11 April 2021

Before the Road - Flying to Haast with NAC


One of NAC most important routes of the late 1940s/early 1950s was the Hokitika to Haast air service in South Westland, not because it was profitable, which it wasn't, rather because Haast was not connected to the South Island road network. In the 1930s a road was built from Jacksons Bay to Haast and this road was serviced by an infrequent shipping service between Hokitika and Jacksons Bay. The air service NAC inherited from Air Travel (NZ) was a lifeline. 

On the 1st of October 1947 the N.Z. National Airways Corporation took over Air Travel (NZ)'s air service to South Westland. On the 1st Commander Frank Molloy flew de Havilland 83 Fox Moth ZK-AGM "Matuhi" from Hokitika to Haast where private mail bags were set down. His flight then continued to Okuru's Mussel Beach aerodrome where mails for Upper Okuru (private bags), Okuru and Jackson's Bay were set down. 

The initial schedule for the NAC service saw flight 691 leave Hokitika at 8.00am and land, if required at Wataroa (Whataroa), Waiho (Franz Josef) and Weheka (Fox Glacier) arriving at Haast 9.20am for a 40 minute refuelling stop before continuing on to Okuru arriving there at 10.10am. The return northbound service, flight 692, left Okuru at 10.30am landing, if required at Haast, Weheka, Waiho and Wataroa before arriving back at Hokitika at 12.00 noon.

The Fox Moth was the mainstay of the Haast service until the 31st of May 1948 when Dragon Rapide/Dominies replaced the Fox Moth on the Hokitika-Haast route. With the introduction of the Dominie the extension of the service from Haast to Okuru was dropped. The last NAC flight to Haast and Okuru was flown by Commander Frank Molloy in De Havilland 83 Fox Moth ZK-AEK, Mohua on the 28th of May 1948. The first flight to Haast was flown in de Havilland 89A Dragon Rapide ZK-AHS "Mokai" by Commander Norm Suttie. 

de Havilland 89B Dominie ZK-AKU and de Havilland 83 Fox Moth ZK-AEK at Haast in July 1948. Photo : Whites Aviation

NAC pilot Frank Molloy refuelling de Havilland 83 Fox Moth ZK-AEK at Haast in July 1948. 
Photo : Whites Aviation

At this time the Corporation was evaluating a twin-engined four-seater Miles Gemini monoplane, which it had bought at a cost of more than £6000 for possible use on the South Westland service. The aircraft did not find favour. Instead, in July 1948 NAC’s Hokitika operation received a “new” de Havilland 83 Fox Moth, ZK-ASP (c/n 4097). ASP wasn’t exactly new, however, as it was Air Travel’s original aircraft, ZK-ADI that had been impressed into the RNZAF as NZ566. 

The Dragon Rapide/Dominie service to Haast had only been operating just over two months when on the 9th of August 1948 Hokitika's Southside airfield was closed to de Havilland Dragon Rapides and Dominies due the runway's grass surfaces and their susceptibility to flooding. The de Havilland 83 Fox Moths had to once again provide all the West Coast services south of Westport including the Haast service and enabling Okuru to return to the NAC network. Services terminated at Haast from some time in late 1949/early 1950.

NAC timetable of August 1948 with a thrice weekly scheduled service to Haast each week

The "new" Fox Moth ZK-ASP wasn't in service long when it had a mishap. The 2nd of November 1948 issue of the Otago Daily Times reported on the air accident at Haast... When a Fox Moth aircraft of the National Airways Corporation failed to rise when taking off at the Haast aerodrome about 9 o’clock on Saturday morning (30 October), it crashed into a fence at the end of the runway. The undercarriage was torn off and the propeller and wing were damaged. The pilot was Commander G. G. Barnett, and he had two passengers. No one was injured. The aircraft was taking off on a return flight to Hokitika. The longest runway at the aerodrome is 3675 feet, but after the heavy rain during the last few weeks it was very soft and the aircraft failed to take off before reaching the boundary. Considerable repairs will have to be made if the aircraft is to be flown from Haast. An inspector of the Civil Aviation branch of the Air Department and officers of the National Airways Corporation at Harewood inspected the aircraft on Sunday.

Meanwhile the importance of the Haast service continued to find new customers. As well as being a life line for Haast residents it also brought in the doctor and provided air ambulance services to the hospital at Hokitika. The 1st of July 1949 issue of the Bay of Plenty Beacon records the Anglican vicar of South Westland using the service for the first time. The Vicars of Ross, South Westland, in the past have had to use horseback, or in later days, since the Franz Josef Glacier tourist traffic has opened up the roads thus far south, the motor car, to get within reach of their scattered parishioners. Recently the present Vicar, the Rev. K. O. Bathurst, decided to use the plane service to get to his jumping-off; place. He landed from the plane at Haast aerodrome and rejoined it at Okuru, and was home for tea, after a five days’ visitation that previously ran into a week or two.

