11 May 2014

Eggs Can Fly - Oamaru's Air Freight Service

Straits Air Freight Express’ first two Bristol 170 Freighters, ZK-AYG and ZK-AYH arrived in New Zealand on the 19th of May 1951. Freight operations between Paraparaumu and Woodbourne began on the 31st of May 1951. These services operated on contract for the NZ Railways Department and became known as Rail-Air.

On the 19th of December 1951 a Bristol Freighter was chartered to fly a cargo of frozen products from Wellington to Dunedin. The Bristol then proceeded on to Alexandra where it uploaded cherries for North Island markets. The Bristol then landed at Oamaru for refuelling before continuing on Wellington. On the 31st of December 1951 two further Bristol Freighter flights landed at Oamaru and the first eggs were flown to Paraparaumu.  Further charter flights were made and on each occasion the aircraft had touched down at Oamaru on the return flight to take on eggs as 'filler" cargo. These charter flights led North Otago interests to explore the possibility for a freight service between Oamaru and Wellington. 

Early photos of Straits Air Freight Express' Bristol Freighter ZK-AYH, the "egg-plane" at Oamaru taken in 1951 or 1952. Disaster struck this aircraft on the 21st of November 1957. On that day ZK-AYH was on a flight from Paraparaumu to Timaru. It had just received clearance to commence its descent into Timaru whilst abeam Christchurch's Harewood airport when the right hand outer wing folded upwards and backwards and separated, falling and landing on open farmland. The nose doors, the floor of the freight compartment (with the freight in position), and the rear portion of the fuselage with the fin and rudder attached, separated from the rest of the aircraft just before impact. Pieces were scattered over an area of more than a square mile.The rest of the aircraft ploughed nose down into a row of pine trees on the south-east boundary of the Russley Golf Course. (For more see http://aviation-safety.net/database/record.php?id=19571121-0

On the 14th of January 1952 the Oamaru Junior Chamber of Commerce held a meeting to further this end. While locally there was enough agricultural produce to fly north the challenge was to be able to provide sufficient goods to fill the flight from Wellington to Oamaru in order to bring the price of the service within reasonable limits. The meeting was told by Mr F. S. Clarke, of the Dunedin commercial branch of the Railways Department, that a regular service would cost about £250 a round trip, provided goods were delivered and collected from airports. If the department collected and delivered the goods to city points the charge would be about £275 a round trip. A committee was formed to further the exploration of such a service, the committee members being Messrs G. L. McLatchie, J. S. Hogg, I. S. McDonald, T. V. Harris. and J. Craik.

On the 3rd of March 1952 Mr Clarke was back in Oamaru again speaking to the Oamaru Rotary Club. He congratulated the businessmen of the town for “sticking on” with the air service project in spite of a lack of encouragement. “The service to the Waitaki aerodrome gave promise of developing into a regular one and the authorities were doing all they could, to encourage it,” he said. “Dunedin had not taken it on and so the Oamaru people had really paved the way for a regular air-freight service between the north and south. The pilots concerned had expressed their amazement at the excellence of the Waitaki aerodrome and Oamaru had everything in its favour for the development of the scheme. I think you have climbed the first rung of the ladder in air transport,” concluded Mr Clarke.

The following day advice was received that a special regular air freight service was to be established between Oamaru and Paraparaumu on Wednesday and Fridays. Paraparaumu was being used at this time while Wellington’s Rongatai airport was being developed. The new service commenced operating the next day, on the 5th of March 1952. The first flight arrived at from Paraparaumu at Oamaru’s Hilderthorpe aerodrome at 2 p.m. carrying no southbound cargo but eggs for Wellington and machinery for Hamilton were carried on the northbound flight.

Within a few weeks the air service was in trouble with lack of support from the Oamaru business community leading Railways to look at curtailing the service. On the 9th of May 1952 Mr G. L. McLatchie, president of the New Zealand Egg Marketing Committee, was reported in the Oamaru Mail as saying, "The air freight service at present being run between Wellington and Oamaru is far from being a permanent service." Mr McLatchie said that, “while the egg industry of North Otago has in the past and still is prepared to carry its full share of responsibility in making the service a permanent twice-weekly one, only a few of the business executives of Oamaru had indicated their appreciation in a practical manner.”

A week later, on the 15th of May 1952, it was announced that the Oamaru air service would be suspended from the following day for one month and at the end of that time it  was hoped that there would be sufficient inwards freight to warrant continuing the air freight service. Arrangements had already been made to fly the entire North Otago brussel sprout crop to Wellington with the first shipment to have been flown on the following Tuesday and thence shipments of 3000 pounds each Tuesday and 12,000 pounds each Wednesday. Faced with the bombshell announcement of the cessation of the service and with the inability to get perishable foodstuffs to Wellington the Oamaru business community made representations to the Minister of Civil Aviation, Mr T. L. MacDonald asking that an interim service be provided for the perishable freight. The major problem that led to the Railway Department’s decision was the lack of southbound freight. The representations to the Minister were successful and the twice weekly service resumed on the 5th of June 1952.

