16 September 2013

The Eagle Soars - truly becoming a regional airline

This is the third post of four detailing the history of Eagle Air... The first two can be found at
25 years ago today it was announced that Eagle Air had become a part of the Air New Zealand group. This post details the unfolding of this part of the Eagle's history
On the 16th of September 1988 the face of provincial air services dramatically changed with the news that Air New Zealand had purchased a 50% holding in both Eagle Air and Air Nelson and that it was relinquishing a number of its Friendship services to the provinces in favour of these third level airlines. From the 31st of October 1988 Eagle Air inherited all Air New Zealand’s services from Auckland to Kaitaia, Whangarei and Gisborne, as well as the flights between Gisborne and Napier and some flights between Auckland and Tauranga. All these routes were to see an increase in frequency. Kaitaia’s single Friendship flight to Auckland was replaced by two Bandeirante flights. Whangarei went from a twice daily Friendship service to Auckland to five Bandeirante flights. Another withdrawal was the Gisborne-Tauranga-Auckland Friendship service leaving Tauranga with one Air New Zealand Friendship flight to both Wellington and Auckland. To complement the daily Friendship service between Auckland and Tauranga Eagle introduced three Bandeirante services. Gisborne’s two Friendship services to Auckland, including the service via Tauranga, were replaced with five direct Bandeirante flights.

An expanding network... Eagle Air picked up Air New Zealand services to Whangarei, Kaitaia, Tauranga and Gisborne from 31 October 1988

An attempt to improve the colour scheme - a couple of cheat lines as seen on Bandeirante ZK-FHX at Hamilton on 11 April 1989

The new services required Eagle Air to increase its Embraer Bandeirante fleet from three to five and Eagle imported two second-hand Bandeirantes ZK-JCM (c/n 110305) and ZK-LBC (c/n 110345) from the United States. Despite the extent of the new services only minor changes were made to Eagle’s existing network. The most obvious of the changes was made to the Auckland-Hamilton-Palmerston North service which had previously been Eagle Air’s main route. This service was separated with the Auckland-Hamilton sector being primarily operated to ferry Bandeirantes to and from the Hamilton maintenance base and Auckland which was which was now the major hub. Meanwhile the Hamilton-Palmerston North flights operated in its own right without being supplemented with passengers to and from Auckland. The Hamilton-Gisborne-Napier services remained virtually unchanged as did the Hamilton-New Plymouth service but this service was deleted from the next timetable by the 1st of April 1990.

A couple of looks at one of the new Bandeirantes ZK-JCM. Above, it was captured at Gisborne on 11 April 1989 still wearing its previous colour scheme. Below, at Napier on 20 January 1992 ZK-JCM is seen in the new Air New Zealand Link colour scheme.

The initial reaction in the provinces to the change from the pressurised Friendship to the unpressurised Bandeirante was one of dismay. Soon, however, provincial centres realised the advantages of a much improved frequency that was still part of the national airline’s network and the new services began to grow. Passenger numbers increased to such an extent that within 12 months Eagle Air was operating six flights a day from Auckland to both Whangarei and Gisborne. With a growing demand for flights to and from Auckland other services were pruned. For a time the direct Hamilton-Gisborne service disappeared. The growth in business also prompted the purchase of a sixth Bandeirante. ZK-MAS (c/n 110214) was purchased from Mexico and it arrived in New Zealand on the 27th November 1989.

Newly arrived Embraer Bandeirante ZK-MAS at Hamilton on 16 January 1990. This was the only aircraft to carry these stripes on the fuselage.

Further expansion occurred on the 23rd of April 1990 when Air New Zealand withdrew its older 100 series Fokker Friendships and relinquished its services to Whakatane and Taupo. Both Whakatane and Taupo had a daily direct Friendship service to Auckland and as well as a Friendship service to Wellington that operated via Wanganui. Eagle Air inherited the services between Auckland and Taupo and Auckland­ and Whakatane. Whakatane lost its southern link to Wellington with passengers having to tranship at Auckland while Air Nelson took over the flights between Taupo and Wellington. The new timetable saw Eagle Air’s Bandeirantes operating three return services a day between Auckland and Whakatane and a twice daily service between Auckland and Taupo.

The rather tight 18-seat Bandeirante seating configuration. This was later changed to a one each side 15-seat configuration.

