10 March 2013

Gisborne Air Transport - "The Pioneer Air Service"

Following the disaster that befell Dominion Airlines when their Desoutter II ZK-ACA crashed at Wairoa on the 9th of February 1931 the Air Force was called in to keep the Gisborne-Hastings air service running. The air service was all the more important following the Napier earthquake. On the 6th of March 1931 a new company, Gisborne Air Transport Ltd, was registered with George Nicholls being the major shareholder and relief pilot and Harry Lett as a shareholder and chief pilot.

The Poverty Bay Herald of the 7th of March 1931 reported that The company has purchased two machines, so that at all times a spare plane will be on hand. This allows for proper attention being given to the engines. The planes are a Desoutter cabin monoplane seating the pilot and two passengers, and a D.H. Moth coupe, which carries the pilot and one passenger. Both machines are what is termed "closed in" and passengers are therefore at all times protected from the weather. The Desoutter I, ZK-ABY (c/n D.17), was purchased from the major shareholder, George Nicholls, who became the managing director of the company. The De Havilland DH60M Moth Coupe ZK-ABA (c/n 1449) was purchased from Air Survey & Transport Co of Auckland and it was flown to Gisborne of the 9th of March 1931.

Poverty Bay Herald, 7 March 1931

The service commenced operations on the 10th of March 1931 with Flying Officer Harry Lett flying the Moth on a return from Gisborne south to Hastings. Special envelopes were used on the first day flight. They included the direction of the flight with 180 covers were flown in each direction and they were all signed by the pilot Flight-Lieutenant Harry Lett.

First day covers signed by Harry Lett.

The service, under the winter timetable, was timed to connect with the southbound Napier-Wellington express, with the plane leaving Gisborne for Hastings at 6.45 a.m. The return trip had a 9.45 a.m. departure from Hastings to arrive in Gisborne at 11 a.m. In the afternoon the aircraft were available for flights over the town and district, and special trips to any part of New Zealand may be arranged.

Poverty Bay Herald, 1 April 1931

In the Poverty Bay Herald’s report on the new service it was noted that the company intended to alter the timetable over the summer months to provide a through trip to Gisborne for passengers coming to Hastings by the Wellington express, but owing to the hours of day-light being too short it will not be possible to run this evening trip in winter months until such times as night flying facilities are available. As with its predecessor, Dominion Airlines, Gisborne Air Transport had grander plans the local newspaper reported. The new company hopes for the support of district residents, and that the present venture will be the forerunner of an air service which link Gisborne eventually with Auckland and Wellington. 

The Gisborne Air Transport fleet... to the left the DH 60 Moth ZK-ABA and to the right the Desoutter ZK-ABY.

"The Pioneer Service" - Poverty Bay Herald, 26 September 1931

As well as maintaining the air service the company also flew one of New Zealand’s first air ambulance services. The Auckland Star of the 22nd of July 1931 recounted the event: "For goodness' sake give me a cigarette!" This was what Canon H. Packe, a sick Gisborne clergyman, said when he was taken out of an aerial ambulance which had flown him from Gisborne to Auckland this morning. Canon Packe is now being treated by a specialist in the Auckland Hospital. For the past six weeks this well- known Anglican clergyman has been an inmate of the Gisborne Hospital. Early this week he was ordered treatment by a specialist, but his condition made a car journey to Auckland inadvisable for the reason that it would have taken four days in easy stages. It was decided to bring the patient to Auckland by air. At 8.15 this morning a Desoutter Mark I monoplane, piloted by Flight Lieutenant W. H. Lett, left Gisborne with the sick clergyman and with Mr R. G. Fitzgerald, a Gisborne man, as passenger to look after the patient. Three hours 20 minutes later the plane made a perfect landing at the Mangere Aerodrome. An ambulance was waiting at the 'drome and Canon Packe was taken to the Auckland Hospital. "The conditions were very cloudy, but I should say that flying was ideal for the sick man," said the pilot. "We came over the Motu Hills, but never caught sight of them. Between Whakatane and Hamilton we encountered a lot of low stuff and we were flying into a head wind, but taken all round it was a good trip." When it was decided to send Canon Packe to Auckland, an effort was made in Gisborne to obtain a passage on an overseas liner, but this endeavour was frustrated because of rough seas. It was then decided to use an aeroplane. The machine was partially converted so that the passenger could travel in the greatest comfort. Although no stretcher could be placed inside the cabin of the 'plane, a comparatively comfortable bed was improvised. Two padded benzine tins were placed alongside the pilot, so that the patient, who was sitting in the back of the cabin, could stretch his legs full length. Hot water bottles, and thick rugs kept him warm, and he looked quite comfortable when he arrived. "It was a most enjoyable trip," he said. "I only wish I could have got more kick out of it." It was the first time Canon Packe had been up in a 'plane. It is believed that this is only the second occasion on which a sick man has been carried by an aeroplane in New Zealand. Aerial ambulances are frequently used in Australia. The type of 'plane used on the trip is a three-seater, high-wing, cabin monoplane, with a Hermes 11 engine. Flight-Lieutenant Lett is chief pilot for the Gisborne Air Transport Co., Ltd. He intends to fly back to Gisborne this afternoon.

The air ambulance flight for Canon Packe. Source : Gisborne Photo News No 23 May 31, 1956

Desoutter ZK-ABY - Source : http://www.wings.net.nz/oldwings/1026.html
The difficult Depression of the early 1930s led to the Moth being sold to the Manawatu Aero Club of Palmerston North, it being registered to them on the 21st of May 1932.

