11 December 2011

Sea Bee Air - The Last Chapter of Scheduled Amphibious Services




In July 1976 Sea Bee Air Ltd applied to the Air Services Licensing Authority to take over Mount Cook Airlines’ Mechanics Bay-based amphibian services which had been operated until the 30th of April 1976. The company, made up of a syndicate of ex-Mount Cook staff and headed by Murray Pope, Mount Cook Airlines amphibian operation’s former chief pilot, purchased the fleet of four Grumman G-44 Widgeons, ZK-AVM (c/n 1466), ZK-BGQ (c/n 1391), ZK-CFA (c/n 1439) and ZK-CHG (c/n 1356), and Grumman G-21A Goose, ZK-DFC (c/n B-104), as well as the Mechanics Bay facilities and the aircraft ramp at Paihia. Grumman Widgeon ZK-CHG had been withdrawn from use by Mount Cook Airlines around 1975. While registered to Sea Bee it was never operated, being kept instead for a possible rebuild which never happened.

Mount Cook Airlines' colours - Sea Bee Air titles... Above Gruman Widgeon ZK-CFA taken at Mechanics Bay on 30 December 1976 and below Grumman Goose ZK-DFC taken at Mechanics Bay on 10 October 1976.

 

In a move to make the company viable the number of pilots was reduced from nine to three and the number of engineers from eight to three.

Delays in gaining a licence meant Sea Bee Air did not start operating until the 22nd of October 1976 with the company operating regular passenger and freight services to Great Barrier, Waiheke, Pakatoa, and Kawau Islands as well as to Russell/Paihia (Waitangi). The Waiheke service was the most important and the company operated three flights a day being between Mechanics Bay and Surfdale (Waiheke Island). The Auckland Aero Club/NZ Air Charter service to Great Barrier Island was a cheaper option that Sea Bee Air’s amphibious service to the Barrier and so daily flights were only offered over the summer with three on-demand flights a week offered during winter.


The first timetable, effective 22 October 1976
Gulf News, 28 January 1977

In the first year of operation Sea Bee Air carried 14,830 passengers between Waiheke Island and Auckland with demand for the service growing. Commenting on the company’s success Murray Pope told the Gulf News that, "We don't run as many flights… so our planes are fuller. We've done away with a lot of overheads. And the ferry alternative has deteriorated further and has probably alienated more people. Keeping fares at a minimum level was obviously an incentive for travellers, and the company was endeavouring to hold fares down as long as possible.” He also announced that Sea Bee would be looking to buy another 10-seat Grumman Goose and hoped to lift patronage on its Waiheke flights up to 20,000 per annum. He also noted the two flights daily to Paihia were well patronised, but traffic to Great Barrier Island was seasonal. A scheduled stop-off was made at Kawau Island, but Mr Pope said there was little traffic to Kawau after the Mansion House Hotel was closed in 1973. He also said two emergency "medical" flights were made each week.

Grumman Widgeon ZK-AVM at Mechanics Bay on 9 May 1978.

In 1978 a hovercraft was used to establish a fast ferry link between Waiheke and Auckland. Sea Bee Air immediately experienced a 25% downturn in traffic but the hovercraft service did not prove successful and so a second Grumman G-21A Goose, ZK-ENY (c/n 1145), was added to the fleet late in 1978.


The new Goose, ZK-ENY at Mechanics Bay in September 1981... on my first trip to Auckland. I wish I'd gone for a fly... 

Two serious incidents were experienced by the company in 1979/1980, both involving the same aircraft. Grumman Widgeon ZK-BGQ collided with a small runabout when doing a high speed taxi “on the step” from Paihia to Russell on the 14th of April 1979. Both occupants in the runabout were struck by the left hand propeller and killed instantly. The following year, on the 21st of January 1980, ZK-BGQ was written off at Kelly’s Bay on the Kaipara Harbour with the pilot and his passenger both killed.

The ill-fated Grumman Widgeon ZK-BGQ taken at Mechanics Bay on 10 June 1979.

In 1980 the British government contracted Sea Bee Air to operate an inter-atoll air service in Tuvalu, the former Ellice Island group. A McKinnon G-21G Turbo Goose, ZK-ERX (c/n 1205), was purchased and it arrived in New Zealand on the 3rd of May 1980. The internal air service commenced from Funafuti on the 21st of May 1980 using the Turbo Goose along with Grumman Widgeon ZK-CFA. During this time the Turbo Goose was also used to provide a brief air service to Tokelau Islands. In 1983 the British government cut the funding and the air service ended on the 15th of July 1983. Upon its return to New Zealand the Turbo Goose operated on the Auckland-Paihia service as well as on the other services in the Hauraki Gulf. However, the relatively short sectors were not economic for the turbo prop and the aircraft was subsequently exported to the United States in December 1984 as N77AQ.

McKinnon Turbo Goose, ZK-ERX, at Mechanics Bay with the Tuvalu flag on the tail. Photographer unknown





In the 1980s the company experienced two issues that led to its ultimate downfall. The first was the fuel crisis of the early 1980s. With skyrocketing fuel prices and a Government imposed price freeze the company came close to closing in 1982 and having to lay off staff. This sad turn of events came after Sea Bee Air had built up the patronage on the Waiheke service to some 22,000 people being carried per annum. The cost of fuel, along with the aging and the economics of operating the Widgeons, led to the fleet being gradually reduced.