In the time following the takeover of these Air New Zealand services Eagle moved from being a third level airline struggling to survive against a dominant national carrier to a regional airline aligned with the national carrier. The change, however, did not come without casualties. The Northland Districts Aero Club had been a long time operator of an air service between Whangarei and Auckland and by mid-1988 it was using a GAF N22 Nomad on this service. Likewise, Bell Air was operating an excellent service between Whakatane and Auckland with a Beech 99. Both felt the impact of the increased Eagle Air services and both aligned themselves to Ansett’s regional operation, Tranzair. Sadly, despite the connection to Ansett, they were not able to compete with the Eagle Air-Air New Zealand partnership and both these air services were to disappear.
The new look of Whakatane's air service... Bandeirante ZK-LBC at Whakatane on 22 January 1992

Air New Zealand withdrew its last Friendship services through Tauranga on the 17th of September 1990. The Wellington-Tauranga sector was taken over by Air Nelson but at the same time Eagle Air also increased its frequency between Auckland and Tauranga from three to five flights each weekday. Eagle also established a base at Tauranga which negated the necessity of a ferry flight from Hamilton.

By the 29th of October 1990, some two years after taking over the first Air New Zealand services, Eagle was operating six flights a day from Auckland to both Gisborne and Whangarei, five flights a day to Tauranga, four flights a day to Hamilton, three flights a day to Whakatane, two flights a day to Kaitaia and two flights a day to Taupo with a chartered Piper Chieftain. In addition to these three flights were operated each day between Hamilton and Palmerston North and the service between Hamilton and Gisborne was reinstated with two flights a day. By this stage Gisborne was Eagle’s second most important base with 16 pilots based there and light maintenance was also carried out at night at Gisborne. Bases were also established at Whangarei and Whakatane.

While the Gisborne-Auckland service was going well the unpressurised Bandeirante was not considered particularly suitable for this service. On the 4th of March 1991 Eagle Airways introduced Fairchild-Swearingen SA227AC Metroliner III ZK-NSQ (c/n AC706) to its fleet. This first Metroliner was leased from sister-company Air Nelson pending the arrival of Eagle’s own Metroliners and it started operating on the Gisborne-Auckland service. The Metroliner provided the advantage of pressurisation, better loading capacity, range and speed, with the flight to Auckland taking only 55 minutes in the Metroliner compared to the Bandeirante's one hour 15 minutes. In May 1991 Eagle received two Metroliners of its own. ZK-OAA (c/n AC546) and ZK-PBA (c/n AC547) were imported from the United States and took over all the Auckland to Gisborne services on the 1st of June 1991. On the same day Metroliners also inaugurated a one-month trial service between Gisborne and Palmerston North. This left Gisborne at 9.35am Monday to Friday, arriving at Palmerston at 10.20am. The return service departed Palmerston North at 5.10pm and to arrive at Gisborne at 5.55pm.

Eagle's first Metroliner ZK-NSQ was leased from Air Nelson. It was photographed at Nelson on 17 April 1991

One of Eagle's first Metroliners... ZK-PBA at Gisborne on 22 January 1992

From the 21st of May 1991 the Eagle fleet, along with the Air Nelson’s fleet was rebranded as Air New Zealand Link and the fleet repainted in the parent company’s teal and blue colour scheme. In a move to promote customer appeal Eagle also refurbished its Bandeirantes with avionics upgrades and new interi­ors that saw the seating being reduced from 18 to 15.
John Hambleton, Eagle’s sales and marketing manager, when describing Eagle Air in Wings in September 1991, considered the term "third-level" to be pejorative and "commuter" to have too strong a business connotation. "Regional is the extent of service, while commuter is frequency. Regional airlines take responsibility for the old Air New Zealand regions. NAC had a special thing, and I think it's being regained. "Eagle is here for the regions. We offer improved frequency of service and have become important in the route distribution. We're more flexible, with products specific to the route, and we can focus because we're not affected by the vast numbers flying the main trunk. We deal with the small people."
The summer schedule which came into effect at the end of October 1991 saw Eagle Air reduce the number of flights between Gisborne and Hamilton in favour of an additional Gisborne to Auckland flight. At this time Eagle were operating three flights each weekday between Gisborne and Napier to connect with Air Nelson services to and from Wellington. These supplemented the direct flights Air Nelson operated between Gisborne and Wellington. The Gisborne-Hamilton service was discontinued on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays because of the lack of patronage. The average load between Gisborne and Hamilton was only 3.5 per flight and so the Hamilton service only operated on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Instead the aircraft was used to operate Gisborne-Napier-Palmerston North service on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. 