The success of the Rail-Air service was largely due to the cargon loading system. Realising that the size and shape of load carried by a Freighter was much the same as that carried by railway wagons and trucks Straits Air Freight Express had suggested packing each aircraft load on to a pair of removable wheeled trays called "cargons" which could run on rails mounted inside the aircraft's freight hold. Freight for the Rail-Air service was simply packed on to a cargon and taken by a truck and trailer to Paraparaumu or Woodbourne airports. At the airport the NZ Railways Department had two special loading decks called traversers to speed transfer of the loaded cargons from the truck to the aircraft and vice versa. Each traverser consisted of a 40 foot long platform mounted on a pair of four-wheel bogies so that it could be driven electrically along standard railway tracks. It was raised or lowered at each end to line up with the tailboard of a lorry or the cargo hold of a Freighter, and had a motorised endless chain running down its centre. For loading, the traverser was first lined up with the lorry so that the cargons could be hooked on to the endless chain and, at the push of a button, dragged from the lorry on cargons on to the deck. The traverser then ran along the rails until it was in front of the aircraft its end was levelled and the cargons were fed into the Freighter's cabin in the same way. Loading was done by one man with a lorry and two trailers in 12-14 minutes compared with six men, two lorry trailer units and up to 90 minutes for hand loading. On average, the Freighters were ready to take off with another load within 20 minutes of landing. Money was saved as well as time, because the fact that loads were pushed in as a complete unit on a cargon reduced handling of individual items.

It would have cost too much to equip Oamaru with a traverser so instead, by 1956, the tail of the aircraft was simply jacked up after landing and the cargons were hauled out on to wheeled trolleys. This took longer than the traverser method, but was very much quicker than hand loading.  

Traversers compared to jacking up the aircraft tail... the two photos above show the more normative process of using traversers to load and unload the Bristol Freighters, the top variety a lot more primitive than the second photo... Below the method of jacking the tail of the aircraft up to facilitate the unloading and loading as used at Oamaru...  The photo of Bristol Freighter ZK-BEO was taken at Nelson on 18 January 1967

In 1953-54 the service carried 1,400,000lb of outward cargo and 875,000lb of inward cargo. Oamaru was the sixth airport in New Zealand with regard to freight, ranking after Wellington (Paraparaumu), Blenheim, Christchurch, Nelson and Auckland.

In mid-July 1958 the Otago Daily Times reported that there was a strong possibility of Oamaru losing its air freight service to Paraparaumu. The key reason was the lack of inward cargo from the North Island. As the plane was flying with a lot of spare capacity the Railways Department itself made use of the available space though much of this cargo was paid for on surface rates. Poultry interests were keen to keep the service in operation and they agreed to a 3s increase for a two month period and, at the same time, to a two month trial sending half their eggs by surface means to Blenheim for air-freighting to the North Island.

Subsequently the Oamaru Chamber of Commerce asked businesses to give maximum support in maintaining Oamaru's air freight service to and from Wellington especially in the matter of inward freight. One local business who did support the service was Knights Motors. The Bristol Freighter flights flew new Ford Consul and Zepher cars south to Oamaru for Knights Motors while the Egg Producers’ Marketing Organisation guaranteed two full outward loadings a week. At the same time the Chamber of Commerce emphasised that there must be a regularity of service with the twice-weekly services being maintained on their scheduled days. After being "on trial " for three months, the Railways Department announced that direct rail-air freight service between Oamaru and Paraparaumu was to be continued until Wellington’s new airport came into operation in 1959 after the situation was to be reviewed again.

Advertising the Oamaru Rail-Air freight service, 19 August 1958

Wellington’s new Rongotai airport opened on the 24th of October 1959. This month, however, coincided with all available aircraft being fully committed in handling an increase in freight across Cook Strait and it was found impracticable to provide direct flights for eggs from Oamaru to Paraparaumu and freight flights from Christchurch to Paraparaumu. Arrangements were made, therefore, for Oamaru eggs to be railed to Blenheim. The increase in freight that arose following the opening of Rongotai meant the Railways Department was not to give many direct flights between Oamaru and Wellington. One such flight was flown in December 1959 and three were flown in January 1960 and these flights marked the end of the air freight service to Oamaru.


  1. Fantastic research done there. I really enjoyed reading this article. Thanks for your efforts :)

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