Gisborne Air Transport’s service continued until mid-December 1932. On the 24th of December 1932 the Poverty Bay Herald reported that, During the past few days, the Desoutter cabin plane, ZK-ABY has changed hands, and is now under the control of the Hawke's Bay Aero Club, with headquarters in Hastings. The passenger service formerly carried on by the Gisborne Air Transport Company will be maintained by the Hawke's Bay Aero Club. Harry Lett, Gisborne Air Transport’s chief pilot, accepted a temporary appointment as instructor with the Manawatu Aero Club.

On the 18th of May the following year the Hawke's Bay Tribune published a report on the air service. Interesting details of experiences on the Gisborne-Hastings air service over a period of 22 months, were recounted by the acting-instructor of the Auckland Aero Club, Flight Lieutenant W. H. Lett. During the time that the service was in operation he completed 590 trips in practically every variety of weather on the coastal route, and was forced to turn back on account of adverse conditions on only two occasions. Two machines were in operation, a Desoutter monoplane, and a Moth, but there was only one pilot, and he not only did all the flying but undertook the maintenance and general work as well. Although the, work was strenuous —he finished up his day many times at half past ten at night it was nevertheless congenial and there were few dull moments. Fully 75 per cent, of those who made the trip by air were women. “On a continuous service as that on which I was flying, one very soon became accustomed to expecting varying weather conditions at different places,” said the pilot. “One should be able to maintain a service of about 95 per cent regularity owing to the possibility of being able to fly low over the water in bad weather, by keeping the line of breakers in view. There were many days when I made the trip without seeing any of the coast the whole way, but I was able to see the white foam through the rain and low clouds, and this acted as an excellent guide. There had been only three forced landings during the time the service was running, and none of them was attended with serious consequences mainly owing to the ability and foresight of the pilot. When he first started the run on the coast he had marked out seven emergency landing grounds, and his caution stood him up in good stead at least on one occasion. 

As a postscript some 30 years ago Harry Lett was to fly the East Coast route again, this time as a guest of NAC on its Gisborne-Napier Fokker Friendship service. The Gisborne Herald reported the reunion of two old friends on the 10th of March 1964. "George! It's good to see you again! By gosh we used to have some fun flying in the old days!" was the spontaneous greeting of 72-year-old, Mr Harry Lett as he recognised Mr G. A. Nicholls, who was at the aerodrome… to extend a welcome to Mr Lett. Mr Nichols, now a director of N.A.C. and T.E.A.L., and Mr Lett were the two pilots who pioneered the Gisborne-Napier-Hastings air route when a group of Gisborne businessmen formed the Gisborne Air Transport Company in 1931, with Mr Nicholls as managing director. Why was Mr Lett making this trip? A photograph in the programme for the recent opening of the new Napier airport led to Mr F. R, Okeby, the Tauranga manager for NAC making an inquiry to find out if Mr Lett had been invited to the opening. He was told that the organisers had been unable to trace him. Mr Okeby decided to arrange a special trip for him over the route he once helped to pioneer.

Harry Lett and George Nicholls reunited at Gisborne in 1964. Photo : Gisborne Herald

These two men proved the viability and importance of an air service to Gisborne. In its 21 months of operations before it went into liquidation, Gisborne Air Transport had flown 590 flights between Gisborne and Hastings. The same group of businessmen that established it were to become directors in East Coast Airways which commenced operations in 1935.


  1. The Ormonds Motors Ltd. mentioned in the ads was G A Nicholl's Gisborne-based automotive business. He had a branch in Ruatoria as well.

  2. What ever happened to aircraft ZK-ABY. It appears this aircraft, a Desoutter 1, was first registered about 1930 and was deregistered as "destroyed" about 1937. What caused its "distruction" and where are its bones now?

  3. It went to the Hawkes Bay and East Coast Aero Club as follows. Nothing more that I have been able to find...

    4 Jan 1933 - Air Transport Service Changes Hands - Hastings-Gisborne
    Having bought the Desoutter cabin aeroplane of Gisborne Air Transport, Ltd., the Hawke's Bay Aero Club has taken over the daily service between Gisborne and Hastings, which the company carried on. The service was begun by Dominion Airlines, Ltd., in 1930, and carried on until the crash of the company's machine in February, 1931, after which the company went into liquidation. The Gisborne Air Transport Company was then formed, and began its operations on the route a month later. The pilot of the service has been Flight-Lieutenant W. H. Lett, who has accepted a temporary appointment as instructor to the Manawatu Aero Club, and the new pilot is expected to be Flying-Officer A. C. Gerrand, pilot instructor to the Hawke's Bay Club.

    30 May 1933 - Mails By Air - Emergency Service
    (By Telegraph.—Press Association.) HASTINGS, This Day. Proof of the usefulness of district aero clubs was given this week during the flood rains which caused a temporary suspension of the mail service by road between Hastings and Gisborne. Having two passengers who wished to travel from Gisborne to Hawke's Bay, the aero club, which maintains a passenger service between the two towns, made an offer to carry mails which were held up by slips on the road. Flight Lieutenant Gerrand, flying a Desoutter monoplane, took two passengers yesterday morning and 3500 letters, and returned this morning with two passengers and 4200 letters, weighing about a hundredweight.