17 March 2013

South Westland Skiplane Services


Mount Cook Air Services' Skiplane Service to Hokitika

Mount Cook Air Service's scheduled skiplane service from Fox Glacier and Franz Josef to Hokitika operated from late 1968 to early 1971 and this is the first third level service that I recall. When we would go up to the Hokitika Airport to see someone off on the NAC Friendship service to Christchurch I would talk my parents into staying on to watch the NAC DC-3 go to Westport and further north and then the Mount Cook Air Services’ Cessna 185 skiplane depart to South Westland.  This is story of the skiplane air service. 

For many years Air Travel, NAC and West Coast Airways operated an air service south from Hokitika to South Westland. The last of these operators, West Coast Airways, as well as operating a service to Haast, also operated a thrice weekly service to Franz Josef and Fox Glacier with de Havilland DH89 Dominie aircraft. This service ended on the 31st of March 1967.

The following year, on the 20th of December 1968, NAC commenced trans-alpine Fokker Friendship flights from Christchurch to Hokitika. On the same day Mount Cook Air Services reintroduced flights to and from South Westland by starting a non-scheduled service from Fox Glacier and Franz Josef to Hokitika using Cessna 185 skiplanes. The Hokitika Guardian of that day reported that Air traffic movements will turn Hokitika Airport into a 'mini Harewood' today when the start of the new trans-alpine air service sees connecting flights from north and south. First to arrive is the DC-3 from Wellington at 1.35 pm. Then a Mt Cook Air Services Fox Glacier based 6-seater Cessna 185 touches down at 1.45 pm. The Friendship lands at 1.50 pm and departs at 2.10 pm on return to Christchurch and the other two aircraft leave shortly afterwards on return to Wellington and Fox Glacier. The same day there was a large advertisement for the air service in the Greymouth Evening Star. These are the only two references to the air service in the local newspapers.

Greymouth Evening Star, 20 December 1968
Timetable Effective 20 December 1968

The first flight from Franz Josef to Hokitika and return was flown by Lyall Hood, a son of Hokitika, in Cessna 185D Skywagon ZK-CKT on the 20th of December 1968. Over the summer holidays until the 2nd of February 1969 the skiplane flights operated on a daily basis, if there were passengers offering. 

Cessna 185 ZK-CKT, which flew the first South Westland-Hokitika skiplane service at Fox Glacier. Photographer unknown.

After the summer holidays, from the 3rd of February 1969, the Friendship service from Christchurch to Hokitika was reduced to operate on only four days a week, namely on Mondays, Wednesdays, Fridays and Sundays. The Douglas DC-3 service to and from Wellington, Nelson and Westport to Hokitika continued to operate Monday to Friday. While the introduction of the Friendship service was the stimulus for the skiplane service, it continued to operate six days a week, Sunday to Friday, connecting with all the NAC Friendship and DC-3 services at Hokitika.

The Skiplane timetable effective 27 May 1969 - 12 October 1969

Timetable Effective 13 October 1969 - 1 February 1970

The normal aircraft used for the service were Fox Glacier based Cessna A185E Skywagon ZK-COH or the Franz Josef based skiplane, initially Cessna 185D Skywagon ZK-CKT but later Cessna 185D Skywagon ZK-CKP (c/n 185-0929). Occasionally other skiplanes were used. One of the pilots on the service noted in his logbook that two Cessna 185s, ZK-CKP and ZK-CKT operated flights NM101/102 from Franz Josef to Hokitika and back to Franz Josef on the 21st of August 1969, commenting “there must have been passengers that day.” 

One of the mainstays of the air service, Cessna 185 ZK-COH with Mount Cook Air Services titles at Franz Josef in December 1970. 

From 1970 over the peak summer season or when larger loads dictated the need, de Havilland 89B Dominie ZK-BCP was also used on the service between the Glaciers and Hokitika. The Dominie's first flight on the Hokitika run, NM101/102, was flown by Jerry Savage on the 3rd of February 1970. ZK-BCP thus became the last Dominie to operate an airline service in New Zealand. 

