17 August 2014

Skyferry - Making Crossing Cook Strait Easier

The Skyferry to Sounds Air story is one of the most interesting chapters in the developments of regional airlines in New Zealand. It starts with the finding of a niche, the taking on of the Cook Strait ferries, the air service between Wellington and Picton. It passes through the transition from using 4-6 seat Cessnas to multi-engined aircraft and, more significantly, pioneering the use of turbine, single-engined IFR operations with the Cessna Caravans. It is also the story of the development of a new model of regional air service as the company expanded its services beyond Picton to Blenheim, Kaikoura, Nelson and more recently Wanganui. It's a story that is told in the context of a changing aviation scene in New Zealand. The story continues to unfold . 

I am extremely grateful to Cliff Marchant and Andrew Crawford for their time and encouragement in the preparation of these posts which will continued over the next two Sundays. 

Outdoor Aviation Ltd was founded in November 1983 by two pilots, Dave Phillips, the company’s first full time pilot, and Cliff Marchant initially using Cessna 185 ZK-CHK and Cessna 172 ZK-CAA. This was one of if not the last consent granted by the Air Services Licensing Authority, which was abandoned in 1984 in favour of the “open skies” policy. The company began as a charter operation offering bach owners, locals and tourists quick and easy air access from Wellington to the Marlborough Sounds and Golden Bay. The Civil Aviation Division granted the company approval to operate into eight of the Marlborough Sounds’ airstrips including Picton, Havelock, Titirangi Bay and Nopera Bay as well as Bainham and Matariki in Golden Bay. All but one of the company strips in the Sounds were within 40 nautical miles or within just over twenty minutes flying time from Wellington. In November 1983, the company placed an order with Cessna for the yet to be certified Cessna Caravan, due for delivery in 1985. The deposit for the new aircraft was paid early in 1984, the entire profits from the 1983/84 summer operation.

In 1984 the company developed the topdressing airstrip at Koromiko, 5 km south of Picton, as a prelude to introducing a Cook Strait air service between Wellington and Picton. This development included the extension of the airstrip to 650 metres and the provision of a primitive shelter shed to serve as a terminal.  The service, which operated under the name ‘Skyferry’ began on the 31st of August 1984 with four return flights scheduled each day. The company saw the potential of picking up some of the Interislander rail-ferry passenger traffic. Skyferry’s $25 air fare was $7 more than the fare on the ferry, but the real advantage was the time difference, only 25 minutes by air compared to the 3½ hours by the ferry. To cater for the increased business required to justify the pending introduction of the Cessna Caravan the company also used Cessna 206 Stationair ZK-DOA and later Cessna 207 Skywagon ZK-WED to build the traffic. About this time, in mid-1984, Dave Phillips left New Zealand for a flying career in Hong Kong.

Skyferry's initial timetable - supposedly effective from 15 August 1984 but flights did not start until 31 August 1984
Skyferry's Cessna 206 ZK-DOA at Christchurch during the Air New Zealand pilots' strike on 21 December 1984
The original passenger terminal at Koromiko, The Press, 30 October 1985
The Dominion 30 May 1985

With a $1.5 million price tag the introduction of the 13-passenger seat turbine Cessna 208 Caravan I aircraft was a major investment for the company. Two Caravans were added to the fleet, ZK-SFA, which the company bought and ZK-SFB which was leased. The company started using the Caravans on its Cook Strait service on the 29th of November 1985. These were the first Caravans to operate in the Southern Hemisphere, and the first examples Cessna had built with a 14 seat configuration, cargo pods and the gross weight increased from 7300lbs to 8000lbs which involved a 12-inch increase in the height of the tail fin. The strong, light-weight Kevlar under-cabin luggage pods could hold 370 kgs in three separate com­partments which was ideal for the luggage carried on the Picton service and for pure freight operations. Both Caravans were fully IFR-equipped with twin VOR, ADF and DME but, being a single-engined aircraft, the Civil Aviation Division never allowed Skyferry to operate the Caravans IFR on passenger operations despite the fact that there were absolutely no laws preventing such day-time operations. The imposition preventing IFR with passengers was promulgated through the company operations specifications, the Director having full authority to change these as he saw fit.

Crossing Cook Strait six times a day for $29... the timetable effective 31 October 1985

The big Cessna! Skyferry's Cessna 208 Caravan ZK-SFA at Picton's Koromiko Airport on 6 February 1987. These aircraft have been a feature of Cook Strait air travel since their introduction.

