24 August 2014

Soundsair - We'll have you across Cook Strait before the ferry leaves the Harbour

This is the second installment on the story of Skyferry to Sounds Air story. For the first installment on Skyferry see : http://3rdlevelnz.blogspot.co.nz/2014/08/skyferry-making-crossing-cook-strait.html. Once again I am extremely grateful to Cliff Marchant and Andrew Crawford for their time and encouragement in the preparation of these three posts, the last of which will be posted next Sunday. 

With the success of Skyferry in the late 80’s on the scheduled Cook Strait operation, the focus of that company and its new directors shifted away from the original core service to/from the remote airstrips in the Marlborough Sounds. As this was a particular passion for Cliff and Diane Marchant, they applied for and in December 1987 received a separate certificate in their own name using the trading name “Soundsair”. A low-time, single-pilot IFR BN2A-21 (ZK-SFE) was purchased in 1988 to facilitate the new service, with the added objective being that Skyferry, in which Cliff and Diane still retained a minor shareholding, could also use the aircraft on IFR days until the anticipated Single Engine IFR for the Cessna Caravan arrived.

The aircraft was an immediate success, with not only frequent regular IFR Skyferry flights performed to and from Picton, but also many IFR flights performed in and out of the many remote airstrips in the Marlborough Sounds. The prevalent problem with weather on these routes is the Wellington or mid-Strait conditions, so it is more a case of using IFR ability to get in and out of Wellington rather than the need for instrument approaches/departures on the other side. The success of this aircraft was regrettably short-lived. 

BN Islander ZK-SFE was used for charter work from Wellington to the Sounds. Photo taken at Wellington on 1 January 1989 
On the 19th of March 1989 this aircraft was attempting to land at Tiraora Lodge in Pelorus Sound. The pilot, who was also Skyferry’s Operations Manager, had yet to receive formal training on this airstrip, but nonetheless elected to replace the rostered (properly trained) pilot. His poor judgement was compounded by the conditions that day. While on approach he was dazzled by the low afternoon sun and elected to overshoot, hitting a telephone wire while making a low turn to avoid high ground. The aircraft descended out of control into the sea. Thankfully the pilot and five passengers were rescued suffering varying degrees of injury.

In July 1991 Skyferry collapsed and its air service to Picton ceased. Some months were to pass until January 1992 when a syndicate of investors including the Marchant family bought the Picton airport at Koromiko from the receivers of the collapsed Skyferry Ltd. Koromiko airport had its origins as a topdressing strip and it had been developed by Skyferry in the mid-1980s with the runway being extended to 670 metres and then sealed. Barry Hvid was appointed as General Manager and Soundsair commenced its own scheduled services between Wellington and Picton in early 1992, with the company continuing to operate charter flights from Wellington to airfields in the Marlborough Sounds. 

Unfortunately the early Soundsair timetables weren't dated... but with only three flights across Cook Strait my guess is this is one of the early ones circa early 1992

In 1990 the protracted CAA delay to the introduction of the Skyferry Trislanders necessitated the sale of the Cessna 208 Caravan ZK-SFA to a third party. After the demise of Skyferry, Soundsair was able to lease this aircraft as their flagship for its Cook Strait service between Wellington and Picton. In addition to the Caravan a Partenavia P68, ZK-LAL, was used both as a backup aircraft or when only light loads were offering as well while both the Partenavia and Cessna 185 ZK-PRM, owned privately by the company principals Cliff and Diane Marchant, were used for charter to eight designated strips around the Sounds. Lake LA4-200 Buccaneer ZK-DQM, a single engine amphibious aircraft, owned and flown by Barry Hvid, was used to fly people from Wellington direct to their baches or to the Sounds’ secluded bays and beaches.

Bought from Skyferry, Cessna Caravan ZK-SFA at Koromiko on 7 January 1994
Partenavia ZK-LAL was used on the Picton air service as well as for charter work. Photo taken at Ardmore on 30 November 1996
Cliff and Dianne Marchant's Cessna 185 ZK-PRM which was used for charter work in the Sounds. Photo taken at Wanaka on 18 April 1992
Lake Buccaneer ZK-DQM was used to fly people directly to their baches in their Sounds. Photo taken at Paraparaumu on 19 February 1994

1995 saw a number of changes for the company. Rod Page was appointed Freight Manager. As a result, in May 1995 the company took over Rawson Aviation’s freight service and their Cessna Caravan ZK-REY. This gave Soundsair two freight contracts. Flights were operated for NZ Post between Wellington and Blenheim on subcontract to Airwork (NZ) Ltd while flights were operated between Wellington, Blenheim, Nelson and Christchurch for Ansett Airfreight. 1995 also saw the company raise their profile by opening a counter in the Wellington terminal building. Later in 1995 the company added Aero Commander 500 ZK-DCF to its fleet while in May 1997 Cessna U206G Stationair ZK-ENT was bought.

