10 November 2013

Air Central - the North Island Commuter

Air Central's origins were found in the Taupo Flying School which was established by Peter Matich in partnership with the Auckland Flying School in December 1966. In September 1968 it expanded its operations by obtaining an air charter and air taxi licence and used a variety of single-engined aircraft. 1971 was a significant month in the Taupo Flying School’s development. In April the Napier Aero Club contracted the company to provide aircraft and flying staff. The following month the company acquired its first twin-engined aircraft, a Cessna 337 Skymaster, ZK-DAQ. In late 1971 John Gardiner took a shareholding in the company. He was later to have a significant influence on Air Central's evolution. Meanwhile, the company continued to expand with the establishment of a maintenance base at Taupo in 1972.

My first photo of a third level airliner... Air Central's Cessna 337 Skymaster at Hokitika in 1978

In October 1973 the company began air taxi services between Napier and Gisborne using Cessna 172s. In his book, Heartland High Flier, Bruce Gavin records that, The early morning flights carried Hawke’s Bay business people wanting to do a day’s work in Gisborne. The aircraft and pilot usually waited in Gisborne all day before returning to Napier in the late afternoon. Later the larger twin engine Cessna 337s were used, in part to overcome a reluctance some passengers held about flying in a single engine aircraft. The charter operations traded under the names Taupo Air Services and Napier Air Services.

A second Cessna 337 Skymaster, ZK-DFT, was added to the fleet in January 1974. One of the Cessna 337s was based at Taupo while the other was based at Napier. Later in the year the company was granted permission to offer IFR air charter work. Paul Wright, who was to be the first pilot for Eagle Air’s airline division, was appointed as pilot.

The second Cessna 337, ZK-DFT, at Taupo on 19 May 1976

The push-pull engine configuration of the Cessna 337 did not garner much public support so in late 1974 the company used ZK-DHW to evaluate the suitability of a Cessna 402 before purchasing their own Cessna 402B, ZK-EEI, in mid-1975. Slightly prior to this Jim Ellingham was taken on as another partner in the business.

The newly acquired Cessna 402 ZK-EEI flying over Napier in October 1975

Air Central brochure, ca 1975 

The arrival of the Cessna 402 coincided with NAC reviewing its inter-provincial air services. Seeing the need for a more corporate image the company was renamed Air Central. John Gardiner managed the Napier operation and it was he who was to develop the air taxi and later scheduled operation.

In October 1975 the Cessna 402 was used to commence an air taxi service from Napier and Taupo to Auckland. Initially this was flown twice a week but it was later expanded to four days a week and then five days a week with the additional inclusion of Hamilton. The air taxi regulations were quite restrictive. They stipulated that before the air taxi service could operate there had to be passengers from Napier or Taupo; in other words the plane could not fly empty northbound. Passengers could be set down at Hamilton on the northbound journey to Auckland, but passengers could not be picked up there. On the afternoon service the company was only able to uplift those passengers from Hamilton that it had flown north.  

The air taxi timetable, early 1976

Air Central's first Cessna 402 at Auckland on the air taxi service on 19 April 1976

McKay Shipping's decision deciding to take a stake in the company, enabled Air Central to purchase a second Cessna 402B, ZK-EHS, in August 1976. In September this was used on a weekly Taupo-Wellington air taxi service but in the few weeks it operated passenger loadings only averaged between two and three. The company, looking for a greater return, moved the Cessna 402 to Napier and used it on the air taxi service to Gisborne. In addition to this service the company entered into an agreement with Air Gisborne who had successfully obtained a licence for a timetabled air taxi service between Gisborne and Hamilton. Air Gisborne had the licence and used Air Central’s Cessna 402 and pilots. Air Gisborne offered two return services on week days and one return service on Saturdays and Sundays. This service was in direct competition with Air North’s scheduled service and in August 1977 the Air Services Licensing Authority prevailed upon Air Gisborne and Air Central to cease the joint air taxi operations between Napier and Hamilton.

