03 February 2010

Bell Air - The Intercity Commuter Airline


Graeme Bell grew up in Whakatane. His vocational guidance counsellor at Whakatane High School discouraged him from going into the Air Force and so he took an electrical apprentice with New Zealand Forest Products. Still having a desire to fly he took flying lessons commuting to Rotorua to learn to fly in a Piper Cub. After gaining his private pilot's licence he flew Tiger Moths for the local glider club building his hour hours up before taking his commercial pilot's licence in 1967. 

In 1968 he founded Bell-Air Executive Air Travel Ltd, a Whakatane-based charter with a capital investment of $8000 and a Cessna 185. The company was granted an air taxi service licence on the 6th of September 1968 and started operating that month with Cessna 185C ZK-CGH (c/n 185-0751). The charter rate for a Whakatane to Auckland and return charter flight was $50! In addition to the general charter work he also did air ambulance work. 

Bell Air's first aircraft, Cessna 185 ZK-CGH photographed at New Plymouth on 8 November 1972

From mid-1969 to mid-1971 Bell Air was also operating Piper PA22-150 Caribbean ZK-BSH.

Graeme Bell's employer, the Rangitaiki Plains Dairy company, were very flexible in their employment of the new charter pilot. He worked for them as an electrician but when charter work came along, often for the company, he was given the time to do it. There was not enough work locally to sustain the operation and so at times he flew on venison recovery on the West Coast. Another early source of business was fish spotting. The Ministry of Fisheries were keen to develop the tuna fishery and so he worked fish spotting in the Bay of Plenty, off New Plymouth and he did a survey of southern bluefin off the West Coast. The Cessna 185 was replaced with Cessna 206 ZK-DNG in July 1973.

Cessna 206 ZK-DNG was added to the fleet in July 1973. 
It is seen at Whakatane in November 1973

He was asked to help in the first joint-venture between the Government and the Starkist company of California. The Government chartered the fishing boat the Paramount to prove the "catch-ability" of the fish already sighted round New Zealand waters. 

Very quickly Graeme became an expert fish spotter who are able to determine the difference between skip-jack, yellowfin, blue mackerel, jack mackerel and other fish, their behaviour patterns, tonnage assessments and the movement of the tuna - and all this while concentrating on his flying. An article in the New Zealand Herald expanded on art of his fish spotting. The boats depended on his accuracy. Smaller boats can get into difficulty if directed to a school which is too large for their capabilities. Schools must be known to have such density that it is worth the effort of big boats to switch grounds. Bell registers the stability of a school. It is vital for the fleet to know whether the school is moving slowly, tightly, clinging to the surface, erratic in its behaviour, patternless, sounding, surfacing. He may "dive bomb" the school to see how it reacts to noise. And there is a growing requirement for his supervision of the actual fishing. The Paramount heralded the day of the super-seiners 'in New Zealand waters and it was the beginning, too, of international interest in Graham Bell's work. He has done many assignments through the Pacific combining spotting with research evaluation for surface-feeding stocks, relating surface temperatures to the "showing" of fish, noting migratory patterns. In was this expertise that saw him fishing spotting around the Pacific, and as far north as Guam, Japan, Truk and Palau.

By 1975 Bell Air had three Cessnas including Cessna 172 ZK-DEY and Cessna 177 Cardinal ZK-DKL, but in September 1975 the company introduced its first twin engine aircraft into the fleet in the form of Piper PA23 Aztec ZK-DUB. The Aztec gave greater coverage and speed out over the water for the fish spotting as well as being used for charter work and as a back-up aircraft for regional operator Air North.

Piper Aztec ZK-DUB at Invercargill in July 1978

Bell Air's Cessna 172 ZK-EHJ at Whakatane in August 1981

The fish spotting proved lucrative for Bell Air and this enable the company to purchase Rockwell Shrike Commander 500, ZK-PAT (c/n 500-S-3137) in December 1977Again, the Aero Commander provided an excellent platform for the fish spotting. The purchase of the Shrike Commander was followed in April 1978 with the addition an older of Aero Commander 500A ZK-DCF (c/n 500-A-1274-97) to its fleet, the additional Aero Commander replacing the Piper Aztec ZK-DUB. 

