03 February 2014

The Flowering of the Lily - Mount Cook Airlines

The 1960’s, the birth of an airline

Today marks the fiftieth anniversary of Mount Cook Airlines' service to Queenstown. To mark this event this post is the first of a four part series on the airline division of Mount Cook Airlines.

Henry “Harry” Rodolph Wigley, was born in February 1913, son of Jessie and Rodolph Wigley, who had laid the foundations of the Mount Cook Group by pioneering long distance scheduled motor services in New Zealand's South Island. By 1923 Rodolph had started dabbling in flying. In his turn Harry learned to fly and, in partnership with his father, started an air service based on Queenstown and Mount Cook. The war saw Harry enter the Royal New Zealand Air Force seeing three operational tours in the Pacific in a fighter squadron and attaining the rank of Wing Commander. Returning to the Mount Cook company after the war Harry gradually built the company’s interests and assets, and in particular developing the company’s tourism activities. In 1955 he successfully combined two of his great loves, skiing and flying, and started the famous ski-plane operation in the Mount Cook area. Then, in the early sixties, he brought to realisation a long-time dream - a scheduled air service linking the key southern resorts with Christchurch. 

On the 14th of December 1960 the Air Services Licensing Authority granted Mount Cook Air Services Ltd a licence to operate a Douglas DC-3 aircraft on scheduled passenger and freight services from Christchurch to Mount Cook, Queenstown or Cromwell, and Te Anau. Air charter and air taxi services, including scenic flights from Harewood, Mount Cook, Cromwell, Te Anau and Timaru, were also granted. The Authority gave Mount Cook one year to facilitate this with the service to be in operation by the 24th of December 1961.

In preparation for the launch of services the company purchased Douglas DC-3 ZK-BKD from NAC. BKD was painted in what was to become Mount Cook Airlines’ standard blue and white colour scheme emblazoned with “Mt Cook & Southern Lakes Tourist Co Ltd” titles and the Mount Cook lily on the tail. By the end of 1961 the service was ready to take off. A crew-only route proving flight was flown on the 29th of October and route planning flights with passengers were made to Timaru, Mount Cook and Te Anau on the 1st of November and to Mount Cook, Cromwell and Te Anau on the 2nd of November.

Douglas DC-3 ZK-BKD at Cromwell

Scheduled services commenced on the 6th of November 1961 with Douglas DC-3 ZK-BKD flying from Christchurch to Mount Cook, Cromwell and Te Anau under the command of was Captain J G Irving (seconded from NAC) and First Office G L Small with W A Burns acting as purser looking after the 16 passengers on board. The flight left Christchurch at 11.00am and returned at 6.30pm with 11 of the passengers doing a same day return service. For the first summer the flights operated on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. Queenstown was not certified for DC-3 operations and so Queenstown passengers were bussed between Cromwell and Queenstown. 

An undated timetable but presumably from the 1962/63 summer season

The airline’s flights halted after the summer tourist season in May 1962 and this enabled the runways at Cromwell and Mount Cook to be consolidated by having the grass resown and the runways rolled. A thrice weekly service was recommenced on the 1st of August 1962 for the 1962/1963 summer tourist season. During the winters of 1962 and 1963, when the services were in recess, the DC-3 received a full overhaul. In 1963 this overhaul included the upgrading of DC-3 ZK-BKD with larger windows and more sound proofing.

A comparison between DC-3s... Above the first Douglas DC-3, ZK-BKD, at Christchurch in its original scheme with the original Mount Cook & Southern Lakes Tourist Co Ltd. Notice the smaller windows. Below, the modified second DC-3 with what became standard "Mount Cook Airlines" branding and the larger Skyliner windows

From November 1963 the airline started rebranding itself as Mount Cook Airlines. Also, the frequency of flights to Mount Cook and Cromwell/Queenstown were increased from three flights a week to six. At the same time two new destinations were added. On the 1st of November 1963 the service to Cromwell/Queenstown was altered with the DC-3 continuing from Cromwell to Dunedin and back on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. From the 3rd of November 1963 the Sunday, Tuesday and Thursday flights to Te Anau were extended to Invercargill. The first flights to both Dunedin and Invercargill were flown by Douglas DC-3 BKD. 

An expanding network... the timetable from 1 November 1963 with flights to Dunedin and Invercargill

The first scheduled flight into Queenstown was operated by DC-3 ZK-BKD on the 4th of February 1964. From this point on the flights stopped at Cromwell only on demand and on selected flights. Also, from November 1963 flights continued operating all through the year including the winter.

A much quieter Queenstown Airport than today... Douglas DC-3 ZK-AOD on the tarmac

On the 1st of November 1964 a second DC-3, ZK-AOD, was added to the Mount Cook Airlines fleet. Originally it carried “Mt Cook & Southern Lakes Tourist Co Ltd” titles but these were soon changed to "Mount Cook Airlines" titles. The arrival of the second DC-3 allowed additional flights to be flown from Christchurch to Mount Cook and Queenstown. Also, from the 1st of November 1964, Mount Cook took over operating NAC’s daily service between Christchurch and Timaru under charter to the Corporation. In the morning, after the DC-3 arrived in Christchurch from Timaru it operated the southern scenic routes returning to Christchurch late in the afternoon in time to operate the evening service to Timaru. The Timaru service never appeared in the NAC timetable.

Douglas DC-3 ZK-AOD at Dunedin on 8 December 1964. Notice the original Mount Cook and Southern Lakes Tourist Co Ltd titles

With the closure of SPANZ on the 28th of February 1966 Mount Cook Airlines picked up two additional ports. From the 1st of March 1966 Mount Cook Airlines started operating a daily service to Oamaru on behalf of NAC. This was an extension to the Christchurch-Timaru service Mount Cook was already operating for NAC. The first flight from Oamaru was under the command of Captain Geoff Williams, Mount Cook Airlines’ operations manager, and First Officer R. Lowe. From the 2nd of March Alexandra was included as a stop on Mount Cook’s Queenstown to Dunedin service. With the addition of Alexandra the Dunedin service was increased to four times a week operating on Mondays, Wednesdays Fridays and Sundays. Meanwhile, by the 1st of April 1966, the link from Te Anau to Invercargill was discontinued. 

ZK-BKD at Alexandra after its modifications to the equivalent of Skyliner standard with larger cabin windows and the change of titling above the windows.

For more on Mount Cook’s service to Oamaru see 

A couple of shots of Douglas DC-3 ZK-AOD at Mount Cook

SPANZ’s closure also accelerated the search for a suitable replacement for the DC-3. Harry Wigley, the airline's manager, and Captain Geoff Williams visited aircraft manufacturers in the United States, England, Holland and France while first-hand operational information was gained from airlines. By mid-1967 Mount Cook Airlines had selected the Hawker-Siddeley 748 turbo-prop as its DC-3 replacement with the expectation that it would be in service by November 1968.  Harry Wigley was reported as saying that although the 748 is designed for outback operations it has all the luxury, safety and sophistication of design and equipment which can be expected in this age. "The Hawker Siddeley 748 combined all the desirable features from our point of view. For instance, the 748 does not have the higher cruising speed of some of the other models but it does have a low landing speed and a high rate of climb plus a very desirable capacity of 44 passengers, we intend to fly it in a standard 44-seat configuration but for certain requirements this can readily be increased to 52 seats", he said. The 748 were also equipped with airstairs and required no ground power unit for starting saving the expense of providing and maintaining ground support facilities at all its airports. In addition to this the 748 was expected to cut the return flight time from Christchurch to Mount Cook, Queenstown and Manapouri by two hours. Nonetheless, with an $800,000 price tag the purchase of the 748 was a massive investment for the company. In preparation for the arrival of the new turbo-prop airport improvements were made at Oamaru and Queenstown, the latter having its runway sealed.

