18 March 2012

The Middle Districts Aero Club's Airline - Midland Air Services

In January 1963 the Middle Districts Aero Club took delivery Piper Pa23-160 Apache ZK-BYX Apache (c/n 23-1310). Over the years the Club used the five-seater for air charter and air taxi flights, air ambulance, aerial photography and scenic flights and it was later to see service on the Club’s own “airline” service. By the later 1960s the Middle Districts Aero Club formed Midland Air Services as the operating name of its commercial division.

Midland Air Services' flagship, Piper Apache ZK-BYX. Photo taken at Palmerston North. Photographer unknown
In 1968 NAC timetable’s first direct flight to Auckland did not depart Palmerston North until 12.30 and so the Aero Club decided to operate an early morning air service to Auckland that would return in the afternoon to cater for the needs of local business people. Midland Air Services started operating an air taxi service in July that year under the Club’s charter licence but formally began a non-scheduled air service on the 16th of September 1968. The on-demand service left Palmerston North on Monday to Friday mornings at 7.30 a.m. During the winter months the return service left Auckland at 3.30 p.m. and at 4.30 p.m. in the summer months.

The Auckland timetable - 1968/1969

Midland Air Services used the Club’s Piper Apache ZK-BYX, Cessna 180A ZK-CGJ (c/n RA5-64) and Piper Pa28-160 Cherokee ZK-CEO (c/n 28-1574) for the flights, the aircraft type being determined by the number of passengers offering. The Club insisted that even if only one passenger wished to travel on a certain day that they would take them. While the service had a lot of potential there were two disadvantages. Firstly it was a VFR service, which presented problems if the weather was bad throughout the North Island. Secondly, the club was obliged to charge an air fare 10% above the NAC fare.

The Club's Piper Pa28 Cherokee 160, ZK-CEO at Christchurch

Cessna 180 ZK-CGJ at Palmerston North on 28 June 1968.
In November 1968 NAC announced its intention to withdraw its Douglas DC-3 service from Palmerston North to Napier and Gisborne from the 20th of December 1968. Midland Air Services saw this is an opportunity to expand. Chris Hayworth flew the first flight on the 26th of December 1968 in Piper Apache ZK-BYX. The service from Palmerston North to Gisborne operated seven days a week service landing at Napier as required. Flights departed from Palmerston North at 10.00 a.m. to arrive in Gisborne about 11.30 a.m. The return flights left Gisborne at 12.45 p.m. and arrived at Palmerston North about 3.15 p.m. As with the Auckland service different aircraft were used depending on passengers offering. As well as carrying passengers Midland Air Services also carried material for Data Bank on this southbound flight and this helped the viability of the service. Again the service had the disadvantage of being only to be operated on a visual flight rules basis; however, with no competition from NAC the Club charged the same fare as the previous NAC service.

By the 31st of March 1969 only 186 passengers were carried on the Auckland service since its inception the previous July and subsequently Midland Air Services stopped this service, the last passengers being flown in May 1969. The Napier and Gisborne service performed a lot better, with 513 passengers carried on the service in the just over three months to the 31st of March. This was a good start considering NAC averaged 1600 passengers a year when they operated the service. The Club was pleased with its success but realised they needed to investigate the possibility of offering an IFR service with a larger aircraft.

In the meantime, from July 1969, Dannevirke was included in the Gisborne service as stopover as and when required. This was Dannevirke’s one and only regular air service and it was included for two reasons. Firstly, it was to pick up any passengers that might be offering. The Dannevirke stop was also important for the Data Bank freight. If the weather meant the aircraft could not cross the Ruahine Ranges to Palmerston North the freight was off-loaded and continued its journey by road.

The frequency of the service also changed with the introduction of the Dannevirke stopover. The flight only operated to Gisborne on Mondays, Wednesdays, Fridays and Sundays. On Tuesdays and Thursdays a Palmerston North-Dannevirke-Napier return service was operated. The Club also replaced the Cessna 180 with ZK-CNS Piper Pa32-260 Cherokee Six (c/n 32-686).

Timetable effective 2 February 1970
The Middle Districts Aero Club's Piper Pa32 Cherokee 6, ZK-CNS, at Palmerston North

John Jamieson, from Dannevirke’s Evening News newspaper reported on a flight from Dannevirke to Gisborne shortly after its inclusion on the service.