An expanding schedule with flights between Wellington and Blenheim
Previously operated by Rawson Aviation Cessna 208 Caravan ZK-REY at Koromiko on 6 February 1996
Aero Commander 500 ZK-DCF at Woodbourne on 21 January 1999
A couple of views of Cessna 206 ZK-ENT - above, its original scheme as seen at Koromiko on 3 October 1999 and below repainted with the original Soundsair titling. 

Timetable December 1997-March 1998

While the Cook Strait service between Wellington and Picton was the bread and butter service for Soundsair other services were developed as well. At different times, over the summer months, non-scheduled flights were offered from Wellington, and for one summer from Auckland, to Takaka, Karamea and to the small airstrips of the Marlborough Sounds catering for tourist traffic to the Heaphy Track, Abel Tasman National Park and the Marlborough Sounds. For a number of years services were operated between Wellington and Blenheim, mainly on Friday and Sunday evenings but also for a brief time on a daily basis. A regular Friday and Sunday service was also operated from Wellington to Nopera in Kenepuru Sound. In February 1996 Soundsair began thrice weekly flights between Paraparaumu and Picton. This service was not successful and was short-lived. Again, from the 8th of October 1999, twice daily flights were once again started between Picton and Paraparaumu but once again these did not last long.

With the advent of Single Engine IFR (SEIFR) operations in Canada in 1992, and a growing awareness worldwide that SEIFR carried huge safety benefits for the travelling public, Soundsair re-opened dialogue with CAA in this subject. There were numerous exchanges of letters, meetings and discussions between the parties over some 3 years. Barry Hvid and Cliff Marchant put a huge effort into trying to persuade CAA to grant the company SEIFR.

The brochure for  the 1994-95 summer flights to Takaka, Karamea and the Marlborough Sounds. Flights were also to be offered from Auckland to these destinations starting on the 16th of December 1994 using a Piper Aztec but it seems the Auckland flights never got airborne.
Paraparaumu to Picton - The short-lived service was offered from October 1999

In August 1995 Cliff Marchant wrote an article for NZ Wings noting Soundsair freight parcels were getting a far safer, more comfortable, more reliable service than Soundsair passengers, for no apparent valid reason. Surely, if it was safe to operate the Caravan VFR, it would simply be a whole lot safer if conducted IFR! Five months later, on the 29th January 1996, this view was proven beyond any doubt, with the loss of Cessna Caravan ZK-SFA and five passengers in a typical VFR CFIT (controlled flight into terrain – into the cloud, into the hill) crash.

Cliff Marchant recounts the event… The pilot was well aware of the weather conditions that day as he had already flown the Partenavia IFR into Picton Airport earlier in the day. He was fully aware that there was total blue sky, not a single cloud, at Picton Airport. The cloud in the Straits in a moist south easterly flow ceased once over the first row of hills in the Sounds. But unlike the IFR Partenavia flight, he was now required by the CAA Ops Specs to fly his Caravan, with its superior avionics and performance, to remain clear of controlled airspace under VFR, which took him closer to the hills on the western strait. His transponder was operating, but unlike IFR flights, Airways did not, nor were they required to, monitor his progress or report on any deviations.

As he approached the South Island in the vicinity of Port Underwood he was cruising at 2500 feet, above scattered cloud which was increasing in density below him. He could have simply remained at 2500 feet until arrival over the airport which he knew was totally clear, but there is a VFR rule precluding flight over more than 4/8 cloud, so the pilot duly descended to get below the cloud and in deciding to execute that manoeuvre, fell into the same old typical VFR “into the cloud and into the hill” with tragic results.

The single engine was operating flawlessly at impact, as was the transponder – no-one was watching. Indeed it took the best part of an hour for Airways to check their data and determine exactly where the crash site was.

Just 2 weeks later, on 16th Feb 1996, the local newspaper rang Soundsair to seek reaction to the fact that CAA was grounding the airline along with Air Chathams. Somewhat bewildered, a Soundsair management call to CAA soon revealed that the reasons for grounding Air Chathams were invalid for the attempt to shut down Soundsair, but the itchy trigger attitude of CAA was quite disconcerting.

In April 1996 another Cessna 208 Caravan, ZK-PDM (c/n 20800240) was imported and added to the fleet as a replacement for the ill-fated ZK-SFA. The dialogue between CAA and Soundsair intensified considerably given the loss of SFA. It seemed that great progress was being made towards SEIFR for the Caravan until November 1996, when a letter arrived effectively rescinding all progress to date. Within six weeks the airline was grounded, with CAA citing “serious safety concerns.” Soundsair operations continued with chartered aircraft but the nature of the “concerns” were relatively minor and rapidly resolved. Freight flights resumed within a matter of days and all the airline’s services were fully airborne again within 10 days.  