Air Central and Air Gisborne's air taxi timetable, effective 18 April 1977

The second Cessna 402, ZK-EHS at Hamilton on 6 January 1977 (above) and at Gisborne in 1982 (below)

Looking for alternate use of their Cessna 402s Air Central started a thrice-weekly Napier-Taupo-New Plymouth air taxi service in January 1977. Then, from the 1st of September 1977 Air North relinquished its Gisborne-Napier-Palmerston North service. This was the opportunity that Air Central needed and it applied to the Air Services Licensing Authority for a scheduled service between Gisborne, Napier, Palmerston North, New Plymouth and Taupo. The application was successful and on the 26th of September 1977 Air Central commenced offering a scheduled air service with the inaugural flights being flown in Cessna 402 ZK-EEI .

By late 1977 Air North was short of aircraft and from the 7th of December 1977, Air North entered into an agreement with Air Central to 'wet hire' one of their Cessna 402 aircraft to operate their daily return Gisborne-Hamilton service. A couple of weeks later, on the 19th of December 1977, Air Central commenced a Napier-Taupo-Hamilton scheduled service in their own right. Air North’s financial state continued to worsen and when it failed to pay Air Central for the use of their Cessna 402, Air Central applied to the Air Services Licencing Authority to take over Air North’s scheduled services from Gisborne to Hamilton. The application was opposed by Air North. At the hearing on 14 and 15 March a volume of complaints were heard as to the manner in which Air North had operated its services. Air Central's application was successful and Air Central took over the Gisborne-Hamilton service in May 1978.
In 1978 the single engined aircraft operations at Taupo and Napier were sold and the Taupo base was closed.

A couple of Air Central's single-engine fleet... Cessna 185 ZK-CHS at Taupo on 19 May 1976...
...and Cessna 172 ZK-DNN still wearing its Air Central logo at Hokitika in November 1979

Rotorua was included in Air Central’s network from the 29th of October 1978 with flights operating New Plymouth-Rotorua-Napier. These flights were at the expense of services to Taupo which were reduced. Taupo experienced further reductions to its services in June 1979 and in October 1980 the company pulled out of Taupo altogether.

In May 1979 the company leased a 12-seat Cessna 404 Titan, ZK-TAT, which had been previously operated by Titan Air Services for Courier Systems. The operating costs of the larger twin were prohibitive and the aircraft returned to its owners later in the year. It was subsequently used by James Air and Avcorp Commuter.

Air Central's Cessna 404 Titan at Palmerston North on 11 May 1979

The Cessna 404 Titan ZK-TAT and two Cessna 402s ZK-EEI and ZK-EHS

In February 1980 a third Cessna 402B, ZK-DNQ, joined the Air Central fleet. The arrival of ZK-DNQ enabled the company to introduce a Napier-Tauranga-Rotorua-Napier service. Tauranga received its first scheduled service on 7th of July 1980. Another new service began in October 1980 with a return flights offered from Palmerston North to Rotorua and then Tauranga. 

The third Cessna 402, ZK-DNQ, had previously been operated by James Air. It is seen here at Napier on 6 April 1980
Cessna 402 ZK-EEI at Tauranga in August 1981

In March 1981 the company’s remaining Cessna 337 ZK-DAQ, was destroyed in a hangar fire while on maintenance at Rotorua.

Six months before it was destroyed by fire Cessna 337 ZK-DAQ was photographed at Napier on 24 October 1980

In 1981 John Gardiner purchased the stake of the other three of Air Central’s shareholder before in turn selling half the company to Ron Connell’s company RCS International (1981) Ltd. By March 1981 this company had imported three Mitsubishi Mu2 aircraft which were demonstrated to a number of New Zealand third level airlines. In July 1981 Air Central began trialling a Mitsubishi Mu2G, ZK-EKZ. The Mu2s were high performance, pressurised turboprops with seating for 9 passengers. A fast aircraft on short sectors was not ideal and the company required a 70% load factor to break even. A second Mitsubishi Mu2, ZK-EON was added to the fleet in September 1981 coinciding with takeover of Lakeair’s scheduled service and the extension of this to offer a twice daily Napier-Taupo-Auckland service on the 31st of August 1981.