Taken at Hokitika on 5 July 1983 Shrike Commander ZK-PAT, its registration in honour of Graham Bell's wife Pat

The second Commander, ZK-DCF taken at Whakatane in August 1981

In 1979 Whakatane's Air New Zealand service saw a daily midday flight to Wellington via Wanganui and an afternoon service to Auckland. Neither of these suited Whakatane business people and so the company successfully applied for a non-scheduled air service between Whakatane and Auckland. The service began on the 23rd of October 1979 with Cliff Stockwell flying the first flight. A morning and evening weekday service was operated between Whakatane and Auckland and return enabling a day's business for Whakatane and Auckland business people.

Bell Air's 1980 timetable

In May 1980 the company was granted an amendment to its air service licence with the licence to operate a non-scheduled service between Whakatane and Auckland revoked and substituted with a licence to operate a scheduled service.

The Auckland air service proved to be popular, and at times using both Aero Commanders had to be used and so the decision was made to purchase a 15 seat Beech 99. ZK-LLA (c/n U-52) was a 1970 model purchased second hand in the United States for around $640,000 and entered service with Bell Air in August 1981. The Beech 99 was welcomed with an air show at Whakatane that was attended by some 1500 people from Whakatane and surrounding districts. The aircraft took local dignitaries and the press for sightseeing flights.

While Bell Air had moved into the turbo-prop age it still had a need to keep its overheads at a minimum. The pilots loaded the freight, flew the aircraft, returned to the office and did the bookwork. And at this time the company's head office was in the Bell family home where Pat Bell, Graeme's wife, (hence the Shrike Commander being registered ZK-PAT) acted as the office manager.

Flying over its home town, the sleek Beech 99 ZK-LLA flying over Whakatane. Photo : Bell Air

The Beech 99 was a popular choice and passenger numbers grew as a result. In the 1980-81 financial year the airline carried 3685 passengers and 2237kg of freight. In the following year passengers had grown to 5922 and 22,246kg of freight was flown. 

In January 1982 the first Aero Commander, ZK-DCF was sold but the company was keen to expand. In 1982 Bell Air applied to operate flights from Whakatane to Palmerston North and Wellington but the service never eventuated. 

Beech 99 ZK-LLA in Hokitika on 19 July 1983. In 1983 and 1984 the NZ Forest Service used Bell Air to carry tree seedlings from North Island nurseries for planting in South Westland. This was to fulfil a Government promise to plant up to 10,000 ha of special purpose trees in South Westland after Okarito and Waikukupa forests were added to Westland National Park.

An undated Bell Air timetable from the 1980s with Bell Air running to Auckland seven days a week.
The pilot on the right is Peter Vincent, founder of Vincent Aviation

LLA again in its new colour scheme while on a charter to Christchurch on 31 August 1986

In 1988 Mount Cook used Bell Air’s Beech 99 ZK-LLA on services between Auckland and Rotorua with the Beech carrying Mount Cook Airline titles.

Bell Air's Beech 99 ZK-LLA wearing Mount Cook Airline's titles seen here at Auckland on 8 February 1988

In these years Air New Zealand were supportive of the service with many business passengers to and from Wellington transhipping between Bell Air and Air New Zealand. This relationship soured, however, when in February 1990 Air New Zealand announced that it was to replace Whakatane’s Friendship service to Auckland and Wellington with Eagle Air Bandeirantes flying three flights a day between Whakatane and Auckland.

The Whakatane Beacon of 16 February 1990 reported Bell Air’s response. Graeme Bell said, “We are not going to sit back and let Eagle Air walk all over us. We are going to fight and we hope that the people of the Eastern Bay of Plenty will give us their support.” The ‘fight’ took the form of Bell Air aligning itself to Ansett New Zealand as well as entering into debate in the local paper. Bell Air contribution to search and rescue and air ambulance work was well known and it was suggested the loss of the scheduled service could put this community work at risk. In addition, Bell Air argued that their jet-prop Beech 99 was superior to the Bandeirante being both faster and quieter.

On the 5th of March 1990 Bell Air began their new relationship with Ansett New Zealand. Ansett provided terminal services in Auckland, baggage handling, ZQ (Ansett) flight numbers, "through fares" to Ansett's destinations beyond Auckland, access to their reservations system and marketing support. Bell Air added an additional midday weekday Beech 99 return service to Auckland leaving Whakatane at noon arriving at 12.50pm to connect with Ansett New Zealand services. The return service left at Auckland at 1.20pm. This gave Whakatane 18 Bell Air flights to Auckland each week with three weekday return services, one return service on Saturdays and two return services on Sundays with Eagle Air offering a similar number of flights.