There and back in little over half the time estimated for the journey by car one way. That was my record for the trip to Gisborne this week. I made it in the comfort of Midland Air Service’s Piper Apache which make the flight, carrying passengers and freight on four days of the week, with stops at Dannevirke and Napier when required. At 12.15pm the plane touched down at Dannevirke’s aerodrome on a sunny winter’s afternoon. I was welcomed on board by pilot Chris Hayworth, who informed me that the weather was fine most of the way with showers in the Gisborne area. We should have a good trip. The cabin door was shut and locked behind me and safety belts were fastened. The motors roared into life, Chris checked the many instruments on the panel in front of him and everything being okay we taxied out onto the runway. The engines raced and we were off down the runway and in a very short distance airborne. A push of a lever and the undercarriage retracted into the belly of the plane. The time was 12.30pm. We climbed quite quickly as Dannevirke slid by the right wing. Just north of the town we made 3000 ft. Chris then used his radio to tell the controller in Wellington that we had just left Dannevirke and were heading for Gisborne. Scattered clouds in the Norsewood area necessitated a 500ft increase in altitude. Then we suddenly were cruising along at 170mph in brilliant sunshine. Now I had a little time to take in the view. The tops of the Ruahines with their coating of snow glistened in the sunshine. Just peeking over the top of the ranges were the snow covered mountains in the centre of the island. We were flying now at 5000ft and the temperature outside was at freezing point. Very soon the cloud below disappeared and a magnificent panorama of Hawke’s Bay came into view. To the right was the while finger of Cape Kidnappers standing out in the afternoon sun. The fruit bowl of New Zealand, the Heretaunga Plains spread out below, the green pastures contrasting with the darker coloured cultivated ground. The city of Hastings looked small in the distance and straight ahead the Bluff Hill at Napier was just visible. The curve of the Bay was outlined by the white surf which tumbled onto beaches far below. The city of Napier approached rapidly and we passed over it as 12.50pm, 20 minutes after leaving Dannevirke. Out over the sea we descended to 3000ft to fly under clouds that stretched across the horizon. The tail wind that was pushing us along was whipping white horses on the surface of the sea. Because of the cloud and rain that was in front of us covering the Mahia Peninsula we would have to detour instead of going in a direct line from Napier to Gisborne over the Mahia Peninsula. Twelve miles east of Wairoa we flew into the rain and flew through a sight clearing in the middle. We emerged out of the haze into brilliant sunshine between the end of Mahia Peninsula and Portland Island. The airstrip and the isolated community on the island quickly disappeared behind us.
Chris Hayworth at the controls of the Apache. Photo : Dannevirke Evening News

Out into Poverty Bay and in the distance we found two ships steaming quietly along. Chris said we would go and have a look. He had seen Japanese fishing boats on three occasions in the area. On closer inspection they turned out to be an oil tanker and a coaster heading north. Minutes away was Young Nick’s Head and then we headed across the sea again to Gisborne which was just visible in the distance. In next to no time we were over the city with its river and bridges. Chris soon received permission to land and we slowly descended, the wheels were lowered and the runway came rushing to meet us. A slight bump and we had landed. Then we taxied over to the terminal – in Gisborne. The trip from Dannevirke had taken 1 hour 32 minutes. At 3pm our passengers arrived and we were set to go. With the passengers seated the engines leapt to life and we taxied out on to the runway. Once again Chris went through the cockpit drill. There was a final check to see that we were all strapped in, permission was granted from the tower to take off, and we were away. The airport and Gisborne receded behind as we climbed quickly to 4000ft, flying over the farmland on our way south. Ahead was a bank of clouds so up again to 6500ft to get above. Looking straight out the clouds looked like cotton wool, but looking down you could see the countryside through the gaps. About 25 miles north of Napier we left the clouds behind. The Apache, fitted with a radio compass, homed in on the signal sent from Napier Airport. So long as the needle on the dial pointed to zero we were headed exactly in that direction. Again the sweep of Hawke’s Bay was seen as we closed in on Napier, where we were to land. Chris got permission to land as the city of Napier loomed up ahead.  Below, the ships berthed in the harbour looked like toy boats. Wheels down again as we approached the runway and down again for another perfect landing.

It was 3.50pm. We were ahead of schedule so we sat in the sun and waited for the cargo which we had landed to pick up to arrive. Just after 4pm the freight arrived, was loaded on board. We all took our seats and at 4.10pm we were up and away again. On the last part of the flight back to Dannevirke we flew at 2500ft, giving us a good view of the countryside. Looking out my window the view was superb. The rolling green hills bathed in the golden sunlight of the late afternoon sun. The paddocks were strewn with ant-like sheep busy getting their last nibble before nightfall and the long shadows cast by the trees made interesting patterns on the ground. Smoke from farmhouse chimneys was gently wafted away by the breeze. On we flew past Onga Onga then Takapau, the main highway busy with traffic below. From Takapau on south the number of trees growing in the area increased. On past Norsewood, just catching the last of the sun and Dannevirke came into view. The town sped quickly past as we began to descend toward the aerodrome. Three green lights on the instrument panel lit up to show that the undercarriage was down. Bump, and we had landed. The time was 4.40pm. I thanked the pilot for a most enjoyable trip and smooth flight then climbed down on to the ground. I stood on the runway and watched the plane take off and disappear quickly into the distance as it headed for Palmerston North. It was hard to believe that I had been to Gisborne and back in an afternoon, when the journey there by car takes about six hours.

By September 1972 the Gisborne air service was starting to decline, though it remained profitable. 

Timetable effective 1 January 1973

By mid-1974 the service was in serious trouble. Cessna 172M Skyhawk ZK-DNT (c/n 172-62406) was added to the fleet and the frequency of the service was reduced service to once a week. The club also faced the need to replace the Apache which was no longer economic. To continue to offer efficient charter services, an effective Gisborne service and an acceptable ambulance service, the Club considered the possibility of a twin-engined IFR aircraft. This did not come to pass, however, and by October 1974 the Gisborne service had ended and the Piper Apache and Piper Cherokee 6 sold.

The Middle Districts Aero Club's Cessna 172 ZK-DNT, taken outside the club rooms at Palmerston North

A big thanks to Chris Hayworth for his help in preparing this post. Thanks also, and as always, to Bruce Gavin.

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