De Havilland 89 Dominie ZK-BCP was occasionally used instead of the skiplane on the Glacier service. It is seen above at Franz Josef and below at Hokitika on 12 July 1970.

On the 5th of June 1970 the DC-3 finally bowed out of services to the West Coast and Hokitika, for a time, lost its one plane service to Wellington. This meant all passengers for the capital now had to fly on the increased Sunday to Friday Friendship service to Christchurch where they transhipped to Boeing and Viscount services to Wellington or other centres. The skiplane service continued to meet NAC services at Hokitika when there were passengers offering. Over the holiday periods NAC operated Saturday services to Hokitika and the skiplane service connected with these flights as well.

The meeting of the air services... NAC Friendship ZK-NAF and Mount Cook Air Services' Cessna 185 ZK-COH at Hokitika. As there is no DC-3 present it was either taken after the 5th of June 1970 or, if before that, on a Sunday. 

Timetable : Winter 1970

In the nine months from July 1969 to March 1970 142 flights were operated carrying 249 passengers and in the 12 months from April 1970 to March 1971 147 flights were operated carrying 247 passengers. The service was mainly used by tourists. While some locals used it road travel was obviously much more convenient and economical. The final flights between Fox Glacier and Hokitika operated in February 1971 and between Franz Joseph and Hokitika, in March 1971. In September 1971 Mount Cook Airlines were given Air Services Licensing Authority approval to  abandon the non-scheduled passenger and freight service between Hokitika, Franz Josef Glacier and Fox Glacier. So ended South Westland’s last regular air service.

The final timetable - Summer 1970-1971

Mount Cook Airlines returned briefly to Hokitika during the 1972/73 summer season. NAC chartered a Hawker Siddeley 748 aircraft from Mt Cook Airlines to relieve the pressure caused by Christmas travel. The 48 seat aircraft, which had a slightly bigger passenger capacity than NAC's 40 seat Fokker Friendship flew to Hokitika daily as well as operating on the Christchurch-Nelson-Wellington flights. In the early 1970s it was not uncommon for Mount Cook 748s to replace the Friendship on Hokitika service.

Mount Cook Airlines' Hawker Siddeley 748 ZK-CWJ at Hokitika on a NAC service on the 2nd of January 1973. Note the two Road Services' buses between the tower and the terminal... one came from the Hokitika town depot and the other from Greymouth to connect with the Christchurch flight.

Pilots of the skiplane service included :

Robbie Hansen
Lyall Hood
Jerry Savage
Bill Winefield

Aircraft recorded as being operated on the service :

ZK-CHJ - Cessna 185C Skywagon (c/n 185-0756)
ZK-CKP - Cessna 185D Skywagon (c/n 185-0796)
ZK-CKT - Cessna 185D Skywagon  (c/n 185-0929)
ZK-COH - Cessna A185E Skywagon (c/n 185-1009)
ZK-CVG - Cessna 185C Skywagon (c/n 185-0681R)

ZK-BCP - de Havilland 89B Dominie (c/n 6648)

Mount Cook Airlines' West Coast skiplane operations

Behind the history of the regular skiplane air service is the history of Mount Cook Airlines' West Coast skiplane operations. 

Mount Cook Air Services established its first base on the West Coast following the fire that gutted the Franz Josef Hotel on the 15th of August 1954. With more tourists staying at Fox Glacier the Christchurch Press reported on the 19th of October 1954 that a new airfield which, it is hoped will be usable in all weathers, has been prepared at Fox Glacier. The airstrip developed by the Fox Glacier hotel manager, Mick Sullivan, will shortly be inspected by an official of the Civil Aviation Administration for licensing. The new field is about 3100 yards from the front of the hostel and is 37 chains long and five chains wide. When a suitable bulldozer is in the area it is planned to lengthen the strip so that it can be licensed for use by the National Airways Corporation’s Dominie aircraft. The present airfield, about four or five miles from the hostel, close to the Cook river, has seen little used in recent years. 