On the 2nd of January 1986 Cessna 207 ZK-WED crashed at Koromiko while on a private flight. While the Cessna was not on a Skyferry service at the time, the plane had been used by Skyferry and carried Skyferry titles. Sadly the pilot, Winston Cunliffe and his six passengers all perished.

In 1986 Cliff Marchant tried to raise the possibility of Single Engine IFR (SEIFR) with the Civil Aviation Division. He writes, In mid-1986, following an exchange of letters regarding SEIFR, I met with the CAD at their offices in Wellington. At that meeting, I detailed a proposal for “limited IFR” meaning that the departure from Wellington or Picton/Blenheim had to be at VFR minimums, but the overwater segment would be permitted at cruise levels to achieve landfall anywhere on the route should engine failure occur (as opposed to the then present inevitability that engine failure would absolutely ensure a ditching in Cook Strait) After some tut-tutting and raised eyebrows, I was told, in no uncertain terms, that the notion of letting a single engine aircraft with fare-paying passengers end up “lost in cloud” with an engine failure was not going to happen. The consensus from that meeting was that the best solution was to ban all single engine air transport over water. I tiptoed backwards out of that meeting with the realisation that if I wasn’t very careful the $3 million worth of Skyferry hardware out at the airport was about to be reduced to white elephant status.

By mid-1986 five full-time pilots were em­ployed as well as three part timers including the founder and managing director Cliff Marchant. Recruitment of suitably qualified pilots was not easy. Most of the flights were IFR with freight, which was better from a management point of view – very structured flying with full accountability to ATC clearances etc. It was only when the Caravan was loaded with passengers that the operation had to downgrade to VFR, with all the attendant risks of continuous decision making in an unmonitored environment, not to mention the loss of the one asset you need should the engine fail-altitude. 

Skyferry, "We make crossing Cook Strait easier"

About this time, the owners of the leased Caravan SFB, plus the remaining shareholders in Skyferry decided that a full-time managing director was required. They wanted Cliff Marchant to fulfil this role, but he made it clear that he had no interest in it as he was committed to his growing family and career elsewhere. The upshot was that in late 1986 Paul Robinson joined the company as one third shareholder and Managing Director. Cliff and his family moved to Port Gore in the Marlborough Sounds in late 1986. The introduction of the Caravan had allowed the company to diversify and it gained the contract to fly the Dominion newspaper and to operate a small-parcel/courier-freight IFR service to Picton and Nelson for Fastway Couriers and Ansett respectively

Cliff Marchant and Dave Phillips were not interested in competing with other airlines.  Their focus was on expanding aviation to compete with the ferries and provide a new service for Sounds folk. Paul Robinson, however, was keen to service his home town of Blenheim, so in mid-1987 Skyferry introduced daily flights between Wellington and Blenheim flights using Britten Norman Islander ZK-FGR which was leased from Invercargill-based Southern Air. The twin-engine Islander was able to operate the Blenheim flights under instrument conditions as opposed to the VFR Caravan operations to Picton. From the 11th of September 1987 the Islander was replaced with Skyferry’s Beech Queen Air Excalibur ZK-SFC.  

Skyferry's Beech Queen Air Excalibur, ZK-SFC, at Wellington on 15 May 1988
With flights to Blenheim now, the timetable effective 31 June 1987 - a slight typo on the timetable!

The Beech Queen Air was also used to operate a short-lived service between Wellington and the Chatham Islands. Services started on the 24th of November 1987 and operated on Tuesdays and Fridays. The Skyferry flights from the Chathams were paid for on the day of departure. The Queen Air would depart for the islands with a fully booked return flight, only to find hardly anyone to pick up. As there was no penalty for no-show the service had no chance of surviving and ceased some time in 1988.

Timetable for the Chatham Island service which started from the 24th of November 1987

In October 1987 Skyferry introduced overnight cargo flights between Wellington and Christchurch using the Caravans. However, tragedy was to strike the company a month later. On the 27th of November 1987 Cessna Caravan ZK-SFB was flying a night freight flight between Wellington and Christchurch. Having dropped off its freight load at Christchurch, the empty aircraft departed for Wellington. After departure the aircraft climbed to an altitude of 11,000 feet. Around midnight the aircraft encountered severe icing. The accident report noted that the aircraft had no airframe de-icing equipment and concluded the airspeed dropped until the aircraft stalled. The Caravan entered a spin and crashed into the sea off the Kaikoura Coast with the loss of the pilot and another occupant. Cliff Marchant writes, I could never understand how an empty Caravan, with full take-off power available up to 10,000ft, would not have the power to overcome the alleged icing on the airframe. I flew SFB from America to NZ with ferry fuel at a gross weight a tonne above the maximum 8000lbs. Some years later he discovered another fact that cast light on the accidents. He advised the authorities (CAA) that he had fresh evidence regarding the crash but the report was never revisited.

