11 September 2016

Air Travel (NZ) - New Zealand's first airline

In 1934, however, there was no road to Haast. Supplies came by the monthly shipping service from Hokitika or by pack-horse, a four day journey south. The isolation of the region and its scenic beauty needed an aviation-minded man with a pioneering and entrepreneurial spirit. Flight-Lieutenant J C (Bert) Mercer was that man who was to form Air Travel (NZ) Ltd, New Zealand’s first airline. Mr H. W. Worrall, of Christchurch, was chairman of directors of the new company, Mr A O Wilkinson, also of Christchurch, was the secretary, and Captain J C Mercer managing director. The other two directors were Messrs Paul E H Renton and H Newman, of Hokitika, the latter being the managing director of Newman's Motors Ltd which ran motor services on the West Coast.

Air Travel (NZ) took delivery of de Havilland DH83 Fox Moth, ZK-ADI in December 1934 as it prepared to commence a new passenger and air mail service. Based in Hokitika the company planned to inaugurate services stretching from Inchbonnie, a small West Coast locality on the Midland railway line between Otira and Moana, to the Glaciers and to Haast and Okuru in South Westland.

The Transport Co-ordination Board heard the company’s application for a licence on the 30th of November 1934. Both West Coast Airways Ltd and NZ Airways Ltd objected to the granting of the licence. Bert Mercer was no stranger to flying on the West Coast and he submitted that in view of his aviation record and the fact that his company had secured the mail contract it was entitled to the licence.

The Board’s decision was reserved as two other applications for air services on the West Coast were pending. It was subsequently announced that the Transport Co-ordination Board ”was of opinion that the application should not be determined finally until the other applications, including the company's application for an air taxi licence radiating from Hokitika, could be heard.” Nonetheless, as the company was ready to commence services, the Board decided to license the service for a short period, and at a later date to consider the three applications together. Accordingly, a licence was granted for a period of three months with leave granted for the licence period to be extended.

The mail contract to Haast and Okuru was quite unique as it was to be the first regular air mail service in New Zealand, and one of only two or three in the world in which no surcharge was made for air transport. The contract envisaged that mails would be carried once a fortnight. The mail would leave Hokitika at 8.00am on alternate Mondays and the return flight would be back at Hokitika by 4.00pm. Before the advent of the air service mails took four days to get through to Haast - a day to Fox Glacier by service car and three days from there by pack-horse. Flooding in the South Westland rivers and creeks sometimes lengthened the delivery time. The Air Travel (NZ) service reduced the mail delivery time from four days to an hour and a half!

Loading mail into Fox Moth ZK-ADI at Hokitika... In the cabin Bert Mercer while Jim Hewett passes over the mail bags
Mail stowed in Air Travel N Z Ltd aeroplane with Captain J D Hewitt and Captain Mercer. Whites Aviation Ltd :Photographs. Ref: WA-09375-G. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. http://natlib.govt.nz/records/22609389
Air Travel Ltd ZK-ADI de Havilland DH83 Fox Moth taking off from Cron's Homestead. Whites Aviation Ltd :Photographs. Ref: WA-09376-G. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. http://natlib.govt.nz/records/23092699

While the mail contract was set to begin on the 31st of December 1934 the company announced that its services would commence on the 18th of December. Arrangements were made with the Railway Department for South Westland passengers to alight from the West Coast express at Inchbonnie and fly from there to the Glaciers. Newspaper reporting announced that although the machine has accommodation for four passengers, it is intended, until some of the landing grounds on the route are extended, to carry only two passengers and baggage, so that it is expected that sometimes two flights will have to be made from Inchbonnie to the Glaciers, and two from Hokitika, on one day… People who leave Christchurch in the morning and fly from Inchbonnie will be at the glaciers for afternoon tea the same day. Whereas at present it takes four days' travelling to get to the glaciers and back, with the air service only two days will be necessary.

The start of the mail service - Hokitika-Haast, 31 December 1934
The start of the mail service - Okuru-Haast, 31 December 1934

In preparation for the commencement of the services Mr E A Gibson, the Government aerodrome engineer, inspected and reported on all the aerodromes on the route, some of which were still under development. The company planned to use 14 airstrips/landing grounds at Westport, Hokitika, Greymouth, Ross, Wataroa (Whataroa), Waiho (Franz Josef), Weheka (Fox Glacier), Karangarua, Jacob’s River, Bruce Bay, Haast, Okuru and Upper Okuru. Landing grounds were also to be improved at Arawata and Landsborough. In the early 1930s Bert Mercer had been flying the Canterbury Aero Club's aircraft in South Westland. A number of South Westland residents had already seen the benefits aircraft could bring in the time and had already made their own airstrips.

Air Travel (NZ)’s Fox Moth, ZK-ADI, arrived at Hokitika on the 15th of December 1934. The Christchurch Press carried a report on Air Travel (NZ)’s inaugural service which was operated on the 18th of December 1934. Two passengers, Messrs H. Worrall and G. H. Christie, left Christchurch by the 10 o'clock express yesterday and arrived at Inchbonnie at 2.55pm The aeroplane left Inchbonnie at 3.20pm and arrived at Hokitika aerodrome at 3.40pm The machine left Hokitika at 3.55pm and after flying over the glacier, arrived at the hostel at Franz Josef at 4.50pm Afternoon tea was taken at the hostel, and the machine left at 5.35pm, arriving at Inchbonnie at 6.30pm, connecting with the 7pm train east. The trip was an excellent one in every way, the machine proving particularly comfortable, and one of the passengers, with hardly any previous experience, enjoyed the sensation of flying perfectly. From the point of view of scenic attraction the trip is without parallel in New Zealand.

Bert Mercer stands in front of de Havilland DH83 Fox Moth ZK-ADI at Waiho, (Franz Josef)
Some 75 years later, rebuilt de Havilland DH83 Fox Moth ZK-ADI at Hokitika on  18 December 2009 for the 75th anniversary of the launch of the Air Travel (NZ) air service

On Monday the 31st of December 1934 Air Travel (NZ) commenced its fortnightly air mail service from Hokitika to Haast and Okuru. This marked the end of the pack horse mail service with all mail taken by air. The Press records the day. The significance of the inaugural flight was not lost on the people of Hokitika and when Mr Mercer arrived back from the south he was met by a large crowd at the Hokitika aerodrome and warmly congratulated as the pioneer of regular aviation in the south. A formal function was held after arrival, and the company connected with the service was thanked for its enterprise. The aeroplane which made this historic flight returned with two passengers, Mr and Mrs J. Cron, South Westland residents who have themselves been pioneers as air travellers in that district and who on Monday made in a few hours a journey which only a few years ago usually occupied them six days. Mr and Mrs Cron and their family have made frequent use recently of aeroplanes for travel to and from the far south and have constructed a landing ground practically at their own back door. They received hearty congratulations as the first passengers to travel with the air mail.

The aeroplane carried a fairly heavy mail both ways but many hundreds of the letters carried were those sent by stamp collectors and enthusiasts who wished to own one of the original covers used on such an important occasion. The ordinary official mail down to the Haast consisted of approximately 200 letters and there was a heavy official mail for the return trip. The weather was cloudy and misty with light rain falling for most of the journey down and up. The chairman of the Westland County Council (Mr T. R. Chesterman) was the principal speaker at the aerodrome. He congratulated all connected with starting the mail service, and mentioned that he recollected life in the early days in South Westland, when it seemed to take months for news to penetrate there from the outside world. Aeroplanes had removed the hardships attendant on such isolation. No doubt good use would be made of the service. Mr Chesterman said, and he himself intended to approach the Postmaster-General to try to have it made weekly instead of fortnightly. On behalf of the county of Westland he congratulated Mr Mercer and his company on their enterprise. He hoped that the service was here to stay.

"Westland is fortunate in having here a man as enterprising as Mr Mercer," said Mr Robertson, the chief postmaster for the district. It was a big jump from the packhorse to the air mail. Mr Robertson complimented the people of Hokitika on their air-mindedness. The Mayor of Hokitika, Mr G. A. Perry, said that in the old days of the gold rushes it used to take miners three or four weeks to get to Okuru. Now it could be done in a few hours. The service would be of great value to travellers and would probably become an absolute necessity, so much so that it would become automatically a weekly service. "The West Coast people seem to I have become much more air-minded I than the people in any other district in New Zealand, for its size and population," said Mr T. E. Y. Seddon, who recalled the difficulties which were met with when tracks had to be made for mail carriers to the far south, before the advent of faster services. Mr Seddon paid a tribute to the enterprise of intrepid Westlanders who had assisted in pioneering the mail service and the passenger service. Mr J. A. Murdoch, "another speaker, described Mrs Cron as the New Zealand "Amy Mollison." He said that the province owed a great debt to people like the Renton family, Mr A. H. Nancekivell, Mr H. T. Parry and others who had done so much to assist in establishing aviation on the coast. "It has always been my desire to advance aviation if I can in New Zealand" said Mr Mercer when asked to reply "I realised some years ago that aviation might be of help to the settlers of South Westland." Mr Mercer congratulated and thanked the people of Hokitika for making the air mail venture possible by forming an aerodrome. It was his intention, he said, to stay on the coast and do as much as he could to further the development of aviation. Mr W. Searle, a member of the Westland County Council, also spoke, mentioning the rapid advance made in transport in the last 20 years.

The Hokitika Guardian of the 28th of January captured the success of the new air service. A busy day was spent in passenger transport by Mr J. C. Mercer on Saturday. He left Waiho at 6.30am far Bruce Bay and brought two passengers to Hokitika. He returned to Waiho and brought up two more, one of whom he took on to Inchbonnie. Mr Mercer there awaited the express, and later brought a passenger - south landing here before going on to Ross, where he arrived at 4.10pm. Mr Mercer left Hokitika this morning for the south with the air mail and one passenger.

In early February 1935 the Transport Co-ordination Board granted Air Travel (NZ) a  licence to carry out a service on the West Coast as well as an air taxi licence to any part of New Zealand commencing from or terminating at any of the aerodromes or landing grounds on the applicant's route. Both licences were for a term of five years.

From an early stage charter flights of various forms formed an important aspect of Air Travel (NZ)’s business. On the 26th of January 1935 Captain Mercer made an ambulance flight Bruce Bay, to bring out to civilisation a Maori child who has been ailing for some time… He landed on the beach near a new sawmill which is being constructed there. The sick child, with its mother, had been waiting there for the arrival of the aeroplane, having first had to cross the river on horseback to reach the bay. The child was in Hokitika to a doctor in less than two hours after leaving Bruce Bay, making in that short time a journey which in ordinary circumstances might have taken three days. Mr Mercer returned with a woman passenger to Waiho and picked up Mr A. O. Wilkinson (Christchurch), secretary to Air Travel (NZ), Ltd., with whom he made a record flight back to Hokitika in 35 minutes, beating the previous record by a few minutes. By car, it takes the best part of a day to do the same trip. The journey up was in fine weather, with the conditions fairly smooth. After dropping a woman passenger at Hokitika, the aeroplane left with Mr Wilkinson to connect with the express to Christchurch at Inchbonnie. The Evening Post reported on a charter flight from Hokitika to Nelson and Wellington on the 5th of February 1935. On other occasions the Air Travel Fox Moth flew trampers, hunters and prospectors to the back blocks of South Westland.

Air Travel Ltd's Fox Moth biplane at Bruce Bay, Westland, New Zealand. Whites Aviation Ltd :Photographs. Ref: WA-AVH-06-1-G. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. http://natlib.govt.nz/records/23188348

Another feature of the company’s activities was to become scenic flights over the glaciers. The Press on the 9th of January 1935 carried coverage of the first such flight from Fox Glacier “over the roof of New Zealand.” During the holidays Mr W. E. Simes, of Christchurch, and Miss D. Wright, of Melbourne, made the first aeroplane flight from the recently completed landing place at Weheka, about two miles from the Fox Glacier Hotel. The pilot was Mr J. C. Mercer, of Air Travel (NZ), Ltd., and the machine was a Fox Moth. The two passengers were in the air for three-quarters of an hour, and the machine reached a height of about 10,000 feet. Miss Wright had flown in Australia, but this trip was her first flight in New Zealand. Both passengers greatly enjoyed the trip, and Mr Simes told a representative of "The Press" yesterday that there was every likelihood of similar flights "over the roof of New Zealand" proving popular with visitors to the Fox Glacier region Describing the trip on Christmas Day, Mr Simes said that it was the second time that Mr Mercer had landed there. The runway of 21 chains was in excellent condition. He considers that aviators will be able to land in all weathers. An exceptionally good view of the Southern Alps was obtained, including Mounts Cook, La Perouse, Dampier, Tasman, Lindenfeldt, Haast, Hardinger, Douglas, and the glacial peak at the head of the Fox Glacier. On their right they had the Copeland range and valley, the Sierra range, Mount Sefton, and the head of the Sierra range- on their left was the Cook river canyon with the La Perouse and the Balfour glaciers at the head of it, and the Balfour river flowing into the Cook river. They then flew along the foot of the range, and obtained a view of the same peaks. The flight was continued along the neve of the Fox Glacier to the Kaiser Fritz range, crossing the Waikukupa valley to the Victoria range. Here they obtained a wonderful view of Lakes Mueller, Lyttle, Mathieson, and lanthe, also of many miles of the forest-clad West Coast, and of 40 or 50 miles out on the Tasman Sea. "In my opinion," Mr Simes said, "this is the best, scenery in New Zealand as it is the roof of New Zealand. Our trip showed the possibilities of enjoyment by those unable to climb; it also affords opportunities for those who wish to make a continuous southern trip.