An artist's impression of the coming HS748

Mount Cook Airlines’ first Hawker Siddeley HS748-2A, ZK-CWJ (c/n 1647), arrived at Christchurch on the 5th of October 1968. On the flight deck were Captain Geoff Williams, the airline’s operations manager, and Captain H M Fisher of Hawker-Siddeley. The ferry crew also included Mount Cook’s chief pilot Alister McLeod, navigator R Dixon-Stubb and engineer J Last. The delivery flight took 58 flying hours. The aircraft arrived in New Zealand configured with 52 seats and a spare engine stowed aboard.

Mount Cook Airlines' first Hawker Siddeley 748 ZK-CWJ while still in the UK at Hawker Siddeley's home at Woodford. The "New Zealand's Mount Cook Airlines" titles were for its display at the Farnborough air show.

ZK-CWJ entered service on the 14th of October 1968 flying NM501 to Mount Cook and Queenstown and the return flight, NM502, to Mount Cook and Christchurch. Initially the 748 was used only on the tourist routes to Mount Cook and Queenstown, but from the 25th of October 1968, the 748 replaced the DC-3s on Christchurch-Timaru Oamaru service that was operated for NAC. The first scheduled flight into Timaru and Oamaru was under the command of Captain Geoff Williams and First Officer John Evans. The 748 began daily flights to Te Anau's Manapouri airport on the 19th of December 1968.

Hawker Siddeley 748 ZK-CWJ at Timaru while operating the Christchurch-Timaru-Oamaru service for NAC

Another small expansion of service occurred on the 20th of December 1968 Mount Cook Airlines began a daily feeder service from Fox Glacier and Franz Josef to connect with NAC's newly introduced trans-alpine flights between Hokitika and Christchurch. Cessna 185 skiplanes were used but the service was not popular and operated until early 1971.

The West Coast skiplane service... Cessna 185 ZK-COH at Hokitika to meet the arrival of the NAC Friendship service from Christchurch.

For more on the West Coast skiplane service see 

In 1968 the Mount Cook and Southern Lakes Tourist Co Ltd had acquired control of NZ Tourist Air Travel and its amphibious air services from Auckland to the Bay of Islands, the islands of the Hauraki Gulf and Stewart Island also scenic services from Queenstown and Te Anau to Milford Sound. From June 1969 the fleet of Grumman Widgeons, de Havilland Dominies and Cessnas were repainted in Mount Cook Airlines’ colours.

A couple of examples of aircraft inherited from Tourist Air Travel. Above Grumman Widgeon ZK-CFA at Mechanics Bay in Auckland in 1969.
The Dominies were repainted in Mount Cook colours but never carried Mount Cook Airlines' titles. De Havilland DH89B Dominie ZK-ALB at Queenstown

For more on Mount Cook Airlines amphibious services from Auckland to the Hauraki Gulf and between Invercargill and Stewart Island see http://3rdlevelnz.blogspot.com/2011/07/mount-cook-airlines-amphibian-service.html

When it arrived in New Zealand the Hawker Siddeley 748 was configured for 52 passengers. This was reduced soon after to 48, and in mid-1969 this was further reduced to 44. This allowed more locker space for skis. For much of their career, however, the 748s accommodated 48 passengers. The 748 was an instance success and traffic grew rapidly. During the six months ending on 30 September 1969, Mount Cook Airlines carried 18,621 passengers, compared with 12,431 during the same period in 1968. While used primarily on Mount Cook's own tourist services the 748 was also hired by NAC to cover breakdowns of its own aircraft.

A third Douglas DC-3, ZK-CAW, was leased by the company in August 1969. This aircraft had previously been used by SPANZ and featured the Viewmaster windows.

The ex-SPANZ Douglas DC-3, ZK-CAW, at Queenstown. Notice the larger "Viewmaster" windows.

Mount Cook Airlines ended the 1960s with the purchase of a $420,000 de Havilland Canada DHC-6 Twin Otter, ZK-CJZ. The 18-seat Twin Otter was purchased for use on services from Queenstown to Milford Sound, to Te Anau's Manapouri airport, and to Alexandra and Dunedin. The 18-seat Twin Otter arrived in Christchurch on the 14th of November 1969 and entered service on the 2 December 1969 with the first flights flown under the command of Captain Parker Mudge. 

A glimpse of operations at Manapouri...  Twin Otter ZK-CJZ upon arrival from Queenstown 

A couple of photos of Douglas DC-3 ZK-AOD at Manapouri... The photographer of the photo below is unknown
Cessna 185 ZK-CHL was used for scenic flights from Manapouri including regular flights to Milford Sound
In just over 8 years the company had moved from one DC-3 operating a summer schedule only with three flights a week from Christchurch to Mount Cook, Queenstown and Manapouri to operating daily scheduled and non-scheduled services with a Hawker Siddeley 748, Twin Otter, 3 Douglas DC-3s and a raft of light aircraft to the major tourist areas of the South Island but also with the Hauraki Gulf.

The timetable for the 1969/1970 summer season

As the 1960s Mount Cook was looking towards the North Island and connecting the southern scenic centres with Rotorua and Auckland. It was also looking at the potential of the Bay of Islands. The 1970s saw Mount Cook Airlines develop to be the great New Zealand tourist airline and this will be the topic of a future post.

Mount Cook Airlines' flagship, Hawker Siddeley 748 ZK-CWJ at Christchurch on 11 November 1970

The 1970s - New Zealand's tourist airline

This is the second part of the history of Mount Cook Airlines. Part 1 can be found at http://3rdlevelnz.blogspot.co.nz/2014/02/mount-cook-airlines-part-1-1960s-birth.html

The 1970s started with three aircraft being added to the Mount Cook Airlines’ "airline" fleet.. In June a third Douglas DC-3, ZK-BEU was added to the fleet while in September and October 1970 two nine-seater, twin engined, Britten-Norman Islander aircraft, ZK-DBW and ZK-DBV arrived. These versatile aircraft were primarily bought for scenic flying into Milford Sound from both Queenstown and Te Anau but they were also used on scheduled service between Queenstown and Te Anau and the Queenstown-Alexandra-Dunedin service. Many years the Britten Norman Islanders were equipped with skis but these trials proved unsuccessful. From the late 1970s Islanders were also used on scheduled services in the North Island from Auckland to Rotorua and Kerikeri and for a short time to Great Barrier Island.

The replacement for Mount Cook Airlines' DH Dominies was the Britten Norman Islander. ZK-DBV is photographed at Queenstown
Skislander trials were held in 1974 - From the company's Annual Report to 31 May 1975

On services from Queenstown the Islanders quickly proved their versatility and they were popular aircraft with pilots and passengers. The service from Queenstown to Alexandra and down to Dunedin, which was operated mainly by the Twin Otter, was running at a loss. Unlike other services from Queenstown the service to Dunedin was dependent more on domestic traffic rather than tourist traffic. The amount of traffic offering did not warrant the Twin Otter which was withdrawn in September 1973. The Twin Otter was an outstanding aeroplane operationally, but Mount Cook found it very costly to run, and it was replaced with a Britten Norman Islander, which had a lower capital cost. 

