11 November 2018

Flying the Dom - It began 97 years ago!

On the 11th of November 1921 the Nelson received its first visit of an aeroplane. On board the flight were 100 copies of the Dominion newspaper. This is the Nelson Evening Mail coverage of the first flight in New Zealand Aero Transport Company 's Avro 504K E9429.




When Mr T. Newman of Newman Bros, sets his mind upon anything, something generally has to give way. His ambition to be the first man to reach Nelson by aeroplane was realised today, after two unsuccessful attempts from Blenheim at the weekend owing to adverse weather conditions. The forced descent at Blenheim on Sunday last did not damp his ardour. He crossed the Strait and the first thing we knew of another attempt being made was the following telegram from the New Zealand Aero Transport Company, Wellington, yesterday afternoon:

"Provided the skies any clear, we are flying Mr Tom Newman from Lyall Bay to Brightwater tomorrow morning, starting about seven."

Owing to the adverse weather conditions the trip was postponed. There was, however, an improvement late, in the morning, and at 11.15 a.m. a start was made for Nelson. The clouds were 3000 feet high. The Straits were crossed at an altitude or 3000 feet, and the flying time from land to land was fifteen minutes. They followed the coast right round owing to the clouds over the mountains. The worst part of the journey was when entering the Bay, owing to there being so many air pockets. The machine came down, the Bay about two miles out from the Boulder Bank. The Avro hovered over the town for a while seeking a landing place. None appeared large enough, and the aviators proceeded to Stoke. The aviators were reduced to their emergency petrol supply, and a landing was made in Mr Marsden's paddock and more petrol secured. The aviator is Captain Fowler, aged 25 of Feilding. He saw 4 1/2 years aviation service in the war, at the Dardanelles, Salonika, East Coast of England, and the Dover Patrol. This is the first time he has been, to Nelson, and the configuration of the country is quite new to him. The mechanic is Mr T. Ranesh. Mr Newman said he had a splendid trip across and thoroughly enjoyed every bit of it. Owing to the clouds it was impossible to toll where the aeroplane-was during most of the journey. When petrol had been secured a start was made from Mr Marsden's paddock for Mr Saxton's paddock where Mr Newman was picked up. The area of Mr Marsden's paddock was not large enough to enable the machine to rise with three people in it. 

Later the machine proceeded up the country, enabling Mr Newman to fly to his home at Brightwater. Needless to say, the arrival of the aeroplane and its unexpected landing in Mr Marsden’s paddock, caused a sensation in Stoke, and very quickly there was a large assemblage at the scene —both adults and children being present in force. 

Mr W E Wilkes, Mayor of Richmond was the first to congratulate Captain Fowler and Mr Newman on being the first persons to arrive in Nelson by aeroplane. The machine, on re-commencing its journey, after a short run ascended gracefully into the air, amidst the applause of the spectators.

Photo : Alexander Turnbull Library, Frederick Nelson Jones Collection (PAColl-3051). Reference: 1/2-028836-G. Photograph by Frederick Nelson Jones

Since 1971 the Dominion newspaper has been flown from Wellington to Blenheim and Nelson on a dedicated courier flight... These are the airlines that have flown the newspaper flights...

In September 1971 Capital Air Services began operating a non-scheduled service on the Wellington-Blenheim-Nelson route on behalf of Peters Parcel Service, enabling this company to accept parcels in Wellington up to 5pm for an 8am delivery next morning at Blenheim and Nelson. In addition to the parcels, Peters Parcels Service secured the contract for the flying of the Dominion newspaper to the South Island. The service left Wellington at 6am and arrived at Blenheim about 6.30am and Nelson about 7.00am. The aircraft initially used included a Piaggio P166 and Piper Aztec, for a time a BN Islander, but from mid-1973 flights were largely operated with the company's Cessna 402s. 

The original aircraft used by Capital Air Services for the Dominion service... Above and below the unusually configured Piaggio ZK-DAI taken at Wellington...

and Piper Aztec ZK-CEU

The Dominion of the 29th of October 1973 carried an account of Capital Air Services' Dominion service...

How does a newspaper establish an air service? Other than as a user of aircraft there appears to be little in common between two such undertakings. But tucked away in a remote corner of Wellington Airport is the base of a rapidly growing air service that newspapers have been largely responsible for establishing. The story of its development as an aero club owned company is one of those aeronautical sagas that frequently give aviation happenings such a wide interest. Every morning, before any of the major airlines are showing much interest in the new day, a small aircraft owned by Capital Air Services Ltd may be heard taking off. So quiet is the operation that only those living close to the airport notice its departure. This service was established primarily for, and depends on, Wellington newspapers for its existence. Here is a typical weekday routine. At 3.30 a.m. somewhere between six hundred pounds and half a ton of The Dominion is dumped in the porch of the company's over-night air crew accommodation. 

