07 May 2017

Queenstown's first scenic flyer - Queenstown Mount Cook Airways

Aviation came to Queenstown on the 4th of January 1931 when N.Z. Airways Ltd’s Simmonds Spartan, ZK-ABK, piloted by Captain Tiny White, landed on the Frankton racecourse. The Wakatip Mail reported that “There was quite a large gathering of visitors and the general public on the ground to welcome the first aeroplane to the district. Dr. W. A. Anderson, deputy-mayor, was also present and he extended a hearty welcome to Capt. White on behalf of the citizens of Queenstown.” Captain White told the Mail that he “took off from Pembroke (Wanaka) at 11.15 a.m. and arrived at Frankton at about noon. His course was via Glendhu Bay. He rose to an altitude or 5000 ft but had to come down under the clouds owing to the visibility being bad. He crossed the Crown Range to Cardrona Valley and after following the line of the Valley recrossed the range opposite Arrowtown. He then planed towards Lake Wakatipu, touched the fringe of Queenstown, and returned to the racecourse, where he made his first landing. Capt. White told our reporter that the conditions for flying in Central Otago were quite good. Asked whether there were air pockets to contend with in mountainous regions such as ours, Capt. White stated that there were no air pockets in New Zealand.”

New Zealand Airways' Simmonds Sparton ZK-ABK was the first aircraft to visit Queenstown.
Photo taken at Washdyke Aerodrome, Timaru
Simmonds Sparton ZK-ABK has been restored and is seen at Ashburton on 5 February 2017

Over the next few days a number of locals had the opportunity to go for a flight. On the 7th of January the Spartan flew across Lake Wakatipu to Walter Peak Station, where a fifty acre paddock was made available. The following day he flew Mr Hugh Mackenzie back to Queenstown. The Wakatip Mail reported, “The worthy old “chieftain,” who is half way through his eighties, was highly delighted with the latest mode of transport and said he was “game” to fly to London if he had the opportunity. Mr Mackenzie’s flight across Lake Wakatipu is of especial interest inasmuch as well over 50 years ago he was one of the first people to make a crossing over the lake from the station in an open rowing boat. Pulling under favourable conditions it took two hours to accomplish the journey. On Thursday Mr Mackenzie made the trip by air in a little over five minutes!”

In February 1935 Rodolph Wigley’s Queenstown Mount Cook Tourist Co. was seeking an air-taxi license from the Transport Co-ordination Board at Wellington. It was envisaged that the company’s activities would centre, around the Hermitage, but it also sought the right to meet other services, such as the trunk line. The company did not propose to operate in the North Island. It was prepared to make an aerodrome at the Hermitage and but sought a monopoly in bringing passengers to and from the Hermitage in order to protect its own air and motor service. The company also sought the right to carry passengers to and from Queenstown.

At Queenstown there was a growing need for a permanent aerodrome. A private aerodrome was in use on a farmer’s property but in February 1936, according to the Southland Aero Club, it “was in a very dangerous condition owing to the numerous rabbit holes.”

By 1935 the local racecourse at Frankton had not been in use for some years and the local authorities made representations to Government that the Queenstown Racecourse Reserve at Frankton be made available to the local district as an aerodrome administered by a trust embracing the Queenstown Borough Council, the Arrow Borough Council and the Lake County Council. It was to be over two years before permission for this to happen was granted delaying the commencement of works.

On the 3rd of May 1936 Mount Cook Tourist Company's aerodrome at Birch Hill Flat, four miles from the Hermitage, was officially opened.  The formation of the aerodrome was commenced in September 1935 and was completed by the end of the year, but authority for the ground to be used was not given until April 1936 once the grass surface was well established. The opening of the new airfield was marked by a spectacular accident when an Air Force Avro 626 tore its way through the roof of a Mount Cook company motor-bus injuring two journalists seated in the bus. Minus a landing wheel, half the undercarriage and one elevator the aeroplane flew to Wigram aerodrome to make its landing without further damage. On board as a passenger was Harry Wigley!

Aviation seems to have been a real passion in the Wigley family. With two sons learning to fly Rodolph Wigley was prevailed upon to buy an aircraft to keep the cost of flying down. In the end British Aircraft Swallow 2 ZK-AEN was purchased which Rodolph himself was to fly as well. The aircraft was used as the company's communications aircraft.