Gulf News, 20 August 1982
Grumman Widgeon ZK-AVM was exported to Australia in June 1987 to become VH-WET. It later went to Papua and New Guinea as P2-WET before returning to New Zealand and being reregistered to Aquatic & Vintage Airways Ltd with its original registration ZK-AVM, on the 1st of July 1996. ZK-CHG was sold to O. C. E. Harnish on 10 July 1990 and ZK-CFA was sold to Aquatic & Vintage Airways in August 1994.

Grumman Widgeon ZK-CFA at Mechanics Bay on 3 August 1984.

The other issue was competition. On the Great Barrier Island service it came in the form of Great Barrier Airlines who ushered in a more professional and efficient air service to the Barrier from late 1983. A greater threat, however, came in the mid-1980s with proposals to introduce fast ferries on the Auckland-Waiheke service. The proposed ferry service promised a 35 minute service with a return fare of $10 compared to the then Auckland-Surfdale air fare of $30. 

With competition looming it became increasingly obvious to Sea Bee Air that the days of the amphibians were numbered. To counter this Bell 206B Jetranger ZK-HVC (c/n 231) was added to the fleet. This was used for local sightseeing, charter work and, when necessary, to maintain the Waiheke service when sea conditions made it difficult for the amphibians.

Then, in early 1986, the company looked to establish their own land-based operation and announced to Great Barrier Airlines they were prepared to either go into competition with them or to buy them out. Great Barrier Airlines chose a wait-and-see and attitude. Later that year two land-based aircraft were added to Sea Bee Air’s fleet; Piper Pa23-250 Aztec E ZK-FMU (c/n 27-2970) was registered to the company on the 20th September 1986 and Britten-Norman BN2A-8 Islander ZK-FMS (c/n 042) on the 7th of November 1986. As an interim measure Great Barrier Airlines forestalled competition by leasing the Islander before a decision was taken by Great Barrier Airlines to sell out to Sea Bee Air in April 1987. A number of land-based aircraft were subsequently registered to Sea Bee Air but only Islanders ZK-FMS and ZK-JSB carried the company’s titles.

BN Islander ZK-FMS at Auckland on 2 November 1986.


Other aircraft that were registered to Sea Bee Air included Pa23 Aztecs ZK-CEU (c/n 27-217) and ZK-DJG (c/n 27-2638) and Piper Pa28-181 Archer ZK-FNA (c/n 28-7790053) while the company also used Piper Pa28-140 Cherokee ZK-DJI, Piper Pa39 Twin Comanche ZK-ERH, Lake LA-4 Buccaneer ZK-DQM, Aerospatiale AS350B Squirrel ZK-HZO and Agusta A109A II ZK-HXI.

From 1988 the first large fast catamarans began carrying passengers to Great Barrier and Waiheke Islands. The introduction of a regular, dependable fast ferry service had an immediate and major detrimental impact on Sea Bee Air’s loadings to Waiheke and the amphibian business disappeared almost overnight. The company looked for other opportunities to develop the business, including skiers flights to Mount Ruapehu during the winter of 1988. The decision was made, however, to end scheduled services, the last being flown during Easter 1989 and the fleet started to disappear.


Timetable for the Ruapheu flights, August 1988

Grumman Goose ZK-ENY was cancelled from the register in November 1989 and exported to Australia as VH-ENY. The helicopter operation was sold to The Helicopter Line later that year. Grumman Goose ZK-DFC flew the last commercial flight during Easter 1990, though the aircraft was not sold until September 1991 when it was exported to the USA as N3116T. So ended New Zealand’s history of amphibious air services.


I had to sprint from the car to get Grumman Goose waddling into the water at Paihia on 31 October 1986.
Geese over Auckland... ZK-DFC and ZK-ENY. Photographer Unknown. 


The previous posts on the amphibian air services operated in New Zealand can be found at...

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

Tourist Air Travel
http://3rdlevelnz.blogspot.com/2011/11/shower-of-spray-and-were-away-nz.html

Mount Cook Airlines
http://3rdlevelnz.blogspot.com/2011/07/mount-cook-airlines-amphibian-service.html

Stewart Island Air Services
http://3rdlevelnz.blogspot.com/2010/04/nzs-southern-most-airline-pt-1-stewart.html
 


4 comments:

  1. Dave Lilico was the pilot of CGQ when it crashed in the Kaipara.I think the passenger was the young Farnsworth lad.

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  2. I fondly remember racing down to watch the Geese at Paihia in the early 1980s, and in 1986 on holiday in Auckland watching them take off down the harbour. Fascinating aircraft and operation, sad its all long gone.

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  3. As a kid in those years, the pilot for the Sea bee Air that operated in Tuvalu was known as Captain Norm, I think it was in short for Norman. He was the BEST that was given as he could land and take off the sea plane in rough waters and out in the open sea. He was able to to pick up medical evacuations from any of the outer islands at any time. Coming back to the capital and our runway did not have the required lights for night landing, the public was asked to provide lights so everyone had a lantern all around the runway....shoulder to shoulder.Captain Norm was our hero. In those days, Tuvalu had only one ship called M.V Nivaga that served the entire country for ALL purposes and also travelled at approximately 6 knots as cruising speed. The nearest island to the capital is about 60 miles which is Nukufetau Island. So the arrival of Sea Bee Air did save a lot of lives.
    Thanks to ALL who were involved in providing our country with Sea Bee Air Services and especially to Captain Norm.

    I hope we get another seaplane air service again in our country as the need for it has dangerously grown. Our 8 outer islands still have no runway for landing.

    Fakafetai Lasi,

    Taafaki Semu Taafaki

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  4. I flew in the sea bees in the early 80s as a child living on waiheke I have fond memories landing in all types of weather and wading through sea with our luggage and caged animals def an adventure for any child!

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