The duty pilot, who frequently sleeps in the overnight quarters, comes on duty shortly after 5 a.m. He first checks over the partly completed aircraft "load-sheet" and notes the weight and position of air-cargo loaded the previous night. He collects the loading trolley from the hangar and loads the papers left on his back porch noting the various destinations on the bundles so that those for Blenheim and those for Nelson and points beyond are loaded into separate baggage compartments in the aircraft's nose. He checks to see if there are any "early bird" passengers in addition to the one already waiting. If any space remains he examines the stack of 'filler freight', always waiting in the hangar and decides the bundles that can be taken on this first flight. He completes the "load sheet", making sure the loaded aircraft will be within the weight and balance limits laid down. The aircraft is checked for fuel, to see that the amount on board complies with that shown on the "load-sheet." The passenger gives a hand to push the aircraft out to the "warm-up" line. The pilot turns to the telephone to get the latest on Cook Strait weather and to lodge his "flight plan" with the control tower. The passenger gets on board. After engines are started and preliminary pre-flight checks made the aircraft moves out to the run way “holding point", where flight checks are completed and engines run up to check full power. 

Capital Air Service's first Cessna 402, ZK-DNQ, at Wellington in December 1973

It is now 6 a.m. as noted on the aircraft clock, as the slight thump of the retracting undercarriage is felt during take-off. We are airborne for our first stop at Blenheim, and we listen to the latest news on the passenger radio. I try to read the complimentary copy of "The Dom" which had been thoughtfully placed on my seat before I came on board. It is a perfect mild spring morning. Away to the south the snow peak of Tapuaenuku thrusts through the early morning mists into the crystal air above. As we approach the Wairau River bar, landmark in the life of the scow Echo, whose fame in the Solomon campaign in the last war will long be remembered, the calm spots of reflection on the sea are starting to be ruffled in the first puffs of the morning breeze. Ahead the airport runway is visible as we pass over Blenheim which seems to be still sleeping at this early hour. 

Capital Air Services' timetable effective 16 April 1974... Flight 1501 was the Dominion service.

It is 6.20 as we taxi up to the waiting van for the early paper deliveries. A lone news boy arrives and collects the papers for his air station news round. The Dominion contractor doing the Blenheim deliveries checks his papers, and at 6.30 we are once more airborne, for Nelson, over the morning mist in which most of the hills of the sounds are covered. There is a fleeting glimpse of Havelock as we pass over this centre of the recent scallops fishing squabble and almost before there is time to take in the morning beauty of the region there is Nelson with its port and sprawling hill suburbs. Fifteen minutes from Blenheim and we are trundling up to the Nelson old terminal building, where a news van, a freight van, and a young woman are waiting to receive us. It is just 6.45 a.m., as unloading of the main paper delivery and the cabin full of freight proceeds. As the newspaper delivery driver loads his van he tells me he only does the Nelson and Richmond rounds, drops the papers for Motueka and Takaka at the bus depot. 

The young lady is checking the inward freight onto the van and preparing the required paper work. She hands over the checks of the two passengers bound for Wellington. This being Monday, there is no outward freight normally left overnight at the airport. It seems that most of the inward-bound freight consists of light bulky cartons of everything from electrical goods to even the kitchen dishwasher. As this efficient young lady completes her paperwork the passengers go aboard with another pilot bound for his job at Wellington, and we are airborne for Wellington at 6.55. 

This time as we cross over the mist-shrouded sounds the odd bump announces that the morning sun is already dispersing the early mists. As we cross over Tory Channel a small fishing boat is putting out to its daily chore in Cloudy Bay, while between Terawhiti and Sinclair Head the puffs of the rising breeze can be seen contesting the tide in the notorious rip. As we approach Wellington Airport there is still no sign of other air traffic, but a lone tanker is passing the nemesis of the ill-fated Wahine at Barrett’s Reef. As we land we are directed to gate nine to discharge our passengers and refuel from the waiting tank wagon. A disembarking passenger, in reply to my query, tells me that this flight from Nelson is the only one that makes an early enough connection - with NAC flights to get to Auckland and back the same day. I look at my watch. It is still only 7.20, plenty of time to get home for breakfast. 

