06 November 2011

A Shower of Spray and We're Away - NZ Tourist Air Travel

In his book, A Shower of Spray and we’re Away, Fred Ladd recounts that “Tourist Air Travel was formed after a disagreement between Harry English and some of the more conservative directors of Invercargill-based Amphibian Airways. Harry wanted to go ahead with his Auckland expansion ideas, and most of the other directors didn’t.” New Zealand Tourist Air Travel Ltd was founded in August 1954 when fifteen shareholders each subscribed £1000 to give the company a capital of £15,000. On the 20th of October 1954 the Air Services Licensing Authority granted a licence to the company to operate air charter and air taxi services, using amphibious aircraft, covering the Waitemata and Manukau Harbours, the Hauraki Gulf, other Northland harbours, and various North Island lakes and waterways.

The company obtained its first Grumman G-44 Widgeon ZK-BGQ (c/n 1391) from Tahiti in 1954. On arrival in Auckland it was found to be in need of an £11,000 overhaul over and above the £6000 purchase price.

Grumman Widgeon ZK-BGQ at Invercargill. 

While the Widgeon was being prepared for service Fred Ladd made a trip to Great Barrier Island.to promote the possibility of an air service to the island. At this stage there was no regular air service to the Barrier with the Auckland Aero Club running charter flights on demand. Fred Ladd felt quite discouraged by the visit. In “A Shower of Spray and we’re Away” he recounts Edna Cooper’s comment, “Captain Ladd, we think it’s wonderful that you’re going to run this service from Port Fitzroy to Auckland, but of course none of us will be able to fly on it because we always use the boat.”

The Widgeon’s overhaul and the type-training took some months to complete and it was not until June 1955 that the company was ready commence operations. After a proving flight to Kawau Island the first commercial flight was made there from Mechanics Bay on the 21st of June 1955 with the Mayor of Auckland, Mr John Luxford, the Manager of TEAL, Mr Geoff Roberts and a reporter from both the New Zealand Herald and Auckland Star on board.

Auckland Star, 20 June 1955
Also in June 1955 the Strongman Shipping Company, announced the sea link from Auckland to Coromandel and Great Barrier Island was to be cut and the MV Coromel, the only ship on the run from Auckland, was to be sold. On the 25th June of 1955, Fred Ladd returned to Great Barrier Island in his Widgeon. Accompanying him were a Government Tourist Department official, a representative of Air Reconnaissance magazine and a New Zealand Herald reporter. This was the first time a flying boat had landed in the bays and a good number of people greeted his arrival at Port Fitzroy, Whangarapara and Tryphena. With such a welcome Fred Ladd was reported as saying to his passengers, “Now you know what Captain Cook felt like” as he taxied in to the shore.

A three day a week service was proposed, with the prospect that it could later be expanded to five days a week service. Captain Ladd explained to the locals that the Widgeon could carry four passengers and a little luggage or three passengers and a lot of luggage. He advised the gathering at Tryphena that he had applied for a Government subsidy to carry mails and for a scheduled service to the island. In the event it was the Auckland Aero Club who began the first air service to Great Barrier Island in September 1955.

Tourist Air Travel’s first regular service began on the 24th of October 1955, the company operating a weekly non-scheduled service on Mondays from Mechanics Bay to Whangaparapara with stops at Tryphena and Port Fitzroy as required. With a £5 one way fare the Tourist Air Travel service was more expensive than the Auckland Aero Clubs £3 fare. The amphibious service, however, had the advantage of having downtown Auckland as its terminus and the Widgeon could fly to the individual bays negating the often arduous drive from Claris. Passenger numbers grew slowly. The growth was undoubtedly helped by the fact the airline would fly even with only one passenger. The carriage of crayfish also helped the viability of the service. By May 1959 traffic had built up enough to warrant a scheduled service to the island.

NZ Herald 12 October 1957
Waiheke Island was the second destination to receive a regular air service. The scheduled service began on the 16th of October 1957 with the company operating a Monday, Wednesday, Friday service to Surfdale. Guests on the inaugural flight included Mr A E Kinsella, the MP for the district, and representatives of the Civil Aviation Administration, the Auckland City Council and the St John Ambulance.

