20 July 2014

NAC - The First Civil Operator to the Chathams on Sea and Land

While NAC has only had the briefest of connection with the Chathams it holds the status of being the first civil operator to the Chathams on both land and sea.

During the years 1946 to 1948 the RNZAF operated a number of flying boat services to the Chatham Islands using their Catalina and Sunderland flying boats. These flights prompted calls for a regular air service to the Chatham Islands. On the 7th of October 1948 Cabinet gave  the National Airways Corporation authority to operate a flying-boat service between Wellington and Chatham Islands and return once every six weeks, on trial, for a period of six months. Any losses incurred were to remain with the National Airways Corporation until the end of the period It was agreed that if it was subsequently decided to continue the service that at the end of the first year's operation the question of whether NZNAC would be reimbursed or not would be considered.

Initially there was some question as to whether these flights would terminate on the Chathams’ Te Whanga Lagoon or Lake Huro. RNZAF crews that had previously visited the Chathams in adverse weather conditions were very much against the continued use of the lagoon. However, there were no mooring, launch and jetty facilities at Lake Huro let alone road access and so Te Whanga Lagoon was confirmed as the landing site. As this question was determined NZNAC also looked to ensuring adequate services at Evans Bay, including provision of launches, mooring, refuelling, “sweeping” the landing and taking-off areas as well as the provision of a place for checking in passengers. The Corporation asked Aeradio and the RNZAF to provide the same radio communication facilities for their flights as had been provided for previous Air Force flights.

NAC operated a survey flight to the Chatham Islands with Short Sunderland ZK-AMG, Mataatua, on the 9th of February 1949. 21 seats were available on the outward flight, but the Sunderland was full for the return trip on the same day carrying Public Works Department carpenters and secondary school students returning to New Zealand for the new school year. The fare was set at £11 each way with each passenger allowed 35lb of luggage. The flight was scheduled to leave Evans Bay at 8.15am arriving at the Chathams at 11.45am. The return flight was scheduled to leave at 2.45pm arriving at Wellington at 6.15pm before the Sunderland positioned back to Auckland.

Evening Post, 5 February 1949

This first flight was expected to mark the beginning of the regular six-weekly service to the Chathams, however, the service proved to be more sporadic. A return flight was operated on the 9th of March 1949 but the flight scheduled to operate on the 1st of June was cancelled due to insufficient traffic. The next flight was operated on the 17th of August 1949, but a week before the flight operated there were only 13 passengers booked - 10 bound for the Chathams and 3 on the return flight! At this time NAC wrote to the Director of Civil Aviation noting that “even allowing for a full complement of passengers each way on the Sunderland aircraft, the Corporation will still lose approximately £400.0.0 per trip when operating these flights to the Chatham Islands, and therefore it is necessary to recover as much revenue as possible on each flight operated.”

Over the summer of 1949/1950 more flights were operated. Wellington’s Evening Post suggested that the Chathams as a holiday destination - Holiday seekers who would care to spend a month at the Chatham Islands over Christmas will have an opportunity to do so by flying-boat. A Sunderland flying-boat is making two special flights from New Zealand to the Chathams over the holiday period. She will carry passengers from Wellington and mail from Auckland and Wellington. The first flight leaves Auckland at 2.30pm on December 22, and Wellington at 8am the following day, returning to Wellington at 5.30am from the islands. The second flight will be made at the same times on January 26 and 27. The Sunderland will arrive at Wellington from Auckland at 5pm on December 22 and January 26, and departs for Auckland from Wellington at 6.15 pm on December 23 and January 27.

NAC had three Short Sunderlands registered to them... Above ZK-AMG, which made the first flight to the Chathams and below ZK-AMK. Both photos were taken at Hobsonville in Auckland.

In 1950 NZNAC retired the Sunderlands from its fleet, the flight on the 27th of January 1950 being the last flight the Corporation operated to the Chathams. The flight in ZK-AMK was under the command of Captain Allan Henry and First Office Brian Layne. 

First Officer Brian Layne's logbook with the last NAC flight to Chathams recorded on 27 January 1950.

The NAC air service to the Chathams proved to be costly. The four flight carried 135 passengers and incurred losses of £436.17.11 in March 1949, £640.12.5 in August 1949, £439.12.1 in December 1949 and £360.6.9 in January 1950. The Minister of Finance approved the reimbursement of these losses to the Corporation.

Location of the three landing sites on Chatham... From left to right, Point Waikato flying boat base, the current Tuuta Airport and Hapupu airstrip which was used by the RNZAF and Safe Air's Bristol Freighters and Tasman Air's Piper Navajo. 