Perhaps one of the most scenic routes in the world... Air Travel (NZ)'s de Havilland DH 83 Fox Moth ZK-ADI flying south with the Southern Alps for a backdrop. Whites Aviation Ltd :Photographs. Ref: WA-00337-F. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. http://natlib.govt.nz/records/29947217

Within weeks of commencing operations Air Travel (NZ) was changing the face of South Westland. A Press reporter recorded the development of the airline on the 30th of January 1935. A month ago a young Christchurch man, a prospector, left Hokitika to travel by motor, by packhorse and on foot to Okuru, in South Westland. It took him three weeks to get there. He suffered delays and privations unbelievable. On Monday he left Okuru at 1.30pm and was in Hokitika at 4pm, after making three stops on the way. On the second occasion he travelled the 170 miles by aeroplane. And every week scores of men and women are following his example and using the same aeroplane to annihilate distance and break down in that short journey the terrible isolation which has been the drawback to life in the south for 60 years. This aeroplane is the new pioneer of South Westland. The hardy settlers, inured to long journeys along pack-tracks on sturdy horses, to uncertainty of supplies and assistance in times of illness, have hailed the newcomer with delight and all the help they can give. The aeroplane has opened up a new life for them, they claim, and is doing a service the value of which cannot be measured in money or expressed in mere words.

New Interest in Life
This is the personal boon which the enterprise of Air Travel (NZ), Ltd., has brought to the people of South Westland. There are the material advantages or regular mail deliveries, quick transport in and out in the case of accident and for everyday purposes, regular arrival of the day's news and business information and close contact with the isolated settlements which stretch adventurously down the coast. A reporter from "The Press" was taken by air to visit some of these settlers on Monday and at every farmhouse where the aeroplane landed men and women spoke, some with deep feeling, of their long years of semi-isolation, their weeks of being alone without knowledge of the outside world and their fear of illness without assistance. They spoke of bad roads, impassable in flood time, week-long journeys on horses, with enforced stops on the banks of flooded rivers. But with the keenest enthusiasm they recalled the arrival of the first aeroplane and the vanishing, overnight, of their isolation.

Papers by Aeroplane
On the journey down on Monday, wherever mail had to be delivered or papers dropped from the aeroplane, each house had the entire family, down to the dogs, assembled in the home paddock. There was exuberant gesticulating and waving. While one of the sons or the lady of the house ran excitedly for the paper as it floated down, the others cheered. In the smaller settlements the entire population was out as the aeroplane flew at a low altitude and the pilot (Mr J. C. Mercer) dropped the bundle of papers, and swooped the aeroplane up again. Wherever a stop was made morning tea was ready. Even the long thin line of tourists strung out over the Franz Josef Glacier, hailing the aeroplane as a tangible sign that they had not lost touch with busier civilisation even in that paradise of solitude and beauty, waved ice axes and shouted. Blacksanders. toiling laboriously on the beaches for gold, stopped their work to wave too. With conditions as they were a year ago, and no regular call by aeroplane, these men spent months in complete isolation but for the occasional call of a packhorse with supplies and a mailman. If they left their beaches there was no guarantee that they could return in sufficient time to catch conditions at their best. Blacksanding is subject to every vagary of the tides and the weather and a blacksander must be on the spot if he is to work each fresh deposit of the gold-bearing sand revealed after storms and floods. No wonder he welcomes the aeroplane so enthusiastically.

Priest as Passenger
Below Weheka there is no suitable road giving easy access to a country which yearly is becoming more important as a field of possible industrial development. There are no bridges over great rivers which are often completely impassable. Only the air service can be relied on to keep reliable and regular touch with the hundreds of settlers, prospectors and labourers who are working this new country. Even clergymen are taking advantage of the air travel facilities to keep in touch with these isolated units of their flocks. On Monday Mr Mercer picked up a Roman Catholic priest at Okuru North, and took him back to his centre at Wataroa. The priest said that the air service saved him weeks of travel. He was formerly used to packhorses to get him into the country at the far end of Westland and has had experiences of rough travelling which have made him a pioneer too. The air service has played another vitally important part in the development of South Westland. This is undoubtedly a country of unsurpassed commercial possibilities —cattle, sheep, timber, gold, other minerals of value in extensive deposits, fishing grounds which are said to be the best in New Zealand. can all be exploited there in the future. Hitherto, because of the difficulties of access, not only has development been impossible, but there has been a lack of knowledge of these possibilities which has led to a lack of interest in the country. This, it seems, is being overcome by the easy access offered by the aeroplane, and it seems certain that a good deal of the quickened interest in the south, and the actual development which is now under way, is due to the new ability to see the country and assess for the first time its potentialities. For instance, since the service from Hokitika started and interested authorities have been given a unique chance to survey the almost limitless timber resources of the Haast and the country south, there have been definite signs of a greatly increased interest in the possibilities of opening up mills there. Already two such projects are under way.

Private Landing Ground
But the best proof of the anxiety of South Westland residents to benefit from the pioneering of Air Travel (NZ), Ltd., is the manner in which they have co-operated with the company in constructing landing grounds. Wherever possible, it seems, the settlers in the most isolated parts have assisted. Some have their own private landing grounds. They have levelled off large areas of their own land and gone to some considerable personal expense. It is possible for the aeroplane to land at more than one homestead almost at -the door. At the tine home of Mr and Mrs A. Cron, of the Haast, the mail is delivered at the back door. Further south, at Okuru North, the aeroplane lands on a large well made private ground—there will soon be splendid runways for all weather there—and the mail can be thrown from the cockpit on to the verandah of the Post Office." After 60 years of struggling for themselves in depressing isolation, the settlers look on the air service as the key to a new existence. They say so and only one knowing what their isolation has been and what the aeroplane is doing could appreciate what a tragedy it would be for them to lose the service.

A mishap hit the company on the 8th of February 1935 when the Fox Moth was taking off from Weheka (Fox Glacier). The pilot, Mr J. C. Mercer, was taking off for Hokitika when some cattle rushed towards the machine from the outskirts of the landing ground. The machine collided with a bullock and was immediately overturned. There were two passengers in the aeroplane, one of whom was Mr F J Conradson, Public Works officer for South Westland. Mr Conradson suffered a cut on the scalp and a bruised jaw. The other passenger received slight cuts. Captain Mercer was shaken but unhurt. The aeroplane was considerably damaged, the undercarriage and one wing being bent and the propeller broken. It was taken to Hokitika for repairs.

The Canterbury Aero Club’s Fox Moth, ZK-ADH (c/n 4085) was quickly hired to ensure the maintenance of services.

The leased Canterbury Aero Club's de Havilland DH83 Fox Moth ZK-ADH in the Arawata Valley

In the first three months of operation the business grew rapidly. Captain Mercer, told a Press reporter that the estimates have been proved to be far too low for the existence of the air service has made work that was not dreamed of before. The figures for mail are impressive. When it was taken over the southern stages by packhorse, it used to amount to about 150lb a fortnight. Since the air service began it has grown till a week's load may now be anything up to 300lb… Mr Mercer has flown about 500 hours in the company's Fox Moth and in the Canterbury Aero Club machine which had to be hired in February, and has carried more than 700 passengers. Sometimes the combined load of passengers, mail, and freight for one of the scheduled flights is too great for the machine to handle on the small landing grounds available, and more than one flight has to be made. The company's contract with the Post and Telegraph Department calls for only one mail flight a fortnight to Haast, Okuru and Bruce Bay, but at present a flight is made every week. Such a growing business necessitated a second aircraft and so in May 1935 the company ordered a second Fox Moth which had previously been owned by the Prince of Wales. ZK-AEK was to become known as the Royal Fox.

In late June 1935 ZK-ADI, was repaired and returned to the company and the Canterbury Aero Club’s Fox Moth ZK-ADH returned to Christchurch.

Hokitika Guardian, 31 July 1935

The company’s first year result recorded a loss of £2 8s 9d, a good result after considering £611 had been paid to the Canterbury Aero Club for the hire of its Fox Moth, and after providing £100 for depreciation. The company’s achievements were impressive having been operating for only a little over six months. In the period from the 1st of January 1935 to the 30th of June 1935 48,933 miles were flown, 490 hours flown, 905 passengers, 4858lb of freight and 5368lb of mail were carried. July 1935 was a record month with 1650lb of mail flown.

Mail loads continued to grow. In the March quarter the company's Fox Moth carried 1841lb of mail; in the June quarter the total rose to 3527lb; and for the quarter ended September 30 it was 4231lb. The Press reported that “The increase is not due to a sudden enthusiasm in South Westland for letter writing. It is largely accounted for by the speed and regularity of the air mail, which makes it possible for settlers to have posted to them perishable goods that previously they had to do without. Partly, too, it is due to postage rates being cheaper than the company's freight rates, so that anything which the Post Office will accept goes as mail rather than freight.”

The newspapers of the time reveal the impact the airline made. The Mount Benger Mail reported the story a family moving house. Moving day for a South Westland family has its problems, even over short distances, when there is no good road between the old home and the new and they are some miles apart. Mr J. C. Mercer landed the Fox Moth of Air Travel (NZ), Ltd., at Bruce Bay recently (reports the Press), and was asked to save a whole family the five hours’ walk from there to Paringa. Two return flights were made, eight minutes each way, and a man, his wife, three children - one of them a baby and their blankets, stores and a box of children’s toys, were installed in a new home.

On the 3rd of October 1935 the Royal Fox, de Havilland DH83 Fox Moth G-ACDD, arrived in Hokitika.  In early November it had a mishap near Haast, The plane, which had just gone into commission, was being piloted by Mr. J. C. Mercer, when he needed to make a forced landing on the beach. The plane had an aileron and an elevator damaged. The West Coast Aero Club’s plane made a trip to the scene last week to assist in the necessary repair work. The Grey River Argus reported on a second incident involving the Royal Fox that occurred on the 4th of December 1935. Mercer had flown to Inchbonnie in the course of a try out in the machine, following repairs, as the result of a forced landing on the Haast beach some weeks ago. The engine was functioning perfectly on the way to Inchbonnie, but on the return, when over Humphreys, the engine cut out without warning, and Mr Mercer had to come down on the river bed in the Arahura. The machine struck the ground heavily, the propeller being smashed, and the under-carriage damaged badly. The machine was brought to Southside aerodrome last evening, where the engine appeared to be in perfect running order. The petrol was emptied, but nothing was found to account for the sudden stoppage of the engine. The stoppage was of a similar nature to that experienced when it was necessary to make a similar forced landing at Haast. The repairs needed are of a substantial nature, and it will be a month or six weeks before the machine will be able to take the air again. Up to this point the aircraft had retained its British registration. It finally received its New Zealand registration, ZK-AEK, on the 14th of December 1935. After these initial setbacks the Royal Fox settled into regular service. With two aircraft in the fleet a second pilot was needed and Squadron-Leader J D Hewett, was engaged. 

Assembling the Royal Fox; G-ACDD was to become ZK-AEK. The Press, 19 October 1935
The Royal Fox, de Havilland DH83 Fox Moth ZK-AEK in the back blocks of South Westland

Air Travel (NZ) Ltd’s annual report to the 30th of June 1936 recorded a net profit of £387. Flight numbers were up from 151 flights per month in 1935 to 170 in 1936, 1896lb of mail carried each month (891lb in 1935) 841lbs of freight carried each month (633lb in 1935) and 167 passengers carried each month (145lb in 1935).

In mid-1936 the opening of the sawmill at Bruce Bay and the increasing activities of the Public Works Department in South Westland boosted the freight and mail carried by Air Travel (NZ). Most of the stores for the men at Bruce Bay and in the construction camps were carried by air - as mail - and in late August the Fox Moths carried 812lb of parcels and letters on mail day which necessitated two trips by one of the company’s Fox Moths and one by the other. One of the more unusual flights was when surface travel was impossible because of flooded rivers: A party chartered an aeroplane to go to a fancy dress ball at Weheka.

On the 3rd of August 1936 the Railways Department introduced a Leyland railcar service from Christchurch to Hokitika to deliver the Christchurch Press. During the day the railcar did two return services from Hokitika to Greymouth and a return Hokitika to Reefton service before returning to Christchurch in the evening. Leyland railcar Rm21 is seen with Air Travel's Fox Moth ZK-AEK at Hokitika's Southside aerodrome on the 15th of September 1936. Also in the photo below is Newman's service car.

Despite operating under VFR conditions Air Travel (NZ) managed incredibly well. In November 1936 the Evening Post reported that the efficiency of the commercial services was reduced during the winter months, neither Air Travel (NZ), Ltd., on the West Coast, nor Union Airways, Ltd., being able to maintain their 100 per cent, rating gained last quarter. Air Travel came nearest with a 99.3 per cent., having missed only two of the 309 flights scheduled.

By the beginning of December 1936 the loads were well ahead of the previous year. For the whole of 1935 the company made 837 flights, lasting 413 hours, to carry 9421lb of mail, 6450lb of other goods, and 580 passengers. Up to the end of November this year the number of flights made was 2194, lasting 1070 hours. The mail carried was 31,034lb, the goods 11,268lb, and the number of passengers 2,450. May 1936 was a record month with 280 flights flown carrying 373 passengers while November was a record month for mail with 5041lb carried. The year ended with heavy passenger traffic as many Public Works employees left the camps for the Christmas holidays travelling to Hokitika by air and the prospect on tourist flying over the summer.