The Wakatip Mail reported its first visit to Queenstown on the 9th of July 1936, just a few days after delivery. The Mount Cook Tourist Co.’s “beautiful blue and silver low-winged monoplane, B.A. Swallow ZK-AEN, visited Queenstown for the first time flown by Harry Wigley, son of Mr R. L. Wigley, managing director of the Company. Also on board was Mr H. Coxhead, secretary of the company.” So began Mount Cook Airlines’ long association with Queenstown which continues today. The Mail described the Swallow as “an 85 h.p. machine, capable of cruising 3,100 miles in still air on its petrol supply. It has been constructed to carry one passenger in addition to the pilot, and the intention of the Company is to use it, mainly, for taxiing between the southern tourist resorts. For this purpose a license has already been granted. On Thursday afternoon several people visited the aerodrome and were interested spectators of a flight made by Mr Harry Wigley, with his brother Alex, as passenger. The plane took off with perfect ease after a comparatively short run over the field, and the young pilot brought the plane back and landed her with the grace of the bird that has given the machine its name. Unfortunately the plane suffered a mishap on Friday morning when Mr Wigley and Mr Coxhead were about to commence their return journey to Timaru. Taxi-ing along the length of the field, it failed to rise, and before it could be pulled up it charged the post and wire fence at the north end of the paddock. One wing was snapped across and the other suffered to a smaller extent. The engine and other parts of the machine escaped damage. The plane was taken later in the day per N.Z. Railways freight lorry, to Timaru, where the necessary repairs are being effected.”

The British Aircraft Swallow 2 ZK-AEN at Washdyke Aerodrome, Timaru...

...and at Queenstown 

In August 1937 the Mount Cook and Southern Lakes Tourist Company, Ltd announced that they hoped to begin an air service between Christchurch, Mount Cook and Queenstown over the coming summer. Mr R. L. Wigley, managing director of the Mount Cook and Southern Lakes Tourist Company, Ltd was reported as saying, “We have got our licence, and we now have a good aerodrome at Mt. Cook, but we have not yet got the aerodrome ready at Queenstown. We are hoping, however, that the service will be begun about November. It will mean that instead of having to travel to Timaru and then to Mount-Cook by train and car, the public can make the journey rapidly by aeroplane in about an hour and a half.”

In December 1937 the Wakatip Mail reported that the contract for levelling of the ground for the Frankton aerodrome had been let to Messrs Fulton, Hogan Ltd., road contractors, Dunedin with the work to be completed by the end of May. As work started on the aerodrome, the Wakatipu Golf Club made application for a portion of the aerodrome area for golf links. The Aerodrome Control Board decided to favour the application, but to defer the matter of site until the aerodrome was constructed. The Golf Club remains there adjacent to the International Airport to this day.

By the end of January 1938 excellent progress on the aerodrome had been made with “the latest mechanical appliances being used in the work, ensuring utmost expedition.” However, with the new airfield not completed for the 1937/38 summer the Mount Cook and Southern Lakes Tourist Company looked towards the following summer. In May 1938 it was announced that “next summer an air service linking Mount Cook and Queenstown with Timaru and Christchurch will be in operation. Two twin-engined Vega Gull machines will be placed on the service by the Mount Cook and Southern Lakes Tourist Company, and a new aerodrome on the shingle flats of the Hooker River, immediately in front of the Hermitage, will be constructed. The company's machines will make use of the new aerodromes at Timaru and Queenstown. Only small areas of both of these fields have been sown in grass up to the present.”

The Pervical Vega Gull was the predecessor of the Percival Proctor which were later used extensively by Queenstown based Southern Scenic Airways. The Vega Gull was not a twin-engined aircraft and it is more likely that the company was thinking of buying the twin-engined Percival Petrel. 

What might have been - the Percival Petrel which may have been the type of aircraft the company had in mind for its scheduled services.

After a year or two of flying Harry Wigley had built up enough hours to get a commercial pilot’s licence and the Mount Cook and Southern Lakes Tourist Company looked towards establishing an “airline.” Harry Wigley outlines the direction the company was looking in Ski-plane Adventure. Our plan was to begin scenic flights, joyrides and charter work at Queenstown and Mount Cook with one aeroplane. As this became established we would buy more aircraft of a more suitable type, base them permanently at each place and eventually run scheduled services from Timaru or Christchurch through the area. All these services would be complimentary to the motor-coach services and would share an ever-increasing proportion of the company's overheads. The company’s offices and selling organisation would also be used, and would provide a very good base to build the air service.”

On the 4th of October 1938, Queenstown Mount Cook Airways, Ltd. was formally registered as a private company with a capital of £1000, divided into £1 shares. Subscribers were Rodolph L. Wigley with 900 shares and the Mount Cook and Southern Lakes Tourist Company, Ltd. with 100 shares. In the same month a formal application was made by the Mount Cook and Southern Lakes Tourist Company, Limited, Timaru, for a license to operate a continuous air service between the Hermitage and Christchurch and between the Hermitage and Queenstown. The company also applied for a permit for petrol pumps to be installed and hangars and workshops to be built at the Queenstown aerodrome which was still in the course of construction. 

