25 April 2010

The New Islander - Stewart Island Air Services

New Zealand’s southern most airline, Stewart Island Flights, is in its fourth incarnation. It began as Stewart Island Air Services before being rebranded as Southern Air Ltd and subsequently Southern Air (1997) Ltd. This first instalment is about Stewart Island Air Services...

Stewart Island’s first air service was operated by Grumman Widgeon amphibians operated by an Invercargill company, Amphibian Airways. The service was later sold to NZ Tourist Air Travel which was later brought out by Mount Cook Airlines.

In 1976 Mount Cook Airlines sold their amphibian operations at Invercargill and from Mechanics Bay in Auckland. The Invercargill operation was taken over by Stewart Island Air Services who applied the Air Services Licencing Authority in June 1976 to operate non-scheduled and charter services between Invercargill and Stewart Island, and charter and taxi services from Stewart Island with one Britten Norman Islander.

After being granted the necessary licence the company looked to the construction of the Ryans Creek air strip. The Mount Cook Airlines amphibian service ended on 3 September 1976 and this passed on to Stewart Island Air Services. The company leased a Widgeon (though ultimately two Widgeons were to be used, ZK-AVM and ZK-BGQ), from Auckland’s Sea Bee Air to ensure the continuation of the service until he Islander service could be started. In a letter sent to Stewart Islanders on the 8th of September 1976 the company said provided no further delays are encountered with approvals for the establishment of the air strip, construction should be near completion within four months. In the meantime Captain Murray Donald was appointed to fly the Widgeons daily except for Wednesday and Thursday. The ferry, the MV Wairua, ran on a Wednesday so this meant that Thursday was the only day when the Island was without some form of transport to and from the Mainland. Flights were scheduled to leave Stewart Island at 9.30 in the morning and 4.30 in the afternoon. The company received a Government grant of $10,000 to cover losses which is would incur on the amphibian operation and to ensure the continuity.

Above, Grumman Widgeon ZK-AVM at Invercargill on 7 September 1976. 
The second Widgeon used by Stewart Island Air Services was ZK-BGQ, again at Invercargill on 30 November 1976.

As the Widgeons were rebranded so were the timetables... A Mount Cook timetable altered for the new operator, ca September 1976.

Martin Mueller reported on the frustration the company had with the construction of the Ryans Creek air strip in NZ Wings in 1978, “Work had to be stopped due to weather, and the whole job - which was estimated to take about three months - eventually took thirteen. The trouble centred around doing major earthworks during a wet winter. Finally work was completed, with only sealing to be done. This has been put off in the meantime. Gravel has been laid which was sufficient for a Civil Aviation Licence, issued on January 19.”

A scan of a photocopy of a photocopy. Graeme Noble, Keith Smith (directors), G McGreaty (the ferry pilot) and Captain M Donald stand in front of Islander IAS at Invercargill after its arrival from Auckland. Source and date of photo unknown, however it was before the Islander went on charter to Mount Cook Airlines.The Islander actually had a spare engine for BGQ in the back of it when I arrived from Ardmore. One of BGQ's engines had failed a few days before and the replacement engine was needed in a hurry. Other directors included William Todd, Sam Nicol, Joe Cave, Bill Hazlet, Keith Smith, John Matheson, Warren Broughton, a Mr Jenkins and Harvey Forrest.

While awaiting for the completion of the air strip, the Britten Norman Islander, ZK-IAS was leased out for a time to Mount Cook Airlines and later to the Auckland Aero Club. It’s first trip to Stewart Island was on the 14th of December 1977 carrying a new engine for the amphibian that had broken down. The final Widgeon flight took place on the 20th of January 1978 with the new Islander service to the new 610m Ryans Creek airstrip starting the following day. 

Touchdown at last - the long awaited arrival of the Islander at Ryans Creek on 20 January 1978. Scheduled services commenced 21 January 1978. Source of photo unknown.

Early advertising of the BN Islander ZK-IAS before titles were painted on the aircraft.

Britten Norman Islander ZK-IAS in her original colour scheme at a gloomy Invercargill on 17 May 1978.

In these early days Lloyd and Beryl Wilcox of Stewart Island Travel, met the aeroplane at the strip, taking passengers, animals, post, newspaper and food to town by the yellow Ford Transits.

From 1 April 1980, with the withdrawal of Air New Zealand’s Boeing 737 flights between Dunedin and Invercargill, Stewart Island Air Services spread and its wings and introduced a twice weekday return service between the cities. The company initially opted to introduce a De Havilland Canada Twin Otter for the service but instead the company obtained Cessna 402 ZK-DSB and Piper Aztec ZK-TJE to service it. 

Stewart Island Air Services' Cessna 402 ZK-DSB over Invercargill

Stewart Island Air Services' timetable to Dunedin and Stewart Island, effective 1 April 1980

Cessna 402B ZK-DSB (above) at Dunedin on the afternoon flight from Invercargill in January 1981. I was rather surprised when a short time the 402 arrived the Piper Aztec ZK-TJE (below) arrived on a courier flight from Invercargill.

One of the more stunning colour schemes to see service in New Zealand... Britten Norman Islander ZK-IAS at Invercargill on 4 March 1979.

On the 27 October 1980 disaster struck the company when the mainstay of the Stewart Island run, Islander ZK-IAS, crashed on approach to Ryans Creek following encounter with windshear and turbulence on short finals. The aircraft was disassembled and flown as an external load by helicopter from Stewart Island to Invercargill by AS350 Squirrel ZK-HMY on 3 November 1980 and was written off.

The Stewart Island Air Services route map. The Cessna 402 ZK-DSB never wore this scheme

While a replacement aircraft was sought Islanders ZK-DBV and ZK-MCE were leased from Mount Cook Airlines. IAS’s replacement came in the form of GAF N22 Nomad ZK-SAL and at this time the company changed its name to Southern Air reflecting that it wasn’t flying to Stewart Island alone. Southern Air will be the second part of this series on New Zealand’s southern most airline.

A big thanks to Jordan Kean for his help on this piece.


  1. hey, Steve L, this is a neat blog site with great info. Great detail and lots of historical detail. Reference your bit about the recovery of BN2A ZK-IAS - i worked at IVC Airport Control Tower when this took place.The sight of the fuselage hanging beneath ZK-HMY as Bill Black "flew it" from Oreti Beach, low-level, across the apron past the Farmers ATD maintenance hangar to the SIAS hangar (opposite ther Aero Club) was a sight never to forget. The strop was long, and the fuselage appeared like a missile would, coming straight at you!! Keep up the good work

    Paul D

  2. Thanks for your comments Paul... I found, somewhere in my searching the net the other day, photos of the Islander underneath ZK-HMY but foolishly didn't save a copy or the link...

  3. Steve, You might be interested to know that your comments are accurate with regard to the delivery of IAS. It did go to Mount Cook on lease after the delivery. I was the ferry pilot and you have correctly identified me in the photo. However what you probably don't know I was SIAS other Widgeon pilot. The Islander actually had a spare engine for BGQ in the back of it when I arrived from Ardmore. One of BGQ's engines had failed a few days before and the replacement engine was needed in a hurry. Today I have been moving ZK-AVM from a farm at Whitford in Auckland to AVSPECS at Ardmore where it will be restored. This time it moved on the back of a trailer with the wings and props removed. I am sure that Stewart Islanders will be happy to see it back in the air.


    Garth McGearty

  4. Thanks Garth... A great little gem of new information and it is really great that AVM is going to get airborne again... With this in mind I've done a post on AVM

  5. The other SIAS director you are asking about was Harvey Forrest, an Invercargill accountant. The monthly company directors meetings were held in his office