23 September 2021

Another piece of history


One thing that keeps me doing thing blog is the contributions or questions I get from people who have read the blog. Sometime ago I had correspondence with a reader of the blog saying "I think my father was the first to fly and land on the Chathams. I have pictures documenting it but would be nice to confirm if this is accurate."

The operative word in what he wrote was "land" as opposed to "alight" (as in the flying boats).

In my history of air services to the Chathams, drawing on records in Archives NZ, I wrote...

In 1956 the Barker Brothers looked at developing an airfield at Hapupu despite the Chatham Island County Council thinking the site was too inaccessible. The Minister of Civil Aviation wrote to the Barkers stating that “If you are prepared to proceed at your own or local expense without Government support at this stage in constructing the NW-SE airstrip, then conditional on the Hapupu site being finally chosen for the aerodrome for Chatham Islands I will be prepared to recommend to Government reimbursement of agreed on and substantial cost of construction of the airstrip up to 60% of the cost with a top limit of Government subsidy of £2,000.” On the 25th of August 1956, the Barker Brothers replied that they had already commenced preparation of the Hapupu airstrip and this was ready for use by May 1957. 

Later there was a press release that read...

The first flight into Hapupu was made by the Civil Aviation Administration’s Douglas DC-3 ZK-AUJ on the 15th of May 1957. The 4000x400 feet airfield was built along a slight ridge of sand and shell composition and  had “a well-drained surface, with a thick sole of grass."  The first flight was flown by Captain Hewitt with First Officer George, Navigator Duke, Radio Officer Vaughan and Flight Engineer Young making up the rest of the crew. Also on board were Messrs Halley and Andrews of C.A.A. and Mr Pritchard of the Ministry of Works.

After some time Mike Sawyers emailed me with the photos which are posted in no particular order... He also wrote that the family story was that it was "an unofficial trip and took some mail."

In light of the photos I wrote to Mike saying:

The photos are definitely 1956 or early 1957... I can tell that from two facts 

- the airfield wasn't completed until early 1957...

- the RNZAF roundel included a fern painted in the red centre red from early 1957.

I then found a reference to a flight in 1957 from the Air Mail Society of New Zealand as follows;


By RNZAF Douglas Dakota of No.42 Transport Squadron on a training exercise, landing at the Hapupu airstrip. It is reported that some mail was flown but the report is not confirmed.

The question remains, were these photos taken before the Civil Aviation Department's DC-3 ZK-AUJ landed there on the 15th of May 1957?

Mike then checked his father's logbook. Squadron Leader Kenneth A Sawyer DFC was commander of the RNZAF's 42 Squadron from September 1955 to November 1959. His log book shows a lot of flights to the Chathams

This looks to be the first flight, on the 25th of June 1956! However, as stated above, on the 25th of August 1956, the Barker Brothers wrote to Wellington that they have commenced preparation of the Hapupu airstrip... so this would have been too soon. 

A second flight appears on the 16th of October 1956. This could fit the photo as the roundels are not carrying the fern which was introduced until January 1957. I also think the airfield looks too established, especially after it was still being cleared in August 1956. 

Squadron Leader Sawyers logbook shows more flights in the next two years. This is entry for the 17th of January 1957 in NZ3551 which does not match the photos. 

This flight is the 4th of June 1957 with Douglas C47 Dakota NZ3553 which matches the photo... but already by then the airfield had been visited by the Civil Aviation Division DC-3 ZK-AUJ.

And here is the entry that I believe matches the photo, on the 30th of July 1957 with the annotation "The first RNZAF landing on the strip" flown by Squadron Leader Kenneth A Sawyer with Flight Lieutenant Garrett, Flying Officer Webster, Sargeant Newman and Leading Aircraftman Lusby. On board were Group Captain Turner, 6 passengers and mail. 

There certainly looks as if other people were there which makes it clear the aircraft was expected

So I think the mystery is solved, not the first flight, but certainly the first RNZAF flight.

There is just one problem... the roundel doesn't have the fern. So how quickly were the ferns added to the roundel? 

Squadron Leader Kenneth A Sawyer logbook records other flights, on the 3rd of December 1957...

the 20th of May 1958 (which was a night flight)...

and the 9th of March 1959.

Whether these flights landed or not is not shown, but this does give a little history of the first RNZAF landing on the Chathams by a wheeled aircraft and also the RNZAF's cross country exercises over the Chatham Islands.

I have updated the history of the RNZAF's air service to the Chathams accordingly, see : http://3rdlevelnz.blogspot.com/2014/04/the-rnzaf-pioneering-air-services-to.html

And Mike says, "I suspect perhaps first RNZAF flight but as I said all just second hand info to me. Still an interesting family history and I hope to get to the Chathams early next year." I hope Air Chathams look after you Mike. Thanks for sharing the family history.