NAC was later to become the first civil operator of land-based flights to the Chatham Islands. This was made possible after the opening of Hapupu Airfield.

In 1956 the Barker Brothers looked at developing an airfield at Hapupu despite the Chatham Island County Council thinking the site was too inaccessible. The Minister of Civil Aviation wrote to the Barkers stating that “If you are prepared to proceed at your own or local expense without Government support at this stage in constructing the NW-SE airstrip, then conditional on the Hapupu site being finally chosen for the aerodrome for Chatham Islands I will be prepared to recommend to Government reimbursement of agreed on and substantial cost of construction of the airstrip up to 60% of the cost with a top limit of Government subsidy of £2,000.” 

On the 25th of August 1956, the Barker Brothers replied that they had already commenced preparation of the Hapupu airstrip and this was ready for use by May 1957. The first flight into Hapupu was made by the Civil Aviation Administration’s Douglas DC-3 ZK-AUJ on the 15th of May 1957. The first flight was flown by Captain Hewitt with First Officer George, Navigator Duke, Radio Officer Vaughan and Flight Engineer Young making up the rest of the crew. Also on board were Messrs Halley and Andrews of C.A.A. and Mr Pritchard of the Ministry of Works.

The survey party were quite impressed with the 4000x400 feet airfield which had been developed by the Barker Brothers. It was built along a slight ridge of sand and shell composition and the survey party considered it had “a well-drained surface, with a thick sole of grass. Despite previous rains, only tyre marks with slight tread indentations were left by the heavy aircraft.” While the survey party were happy with the airfield the Chatham Islanders were less happy as Te Hapupu was more than 30 miles from Waitangi, the Chathams’ main population centre. For half the overland distance there was no road at all so most traffic took a short cut through Te Whanga lagoon using horse-drawn joggers or tractor-drawn trailers. Nonetheless it was reported that half the population were at Te Hapupu to see the DC-3’s arrival.

During the previous two summers Ansett Airways of Australia had operated a series of flights to the Chathams. These had proved expensive and so for the summer of 1957/58 NAC were chartered by the Department of Island Territories to operate five Douglas DC-3s flights between Christchurch and Te Hapupu with an additional flight if necessary. The cost of chartering the DC-3s was estimated at £425 per flight, with an approximate net expenditure of £1000 (after revenue from ticket sales) for 6 flights as opposed to a net expenditure the previous year of £3,000 for flights operated by the flying boats. Flights were scheduled to operate on the 14th and 18th of December 1957, and the 26th of January, 2nd of February and 1st of March 1958 with a fare of £17.17.6 being charged for adults and a half fare for school children. The first survey flight was flown by Douglas DC-3 ZK-APA with the subsequent five charter flights being made by ZK-APK.

The operation of these flights proved to be very successful, with a profit of £600 being made on the Chatham Islands service for the first time. However, there were aspects of the operation of the flights that proved to be problematic. Prime among these was the remote location of the airfield and the difficulty of accessing it, the journey to the airfield taking up to 3 hours. The DC-3’s, while cheaper to operate than the flying boat, could only carry 14 passengers to Hapupu and 19-20 passengers on the return trip. It was felt that if further flights were to be operated it was highly desirable to install a radio beacon as well as radio communication from the airstrip to the aircraft. The cost of this equipment was estimated at £10,000. There was also the question of the recouping of costs for the construction of the airfield with the Barker Brothers wanting the Government to buy the airfield while the Government was willing to pay a £2000 subsidy plus a £10 landing fee for commercial flights. Despite the commercial success of these first flights they were not repeated.

The following year it was the RNZAF who operated the summer flights to the Chathams and who continued to operate a regular service. In announcing the RNZAF service the MP for Lyttleton Norman Kirk said the flying-boats offered the best solution to many of the islands transport problems. Asked why flying-boat service had been preferred to land planes, he said that the Te Whanga Lagoon had an area of 86,000 acres and offered multi-directional landing facilities not available at Hapupu which was a grass airstrip.  "The access to the strip is 31 miles, most of which is swamp and fern country and negotiated by tracks and four-wheel drive vehicles, and even these experienced considerable difficulty in driving the last 15 or 20 miles." he said, "This trip necessitates travelling in old clothing and changing into other clothes at the airstrip. This usually takes place in the bush." The lagoon, he said, offered a more regular service immediately with no costly development involved.

NAC was to operate one further DC-3 flight to the Chathams on the 26th of June 1966 when ZK-APA made a trip to the Chathams to bring back crew members from a trawler owned by Mr G. Blaikie of Bluff.

I am indebted to the records held in Archives NZ in writing this. 

For links to other air services to the Chathams see...


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