De Havilland Canada Twin Otter ZK-CJZ at Queenstown - "an outstanding aeroplane but very costly to run."

On the 19th of October 1970 Mount Cook introduced a direct Mount Cook-Rotorua service. The first flight was flown in Hawker Siddeley 748 ZK-CWJ under the command of Captain Geoff Williams and Captain Alister McLeod. In the morning the Hawker Siddeley flew a Christchurch-Mount Cook-Queenstown before heading north from Queenstown to Mount Cook and Rotorua. In the mid-afternoon the 748 flew back to Mount Cook and from there to Christchurch. The company’s annual report to the 31st of May 1971 reported that the new service had “already found ready acceptance by the public and the travel agents as the most convenient and the fastest means of travelling between Mount Cook and Rotorua and it provides excellent long-haul utilisation for the aircraft with consequent better profitability. The introduction of our second 48 seater Hawker Siddeley 748 in July of this year should reduce the reliance on the DC-3s and the Twin Otter and should help to provide a more efficient and more economic operation.” The airlines of today often complain of airport and airways dues but as back as 1971 this was an issue for Mount Cook Airlines. The annual report reported that “7.83% .of our total airline earnings go to airways and airport Dues, the total amount costing us $79,000 as against $61,541 for the previous year!”

First Day cover for the Mount-Cook Rotorua service
The Mount Cook Airlines' timetable effective 19 October 1970 - The start of the 1970s saw extensive amphibian air services from Auckland to the Hauraki Gulf and Bay of Islands, between Invercargill and Stewart Island and a ski-plane air service from Fox Glacier and Franz Josef to Hokitika. By the end of the 1970s all these services were gone but Mount Cook Airlines had truly become New Zealand's tourist airline.

1970 also saw some changes to the Douglas DC-3 fleet. DC-3 ZK-BEU was registered to Mount Cook and Southern Lakes Tourist Co. Ltd on the 25th of June 1970, while the company’s first DC-3, ZK-BKD, returned to NAC and in July 1970 it was sold to Fieldair who used it for topdressing. 

From the Annual Report to 31 May 1971

Improvements were made to Manapouri airport with the sealing of the runway and in June 1971 the company added its second Hawker Siddeley 748, ZK-DES, to the fleet. This replaced Douglas DC-3 ZK-CAW which went to South Seas Airways Ltd of Auckland.  The second 748 enabled the company to operate a Christchurch-Mount Cook-Queenstown-Te Anau/Manapouri and return service while other 748 overnighted at Rotorua offering a morning service to Mount Cook and Queenstown with a late afternoon return service. The Mount Cook timetable during these years offered the possibility for passengers flying through Mount Cook a stop of some hours and enabling them time for a ski plane flight before continuing on to the next destination.

Added to the fleet, the second Hawker Siddeley 748 ZK-DES, as seen in this stunning Mount Cook publicity shot... 
...while Douglas DC-3 ZK-CAW, seen here at Queenstown, went from the fleet

With increasing tourist traffic on its own network and more demand being placed on the Hawker Siddeleys Mount Cook ended its agreement with NAC to operate the daily between Oamaru, Timaru and Christchurch on the 30th of April 1972. The NAC charter had been of real value to the company, giving it a regular income as numbers built on its core tourist routes. 

Late in 1972 the company imported an 11-seat Grumman Goose, ZK-DFC, to join the Auckland-based amphibian fleet. On the 1st of November 1972 this was used to take over the existing service from Mechanics Bay in downtown Auckland to Paihia in the Bay of Islands.  The ‘new’ thrice daily Golden Goose service from Auckland to Paihia was further enhanced on the 28th of November 1972 when Mount Cook Airlines began Hawker Siddeley flights to Auckland as an extension to the Rotorua service. Initially these flights operated on three days a week with southbound flights leaving Auckland on Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday mornings, returning on the evenings of Monday, Wednesday and Friday. The first daily Goose flight from the Bay of Islands left Paihia at 7 a.m. and, if required, the plane landed at Auckland International Airport to connect with the south bound HS748 flight before ending the 55-minute flight at Mechanics Bay. This meant that a tourist could have breakfast at the Waitangi Hotel and then fly to Auckland to connect with the Mount Cook Airlines' Hawker Siddeley 748 flight to Rotorua, Christchurch, Mount Cook Queenstown, Manapouri or Milford Sound. Mount Cook Airlines became the first airlines to connect all the major tourist destinations of New Zealand.

A few days before starting the Golden Goose service to Paihia Grumman Goose ZK-DFC was photographed at Ardmore on 21 October 1972

While Mount Cook Airlines were happy to get approval to operate into Auckland, there was a catch. While the Licensing Authority recognised the desirability of connections from Auckland to the tourist resorts at Mount Cook and Queenstown, NAC and Air North were already operating on the Auckland-Rotorua sector. Accordingly the Air Services Licensing Authority set conditions that the company could only carry between Auckland and Rotorua those passengers trans-shipping from same day early morning services from Paihia, and that no passengers could be picked up at Rotorua with Auckland as their final destination. In addition, no freight was to be carried between only Auckland and Rotorua and vice versa. The company was also granted an amendment to its licence permitting it to offer non-scheduled passenger and freight services between Mount Cook and Auckland.

In November 1972 Douglas DC-3 ZK-AOD was sold to Fieldair leaving only one DC-3, ZK-BEU, in the fleet. 

In addition to the 748s being used on Mount Cook’s tourist services they were also often chartered by NAC and this helped the company’s economics. Over the summer of 1972/73 they operated NAC services between Christchurch and Hokitika and Christchurch, Nelson and Wellington. The 748s were also used cover breakdowns for NAC’s Boeing and Friendships. As passenger numbers increased Mount Cook, at times, had to charter Friendship capacity from NAC. With the introduction of the summer schedule in late 1973 Mount Cook increased the Auckland frequency to a daily service. With traffic continuing to grow a third 748, ZK-MCA, was delivered in September 1973 leading to the introduction of a direct daily Christchurch to Queenstown service. A third Britten Norman Islander, ZK-MCB was added to the fleet in October of that year replacing the DHC Twin Otter ZK-CJZ. 

A day in the jumpseat, flying Christchurch-Mount Cook-Christchurch with my cousin who was First Officer.
The third 748, ZK-MCA at Mount Cook on 18 January 1980
In September 1973 it was announced that NAC was to acquire a 15 per cent shareholding in the Mount Cook and Southern Lakes Tourist Company, parent company of Mount Cook Airlines and Mount Cook Air Services. Under the agreement NAC was issued with 260,000 Mount Cook shares. In return NAC agreed to apply to withdraw its Auckland-Rotorua-Christchurch service in favour of Mount Cook Airlines. 