Following Harry Wigley's first ski landing on the Tasman Glacier on the 22nd of September 1955 the Press of the 31st of October 1955 the Press reported that a light aircraftundoubtedly an Auster, fitted with skis as well as landing wheels last week took off from the Weheka airfield at Fox Glacier and landed near the Pioner Hut, 7000 feet up in the Southern Alps. The aircraft, piloted by the owner, Mr H. Wigley, had previously made flights from the Hermitage airfield to high snowfields of the alps. The trip by air from Weheka to the Pioneer Hut took 35 minutes, compared with two days for the same journey on foot.

This enabled Mount Cook Air Services to base a Piper Tripacer on the strip. This was flown by Struan Robertson. With its close proximity to the village the airstrip was ideally placed to encourage tourists to undertake a flightseeing adventure.

A couple of photos of Mount Cook Air Services' Piper Tripacer ZK-BLA at Fox Glacier in September 1958. Parking in front of the hotel was a great way to attract tourist's interest. Photos : Whites Aviation

On the 22nd of August 1959 the Press reported that two new ski-equipped Cessna 180 had been purchased by the Mount Cook and Southern Lakes Tourist Company, Ltd.. The new will be based at the Fox Glacier and the Hermitage. The aircraft are built specially for landing and taking off in snow, and have proved more successful in other parts of the world than the Austers at present used by the company. The Auster aircraft had skis fitted to them in this country, but the Cessnas have specially-manufactured skis as standard fittings. Mr Wigley said the new aircraft had been bought because there was an ever-increasing demand by tourists and ski-ers to land on the snowfields. Ski-ers could be taken 8000 ft up the glaciers and provided with inspiring downhill runs. and tourists keenly sought flights to the high snowfields in the summer. The Cessnas have more power at high altitude than the Austers, and Mr Wigley considers the extra power a great advantage

In 1960 Mount Cook Air Services Ltd applied to the Air Services Licensing Authority for approval to base two Cessna 180 skiplanes at Franz Josef. The Authority heard appeals from West Coast Airways and Southern Scenic Air Services who already had licences to operate from Franz Josef and the Authority subsequently rejected Mount Cook's application and appeal but it did allow Mount Cook Air Services to base a second skiplane at Fox Glacier. It was not until 1963 when Mount Cook Air Services was granted a licence to base a skiplane at Franz Josef. 

Mount Cook Air Services' Cessna 180 ZK-BMS at Fox Glacier with my sisters Dorothy and Margaret and cousin Michael Williams who was to later to fly with Mount Cook Airlines in floatplanes from Te Anau, BN Islanders out of Queenstown and as a Hawker Siddeley 748 captain before moving on to other airlines. Photo : S Lowe Collection
In August 1962 Mount Cook Air Services took delivery of its first Cessna 185 skiplane, ZK-CBS, to augment its three four-seater Cessna 180’s at present used for scenic flights among the Southern Alps and glaciers. The Cessna 185s gradually replaced the Cessna 180s. For many years in the late 1960s and and early 1970s the regular Cessna 185 skiplanes based at Franz Josef and Fox Glacier were ZK-CKT and ZK-COH respectively.

An interesting development, that to the best of my knowledge never happened, was announced in the Press on the 20th of November 1964 which reported A regular air service would be run between the Hermitage and Franz Josef by Mount Cook Air Services, Ltd., when the Haast road was opened, the company’s managing director (Mr H. R. Wigley) said this week. The service would be operated two or three times daily by Cessna aircraft in suitable weather, Mr Wigley said. The main object was to enable tourists with only a limited time in New Zealand to visit both sides of the Alps without risk of being stranded, Mr Wigley said. The service would be run in close conjunction with the DC3 and bus services of the Mount Cook and Southern Lakes Tourist Company, Ltd., of which also he is managing director. The details had yet to be worked out, in consultation with other organisations involved. The DC3 aircraft of the tourist company would not be used on the Hermitage-Franz Josef route because to fly at the required height they would have to be fitted with de-icing and oxygen equipment A typical itinerary, Mr Wigley said, might be that tourists arriving in the South Island at Christchurch would fly to the Hermitage by DC3 and thence by Cessna to Franz Josef. From there they would go by bus to Queenstown, and fly back again to the Hermitage and Christchurch. If on their first arrival at the Hermitage the alpine air route was closed, they would fly to Queenstown and take the bus to Franz Josef, in the hope that by the time they arrived the alpine route would be open. If it was not, they would continue to Christchurch by bus over one of the passes.

