08 May 2022

Opotiki's Union Airways' Service



As far back as 1935 the directors of East Coast Airways had looked at the possibility of extending the service to Auckland, but developments in this direction were seen to be dependent upon an improvement to the existing ground facilities, and in particular the provision of aerodromes in Tauranga and Opotiki. 

The development of an aerodrome at Opotiki began in 22nd of October 1936 with the publication in the New Zealand Gazette of a notice of the intention to change the reservation of some 109 acres of the Opotiki and Waioeka Domain, used as a racecourse to an aerodrome. Why the town forsook racecourse is explained in a later article in the Opotiki News which began publication in 1938. Residents will view with regret the fact that Opotiki has lost its; racecourse, but it has to be remembered that Opotiki for many years was fighting a losing battle in running the annual race and it was found impossible to carry on without risk of the Jockey Club getting into serious financial difficulties. Even if the Domain Board had not offered the area to the Government there appeals to be little doubt that the racecourse site would have been taken over for the purpose for which it is now being used, As far as the district is concerned the aerodrome will be of very much greater importance to Opotiki than the racecourse ever was and will help to put Opotiki on the map, as the aerodrome is to be the Bay of Plenty terminus, and is likely to be used to a considerable extent for defence purposes. 

With the land handed over the Public Works Department called tenders in May 1937 for the carting of shingle for the aerodrome development. In March 1938 the contract of forming and grading the Opotiki aerodrome was given to Messrs Butler and Carroll Limited for £2981 15s. 

By late May 1938 the work of levelling the aerodrome was almost completed and the town was looking forward to an air service before the end of the year. The Opotiki News reported that a great deal of credit for the development of the aerodrome is due members of the Waioeka Domain Board, under the chairmanship of Mr F. J. Short, for the establishment of an up-to-date aerodrome in the district being so near completion and it is probable that a year or more would have been lost had not Mr Short and the Mayor, Mr. G. S. Moody, another member of the Board, gone to Wellington and placed their proposals before the authorities and continued negotiations over a lengthy period before the scheme was finalised. When the scheme was first placed, before the authorities it was .to preserve the racecourse but it was considered the area would have then been hopelessly inadequate for present-day passenger planes. The land comprising the Opotiki aerodrome is valued at approximately £8,000, and the estimated cost of preparing the flying field and the creation of the necessary buildings £8,560 making a total of £16,500. Opotiki is very fortunate indeed to secure such a first-class aerodrome at practically no cost-to the district. The Opotiki Borough and County Councils were each expected to make a contribution to the establishment of the aerodrome in the district, but the Waioeka Domain Board, which offered the area of 109 acres comprising the actual flying field to the Government, also offered to find the whole of the local bodies’ contribution to the Department, and this offer being accepted, Opotiki has secured an exceptionally fine aerodrome at not a penny cost to district ratepayers. 

The article continues by describing the aerodrome and its construction… Four runways are being provided and these range in length from 660 to 1060 yards, the other two runways being 760 and 770 yards in length respectively. These runways will enable planes to land and take off in eight different directions but the longest runways will be necessary tor the very big planes to land on when fully loaded. The main runway will run for the whole length of the field .in line from east to west. This runway, at the western end of the flying field lies midway between the Te Rere Pa and the 10-acre recreation reserve…   

After the demolition of the old racecourse fencing the others fences forming paddocks on the ground, the first major work was the draining of the whole area. Levels were taken of the area and then eleven-and-a-half miles of drains were cut over the whole area… Provision is being made to accommodate a large number of machines and three huge hangars, measuring 180 ft. by 70 ft., will be built in a semicircle near the present entrance to the aerodrome from the racecourse road. A new access road is to be put in at an early date and when the buildings are erected they will be fronted by a permanent-surfaced strip running along the three hangars. Two of the hangars will be in line, while the third will he built at an angle. The administrate building will be situated at about the spot where the totalisator building now stands.

Wireless facilities will also be provided at as it is now compulsory for all aerodromes being used for passenger transport to be so equipped, to enable communication to the made with machines in the air and also with other aerodromes.