Also, from the 21st of September 1981, Air Central obtained an air mail contract to carry mail from the centres it served. Some first day covers marked the event.

The most extensive of Air Central's timetables with extensive services stretching from Auckland to Palmerston North.

Mitsubishi Mu2Gs ZK-EKZ and ZK-EON were both on the ground at Tauranga at the same time on 25 November 1982. ZK-EKZ had two additional small windows towards the tail.

In late 1981 the company was looking forward to introducing its third Mu2, however, the company’s plans were shattered on the 22nd of November 1981 when the plane ditched north of Pago Pago with the loss of ferry pilot Bob Shewry. Things went from bad to worse for the company. On the 8th of December 1981 Cessna 402 ZK-DNQ was lost after the aircraft was carrying out an emergency landing at Palmerston North. Landing on a short, wet grass runway with a nose wheel problem the aircraft over ran the runway before the undercarriage collapsed. The pilot and four passengers were unhurt but ZK-DNQ never got airborne again. A week later the company lost a second Cessna 402 when ZK-EEI caught fire while parked overnight at Napier. Due to the heat of the fire the cause was never determined. With a shortage of aircraft the Napier-Taupo-Auckland service ended on the 25th of January 1982.

December 1981 was a disastrous month... Above Cessna 402 ZK-DNQ after its landing incident at Palmerston North and below a burnt out Cessna 402 ZK-EEI at Napier

In Heartland High Flier John Gardiner recalled, “one day I received a visit from NZI’s Napier representative. This young bloke arrives carrying a sheaf of papers and he told me that Ron Connell had disappeared. As well there was a large amount of funds owned to finance companies, NZI and Broadbank by Connell’s company RCS international. I was asked if I could pay up an amount of over a million dollars that Air Central still owed NZI Finance Ltd on our two Mu2 aircraft. With my heart racing a million beats a minute I said of course I couldn’t pay!”

A young plane-spotter's nice souvenir... Grayson Ottoway got the autographs of some of the Air Central pilots 

Rather than close Air Central down, NZI Finance took over Ron Connell’s shareholding in June 1982 before buying John Gardiner out but retaining him as the managing-director. With the backing of the NZI Financial Corporation the company was restructured as Air Central (1982) Ltd. The new owners added a third Mitsubishi, ZK-ESM, to the fleet in October 1982. At the same time NZI wanted to put the airline on a more solid financial footing. It had expensive, high performance aircraft operating on short routes with lean passenger loadings. NZI’s solution came in the form of Eagle Air and it saw the acquisition of this company as a good move in consolidating their aviation interests.

On 28 October 1982 Air Central doubled its flights to New Plymouth... John Gardiner, second from left, is seen with local businessmen.
The three Mu2s at Napier on 13 November 1982

The third Mitsubishi Mu2 at Nelson in January 1983

In June 1983 NZI Financial Corporation bought out Eagle Air and quickly moved to consolidate the two companies. The two companies were merged in October 1983 but in many ways it was an Eagle Air take over. The Air Central name disappeared, and the Napier base was closed. Use of the expensive Mitsubishis was restricted while Eagle Air looked to re-equip with three additional Piper Chieftains and another Embraer Bandeirante. The Mu2s were eventually sold and departed New Zealand in April 1984.
I am indebted to Bruce Gavin and his definitive book on Air Central, Heartland High Flier, in preparing this post which just scratches the surface of this fascinating airline. It is an excellent read which details the evolution of a flying school to a typical third level airline in the early 1980s. Copies are available from Bruce by emailing fbgavin@actrix.co.nz

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