The ill-fated Cessna Caravan, ZK-SFB, at Wellington on 16 January 1986

In late 1987, with Paul Robinson focussing on freight and the scheduled operation, Cliff Marchant sought and received a separate air service certificate in his own name, trading as Soundsair, to operate charter services to/from the Marlborough Sounds.

From March 1988 the company was given permission to operate the BN Islander on services to from Picton’s Koromiko airfield. This meant that the Islander could also be used as a backup for the Caravan. Over the years Skyferry was to operate a number of Islanders. Britten-Norman BN2A-8 Islander ZK-FMS was leased from Sea Bee Air Ltd in early 1988. Britten-Norman BN2A21 Islander ZK-SFE was registered to Cliff Marchant in June 1988. It wore Soundsair markings but was also used on Skyferry services. Britten-Norman BN2A-21 Islander ZK-JSB was leased from Great Barrier Airlines prior to being registered to Cliff Marchant in July 1989.

The Picton service was certainly a success story and continued to grow. Patronage on the service had grown from 9500 passengers in the first year to more than 40,000 passengers in the financial year to the 31st of March 1988. About this time a rift developed between Paul Robinson and the other Directors. Robinson had invested upwards of $100k of company profits on public shares just prior to the sharemarket crash in October 1987, and had bought an aircraft engineering business for a similar amount, all done without consultation with his fellow directors. The end result was that he left the company in 1988.

Skyferry's BN Islander ZK-JSB seen at Wellington on 13 August 1990
The Picton service was certainly a success story and continued to grow. Patronage on the service had grown from 9500 passengers in the first year to more than 40,000 passengers in the financial year to the 31st of March 1988.

Meanwhile the company needed to provide capacity on the popular Picton route, and with the ATD (CAD was renamed as the Air Transport Division of the Ministry of Transport in 1988) attitude to SEIFR for the Caravan unchanged, the preference for another Caravan purchase was abandoned and the decision made to buy two Trislanders.

1989 saw more fleet changes with the purchase of two Pilatus Britten Norman Trislanders from the USA. The Trislanders replaced the lost Cessna Caravan as well as the Beech Queenair. Branded as “T Birds”, the introduction to the Trislanders did not come easy with a number of type-certification and maintenance issues to overcome. The ATD advised Skyferry that under “Entry Control” for this a first of type aircraft, they had decided that the avionic suite would have to include a full set of co-pilot instruments including slaved remote magnetic indicators (RMI) as fitted to the 48 seat Fokker Friendships of the day. Every attempt at securing a quote for the work was met with strong doubt the job was even possible due to the available panel space. ATD finally had to relent when the Britten Norman factory advised the desired fit was impossible to implement on this airframe. Meanwhile, over six months had been wasted with full payments having to be made on the two unusable aircraft while the Caravan and Islander maintained the air services.  ZK-SFF, T Bird One, finally starting flying Skyferry services from Wellington to Picton and Blenheim on the 12th of April 1990. This was followed by ZK-SFG, T Bird Two, in September that year. The arrival of the Trislanders saw the adoption of a new blue colour scheme.

Optimistically announcing the arrival of the Trislanders for the schedule effective 1 July 1989... It was 9½ months later that the first Trislander entered service.

NZ Wings gave a good description of the Trislanders in the October 1990 issue; The two unique aeroplanes are of Belgian manufacture, being put together at Gosselies in 1976 when Britten-Norman was part of the Fairey Group. As with their older cousins, the Islanders, the three-engined Trislanders were ferried “home" to Bembridge on the Isle of Wight for completion as -2 models with a long nose, droop flap and wing tip tanks. The impressive slim line commuters are powered by three 260 hp Lycoming engines, have a wingspan of 53 feet and a MAUW of 10,000 lbs. Skyferry operated their Trislanders with two pilots and seating for 14 to 16 passengers depending on luggage.

BN Trislander ZK-SFF at Picton's Koromiko airfield on 14 August 1900
A couple of views off BN Trislanders ZK-SFG... Above at Blenheim on 15 December 1990 and below at Koromiko on 16 December 1990.

