14 January 2024

Vince Kean and Air Columbus

Air Columbus was a short-lived charter operator that bridges the gap between Tasman Air and Akarana Air. This post was written by the late Bruce Gavin and I have had it sitting on my laptop to do a post for sometime. Then last year I received an email from Bill Rayner who filled me in with more details...

If you are interested I suggest you read the post on Tasman Air first, see https://3rdlevelnz.blogspot.com/2010/07/tasman-air.html and then the post on Akarana Air after this post, see https://3rdlevelnz.blogspot.com/2010/07/who-was-akarana-air.html.

Now, it is over to Bruce and Bill to tell the story of Vince Kean and Air Columbus.

Vince Kean, either individually or through his company J. V. M. Kean Ltd, was an Auckland businessman who operated a shipping agency for shipping companies including the Columbus Line. Other companies he was associated included Transair Leasing, Air Contracts (1969) Ltd and Maritime Services Ltd. He developed several interests in aerial topdressing, the importation of the Transavia PL12 Airtruk as well as air transport operations.

After Tasman Air Services Ltd was wound up on the 28th of May 1970 J. V. M. Kean Ltd was successful in getting Licence No 492 transferred to itself in Trust with an amendment, which allowed the change of aircraft from the Piper Navajo to a smaller Piper Twin Comanche. In the event the Piper Twin Comanche was never used and for the next 18 months efforts were made to amalgamate the operations of Auckland Air Charter Ltd (the commercial twin engine operations of the Auckland Aero Club), which held Licence No. 618. This licence permitted air charter and air taxi services from Ardmore, Auckland International Airport and Kinleith with one Cessna 310G (ZK-CFG which was leased) and one Cessna 336 (ZK-CGF). Auckland Air Charter Ltd had started operations in June 1970 but by early 1972 was defunct and the two aircraft were out of operation.

On 29 February 1972 the Air Services Licensing Authority held a Public Inquiry in Auckland to examine the situation regarding the provision of twin-engine air services in Auckland. With the breakdown in negotiations between J.V.M. Kean Ltd and Auckland Air Charter Ltd Vince Kean had been in negotiations with Mr G.H. Vetch who had imported a Piper PA-23 Aztec aircraft, ZK-DGT, into New Zealand and it was being prepared for commercial operations to enable the operation of Licence No. 492. Consequently the Air Services Licensing Authority allowed the continuation of J.V.M. Kean Ltd holding Licence No. 492 in trust but cancelled Auckland Air Charter’s Air Services Licence No. 618.

Air Columbus' Piper Aztec, ZK-DGT at Ardmore in 1972. Photographer unknown

By May 1972 the new company, which was named Air Columbus Ltd, was ready to apply for the transfer of the Licence along with a change of aircraft from one Piper PA-30 Twin Comanche to one Piper PA-23 Aztec. The 32000 shares were distributed to four shareholders: J. V. M. Kean (4,000 shares), G. H. Vetch (20,000 shares), E. I. Reardon (3,000 shares) and J. J. McVicar (5,000 shares).

The company operated through Maritime Services Ltd, which had a travel agency as part of their Customs Street premises in Auckland, maintenance was carried out by Airwork (NZ) Ltd, and initially E.I. (Ivan) Reardon was the company’s only full time employee. W. W. ‘Bill’ Rayner the chief financial officer of Maritime Services Ltd gave considerable assistance in getting financial matters sorted out.

The company’s name was quickly changed to Akarana Air Ltd and the company flourished for some years operating a number of twin-engine aircraft, some leased short or long-term periods. 

Early Akarana Air publicity from September 1972 with the connection to Columbus Travel

Last year I received an email from Bill Rayner who has filled me in with further information about J V M Kean. He writes, 

I was very involved with J V M Kean and his subsequent aviation ventures as I joined his company, Maritime Services Ltd as Chief Accountant from Air NZ in 1969 when Tasman Air was just starting up. Vince Kean was a flamboyant entrepreneur his main business being timber importing and Maritime Services was a shipping agent for Hamburg Süd/Columbus Line founded because Kean chartered a Hamburg Süd ship by chance to bring timber from the West Coast of the US to bring down timber as a challenge to the British line monopoly. A story of its own.

Maritime Services had a travel section, Columbus Travel, which was working with Gastager. a German travel company bringing tours to New Zealand, and also with a group specialising in hunting tours... catch a marlin, shoot a deer, and catch a trout all in one day. It was a top end operation with the Tasman Air Navajo and the courtesy car was a Daimler used in one of the Royal tours. 

Jock Ferrier was a shareholder and a pilot along with Ivan Reardon, who learned to fly Spitfires off the Rangoon racecourse, and flew in the Middle East and Pertamina, the Indonesian oil company before coming to NZ. Jock was ex RAF and used to fly the Navajo as a weapons platform which caused some passenger comfort concerns. The Christchurch agent was Ron Guthrey, another colourful character who ran Guthreys Travel and Tours.

The tourism aspect didn’t go too well.

It was the time of the Chathams crayfish boom, and as noted they started running a private service to the Chathams - as well as passengers a major income was from crayfish tail packs.- this was a tag game with the officials - a key factor was that Kean ex RNZAF and a good friend of Peter Gordon Minister of Transport and Civil Aviation who was also a wartime RNZAF pilot, with Ron Guthrey being a 20 Battalion army veteran from the desert campaign.

The eventual solution I understand was that the Government purchased the Navajo which became a Government VIP transport aircraft .

This left Kean with an air services licence for Tasman Air but no aircraft, and I believe that this was Air Columbus came into being.

The second phase of the story was that Graeme Vetch, a young Kenyan from a wealthy farming family in Kenya who had been in the Hawkes Bay as a farming jackaroo learning about NZ farming processes decided to emigrate to NZ. He was a pilot and to get his money out of Kenya he bought a plane, Piper Aztec, and flew it out of Kenya to New Zealand where he was looking to start an air charter company.

Graeme was an immensely personal young man and when talking to CAA in Wellington about the complexities of getting an air charter licence they mentioned that there was a man in Auckland who had a licence but had no aircraft. The outcome was that Kean and Graeme Vetch got together and the Aztec ZK-DGT became the founding aircraft of Akarana Air and picked up on the tourist business and normal air charter, Sir William Stevenson being an initial good customer  going to his Lochinvar farming development in Taupo.

As an add on to my job as Maritime Services Ltd I became the accountant  and finance manager for Akarana Air for its long interesting journey through ts involvement with Air North and Norak, the development of the air courier business with NZ Couriers, including the bank data run to Wairoa, and obtaining the sales agency for Ted Smith’s Aerostar company for NZ, Australia, and most of Asia,

Your blog covers this era well - the ultimate demise of Akarana Air was the linkup with Matt Thompson and Nationwide where Nationwide bought fuel through the Akarana Air account which lead the ultimate demise of Akarana  in the overall sea of debt.

Matt was an interesting fellow - I had dealings with him in a seagoing barge operation.

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