In August 1938 the company purchased Waco QDC ZK-ACV (c/n ) from the Otago Aero Club. It was first registered to Harry Wigley and later in  the year to Queenstown Mount Cook Airways Ltd, which was to be the “airline division” of the Mount Cook and Southern Lakes Tourist Company in 1938 of that year. .

Operations with the Waco started soon after the Queenstown aerodrome was licenced in late 1938. Harry Wigley described the Waco in his books, Ski-plane Adventure and The Mount Cook Way as a “biplane capable of carrying a pilot and four passengers and was better appointed than the average aircraft of the era, with nicely upholstered seats, wind-down windows, ashtrays and other fittings… However, it was about the noisiest aeroplane ever built, as its even-cylinder radial motor was so close that you could have put out a hand and touched it if the windshield had not been there. Reasonably small airfields were suitable for it cruised at 100 to 110 mph but its rate of climb was poor and the percentage of power necessary to obtain a reasonable performance was far too high. This placed too much strain on the machinery, which no doubt accounted for the comparatively frequent landings it forced upon us and it was only the good flying characteristics of the aeroplane and good luck which allowed it to survive these without suffering major damage… Two engineers, Bill Dini and Alf Henry, were employed to keep it serviceable, and they earned their keep for when the weather was suitable we flew from daylight till dark. We flew scenic flights from Queenstown, over Milford Sound, and from the Hermitage around Mt Cook and the glaciers while charter trips took us all over the South Island.”

Queenstown Mount Cook Airways' Waco QDC ZK-ACV at Washdyke Aerodrome, Timaru
The Waco in December 1937 while still owned by the Otago Aero Club
Waco QDC ZK-ACV at Queenstown. Source : Ski-Plane Adventure by H Wigley

The Wakatip Mail of the 8th of November 1938 reported on one such trip. “Mr H. Wigley piloted one of the Mt. Cook and Southern Lakes Tourist Co.’s planes from the Frankton aerodrome to Martin’s Bay in company with Mr Drummond. Effecting a good landing at the Bay, the fliers succeeded in procuring a small quantity of whitebait and brought same back to Queenstown. The enterprise of Pilot Wigley and the inclusion, of the delicacy on the breakfast menu made a great appeal to the guests at the White Star Hotel.”

On the 30th of December the Mail reported that the Queenstown Mt, Cook Airways, Ltd. were having “a busy time over the holidays with their Waco planes. Possessing the necessary license for the Frankton aerodrome, the Company have done many flights over the town. Skippers and other parts. The flights over Milford Sound have also been popular. The Company’s planes are 3-cabin and the charges are moderate. Pilot H. Wigley has been in charge of the planes.” In the year to the 31st of March 1939 Queenstown-Mount Cook Airways carried 719 passengers in 291 trips.

Looking for business during the Second World War. The Press, 7 December 1939

Harry Wigley recounts the end of Queenstown-Mount Cook Airways in The Mount Cook Way. “When the war began it was impossible to say how long it would last and how it would finish, and there was no point in keeping Queenstown-Mount Cook Airways going any longer than necessary. I flew hard through the last summer season and carried more tourists than ever before, but then the peacetime stream of traffic started to dry up, so in mid-February 1940 I marched off to war.” In that final year of operations Queenstown-Mount Cook Airways carried 649 passengers in 251 trips.

In The Mount Cook Way Harry Wigley sums up what the company achieved. “In the two years of so until Word War II put an end to the venture, we did a lot of flying and the business was building up satisfactorily. We had learned a lot about about the problems of flying in the Alps and the demand for air services of various kinds and had got to the state where we needed newer and more suitable aircraft and more pilots to fly them. We had proved that it was perfectly feasible to run a commercial flying operation in the Alps and contrary to the opinions of many people, safely.”

Sources :

Harry WIGLEY, The Mount Cook Way. The First Fifty Years of the Mount Cook Company, Collins 1979

Harry WIGLEY, Ski Plane Adventure. Flying in the Southern Alps, Reed, 1965 - 1977 edition

The Wakatip Mail - various issues

The Press - various issues

Air Department Report for the Years, 1938-39, 1939-40


  1. Awesome. Pretty detailed post. I'll share it with the Queenstown Insider community on facebook and twitter. When we add a blog post about flights and tours to the website I'll add a link to this post for some backgroun info also

  2. Thanks Keith... glad you enjoyed it!