09 June 2013

Mount Cook Airlines - Operating to Oamaru for NAC

In early 1966, with the impending closure of SPANZ (South Pacific Airlines of New Zealand) pressure was brought to bear on the National Airways Corporation to pick up a number of its services, including a service to Oamaru.

On the 20th of January 1966 the Oamaru Mail announced Oamaru was to have a six or possibly seven days a week National Airways Corporation air service operated under charter by Mount Cook Airlines. The proposal was originally made by Mr Allan Dick, the MP for Waitaki, and the decision was announced at a meeting of the Otago Development Council at Dunedin by the general manager of NAC, Mr Doug Patterson. Mount Cook Airlines had been operating the Christchurch-Timaru service for NAC from the 1st of November 1964 and the intention was that this service would be extended on to Oamaru where the plane would stay overnight. The meeting was told that the northbound service would leave Oamaru at 7.30 a.m. and the return service would arrive back at Oamaru at 5.45 p.m.  This would enable Oamaru residents to spend five hours in Wellington before returning to Oamaru the same day. Mr Paterson also warned the meeting that the DC-3's which would service Oamaru in the proposed service would become obsolete in 1968 or early 1969. Mr Dick asked what possibility there would be of providing an Invercargill-Oamaru-Christchurch Friendship service in the event of the Oamaru airport runway being sealed. Mr Patterson expressed interest in the proposal and stated that it was economic for a Friendship to land and pick up a load of eight passengers! 

Oamaru residents were very pleased with the prospect of a new daily service over the thrice weekly SPANZ service. An editorial in the Oamaru Mail praised the efforts of the local MP and looked optimistically to the proposed NAC service and its future in Oamaru: Mr Dick had been actively engaged in promoting (successfully) North Otago’s requirements in behind-the-scenes negotiations. He won for Oamaru a service under charter to the National Airways Corporation. What this means to Oamaru cannot be too strongly emphasised. Having been taken to the bosom of NAC, Oamaru need no longer worry about an air service; but to be made a route terminal means that staff will be maintained; airline crews will reside in Oamaru; the Civil Aviation Department will require to retain full facilities at the airport and with the announced timetable, night flying facilities will also be required. But Mr Dick had more success that the securing of an improved air service. He had a blue print for the future, whereby Oamaru would be served by a Friendship or similar type of an Invercargill to Christchurch flight and vice versa, approved in principle. Such a service is already a sound economic proposition and will be even sounder when the new timetable is introduced, for no longer will it be necessary for North Otago to join the early morning flight. But to achieve this jet service the runway must be sealed. All that is required for success, now that there is no longer any doubt about a future air service, is for the local bodies to co-operate in achieving this objective. No longer can the district afford to procrastinate; every effort must be made to give Oamaru airport a sealed runway and thereby make it an important link in the main national trunk route.  

The question of lack of runway lights at Oamaru was soon raised. NAC announced that the winter flights would depart later and this would mean Oamaru and Timaru passengers missing important connecting flights at Christchurch. The Oamaru Airport Committee was concerned that the service would be seriously or even curtailed during winter and the Committee decided to pressure Government for a rapid resolution to the problem. The Airport Authority also acceded to NAC’s request to extend the terminal building to provide office space for more efficient handling of passengers and luggage. 

In preparation for the new service NAC appointed the Union Steamship Company as its chief agent in Oamaru. The Oamaru Mail reported that the Union Steamship Company’s centre would be staffed by a traffic officer from 6.30 a.m. He would also travel to the airport with passengers and would meet the evening plane which would stay at the airport overnight. In preparation for the service a Safe Air Bristol Freighter flew to Oamaru with station equipment for use in the new service. Kanes Motors, under contract to NAC, provided ground transport to the airport for air crew and for passengers, the charge of which was included in the air fare.  

On the 28th of February 1966 Mount Cook Airlines’ Douglas DC-3 ZK-BKD, positioned from to Timaru to Oamaru to overnight there so as to commence the new NAC service the following day. The first flight was operated on the 1st of March 1966 under the command of Mount Cook Airlines’ operations manager, Captain Geoff Williams and First Officer R. Lowe. Passengers reported to the Union Travel Centre at 6.40am before being taken to the airport by bus. The DC-3 departed for Oamaru and Christchurch at 7.10 a.m. The schedule saw the DC-3 departing Christchurch late in the afternoon, calling at Timaru and then overnighting at Oamaru. An early morning departure followed the next day on the return route. The service was included in the NAC timetable but never appeared in the Mount Cook Airlines’ timetable.