The company’s 1974 Annual Report of the Airline Division stated that, The introduction of the third Hawker Siddeley 748 gave much greater flexibility in the utilisation of our aircraft, greatly increased capacity and allowed planning for the engineering and other services to be done on more economic lines. The net revenue of the branch increased by 32.7% over the previous year. By combining the Auckland/Rotorua/Christchurch service, taken over from NAC in October, with our Auckland/Rotorua/Mt Cook services, we have been able to move traffic from one route to the other to make the maximum use of the available seats. In slack months, such as May and June, the two services, which previously had low load-factors, were combined into one, with a reasonably high load factor and saved a large number of hours of flying each month. A close working relationship with NAC has allowed us to charter their Friendships during our peak periods, while they have made considerable use of our surplus capacity outside our peaks. This rationalisation was beneficial for both Airlines… At Mount Cook, the centre of the strip has been rebuilt and resealed and a large hard-standing area constructed. This is to cater for the large number of aircraft movements at this airfield which often amounts to sixteen HS748's and DC3's and one hundred Ski-planes per day. An attractive terminal building constructed to an alpine design was completed in early December. It has counters to process airline and ski-plane passengers, lounge space for waiting passengers and on the top floor, a flight control office. The 11-seater Goose amphibian is doing an excellent job in serving the Bay of Islands area, but its seat/mile costs are very much higher than those of the HS748, and its capacity is limited. It is intended to get an airstrip developed in the Bay of Islands area, enabling the HS748 aircraft to fly there through Queenstown, Mount Cook and Auckland. 

A couple of nice shots showing the new terminal at Mount Cookin different conditions. Photos taken from the Mount Cook 1974 and 1976 Annual Reports 

As early as September 1974 the company was looking at upgrading to jets. At that time Hawker-Siddeley had released plans for a four-engine jet, designated the Hawker Siddeley 146. It was proposed that the 146 would carry between 90 and 100 passengers and would be capable of using of working from the company’s existing airfields. While Mount Cook was very interested in the aircraft, plans for its development never transpired at that time. Ironically, after the collapse of Ansett New Zealand, Mount Cook inherited and operated four British Aerospace 146 jet aircraft.

The last of Mount Cook’s de Havilland Dominies were sold in 1974. From October 1974 Twizel’s Pukaki airport, which was already used for diversions from flights into Mount Cook, received a scheduled service three times a week. On these days one of 748 flights stopped both southbound on the flights to Queenstown and northbound on the services to Mount Cook and Christchurch. At this stage the hydro developments in the MacKenzie Basin and Upper Waitaki were in full swing and Twizel had become a significant town.

Above the timetable effective 1 April 1975... the Twizel schedule is at the bottom of the page. Below, from the timetable effective 1 April 1976. Remember when phone numbers were only 3 digits long in rural areas?

In 1974 the Auckland based amphibian fleet was made up of three 5-passenger Grumman Widgeons and one 11 passenger Grumman Goose. Daily flights were scheduled to Great Barrier Island, twice daily to Kawau Island, four times daily to Pakatoa and Waiheke Island and three times daily to Paihia. Charter flying was also an important part of the amphibian operations and these operated to all parts of the Gulf, the Bay of Islands and as far south as Rotorua as well as servicing the Tiritiri, Mokohinau and Cuvier lighthouses and mercy flights for accident and maternity cases. Increasingly, however, the company was finding the Widgeon fleet uneconomic and more expensive to maintain. The decision was made to introduce a second Goose but the aircraft crashed at Wichita, Kansas on its delivery flight.

Flightseeing was a feature on all Mount Cook's fleet

With the loss of the second Grumman Goose Mount Cook sought approval to operate Britten Norman Island to Kerikeri. ZK-MCC duly arrived in New Zealand on the 31st of December 1974 and this was followed by ZK-MCD in January and ZK-MCE in April 1975. An Islander was quickly put to work on non-scheduled flights from Auckland to Kerikeri beginning in January 1975. From the 1st of April 1975 an Islander was also used to operate an Auckland to Great Barrier Island service in addition to the existing amphibian service which continued unchanged. Further expansion of the Kerikeri service occurred on the 3rd of November 1975 when Mount Cook Airlines expanded its daily air link between the Kerikeri and Auckland to four Islander flights a day. At this time Mount Cook was negotiating with the Government about the possibility of upgrading the Kerikeri airfield so it could take Hawker Siddeley flights. 

The third Britten Norman Islander ZK-MCC at Mount Cook on 18 January 1980. Note the revised colour scheme from the photo of ZK-DBV above and the addition of the dayglo strips
By 1975 Mount Cook Airline clearly was New Zealand's tourist airline

On the 30th of April 1976 Mount Cook closed its Auckland-based amphibian operations due to substantial losses. The aircraft were expensive to maintain with $40,000 spent on each aircraft over every two years. The company also cited that fact that it was bound by the award rates and restrictive conditions of the various unions. The Auckland operation was later sold to Sea Bee Air. Meanwhile, the Stewart Island service continued to be operated by Mount Cook Airlines until the 3rd of September 1976 when it passed to Stewart Island Air Services.
From the Annual Report to 31 May 1976

With the closure of the Auckland amphibian base at Mechanics Bay Mount Cook Airlines had only one BN Islander based at Auckland for the Kerikeri and Great Barrier Island services. At the end of October 1976 Mount Cook Airline withdrew its BN Islander service to Great Barrier Island because of a lack of local support. The November issue of NZ Wings carried an interesting article on Mount Cook and NAC’s BN Islander operations in Northland. Mount Cook Airlines operation is almost wholly directed towards the tourist, in keeping with the overall direction of the Mount Cook company. Those tourists flying the Islander from Auckland to Kerikeri in the Bay of Islands are mostly Australians and Americans… flown by the airline's local operations manager Bruce Packer a long time MCA identity in Auckland - and his off-sider Warren Dwight… The Kerikeri service operates three times a day during the summer season, and twice daily in the winter.  With this schedule there is not much spare capacity on the Islander, but Bruce Packer and Warren Dwight do get called on for the occasional charter or scenic flights, and also for carrying overloads from Mount Cook's 748 services to Rotorua or similarly for Air North services from Kaikohe... MCA's Islander operates only VFR, and on the 125 mile journey between Auckland and Kerikeri it scuds along at around 1,000 ft, giving the passengers a magnificent view of some very attractive tourist-type countryside. At 128 kts indicated and 2300 rpm the trip is scheduled to take 55 minutes; the lower power setting results in less noise in the cabin, and conversation was noticeably easier than in NAC's aircraft where in fact the pilot used a public address system to converse with the passengers. Kerikeri airfield is what you would expect; virtually a grass clearing in the middle of the countryside. Passenger facilities are minimal, a fenced-off patch of gravel where the mini-bus parks. It's the epitome of simplicity. On our flight we were running about an hour and a half behind schedule due to the continued presence of a low pressure system, and it took pilot Warren Dwight only 12 minutes from touch down to take off and to unload the umpteen boxes of chirping day-old chicks, load three American tourists and their baggage, and complete the documentation on the front seat of the mini-bus. The Islander is an ideal aeroplane for the Kerikeri airfield, and it makes short work of the 2,625 ft main vector or the alternative 1,900 ft strip.  But the popularity of the Kerikeri service will likely soon cause the downfall of the Islander. Mount Cook Airlines has for some time wanted to put its HS748's into the Bay of Islands, and in the face of government reluctance to do the job, it has received approval in principle to take over the airfield on lease and extend it.

