Journeys Limited. In September 2002 Real Journeys Ltd bought a 100% ownership and the operation was rebranded as Real Journeys. A further change of ownership was made in October 2009 when a 50/50 joint venture was formed with Totally Tourism Ltd, and the company renamed as Milford Sound Flights Limited.

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