Replacement for Caravan ZK-SFA was Cessna 208 Caravan ZK-PDM seen above at Wellington on 20 November 1996. In the photo below, taken at Koromiko on 31 October 1999 notice the word "Shuttle" above the Soundsair titles. With a high frequency of flights to Picton the airline was promoting the service as Soundsair Shuttle. Photo taken at Koromiko on 31 October 1999.

The next event of note for the airline was the Coroner’s inquest into the crash of ZK-SFA. After the families of the victims indicated they wanted a full and thorough report into the accident including preventative measures for the future the Coroner allowed the question of SEIFR to be raised in the hearing. As a consequence Cliff Marchant ended up in the stand for most of the full two days allocated presenting his case for SEIFR. Cliff Marchant writes, CAA QC’s tried every which way to undermine my argument that this accident was totally preventable. The pilot’s QC, who initially seemed to have a penchant to blame the airline, quickly altered his position, recognising that the airline position was correct. The end result was that about one third of the Coroner’s report related to “the causative effect of the regulatory environment”, and the recommendations included finalising SEIFR without delay.

It still took a full two years from that recommendation to finally receive SEIFR. Looking back on these events Cliff Marchant reflects that, in some ways the story of Skyferry/Soundsair is also a story of the evolution within the CAA. We now have a great relationship with CAA and the present people there.

About this time, in mid 1998, Cessna Caravan ZK-REY ran out of engine hours. The legal expenses for both the grounding and Coroner’s inquest meant there were no funds available for the overhaul so the aircraft was sold to a skydiving operator in Portland, Oregon, who was able to continue use of the engine “on condition”. 

The final successful push for SEIFR involved a big effort from Soundsair CEO Willie Sage throughout 1999 and into 2000, although he left soon after.  

Soundsair had a lot to do to catch up with its delayed potential. A new manager, David Woodley, was appointed in 2002. At this time was rebranded with a new logo and the "Over and Above" motto.

In late 2002 the company flagship ZK-PDM suffered a CT blade separation while on final at Wellington. The expensive repair also took two months to execute, so Britten Norman BN2A Islander ZK-REA was leased from Great Barrier Airlines to fill the gap until PDM returned.

During this time, an internet based reservations system was developed in conjunction with a savvy Soundsair passenger. This system is now used by over 40 airlines worldwide.

Britten Norman Islander ZK-REA was the only aircraft to be painted in the full new colour scheme. It is seen taxiing to the terminal at Koromiko on 28 April 2003.
The existing colour schemes were retained on both the Cessna Caravan ZK-PDM (above) and Cessna 206 ZK-ENT (below) but new titling was applied. The Caravan was taken at Koromiko on 3 November 2003 and the Cessna 206 at Wellington on 6 November 2006.

By this stage the airline was offering up to 8 flights a day between Wellington and Picton. The hard work of 2002/3 resulted in a credible profit for the airline. Cliff Marchant had successfully negotiated Soundsair through turbulent times but he knew that to realise Sounds Air’s full potential would require way more resources than he had, plus a dedicated full-time owner/manager to replace his part-time input, so in December 2003 Cliff and Dianne sold two-thirds of the airline to Auckland businessmen Andrew Crawford and Steve Handyside. Soundsair was set to become the Sounds Air we know today.

Aircraft Operated by Soundsair

ZK-CHK Cessna 185C (c/n 185-0755)
ZK-DCF Aero Commander 500-A (c/n 500-A-1274-97)
ZK-DOA Cessna U206F Stationair (c/n U20602203)
ZK-DQM Lake LA-4-200 Buccaneer (c/n 591)
ZK-EKE Cessna 172N Skyhawk (c/n 17269940)
ZK-ENT Cessna U206G Stationair (c/n U20603667) 
ZK-LAL Partenavia P68B (c/n 70)
ZK-PDM Cessna 208 Caravan (c/n 20800240)
ZK-REA Britten-Norman BN2A-26 Islander (c/n 43)
ZK-REY Cessna 208 Caravan (c/n 20800151)
ZK-SFE Britten-Norman BN2A-21 Islander (c/n 406)
ZK-VCT Cessna 172P (c/n 17276430)
ZK-WED Cessna 207 Skywagon (c/n 20700009)

For the subsequent post on Sounds Air see : http://3rdlevelnz.blogspot.com/2014/08/sounds-air-fast-scenic-way-to-cross.html


  1. Fantastic !! I really enjoyed that. Thank you for all yoiur efforts.

  2. Thanks for the post Steve ,great work .