The changing face of Oamaru's air service - Mount Cook Airlines' Douglas DC-3 ZK-BKD which operated the first flight under the NAC charter. The airstairs at the DC-3 are NAC's while in front of the DC-3 are the SPANZ's old airstairs
Nelson Evening Mail, 18 February 1966

Recording the first flight the Oamaru Mail reported that, according to a spokesman for the Union Travel Centre, there were seats available when the plane left Oamaru, but they were filled at Timaru, and the aircraft arrived full into Christchurch. At one stage two passengers were on the waiting list for today's flight, but they were accommodated on tomorrow's flight. The first passengers to book out of Oamaru on the new service were an Australian family, Mr and Mrs W. Baker. They travelled to Nelson, thence to Wellington, and finally on to Brisbane. One passenger flew to Auckland for a conference, and will return tonight, on the flight due to touch down at 6.10 p.m… According to Mr J. E. Davies, Christchurch branch manager for N.A.C., who flew out of Oamaru on the inaugural flight, "forward bookings show a satisfactory demand, and if the service develops as NAC hoped it would, the timetable pattern could be varied to meet any special need. We are here and we hope your support will keep us here," Mr Davies added. "Oamaru is now part of the Corporation's national network, and we are pleased to be serving the district on a seven day a week, basis."

One unexpected effect of the new service was an increase in freight - there was a 120 per cent increase in air freight to Oamaru the day N.A.C. began operating with 700lb of freight arriving over the first weekend and 400lb the following Monday. The branch manager of the Union Steam Ship Co told the Oamaru Chamber of Commerce that "it looks as though freight is going to come in here in such volume that it will be limited." On the 11th of March 1966 news came through that the Oamaru Airport was to have runway lighting installed before winter and the cost was to be met by the Government. Following this announcement the Editor of the Oamaru Mail summed up the local sentiment. The treatment accorded Oamaru is better than was ever anticipated. The announcement of the Minister of Aviation, Mr McAlpine, that Oamaru is to have runway lighting installed at the expense of the Crown will be welcome news for North Otago and South Canterbury residents. The treatment accorded Oamaru is better than was ever anticipated. The district now has a first-class service linking it with all major towns to the north. Admittedly, since the termination of S.P.A.N.Z. flights Oamaru has lost its service to Central and to the south; but the loss is more than recompensed by the improved service to the north. In the past the support accorded flights to the south have not been well supported, and for this reason it is hard to make a case at this stage for such a service. Furthermore, it might be unwise to press for a link with Central Otago, which might well be obtained at the expense of the present direct flight north from Oamaru. In the long-term the future appears bright, particularly in the event, of Friendships being given a clearance to land on grass runways. In that event it could well be that Oamaru would be served daily by north-south flights between Christchurch and Invercargill.
An early morning departure from Oamaru... Mount Cook Airlines' Douglas DC-3  ZK-AOD preparing for its flight to Timaru and Christchurch.


From the NAC timetable, the DC-3 service effective 1 February 1967

In October 1968 Mount Cook Airlines introduced a new 52-seat Hawker Siddeley HS748-2A, ZK-CWJ (c/n 1647) to its fleet and it was confirmed that the new HS748 would also be used on the Christchurch-Timaru-Oamaru service.

To facilitate the arrival of the larger turbo-prop some $19,000 of improvements were being made to Oamaru airport over a 12 period. These works, funded by the local airport authorities, the Waitaki County and Oamaru Borough Councils, and the Department of Civil Aviation involved the construction of two sealed pads at each end of the main runway and the laying of a sealed terminal apron. Before the airfield was declared operational for the HS748 a strength bearing certificate was necessary. This involved ascertaining that the main runway and sealed areas had an isolated single wheel loading of 20,000lb. The strength tests were completed by using a laden bitumen tanker carrying 17,000lb on two axles and this gave the desired effect for the required tests. 

On the 24th of October 1968 the Department of Civil Aviation gave a clearance for the Hawker Siddeley to land at Oamaru. The first HS748, ZK-CWJ, flew into Oamaru the following evening, the 25th of October 1968, under the command of Captain Geoff Williams and First Officer John Evans. The Oamaru Mail reported that "a crowd of people had gathered to watch the 18 including two babies, alight from the one million dollar, 52-seater-plane.” Flight times for the 748 were significantly faster, with the inaugural flight from Christchurch to Timaru taking only 23 minutes and 11 minutes from Timaru to Oamaru. This compared with the DC-3 times of 32 and 17 minutes respectively.

Upon arrival fifty-one North Otago people were taken on courtesy flight over Oamaru including the MP for Waitaki, Mr Allan Dick, and his wife, the Mayor and Mayoress, Mr and Mrs Bill Laney, the town clerk, Mr John Trexise, the Oamaru Harbour Board Chairman, Mr A M Malcolm and the board’s secretary-manager, Mr A A Bird and the chairman of the Oamaru Licensing Trust, Mr Bevan Crombie. The Oamaru Mail reported that “seating was cramped and passengers were relieved to hear that the number of seats would soon be reduced from the present 52 to 44.”

The step up to the Hawker Siddeley 748... Mount Cook Airlines' newly arrived 748 ZK-CWJ being prepared for its departure from Oamaru to Christchurch. While the aircraft had been upgraded the ground transport (at right) hadn't been. Photo : D A Walker

First day covers for the introduction of the Hawker Siddeley 748 service. Covers from Christchurch were postmarked on 25 October and from Oamaru on 28 October. 

