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 in late 1980 and subsequently Southern Air (1997) Ltd and finally, in 2000, it became Stewart Island Flights. This first post is about Stewart Island Air Services...

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

In 1976 Mount Cook Airlines sold both their amphibian operations which were based at Invercargill and Mechanics Bay in Auckland. The Invercargill operation was bought by Stewart Island Air Services who applied to the Air Services Licencing Authority in June 1976 to operate (1) a non-scheduled service between Invercargill and Stewart Island, (2) an air charter service from Invercargill to Stewart Island 3) and air charter and air taxi services from Stewart Island to anywhere in New Zealand. The proposed services are to commence in October 1976, using one BN2A “Islander” aircraft.

In the meantime Stewart Island Air Services found a suitable airstrip site at Ryans Creek, on a small plateau and not too far from Oban, Stewart Island's main settlement. Part of the airstrip was built on freehold land bought by the airlines from private owners, and part on the 2.14 hectares of former scrub reserve for which the company paid the Lands and Survey Department $7500 in 1976. The Stewart Island County Council approved a zoning change. Hearings and appeals ensued with environmental groups overruled due to the nature of the scrub and that damage to the environment would be minimal.

Within weeks of Stewart Island Air Services making their application for an air service the Air Service Licensing Authority heard an application by Rural Management, Ltd, to run an amphibian air service between Invercargill and Stewart Island. The Press reported that The Christchurch company sought a licence to use amphibian aircraft for the 20 minute flights, to provide a scheduled service, and to finance a public runway on property owned by a Stewart Islander. Mr J. G. Rutherford, a Christchurch solicitor, who with his wife owns the company, made it clear that he was not interested in real estate developments on the Island. He already had projects in the North Island and South Island. The application was objected to by Stewart Island Air Services, Ltd, which has an application before the authority to provide a seven-day-a-week, unscheduled air service using a nine-seat Britten-Norman Islander. With about 7000 passengers a year to be carried only one licence should be granted, said its chairman of directors (Mr W. G. Broughton). He said his company would provide a private airstrip at Ryan Creek and be responsible for its maintenance. The chairman of the authority (Mr J. H. O. Tiller) accepted the need for urgency in view of Mount Cook’s impending withdrawal of its  Stewart Island service, but sought final submissions in writing from the two companies before the weekend. He said there was no question about the need for an air link to Stewart Island. But there was room for only one firm.

After Stewart Island Air Services were granted the air service licence the company looked to the construction of the Ryans Creek air strip. The Mount Cook Airlines amphibian service ended on the 3rd of September 1976 and the air service passed to Stewart Island Air Services on the 4th of September 1976. The new company leased Grumman Widgeon ZK-AVM from Auckland’s Sea Bee Air to ensure the continuation of the service until the Islander service could be started. 

On the 8th of September 1976 the company wrote to Stewart Islanders outlining their plans for the new air service...

Dear Stewart Islander,

About your Air Service

You will be aware that for many months now Stewart Island Air Services Limited has been attempting to obtain all the necessary approvals to allow it to construct an air strip on the Island. This is so that a land-based service can be introduced using a nine seater Britten-Norman Islander aircraft. Last Friday saw a further step in this direction when the last Mount Cook flight to the Island took place and Stewart Island Air Services took over the amphibian run. 

The Company, after a great deal of negotiation has managed to make arrangements which will ensure, that at least in the immediate future the amphibian service will be retained. The Company is chartering various Widgeons over the next four months as their overhauls are completed and will run these generally along the lines that they have been run in the past. Unfortunately, we have only been able to obtain four months of guaranteed charter but provided no further delays are encountered with approvals for the establishment of the air strip, construction should be near completion by that time. The progress we have made so far would not have been possible without the enthusiastic support of your local Member of Parliament, Rex Austin and sympathetic assistance of Hugh Templeton, Brian Talboys and Peter Gordon. 

The position with the air strip is that Stewart Island Air Services Limited have been granted a Licence to fly a land-based service to Stewart Island, and have been granted Town Planning approval to use the land it has acquired at Ryan's Creek for the purposes of an airfield. The Town Planning approval can be appealed against by the objector, within the next three weeks. Provided· that no appeal is lodged against the Council's decision, the Company hopes to commence construction within the first fortnight of October. In the meantime, however, our Contractor unfortunately has had to remove his construction plant from the Island. 