In March 1937, with business increasing, the company announced it was increasing  its capital by adding 7000 ordinary shares of £1 each to enable the purchase of a de Havilland DH90 Dragonfly. The Evening Post described the Dragonfly as a twin-engined biplane, similar to the de Havilland Dragon Rapides, used by Cook Strait Airways, only slightly smaller. The engines are four cylinder Gipsy Majors of 130 horse-power, giving a top speed of 147 miles an hour, and a cruising speed of about 125 miles an hour. The cruising range with normal fuel load is 885 miles. The aeroplane will hold its height with one engine only running. The cabin has two seats side-by-side in the nose, with dual controls. A single seat is behind, and a seat for two right across the back of the cabin. It is possible for short flights to fit an extra movable seat alongside the single peat, thus giving accommodation for a pilot and five passengers. The machine ordered will have the extra seat fitted, and another extra will be the provision of sliding windows in the cabin. The cabin door is on the port side, and is wide enough for two persons to get out at a time. Behind the cabin is a luggage compartment of 28 cubic feet capacity. Access to this is by a door on the starboard side. The Dragonfly will have full wireless equipment enabling communication either by Morse code or by direct speech through wireless telephones. The Dragonfly will be the most modern machine in service in the South Island, and with its quick take-off and short landing run, will be well suited for the South Westland service.

Reporting on the 30th of June 1937 year-end report Bert Mercer said that the Two aeroplanes operating on the West Coast have carried more than 830 tons of cargo, including passengers, livestock, mail, and goods, in two and a half years… An air service is usually accepted as one carrying passengers and mail, and occasionally a few parcels. During the 12 months which ended on June 30 this company's two machines have carried pigs, dogs, cats, fowls, sheep, ducks, machinery, gold, bicycles, and go-carts… In the two and a half years of operation Air Travel has carried 5810 passengers, and the number of flights was 5942. Allowing one pilot for each flight, and accepting 15 average persons as weighing a ton, the human cargo weighed more than 783 tons. The mail and goods carried in the same period weighed more than 49 tons.

A young aircraft enthusiast watches Fox Moth ZK-ADI taxi at Christchurch

De Havilland DH90A Dragonfly ZK-AFB arrived at Lyttleton on board the Port Huon on the 16th of September 1937. It was transported over Evans Pass for assembly at Wigram by the managing director of the company, Mr J C Mercer, the company’s ground engineer, Mr A O Templeton, and the Wigram staff and was flown to Hokitika on the 29th.

Bert Mercer with Air Travel's de Havilland DH90 Dragonfly at Greymouth

On the 24th of February 1937 Cook Strait Airways commenced a thrice weekly Nelson-Greymouth-Hokitika service which connected at Hokitika to Air Travel (NZ)’s service to and from the glaciers. Cook Strait Airways’ new service proved particularly popular with northbound passengers who were able to fly right through to Wellington. The southbound service, which originated in Nelson, was not as well patronised as passengers from Wellington either had to fly over the previous afternoon or cross Cook Strait by the overnight ferry to Nelson. Responding to this need, from the 1st of October 1937 the Cook Strait Airways’ service was retimed to run Wellington-Nelson-Greymouth-Hokitika and return three days a week. Air Travel (NZ) adopted a new timetable enabling passengers from Wellington to fly to Franz Josef or Fox Glaciers and South Westland in a single day. The Air Travel (NZ) connection to the Glaciers didn’t produce a huge amount of traffic, the first passenger availing himself of the new service being Mr J L Squire, of Union Airways. From Wellington to Franz Josef the trip took three and a half hours, compared with three days by boat and service car! He returned to Wellington in the same way. Air Travel (NZ) had high hopes that this would generate more business with connections available to and from Wellington even Auckland but these hopes did not come to fruition.

The meeting of the air services... Cook Strait Airways' de Havilland Dragon Rapide ZK-AEE and Air Travel (NZ)'s de Havilland Fox Moth at Hokitika 

On the 20th of April 1938 Cook Strait Airways operated its last service to Hokitika due to the aerodrome's propensity for flooding and becoming boggy and thereby unsuitable for Cook Strait Airways' Dragon Rapides. From this point on Air Travel (NZ) offered an on demand connecting service to the Cook Strait Airways service at Greymouth. 

In May 1938 the company announced its intention to apply to operate an air taxi service from Westport. At this stage the present Carter’s Beach airport was not in operation and Westport’s airfield was on the other side of the Buller River at North Beach. Bert Mercer and Paul Renton visited Westport on the 25th of May to promote the service. A twice weekly air taxi service started in early July with Bert Mercer predicting that the service would be extended to daily calls. Later in the month the Press reported that an early delivery of “The Press” was made to men employed on the new aerodrome near Carter’s Beach. Westport, yesterday morning, when Mr J C Mercer, piloting an Air Travel (NZ), Ltd., machine, flew low over the ground and placed the papers almost at the feet of the workmen.

On the 10th of June 1938 Air Travel (NZ)'s "new" Fox Moth, ZK-AGM, had its test flight in preparation for service. ZK-AGM was  a rebuild eusing parts of the Canterbury Aero Club's Fox Moth which had crashed at Wigram on the 7th of June 1936 while doing a force-landing in fog. The rebuild incorporated a new fuselage with the wings, undercarriage and tail coming from ZK-ADH. ZK-AGM was built by the de Havilland Technical School hence its construction number T/S 2810.

The airlines of New Zealand "connecting with Air Travel (NZ) at Hokitika." The Press, 12 November 1938 

For the year ending the 30th of June 1938 Air Travel (NZ) made a net profit of £984. With passenger numbers, freight and mail loads increasing the company placed an order for a second de Havilland Dragonfly. It arrived in Wellington on 29th of October 1938 on board the Rangitiki. It was assembled at Rongotai with newspaper coverage reporting that it was specially equipped for the tourist traffic, and some of the windows in the cabin will open, enabling photographs to be taken without difficulty. It was delivered to Hokitika in November 1938. 

Air Travel (NZ)'s second de Havilland DH90A Dragonfly taken at Hokitika

The Press of the 24th of May 1939 described an ambulance flight to South Westland and the dedication of the Air Travel (NZ) pilots. How air transport has broken down isolation in far South Westland and minimised the difficulties of life there was well demonstrated today, when Mr J. C. Mercer, of Air Travel (NZ), Ltd., received an urgent call in the early morning to fly down to Okuru, many miles south of Hokitika, and bring back to hospital a resident, Mr P. O'Neill, who had a seriously poisoned leg. The weather was absolutely against flying, and in normal circumstances the flight could not have been undertaken; but the aeroplane was taken down in the worst of weather, since it was the only means of the sick man getting relief, and he was brought out. There are no roads from Okuru leading out into the settlements further north, and with all the rivers seriously flooded, it is likely that Mr O’Neill would have to have waited at Okuru possibly so long that even his life might have been in danger. As it was, he was in Hokitika before dark this evening and receiving relief. Conditions were extremely bad for flying all day, with heavy, squally rain, fog and generally bad visibility but the long trip from Hokitika to Okuru and back was made without mishap.

Air Travel (NZ)'s  Fox Moth aircraft, Nolan's, Okuru, West Coast. Whites Aviation Ltd :Photographs. Ref: WA-AVH-06-10-G. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. http://natlib.govt.nz/records/22392121

Air Travel (NZ) Ltd made a loss of £753 in the year ended June 30, 1939. The directors reported that repairs and maintenance of machines were heavy with two engines being practically rebuilt. Finances were seriously affected as the company failed to obtain revision of the mail contract rates. On the Hokitika-Jackson's Bay run the mails carried increased by 23 per cent but the remuneration was only 6.9 per cent more. Some 78,777lb of mail were carried, compared with 63,838lb in the previous year. Fewer scenic flights were made because of adverse weather. In all 4325 passengers were carried on 4224 flights occupying 1954 flying hours. In the company’s first four and a half years of operations its machines carried 15,570 passengers, 223,230lb of mail, and 80,243lb of freight.

The arrival of the Air Travel (NZ) flight... A Dragonfly at Jackson's Bay

On the 1st of September 1939 Germany invaded Poland and two days later New Zealand was at war. This was to have a major impact on Air Travel (NZ). In November 1939 the Government commandeered Cook Strait Airways’ de Havilland Dragon Rapides. As the Government considered Air Travel (NZ)’s operation a national service its aircraft were not commandeered. Negotiations with Cook Strait Airways enabled Air Travel (NZ) to take over the West Coast-Nelson service for as long as the company was able during the War. Cook Strait Airways’ last flight operated on the 9th of November 1939 with Air Travel (NZ) beginning their Monday to Saturday service on the 10th of November. The first passengers were Mr Woodhouse, Mr and Mrs Gooding and Mr Keating who all flew from Greymouth to Nelson. The schedule saw a company Dragonfly departing Hokitika at 9.45am and fly via Greymouth and Westport to arrive at Nelson at 12.30pm to connect with a flight to Wellington. The return service left again at 1.00pm, reaching Hokitika at 3.45pm. Bert Mercer told the Press, A slight increase in fares is very likely. They will go up by probably 5s, because our machines have not the same seating capacity as those operated by Cook Strait Airways.

Hokitika Guardian, 11 November 1939

Air Travel (NZ) often carried unusual freight. On the 30th of November 1939 The Press reported on such an air freight flight. A curious cargo carried by aeroplane last week from Greymouth to Wellington was a consignment of live mountain trout. The fish were caught on the West Coast, and are to be shown in the aquarium of the Centennial Exhibition. Three times on the flight from Westport, the water in which the trout were carried was, changed. The first change was made at Westport, the second at Nelson, and the third at Blenheim. Between the stopping places, Mr J. C Mercer, the pilot for Air Travel (NZ), Ltd., fed the fish, which arrived in Wellington in excellent condition. No other air service in New Zealand carries a more miscellaneous freight. Whitebait by the hundredweight is transported by the Hokitika aeroplanes from South Westland in the season, and, as the aeroplanes are the only means of quick delivery to the inaccessible places of Westland, they are frequently called on to carry some quaint cargoes. The strangest to date was the body of a man who had died in a southern camp, and, which was carried to the railhead for shipping to the North Island for interment. A calf, a pig. and half a ton of wire rope are among other unusual items carried on the aeroplanes.

Whitebait season on the West Coast meant a lot of northbound freight. Here Air Travel (NZ)'s Fox Moth ZK-ADI is seen at Paringa River. Photo : Whites Aviation Ltd :Photographs. Ref: WA-09365-G. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. http://natlib.govt.nz/records/22858230

With Cook Strait Airways out of the air and a reduction in the Union Airways’ fleet Air Travel (NZ) were called on to help with additional Cook Strait flights. After Christmas 1939 a Dragonfly made special trips between Wellington and Nelson. This was the first of many special flights across Cook Strait.

Fox Moth ZK-AEK had a mishap at Jackson’s Bay on the 3rd of February 1940. The pilot, Mr Neave, was taxiing to a standstill when a strong gust of wind caught the machine, and caused it to skid to one side. The aeroplane struck a log, and damaged one wing. The two tips of the propeller were broken, and part of the undercarriage was also damaged. There were two passengers and mail on board at the time, but the passengers did not know that anything unusual had happened until after the machine had stopped. With no road access the damaged aircraft had to be brought back to Hokitika by the MV Gael.

On the 4th of May 1940 Air Travel (NZ) cut the Hokitika-Greymouth-Westport connection due to heavy operating costs and mounting losses. Air Travel (NZ)'s South Westland service continued as did the service between Nelson and Westport. A new schedule for the Nelson to Westport service was announced which saw an aircraft based at Nelson. This left Nelson at 8.35am after the arrival of the Wellington plane and arrived at Westport at 9.40am. The return service left Westport at 11.15am arriving at Nelson at 12.20pm connecting with the Wellington flight.

Another feature of the War-time was patrols of the fiords and southern coast for the RNZAF. These were operated by the company’s de Havilland Dragonfly aircraft. Finally, on the 6th of September 1944 and after Bert Mercer’s death, The Press was able to recount this valuable work. One essential war service in New Zealand of which nothing has yet been told commenced in 1939. This was the air patrol of the West Coast, the south-west sounds and Stewart Island. In those days, when every strange ship was suspect, the scenic value of the sounds in particular was overlooked and their potential strategic importance became apparent. These sheltered, deep-water coves could provide ideal cover for ships of all sizes. Some sort of patrol was called for, and the only type that could be carried out quickly and accurately was an air patrol. However, the comparatively few aircraft of the RNZAF capable of carrying out a long distance patrol were urgently needed elsewhere. The firm of Air Travel (NZ) Ltd., was already running an air service down the West Coast. In addition, their chief pilot, the late Mr J. C. Mercer, who held the rank of flight lieutenant in the Air Force Reserve, knew every inch of the territory. One of the firm’s aircraft was incorporated in the RNZAF and Mr Mercer instructed to carry out patrols. At first these were spasmodic, usually at the request of the Navy, but later, particularly during the reign of the German raiders, they became regular sights. The patrols were long and lonely affairs over some of the roughest country in New Zealand and with the weather seldom favourable. With gusty, changeable winds and patches of rain, low-flying searches up the narrow, cliff-bound sounds could become tricky jobs and Mr Mercer pointed out in one of his earliest reports that a thorough inspection of the sounds could only be carried out in perfect weather. On that particular occasion, the veteran pilot had been in the air for the greater part of one day and half the next, making two searches of Stewart Island after a rumour that a ship had been sighted in Port Adventure. The weather in the vicinity of the sounds he described laconically as “filthy.” Time after time Mr Mercer was forced to turn back on account of weather, but on each occasion the patrol was resumed as soon as conditions showed signs of clearing. The difficulty of the patrol was increased by the fact that it was not possible to fly across from the head of one sound to the next as each arm was cut off by sheer cliffs running up to four and five thousand feet. Some of the following extracts from some of Mr Mercer’s earlier reports give interesting sidelights on the nature of the patrol, and. incidentally, of the nature of the pilot who did so much for commercial aviation in the Dominion; ‘‘Left Hokitika at 5.45 a.m. to patrol sounds. On reaching Haast the weather began to close in. After refuelling, proceeded south as far as Big Bay where I was compelled to return on account of weather being unfavourable. Returned to Hokitika, picking up a corpse at Jackson’s Bay on the way back…” “...At south end of Stewart Island I flew south for 100 miles and then returned to Invercargill. Owing to stormy conditions could not enter sounds. Decided to go to Taieri so that machine could be housed for the night...”  “… Went down as far as Blight Sound, but conditions were hopeless owing to heavy rains and thick mist in sounds... Rainfall in the sounds area for the month has been approximately 20 inches…” “...As it was snowing in the rest of the sounds I made for Stewart Island…” “…Saw 12 wapiti on shores of lake at head of Bradshaw Sound…” “...Dropped paper to Dog Island Lighthouse...” As it happened, no enemy ships were ever sighted by the south-west sounds patrol. Whether or not enemy ships ever were in the area, it is certain that the patrol was carried out as conscientiously as was humanly possible. Flights were often made when normal safety precautions would have dictated that the aircraft turn back, arid the long low level searches among such mountainous country were always tiring to the pilot.

