03 February 2014

Mount Cook Airlines - Part 1 - 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 the what became standard "Mount Cook Airlines" branding and the larger Skyliner windows

From November 1963 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

Part 2 of this series can be found here:

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!