Another important milestone occurred on the 1st of November 1993 when Eagle Air took over Mount Cook Airline’s Auckland-Kerikeri service. Bandeirante ZK-MAS flew the first service from Kerikeri on that day.
While the Bandeirantes and Metroliners were the mainstay of Eagle services, at times Eagle also used other aircraft. Between late 1993 and early 1995 Eagle Air chartered aircraft from two other North Island companies to give them extra capacity.
Kiwi West Aviation was a New Plymouth-based company which had commenced scheduled services between New Plymouth and Hamilton and New Plymouth and Palmerston North using a Beech Queen Air Excalibur on the 25th of January 1993. The Palmerston North-Plymouth flights were not well supported and they ended in mid-July. The efforts of this new airline were not lost on Eagle Air who continued to have an interest in linking Hamilton with direct flights to other North Island regional centres. From the 1st of November 1993 Eagle Air, under the Air New Zealand Link banner, re-introduced weekday services between Hamilton and New Plymouth, Hamilton and Gisborne and a daily service between Hamilton and Wanganui using Kiwi West Aviation’s Excalibur ZK-TAK and Auckland-based Menzies Aviation’s GAF N24 Nomad ZK-ECM.  

On the 1st of December 1993 Air New Zealand bought the remaining 50% of Eagle Airways shares giving it full ownership.

In 1994 Menzies Aviation’s Nomad was mainly used on Eagle’s services between Auckland and Hamilton and Auckland and Whangarei. Later Menzies Aviation replaced this aircraft with a Bandeirante of their own which also was registered ZK-ECM. This was often used as a backup aircraft for Eagle services.

Even with the extra capacity passenger numbers were increasing and Eagle Air took delivery of a seventh Bandeirante, ZK-TRM (c/n 110436), in April 1994. In August 1994 Eagle Air took delivery of two further Metroliners, ZK-RCA (c/n AC637) and ZK-SDA (c/n AC641), both of these being imported from the United States. This enabled Eagle to take over Air Nelson’s flights between Gisborne and Wellington. Gisborne’s flights to Auckland were increased to up to seven flights a day with all Gisborne’s remaining Bandeirante services being replaced by Metroliners. This gave Gisborne up to 266 seats a day compared with the 167 seats offered before the withdrawal of the Friendship services. 

The Eagle Air network circa late 1994. When did Eagle start into Rotorua???

Meanwhile Kiwi West Aviation took over the running of all the services from Hamilton to Gisborne, Wanganui and New Plymouth. To facilitate this a second Excalibur, ZK-TIK, was imported from Australia. Both Excaliburs were painted in Air New Zealand’s teal and blue colours but carried Kiwi West Aviation rather than Air New Zealand Link titles. On the 29th of March 1995 one of the Excaliburs, ZK-TIK, was operating Air New Zealand Link flight 2337, from Hamilton to New Plymouth. Shortly after take-off the plane experienced a twin engine failure and crashed in farmland at Ngahinapouri. Sadly, the two pilots and four passengers were killed. The accident report indicated an error in fuel tank selection due to the two aircraft having slightly different fuel systems. This was followed by a failure to execute a forced landing. The Kiwi West Aviation inter-provincial services were cancelled forthwith. 

With Eagle Air now operating the Gisborne-Wellington service there was a decreasing need for a Napier-Gisborne service. Eagle Air had been flying the Metroliners on the route with an average load factor of 26 per cent which equated to four or five passengers. Eagle withdrew from the Napier-Gisborne route on the 13th of August 1995 with United Aviation taking over the service the following day with a Piper Chieftain. At the same time Eagle added an additional Gisborne to Auckland flight.

In November 1995 Eagle Air took over Air Nelson’s flights between Wellington and Blenheim. This necessitated the purchase of two more Bandeirantes, ZK-DCH (c/n 110364) and ZK-NDC (c/n 110379), both of which arrived from the United Kingdom in October 1995.

Bandeirante ZK-NDC at Woodbourne on 22 September 2000
1996 saw two big changes. The first was the retirement of Eagle Airway's founder and general manager Malcolm Campbell. In May 1996 when Eagle acquired two ex-Air Nelson Metroliners, ZK-NSW (c/n AC508) and ZK-NSX (c/n AC542). This extra capacity freed up Bandeirantes to facilitate expansion of the Wellington-Blenheim service. Daily return services increased to 12 flights on Mondays to Thursdays with 14 flights on Fridays! Within six months of taking over the Air New Zealand Link operation from Air Nelson Eagle had increased the service by 40 per cent.
The acquisition of the Metroliners also enabled Eagle to commence a new direct service between Whakatane and Wellington on the 4th of June 1996. The Metroliner flights left Whakatane early in the morning and returned in the early evening. During the day this Metroliner also did a couple of Cook Strait services to Blenheim. 