In October 1976 Mount Cook obtained its fourth Hawker Siddeley. ZK-MCF though changing demand over the coming years meant that there was not always enough local work for it.  Over the next 8 years ZK-MCF was leased overseas for a total period of 5½ years on four separate occasions.

The fourth HS748 at Christchurch in January 1979 - Remember those days, when the Rolls Royce Darts screamed, when DC-10s reigned and when you could actually see an aircraft at Christchurch International?

By November 1976 Mount Cook Airlines had received government approval to lease the Kerikeri airfield for 20 years and to extend it. The work involved stripping the dense scrub, excavating 25,000 cubic metres of earth and bringing in 15,000 cubic metres of metal. The hope was that the Hawker Siddeley 748s would be flying into Kerikeri by February 1977. The new 748 route was branded as the “Sunbird service” with its own logo. The Sunbird itself was described, as a Jonathan Livingstone type seagull in a lazy, leisurely glide attitude crossing the face of a warm sun, which was described somewhat like a Kerikeri orange! The effect, it was claimed, was to be more in keeping with the warmth and leisurely, Bay of Islands way of life than drawings of marlins and makos!

Northern News, 17 March 1977

The Sunbird service to the Bay of Islands started on the 17th of March 1977, however, the Kerikeri airport was still not open meaning the first services were flown into Kaikohe airfield. The first flight was operated by ZK-CWJ with 26 passengers, most of whom were on their way to a conference of the New Zealand Independent Meat Exporters Association at the Waitangi Hotel. Mount Cook continued using Kaikohe until the new Kerikeri Airport was opened on the 3rd of May 1977. The first HS 748 flight to Kerikeri was flown by ZK-MCA under the command of Captain Geoff Williams and First Officer David Wyatt with Chief Purser Trevor Edlin and Steward Wally McKee looking after the cabin. This flight, however, was also not without incident. What was to have been the first Hawker Siddeley flight to touch down at the reconstructed Kerikeri Airport was held up by a mechanical fault in Auckland. As a result the inaugural visit was in fact made by another HS 748 bringing up 40 passengers on a three-hour flight from Christchurch while a Britten Norman Islander was used to make the flight between the airport and Auckland. From this point on the airline ran a limited service to Kerikeri Airport until June 1 when a full twice daily service commenced.

The first Hawker Siddeley 748 Series 2A flight to Kerikeri. ZK-MCA and Britten-Norman BN2A-26 Islander, ZK-MCC, taken at Kerikeri on 3 May 1977. Pictured left to right are: David Wyatt, co-pilot on the HS748; Bruce Packer, pilot of the BN Islander; Captain Geoff Williams, operations manager and pilot of the HS748; Anna Laloli, Miss Airport 1977; Wally McKee, steward; Trevor Edlin; chief purser. Photographer unknown. 

While Kerikeri finally gained its HS748 air service Twizel lost its on 19th of August 1977 due to poor loadings. In the previous 12 months the airline had carried 403 people into Twizel and 925 out of the town. The same day Mount Cook started operating “commuter services” with morning and evening return flights between Auckland and Kerikeri and Auckland and Rotorua using the Hawker Siddeleys. These commuter services had disappeared from the timetable by the following year but additional flights between Auckland and Rotorua appeared in the 1979 winter timetable after the collapse of Air North.

Being primarily a tourist airline, this was Mount Cook's first attempt at "commuter" services. The use of 748s meant these first commuter services failed but they were revisited later using 9 and 18 seaters. Timetable effective 19 August 1977

By the late 1970s almost all the company’s airline services were operated by 748s. However, the company still had one Douglas DC-3 in the fleet which was mainly used in the latter years for back-up. Douglas DC-3, ZK-BEU, was retired from airline service on the 16th of May 1978.

Retired Douglas DC-3 ZK-BEU sits at Christchurch waiting a buyer in September 1978. It later became a "Stagliner" for Alpine Helicopters before becoming a movie star, the Yankee Zephyr.

Also in Christchurch in September 1978 was ski-equipped BN Islander ZK-MCD in a rather different scheme. The ski-trials had been done in 1974 but the Islander was re-equipped with skis for the air show  commemorating the  50th Anniversary of Kingsford Smith's flight across the Tasman.

The 1970s ended with the arrival of Mount Cook’s fifth Hawker Siddeley 748 ZK-MCJ in October 1979. The purchase of this aircraft had been made necessary by demand, particularly forward demand, and was part of the company's long-term planning. The report announcing its arrival concluded by stating that the latest addition means that “Mount Cook will have a total fleet of 44 aircraft, the biggest in the country.”

Still wearing its Air Pacific colour scheme, Mount Cook's fifth Hawker Siddeley, ZK-MCJ, at Christchurch in January 1980. Notice the aircraft is branded with Mount Cook Line titles.

The 1970s saw the consolidation of Mount Cook’s tourist services offering a national network. While the 1980s were to start with the promise of great things they were also to see the company challenged in a way it would never have expected. That will be the third post of this series.

1980-1996, From Tourist Airline to a National Airline

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 months the airline fleet was rebranded. Initially this involved changing the titles but after some years the 748 fleet was repainted with a light blue stripe passing down the length of the fuselage and sweeping up the tail bordered by narrow dark blue lines.

Air Pacific colour scheme - Mount Cook Line titles. Hawker Siddeley 748 ZK-MCJ at Christchurch in January 1980.  From memory ZK-MCJ was the first to wear the new branding.
ZK-MCJ again - in the standard colour scheme with the Mount Cook Line titles at Christchurch  at 25 September 1982
The first attempt at a new Mount Cook colour scheme... Hawker Siddeley 748 ZK-MCF seen at Christchurch on 26 May 1982. It failed to impress and it was back into the paint shop rather rapidly.
What became the standard scheme - Hawker Siddeley 748 ZK-MCP at Christchurch on  24 December 1984

With the Group operating under one banner moves were made in 1980 to fill a gap in its portfolio, namely flying in its own tourist passengers from Australia. On the 20th of August 1980 the Mount Cook Group announced that it was seeking Government approval to operate scheduled Tasman air services from Christchurch to Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane with a leased Boeing 727. It was envisaged the 727 would accommodate 130 passengers and that the start-up costs would be in the order $2.5 million in the first year. The company foresaw frequent summer services of up to two flights a day with a lesser winter schedule. The company’s plans came to nothing due to the death of the company’s managing director, Harry Wigley, the driving force behind the company and the proposed international air service.