As far as the interim amphibian service is concerned, we will be running a one pilot operation. The Company has been very fortunate to obtain the services of Captain Murray Donald as their pilot, and Captain Donald will be flying the Widgeons daily except for Wednesday and Thursday. C.A.A. requirements demand this. The boat, of course, runs on Wednesday so this means that Thursday is the only day when the Island is without some form of transport to and from the Mainland. Flights will generally leave Stewart Island at 9.30 in the morning and 4.30 in the afternoon. 

Fares remain unchanged. 
Michael Goomes has been appointed the Company's Island agent and Michael will arrange tickets, bookings, and any other air charter or air taxi service you may require. In the not too distant future we hope to establish an office at Half¬moon Bay which will provide a gathering point for passengers and luggage, etc. 

In the months ahead Stewart Island Air Services used two Grumman Widgeons, ZK-AVM and ZK-BGQ.  These operated in Mount Cook Airlines' colours but had Stewart Island Air Services titles.

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.

Unfortunately for Stewart Island Air Services there was an appeal against the Stewart Island County Council’s decision to allow an aerodrome to be built at Ryan’s Creek. The Press of the 27th of September 1976 reported that The company has received formal notice of the appeal by the sole objector to the aerodrome construction, Mr A. E. Jones, of Christchurch. The appeal will be heard by the Town and Country Planning Appeal Board, and judging by recent experience at Invercargill, it might be two to three months before the board considers the appeal. Even then, its decision could be appealed against in the Supreme Court on a matter of law.

The company’s chairman (Mr W. G. Broughton) said that since May, the company had emphasised the urgent need to begin the aerodrome construction. There were three critical factors, Mr Broughton said: It would take 29 weeks to build the airstrip; the company’s lease of the amphibian aircraft lasted only until February; and although the company had a written contract with Mr H. Horrell for the aerodrome construction, it could not expect him, because of rising costs, to hold his price indefinitely because of the delays. “While we are exasperated with all the delays, particularly this latest one, we are still keen to build the airstrip,” Mr Broughton said. "Regrettably, the effect of all of this will be increased costs, which must be reflected in the fare.” Mr Broughton said that the company had to go through three air-licensing hearings instead of one (Mr Jones was associated with Rural Management, Ltd, of Christchurch, which also sought an air licence for Stewart Island), and it now had to go through appeals on town-planning matters.

On the 13th of December 1976 the Press reported that the Christchurch land-owner who had appealed the construction of the aerodrome had withdrawn his appeal that week.  Work on the construction of the aerodrome and strip will, weather permitting, begin on Monday. Mr Broughton said that passenger and freight loadings on the company’s Widgeon amphibian had almost doubled on that of the same period a year ago. The Stewart Island Air Services company began the service on September 4, 1975, the day after Mount Cook Airlines withdrew from flying to Stewart Island. The Widgeon, Mr Broughton said, made six or seven flights a day for five days of the week. It did not go to the island on Wednesdays and Thursdays. The amphibian service would continue to provide these services until the aerodrome was finished, in about three months, he said. In the meantime, the company had leased its nine-seat Britten Norman Islander to Mount Cook Airlines for three months.

Three months waiting for the completion of the Ryans Creek airstrip turned into 13 months and in that time the Britten Norman Islander, ZK-IAS, saw service with Mount Cook Airlines and later with the Auckland Aero Club. 

It’s first trip to Invercargill was on the 14th of December 1977 when it carried a new engine for the amphibian that had broken down. The following day it did a flew over Stewart Island. Graeme Noble, a director of Stewart Island Air Services said, the plane is capable of carrying nine passengers and the pilot, or one ton of freight. “It is the beginning of a great new era for the Stewart Island flight,” he said. On its trial flight from Invercargill to Stewart Island last night, the plane performed up to expectations. Several islanders were out in their backyards to wave a cherry greeting as it circled Halfmoon Bay. The airstrip being built on the island was flown over.

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 on the 14th of December 1977. Other directors included William Todd, Sam Nicol, Joe Cave, Bill Hazlet, Keith Smith, John Matheson, Warren Broughton, a Mr Jenkins and Harvey Forrest.

In the June 1979 issue of NZ Wings Martin Muller explained Delays in the Stewart Island land plane service were experienced, frustrating both the Stewart Islanders and the company. 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.

