18 November 2012

Mount Cook Airlines' Sunbird Service to Kerikeri

By the early 1970s Mount Cook Airlines was keen to promote the Bay of Islands’ tourist potential. The company introduced an amphibian air service between Auckland and Paihia on the 4th of November 1972 using a Grumman Goose. But even at this time Mount Cook Airlines was actively seeking to add the Bay of Islands to its Hawker Siddeley 748 network. The company felt the construction of a new airport was a Government responsibility, nevertheless it was prepared to construct one itself, as it had previously done at Mount Cook, Pukaki and Manapouri. 

Ironically it was an air accident on the 11th of October 1974 in Wichita, Kansas, that advanced Mount Cook Airlines’ aspirations to extend its services to the Bay of Islands. On delivery to the company was a second Grumman Goose which was to be initially used to replace the existing Grumman Goose on the Auckland-Paihia service while it was on major overhaul and later to replace one of the smaller and uneconomic Grumman Widgeons. With the new Goose destroyed in the United States Mount Cook Airlines found itself desperately short of capacity and the decision was made to introduce a Britten Norman Islander service between Auckland and Kerikeri making use of a local topdressing air strip. 

A Britten Norman Islander was hastily ordered and ZK-MCC (c/n 395) duly arrived in New Zealand on the 31st of December 1974. The Islander was flown to Auckland on the 11th of January 1975 and put to work on non-scheduled flights from Auckland to Kerikeri replacing the Grumman Goose service to Paihia.. Four flights a day were operated to Kerikeri with a lesser schedule over the winter.  

The following summer the Islander service to Kerikeri was again boosted to four daily BN Islander flights, giving a total of 252 seats each way every week. Meanwhile, negotiations between Mount Cook Airlines and the Government were progressing. In launching the expanded Islander service John Ward, the northern regional manager, expressed his confidence that Kerikeri airfield would be upgraded Hawker-Siddeley standard by the following year. He told the Northern News his company's plan was to provide an early morning flight from Auckland to the Bay of Islands which would return to Auckland and on the southern tourist destinations. Similarly there would be a late evening flight from the south through Auckland to the Bay of Islands which would then return to Auckland giving a total of 672 seats each way every week.

Northern News, 5 February 1976

This initial Mount Cook Airlines service into Kerikeri was somewhat primitive. As there were no navigational aids the flights were operated under visual flight rules. In the November 1976 issue of Wings Ross Dunlop described the service: “On the 125 mile journey between Auckland and Kerikeri the Islander scuds along at around 1,000 ft, giving the passengers a magnificent view of some very attractive tourist-type countryside. At 128 kts indicated and 2300 rpm the trip is scheduled to take 55 minutes; the lower power setting results in less noise in the cabin. Kerikeri airfield is what you would expect; virtually a grass clearing in the middle of the countryside. Passenger facilities are minimal, a fenced-off patch of gravel where the mini-bus parks. It's the epitome of simplicity… The Islander is an ideal aeroplane for the Kerikeri airfield, and it makes short work of the 2,625 ft main vector or the alternative 1,900 ft strip.”

Northern News, 20 May 1976

By November 1976 Mount Cook Airlines had received government approval to lease the airfield for 20 years and to extend it. The work involved stripping the dense scrub, excavating 25,000 cubic metres of earth and bringing in 15,000 cubic metres of metal. The hope was that the Hawker Siddeley 748s would be flying into Kerikeri by February 1977. In preparation for the launch of the new 748 route it was branded as the Sunbird service with its own logo. The Sunbird itself was described, as a Jonathan Livingstone type seagull in a lazy, leisurely glide attitude crossing the face of a warm sun, which is also somewhat like a Kerikeri orange! The effect, it was claimed, was to be more in keeping with the warmth and leisurely, Bay of Islands way of life than drawings of marlins and makos!

Northern News, 17 March 1977

The service began, on schedule, on the 17th of March 1977. There was, however, a problem. Despite a record breaking construction performance Kerikeri Airport was not ready and the first flights operated to Kaikohe. The first flight into Kaikohe, on the evening of the 17th of March 1977, carried 26 passengers, most of whom were on their way to a conference of the New Zealand Independent Meat Exporters Association at the Waitangi Hotel. Despite hopes that Kerikeri would be used by the end of the month construction delays on the $200,000 project continued. In the meantime Government gave an immediate go-ahead for night landing facilities to be installed at Kerikeri.   