A young me on the wheel of Mount Cook Air Services' long time based Cessna 185 ZK-COH at Fox Glacier

Mount Cook Air Services'  Cessna 185 ZK-COH on the Fox Glacier in August 1967. Photo : S Lowe Collection

Mount Cook Air Services' Cessna 185 ZK-CHJ at Franz Josef in the 1960s. Photo : S Lowe Collection

In the early 1970s the Mount Cook Air Services titles disappeared in favour of Mount Cook Airlines titles before adopting Mount Cook's classic Cessna 185 skiplancecolour scheme. Franz Josef increasingly became the main base with at times two Cessna 185s being based at Franz Josef and one at Fox Glacier.

An early Mount Cook Airlines brochure - the skiplane still carrying Mount Cook Air Services titles

Cessna 185 ZK-COH at Fox Glacier with Mount Cook Airlines on 4 May 1972. Photo : D Paull

ZK-CKT in the classic Mount Cook Airlines Cessna 185 skiplane colour scheme at Franz Josef in January 1982

As well as being used for skiplane operations the Fox and Franz Cessna 185s were also used for charter flights and air ambulance flights and they were often visitors to Greymouth and Hokitika.

By the late 1970s the Mount Cook Group of companies was comprised of Mount Cook Airlines, Mount Cook Landlines, Mount Cook Coach Tours, Mount Cook Freightlines, Mount Cook Flightseeing, Mount Cook World Travel Offices, Mount Cook Sea Lines and Coronet Peak Skifield. The company looked to rationalise these individual companies under a single branding with which all operations could align themselves. The name chosen for the new corporate identity was “The Mount Cook Line” which came into being on the 1st of October 1979. Over the next few years the skiplane fleet was rebranded.

Two Cessna 185 skiplanes at Franz Josef on 5 February 1984. ZK-CHJ wearing Mount Cook Line titles... 

...and untitled ZK-ELQ in a factory scheme. Behind is the original Air Travel (NZ) hangar from the original 1934 air service.

More normal Mount Cook Line titles on Cessna 185 ZK-CKT at Franz Josef's Mercer Airport on 17 January 1987.

In May 1980 the Mount Cook Line introduced a Bell 206B Jetranger III helicopter to its fleet. Registered ZK-HPP, after Mount Cook Airlines CEO Philip Phillips, the $280,000 Jetranger was based at Franz Josef the  helicopter to complement the airline's ski-plane business. It was licenced to fly within a 50km radius of Franz Josef but licensing and National Park restrictions prevented the helicopter from landing on the glacier. 

Bell Jetranger ZK-HPP at Franz Josef in February 1981

As access to the Franz Josef Glacier from the glacier valley became increasingly difficult due to a 3km walk from the car park to the glacier terminal in an area of rockfalls further applications were made to enable glacier landings. In September 1980 the Mount Cook Line was granted permission to helicopter passengers to Luncheon Rock, about a kilometre up the glacier from the terminal face, for guided walks in a joint flight-seeing/guided-tour venture with the Tourist Hotel Corporation. The Mount Cook Group and the Tourist Hotel Corporation paid the $15,000 cost of erecting and stocking of McCormack Shelter named after long serving guide Peter McCormack. The Westland National Park Board had specified the shelter, a prefabricated hut that was flown to the site, must contain sleeping facilities and woollen clothing for 11 people, food for at least 22-days, first-aid and rescue equipment, a cooker, two-way radio, and emergency flares. The helicopter flights to Luncheon Rock began in early 1981.