The company’s financial result to the year ending 30 June 1940 yielded a net profit of £1297. The financial report noted Receipts for scenic flights at the glaciers were further reduced because of the war, and during the first months of the financial year, the same tendency was apparent in the returns from the South Westland service. When, therefore, the Government took over the aeroplanes and equipment of Cook Strait Airways. Ltd., the directors closely investigated the matter and decided to accept an offer by that company to allow Air Travel to operate the service between Hokitika and Nelson its licence. The new, service was commenced in November in order to test its possibilities, but in May it was found necessary to curtail this service, and aeroplanes are now only operating between Nelson and Westport. During the exhibition a considerable amount of business was obtained from the overflow traffic from the Cook Strait service between Wellington, Nelson and Blenheim, and this traffic was largely responsible for the increased earnings shown for the year. As these earnings were due almost entirely to the exhibition traffic, it is unlikely that will be repeated.

During the war years there was little reporting on the company’s activities. A further profit of £1377 was made the following year to the 30th of June 1941, with decreases reported in flying hours, passenger numbers and mail carried. The decreases were attributed to the difficult conditions brought about by the war.

In late 1941 Bert Mercer was honoured by a function in Hokitika to mark his attainment of 10,000 flying hours. James Cuthbert (Bert) Mercer was born in Dunedin in 1887 and he made his first flight as a passenger in a tethered balloon in Invercargill.  A mechanic by trade, he ran a garage in Waikari before the First World War. In May 1917 Henry Wigram started the Canterbury Aviation Company to train pilots for the War. Bert Mercer joined initially as a mechanic but soon after arriving and with only three hours' flying Mercer went solo. His natural skills as a pilot saw him appointed as a flight instructor until the end of the War. After the War he took up a post as chief pilot to the New Zealand Aero Transport Company which operated from Timaru. Although daily services were planned between both islands, these ambitions were never realised, and after a year or so the company went into liquidation. Captain Mercer then returned to being a mechanic. He attended the wartime pilot refresher courses held at Wigram and when the Canterbury Aero Club was formed in 1928 he again entered active flying life as an instructor. It was after receiving an invitation to visit one of his pupils on the West Coast that he saw the possibilities of an air service to South Westland. Using the Canterbury Aero Club’s aircraft he made many flights to South Westland. The residents, seeing the advantages the aircraft brought, were more than happy in building landing grounds, well before Air Travel (NZ) started in 1934. With such a rich involvement in aviation it was right that he was honoured by a representative attendance of Government, local body, civil, and Royal New Zealand Air Force officials. Settlers from as far south as Okuru were amongst the guests. Every speaker praised him as both a man and an aviator. Captain Mercer was described as a grand pioneer in the development of South Westland and a saver of many lives by providing an air service under difficulties. Although he had landed on river beds, beaches, and paddocks. His only fatality in 10,000 hours of flying was one cow.

One positive aspect of the War was the development of the Haast aerodrome in 1941. The airfield was on the homestead property of Mr J. Cron. The original runway prepared by Mr Alan Cron was only 220 yards in length. By December 1941 the Public Works Department had built a modern aerodrome with wide runways of 1250 yards in all directions. The heavy machines used in the construction were transported to the Haast in scows. A strip of bush to the east of the homestead had to be felled to give a clear run-in.

One of the Dragonflies had a mishap at Bruce Bay on the 11th of January 1942. As it landed on the beach after its flight from Hokitika the aircraft suddenly slewed, causing the undercarriage to collapse on one side. The pilot and his five passengers were unhurt but the aircraft had to be taken to pieces and transported to Hokitika by road. The damage was not extensive.

Despite the war conditions the financial year to the 30th of June 1942 was again successful with a £496 profit. By the end of August 1942 the air service from Hokitika and Greymouth to Westport and Wellington had resumed. The resumption of the air service was not recorded in national newspapers but the Press of the 28th of August reported that the Air Travel (NZ) aeroplane on its way from Hokitika to Nelson yesterday was forced to turn back at Karangi because of the rain, sleet, and high wind. Today the aeroplane did not call at Greymouth because of the windy conditions at the aerodrome. This morning Greymouth passengers for the north joined the aeroplane at Hokitika.

Tragedy struck Air Travel on the 21st of December 1942. De Havilland DH90 Dragonfly ZK-AGP, piloted by Flight Lieutenant A. C. Baines left Hokitika for Westport at 8.25am with three passengers on board. After picking up an additional passenger it departed Westport about 9.30am bound for Nelson. Twenty minutes later a radio message was received stating that one engine had stopped and the plane was endeavouring to return to Westport. A second message stated that a propeller was missing. The aircraft gradually lost height and a third radio message was sent saying, "Will attempt landing in the sea." The aircraft ditched approximately seven miles north-east of the Westport Harbour bar and four miles offshore at about 9.50am. The impact caused the aircraft’s nose to dip into the sea and the tail to lift. On board were four passengers, Messrs Albert Johnson from Hokitika, A. Walters from Haast, Michael Hearty from Haast and George McBride of Ngakawau. At the time visibility was very bad. The pilot and three passengers successfully evacuated the aircraft but unfortunately Albert Johnson was unable to do so. The aeroplane remained afloat for about 20 minutes with passengers standing on the wings. It then sank, taking Johnson with it. Messrs. Walters and Hearty were together in sea though neither could swim and Walters in panic kept pulling Hearty under the water. George McBride too had difficulty swimming. After a time both McBride and Walter disappeared.

Meanwhile the Union Steam Ship collier Kakapo, which had just departed Westport, diverted to the crash site and arrived 20 to 30 minutes after the plane sank. Baines and Hearty were taken aboard the steamer but Hearty died soon after. The pilot escaped with minor injuries and shock. Sergeant Holt of the Westport Police had been informed of the accident and joined the harbourmaster Captain Tointon in the Harbour Board’s launch. Mr Alf Thompson was also notified and quickly put to sea in his fishing launch. Both made a widespread search, but could see nothing of the aeroplane or survivors, so returned to port. In the meantime the ship had rescued the two survivors. The harbourmaster was informed of the position and again put out to sea in the Harbour Board’s launch. Some five miles north of Westport he found the rescuing steamer, and after great difficulty, because of the rolling of the sea, got the pilot and Hearty aboard, the latter in one of the stretchers from the steamer.

At the Board of Inquiry held in late January 1943 Orville Darcy Openshaw, the ground engineer for Air Travel gave evidence of his inspection of the plane, and said there was nothing visible that would indicate any possibility of fault or trouble developing.

The Air Department was represented by Dr N A Foden. He told the Board that, It was common knowledge that one of the propellers of the twin-engines on the aeroplane flew off, when the aeroplane was at a considerable height. The substantial point at issue was the flying off of the propeller, which led to the disaster. The main points for consideration involved the speculation as to why the propeller flew off, the failure of the aircraft to maintain height with the one engine which remained, and the loss of life which might, or might not, have been connected with the absence of life-saving equipment on the aeroplane. There were three possibilities as to the cause of the propeller flying off, without causing any undue vibration, the first two certainly without, and the third probably with at least some vibration; (a) complete and sudden fracture of the crankshaft at or in the immediate vicinity of the propeller hub; (b) failure of the locking device on the propeller hub, allowing the hub to pull straight off the splines on the crankshaft; (c) a shear of all, bolts retaining, the propeller on the hub. If the craft were salvaged, or the propeller discovered, said witness, much clearer light would be thrown on the mishap.

In his evidence Flight Lieutenant Baines, said there was no warning before the propeller came off. He was just breaking through the clouds at about 4000, when he saw the propeller 10 to 20 feet in front of the aeroplane. He then steered towards the land and decided to descend to a lower level. He had hopes of striking land near Granity, and then thought it would be wiser to land just off Westport in the sea where launches would be more readily available. At 400 feet the aircraft appeared to be maintaining height, while the speed was being maintained at full throttle. In the early stages he had hopes of making the land, and that the machine would maintain height. He had had experience of single-engined flying. Witness said he was able to devote all attention to his instruments, even though he felt a great deal of anxiety for his passengers during the final few minutes. He kept well out to sea because of the close proximity of the hills. He did this for safety reasons in climbing through the clouds. He still thought he could make land, even after seeing the vessel which steamed to their rescue. He attempted to make land, as he realised he had no lifesaving apparatus. When the aeroplane struck the sea it nosed into the water immediately. When witness came to his senses, he got through a jagged hole in the fuselage, after which three other passengers came up. He heard the passenger, Johnson, singing out inside, but as the door was submerged, he could not go to his assistance.

On the 4th of March 1943 the Dragonfly’s sheered propeller was found on a beach near Patea in the North Island. An examination of the propeller suggested that either the bolts had sheared or the nuts had come off. Squadron Leader E. F. Carpenter, senior aircraft inspector, told the Board of Inquiry that examination of the propeller indicated that certain of the holding bolts had been loose, and in his opinion any looseness that existed had been over a period—not a short period, but a fairly long period. There was a bare possibility that the bolts might fail, in spite of locked tight nuts, but that was a very remote possibility in the particular case. Assuming that the propeller had belonged to the machine ZK-AGP, he did not think that the "50-hour check" had been carried out efficiently in that respect. The most probable hypotheses to his mind were: First and most probable, the slackness of at least three of the nuts, and perhaps four, and the consequent failure in flight of the tight bolts, or, second, that at least three of the bolts were of sub-standard material, which he thought was doubtful.

The final report was issued in July 1943 apportioning the blame to the Aircraft Engineer Openshaw. Dealing with reasons and responsibility for the propeller coming adrift, the board says that a 50-hour check job sheet was signed by Openshaw and certified, inter alia, that the starboard airscrew was examined and checked for tightness. The board says: "That a slackening of the bolts did develop we have no doubt, and we are satisfied it was progressive over a period of time, extending beyond the period of five hours five minutes flying time between this last check and the time of the accident. No evidence was presented to us that climatic conditions had any effect on, the particular type of propeller involved in this accident, which the standard procedure and check, if properly carried out, would not remedy. "We are of opinion that the only feasible inference to be drawn from the evidence placed before us is that the check certified to by Openshaw on December 19, 1942, was not properly carried out in that the bolts securing the propeller were not then tightened, resulting in looseness and the ultimate loss of the propeller in flight. "We recommend that such licence or authority held by Openshaw to sign out aircraft be cancelled. "As to the regulations concerning the carrying of lifebelts, this is not obligatory where an aircraft is operating at sea within 10 miles of the nearest land. The licensed route of Air Travel from Hokitika to Nelson would not in the ordinary course of flight take the aircraft more than 10 miles from land. The existing regulation was modelled on the British air navigation regulations." The board pointed out, however, that owing to the rough nature of our coast lines aircraft on a coastal route in New Zealand could not land on the greater part of the coast. This meant in event of a forced landing coming down on the water. Mainly for this reason it strongly recommended that a lifebelt be carried for each person on board where any coastal or sea route was followed, and that instructions as to their location, fitting, and use, be clearly displayed in the cabin of each aircraft affected.

During the time of the Board of Inquiry the RNZAF impressed Air Travel’s first Fox Moth ZK-ADI into service with the Air Force where it became NZ566. Following the war it was used by the NZ Forest Service for fire patrols.

The company experienced another major accident on the 29th of October 1943. De Havilland Fox Moth ZK-AEK carrying a pilot and four women passengers on a sight-seeing flight over the Franz Josef Glacier made a remarkable forced landing on an ice plateau half a mile below the Aylmer Glacier. The cause of the accident was a sudden down-draught over the glacier which forced the emergency landing. The plane was piloted by Mr. Orville Darcy Openshaw, and his passengers, all members of the Women's Auxiliary Air Force, were Mrs N J Ward (Whangarei), Miss Molly Wilson (Morrinsville), Miss Margaret Cornwall (Cambridge) and Miss Clare McQuitty (Dunedin). Leaving the Waiho aerodrome at 9.30am, the plane set out on a short flight of approximately a quarter of an hour. When it did not return within half an hour the office of Air Travel (NZ). Limited, was notified at Hokitika and immediately got in touch with the principal, Captain J C Mercer, who was piloting one of the company's service planes on the Nelson-Wellington route. Captain Mercer turned back, and, following a brief reconnaissance of the ice field on the glacier, sighted the missing plane at 2.45pm lying in a normal way. Captain Mercer said the plane was half a mile below the Aylmer Glacier on the left-hand side and about 300 or 400 yards from the shore and a quarter way in on the ice. The two left wings were crumpled, but the right wings appeared to be undamaged. The fuselage also appeared to be undamaged, but the engine had broken away from the machine. There was intense relief just before seven o'clock last night when Captain Mercer returned to Waiho with the news that all four passengers and the pilot were safe and apparently not seriously injured. A further reconnaissance flight was carried out during the late afternoon and it was a little after 6.30 that the five people were seen on a large rock on the mountain side just beside the glacier. All five were waving their coats and were standing up, walking about and apparently uninjured. The forced landing on the glacier will probably go down in history as the first of its kind in New Zealand at least. When the discovery of the party was made from the air, the first rescue party of five, which had left early in the afternoon, was less than half an hour away from them. A rescue party brought the survivors down the Glacier the following day.