NZ Herald 17 October 1957
The company’s gradual growth led them to hire Rural Aviation’s Cessna 180, ZK-BVD, from January to April 1958. While this gave the company extra capacity it was not as suitable as the Widgeon. Disaster struck the company on the 15th of February 1959 when the Widgeon somersaulted on landing at Auckland’s Buckland’s Beach. The wings settled on the bottom with the fuselage still above the water. The pilot, Captain C Griffiths, who was the only occupant, was not injured. Later the aircraft was pulled into deeper water where with its nose anchored and a purchase on its tail, the plane was righted by a launch. The Widgeon was then put on a sandbank and as the tide fell in the late afternoon it was pumped out. It was towed to Mechanics Bay that evening and TEAL engineers began stripping it down. Damage was largely superficial and the aircraft was returned to service on the 25th of March 1959. While the Widgeon was out of commission the company hired a Cessna 180 floatplane, ZK-BQI, from Lake Taupo Airways Ltd.

A couple of months later the Widgeon was involved in another incident. The Widgeon was taking off at Great Barrier Island’s Port Fitzroy when a particularly strong gust of wind caught the aircraft. One float was wrecked and the wing was damaged. The need for a second aircraft was more evident than ever. An important licence was duly granted and Grumman G-44A Widgeon ZK-BPX (c/n 1432) was added to fleet in January 1960.

Grumman Widgeon ZK-BPX at Mechanics Bay. Photo : Photographer unknown

On the 25th of July 1961 the chairman of directors of Invercargill-based Amphibian Airways Ltd, Mr A H Hamilton, announced that the shareholders had accepted a take-over bid by Tourist Air Travel. The take-over which took effect on the 9th of August 1961 meant the company inherited Amphibian Airways’ service to Stewart Island and charter work to the southern fiords, lakes, islands and beaches and two aircraft, Grumman G-44A Widgeon ZK-AVM (c/n1466), ZK-AVM and Grumman G-44 Widgeon ZK-BAY (c/n 1362). One of these aircraft was moved to Auckland leaving one based in Invercargill for the Stewart Island service and charter work.

More on Amphibian Airways at :http://3rdlevelnz.blogspot.com/2011/10/60-years-of-stewart-island-air-service.html

The two Widgeons inherited from Amphibian Airways at the two ends of the country... above, ZK-AVM on the beach at Halfmoon Bay and below ZK-BAY takes off from the Waitemata Harbour (Gladys Goodall postcard)

On the 15th of January 1964 ZK-BPX capsized in freak wind conditions while attempting to land at Port Pegasus, Stewart Island. The pilot, Captain J M Hassett, was uninjured, but attempts to salvage the aircraft led to its being extensively damaged and it did not re-enter service.

Grumman G-44 Widgeon ZK-CHG (c/n 1356) arrived in Auckland in late June 1964 replacing the ill-fated ZK-BPX. About this time a start was made on replacing the amphibian fleet’s 200-horsepower Ranger engines with fuel injected Continental 260-horsepower engines.

Grumman Widgeon ZK-CHG in two different colour schemes and two different engine types... above at Invercargill and below at Mechanics Bay.

Two other significant events happened in the course of 1964. The company commenced a new air service between Auckland Coromandel in mid-1964 and then, on the 11th of December 1964, the company merged with Te Anau-based Ritchie Air Services. This was Tourist Air Travel’s first move into fixed wing operations. At the time of the merger Ritchie Air Services was operating timetabled departure times for tourist flights between Te Anau and Milford Sound and return and other scenic flights using de Havilland DH89B Dominies ZK-AKY (c/n 6653) and ZK-ALB (c/n 6655), Cessna 180 ZK-BQJ (c/n 32372), Cessna 206 ZK-CHQ (c/n U206-0314) and De Havilland DH82A Tiger Moth ZK-BRC (c/n DHNZ115). Ian Ritchie continued to manage the Ritchie operation and was appointed a director of NZ Tourist Air Travel.

Two aircraft inherited from Ritchie Air Services. Above, de Havilland DH89B Dominie ZK-AKY and below Cessna 206 ZK-CHQ. 