NAC's de Haviland DH83 Fox Moth at Haast in August 1949. Photos : Whites Aviation

The Haast service from the NAC timetable effective July to September 1949

The Dominie returned to Haast on the 14th of December 1950, albeit temporarily, when a National Airways Corporation Dominie flew from Dunedin's Taieri Airport to Haast to bring Ministry of Works employees out for the holiday period. After picking up its passengers it flew to landed on the new aerodrome at Hokitika. Three trips were made.

Airmail and freight was the mainstay of the Haast service. And in spring each year large amounts of whitebait were flown north from Haast. The Hokitika Guardian of the 10th of October 1951 reported on a good run and canning activities at Haast and Hokitika... A large run of whitebait in South Westland rivers necessitated an additional flight to Haast to-day by an aircraft of the National Airways Corporation. A further quantity was brought north by Mr D. Nolan in his private plane. Mainly as a result of excellent runs in the Cascade and Maori rivers in South Westland during the last few days, the canning factory owned by Messrs Nolan Bros. has been in operation for the first time this season. No canning operations have so far taken place at Hokitika

The new Hokitika airport was finally opened in December 1951. In the months following Ministry of Works employees were engaged to resurface the Haast aerodrome prior to the reintroduction of a regular Dominie. The grassed portion of the runway was graded off and remetalled. Meanwhile, on the 26th of March 1952 de Havilland Dragon Rapide ZK-AHS, which had been operated by Air Travel (NZ) between Hokitika and Nelson was flown from Auckland to Hokitika and resided in the same hangar where it was serviced and housed for a number of years at the Southside airport. 

Before and after the upgrading of the Haast aerodrome. Above, the grassed aerodrome on 25 May 1951. Photo : Whites Aviation

A much later glimpse of the Haast aerodrome after the construction of the Haast Bridge. Photo : Dawber, A R :Photographs of the West Coast Region. Ref: 1/2-116223-F. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. http://natlib.govt.nz/records/23167713

The "Dominie" service resumed on the 31st of March 1952. On the following day the Hokitika Guardian of the 1st of April 1952 carried a report on the first flight. 

Under the National Airways Corporation's amended timetable, which came into operation yesterday, Dominie aircraft will now fly a thrice-weekly service to Haast, leaving Hokitika at 8 a.m. and returning at 11 a.m. Under this new timetable it will be possible for passengers leaving Haast to connect with all North and South Island services, including Auckland, Palmerston North, Blenheim, Nelson, Westport and Christchurch. Connections for the North Island leave Hokitika at 11.30 a.m. daily. This is part of a Coast-wide revision of aircraft schedules with which will be incorporated the N.A.C.'s decision to use Dominie aircraft as a feeder service to Westport, connecting there with Lodestars for Wellington. The Dominie has seating accommodation for six persons. An "as-required' service will be run to the smaller dromes of Whataroa and Franz Josef. Through the courtesy of the National Airways Corporation our reporter accompanied the aircraft on the initial flight to Haast and here gives some impressions or the trip. This was one day of the week I had no trouble getting out of bed. I had been looking forward to the trip for weeks but was a little crestfallen when I saw that the sky was overcast and visibility none too good for our journey. Our taxi picked us up - us being Mr R. Nossiter Traffic Manager of N.A.C. at Hokitika - and we arrived at the Hokitika Airport some 20 minutes before the aircraft arrived from the Southside Airfield. There were two passengers also bound for the Haast on a hiking trip so I spent the intervening time idly chatting to them while awaiting the plane. It arrived within minutes and after mail and stores had been stowed aboard and one or two formalities completed we were ready for the take-off. Our pilot for the trip was Captain F Molloy, veteran pilot of many spheres and skyways. Seated in a forward position with camera slung around neck and pad on knee, I took stock of my surroundings as we revved along the field and executed a perfect take-off. We made a half circle over the 'drome and then headed away towards the mist-shrouded south. Below Hokitika was still somnolent as we winged over the town; over the straggling ribbon-like threads of the Hokitika River as it went winding to meet the Tasman, breakers in a surge of snowy spray and spume. The sea was a dull grey in the chill morning air as we crossed the grassy tussocks and tree-clad slopes below... and so over the sea streaked here and there with patches of dirty brown, and watching the breakers incessantly pounding the log-strewn beach. And further back the dim blue, bleak outlines of the Southern Alps were just discernible as shadows through the veil of low-lying cloud and mist. Thin streams of smoke heralded our approach to Ross - almost before I had time to realise we were airborne; a few seconds over the township with its Lilliputian houses and a few curious faces cast skywards as our engines broke the still morning air. I say curious but this is only presumption on my part for the figures were but specks in the world below. The twin engines of  the plane roared in a comforting cacophony of ease and power as on southwards we winged. The land below, I thought, has known comparatively little of man's exploitation... cut up by rivers, serried by lagoons and creeks and all held in the protective cradling lap of the mountain sentinels behind. A long crescent-shaped bay, bordered by almost virgin forest unfolded before our gaze, and below, with the sun striving to break through the cloud, the waters turn from dull grey to vivid green. And long tapering trails of seaweed turn the surface into a semblance of a giant’s palette. As we passed over of sheer bluff jutting out to sea we were caught in a series of air poc kets that tossed us up and down like a feather in a breeze, but this lasted for but a few seconds and the plane resumed her even tenor. We  saw a lone sawmill below presenting a hive of activity. The forest here was cleared where the miller had taken his toll; cleared as if some mighty power had lain the timber low with a gigantic scythe. What a wonderful, fantastic patchwork landscape unfolded before us as we headed southwards. We crossed a river - I know not the name of it - that was so multifarious in its tributaries that its intricate byways formed a maze of sand and water. And bordering this, nestling amid the forest pines, a thousand and one lakes dotted the green of Mother Earth’s bosom like so many gems, reflecting the trees in their peerless depths. We hailed and farewelled the coast many times as our plane headed towards Haast; we passed over a bay with waters of an incredible green that surged up to the shore and then fell back in the never ending motion of the sea. The silent sentries that divide Westland and Canterbury caught the noise of the engines and echoed it back and forth across the lonely valleys and glens of their mountain retreat. We had completed over half our journey when we espied the Franz Josef Glacier and though visibility was still bad we managed to get a good look at its silent splendour… a waterfall frozen and crystallised in the aeons of time; a thing of beauty, coloured with hues that Titian himself could not have dreamed about, cascading down a cleft in the cliffs; a mecca of tourists the world over; an object of art created by the Supreme Artist that we mortals can only gaze and gasp in awe at its silent majesty. Truly it must be one of Westland's finest sights. The kaleidoscope of river and forest, mountain and stream moves swiftly before us. We came upon a magnificent three-mile-long beach of golden sand, unlittered with logs or flotsam, that many a capital city would be justly proud of and which terminated abruptly in a rocky promontory. But around the next point - only a stone's throw from this beach - was a bav studded with reefs and slime-covered rocks, a grim deterrent to coastal vessels that may drift too close. The pilot told me that around the next bay, known as Seal Point, we would see hundreds of seals basking in the surf. But whether they knew we were coming or not I do not know, for when we reached the spot there were only a few of the denizens of the deep disporting themselves on the shore. We were now within minutes of our destination and a thick white mist had almost completely enveloped the slopes below and we could only occasionally see a gaunt skeleton of a tree standing out like a silent wraith; the scene was one of melancholia and mournful meres. The Haast Airfield was now in sight and we circled around a hill that might have been a massive plum duff with snow like the proverbial white sauce running from its summit in straggling fingers of white. A small knot of people had gathered to meet the plane as we taxied into the refuelling point. The mail and stores were quickly unloaded and while the plane was refuelling I took the opportunity to chat to same workers in that lonely area. I remember thinking how they must look forward to receiving their mail and newspapers. Most of us are so accustomed to waking up and finding the paper on the doorstep, but I wonder how many of us realise what it means to the outback settlers who are so far removed from all the modern amenities we enjoy - and take so much for granted. It seemed to me also that this land has changed but little since the dawn of time but now with the advent of a fast convenient air service linking the "outback" with civilisation the next decade may well prove and shape the future of South Westland -- the "Cinders" of the "Cinderella" province. 