In October 1981 the Mount Cook Line evaluated a Swiss-made Pilatus Porter and the decision was made to purchase two. The Press, on the 18th of December 1981, reported The $500,000 plane has been tested by the company over the last eight weeks, and company executives have described it as “one of the most versatile aircraft flying” “It has excellent handling qualities and power response,” said the company’s deputy chief, Mr M. L. Corner. “Passengers were delighted with the trial aircraft.” The planes are part of an ongoing re-equipment programme for the company’s ski-plane fleet at Mount Cook, and the Franz Josef, and Fox glaciers. The second Porter will be ferried out from Switzerland and is expected to be in service by mid-January. One plane will be based, at Mount Cook and the other at Franz Josef.

Pilatus Porters at Franz Josef... Above, the first Porter, ZK-FZB, at Franz Josef in January 1982...

...and ZK-MCK at Franz Josef on 21 September 1982

In November 1984 the Mount Cook Line was branded as Mount Cook Airline. A new colour scheme was introduced with a broad blue stripe with white, red and yellow stripes above and over the coming years the skiplanes were repainted. 

On the 21st of December 1984 floodwaters from the Waiho River breached their stopbank and badly scoured the Franz Josef airstrip covering it in shingle, trees, and boulders. The Mount Cook Lines' helicopter base was moved to the THC Franz Josef Hotel while the skiplane base was moved to a local farm topdressing strip further down the valley on the Waiho Flat Road. 

You can tell its a topdressing strip... a lilyless Cessna 185 ZK-CBY at the Franz Josef Waiho Flat Rd airstrip on 11 May  1985

An early version of the rebranded Cessna 185 skiplanes, ZK-MCQ at the Franz Josef Waiho Flat Rd airstrip on 25 April 1986

Cessna 185 ZK-MCQ, this time with the full red tail in the Mount Cook Airline scheme at Fox Glacier on 2 January 1988

Mount Cook Line's Bell Jetranger ZK-HPP operating from the THC Franz Josef Hotel on 11 May 1985

Meanwhile, damage to the airfield at Franz Josef village was such that it was to be two year before it was rebuilt. Meanwhile, in 1985, the helicopter operation from Franz Josef ended and the Bell Jetranger ZK-HPP was registered to Timaru-based Whirl Wide Helicopters on the 25th of October 1985. The new airfield at Franz Josef, Mercer Airport, featured a sealed-runway and provision for the growing number of helicopters in the area was opened on the 20th of December 1986 by Marie Lindsay, a daughter of the pioneer South Westland aviator, Captain Bert Mercer. 

The first Mount Cook's first Cessna 185 at Franz Josef's Mercer airport on 28 October 1989

The river, however, was not to be beaten. On the 28th of December 1989 the Waiho River burst its banks at Franz Josef and the Mercer Airport was inundated with a Mount Cook Airline Pilatus Porter being surrounded by water. This flood was to mark the end of skiplane operations from the Franz Josef township and operations were shifted permanently to the present airfield site on Waiho Flat Road which is seven kilometres from the Franz Josef village. 

Mount Cook Line's Pilatus Porter ZK-MCK, still with Mount Cook Line titles, surrounded by flood waters at Franz Josef's Mercer Airport on 28 December 1989

Often the skiplanes would meet on the glaciers... On 5 November 1991 Cessna 185 ZK-MCQ that I had flown in from Fox met up with Cessna 185 ZK-MDA on the Fox Glacier neve. The beauty of the Cessna 185 skiplanes was that they would switch off on the neve allowing tourists to experience the silent grandeur

Mount Cook Airlines' skiplane operations continued from both Franz Josef and Fox Glacier beyond this, but with fierce competition from helicopter operations the skiplane operation slowly wound down. On the 1st of July 1998 Mount Cook Airlines' skiplane operation sold to Tourism Holdings who rebranded it as Mount Cook Skiplanes.

Skiplane operations from the West Coast ended some time in 2011 after the death of Mount Cook Skiplanes' CEO Alec Millar who was one of the two owners of the company.  Towards the end of the Franz Josef skiplane operation Alex had operated from his own private airstrip at Docherty Creek near Franz Josef.


  1. Yes, I remember piloting those services in the C185 & Dominie well. Halcyon days for sure! Jerry Savage.

  2. Hi Jerry - Would you mind emailing me... I've got a few questions on the South Westland skiplane air service... Cheers, Steve - westland831@gmail.com