The aircraft was damaged, not so much by the severity of the landing as by blocks of ice on the glacier which caught the lower left-hand wing. The landing was made heading up the glacier, and that was inclined to throw the machine on its nose, with the result that the front of the engine was pulled out. The girls suffered no injury, but the pilot was thrown forward against the front of the cockpit and received a severe bump on the head. They were stranded, without any possibility of reaching the Waiho Hotel before nightfall, and Openshaw led the party across the glacier to the mountain side. To get off the ice they had to climb a rock ridge 200 feet high. It was a ticklish job, but the girls entered into the spirit of the adventure, and under the pilot's instruction managed the climb successfully. Five of the first rescue party reached them up on the rise at 9pm, and realising that they would have to spend the night there, they all made themselves as comfortable as possible. Some blankets had been brought, and with the assistance of a camp cooker they had hot milk and brandy with sandwiches for supper. It was bitterly cold, but the girls kept up their spirits by singing songs round a fire. The party left at 5am, and shortly after they had reached the glacier they met the second relief party, which had spent the night at the Defiance hut. In the meantime, Captain J C Mercer, director of Air Travel (NZ), Ltd., had arranged air transport back to Hokitika for Openshaw, and there he received attention for injury to his forehead, which was not serious. The aircraft is a complete loss. Although the damage is not heavy, it would be impossible to transport it down the glacier. To replace it today would cost £2500 to £3000.

A few days later, however, and the decision was made to salvage the Fox Moth. The salvage was performed by a party of 15 in eight days. All were experienced mountaineers and they slept in mountain huts near the scene of the accident. Following the aircraft over the many deep crevasses during the three-mile journey the men constructed a wooden sledge. Many hazards were met in bringing the half-ton aeroplane over the ice from a height of 5000 ft., but the salvage was accomplished without mishap. The total cost was about £300, of which £60 was spent in feeding the members of the party. The aircraft was then sent to the de Havilland factory at Rongotai for rebuilding. AEK’s accident left Air Travel with only one Dragonfly and one Fox Moth which meant reduced services were flown.

With the loss of the Dragonfly and a Fox Moth out of action the company acquired de Havilland DH84 Dragon ZK-AHT. The Dragon had previously operated East Coast Airways’ service between Gisborne and Napier before being impressed into the RNZAF. Pilot Officer J D Neave flew the Dragon to Hokitika on the 23rd of March 1944 and it was put to work on the Hokitika-Nelson route. Newspaper coverage at the time also reported that, Another eight-seater aeroplane, powered by two Gipsy Six engines, each of 205 horse-power, has been purchased in England by Air Travel (NZ) and the company expects to have it in commission before the end of this year. The company hoped the Dominie would arrive by the end of the year but this never happened.

Air Travel (NZ) celebrated its tenth anniversary of operations on the 22nd of May 1944 with the Hon. James O’Brien (Minister of Transport and Member of Parliament for Westland) opening new administrative offices and waiting-rooms at the Southside Aerodrome. A large crowd of residents and visitors gathered for the occasion. In 1951 the building was moved to Hokitika’s new Seaview Airport where it served as the terminal building until 1979.

Air Travel Limited Fox Moth ZK-AEK airplane, location unidentified. Whites Aviation Ltd :Photographs. Ref: WA-06466-F. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. http://natlib.govt.nz/records/30666083

Disaster struck the company the following month. At 1.00pm on the 30th of June the Dragon under the command of Flight Lieutenant P. C. Lewis left Nelson on its way south to Westport. The trip to Westport was expected to take 1 hour 20 minutes, and petrol was carried for just over two hours. Flying weather was good on the Nelson side of the mountains, but there were isolated showers on the West Coast side. After 1 hour 50 minutes, when the plane had still not reached Westport, the fact that it was overdue was reported to Central Flying Control, Wellington, by the duty pilot at Nelson.

Steps were immediately taken to, organise a search. By that time the weather had deteriorated towards the West Coast, and over Marlborough conditions were so bad that no planes could be sent out. The first news of, the missing plane was received in Nelson at 11 o'clock last night from Mr. Arthur Hughes, a transport driver on the Nelson-West Coast run. He telephoned from Gowan Bridge to say that he had picked up one of the passengers, Mr. Perry, near Kawatiri. The plane had crashed in bush on the slopes of Mount Hope, about one and a half miles from the main Nelson-West Coast road. The pilot, Flight Lieutenant Lewis, had walked with Mr. Perry from the scene of the crash to within 150 yards of the road, where he collapsed as a result of injuries. The police at Murchison were advised and a search party was organised. When the search party reached the wreck they found that Mr. Dawe had been killed and that Captain Mercer had died from his injuries an hour and a half before their arrival. Matron Patterson, although suffering herself from a broken leg, had given first aid to the remainder of the party. The search party, accompanied by the ambulance from Murchison, included Dr. Kurzweil, of Murchison, and Sister Owen, sister in charge of the Murchison Hospital. Another ambulance was sent out from the Nelson Public Hospital at about the same time. Dr. R. D. Lucas, of Nelson, and Constables Valentine and Squires accompanied this ambulance. In the meantime Mr. Hughes, the transport driver, and Mr. P. Diserens, of Gowan Bridge, had returned to Kawatiri to locate Flight Lieutenant Lewis, and they had him on the roadside when the party from, Murchison arrived.. He was treated by Dr. Kurzweil and sent by ambulance to the Nelson Public Hospital, arriving there at about 4 o'clock this morning.

The victims were:—
Maurice Dawe, Hokitika, secretary of Air Travel, Ltd.; killed.
Captain J. C. Mercer, Hokitika, managing director of Air Travel, Ltd.; died of injuries.
Mrs. E. Russell, Westport, both legs broken; condition serious.
G. M. Strathmore, Wellington, believed fractured skull; condition satisfactory.
Miss A. Patterson, matron of the Buller Public Hospital, Westport, broken leg.
Flight Lieut. P. C. Lewis, the pilot, head, chest, and leg injuries.
B. R. Perry, Wellington, shock, fractured rib; condition satisfactory.

Dr. Lucas said that from what he could see in the dark and the pouring rain the pilot had made as good a landing as possible on a bush-covered ridge about four or five miles on the Nelson side of Kawatiri. The plane had crashed near a small creek, which Mr. Perry and Flight Lieutenant Lewis, had followed down to the main road. The bush was thick and the path very rough, and although Dr. Lucas reached Kawatiri at 1 o'clock this morning it was 3.15 by the time he reached the plane. Rain was falling, and with only electric torches to help them the rescue party had a very difficult task. Apart from relieving the pain of the injured, who were suffering from the cold, with morphia little could be done in the way of first aid. The two injured women and Mr Strathmore were, tied to stretchers, and with six men to each the difficult task of bringing them down the rough mountain slope was commenced. It was 7.15 o'clock this morning when the party reached the road. The injured persons were brought on to the Nelson Public Hospital by ambulance, arriving shortly after 10 o'clock.

Dr. Lucas .paid a tribute this morning to Miss Patterson, matron of the Buller Hospital, for her work in caring for the injured. She obtained morphia from the plane's first-aid kit and gave what relief she could to the other passengers. The hospital reported that none of the five injured was in any immediate danger.

Arrangements were made by the Nelson police to bring the bodies to Nelson today. The party will have a difficult task as the country in the Kawatiri district is rough and bush clad, with heavy undergrowth. The track to be traversed winds up a rocky creek bed and many obstacles will have to be overcome by the stretcher-bearers.

More details later came to pass. It appears that the Air Travel (NZ) plane crashed on the slopes of Mount Hope about three-quarters of an hour after it had left Nelson aerodrome. Till then the trip had been pleasant, and, though light rain was met over Glenhope, visibility remained good. The passengers had no warning that anything was amiss till the plane banked steeply and suddenly dropped into the bush on the hillside… Initial reports said, Due to a cause yet undetermined, one of the engines failed. After a consultation, with the late Captain Mercer Flight-Lieutenant Lewis decided to make a forced landing- The country below was mountainous and covered with patches of bush. Visibility was bad, owing to mist and rain, but as the machine was rapidly losing height pot luck had to be taken. In spite of the odds, it is stated that the manoeuvre was skilfully performed and that the pilot showed great courage and resource.

Mr B R Perry recounted that the plane was suspended in big trees, which covered the ridge, but the fuselage sagged down through thick undergrowth almost to the ground. Apparently the nose had been smashed off, and the passengers were thrown about 30ft down the hillside through this hole. After he regained consciousness, about 4 o'clock, he had a discussion with the pilot about their position, and it was decided that two of them should try to find their way to the road. Darkness was falling in the bush when they started off at about five o'clock, and the men found it necessary to stop and. rest every two or three minutes. Flight-Lieutenant Lewis, who was in a very bad way, struggled on in the darkness for just on five hours, the last stages in pouring rain, but when only 200 yds short of the main Nelson-West Coast road he was unable to carry on. It was about 10 o'clock when he reached the road. Mr. Perry continued, and he had been walking for only five or ten minutes when he met a truck driven by Mr. Arthur Hughes, of Nelson. Mr. Hughes took him on to Gowan Bridge, and notified the police at Murchison and Nelson of the whereabouts of the crashed plane.

Meanwhile, at the crash site, rain started to fall early in the evening and continued heavily throughout the night. Conditions were bitterly cold and the rain seemed to be blowing right into their faces. There was no food or drink and the hours dragged slowly by with hope of rescue in the immediate future seeming very slight. It was 1.30 o'clock on Saturday morning when the calls of the rescue party from Murchison were first heard. Guided by a- series of calls from Mrs. Russell and Miss Patterson, they were able to locate the injured, but in the thick bush it was half an hour before they were able to reach them. The injured were given injections of morphia by Dr. Kurzweil, who accompanied the rescuers, and were warmed with drinks of hot coffee and cocoa. Little could be done for the injured in the way of first aid. They were strapped to stretchers, and the arduous journey to the road commenced through the thick undergrowth and down the rough creek bed. The going was hard, and it was four hours before the party reached the road. Miss Patterson paid a tribute to the work of the rescuers. She said that they were very lucky to have been brought out as quickly, as the cold and the rain were so terrible that none of them could have lived long if help had not arrived.

In October 1944 the Board of Inquiry into the accident found that the accident was not contributed to or related in any way to fuel supply, engine failure or structural defect in the aircraft, but that it arose through the aircraft getting in an uncontrolled position and a condition from which the pilot was unable to recover before impacting the forest. The pilot had attempted to cross the saddle at a low altitude over rough, broken country in order to avoid turbulent air conditions below the cloud base, but in the board's opinion the condition in which the aircraft subsequently found itself could have been avoided by maintaining as much altitude as possible while crossing the saddle. Failure to adopt this course contributed substantially to the accident and was, in the board's view, an error of judgment by the pilot. Reference was made to clauses in the Air Navigation Regulations, 1933, providing for installation in passenger-carrying aircraft of radio equipment, but due to wartime priorities the company had been unable to procure the necessary equipment, and the board considered that Air Travel (NZ), Ltd., had taken every reasonable step in an effort to meet the requirements of the regulations.

The loss of the Dragon again caused the cessation of the Nelson-Hokitika service leaving Air Travel only operating the South Westland service while it looked for another aircraft.  De Havilland DH89A Dragon Rapide ZK-AHS was subsequently released from the RNZAF and purchased by Air Travel (NZ). The aircraft was no stranger to Hokitika as prior to the War it operated for Cook Strait Airways as ZK-AGT, Neptune, before being impressed into the Air Force as NZ558. It arrived at Hokitika on the 2nd of December 1944. ZK-AHS, under the command of Mr P. C. Lewis, and resumed the Hokitika-Greymouth-Westport-Nelson service on the 11th of December 1944. No passengers were carried from Hokitika on its first flight, but one joined the aeroplane at Greymouth. Two pounds of letter mail was carried from Hokitika.

Air Travel's De Havilland DH89A Dragon Rapide ZK-AHS at Nelson
The West Coast flight meeting the Wellington flight at Nelson... Union Airways' Lockheed L10 Electra ZK-AGJ and Air Travel's De Havilland DH89A Dragon Rapide ZK-AHS 

With the end of the War the Government reviewed the future of domestic air services. The Government announced that air services within New Zealand were to be owned and operated by the Government and the New Zealand National Airways Act 1945 established a single domestic airline known as the New Zealand National Airways Corporation. On the 1st of April 1947 NZNAC took over the operation of Union Airways and Cook Strait Airways’ services.

Air Travel (NZ)'s timetable, April 1946. Cook Strait Airways' Nelson-Hokitika service was operated by Air Travel (NZ).

For the next six months Air Travel (N.Z) remained as an independent airline. At the beginning of 1947 Air Travel (NZ) were operating scheduled flights between Hokitika and Nelson, Monday to Saturday, on behalf of Cook Strait Airways and their own Monday to Saturday service between Hokitika and Weheka and a twice-weekly service from Hokitika to Okuru. Air Travel (NZ)’s flights to Jackson's Bay had ended on the 31st of December 1945 after the airfield was closed. However, the end was night. With £20,000 paid for the company Air Travel (NZ) ceased its airline services on the 30th of September 1947. 