  1. Brilliant. Thanks for sharing. Good sleuthing skills there Steve.

  2. These were taken before 1957. As you state the fern was superimposed on the red centre in Jan 57. This is missing in the photos. Please note the fern used from Jan 57 to Nov 59 was the simplified, painted, WHITE fern which stands out brightly in B&W photos - not the printed (as in the whole roundel) silver fern carried from Nov 59 to the end of 1969 and which is often hard to see in B&W photos.

    1. Thanks for this... I started discussing this with over 12 months ago and some more logbook pages just arrived this week including the one with the 30 July 1957 annotation ... Found a typo that I fixed which made me miss that point but I had sorted out earlier. I meant to type (it reads this) it is 1956 or early 1957. So the big question is how quickly were the ferns added to the roundels???

      Or is this really an earlier flight??? The logbook entries would only support 16 October 1956.

    2. The decision for the white fern roundel was announced in Jan 57 according to official documents: 'Royal New Zealand Air Force Ensign', URL: https://nzhistory.govt.nz/media/photo/royal-new-zealand-air-force-ensign, (Ministry for Culture and Heritage), updated 30-May-2014

      This would have required Government sign off. The two DC3s in service at that time were mainly used for VIP duties so it stands to reason that the white fern would have been painted on pretty much immediately on them and 42 Sqn's Devons for political and publicity reasons (nothing beats keeping the Minister happy by providing a photo event in politics).
      As it was painted on using a stencil it would have been a very quick task.
      So your 1956 flight is very likely the one.

    3. Peter Laynew referred me to Cliff Jenks' article on RNZAF roundels in the AHSNZ Journal of July 1983... ". The RSA Review of December 1956 pushed for a distinctive national marking, obviously unaware that matters were in hand. Following the public announcement of the new roundel on 26 January, further murmurings were seen in the RSA Review and some daily papers, criticising the choice of emblem. Amongst the points made were the fact that No 14 Squadron Venoms in Singapore had been sporting kiwi emblems for the past year. The decision had been made, however, and implementing instructions were issued in June 1957. Stencils were produced (the Wigram ones were in aluminium) to apply the white fern leaf over the existing red centres, a process that required careful preparation if leaching of the red was not to produce a pink fern leaf. A reverse stencil was also produced for the construction of new roundels, this being used to apply red to the white area, while masking out both the white ring and the fern leaf. The fern leaf was specified as being "wholly within the red disc and at an angle of 45° to the horizontal axis thereof, with the butt of the fern leaf in the lower left hand portion of the red disc, as viewed by an observer."

      So this wouldn't have happened overnight as they experimented to get it right. Cliff also suggests that the original white fern looked like a white feather and this caused them to rethink and repaint them silver from December 1957. So having just the plain red is still feasible.

      I also think the airfield is too well established for October 1956 when they were still clearing it in August 1956. 30 July 1957 is the most likely

    4. The white fern was not replaced until mid-late 1959. And it wasn't a paint over - the silver and black fern is a complex picture of a fern and it was a printed vinyl decal - a first for the RNZAF.

      The late 1957 reference comes from the 19 December 1957 Air Board decision to change the fern. A manufacturer was approached in early 1958 for two sample sets - one of the fern the other the fern on the red centre circle. These were placed onto the tail booms of two Vampires for trial purposes to see how durable the decal was. A report was written in June 1958 recommending the fern only option.

      However the decals proved so expensive that the number of sizes of the roundels used was reduced from seven to five reducing the number of spares to be procured resulting in many aircraft having some of their roundels increased or decreased in size. This included the DC3 whose wing roundels increased from 48in to 54in.

      However the silver fern and black proved to be difficult to see from any distance so failed the "distinctive marking" test and was replaced by the Kiwi roundels from late 1969 which is a complete vinyl roundel. The RNZAF procured a machine to print them at Woodbourne on demand - and allowing a better range of sizes.

  3. Although just slightly off topic, NAC DC-3Ds ZK-APA (predominantly) and ZK-APK did a series of flights to the Chatham Islands between December 1957 and March 1958. The seven D model aircraft had longer range fuel tanks, which had been fitted so these seven aircraft could serve on the NAC Regional Service in the late 1940s and early 1950s.

  4. NAC's service to the Chathams is recorded here Peter... http://3rdlevelnz.blogspot.com/2014/07/nac-first-civil-operator-to-chathams-on.html
    Your NAC book records ZK-APA doing the first flight ZK-APK doing the others

  5. Oops yes... it does state that however I see under ZK-APA's credentials it was the one credited with doing the most. That info was sourced from NZ Airmail Chronology. Both aircraft (APA 26 June) and (APK 22 July) visited the Chatham Islands in 1966 transferring fishing boat crews. It was this type of flight that led to the establishment many years later of Air Chathams by Craig Emeny.