09 November 2014

Fly South - SouthFlight Aviation

John MacPhail, who had a background in underwater engineering in the offshore oil industry, learned to fly in 1980. Some years later his interest in flying developed and he gained his commercial pilots licence in 1989. In May 1990 he bought Air Charter (Christchurch) Ltd. With the Kaikoura whale watching flights growing it was decided in 1992 that Air Charter (Christchurch) be renamed with the more generic name SouthFlight Aviation Ltd. At the time the company operated Piper Pa23-250 Aztec D ZK-DHB (c/n 27-3735), Cessna 210L Centurion ZK-NPD (c/n 210-60331) and Cessna 172N Skyhawk ZK-EOI (c/n 17271937). 

It was impossible to get the company titles and registration on Piper Aztec ZK-DHB... the photo above was taken at Christchurch on 21 May 1994 and the photo below at West Melton on 13 December 1995

SouthFlight’s Kaikoura operation, while still part of SouthFlight Aviation, operated under the name of Whale Watch Air. The company placed a small portable office on the Kaikoura airfield. In its first six months of operations 2,000 people flew out to view the whales. By the summer of 1992/93 the business was such that the company leased BN Islander ZK-FWH to cater for bigger passenger loads.

In October 1993 SouthFlight sold the Cessna Centurion ZK-NPD and purchased Piper Pa34-200T Seneca II ZK-SFC (c/n 34-7770054) and Britten Norman BN2A-6 Islander ZK-SFK (c/n 268).

Ready for its next load of whale watch passengers, BN Island ZK-SFK at Kaikoura on 21 December 1993. Notice the Whale Watch Air logo on the tail in addition to the SouthFlight Aviation titles.
Cessna 172 ZK-EOI at Kaikoura 20 October 1995, again with the Whale Watch Air logo

The Seneca and Aztec were based at Christchurch and used for corporate charter work and on a thrice weekly security flights from Christchurch for Armourguard and Securitas. On Mondays the Aztec did a return flight to Dunedin. On Tuesdays the Seneca did a return flight to Dunedin and the Aztec a flight to Invercargill and Alexandra before returning to Christchurch. These flights carried money which earned interest as soon as it arrived in the Reserve Bank in Christchurch and police escorts accompanied the money coming from Queenstown. The interest gained by the money being in Christchurch a day earlier meant it was a highly viable proposition for the money to be flown. In these days of electronic transfers such flights are a piece of history.

SouthFlight Aviation's Piper Seneca at West Melton on 13 December 1995

The Christchurch based aircraft did a lot of charter work TV news crews. Both TV One and TV 3 chartered SouthFlight aircraft, though TV 3’s budget wasn’t as high as TV One’s so they tended to charter the Cessna Centurion while TV One chartered the twins. These were the days when film had to be raced back to Christchurch to go on the national news and so SouthFlight aircraft carried footage of the Aramoana massacre and the Cave Creek tragedy as well as other ‘regular’ news stories such as Haast Pass closures or climbers lost on Mount Cook. In these days of digital technology such charter flights are a thing of the past.

SouthFlight continued to operate a few charter flights to the Chathams that Air Charter (Christchurch) had started. There were a number of flights when the wharf at Waitangi was being rebuilt. It was a long flight to the Chathams in the Aztec – once contact with the Christchurch VOR had been lost it was dead reckoning until the Chatham Island NDB was picked up.

Another area of business for SouthFlight was air ambulance work that it picked up when the RNZAF retired its Fokker Friendships. While not ideal the Aztec had a stretcher kit for air ambulance work and it and alternately carry an incubator for new born babies and the company did air ambulance flights from Christchurch as far as Auckland and Invercargill. 

The Seneca and Aztec also operated the regular service from Christchurch to Kaikoura to support the whale watching flights operated by the BN Islander and the various Cessna 172s which were operated by Whale Watch Air. Flights were quite busy and for a time Ansett New Zealand listed SouthFlight as their link to Kaikoura. Despite this connection to Ansett the Christchurch-Kaikoura service never worked as a daily service. During the summer it operated three or four times a week to connect with Whale Watch Air flights and Kaikoura locals never really used it.

SouthFlight's impressive counter at Christchurch International Airport

Southflight's Kaikoura operations appearing in the Ansett NZ timetable of May 1995

Kaikoura Star, 20 December 1995
In late 1995, with a booming whale watch industry, the Kaikoura airfield was sealed. The following year, in 1996 John MacPhail sold the Christchurch operation of SouthFlight to Brent McGrath and John Brooker. Subsequently they sold the business to Mike Bannerman who was operating a Piper Cherokee 6 as Air Adventures. He bought the IFR Air Transport Licence and the SouthFlight name disappeared though for a time the aircraft carried both SouthFlight and Air Adventures titles. The aircraft were sold separately. The new owners never promoted the Christchurch-Kaikoura service and it died a natural death.

Wearing dual SouthFlight and Air Adventures titles, above Piper Seneca ZK-SFC at Greymouth in September 1999 and below Piper PA28-151 Warrior ZK-EQC at Christchurch on 11 May 1999

In early 1997 Whale Watch Air and Air Tours Kaikoura built a new terminal building at Kaikoura with the local District Council being the guarantor for the project. The small but modern facility was provided primarily for passengers on whale watching flights operated by Air Tours Kaikoura and Whale Watch Air but was also used for the regular air services to Christchurch and Wellington operated by Air Tours Kaikoura. In 2009 the local District Council purchased the airport terminal building.

Whale Watch Air merged with Air Tours Kaikoura in December 1997 with the resultant company being named Wings Over Whales.

Kaikoura Star, 10 December 1997

My sincere thanks to John MacPhail for his help in preparing this post


  1. Does anyone happen to have a full scanned copy of the Ansett 95 timetable? I find it fascinating seeing Kaikoura in there! :-P

  2. Who operated the NPE/WLG flights listed on the route map by the way?

    1. Air Chathams' services were also listed... they used to operate a CHT-WLG-NPE-CHT service

  3. Great writeup thanks. Very interesting!