Mount Cook Airlines first flight to Kerikeri was on the 3rd of May 1977. The first HS 748 flight was flown by ZK-MCA under the command of Captain Geoff Williams and First Officer David Wyatt with Chief Purser Trevor Edlin and Steward Wally McKee looking after the cabin. The first flight, however, was also not without incident. What was to have been the first Hawker Siddeley flight to touch down at the reconstructed Kerikeri Airport was held up by a mechanical fault in Auckland. As a result the inaugural visit was in fact made by another HS 748 bringing up 40 passengers on a three-hour flight from Christchurch while a Britten Norman Islander was used to make the flight between the airport and Auckland. From this point on the airline ran a limited service to Kerikeri Airport until June 1 when a full twice daily service commenced.

The first Hawker Siddeley 748 Series 2A flight to Kerikeri. ZK-MCA and Britten-Norman BN2A-26 Islander, ZK-MCC, taken at Kerikeri on 3 May 1977. Pictured left to right are: David Wyatt, co-pilot on the HS748; Bruce Packer, pilot of the BN Islander; Captain Geoff Williams, operations manager and pilot of the HS748; Anna Laloli, Miss Airport 1977; Wally McKee, steward; Trevor Edlin; chief purser. Photographer unknown. S Lowe Collection

Northern News, 3 October 1977

However, The Kerikeri flights did not meet Mount Cook’s expectations and over the winter of 1978 flights were reduced to three days a week.  The flights were again increased to a daily schedule over the 1978/79 summer, but these too failed to generate an adequate the level of patronage to make the service viable. The Hawker Siddeley 748s were withdrawn from the Kerikeri service on the 31st of March 1979 in favour of an Islander service over the winter. The 748s returned for the 1979/1980 summer when one 748 flight was operated daily alongside two Islander flights. The 748s flew their final service to Kerikeri on the 31st of March 1980 and they never operated this route on a scheduled basis from this point on. Mount Cook never really attracted the number of tourists it hoped for on the Sunbird service. While Americans tourists were happy to fly north, Japa­nese tourists tended to do quicker tours to New Zealand which effectively meant Rotorua and the South Island resort areas. That meant the service needed a strong local support, which at this time wasn’t there in terms of the number of seats being offered. 

Instead the company reverted to a Britten Norman Islander service from the 1st of April 1979. These flights operated three times daily. In the summer of 1980 these capacity on these Islander flights was increased by addition of a second Britten Norman Islander on each flight. The idea of using two of them at once was to increase the number of seats available to 32 per trip or a total of 608 a week. 

In mid-1982 the Islander was replaced with a faster Piper Pa31-350 Navajo Chieftain, ZK-MCM. While the nine seat Chieftain did not have quite the load hauling capacity of the Islander it was faster and, probably more importantly for the passengers, distinctly quieter to fly in.

Ready for its next service to Kerikeri, Piper Chieftain ZK-MCM at Auckland on 24 November 1982. Photo : S Lowe
Further development of the service occurred on the 16th of January 1984 when de Havilland Canada Twin Otter ZK-MCO was introduced to the service. Two Rotorua-Auckland-Kerikeri return flights per day were flown each day. The Twin Otter plied the Auckland-Kerikeri route for the next two years with two flights being offered each day in the winter and three flights being offered over the summer.

The introduction of the Twin Otter. The timetable features ZK-CJZ which operated from Queenstown to Alexandra and Dunedin and Queenstown and Milford Sound in the 1970s.

Mount Cook Line's de Havilland Canada DHC-6 Twin Otter ZK-MCO at Rotorua, on 27 January 1984. Photo : S Lowe

Northern News, 17 January 1984

In mid-1986 the Twin Otter was moved south to Queenstown and the Piper Chieftain returned to the Kerikeri run. Again ZK-MCM was used and this was supported by ZK-EBT leased from Airwork. The Chieftain flew four return services a day to Kerikeri with at the peak of summer a fifth flight being offered. 

Boarding for Auckland. Piper Chieftain ZK-MCM at Kerikeri on 3 March 1992

The Chieftain was to maintain the Kerikeri service until the 31st of October 1993. Late that day Eagle Air's Embraer Bandeirante ZK-MAS positioned to Kerikeri. The following day Eagle Air took over the Kerikeri service with ZK-MAS operating the first Eagle flight to Auckland on the 1st of November 1993 marking the end of the Sunbird service. 

Back up for ZK-MCM was Airwork's ZK-EBT which carried Mount Cook Airline titles. Photo taken at Christchurch on 24 August 1985 by S Lowe

Mount Cook Airline's Piper Chieftain ZK-MCM in the new scheme. Photo taken at Christchurch on 24 August 1985 by S Lowe

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