Near the centre of the landing field a big concrete landing circle 100 feet in diameter will he laid. On the outside of the main drains fences will be erected but on the inside of the drains toitoi bushes will be planted and when these are grown the whole field will he well outlined with the white tops. Big motor tyres painted white will also be prominently placed at all corners of the area.

With most of the earthworks completed the sowing of the grass seed and its establishment was the last major task before the aerodrome’s completion. The Opotiki News of the 14th of November 1938 reported that The levelling of the Opotiki aerodrome was completed last month and the area has been since sown, m grass and with the very favourable weather the whole area should be soon well covered with grass. When work was held up in the autumn owing to the excessively wet conditions making it impossible to complete the work before the winter as had been expected, most of the area had been levelled off and these parts have had ample time to consolidate. When work was resumed some weeks ago the whole of the area was thoroughly disced and the levelling completed. The flying field should be available for the commencement of the passenger service between Auckland and Gisborne, the other stopping-place being Tauranga, where the aerodrome, has also been completed. It will also be necessary to complete one of the hangars at Opotiki at an early date as this flying field is not protected from strong gales and in the event of planes finding it necessary to stop at Opotiki it would be dangerous to leave the machines out in the open.

At about 4 o’clock on the 8th of December 1938 the Public Works Department’s Miles M11A Whitney Straight, ZK-AFH, became the first plane to land on the Opotiki Aerodrome. The plane was piloted by Mr A M Prichard, the staff commercial pilot for the Public Works Department who was accompanied by D O Haskell, a PWD engineer. The Opotiki News reported that coming down at an angle against the strong breeze the plane pulled up in a remarkably short distance after touching ground. The honour of being a passenger in the first flight off the aerodrome was given to Mr. Roberts (one of the PWD engineers), the plane flying over Opotiki township and then in an easterly direction along the, coast. A second engineer was also taken up for a flight. Upon landing, the wings of the plane were folded back to allow it to be taken through a gateway into the area, behind the grandstand. Here the plane was anchored to the ground in the shelter of trees for the night and a man was left to guard the machine. Mr. Haskell stated to a “News” representative that the Opotiki aerodrome compared very favourably with many of the 'dromes in the larger centres.

The Whitney Straight returned to Opotiki on the 12th of December with Mr Prichard with Union Airways’ Mr. A. G. Gerrand as his passenger. He was met at the aerodrome by Mr F J Short, chairman of the Opotiki and Waioeka Domain Board and Public Works officials. Mr. Gerrand expressed complete satisfaction with the aerodrome.

On Saturday, the 14th of January 1939, Opotiki received its first visit of one of Union Airways’ de Havilland DH86 Express aircraft. Several hundred people gather to witness the arrival of Express ZK-AEG Karoro. The Opotiki News reported that Weather conditions were favourable and the big machine was first seen as a tiny speck high above the ranges up the Otara valley. The plane quickly came down the valley and circled the town once before making a perfect landing on the eastern end of the aerodrome. The machine was taxied up in front of the buildings and as it came to a stop was greeted with clapping by the crowd. By the courtesy of Union Airways the crowd was allowed to make a close-up inspection of the big machine which looked very graceful in a new coat of paint. The Minister of Defence, Hon. F. Jones, and other members of the party on the plane, were welcomed by Mr. F. J. Short, chairman of the Domain Board, and Mr Roberts, Public Works engineer. The Minister had travelled to Gisborne on Friday from Wellington, motoring to Palmerston North and there taking off from Milson aerodrome in the D.H. 86 Karoro, one of Union Airways’ fleet, of airliners.