The final timetable, ominously issue number 13, effective 7 October 1990 

By mid-1991, however, Skyferry was in serious financial trouble. This was largely brought about by the delayed introduction of the Trislanders. The company was placed in receivership on the 14th of July 1991 and two Trislanders and the leased Cessna Caravan were flown to hangars at Woodbourne to await disposal.

At the time of the grounding Cliff Marchant told NZ Wings that when the Trislanders arrived they weren't in such good condition as first thought. "They cost a lot to get running. ATD hit us with a lot of new requirements that weren't on existing operators. We took six months to get over that, and they relaxed the requirements in the end. The engineering staff were slow in getting the Trislanders going. They overdid the budget last year. Our sundry spares stock went from $40,000 to $250,000 in three months. We were stripped of working capital. In one year wages increased by 250 percent with only 25 per cent more work done. We had a shootout with the engineering manager and in November went to Safe Air. As soon as the Trislanders went there for maintenance, things changed dramatically, with good reliability. They're an excellent organisation."

Five days after being placed in receivership the receiver, David Petterson, announced the airline would not reopen and the airline would be sold as a going concern or its assets sold. He said Skyferry appeared to have lost its way changing from a niche-carrier offering cheap and quick strait crossings to Picton to an airline challenging others for Wellington to Blenheim passengers and, at times, shunning passengers for freight. "They missed their market." The receivers also pointed the finger at the company’s bad management and poor turnover.

A few months later Cliff Marchant told NZ Wings, Nearly a million people go each year between Wellington and Blenheim-Picton. Eight hundred thousand of those go by Cook Strait ferry. That was our competi­tion. We weren't really interested in being in competition with any other carrier. And Skyferry certainly achieved what it set out to do. In over seven years of operation Skyferry carried over a quarter of a million fare paying passengers with zero harm, a fact that all those involved with the company were very proud of. Skyferry had proved it could be done and done well and it was for this reason that a few months later Soundsair was to pick up where Skyferry left off.


ZK-CAA - Cessna 172B (c/n 172-48413)
ZK-CHK - Cessna 185C (c/n 185-0755)
ZK-DAT - Cessna 172L Skyhawk (c/n 172-59648)
ZK-DOA - Cessna U206F Stationair (c/n U206-02203)
ZK-FGR - Britten-Norman BN2A-26 Islander (c/n 741)  
ZK-FMS - Britten-Norman BN2A-8 Islander (c/n 42)
ZK-JSB - Britten-Norman BN2A-21 Islander (c/n 458)
ZK-PRM - Cessna A185F Skywagon II (c/n A185-04414)
ZK-SFA - Cessna 208 Caravan I (c/n 208-00051)
ZK-SFB - Cessna 208 Caravan I (c/n 208- 00059)
ZK-SFC - Beech 65-B80 Queen Air/Excalibur 8800 (c/n LD-502)
ZK-SFE - Britten-Norman BN2A-21 Islander (c/n 406)
ZK-SFF - Britten Norman BN2A-III-2 Trislander (c/n 1025)
ZK-SFG - Britten Norman BN2A-III-2 Trislander (c/n 1039)
ZK-WED - Cessna 207 Skywagon (c/n 207-00009)

For the subsequent posts see - 
Soundsair - 3rdlevelnz.blogspot.com.nz/2014/08/soundsair-well-have-you-across-cook.html
Sounds Air - 3rdlevelnz.blogspot.com.nz/2014/08/sounds-air-fast-scenic-way-to-cross.html


  1. I'm surprised that approval for SEIFR was eventually granted to Soundsair.

    What happens if your engine fails at night in the middle of Cook Strait?

    1. The Cessna Caravan has an outstanding safety record and even better glide performance. From the middle of the cook straight at night the caravan would be able to glide to either island. The pilots at Sounds Air are some of the most talented that I have ever come across and are drilled thoroughly with regular checks and training.
      Also in the Caravan it has an "Emergency power lever" which by-passes the fuel control unit and delivers fuel directly. I would happily have my family on any Sounds Air flight in any weather, and any time of day

  2. It would be Interesting to imagine how one of these talented pilots, suffering an engine failure on take off to the north at Wellington Airport with say 30 knots of wind and at night, would manage to get the aircraft to glide round to the Southern End of the Airport and land safely.
    Rather Your Family than mine.

  3. Great Article! Thoroughly enjoyed the read! Go Sounds Air!