20 May 2012

Titan Air Services' Courier Flyer

Titan Air Services Limited was incorporated on the 22nd of November 1976 and in 1977 imported its first Cessna 404 Titan, ZK-TAS (c/n 404-0067), which was placed on the New Zealand register on the 22nd of April 1977.

In the same month Titan Air Services applied for a Christchurch-Chatham Islands return service. At the time of their application the Chathams were served by Safe Air’s Bristol Freighter service from Wellington, the Christchurch connection having been withdrawn in 1975. The company’s application was unusual in that it not only wanted to serve the main Chatham airfield at Hapupu, but also the Moreroa airfield, which was closer to the main settlement of Waitangi and Pitt Island. In its documentation in support of its application the company said Waitangi passengers would have only 8 km of travel to the airfield, (without the need to cross the lagoon) and then the aircraft would position to Hapupu to uplift Kaingaroa passengers before returning to the mainland. The company also felt it would be feasible, without great expense, to develop an airport on Pitt Island which they would service, on demand, via Chatham. The company said they would not need a Government subsidy and that they also wanted to promote tourism to the Chathams over the summer months.

The company also applied to operate winter flights for skiers between Methven’s new Pudding Hill airfield and Karioi airfield near the southern slopes of Mount Ruapehu. Titan Air Services had worked with Winstones Ltd to develop the field there, to the point of installing an NDB. The Civil Aviation Division, however, refused operational approval for the Cessna 404s to use the Methven airfield and this part of the application did not proceed.

On the Chatham Island application the Civil Aviation Division again refused operational approval for the Cessna 404s to use Moreroa and Pitt Island as stopping points. From the Ministry of Transport perspective there was serious concern expressed about the impact the proposed service would have on Safe Air’s loss-making Bristol Freighter service. At the time of Titan Air Service’s application Safe Air were losing over $100,000 per annum on their Chatham flights.

Meanwhile, on the 26th of May 1977 ZK-TAS was hired to Dalhoff and King Flying School Limited who operated the aircraft under their air service licence. A number of flights were made between Christchurch and the Chatham Islands with the Cessna 404 under charter services from Dalhoff and King Flying School to the Chatham Islands Packing Company.  

Leading up to the hearing Air Services Licencing Authority the nature of the company’s application changed. The hearing consider the application to undertake three different (a) scheduled services Christchurch-Chatham Islands two days per week, (b) charter services Christchurch-Chatham Islands two days per week, and (c) charter services to other places from Christchurch - mainly a courier freight service to Wellington five nights per week, the company insisting that it needed all three operations approved to be viable.

Evidence presented to the Authority suggested that the Cessna 404 would be capable of carrying 5 passengers out to the Chathams with 8 returning. The Authority was sympathetic to the need of a service between the Chathams and Christchurch given two thirds of Safe Air’s passenger traffic originated or terminated in the South Island. However, the Authority was concerned that the Titan Air Services application would seriously erode Safe Air’s business, thereby reducing that service and increasing the demand on the New Zealand tax payer to subsidise the Chathams air service. An added obstacle to Titan Air Service’s application was that, at the commencement of the hearing, the Authority was informed by a representative from the Department of Internal Affairs that consequent on representation from the Chatham Islands interests, the former triangular service which operated Wellington-Chatham-Islands-Christchurch would be reintroduced. The Authority’s ruling stated that “We are satisfied that the needs of the Chatham Islands are the best served by the existing service and that it is neither necessary nor desirable that the propose service should be licenced. On the contrary, we think that the introduction of a second service could work against an overall satisfactory transport plan for the Chatham Islands.”

Safe Air’s Christchurch-Chathams link resumed on the 2nd of August 1977 and Titan Air Services’ attempt to operate services in its own right ended.

While Titan Air Services never operated the Cessna 404s in their own right, the aircraft were operated by the Dalhoff and King Flying School Ltd for Titan Air Services under a lease agreement. In 1977 Armourguard Security Couriers, the original Freightways courier company, became Courier Systems Limited and this company established a Monday-Friday night freight operation between Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch using the Titan Air Services’ two Cessna 404 Titans operated by the Dalhoff and King Flying School. The service began in April 1977 using Cessna 404 Titan ZK-TAS, though tragedy was to strike the company shortly after the service started.