The Minister was accompanied by Lord Stabolgi, a British Labour peer now visiting New Zealand, and a party comprising Colonel N. S. Falla, chairman of directors of Union Airways, Limited, Air. Maurice F. Clarke, manager of Union Airways, Dr. M. A. F. Barnett, of the Meteorological Department, Squadron-Leader Buckridge, Air. T. A. Barrow, Air-Secretary, Mr. D. Haskell, aerodrome engineer to the Public Works Department, and Air. F. N. Sherwood, private secretary to the Minister. The plane was piloted by Commander A. G. Gerrand, chief pilot of Union Airways, with Mr. R. L. McGregor as co-pilot. Mr. Len. Maugham, chief grounds engineer of Union Airways also accompanied the ’plane. Alter a stay of over half-an-hour, the party entered the plane and the engines were started up. The airliner taxied to the far end of the aerodrome and turned into the wind, the engines were opened, out and the big machine left the ground as smoothly as it had landed and slowly rose above the aerodrome and was soon gaining height over the town before flying along the coast towards Tauranga where the Minister of Defence was to open the Tauranga aerodrome.

De Havilland Express ZK-AEH, Korimako conducted a survey flight over the route on the 17th and the 18th of March 1939. Included among the passengers wore Mr. L. R. Wilkinson, Mayor of Tauranga. Mr. F. J. Short, chairman of the aviation authority at Opotiki; and Mr. P. A. Chappell, passenger manager for Union Airways at Auckland. Commander K. Brownjohn was also a member of the party, which included three pressmen from Auckland, a press photographer, and Mr. N. Dumont, of the Gisborne office of Union Airways, who joined the plane at Opotiki. Messrs. Wilkinson and Short, were much impressed by the facility with which the journey to Gisborne was made from their respective headquarters, and also with the agreeable conditions which characterised this particular trip. The airliner returned to Auckland on Saturday, landing at Opotiki a few minutes after 9 o’clock.


A scene at the Opotiki Aerodrome, on the Auckland-Gisborne air route. Commander A. G. Gerrand, service manager' from Union Airways, is seen chatting with Maori children: who had come to inspect the airliner Korimako. Source : Evening Post


A scene at the Opotiki Aerodrome, on the Auckland-Gisborne air route. Commander A. G. Gerrand, service manager' from Union Airways, is seen chatting with Maori children: who had come to inspect the airliner Korimako. Source : Evening Post

Opotiki joined the Union Airways network on the 20th of March 1939 when de Havilland Express ZK-AEH, Korimako, under the command of Commander G R White and Second Officer Brownjohn flew into the new aerodrome as part of airline’s new Gisborne to Auckland service. Three passengers from Opotiki joined the flight while mails were also left and picked up at Opotiki. The Opotiki News reported that there was a fair gathering of residents at the aerodrome when the plane arrived. In future spectators will not be allowed on the aerodrome during the arrival and departure of the big airliner. This step is being taken to do away with any risk of injury and has been adopted at other aerodromes for the safety of the public.

The service operated three times a week. On Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays the flight left Auckland at 8.10am to arrive at Tauranga 9am, departing  at 9.10am to arrive at Opotiki 9.50am, departing at 10am, and to arrive at Gisborne at 10.40am. On Tuesdays, Thursdays .and Saturdays the flight left Gisborne at 7.30am to arrive at Opotiki at 8.10am, departing at 8.20am to arrive at Tauranga at 9am, departing at Tauranga 9.10am and arrive at Auckland at 10am. The fares fixed by the company were Opotiki-Auckland £3 2s 6d, and from Opotiki to both Gisborne and Tauranga, 27s 6d. Opotiki, as at each aerodrome, was provided with free ground transport to the town depot with the Opotiki booking offices being the R.M. Garage and the Northern Steam Ship Co.’s office.


Opotiki News, 20 March 1939

The outbreak of World Wat II brought Opotiki's Union Airways' service to a premature end. The final flight was flown on the 12th of October 1939. The Opotiki News of the 16th of October reported on the last flight. After taking off from the Opotiki aerodrome on Thursday morning, the big plane flew well over the Otara district and then turned towards the aerodrome again, flying at a fair height, as the .machine flew over the aerodrome it suddenly dived low down and then rose steeply again, as a farewell salute. The machine then flew over the town at a low altitude. The service has now been suspended indefinitely owing to the Government taking over the company’s De Havilland planes for instructional purposes. 

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