Freight being unloaded at Nelson from a Capital Air Services' Cessna 402 after the arrival of the early morning newspaper and freight flight. Source : Nelson Evening Mail, June 1976

A past Wellington Aero Club wrote to me saying I flew on the Capital Air Services newspaper run twice in October 1975 and April 1976.  The aircraft used were DNQ and DHW. The flight number was 1501 which was timetabled as a WLG-BHE-NSN flight but passenger bookings were not available on the Wellington-Blenheim sector. However, Wellington District Aero Club pilots were encouraged to use the service for mate’s rate fares in return for assisting with the unloading at Blenheim and replacing the seating which was stacked and retained in the right hand rear of the cabin. The only seat available for passengers on the WLG-BHE segment was the co-pilot’s seat. I suspect the fact we were pilots and the Capital – Wellington District Aero Club connection allowed them to list us as crew.  The newspaper reps at Blenheim helped with the unloading but not with the seat re-installation.  On one of the two flights I did I was Nelson bound and my passenger log states we were on the ground in BHE for just 15 minutes – the pilots had this routine well worked out.

On 29 June 1977 Capital Air Services was placed in receivership. Timetabled services resumed on the 15th of August. The company's assets were put up for tender which was won by James Aviation Limited which took over running the company as sole owner in early 1978. 

On the 1st of July 1978 James Aviation rebranded Capital Air Services, which it owned, as James Air. James Air took over the dominion Newspaper service using four Cessna 402s and later an Aero Commander 500 and a Cessna 404 Titan. The 6.00am Dominion newspaper service from Wellington to Blenheim and Nelson operated as a pure freight service and never appeared on the company's timetable. 

On the 22nd of August 1980 the Cessna 404 Titan ZK-TAT was on the newspaper/freight service to Blenheim and Nelson when it was forced to made a belly landing at Blenheim's Woodbourne Airport after an undercarriage malfunction. This was the only major incident that has occured on the Dominion service.

Cessna 404 Titan ZK-TAT after its belly landing at Woodbourne on 22 August 1980

On the 31st of March 1981 James Air decided to drastically reduce its services in and out of Wellington due to higher costs, dropping patronage, and the loss of a key Databank contract and this forced the Dominion to find a new operator for its newspaper service.

Following James Air's withdrawal from a Dominion spokesman said "We were looking at chartering a larger plane ourselves but it was too expensive and other users didn't want to, pay a higher charge. For three weeks from April 1 we will fly the Dominion to Blenheim and Nelson in a light aircraft. We have a good circulation in the top of the South Island and we don't want to lose it. The three weeks is a breathing space exercise. I don't know what will happen after that. We are still talking to the other users. I understand the air mail is going on a later Air New Zealand flight." In the interim the Marlborough Aero Club filled the gap left and it flew the Dominion newspaper from Wellington to Blenheim and Nelson on a trial basis using a Beech Baron from the 1st of April 1981.   

The Dominion found a more permanent replacement for James Air in the Wellington Aero Club which once again saw the opportunity for twin engined charter work and subsequently obtained the lease of a Cessna 320 Skyknight, ZK-EGN. From the 27th of April 1981 the Aero Club commenced a Wellington-Blenheim-Nelson service for carriage of the Dominion. 

Cessna 320 Skyknight ZK-EGN at Hokitika while being used by Westland Flying Services in September 1979.

The Cessna 320 proved unsuitable for the work and on numerous occasions two flights had to be flown, a Wellington-Blenheim-Wellington flight followed by Wellington-Nelson-Wellington flight. In addition, freight, had to be left behind on many occasions and this either had to be returned to the sender for on-forwarding by other means, or held over for carriage the next day. By mid-July the Club realised that the courier service, which operated on temporary licences, was becoming problematic and it was decided to discontinue the service. This was to lead to the establishment of a new airline, Air Albatross, which took over the Wellington Aero Club's Dominion service  in September 1981.

In mid 1981 Murray Turley applied for an air transport licence envisaging a minimum onoth the routes from Wellington to Blenheim and Nelson along with a non-scheduled service between Blenheim and Nelson. Murray Turley’s intention was to operate as a sole trader but the airline came to be known under the name of Air Albatross. 

On the 2nd of September 1981 the Air Services Licensing Authority granted M C Turley a licence to operate scheduled services on the Wellington-Blenheim and Wellington-Nelson routes with a minimum of 5 return flights on each route each week, a non-scheduled service on the route Blenheim-Nelson route and air charter and air taxi services from Wellington to any licensed airfield or authorised landing place in New Zealand using a 9-seat Cessna 402. 

