04 January 2023

(8) Cliff Lewis' Air Travel Memoirs


Part 8 of a twelve part memoir written by Cliff Lewis, an Air Travel (NZ) pilot... 

This memoir relates to my my larger post on Air Travel (NZ) Ltd which can be found here -


Chapter 8 - Flying by the seat of your pants

In the very early stages of our service to South Westland we had no weather reports to assist us. What we used to do, however, was to listen to Radio 2YA who at that time were giving out the barometric pressures for the main cities of New Zealand, Australia and Tasmania. From these reports, with our own knowledge of how a weather map was constructed, we would sketch our own isobars and thus gain the knowledge of the type of weather to be expected, either cyclonic or anticyclonic. This enabled us to anticipate when we might expect wind changes which might be favourable or otherwise to the beaches and other awkward landing places which we had to use. 

The Meteorological Office at Kelburn was also seeking more reporting places in New Zealand and requested the assistance of the P and T Department to establish more radio stations around New Zealand. The two departments worked hand and glove together and many were established. Two in particular gave our company tremendous assistance, one at Jackson Bay which was manned by the indomitable Gordon Bowman and another station at Hokitika manned by the equally competent operator Jack Williams. Both these operators knew exactly the information that was vital to our operations. 

These aeradio stations were established in late 1937/early 1938... Cliff is slightly wrong in that Gordon Bowman was always based at Hokitika. I presume Jack Williams was an operator at Jackson Bay.

For instance it could be raining so hard at Hokitika that you could not see 100 yards and then a message would come through from Gordon at Jackson Bay saying that the wind had changed to the south west. This was the clue we were waiting for. We could take off from Hokitika and fly at sea level some three miles off the coast watching for every muddy stream making its way out into the Tasman. We were able to count these streams and recognise which river they represented. When we reached the one we wanted we would then follow it to the coast and fly upstream at zero altitude to the landing strip we wished to reach. This was “flying by the seat of your pants” but it worked perfectly. 

Our gratitude to both these government departments cannot be expressed in words. Whereas before we were dependent upon a single telephone line, that at times was disrupted by falling trees, we now had a direct communication with the far south and received three weather reports daily, the first at 7am, the next at 12pm and another at 4pm. We also were able to request any extra specified information we required. These two radio stations also greatly assisted the far south settlers in the cases of sickness or accidents. A mayday a message from Gordon to Jack and Air Travel were on the way to help. 

Fox Moth ZK-ADI on the Neil's Beach airstrip just a kilometre or two away from Jackson Bay... the sun shining as usual. Photo : Ref: PAColl-3060-014. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. /records/23110233

Not only did these two Departments come to our aid, in came the then Public Works Department Aerodrome Section under Eric Smart and Allan Pritchard. They immediately recognised the assistance our small company needed so without hesitation they saw that settler’s paddocks should be marked out with civil aviation marker boards and that some of them should be extended to accommodate our future developments. No stone was left unturned to help Air Travel (NZ). The Coast owes as much to these men as it does to Bert Mercer. 

There was also one other means of communication on the Coast that always worked, “the bush telegraph.” It was amazing at times how people knew that Air Travel was on its way south and a lot of unexpected travellers and freight were many times encountered. Air Travel always met their needs. How? I often look back and wonder but it happened to their gratitude.

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