14 August 2016

Westport’s First Air Service - Cook Strait Airways

In February 1937 Cook Strait Airways extended its Cook Strait service from Nelson to Greymouth and Hokitika. At that time the Westport airfield on the north side of the Buller River was unsuitable for the company’s de Havilland DH89A Dragon Rapides. In 1938 work began on a new airfield at Carter’s Beach allowing the company to commence operations to Westport in March 1939.

The Christchurch Press reported that The present Westport aerodrome on the northern side of the river may be used by light aircraft landing in any direction, but as the runway faces north-west and south-east it cannot be used by larger machines except when the wind is suitable. Both landing-grounds are near the mouth of the Buller River, but the recently completed aerodrome has only one runway suitable for the machines operated by Cook Strait Airways. This runway faces north-east and south-west, and when the new service is inaugurated both aerodromes will be used, according to the direction of the wind. It is understood that the extensions to the landing ground on the northern side of the river are not possible, and the new landing-ground may eventually become Westport’s official aerodrome for all types of aircraft.

Carter’s Beach airfield was used for the first time on the 10th of February 1939 when de Havilland DH89A Dragon Rapide, ZK-AEC, Mercury, arrived piloted by Mr Keith Johnston. The Press reported that, The landing caused considerable interest in the town, and there was a good gathering of local body representatives, Public Works Department, and Westport Aero Club officials to meet the machine on its arrival from Nelson at 10 a.m. A call was made during the journey from Nelson to Greymouth to drop Mr E. H. Thompson (managing director of Cook Strait Airways) and Captain G. Bolt (chief pilot), who inspected the new runway which was recently completed by the Public Works Department. A perfect landing was made by the machine, and it made an. equally good take-off with plenty of room to spare on both occasions. It was intended to land again at the Carter’s Beach aerodrome on the return journey, but a thick low-lying fog made this impossible, and unknown to the people who were waiting at the larger ground the Dragon Rapide made an emergency landing on a small runway on the North Beach aerodrome on the Westport side of the Buller river. Because of concern at the delay in the return to Carter’s Beach a call was made from a residence nearby to the Government radio station at Nelson, where the information was received that the machine had landed a mile or so away. Mr M. W. Smith (manager of the Union Steam Ship Company, at Westport), who inspected Carter’s Beach aerodrome with Mr Thompson and Captain Bolt, when interviewed by "The Press,” said that the officials were very pleased with the condition of the new field. He said that when a radio house and equipment were provided at the aerodrome Cook Strait Airways would immediately commence a daily service to include calls at Westport. It was hoped, he said, that this service would be running by March. Connexions could then be made daily at Westport with all parts of New Zealand. He said that Mr Thompson and Captain Bolt considered that when the complete aerodrome was finished it would compare with the best in New Zealand.

Evening Post, 15 March 1939

The new Monday to Saturday service commenced on the 15th of March 1939. This replaced the previous thrice weekly service from Wellington and Nelson to Greymouth. Two Cook Strait Airways de Havilland 89A Dragon Rapides, ZK-AEC Mercury and ZK-AGT Neptune, flew the first service, these being flown by Arthur Orchard and Keith Johnston.

The first day of the Westport service on the 15th of March 1939... In the foreground De Havilland 89A Dragon Rapide ZK-AGT while sister ship ZK-AEC departs

On board the first flight were Messrs R. C. Cock (chairman of directors), E. H, Thomson (managing director), W. Rogers. J. Newman, C. G. White, and H. R. Duncan (directors). Captain G. B. Bolt (technical adviser), and Mr K, Jones (traffic officer). Mr N, S, Falla, chairman and managing director of the Union Steam Ship Company of New Zealand, Ltd,, and of Union Airways of New Zealand, Ltd., will accompany the party. Also on board were the Westport mayor, Mr J Kilkenny who had pioneered motor services at Westport.