What might have been - Mount Cook Line Boeing 727. Source : Mount Cook Messenger, October 1980

The Mount Cook Messenger, the company’s in-house newsletter wrote a fitting tribute. On Monday 15 September last Sir Henry Wigley, chairman of the Mount Cook Group, died — and the transport and tourist industry lost a great and colourful leader and pioneer. It is seldom that the son of a famous father does much more than to take over the reins. It is rare indeed for the son to equal the parent's deeds and even more to exceed those deeds. Henry Rodolph Wigley was born in February 1913 and entered a world of stirring action and development — much of it the product of his imaginative father, Rodolph L. Wigley, who had laid the foundations of the Mount Cook Group by pioneering long distance scheduled motor services in New Zealand's South Island. By the time young Harry, as he was to become widely known, was 10 his father had entered the world of aviation and the smell of aircraft fuel, canvas and paint became a vital part of his young life. While in his early twenties he learned to fly and, in partnership with his father, enthusiastically started an air service based on Queenstown and Mount Cook. But, the war interrupted his plans and in 1940 he received a commission in the Royal New Zealand Air Force. His early service mainly included training duties but in 1943 he was posted to an operational fighter squadron and flew three operational tours in the Pacific which included commanding a squadron. At wars end he was commander of an island base with rank of wing commander. Following his discharge he returned to the Mount Cook company to find that a combination of the depression of the thirties and the war had taken its toll on the finances of the company. With tenacity, Harry Wigley set to and step-by-step commenced rebuilding. Non-profitable assets were sold and gradually new vehicles began to appear. He early realised the potential of tourism and started selling direct by mounting sales campaigns to North America and Australia. He joined and attended Pacific Area Travel association conferences. Slowly the name of the Mount Cook organisation came to the fore aided greatly by the many innovations that Harry' Wigley continued to introduce. In 1955 he successfully combined two of his great loves, skiing and flying, and started the famous ski-plane operation in the Mount Cook area. The early sixties saw him bring to realisation a long-time dream — a scheduled air service linking the key southern resorts with Christchurch. At his death he was head of an organisation generally considered as New Zealand's most versatile, if not the largest, private enterprise transport organisation with a nationwide air service and coach operation, travel offices in most main centres and tourist resorts, flight-seeing and sightseeing activities in both islands plus interests in accommodation, agricultural aviation and much more. He had brought an excitement to the company and to the industry generally. He had grasped life firmly and enjoyed it the full and in so doing had widely and generously shared that enjoyment with his family and that even wider family of staff, everyone of whom felt it an honour to work for and alongside one of the noblest knights this country has ever seen.

Harry Wigley (1913-1980)

In 1981 Air New Zealand announced it would withdraw from the Napier-Christchurch route as part of cost-cutting measures. Until this time Mount Cook had focussed on tourist services but in September 1981 Mount Cook made its first attempt to operate a non-tourist service, applying to the Air Services Licensing Authority for permission to introduce a Hawker Siddeley 748 service between Christchurch and Napier. With both the Mount Cook Line and Air Central wanting to serve the route Air New Zealand decided against withdrawing from the service.

Meanwhile, the Northland service between Auckland and Kerikeri was never the success story Mount Cook hoped it would be and because of this the route never sustained a 748 service. From November 1980 the airline was operating up to three flights a day on the route using one or two BN Islanders depending on loadings. The Islander was not an ideal aircraft and in mid-1982 the company introduced a faster and somewhat quieter Piper PA31-350 Navajo Chieftain, ZK-MCM. This saw service on flights to the Bay of Islands service as well as operating it on some flights between Auckland and Rotorua.  

Piper Chieftain ZK-MCM at Rotorua on 27 January 1984

In 1983 the Mount Cook Line hit turbulent skies as the Nelson-based TNL Group, which among other things owned Newmans, the rival tourist company, sought to take over the Mount Cook Group. Mount Cook was not impressed by the idea and in a full-page advertisement announced that it did not want "this unique company to become yet another autonomous division of a large trucking company." Air New Zealand, who had always had a good relationship with Mount Cook, were also concerned about a TNL take-over and sought to increase its holding in Mount Cook from 15% to 45% while at the same time Dominion Breweries Ltd acquired an 18.9% shareholding in the company.  Ultimately the Commerce Commission refused TNL permission to make the full takeover of Mount Cook it was seeking and TNL moved to establish its own airline. Meanwhile in December 1983 Air New Zealand increased its shareholding in Mount Cook to 30% and then to 77% in October 1985. 

While Mount Cook’s aircraft were mainly used on their scheduled and tourist charter flights they were also used for other work. In June 1983 TNT introduced an overnight freight service to move South Island goods to Wellington and Auckland on a guaranteed overnight door-to-door service. The service used chartered Mount Cook Hawker Siddeley 748s.

In January 1984 Mount Cook upgraded services from Auckland to Kerikeri and Rotorua by purchasing an 18-seat De Havilland Canada Twin Otter, ZK-MCO. This enabled the Piper Chieftain that had previously been used on these services to be transferred to the company's Christchurch base. The Twin Otter flew two return flights each day between Auckland and the Bay of Islands as well as between Auckland and Rotorua. The Twin Otter service, however, was short-lived and from the 24th of February 1986 it instead began flying between Queenstown and Milford Sound with the Chieftain returning to Auckland for flights to the Bay of Islands and Rotorua.

Flying the Bay of Islands and Rotorua service was DHC Twin Otter ZK-MCO as seen at Rotorua on 27 January 1984

For a more detailed post on Mount Cook's air service to Kerikeri see

For the summer of 1984/85 Mount Cook increased its 748 capacity by 50% with the return of the company's fifth 748 which had been on a two-year lease to Calm Air International in northern Canada and the purchase a sixth Hawker Siddeley 748 aircraft. The company's fleet at that time was 40 aircraft including the 6 Hawker Siddeley 748 airliners, 1 DHC Twin Otter and 1 Piper Chieftain, 6 Britten-Norman Islanders, 15 Cessna 185 and Pilatus Porter skiplanes, 11 agricultural aircraft and two non-flying historical aircraft, ZK-BDX the Auster that the first ski-landing and de Havilland 82 Tiger Moth ZK-BRC. 

Eventually all the Britten Norman Islanders were Queenstown-based operating scheduled services to Milford Sound, Te Anau/Manapouri and Alexandra and Dunedin as well as their major work, flightseeing to Milford Sound. Here three are seen with Mount Cook Line titles. Above, ZK-MCB at Dunedin in 1980, centre, ZK-DBV at Christchurch on 14 September 1985 and bottom, ZK-MCD at Queenstown on 24 October 1987.

In October 1984 plans for the launch of TNL’s airline, named Newmans Air, was well under way. Nonetheless, the TNL Group’s board continued to believe that a combined operation with Mount Cook would be “in the best interests of the shareholders of both companies and the future prosperity of the tourist industry." Newmans Air began operations on 13th of February 1985 operating two De Havilland Canada Dash 7s. Mirroring the Mount Cook tourist routes Newmans flew Auckland-Rotorua-Christchurch-Mount Cook (Glentanner)-Queenstown services.

The introduction of the new airline brought competition not only on the airways but also inside the cabin. On the 20th of August 1985 the Christchurch Press carried an article by Les Bloxham comparing the service on the two airlines. His account gives a good insight to the Mount Cook service at the time…

Mount Cook Flight NM5: August 16.
Rotorua to Christchurch.
Aircraft: Hawker Siddeley 748.
Scheduled departure: 12.35 p.m.
Actual departure: 12.45 p.m.
Scheduled arrival: 2.45 p.m.
Actual arrival: 2.36 p.m.
Time in air: 1hr 50min.
Cruising altitude: 22,000ft.
Altitude wind: nil.
Total seats available: 44.
Seats filled: 33.
Cabin attendants: two.