The Air Mail Society of New Zealand details the last Air Travel (NZ) flights. The 30th of September was set down as the date for the last flights by Air Travel (NZ) from Hokitika to Greymouth, Westport, Nelson and return. Normally two trips would have been made in each direction. The last air mail from Hokitika to Westport and Nelson, closed at 9.00am on the 30th and was flown right through to schedule by D.H. Dragon Rapide. The plane returned to Hokitika but no mail was carried. The afternoon flight from Hokitika picked up mails at Greymouth but only proceeded as far as Westport, where, because of bad weather, the plane had to stay overnight. The Air Travel plane which had been grounded overnight at Westport, returned early next morning to Hokitika, carrying the Westport-Hokitika and Westport-Greymouth mails. It is interesting to note that the Northbound mail out of Greymouth on the afternoon of the 30th, was the last to be flown from Greymouth for almost a year as NAC who took over the service, deleted Greymouth from the route.

Covers for the final Hokitika-Westport services - the return cover marked Air Service Interrupted 

So ended the dynamic story of Air Travel (NZ) New Zealand’s first airline.

The achievements of Air Travel (NZ) from the Air Department Annual Report for the year ended 31 March 1947

Sorting through the late Jim Jamieson's aviation collection I came across many really interesting photos and historical records which I hope to share in this blog and digitise so they can be deposited with the Aviation Historical Society of New Zealand of which Jim was a long time member. 

What follows is a twelve part memoir written by Cliff Lewis, an Air Travel (NZ) pilot. It is a great story and I have tried to leave it as Cliff wrote it, with the exception of some grammatical corrections to make it an easier read. Some of the history is slightly wrong and I will make comment on alongside each post.


Chapter 1 - The West Coast of the South Island of New Zealand


The country lies roughly, as the crow flies, only some 30 miles from the Tasman Sea to the Southern Alps. It is smothered in native bush and swamp and interspersed with many an occasional beautiful lake which suddenly appear as one rounds a bend on the new great highways which have been built throughout this density. Our country owes a tribute to the Ministry of Works for enabling our people to enjoy such beauty. Interspersed amongst all this bush and swamp is an occasional river flat upon which pioneers grazed the cattle and the odd flock of sheep.

These pioneers went into this difficult country, cut down the bush, cleared grazing areas and built their homesteads, grazed their cattle and sheep, built their herds and flocks, drove them out on a single bush track to the nearest road and sent them to market to provide their families for the whole of the forthcoming year. What fortitude these people had.

Dense bush, swamps, the Southern Alps, the Tasman Sea, where was it possible to land an aeroplane?

The late Air Commodore Maurice Buckley showed the way in 1923.  He crossed the Southern Alps in Avro 504K G-NZAO called "The Blazing Arrow." He landed this aircraft upon the beach at Okarito. His aircraft had to be transported by pontoon back to the highway and eventually back to Hokitika. However, the aeroplane and it's possibilities were in the minds of all West Coasters. 

The Air Commodore was quickly followed by another magnificent airman of this country, the late Malcolm McGregor.  I will refer to Malcolm McGregor as Mac from here on as I knew him personally.  Mac came barnstorming the West Coast.  He landed on beaches, got a push from local residents to get out of soft sand and, if I remember correctly, he only charged a sum of ten shillings for a flight.

The late Air Commander Maurice Buckley and the late Malcolm McGregor had sown the seed that was to blossom in South Westland.

Then came the man to give the West Coast it's magnificent air service, Bert Mercer.  He was a great friend of Maurice Buckley and Malcolm McGregor. At the time he was the Canterbury Aero Club's chief instructor.  We called him Captain. Bert religiously believed in the safety of flight. He always wanted his passengers and pupils to be thoroughly at ease in an aeroplane.  What a tremendous expression of relaxation and how enjoyable to all concerned, that was Bert Mercer at his best.

Captain Bert Mercer in front of de Havilland DH90 Dragonfly ZK-AFB... Given this photo shows Greymouth and Nelson as Air Travel (NZ) destinations it was probably taken sometime after the 10th of November 1939 when Air Travel (NZ) took over Cook Strait Airways' service from the West Coast to Nelson

Then it started. How? Young Jack Renton of Hokitika was undergoing an Air Force training course for his commission as a General Duty Pilot. When off duty he used to come over to our Canterbury Aero Club.  There he met a chief instructor Bert Mercer and myself. They became great friends. Jack Renton assured Bert Mercer that his family and several other Hokitika businessmen would be prepared to finance an air service to South Westland if he would consider doing it for them.

Mercer, always a safe and cautious man, requested from the Canterbury Aero Club their permission to use their Fox Moth aeroplane to make an exploratory flight down the West Coast seeking possible landing grounds and the possibility of tourist attractions.  Bert's first exploratory flights were carried out in the Canterbury Aero Club's Fox Moth ZK-ADH.

These flights were a tremendous success. Everybody in Westland wanted to help Bert. They cleared paddocks, they got the driftwood off the beach after the high tide and they made sure that there were no dangerous logs lying on the river strips after a flood. They just wanted Bert Mercer's aeroplanes to reach them safely.

West Coast and Dunedin financiers then provided Bert with the money to buy his very own Fox Moth ZK-ADI. Bert resigned his commission as chief instructor to the Canterbury Aero Club and went west. What a wonderful day that was to South Westland.

For the first year he flew alone. At night he worked on his aeroplane to be ready to take off at first light. Then he felt he had to have some help. That help came from a young, keen and able engineer called Owen Templeton, thoroughly qualified to Civil Aviation requirements.

In the following chapters I propose to tell New Zealand of the magnificent things that were done in this remote part of our country.

Chapter 2 - Pilots and their Planes


Bert Mercer could not do all this alone and being a cautious man he very carefully chose one of New Zealand's greatest and safest pilots to join him, Wing Commander James Duff Hewett. Jim Hewett was loved by everybody on the West Coast, just as much as Bert. They were wonderful gentlemen to be associated with. 

Then it came my turn to be associated. Both these wonderful men not only helped me to improve my flying techniques but also taught me how to be a West Coaster and how to respect the West Coast way of living. It is fantastic. You will not find it anywhere else in New Zealand.

Mercer would not have employed me unless he personally knew that he had taught me to fly according to his own standards.

I came all the way from Auckland with no guarantee of a job, just an interview with this wonderful pilot who wanted to see that I was still conducting myself in the manner he remembered me by. I was grateful, I got the job, £5 per week. I was a commercial pilot approved by the most critical and wonderful pilots of New Zealand's history. Fantastic!!!

For the first two months of my employment I was given the job of washing and cleaning the company's new aeroplane, a Fox Moth, registered in New Zealand as ZK-AEK. This was an historic aircraft as it had previously belonged to his Royal Highness, the Prince of Wales (Teddy, or if you prefer it, the late King Edward VIII). His personal pilot had won the King's Cup Air Race with the same aeroplane. Now it was ours and, in particular, my own aircraft to look after and fly for our company, Air Travel (NZ) Limited. Oh, how I cared for this famous aeroplane. It really glistened every time I wheeled it out onto the tarmac only to fly south into the filthy weather that only the West Coast can produce, then brought it home again to Hokitika and cleaned it up again to show off its “House of Windsor” colours (which it still bore).

In my first six months I was never allowed to fly alone but was always led by either Bert or Jim who showed me the art of approaching every airfield, river bed or beach... such was the drill of these two famous pilots. It was perfection or else! They showed me how to fly into the head of a glacier valley, turn and bank and glide down, occasionally warming the motor to avoid stalling in the cold air and yet not to gather too much speed or to disturb any passengers. This was an art that any pilot was privileged to be taught.

A third aircraft was purchased, another Fox Moth, ZK-AGM. Mercer himself usually flew ZK-ADI, Jim Hewitt ZK-AGM, myself Teddy’s ZK-AEK. It was highly competitive as to who kept the aircraft in the best condition. I am sure to this day that Mercer and Hewett always had the edge over my inexperience in this matter, however, neither of them would let me think so, and frequently encouraged me in my efforts by some days telling me that Teddy’s really was a credit to me. So I kept trying harder to emulate their wonderful example.

(Cliff is a little bit wrong in his memoirs here... the third aircraft bought was de Havilland DH90 Dragonfly, ZK-AFB, which arrived in Hokitika on the 29th of September 1937. De Havilland DH83 Fox Moth Moth was test flown on the 10th of June 1938.)

Cliff Lewis (centre) with the Royal Fox, de Havilland DH83 Fox Moth ZK-AEK and two passengers at Bruce Bay

Here was the full nucleus of an air service, three good aircraft manned by well trained pilots, two of them absolute experts who flew with silken hands. How I envied their tremendous ability, it was something to be seen and made you proud to emulate!

Chapter 3 - - A Company is Formed


All very well, three aeroplane, three pilots, where did the money come from?

Young Jack Renton’s assurance to Bert Mercer had borne fruit. Here are the people South Westland have to thank for all this to come about.

The late Dorothy Theomin of Dunedin
Bert Chapman of Hokitika
Paul Renton Snr of Hokitika
Harry Worrall of Christchurch
Arthur Wilkinson of Christchurch

The arrival of Air Travel (NZ)'s de Havilland DH83 Fox Moth ZK-ADI at Hokitika on 13 December 1934

They floated the company, directed its business and issued the shares. Every business is bugged by paperwork. Air Travel (NZ) was no exception. It had to have a company secretary. Mr Maurice Dawe of Hokitika accepted this responsible job and executed his duties to the greatest satisfaction of everybody concerned right up to the time of his ill fated death in one of the company's aeroplanes on Mount Hope.

At Hokitika aerodrome, an office had to be manned. To start with, Bert Mercer’s own to daughters, Billie Mercer and her sister Marie, assisted their father. Billie later left to marry and live in Christchurch so Hugh Drummond of Hokitika came to the aid of the company. He really executed a magnificent work, so much so that Marie Mercer was able to be released. He not only controlled all our records and bills of loading but also acted as receptionist to all passengers. Everybody who landed at Hokitika aerodrome or departed from it will always remember Mr Drummond for his unfailing courtesy and personal attention. He was our ambassador while we were away fighting the elements of South Westland's weather and the vagaries of its intricate landing places. Mr Drummond, we all thank you for a magnificent job.

Behind every successful man there must be a successful, patient and encouraging lady. Bert Mercer, Jim Hewett and myself all had the lovely privilege. To our wives, who were caused many an anxious hour, goes my utmost respect for the continued faith in our ability to master all difficulties and return home safely, even when sometimes we were held up in the far south for days at a time and had no communication to assure them that we were okay.

We were really fortunate in having a devoted ground engineer in Owen Templeton. He often drove all us pilots mad when we wanted our aeroplanes in a hurry. Owen would not let us have it until he was perfectly satisfied it was 100% airworthy. We were grateful and just walked around in ever diminishing circles smoking endless cigarettes until Owen was happy. Thanks Owen! Bert Mercer knew the men he employed and he picked them out meticulously!

Chapter 4 - Aerodromes and Landing Places


When Bert Mercer made his first exploratory flight to the Coast there had only been one area prepared that could be termed anything that resembled an airfield. This was a flat alongside the Hokitika River just below the late Paul Renton Snr's property upon the southern bank of the river, immediately adjacent and below the rail bridge. It was upon this site that Air Travel (NZ)'s first hangar was erected.

Flying south to the small township of Ross, Mercer sought out a paddock alongside Stewart and Chapman's sawmill, landed his aircraft and persuaded the local residents that if they could keep this area clear for his aircraft to land on, he would be able to render them a service.

Link to more on Ross aerodrome

On south again he chased the sheep off Mr Nolan's paddock at Wataroa and delivered his message again. 

Link to more on Wataroa aerodrome

Then onto the Franz Josef Glacier where stood the Graham's hostel, just below which, alongside the Waiho River, was a small grazing area. Again the same message was passed. 

Then over the hill to the Fox Glacier river valley and once more after a little sheep mustering with his sturdy Fox Moth he landed in the paddock belonging to the Williams family who were conducting the Fox Glacier hostel. The message was passed once more.

Link to more on Weheka aerodrome

Air Travel (NZ)'s de Havilland DH83 Fox Moth ZK-ADI landing at Weheka, with the Fox Glacier in the background

Still aiming for the south, but with the advice that the road terminated at the Mahaitai River and there would be no more suitable areas for an aeroplane to land on that there were residents located at Bruce Bay, the Haast and Okuru, Bert promptly put his aircraft down upon the beach at Bruce Bay. He repeated the message and explained to the residents that if they would be kind enough to see that their beach was always kept clear of debris after spring tides he would be able to offer them a regular service.

Here he learned that they were men engaged in whitebait fishing upon the Paringa, so, he sorted out a reasonable shingle strip adjacent to their hut (MacIntyre and Douthwaite) and assured them that he would call and regularly during their fishing season and uplift their catch and take it to the railhead at Hokitika in time to catch the night goods train to the Christchurch market. He would charge them 6 pence per pound for freighting it. (They used to receive 7/6d per pound on the market).

On to the Haast and nowhere to land except upon another shingle strip in the Haast River. He had attracted the attention of the local resident, the late John Cron, and in true West Coast custom he came over upon his horse to aid a friend in need, doubled Bert across the river to his homestead, offered the customary hospitality, first, a White Pidgeon whisky and milk, and then from the wood fired stove where the kettle was never off the boil, his lovely wife brewed the traditional cuppa and presented homemade bread, fresh scones and homemade biscuits. Again Mercer’s message was given to the Cron family. They assured him that a paddock adjacent to the homestead would be made available. 

A 1935 photo of Haast Aerodrome with the Cron homestead... Photo : National Library... PA-Group-00080: Whites Aviation Ltd: Photographs

Link to more on Haast aerodrome

John Cron introduced his son Allan to Mercer. Allan told him of an area away up the Haast River where the Clarke and Landsborough Rivers met where he ventured up to and camped when deer stalking. He asked if Mercer thought it would be possible that an aeroplane could be put down in such a place. The cuppa finished, Mercer said to Allan let's go up and have a look at this spot. Out came two horses and back to the river where the aircraft was. John Cron took the horses back to the homestead and Mercer and Allan flew up river to the location. Bert expertly put the little Fox Moth down and he and Allan discussed the possible construction of a sleeping hut and separate cookhouse and refrigerator (West Coast style, a 40 gallon drum set in the ground). Yes!!! It was on, shooting parties could be brought into this place and Mercer again offered Allan and any parties he brought in to freight out the deer skins at 6d per pound. 