Services began on or about the 3rd of September 1981 using Piper PA23-250 Aztec C ZK-DUB. Advertisements in the Evening Post and Dominion newspapers stated that Air Albatross was operating Cook Strait services for newspapers, freight and urgent freight and that passenger services would start on the 2nd of November 1981. Nonetheless passengers were flown with 60 people flying with Air Albatross in September and 67 in October 1981.

Air Albatross started its services operating Dominion newspaper flights using Piper Aztec ZK-DUB seen here at Wellington on 23 October 1981
Advertising in the Dominion's competitor, Evening Post 28 September 1981

From the 2nd of November 1981 the service was largely operated by Cessna 402 aircraft. The company continued to operate the Dominion service until Air Albatross collapsed on the 20th of December 1985.

The first Air Albatross timetable effective 2 November 1981 with the newspaper flight departing Wellington at 5.55am Monday to Saturday
Air Albatross' Cessna 402 ZK-EHT at Nelson on 15 April 1984

Following the collapse of Air Albatross in December 1985 the Dominion had need of another airline to fly the newspaper to Nelson. Just three weeks before Air Albatross' demise Skyferry had started using Cessna Caravans on its Cook Strait service between Wellington and Picton. These were the first Caravans ever to operate in the Southern Hemisphere, and the first examples Cessna had built with a 14 seat configuration, cargo pods and the gross weight increase from 3300kgs to 3600kgs which involved a fin height increase of about 12”. To make the aircraft more versatile they were fitted with strong, light-weight Kevlar under cabin luggage pods. These could hold 370 kgs in three separate compartments which was ideal for the luggage carried on the Picton service as well as being extremely useful for pure freight operations. Both Caravans were fully IFR-equipped with twin VOR, ADF and DME but, being a single-engined aircraft, the Civil Aviation Authority(CAD/ATD) never allowed Skyferry to operate the Caravans IFR on passenger operations. The company was, however, able to operate them on freight operations and so they moved quickly to secure the contract to fly the Dominion newspaper and to operate a small-parcel/courier-freight IFR service to Blenheim and Nelson for Fastway Couriers and Ansett respectively. Being purely freight flights the Dominion service never appeared in the Skyferry timetable.

Skyferry's Cessna 208 Caravan ZK-SFA at Picton on 6 February 1987.

From the beginning of October 1988 Fieldair Freight took over the Dominion newspaper contract. The DC-3 did an early morning flight to Nelson arriving about 7.00am as well as an afternoon flight arriving about 5pm.

Fieldair Freight Douglas DC-3 ZK-AWP at Nelson on the early morning flight on 24 October 1989
Also on the early morning flight to Nelson, Fieldair Freight Douglas DC-3 ZK-AMR on 14 November 1990

The Fieldair Freight service lasted for seven years and ended when Airwork won the contract to carry NZ Post's mail and parcels. The final services were flown on the 26th of March 1993.

Fieldair Freight Douglas DC-3 ZK-AWP arrives at Nelson on the newspaper and freight flight and is unloaded on 31 December 1989

In mid-1993 Flight Corporation, or Flightcorp, as it was more commonly known, commenced scheduled services between Nelson and Wellington. Mainstay of the Wellington service was the contract to fly the Dominion newspaper from Wellington to Nelson. The company initially used their Piper Seneca aircraft to operate this service but later in 1993 a Piper PA31-310 Navajo was added to the fleet. The Navajo was registered ZK-DOM to reflect its contract to carry the Dominion Post.

ZK-DOM - Flight Corporation's Dominion carrier Piper Navajo taken at Nelson on 6 January 1994...
and at Nelson on 6 February 1996

With the company based in Nelson and with Wellington having a curfew of 6.00am for morning departures the airline flew an afternoon passenger flight from Wellington leaving Nelson about 4.00pm. The following morning the Dominion flight departed Wellington for Blenheim at 6.00am Monday to Saturday as Flightcorp 03. From there it flew as Flightcorp 04 to arrive in Nelson by 7.10am. 

The last Flight Corporation schedule, effective the 1 May 1999.

Later Flight Corporation operated two Piper PA31 Chieftains, ZK-KVW and ZK-NCA which were used on the route as well as leased Piper Navajo ZK-JGA. 

Flight Corporation's larger Piper Chieftain ZK-KVW taken at Nelson on 5 December 1996

Vincent Aviation took over the Dominion flights from Flightcorp on 1 October 1999. Initially Vincent Aviation's Piper PA34 Seneca ZK-DCP was used but later the company's Cessna 402 was also used. The seats remained in the Seneca with the newspapers in the nose locker or on the seats with a green net to tie them down. The Cessna 402 would have some or all seats removed if the load was large with the long nose locker used for weight and balance purposes and also the wing lockers.