The first of two phone calls to the airline's reservations number was answered promptly; the second produced recorded music for 3min 10sec before my inquiry was handled. After a smooth check-in at Rotorua, passengers boarded the 748 and were directed to their seats by the hostesses in a pleasant manner. My seat was comfortable with adequate leg room, but I had limited space for' my feet and brief case under the row in front. Pre-flight emergency instructions were announced clearly. There was no visual demonstration of the procedures. A safety card and airline magazine were in the seat pocket. An excellent selection of magazines was offered after take-off and passengers were given a choice of tomato or fruit juice. A highlight of any Mount Cook flight is when the captain invites passengers on to the flight-deck: on this flight the door was left open for visitors (two at a time) for about an hour, thereby affording those passengers in rows where viewing was obstructed by the wings an opportunity of seeing the mountains at their winter best. The food service began about 30 minutes into the flight when the hostesses handed out wicker baskets containing a fresh club sandwich, piece of iced shortcake, kiwi fruit and a mini-pack of raisins with plastic knife, spoon, stirring straw, sugar and serviette. My sandwich contained lettuce, cheese, and ham. (The airline's food from Rotorua is also produced by Glenis and Ray Robinson). Vegetarian food is carried only if requested in advance. A hostess answered my call button promptly, but was unable to produce either an Air New Zealand or a Mount Cook Airline timetable. Hot drinks were served in cardboard cups with flap handles. The cabin was cleared 40 minutes before landing. Frequent informative announcements were made from the flight-deck drawing passengers' attention to points of interest along the way. Engine noise was noticeably louder towards the front of the cabin. The lavatory at the rear of the aircraft was clean, but the seat had to be held up by hand. Toffees were offered before landing. Baggage was available for collection nine minutes after arrival at the gate.

The launch of Newmans Air didn’t mean, however, that the battle for the ownership of the Mount Cook Group had ended. In May 1985 the Commerce Commission rejected a bid by the Nelson-based Goodman Group Ltd to acquire 47 per cent of the Mount Cook Group. At that time the Wellington based Goodman currently held 19.9 per cent of Mount Cook and had been seeking approval to buy Dominion Breweries Ltd’s 27.04 per cent of shares. The Commission’s decision was coloured by Goodman's 24.9 per cent shareholding in Newmans Group Ltd. It said that in the Commission's view the public interest was best served by having two vigorous operators in the principal tourist air routes. It considered that competition between Mount Cook and Newmans would be likely to bring real benefits to New Zealand.

Despite the competition from Newmans Air, Mount Cook’s passenger numbers continued to grow. The company carried 178,668 passengers in the first six months on 1985, up from 143,813 for the corresponding period the previous year, an increase of 24 per cent. Even before the competition took to the air Mount Cook had started to revamp its Hawker Siddeley 748 fleet. 

In November 1984 the airline was branded as Mount Cook Airline. A new colour scheme was introduced with a broad blue stripe with white, red and yellow stripes above. The 748's cabins were refurbished with the seating capacity being reduced from 48 seats to a more comfortable 44 seats. In August 1985 Mount Cook introduced new uniforms for the cabin attendants. The company also introduced non-stop flights from Christchurch to Queenstown, and reintroduced non-stop flights between Rotorua and Mt Cook, from the 14th of October 1985.

Hawker Siddeley 748 ZK-DES at Mount Cook on 23 January 1988
DHC Twin Otter ZK-MCO at Queenstown on 23 May 1987 where it was based for flightseeing operations
Piper Chieftain ZK-MCM in the new scheme at Christchurch on 24 August 1985
BN Islander ZK-DBV at Te Anau on 22 December 1985

Over the year Mount Cook chartered Fokker Friendships. The Civil Aviation Division’s Fokker F27 Mk 200 Friendship ZK-DCG was used in 1981 and ZK-DCB was used from 1986 to 1988. On both occasions the Friendships carried Mount Cook titles. The Following its retirement from Air New Zealand Fokker F27 Mk 100 Friendship ZK-BXF saw service with Mount Cook Airline from 1991 to 1994 and this was painted in full Mount Cook colours. In 1988 Mount Cook also used Bell Air’s Beech 99 ZK-LLA on services between Auckland and Rotorua and again this aircraft carried Mount Cook titles.

Chartered Fokker Friendship ZK-DCB at Twizel's Pukaki Airport on 16 April 1988 after diverting from Mount Cook due to high winds.
Fokker Friendship ZK-BXF arriving at Rotorua on 23 January 1992. I think the scheme on the Friendship looked better than on the Hawker Siddeley. 
Bell Air's Beech 99 ZK-LLA wearing Mount Cook Airline's titles seen here at Auckland on 8 February 1988

In the early 1980s Nelson saw the rise of the commuter airline Air Albatross. Following its collapse a new operator, Pacifica Air, was established and it introduced flights from Nelson to both Christchurch and Wellington in April 1987. Fearing competition in the Nelson market Mount Cook, which was now completely owned by Air New Zealand, introduced twice daily Hawker Siddeley 748 flights between Christchurch and Nelson. Flights were timed to run at the same time as Pacifica Air. Mount Cook’s first service into Nelson was flown on the 21st of September 1987 in Hawker Siddeley 748 ZK-DES.

Further expansion occurred the following month with Taupo and Wellington being added to the Mount Cook Airline network for the first time from the 23rd of October 1987. The northbound flight departed Christchurch at 6.50am reaching Wellington at 7.55am, departing again at 8.25am and reaching Taupo at 9.35am before continuing on to Rotorua where it arrived at 10.15am. The southbound flight from Rotorua landed at Taupo at 5.10pm, Wellington at 6.35pm and Christchurch at 8.15pm. 

The route network, from the timetable effective 1 October 1988

In 1988 Air New Zealand was looking to reduce its Fokker Friendship fleet. At the same time it wanted to introduce an early morning service between Nelson and Auckland. To help Air New Zealand facilitate these aspirations Mount Cook Airline introduced four weekday return flights between Nelson and Wellington. A reduced service was offered over the weekend. These flights commenced on the 28th of March 1988. At the same time an extra Nelson-Christchurch service was introduced. With Pacifica Air and Air Nelson also operating the Nelson to Wellington route there were 19 flights each day! With such competition something had to give and on the 7th of June 1988 Pacifica Air withdrew all its Nelson flights and instead operated flights from Christchurch to Alexandra and Wanaka. Mount Cook also set out to compete with Pacifica Air's flights to Wanaka and from the 28th of March 1988 they introduced Britten Norman Islander flights between Wanaka and Queenstown to connect with the Mount Cook flights to and from Queenstown.

In the late 1980s and early 1990s a second Piper Chieftain, ZK-EBT, was leased from Airwork. This saw service on the Kerikeri and Rotorua routes as well as continuing to operate the Auckland-Tokoroa air service that Airwork were operating. It later saw service on flightseeing in the South Island.

Piper Chieftain ZK-EBT at Christchurch on 26 February 1989...
and repainted at Tokoroa operating the air service in support of NZ Forest Products on 24 January 1991

In August 1990, following the announcement of Safe Air’s closure of its air freight and airline services, the Chatham Islands’ Local Authority Trading Enterprise Board chartered Mount Cook Airline to operate a temporary air service between the Chatham Islands and the mainland until a permanent service was established. These first services were flown in October 1990 with a return flight to the Chathams being operated from Christchurch on Mondays with additional flights being operated from Wellington on the 4th and 25th of October. Mount Cook subsequently secured the contract to operate a permanent Hawker Siddeley 748 service to the Chathams. A Christchurch-Chathams-Christchurch service was operated on Saturdays and a Christchurch-Wellington-Chathams and return service operating on Tuesdays.