Further expansion from Blenheim came on the 29th of October 1996 when Eagle introduced direct flights between Blenheim and Auckland and Blenheim and Christchurch. The Metroliner did an early morning Blenheim-Christchurch return service before heading north to Auckland. The pattern was repeated in the afternoon.

Ex Air Nelson Metroliner ZK-NSX pulling into the gate at Christchurch on the first day of services from Blenheim on 29 October 1996

1996 saw Air New Zealand introduce the Pacific Wave colour scheme though this was not carried through to the Link Carriers until 1998. Most of the Metroliners were repainted in the new scheme. Initially these had the 'Link' title on the tail but from late 2000 three Metroliners had the colour scheme modified with Air New Zealand's koru being painted on the tail and the word Link on the rear of the fuselage. Five of the Bandeirantes were repainted in the new scheme.

Above, the first Eagle aircraft to appear in the new Pacific Wave colour scheme was Metroliner ZK-OAA seen here at Christchurch on 10 March 1998. This positioning of the titles and Pacific Wave on the nose was unique to ZK-OAA and ZK-PBA and it was only worn for a brief time.

A more normal scheme is seen below on ZK-PBA at Tauranga on 17 September 1998... the Air New Zealand titles and Pacific Wave are behind the passenger door
The final variation, and the most attractive, the Koru on the tail and Link titles at the rear as seen on ZK-SDA at Gisborne on 9 February 2001.

In September 1998 Ansett New Zealand withdrew its service to Whangarei. To help meet the demand for additional seats Eagle increased its Whangarei services by 14 per week, bringing the number of Bandeirante flights to Whangarei to 69 flights per week! This compared with Air New Zealand’s previous service of 14 Friendship flights a week. These were the halcyon days for Eagle Air. While still part of the Air New Zealand group it was more independent and was able and willing to respond to provincial needs. 

The collapse of CityJet in November 1999 enabled Eagle to source some additional Bandeirantes. In April 2000 the company bought four Bandeirantes. Two were added to the fleet; ZK-TZM was reregistered ZK-CEF (c/n 110238) and ZK-TZN was reregistered ZK-VJG (c/n 110298). Both ZK-KML (c/n 110248) and ZK-TZL (c/n 110378) were withdrawn from use and broken up for spares.

Both ZK-CEF and ZK-VJG (pictured) only wore the new Link colour scheme. ZK-VJG is seen at Woodbourne on 22 September 2000.
In February 2001 it was announced Eagle Airways would replace its Bandeirante and Metroliners with 16 new Beechcraft 1900D 19-seat aircraft. It was also announced that Eagle would pick up all Air Nelson’s Metroliner services, thus Eagle was to serve Wanganui, Westport, Hokitika and Timaru as well as picking up flights between Wellington and Taupo.

With introduction of the Beech 1900D Eagle Air was set to become Air New Zealand’s 19-seat aircraft provider and so enter the most recent chapter of its development. The introduction of the Beech 1900 will be subject of the last post on this history of Eagle Air.

Eagle Air's retired turboprop fleet  
Embraer EMB-110P1 Bandeirante
CEF      (c/n 110238)
DCH      (c/n 110364)
ERU      (c/n 110267)
FHX      (c/n 110225)
JCM      (c/n 110305)
KIP        (c/n 110286)
KML      (c/n 110248)            Used for spares
LBC      (c/n 110345)
MAS      (c/n 110214)
NDC      (c/n 110379)
TRM      (c/n 110436)
TZL       (c/n 110378)            Used for spares
VJG       (c/n 110298)

Fairchild-Swearingen SA227AC Metroliner III
NSQ      (c/n AC706)
NSW     (c/n AC508)
NSX      (c/n AC542)
OAA      (c/n AC546)
PBA      (c/n AC547)
RCA      (c/n AC637)
SDA      (c/n AC641)

Mitsubishi Mu-2G
EKZ       (c/n 519)
EON      (c/n 513)
ESM      (c/n 528)

Part 4 of this history can be found here : http://3rdlevelnz.blogspot.co.nz/2013/10/eagle-high-flyer-link-carrier-and-its.html


  1. Excellent post! Very informative.

  2. A fascinating read. Can't wait for the 4th and final installment!