The NZ Herald gave good coverage of the speeches. The inauguration of the Cook Strait Airways service to Westport was an important event in the history of the Buller district, which has suffered in the past through its partial isolation from larger centres. The main outlets from Westport have been through the Buller Gorge to Nelson and Picton, the Lewis Pass to Christchurch, and the Wcstport Greymouth coastal road to connect with the rail service to Christchurch through the Otira tunnel. To carry on to the North Island necessitated almost 24 hours' travelling, which will now be reduced to two and a-half hours. It will now be possible to go from Westport to Auckland by air in six hours. Mention was made at the inauguration ceremony at the new aerodrome near Carter's Beach by the Mayor of Westport, Mr. J. Kilkenny, of the great part which the pioneers in the coaching and paddle steamer days had played in the development of the Buller district. He mentioned Messrs. Newman Brothers, the introducers of the first motor service which operated on the Nelson-Reefton route through the Buller Gorge. Mr. Jack Newman, a son of one of the founders of Messrs. Newman Brothers, and a director of Cook Strait Airways, was present at the ceremony. Memories of the old shipping days at Westport were recalled by Mr. H. C. Cock, chairman of directors of Cook Strait Airways, and managing director of the Anchor Shipping Company, who reviewed the steps made in modern transport on the West Coast of the South Island, culminating in the connection by air of Greymouth and Westport with the air service to the North Island. Special mention was made of the visit of Mr. N. S. Falla, chairman of directors of Union Airways and the Union Steam Ship Company, who, as a native of Westport, was returning to his home town as the guest of Cook Strait Airways.

Meanwhile the Westport News section of the Press covered the morning tea. A number of women, with their husbands, were the guests of the Cook Strait Airways Company at the aerodrome on the South Beach, when the two aeroplanes arrived from Nelson to commence the daily air service. Morning tea was served under the supervision of Mrs W. Smith, the tables being decorated by Miss Bailie with carnations and maiden-hair fern. The weather was brilliantly fine, and after the official ceremony, through the courtesy of the directors of the company, the women were given complimentary rides over the town and Buller river. Among those present was Mrs S. Falla, sen., who welcomed her son, Mr N. S. Falla, chairman of directors of Union Airways, and the Union Steam Ship Company, who also arrived by the official aeroplane. 

The Monday to Saturday service left Wellington at 7.35am and after a brief stop at Nelson arrived at Westport at 9.30am before continuing on to Greymouth. The return service left Greymouth at 11.15 arriving at Westport at 11.45am before continuing on to reach Nelson at 12.45pm and Wellington at 2.15pm. A feature of the service was that there were often passengers between Greymouth and Westport. At this stage the Coast road was rather torturous and the railway line between Greymouth and Westport had not been completed.

Westport's Cook Strait Airways service was, however, to be short-lived. With New Zealand entering the Second World War on the 3rd of September 1939 there was a need for aircraft and Cook Strait Airways’ five de Havilland DH89A Dragon Rapides were impressed into the Royal New Zealand Air Force. The final service to Westport was to be flown on the 9th of November 1939 but the Dragon Rapide from Nelson to Westport turned back after being 15 minutes on the journey due to bad weather. The following day Air Travel NZ took over the services and inaugurated a Hokitika-Greymouth-Westport-Nelson service to connect with Union Airways Lockheed Electra service from Nelson to Wellington.

De Havilland DH89A Dragon Rapide ZK-AGT over Westport in 1939

Westport's first air service became one of the first casualties of the war lasting just under eight months. In those months between the 15th of March 1939 and the 9th of November 1939 1213 passengers, 2942lb of mail, and 8583lb of freight were carried to and from Westport by Cook Strait Airways.  


  1. Fantastic article Steve. Thanks. You should post this to the facebook group "I Come from Westport". A lot of wesport history posts there that this will be of interest

  2. Do you have any photos of the original airstrip at the North Beach ?

    Would be interesting to know exactly where it was