Back to the Cron Homestead where John Cron told Mercer of his great friend and neighbour Dinnie Nolan whom he felt sure would clear a paddock for him at Okuru. Out came the horses and they both rode down some 4 miles to meet the Nolan family. The White Pidgeon and the cuppa once more. Why, yes!!! Dinnie assured Mercer he would be only too grateful to have a paddock kept clear. 

Link to more on Okuru aerodrome

Dinnie and John mentioned to Mercer the Public Works Department were building a camp at Jacksons Bay from whence they would commence road construction and bridge building but at the moment the only way they got the supplies into the Bay was by the coastal vessel “Gael” which had to stand offshore while all cargo was taken ashore in the vessel's dinghies. The alert Mercer bade farewell to Dinnie and John and hopped into the little Fox Moth and promptly put her down upon the very narrow Jacksons Bay beach. Bert chatted with the PWD, got his message across, and again he was assured the beach would be regularly inspected. 

The landing places were all practical to Mercer’s careful judgement. It was on!!! So, back to Hokitika. Mercer had eleven points of call. Air Travel (NZ) was afloat.

Chapter 5 - Newspapers and Mail Deliveries

Bert Mercer's exploits as chief instructor to the Canterbury Aero Club had always received the attention of Christchurch newspaper offices and they regularly featured any flight that the great pilot accomplished. Bert never forgot this, so, in return, he offered them a service. He would deliver the newspapers right down the West Coast to Jacksons Bay at no charge! - just supply him with sufficient copies of the daily. They willingly meet his request and at 1am as the West Coast railcar left Christchurch it always carried the required number of copies addressed to “Air Travel (NZ) Limited, Hokitika.”

The railcar reached Hokitika at 7am. Bert was there to meet it with his own car, then over to the aerodrome where Owen Templeton had his aircraft ticking over. A quick scribbling of names upon each copy and a few spare copies for fishermen on the rivers and guides climbing the mountains with their parties and Bert took them into the aircraft cockpit with him, except for bundles addressed to such places as Franz Josef Glacier, Fox Glacier, Bruce Bay and Jacksons Bay. 

The Christchurch Press was actually delivered to the late Mr Peter Graham, one of New Zealand's most famous guides on the Southern Alps, and his party at the summit of Mount Tasman at 8 o'clock one morning. Bert would drop his aircraft down to approximately 50 feet, out would go the paper and land smack alongside fishermen, guides on the mountains and isolated homesteads. Jim Hewitt was just as adept as Bert and they both taught me how to be as accurate.

If Air Travel could deliver newspapers, why could they not deliver mail? Bert consulted with the Postmaster General for a contract price annually to deliver mail to South Westland without any extra airmail surcharge, just to offer the Post Office a service into this remote region. It was granted and the residents of South Westland quickly took advantage of this service. Their mail orders flowed into the various suppliers and the residents requested their orders to be forwarded by parcel post. 

Upon one occasion we received an extra large mail bag which was difficult to fit into the little Fox Moth. So the Post Office was requested to come over and break the seal and remove the large article so we could get it into the aircraft. It was a lounge chair!!! It got delivered just the same. On another occasion, upon putting a mail bag into the aircraft, the plywood flooring broke. Again the Post Office to the rescue. This time only a large packet of horseshoes. They were delivered to their recipient.

The old and the new... de Havilland DH83 Fox Moth ZK-AEK flies over mailman Charlie Smith. Before the advent of the aeroplane it took two days for the mail to go south from Fox Glacier to the Haast.

Chapter 6 Deer Shooting and Tourist Flights

Allan Cron and Bert started immediately into the construction of the huts at the meeting of the Clarke and Landsborough Rivers. Bert acquired the necessary materials, flew them down to the site and in between shooting Allan constructed the necessary accommodation. All was ready. Air Travel started to advertise the availability of the spot and its fantastic shooting possibilities stating that the company could fly parties with all their provisions, accept their necessary reprovision orders, purchase them on their behalf, come back in two weeks with the provisions and fly out their dried hides to the Hokitika railhead. What a perfect shooting expedition!!!

On one occasion Allan Cron captured with his own hands a young fawn. He wanted Bert to take it back to his homestead at the Haast. There was only one condition that Bert would accept this commission, that Allan would nurse the animal within the small cabin of the Fox Moth until they arrived at the Haast. Allan, a remarkably strong man, said that was no trouble to him and away went the little Fox Moth, Allan Cron, the fawn and Mercer. At the Haast Allan casually got out a dog chain and tethered the young animal to his father's fence. That was okay until the “roaring season” when the little devil just broke the chain, jumped the fence and we have not seen the animal to this day.

Bert Mercer with Air Travel's Fox Moth ZK-ADI and a hunting party in the Landsborough Valley. Photo Mercer Collection

The Franz Josef Glacier! The Graham Family! Jim Graham, Peter Graham, and one of the West Coast’s most fabulous hostesses, Mrs Rose Graham, Peter McCormack, Joe Fluerty, Harry Ayres and all the other wonderful guides that lead people up this magnificent glacier and adjacent mountains! They all helped Air Travel to succeed. They encouraged people to first fly over the glaciers then come back and walk upon it under their careful guidance. 

The business grew so fast for Air Travel that Mercer requested Jim Hewitt to take up residence at Franz Josef. He accepted willingly and nurtured that part of the company's business. The same thing happened at Fox Glacier. The lovely Williams family and their guides encouraged their visitors to fly over their beautiful glacier. It was easy. Just a phone call to Franz Josef and Jim Hewett was over at the Fox. With the tourist delight in having seen the lovely glaciers it was no trouble to encourage flights to the beautiful Milford Sound and Mount Aspiring and return. 

Fox Moth ZK-ADI flying up the Franz Josef Glacier in February 1936. Photo Mercer Collection

Joe Fleurty, the Māori guide at Franz Josef, often upset his party at the hostel entrance by his own natural tastes. Casually waiting for all his party to be assembled he could be seen to pick up a spicy huhu break it carefully apart and commence to devour it. This fantastic Māori guide could just run across the glacier, climb every peak in the region like an antelope yet when war broke out he got turned down by the New Zealand Army because he had flat feet. He was told he could not march in army boots. Would you believe it? So back to his beloved mountains and glaciers and his huhus.

The location of Jim Hewett at Franz Joseph helped the company tremendously. We had an aircraft stationed halfway down the Coast. Hokitika was relieved if there was an emergency flight required at Bruce Bay, the Haast or Jacksons Bay. We no longer had to fly all the way down from Hokitika. Just a phone call to friend Jim at Franz Josef and he was on his way. 

There was always one difficulty to the tourist, the vagaries of the West Coast weather. When it rained, it rained so hard that it was just impossible to take an aircraft out into the conditions. Later when the Post Office Department supplied the area with air radio communication and we acquired an aircraft with a radio. But there was nothing lovelier than to fly down the Coast after a heavy rainstorm in the late afternoon or evening with the setting sun catching the steam rising from the bush spreading its golden rays through the steam and glistening upon the magnificent Southern Alps. It had to be seen to be believed.

There was one occasion when a tourist had a friend arriving in Christchurch by the inter-island ferry at Lyttelton at 7am and he wished to meet his fellow countryman at the Christchurch railway station and bring him immediately to the Coast to be with his party. Conditions were perfect. It was a moonlight night, the winds were all in our favour and the Christchurch weather report could never have been better. No blind flying instruments, no radio but just a local knowledge of the Alps, its passes and a compass. My passenger arrived at Hokitika aerodrome at 4am. Air Travel’s aircraft and the pilot (myself) were waiting. We climbed out to sea until we reached the safe height to cross the Southern Alps. The moon on the Alps was glorious. The moon sank and the morning sun came up behind the Port Hills of Christchurch and one hour and 20 minutes after leaving Hokitika I wheeled the little Fox Moth into a landing at Harewood. Our tourist met his countryman, brought him back to Harewood and we returned to Hokitika over the Alps in glorious sunshine. What a flight to remember!!! 

Early December and a tourist wished to see Milford Sound. We had a very late snowfall in Fiordland. We left Franz Josef for the Sound which we entered from the seaward approach. There, snow to bush level, the deep blue of the sound, rata in full bloom and the Alps!!!

Chapter 7 - The Whitebaiters


At the end of each catching season the fisherman from the southern rivers would casually make their way north and might spend a night at Williams’ Fox Glacier hostel, then the Graham’s Franz Josef hostel and thus onwards to their favourite Hokitika pub. Here they would gather and discuss the season’s catch and their returns. 

MacIntyre and Douthwaite were able to tell their friends about the new service that Bert Mercer's aircraft were offering them. These gentlemen became interested and made a special journey across the Hokitika River bridge to the aerodrome to have a talk with this chap Mercer and ask him if he could land at their place of fishing - the Cook river shingle strips, Blue River shingle strip, yes and Dinnie Nolan of Okuru asked Bert, could he fly his catch out of the Cascade beach at the mouth of the Cascade River. “Of course,” Bert assured each of them that it could be managed. So, Air Travel (NZ) Limited had further points of call for whitebait freight, in all Paringa River strip, Cook River strip, Blue River strip and Cascade beach south of Jacksons Bay by some 30 miles. Bert assured everybody that the catch would be delivered to the Hokitika railhead in time to catch the night goods to Christchurch for the next day's market by all of his aircraft and pilots. Whitebait freight was now a very integral part of Air Travel's business. 

Fox Moth ZK-ADI at Paringa with Tom Condon (left), pilot Jim Hewitt in the leather jacket, Arthur Condon, and whitebaiter Bill Douthwaite and Jack Condon (right)

Not so with Dinnie Nolan of Okuru. He saw great possibilities, his own canning factory! So by the coastal vessel Gael he acquired the materials to build his canning factory and became New Zealand's first exporter of canned whitebait, this by a New Zealander living 130 mile south of Hokitika in one of New Zealand's most isolated parts. What enterprise and fortitude!!!

None of the river strips were longer than 400 yards long, some a little less, so we were limited to the load we could uplift at any one time.  All catches had to be placed in the old type kerosine tin (they usually held 70lbs). Our maximum uplift at no time could go beyond 16 tins. If they had more we would fly out the first load and take it to Waiho, return, take out the balance to Waiho, uplift the lot and fly off to Hokitika with a deadline in time to have one of the Kennedy’s taxis get them on the night goods train. Air Travel never let these fishermen down.  

Once a very unfortunate occurrence did happen but it was not the fault of Air Travel. The catches had been safely placed upon the Railways and the train left Hokitika. Some shunting had to take place at Stillwater Junction a little east of Greymouth.  The whitebait truck was unfortunately left on the siding. It was only discovered by the Railway when a very unpleasant odour was permeating the Junction some three days later. 

Whitebait season on the West Coast meant a lot of northbound freight. Here Air Travel (NZ)'s Fox Moth ZK-ADI is seen at Paringa River. Photo : Whites Aviation Ltd :Photographs. Ref: WA-09365-G. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. http://natlib.govt.nz/records/22858230

Chapter 8 - Flying by the seat of your pants

In the very early stages of our service to South Westland we had no weather reports to assist us. What we used to do, however, was to listen to Radio 2YA who at that time were giving out the barometric pressures for the main cities of New Zealand, Australia and Tasmania. From these reports, with our own knowledge of how a weather map was constructed, we would sketch our own isobars and thus gain the knowledge of the type of weather to be expected, either cyclonic or anticyclonic. This enabled us to anticipate when we might expect wind changes which might be favourable or otherwise to the beaches and other awkward landing places which we had to use. 

The Meteorological Office at Kelburn was also seeking more reporting places in New Zealand and requested the assistance of the P and T Department to establish more radio stations around New Zealand. The two departments worked hand and glove together and many were established. Two in particular gave our company tremendous assistance, one at Jackson Bay which was manned by the indomitable Gordon Bowman and another station at Hokitika manned by the equally competent operator Jack Williams. Both these operators knew exactly the information that was vital to our operations. 

These aeradio stations were established in late 1937/early 1938... Cliff is slightly wrong in that Gordon Bowman was always based at Hokitika. I presume Jack Williams was an operator at Jackson Bay.

For instance it could be raining so hard at Hokitika that you could not see 100 yards and then a message would come through from Gordon at Jackson Bay saying that the wind had changed to the south west. This was the clue we were waiting for. We could take off from Hokitika and fly at sea level some three miles off the coast watching for every muddy stream making its way out into the Tasman. We were able to count these streams and recognise which river they represented. When we reached the one we wanted we would then follow it to the coast and fly upstream at zero altitude to the landing strip we wished to reach. This was “flying by the seat of your pants” but it worked perfectly. 

Our gratitude to both these government departments cannot be expressed in words. Whereas before we were dependent upon a single telephone line, that at times was disrupted by falling trees, we now had a direct communication with the far south and received three weather reports daily, the first at 7am, the next at 12pm and another at 4pm. We also were able to request any extra specified information we required. These two radio stations also greatly assisted the far south settlers in the cases of sickness or accidents. A mayday a message from Gordon to Jack and Air Travel were on the way to help. 

Fox Moth ZK-ADI on the Neil's Beach airstrip just a kilometre or two away from Jackson Bay... the sun shining as usual. Photo : Ref: PAColl-3060-014. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. /records/23110233

Not only did these two Departments come to our aid, in came the then Public Works Department Aerodrome Section under Eric Smart and Allan Pritchard. They immediately recognised the assistance our small company needed so without hesitation they saw that settler’s paddocks should be marked out with civil aviation marker boards and that some of them should be extended to accommodate our future developments. No stone was left unturned to help Air Travel (NZ). The Coast owes as much to these men as it does to Bert Mercer. 