Ill-fated Cessna 404 Titan ZK-TAS at Ardmore on 23 April 1987.  Notice the Titan Air Services logo on the engine cowls

On the night of the 8th of August 1977 Vic Donnelly was flying ZK-TAS on a courier flight from Auckland to Christchurch via Wellington. As he began his descent into Christchurch on the second sector he reported handling problems before declaring a mayday and reporting an engine shut down and engine fires. The aircraft crashed in the sea. With no wreckage to investigate the official accident report gave possible causes as disorientation in cloud while trying to deal with an emergency, loss of control because of airframe ice build-up, structural failure with a severe fire in the engine bay, an explosion in hazardous cargo, a failure of the flying control system or possible criminal mischief.

While the accident was a severe blow the service continued. A second Cessna 404 Titan, ZK-TAT (c/n 404-0067), was registered in New Zealand on the 26th of August 1977 and registered to the Dalhoff and King Flying School Ltd to operate the Courier System contract for Titan Air Services on the 8th of September 1977. In addition to the Titans, Cessna 402s ZK-DSB, DSG and EHT were also used at various times either as a replacement for ZK-TAS or backup for ZK-TAT. A service from Invercargill and Dunedin to Christchurch was added in October 1977. This extension used Akarana Air's Invercargill-based Aerostar 600. The service ended at the end of September 1978 when Courier Systems terminated the contract.

The second Cessna 404 Titan ZK-TAT at Wigram for the 50th Anniversary Airshow of Charles Kingsford-Smith's first Tasman crossing in September 1978.

Meanwhile, a month earlier on the 7th of August 1978, the Package Express Company had commenced a similar service using the Titan. This operation lasted until the 7th of March 1979. The Package Express service linked up at Christchurch (occasionally Wellington) with a service from Dunedin operated by Air Charter Christchurch Ltd.

The Titans were also used by Rex Air Charter, which was the air charter division of the Dalhoff and King Flying School. When the Titan was unavailable Cessna 402B ZK-DSB owned by Temperazone (NZ) Ltd, was usually used.

By April 1979 Titan Air Services had been placed in receivership by fuel suppliers BP and was wound up. Cessna Titan ZK-TAT was then used by Air Central Ltd until late 1979 when it was purchased by James Aviation and used by their Jamesair third level airline.

Pilots included:
Dave Bevan
John Campbell
Bryan Cox
Peter Cummings
Vic Donnelly
Ken Green (who flew the last service on 7 March 1979)
Gordon Needham
Rob Palmer (who helped get Titan Air Services Ltd established)
Warren Sattler
Mark Shepherd

Aircraft included:
ZK-DSB Cessna 402B (402-0585) hired from Temperazone (NZ) Ltd
ZK-DSG Cessna 402B (402-0559) used for a time after the loss of ZK-TAS
ZK-EHT Cessna 402B (402-0340) also used as a temporary replacement for
ZK-TAS Cessna 404 Titan II (404-0067)
ZK-TAT Cessna 404 Titan (404-0080)

AHSNZ Newsletter May/June 1979. Pages 35 and 36
AHSNZ Newsletter August 1979. Page 60
NZ Wings May, August, November 1977 issues
Ministry of Transport and Air Services Licencing Authority files

Compiled by F B Gavin and added to by S Lowe


  1. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  2. Pilots also included Bryan Cox, Warren Sattler and Mark Shepherd.

  3. Victor Donnelly i knew personally as a father figure to me for a significant number of years during the 1950's, the 1960's, and the 1970's. I can attest he was an impressive, kind, honest, straight-forward man of good intention, unfailingly!! The suggested inference of criminal intent in the loss of ZK-TAS is an unpardonable gross offence to the memory of Vic as one of the finest pilots and men that New Zealand has ever produced!

    1. I worked for Dalhoff and King at the time of the accident and knew Vic. Great guy. I have subsequently investigated the criminal intent and spoken to industry insiders about it. If it did happen, I am sure Vic would have been a victim not a perpetrator.