May 1965 saw a further expansion of the fixed wing operation with another merger, this time with Queenstown-based Southern Scenic Air Services Limited and its subsidiary West Coast Airways. Aircraft added were Cessna 180 ZK-BJY (c/n 31421) and ZK-BUQ (c/n 32995), Cessna 185 Skywagon ZK-CCX (c/n 185-0115), Cessna 205 ZK-CEZ (c/n 205-0134), de Havilland DH89A Dragon Rapide ZK-AHS (c/n 6423), De Havilland DH89 Dominie ZK-AKS (c/n 6647), ZK-AKT (c/n 6673), ZK-BCP (c/n 6648). Later the Cessna 180s and 205 were replaced with more Cessna 185s.

Cessna 185 ZK-CCX at Queenstown carrying both Tourist Air Travel and South Scenic Airways titles reflecting the takeover from the latter company. Underneath the Southern Scenic Airways titles it reads Southern Scenic Airways, Ltd West Coast Airways Ltd.
One of the later Cessna 185 arrivals, ZK-CHL, in two different Tourist Air Travel schemes as recorded at Queenstown.

On the 17th of December 1966 the company began a new twice weekly service from Mechanics Bay to the Bay of Islands. The first flight was fully booked and among the passengers were 83-year-old Mrs F Green and 82-year-old Mrs G Buttle of Auckland. The plane also delivered six turkeys to Oraukawa Bay besides carrying other freight. Flights northward were be made on Fridays and Wednesdays and southbound flights on Sundays and Wednesdays. The timetable allowed the Widgeon to remain in the Bay of Islands over the weekend for flightseeing. 

Auckland International Airport Opening Souvenir Programme, 29 January 1966
On the 31st of March 1967 the man who personified Tourist Air Travel, Captain Fred Ladd, retired from the company marking the event by flying under the Auckland Harbour Bridge. He was subsequently charged by Civil Aviation with flying below the minimum safety level. When the case came to trial he was, much to his surprise, discharged without conviction and simply required to pay the costs of prosecution.

Later that year Mount Cook Airlines opened negotiations with the company about the possibility of a merger. A bid was made by Mount Cook Airlines and this was finally accepted on the 31st of December 1967 with the company becoming part of Mount Cook Airlines on the 1st of January 1968.

The Tourist Air Travel timetable for summer 1968/1969 caarried both Mount Cook Airlines and Tourist Air Travel titles. The service to Waitangi had increased to a more normal air service, three times a week, with the plane retruning to Auckland rather than remaining for scenic flights from Waitangi.

The Tourist Air Travel name remained on the aircraft until June 1969 when the aircraft started to be repainted in Mount Cook Airlines colours.

Preparing for the last Tourist Air Travel flight... de Havilland DH89A Dragon Rapide was stored at Hokitika for a number of years. It is seen here in 1974 before being flown to Auckland for preservation at the Museum of Transport and Technology.


  1. Don andrews - father in llaw who started flying to coromandel - is in taking off book available capitol books - and worked at de haviland in wgtn - still alive. he just sent old mags to tauranga aviation museum. was just wondering if you had a story my mum edna pithie had published called 'did he break anything' about fred ladd fluying under the bridge - i am looking for a copy

  2. Chris Pennistone.. UK er ,hunter , aviation enthusiast and DH pilot from CFG England. Saw the Widgeon of Saltair in bits @ Keri Keri airport. II saw Aquatics Widgeon on the ramp years earlier... I really hope she returns to the sky. I would help rebuild for free Grant ! just ask. pstone.chris@gmail.com

  3. In the 1960's also flew to & from Lake Rotorua. O one occasion Capt Ladd received a parking ticket for leaving the Wigeon on the foreshore parking lot overnight. The cops had to use a ladder to put the ticket under the wiper blade. Much local humor at the time!

  4. My Dad was a home movie enthusiast and took these home movies back in the 50's or 60's on holiday at Waiheke Island - buried in here are some classic movies of the Wigeon at Oneroa Beach:
    Contact: gstacey@clear.net.nz