Founder of Bell Air, Graham Bell (right) with Ansett New Zealand’s manager of marketing operations David Squires (left) and commercial sales manager, Tony Terrill (middle). Photo : Whakatane Beacon, 13 March 1990

Bell Air aligned with Ansett New Zealand... Timetable effective 5 March 1990

On the 2nd of April 1990 Bell Air inaugurated a new air service between Palmerston North and Whakatane in conjunction with Ansett New Zealand. The service operated thrice weekly on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays using the Shrike Commander for the 70 minute flight. Flight ZQ365 departed Whakatane at 10.00am arriving at Palmerston North at 11.10am while the return flight, ZQ368, departed Palmerston North at 2.20pm arriving back at Whakatane at 3.30pm. The service was not successful, however, and ended after a short time.

Bell Air timetable with Tranzair style script, effective 24 June 1990

For Bell Air this alignment with Ansett initially proved successful. Graham Bell told Wings magazine in 1991, “We enjoy parochial, loyal support from this area... Since our alignment with Ansett, loadings have increased.” The airline continued to operate in its own right and colours with the advantages of linking into a main trunk carrier. 

By January 1992, however, the Beech was repainted into Tranzair titles but with smaller “Operated by Bell Air” titles on the side of the aircraft. Shortly after, in May 1992, the Shrike Commander ZK-PAT was sold.

Taken in its home patch ZK-LLA at Whakatane on 18 December 1993 in Tranzair colours

Bell Air continued to operate the Beech 99 until late 1995 when Whakatane's Tranzair service was then taken over Rex Aviation using Bandeirante and Northern Commuter Airlines using a Piper Chieftain. The Beech 99 flew its last Whakatane-Auckland-Whakatane service on the 6th of November 1995 under the command of Tony McKevitt. This was the last Tranzair flight and scheduled service operated by Bell Air. The Beech 99 was positioned to Dennis Thompson's at Ardmore on the 5th of February 1996 and it was subsequently exported to the United States.

Ironically both Malcolm Campbell of Eagle Air and Graham Bell of Bell started a small charter operation and took them into the turbine age. The difference between them was that Eagle Air had grown beyond one route. When Air New Zealand looked for companies to operate their new commuter services only two were chosen, Eagle Air and Air Nelson. Sadly, despite the alliance with Ansett New Zealand, Bell Air was the casualty.

Bell Air continued operations as it started with a charter operation using Cessna 172 ZK-LLB until it was sold in March 1997. 

The same aircraft - Bell Air's Cessna 172 ZK-LLB. Above, ZK-LLB wearing the registration ZK-ENY while being engaged on marijuana spotting for the police. Photo taken at Nelson on 14 January 1995. Below ZK-LLB taken at Whakatane on 17 April 1996.

Meanwhile Tranzair continued to operate an Auckland-Whakatane service into 1996. On 29 February 1996 the Tranzair name was changed with the airline adopting a new logo and colours for the Ansett New Zealand feeder operation as Ansett New Zealand Regional. Flights continued to Whakatane until Ansett 3 November 1996 when Ansett pulled out of Whakatane citing economic factors.

People Included

Graham Bell - Pilot/Managing Director
Pat Bell - Office Manager
Tim Dennis - Pilot
Greg Dragicevich - Pilot
Dellis Eades - Reservations Officer
John Eades - Reservations Manager
Tim Jeffares - Pilot
Steve Kingsbury - Pilot
Tony McKevitt - Pilot
Craig Steele - Pilot
Cliff Stockwell - Pilot
Peter Vincent - Pilot
Murray Wellington - Pilot


  1. It's Craig Steele. Still flies out of WHK

  2. Hi Tim, its Grant J can you call us back.

  3. Hey you missed saying that bell air flew to motiti island in their 206

  4. Anthony (Tony) PorterMarch 22, 2024 2:42 PM

    This is a great story about Bell Air. I hired a couple of Graham's aeroplanes way back in about 1981 / 82 as a young CPL. This tells me plenty about Graham's airline and its history and of course its great success but mentions almost nothing about its founder: Graham Bell. Does anyone know where Graham is and what he's doing these days?
    I'd love to know and even catch up with him again. I'm now living in Australia and working in the gold mining industry in Papua New Guinea.
    I can be contacted by e-mail: Tony.porter54@yahoo.com