NAC's route map from the timetable effective 31 March 1952

de Havilland 89B Dominie ZK-AKU Tawaka at Haast. Photographer unknown

The arrival of the DC-3 service into Hokitika meant the Dragon Rapide/Dominies could be released to fly the South Westland services and this allowed the retirement of the Fox Moths. ZK-AEK was the first to be retired in March 1953, ZK-ASP followed in December 1953. The upgrading of the Franz Josef airfield allowed the retirement of the Fox Moths with ZK-AGM holding the honour of being the last NAC Fox Moth which was retired from regular airlines service on the 28th of February 1954. The Fox Moth had pioneered aviation in South Westland and had proved a great workhorse for connecting the Haast to the rest of New Zealand.

Farewell to the Fox Moth - de Havilland 83 Fox Moth ZK-AGM photographed at Hokitika in early 1954 as the type bowed out of the NAC fleet. Well done good and faithful servant!

For some years Queenstown-based Southern Scenic Air Services Ltd had been keen to take over NAC's South Westland service. Agreement was finally reached with Southern Scenic Air Services Ltd and the NAC South Westland air service was handed over to a subsidiary of Southern Scenic Air Services’, West Coast Airways Ltd., in November 1956. On the 16th of November NAC’s South Westland service was taken over by West Coast Airways and the inaugural flight was operated by de Havilland DH89A Dragon Rapide ZK-AHS on a Hokitika-Haast return service on the 19th of November 1956.


  1. Thanks Steve! This Fox Local often dreams of a connection so handy as being able to fly from Weheka to Auckland in only a few connections! Oh to be able to leave the car at home and walk across to the aerodrome :) Sure beats the drive to HKK or ZQN to fly out.

    Certainly a fabulous account of NZs real pioneering Air service.

  2. Check out these two posts... You've going to have to copy and paste sorry...

    NAC's short lived service to Weheka (Fox Glacier)

    West Coast Airways...

    Mount Cook's service...

    Looking forward to being in Fox in 2 weeks