There was also one other means of communication on the Coast that always worked, “the bush telegraph.” It was amazing at times how people knew that Air Travel was on its way south and a lot of unexpected travellers and freight were many times encountered. Air Travel always met their needs. How? I often look back and wonder but it happened to their gratitude.

Chapter 9 - Fuelling Up

One of our biggest problems in this remote region of course were fuel supplies. At Hokitika the problem was easy, we had a 200 gallon tank alongside the hangar but at Franz Josef we were dependent upon road transport deliveries with 44 gallon drums. At the Haast we first had all our drums bought from Greymouth by the coastal vessel Gael and they were brought ashore by dinghy and then carried to the Cron homestead by sledge. Later, when the Jacksons Bay wharf was established a road was was through to Okuru and the Haast, this became a slightly easier matter of transportation. 

Both at Franz Josef and the Haast we had our problems. We had to have a wooden ramp built to roll these heavy drums onto. This was no trouble to West Coasters; they organised it in no time. Okay, we had our fuel where we wanted it, but how to get it into our aircraft? 

Our petrol tanks were located in our upper wings so a smaller container was required to manage this. We used 4 gallon drums, then with the use of a ladder we could climb up to the top wing to insert the contents. But we heard a very serious problem, the possibility of any condensation in the 44 gallon drum causing water to become involved with the petrol. So we used a very large funnel which had a gauze filter at its outlet. This did not satisfy Bert Mercer and so for a safety precaution we always used a very large chamois as well. 

Just imagine it, you are in a hurry to carry on to the next landing place, but, you know that you need more fuel. Take your 4 gallon can to the 44 gallon drum, fill it, get your ladder out, climb up the ladder, and pour it into your aircraft petrol tank. Try this when it was raining and you had to cover everything as well as getting this precious petrol into your aircraft. 

Fuelling in the far south was only one of our problems, we also had to keep up with Civil Aviation standards, that an aircraft had to have a daily inspection as laid down by the Department. All three of us had to have our Commercial Licences endorsed by the Civil Aviation authorities that we were capable to carry out this operation both upon engines and airframes. This all added to the anxious desire to get on our way. We all met this requirement to the satisfaction of the Department. How? I just do not know, but we did.

Then, when we returned from the south, we had to hose down the aeroplane to get rid of any sand or salt spray before we handed it over to Owen Templeton to carry out the necessary maintenance. When you were a pilot on the Coast you had to be very versatile!!!

Chapter 10 - Overcoming Simple Problems

By this time the South Westland air service was well established. We had the confidence of the Coasters and we now had radio stations to provide us with all the weather information we needed. Landing strips were marked out and some of them were being enlarged. So what next? 

We need larger aircraft fitted with radio. The directors of the company recognised this and decided to purchase at a de Havilland 90 Dragonfly seating six, including the pilot, and able to be used as a hospital case aircraft with a stretcher. 

This meant that one of our Fox Moths would become idle unless we acquired another pilot. So, once again, Bert Mercer chose a man whom he himself had taught to fly. Jimmy Neave from the Canterbury Aero Club. He fulfilled every requirement that Bert Mercer desired and became a most likeable character to all South Westland. 

This Dragonfly aircraft enabled us to bring wonderful assistance to many Coasters and also visitors from overseas. From here on we had no trouble dealing with serious hospital cases. We had an aircraft that could deal with any emergency and be in contact at every minute of its flight. 

One particular incident comes to my mind. A man was killed when he fell down one of the Franz Josef Glacier's crevasses. He was recovered and although dead, we undertook the flight from Franz Josef to New Plymouth where he was eventually buried. Just another of Air Travel’s services to New Zealand. 

Upon another occasion we received a message from the Jackson Bay PWD camp that a member of the Public Works force had a very bad toothache and he required a dentist so urgently that he was prepared to pay the cost of an aeroplane to bring the dentist to him. Once again Air Travel came to a Coaster’s need and we flew Mr Max Coulson to Jackson Bay to relieve this unfortunate gentleman. Max not only relieved this gentleman of his pain. He also attended to many others who needed dental treatment and altogether extracted some 200 teeth at the camp. 

Another near occasion occurred to one of our pilots. We received a call from Bruce Bay that a lady was in the throws of a birth. We managed to get her to Hokitika, lucky for us, but not for the taxi driver who was taking her to hospital. The child arrived in his taxi. 

Before our aircraft service reached South Westland one Dinnie Nolan told us of an experience he had at one time. A man working at Okuru broke a leg and the only way to get him to hospital was to carry him out on a stretcher (made by 4x2s). They carried this man some 30 miles over a single bush track to the nearest roadhead at Maitahi. Dinnie told me that when the blister on his shoulder nearly reached his ear he nearly gave up. This is what West Coasters are made of. 

We also had another amazing flight. A lady from Okuru at the age of 45 received a message from Christchurch to come urgently to see an ailing sister. We took her to Hokitika railway station and she became most agitated. She did not mind the aeroplanes but explained to us that she had never seen a railway train and asked if we thought it was safe to travel on. Of course we reassured the lady that she had nothing to worry about. 

When we first operated into South Westland we normally thought of average loadings for such as parcels and average size people. However, upon this particular day I was detailed to pick up four passengers at Bruce Bay beach. I arrived to meet my passengers. There were three average size build but one was a lady of some 22 stone. My decision was not to offend the lady so I elected to fly her out to Franz Josef until I returned and picked up her companions. In the meantime I made an urgent request to Hokitika to supply a larger aircraft because I still had some further commitments in the far south. 

These are just some of the simple problems we were able to overcome.

Chapter 11 - Then came the War

We now had four aircraft along with four pilots, however, Air Department requirements still had to be made for the annual Certificate of Airworthiness. So whenever this fell due the pilot whose aircraft had to undergo this procedure was withdrawn from service to assist Owen Templeton and the hangar at Hokitika. He helped strip the aircraft down to its last nut and bolt, clean each part thoroughly, to Owen's satisfaction, and helped reassemble them when ready after the Air Department's inspector, Frank Sorrell, had approved of everything being up to standard. When you were one of Mercer's pilots you really knew your aircraft from nose to tail and you took pride in doing so.

The tourist traffic at Franz Josef and the Fox Glaciers was just jumping out of its skin. Jim Hewett had to have a larger aircraft, so the company decided to purchase another Dragonfly,  this to be based at Franz Josef. 

Once again this meant that one of the Fox Moths would become idle unless another pilot was acquired, so under Mercer's careful scrutiny, Ossie Openshaw was engaged. He went through all the drill that each of us had gone through and then out on to the service he went and he also did a magnificent job of work. One particular piece of flying he achieved I will tell you of later. 

Then came the war of 1939!!!

Cook Strait Airways had been operating a service from Wellington to Nelson and Greymouth via Westport. Air Travel were asked to take over the Nelson to Greymouth section as a daily service to release the de Havilland Rapides to the Air Force. Mercer met every requirement, so Air Travel services now covered the entire West Coast, Nelson to Jackson Bay.

A further demand was made of Mercer and his company. They were declared to be an essential service and again the Air Force requested that a patrol be carried out once a week over the southern fiords for any sighting of enemy vessels in the area. Our commission was to inspect every Sound in the Southern area of New Zealand and continue on to Stewart Island and return to Invercargill and Dunedin. To achieve this mission we had to break every rule in the book of Civil Aviation's safety regulations. Our Dragonfly could not carry enough petrol in its tanks to cover such a distance, so I always went with Mercer on these flights. Our wing tanks held 24 gallons and we had a cabin tank that held another 12 gallons. The cabin tank could be fed to the wing tanks as required. My job with eight four-gallon drums in the cabin of the aircraft was to keep replenishing the cabin tank so we could refill the wing tanks as required. We never saw even a fishing smack, but Air Travel did its duty.

Again the War and the Air Force requested the release of Jim Hewitt to form its communications flight at Rongotai.  It supplied, in his place, a pilot of Mercer's choice, one Arthur Baines whom Mercer had also taught to fly at the Canterbury Aero Club. He got the same drill that we had all gone through and he more than proved his worth later as I shall relate. 

I, myself, at this stage just could not stay in Civil Aviation whilst there was a war on and I promptly wrote to Jim Hewitt at Communications Flight Rongotai requesting him to have me seconded by the Air Force to join his flight at Rongotai. This became an immediate arrangement. I said goodbye to the West Coast, did a refresher course with the Air Force at Harewood and Wigram with some 3000 flying behind me and became a VIP pilot of Communications Flight, Rongotai. We were later given the title of RNZAF number 42 Squadron. 

Bert Mercer, I personally thank you.

Jim Hewitt and Cliff Lewis were not the only ones who were enlisted with the RNZAF. Air Travel (NZ)'s first Fox Moth ZK-ADI was impressed into the Air Force as NZ566 where it served with the Communications Flight Rongotai and 42 Squadron. After the War it was based in Rotorua where it was used on on forest fire patrols until April 1948. It later returned to Hokitika as ZK-ASP and was used on NAC's South Westland air service.

With my departure from Air Travel the Air Force once again came to Mercer's aid and ironically enough sent to him a pilot called Colin Lewis. This great pilot had the misfortune to be in charge of one of the company's aircraft when, under atrocious weather conditions, it hit Mount Hope and Bert Mercer along with Maurice Dawe lost their lives. 

To Colin Lewis, please accept my greatest sympathy that such a tragedy could occur to any pilot. My regards and admiration of your flying ability. It was always superb!!!

Chapter 12 - Mishaps and Disasters

All the foregoing sounds very romantic and historical but now let me tell you all of some of the misadventures that always accompany any aircraft services. 

Before the now great Haast airfield was constructed Bert Mercer had one of John Cron's steers take dislike to these aeroplanes and promptly charged this intrusion in it's grazing ground. Result, a damaged lower wing. Result again, we had to wait for Owen Templeton to be flown to the Haast with all his repair equipment to make the aircraft serviceable enough to fly back to Hokitika. 

(Cliff's memoirs were written well after his Air Travel days and this incident was well before he started with Air Travel. I the incident he is referring to actually happened at Weheka - Fox Glacier on the 8th of February 1935... The Hokitika Guardian reported on the incident the following day... "An accident occurred to Mr J. C. Mercer’s plane when taking off from Weheka yesterday afternoon. With two passengers on board, the plane was moving off when, a bullock ran out of a clump of trees and charged the machine, causing it to turn over. The occupants escaped with minor injuries, but structural damage was sustained by the plane, which is being brought up to Hokitika for repairs").

I, myself, had an unbelievable experience. I was taking off from the Maitahi River strip and suddenly my aircraft developed some most disturbing noises. I was lucky and just managed to get the aircraft back to the landing strip. Upon examination we found that a conrod had pierced the crankcase. Once again Owen Templeton to our aid with a serviceable engine. We, with all the primitive accessories available, were able to replace the damaged engine. I flew on south and Owen returned to Hokitika. 

Our next mishap was definitely a tribute to a very competent pilot whom Bert Mercer had engaged. He had a terrific thing happened to him. This was Ossie Openshaw who had an engine failure while he was flying tourists over the Franz Josef Glacier. He managed to safely put his aircraft down upon this terribly rough glacier without a loss of life to all occupants. If ever a George Cross was entitled this man deserved it. Well done Ossie. 

It was after I, myself, left Air Travel to offer my services to the RNZAF, that a very unfortunate accident occurred for the company. One of the company's aircraft lost a propeller just north of Westport. The pilot, Mr Arthur Baines, did his utmost to help all passengers but finally had to save his own life. A tribute to you Arthur for your valiant efforts. 

Then came the greatest tragedy of all. Bert Mercer travelling in one of his own aeroplanes struck a hilltop at Glenhope. Bert Mercer along with our company's secretary Maurice Dawe  lost their lives. 

The West Coast of the South island will never forget Bert Mercer

The War time Air Travel (NZ) fleet 19391200 Fox Moths ZK-ADI, AEK and AGM and Dragonflies ZK-AFB and AGP at Hokitika in December 1939 as the airline celebrated its 5th anniversary. 

The Aircraft

DH Fox Moth
ZK-ADH - Lent by Canterbury Aero Club
ZK-ADI - Air Travel’s first
ZK-AEK - The Prince of Wales’ aircraft
ZK-AGM - Rebuild using parts of ZK-ADH 

DH Dragonfly

DH Dragon
ZK-AHT On loan from RNZAF in which Mercer lost his life 

DH Dragon Rapide
ZK-AHS - Replacement for ZK-AHT

The Pilots

The Indomitable “Bert Mercer”
The Greatly Loved “Jim Hewett”
Cliff Lewis - The Author - Canterbury Aero Club
Johnny Neave - Canterbury Aero Club
Ossie Openshaw - from Australia
Arthur Baines - Canterbury Aero Club
Colin Lewis - Ex Auckland Aero Club

The Engineers

Owen Templeton
His young apprentice Tom Harris 

The Office

Billie Mercer
Marie Mercer
Andy Drummond

Every one of you came up to the highest standards of the West Coast way of living and I trust that the rest of New Zealand will be inspired to emulate your efforts.


  1. Superb coverage, thanks for all the work involved.

    (A couple of spelling mistakes tho!)

    1. If you flick me an email with the spelling mistakes I'll fix them... Thanks Steve - westland831@gmail.com

  2. Very big story Steve I expect you spent a lot of hours putting it together-well done.

  3. I an Henry Worrall's grand daughter. Do you have any more info about his involvement with NZ aviation? We have some but always keen to have more.

  4. Fabulous stuff Steve, thanks for the great research and writeup

  5. Just came across this as part of my research. What a fantastic resource, made with much love I think! Cheers.