With the aerodrome licence granted Stewart Island Air Services' Britten Norman Islander ZK-IAS made a proving flight into Ryans Creek on the 20th of January 1978. The same day the final Widgeon services were operated by ZK-BGQ. Stewart Island Air Services' scheduled Britten Norman Islander service to the new 610m Ryans Creek airstrip started the following day,  the 21st of January 1978. Initially these flights offered twice a day.

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

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.

As Stewart Island Air Services had built the airstrip and was its owner it controlled landing rights and was able to keep other operators out. This was going to be a sore point for many years. By March 1978 Max Paulin had taken over as pilot manager. In the 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.

By March 1979 the Britten-Norman Islander ZK-IAS had been painted in a stunning red, white and black scheme. Over the summer season, from the 1st of October to the 31st of March, three flights a day were operated between Invercargill and Stewart Island with twice daily flights operated over the winter months. 

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

An undated Stewart Island Air Services all year around timetable, but I suspect post March 1979 as it features the Islander in the new scheme 

Additional advertising include with the timetable for the other Stewart Island tourist operators

Early in 1979 T. J. Edmonds Ltd's Piper PA23-250 Aztec E, ZK-TJE, (c/n c/n 27-7304985) was leased by Stewart Island Air Services and it was used to supplement the company's Britten Norman Islander on flights between Invercargill and Stewart Island. Meanwhile, the air service was extended to operate thrice daily over the summer season and later still to operate thrice daily all year around.

A slightly later undated Stewart Island Air Services' timetable with thrice daily flights over the summer months

In November 1979 Air New Zealand announced it would withdraw the Dunedin-Invercargill sector of its midday Wellington-Dunedin-Invercargill Boeing 737 service. Stewart Island Air Services saw this an opportunity to spread and its wings and applied to operate a weekday return service between Invercargill and Dunedin. The company initially indicated that it would introduce a De Havilland Canada DHC-6 Twin Otter on the service but ultimately opted to use a Cessna 402B Utiliner, ZK-DSB. The Piper Aztec, ZK-TJE, was also used

The new service began on the 1st of April 1980. The flights departed Invercargill at 11.20am to arrive at Dunedin at 11.50am with the return service departing Dunedin at 12.25pm to arrive back in Invercargill at 12.55pm. Four passengers were flown to Dunedin on the first flight with five returning to Invercargill.

A Southland Times April Fools Day photo on the day of Stewart Island Air Service's first Invercargill-Dunedin service. Reprinted in NZ Wings, May 1980

What actually flew the Dunedin service, Stewart Island Air Services' Cessna 402 ZK-DSB over Invercargill

On the 14th of July the midday flights Invercargill-Dunedin flights were scrapped in favour of a twice daily return service on weekdays with flights leaving Invercargill at 8.00am and 4.00pm and leaving Dunedin at 9.00am and 5.00pm. The connection at Dunedin enabled business people from further north a fuller day of business in Invercargill.

Stewart Island Air Services' timetable to Dunedin and Stewart Island, effective 1 April 1981 with thrice daily flights to Stewart Island all year around

Wearing Stewart Island Air Services titles but operating Southern Air flights, Cessna 402B ZK-DSB (above) at Dunedin on the afternoon flight from Invercargill on 16 January 1981. I was rather surprised when a short time after the 402 arrived the Piper Aztec ZK-TJE (below) arrived on a courier flight from Invercargill.

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 an encounter with windshear and turbulence on short finals. This aircraft was on a freight flight and the pilot, the only person aboard the plane at the time, was not injured. Newspaper coverage reported the accident occurred when the Islander.was coming in to land about 2.20 pm. ’As it landed it screwed over, skidding along for about 70 metres and came to rest on the edge of the runway at the Halfmoon Bay end of the airstrip. Constable B. E. McLeod, of Stewart Island, said the starboard propeller was twisted as a result of hitting the ground and both wings had been damaged. “The plane is extensively damaged,” he said. Mr W. N. G. Broughton, chairman of directors of Stewart Island Air Services, said there was ho prospect of the plane’s being flown off the island. 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.

While a replacement aircraft was sought for the Stewart Island service Britten-Norman Islanders ZK-DBV and ZK-MCE were leased from Mount Cook Airlines to supplement Piper Aztec ZK-TJE operating to Stewart Island while the Cessna 402 ZK-DSB and at times ZK-TJE operated the service to Dunedin.  

On the 23rd day of December 1980 "Stewart Island Air Services Limited" changed its name to "Southern Air Limited" reflecting the airline's wider regional operation. 

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