From the NAC timetable, the 748 service effective 8 June 1970

The arrival of the 748 did not mean the end of the DC-3 flying into Oamaru. Initially the Hawker Siddeley flew the Christchurch-Timaru-Oamaru service on Monday and Friday evenings and the return flight on Tuesday and Saturday mornings. This schedule operated until more crews were trained on the 748 and passenger loadings necessitated a full HS748 service. The Douglas DC-3s continued to fly on the days the 748 was not flying.  

The arrival of the 748 was a real bonus for Oamaru passengers. The 748 had the advantage and comfort of a pressurised cabin and greater passenger appeal. The NAC charter was also a bonus for Mount Cook Airlines as it gave the company a guaranteed cash flow enhancing the economics of introducing the new turbo prop. The Hawker Siddeley was able to fly the service from Christchurch to Timaru and Oamaru in the evening, fly back in the morning and then fly its tourist services to Mount Cook and Queenstown during the day. A second HS748, ZK-DES (c/n 1689) was added to the fleet in mid-1971 and this too operated the Christchurch-Timaru-Oamaru service.

By early 1972 construction was well underway of a sealed runway at Timaru. This work necessitated the 748 being replaced by the Douglas DC-3 on the Christchurch-Timaru-Oamaru service. While Timaru was proactive in upgrading its airport Oamaru was more reticent, wanting NAC’s assurance of a Fokker Friendship air service before it sealed its airport’s runway.

In March 1972 the Minister of Transport Mr J B Gordon assured the Oamaru Chamber of Commerce that, “as far as the Government is concerned, and I personally as Minister, there is no threat to your air service.” There had been no technical objections from Mount Cook Airlines or Civil Aviation concerning stones from the prop-wash damaging the fuselage of the HS748 operating out of Oamaru. NAC, however, were more reticent in operating Friendships on grassed runways. Mr Gordon told the Chamber of Commerce that he did not think there would be a great deal of difficulty into entering into a 50/50 deal with the Government in funding the $180,000 project to seal the runway.  

At the same time the Oamaru Chamber of Commerce was insisting that the replacement of Mount Cook’s 748 with the smaller DC-3 had caused a downturn in passenger traffic and freight with freight often coming south by road rather than on the air service to Oamaru. This claim was borne out by the passenger and freight figures for 1971 and 1972.

Passengers out of Oamaru Jan 1972 and (1971) :        274 (356)
Passengers into Oamaru Jan 1972 and (1971) :           236 (336).
Passengers out of Oamaru Feb 1972 and (1971) :       178 (200)
Passengers into Oamaru Feb  1972 and (1971) :          198 (178)

The Oamaru Mail also reported that the January northbound and southbound totals for the 1970 and 1969 years were well over the 300 mark, while the February totals for the two years were around 250. While the loadings clearly reduced with the re-introduction of the DC-3 with its smaller capacity, the greater problem for the retention of a long term air service to Oamaru was that the loadings to and from the town were so light. 
HS 748 ZK-CWJ at Oamaru

While North Otago business leaders would have been happy with the return of Mount Cook Airlines’ HS748 this was becoming increasingly unlikely due to two first reasons. The first of these was the growth of Mount Cook’s core tourist services. On the 18th of April 1972 the Oamaru Mail reported NAC’s general manager, Doug Patterson, saying that “If Mount Cook Airlines continues to fly the route under charter it will fly a Hawker Siddeley 748 on five days of the week with a DC-3 on the remaining two days. But the 748 will be withdrawn three months of the year to meet Mt Cook’s tourist traffic demand when the local service will be flown entirely with DC-3s.” The other reason for the termination of NAC’s contract with Mount Cook Airlines was the cost. Mr Patterson was quoted as saying “Total operating costs on the sector last year were approximately $68,000, with revenue only totalling $37,000, giving a direct loss to the corporation on the Christchurch-Timaru-Oamaru route of $31,000.”

NAC’s alternative was to re-activate one of its DC-3s. Mr Patterson told Oamaru business leaders, “if we operate a DC-3 we could break even in operating costs, provided these can be held at present levels.” This alternative was confirmed on the 1st of May 1972 when NAC’s chairman of directors, Mr A F Gilkinson, announced that the charter agreement between NAC and Mount Cook Airlines on the Oamaru-Timaru-Christchurch route would be terminated when the new timetable was introduced on the 7th of June 1972. The Mount Cook Airlines’ service to Oamaru ended without mention in the Oamaru Mail on the morning of the 6th of June 1972 when the Mount Cook Airlines’ DC-3 departed Oamaru for Timaru and Christchurch.  

Mount Cook Airlines aircraft that serviced Oamaru

Douglas DC-3C

ZK-AOD         c/n 15701/27146
ZK-BEU         c/n 13099
ZK-BKD         c/n 13521
ZK-CAW        c/n 18923

Hawker Siddeley HS748-2A

ZK-CWJ         c/n 1647
ZK-DES         c/n 1689


1 comment:

  1. Enjoyed this thanks. I did a lot of flying from Oamaru without knowing all of the history.