Air New Zealand’s purchase of Eagle Air and a 50% share in Air Nelson led to the withdrawal of Friendship fleet and on the 15th of April 1991 there was a reshuffle of Mount Cook services. From that day Mount Cook pulled out of its Nelson services in favour of Air Nelson while in return Air Nelson quit Rotorua. Mount Cook then increased its Wellington to Rotorua return services from two to three a day as well as launching a daily return service between Wellington and Hamilton, and flights from Palmerston North to both Auckland and Christchurch. On the 18th of April 1991 Air New Zealand acquired 100% interest in the Mount Cook Group. Up until this point Mount Cook always had 748s available for special flights in support of the tour business. Now scheduled services throughout the country increasingly demanded the whole 748 fleet and the tourism focus of the airline started to wane.

Later in the year, on the 1st of July 1991, Mount Cook withdrew its Queenstown-Alexandra-Dunedin service. This service, which had operated since the collapse of SPANZ, was poorly patronised and no longer economically viable. 

I never managed to source a photo of a BN Islander taken at Alexandra... ZK-DBV is seen here at Queenstown on 19 March 1989 wearing its Milford Sound Flightseeing titles. This was the main work for the Islanders.

For a more detailed post on Mount Cook's air service to Alexandra see

In the 1990s there was still no adequate IFR approach into Queenstown. This meant the Mount Cook’s 748s did an IFR approaches on the Alexandra NDB before flying visually through the Kawarau Gorge to Queenstown. The aircraft would keep to the right hand of the valley to keep clear of any traffic coming the other way. There were two missed approach points where the aircraft could turn and retrace its steps back to Alexandra at Roaring Meg and Wairtiri Station. This wasn’t always easy and one story is told was of a 748 holding in a turn in the Gorge for 45 minutes waiting for snow showers ahead and behind of it to clear. There was, as is still the case, no night flights into Queenstown. With a growing number of tourists wanting to access the Queenstown skifields in the winter of 1992 runway lights were installed at Alexandra allowing Mount Cook Airline to operate evening Hawker Siddeley flights into Alexandra with bus connections to Queenstown thereby giving a same-day Australia-Queenstown connection for skiers.

1993 saw the introduction of a Wellington-Napier overnight service and the take over of Taupo services that had been operated by Eagle Air. The Taupo-Auckland services were initially flown with a Piper Chieftain three times a day but later this was changed to a Chieftain flight and a 748 flight. After Air New Zealand withdrew its Friendship services to Taupo Air Nelson operated flights between Wellington and Taupo for a brief period from late 1990 to mid-1991. The Air Nelson service was replaced by Mount Cook Airline which operated two 748 flights to and from Wellington, one via Rotorua and the other direct. A sixth Hawker Siddeley, ZK-MCB, arrived on lease in December 1993.

The route network from the summer timetable, 1993-1994

In late 1994 an air war raged between Mount Cook Airline and Air Chathams on the air service to the Chathams. Mount Cook heavily discounted its fares and boosted its services to five flights a week operated by their 748s or chartered Metroliners. The fierce competition continued throughout 1995 until Mount Cook suddenly withdrew from the Chathams on the 29th of January 1996.

For a more detailed post on Mount Cook's air service to the Chatham Islands see

1995 saw a number of changes for the Mount Cook Group. A second Twin Otter, ZK-TFS, was added to the fleet for Milford Sound flightseeing services but this occasionally did overflow service to Mount Cook and Christchurch. Colin Drew recounts that Mount Cook Airlines was also one of the pioneers in the practical use of GPS navigation in New Zealand. The NDB at Milford Sound was decommissioned and replaced by a Layover GPS approach after successful trials. Initial GPS training was carried out in Cessna 207 ZK-LAW followed by endorsements in the DHC Twin Otters ZK-MCO and ZK-TFS Colin Drew. GPS approaches into Queenstown Mount Cook and Pukaki were also established.

Helicopter operations began from Mount Cook in 1995 initially using two AS350 Squirrels but later using BK117s. The company also leased United Aviation's Navajo ZK-KVW using it for flightseeing based out of the Pukaki airstrip near Twizel. On the airline scene a seventh Hawker Siddeley 748, ZK-MCH, was leased to boost capacity over the 1995-1996 summer but an even bigger change was the announcement that the Hawker Siddeley’s were to be replaced with 66 seat ATR 72s.

Hawker Siddeley 748 ZK-MCH flew for Mount Cook for about 8 months. It is seen here at Christchurch on 8 November 1995.
Piper Chieftain ZK-KVW on 14 December 1995 while based at Pukaki Airport near Twizel waiting for its next flightseeing customers. 

The arrival of the ATRs signaled the end of the familiar Mount Cook lily that had been on the tail of Mount Cook aircraft since the first DC-3 services began in 1961. The ATRs were painted in Air New Zealand Link colours and the first ATR 72 began service on Monday, the 27th of November 1995 with flights operating from Christchurch to Invercargill and Dunedin.

The following year, on the 12th of February 1996 Mount Cook Airline flew its last commercial Hawker Siddeley 748 services. On that day Hawker Siddeley 748 ZK-MCP was operated on the last flights from Christchurch to Mount Cook and Queenstown and then direct back to Christchurch under the command of Captain Gary Hutchison and with Captain Sel Goldsworthy also on the flightdeck. The final Mount Cook Airlines' 748 service was flown from Wellington to Christchurch by HS 748 ZK-MCF under the command of Captain Alistair MacLeod and First Officer Peter Banks. Alistair had been the co-pilot on the delivery flight of ZK-CWJ in 1968. On board the final flight as one of his passengers was retired Captain Geoff Williams who had been the captain on the delivery flight. The final flight ended 27 years of service by the Hawker Siddeley 748 in New Zealand and this final flight marked the end of the Mount Cook lily being seeing on airline services in New Zealand.

The Press, 13 February 1996

Mount Cook Airline's Turbo Airliner Fleet

Beech 99
LLA (c/n U-52)                                                      (Leased)

De Havilland Canada DHC-6 Series 300 Twin Otter
CJZ (c/n 259)
MCO (c/n 530)
TFS (c/n 573)

DHC Twin Otter ZK-TFS at Milford Sound on 14 September 1994

Fokker Friendship
BXF (c/n 10185)                   Mk 100
DCB (c/n 10445)                  Mk 200                    (Leased)
DCG (c/n 10262                   Mk 200                    (Leased)

Hawker Siddeley HS748 Series 2A
CWJ (c/n 1647)                    Aorangi
DES (c/n 1689)                    Tongariro
MCA (c/n 1712)                    Rangitoto
MCB (c/n 1767)                                                     (Leased)
MCF (c/n 1697)                    Te Wai Pounamu
MCH (c/n 1791)                                                     (Leased)                               
MCJ (c/n 1661)                     Rotorua
MCP (c/n 1694)                    Tutoko


I am grateful to the early members of the Aviation Historical Society who recorded a lot of the information presented here in the early AHSNZ Journals... their work is a reminder that today's news is tomorrow's history.


  1. Simply outstanding! Thanks Steve. Can't wait for the next three posts on the subject!

  2. Brilliant, really enjoyed that read. I too am looking forward to the next parts :)

  3. Can't wait for further posts!