Vincent Aviation's Piper Seneca ZK-DCP at Blenheim's Omaka Aerdrome on 3 October 1999, a couple of days after commencing the newspaper service to Nelson 

An ex-Vincent Aviation pilot recounts his experience of the Dominion flights;

In regards to Vincent’s Dominion operation, it was usually flown with PA34 Seneca ZK-DCP Mon-Fri and on Saturday when the load was heavier, a Cessna 402 was used.

The route flown was WLG-BHE-NSN-WLG, the NSN-WLG leg being flown empty and usually trying to get back ASAP to have the aircraft available for further charter work and to beat the morning arrival rush into WLG.

It was an early start for the pilot, I recall around 5am at the Vincent hangar and we would load the papers ourselves after they had been left on a luggage barrow outside on the Northern side of the hangar. Typical weights during the week were 300-400kgs from memory and heavier loads of 600-700kg not uncommon and necessitating the need for a 402. I think we would be given a heads up the night before from someone at The Dominion in regards to an expected weight. After loading it was off to a remote spot on the Western apron to do our run ups with the aim to cross the runway and be at the holding point by 6am to go as soon as the curfew lifted and to beat the Qantas 737 to SYD to avoid any wake turbulence delays!

All set for an early morning Dominion flight departure from Wellington, Vincent Aviation's Cessna 402 ZK-VAB

In BHE Iain Garlick (RIP) would always appear from the shadows of the Safe Air hangar to help unload into the waiting courier van and after no more than 10 mins on the ground, we would be off to NSN.

Looking at my logbook, my first record of the operating the run was on 1 Oct 1999 in C402 ZK-VAD. Oct 5th I was on the run in PA34 ZK-DCP, DCP again on the 8th and so on. VAB on Oct 27th and I see I even flew the F406 ZK-CII on that run on 23 March 2000 and a few times again in CII in early 2000. My last personal run on that route was in ZK-VAB on 11 July 2000.

We left all the seats in the Seneca but with the 402, we would take out the seats not required or add seats in depending on the next requirement.

By the early 2000s Vincent Aviation was advertising seats of the Nelson to Wellington flight in the local newspaper. Vincents used the Aero Club for check in for its passengers. The airline had a couple of regular passengers but flights were mostly comprised of people wanting a cheap flight to Wellington. As the service became more well known the aircraft used was upsized to the Cessna 406 and then later to the Beech 1900C.

On Saturday the 25th of September 2004 Lawrence Ackett used the Vincent flight to fly from Blenheim to Wellington via Nelson. Lawrence writes, it was a 6.30am departure out of Blenheim and 7.00am out of Nelson. I think I recall they didn't offer seats from Wellington to Blenheim possibly due to the load of papers. I have noted the cost as $75 total for the Blenheim to  Wellington fare via Nelson.

On the Dominion newspaper run, Vincent Aviation's Beech 1900C ZK-VAE at Nelson on 25 September 2004...

...and later in the morning back in Wellington

Sounds Air’s network started to expand when the company took over flying the Dominion Post newspaper from Wellington to Blenheim and Nelson on the 9th of January 2006. Initially the flight operated from Wellington to Nelson via Blenheim with a direct flight back to the capital but from mid-2007 both Nelson and Blenheim received their own dedicated newspaper flights enabling an early morning flight to Wellington from both centres. 

Sounds Air's timetable mid 2007 with the Dominion flights to both Nelson and Blenheim included

Sounds Air continues to carry the Dominion Post across Cook Strait to this day. The Nelson papers on flown on a Monday to Saturday 6.00am flight from Wellington to Nelson. The Blenheim newspapers are carried on the 7.30am flight from Wellington.  

On 7 September 2018 Sounds Air's Caravan ZK-PDM was flying the Dominion Post to Nelson
The Nelson papers... a far cry when hundreds of kilos of newspapers were flown
Unloading the newspapers at Nelson


  1. Hi Steve
    I see you have the ZK-TAT caption as occurring in 2017. You may care to change that to 1980.

  2. THE NZAT Avro 504K that flew Mr Newman across Cook Strait in November 1921 was E9429.

    It did not survive much longer, crashing at Lyall Bay, Wellington, 6Jan22

  3. Great write up thanks Steve. Very interesting!

  4. tremendous amount of research done here! well done Steve, and thank you it's appreciated!

  5. Yes, a lot of work to research what must be the definitive story of that service. Thanks a lot for the effort.