16 May 2010

NZ's Southern Most Airline: Part 3 - Southern Air 1991-2000

This is the 3rd part of a four part series on New Zealand's southern most airline. The first part was on Stewart Island Air Services (http://3rdlevelnz.blogspot.com/2010/04/nzs-southern-most-airline-pt-1-stewart.html) and the second part was on Southern Air up to 1990 (http://3rdlevelnz.blogspot.com/2010/05/nzs-southern-most-airline-part-2.html).

In 1991 fleet replacements saw two Islanders ZK-FXE and ZK-FWZ being sourced from New Caledonia to replace ZK-FFL and ZK-FGR which were withdrawn from use.

Reflecting its previous New Caledonian owner, Air Moorea, ZK-FWZ, is seen at Invercargill on 2 July 1993. Photo : S Lowe

The Islander was, as it still is, the perfect aircraft for the Stewart Island run along with being versatile enough for other uses. In 1991, Barry Rhodes, Southern Air's sales and promotions manager told NZ Wings, "The Islander is just what's required. It's economical and versatile, and we can take the seats out and convert it for freight within a few minutes. Perhaps 10 percent of revenue comes from Stewart Islanders, another eight percent tradesmen and business people with the remainder being tourists, both domestic and international, and freight. We carry anything and everything." While the Stewart Island schedule was the mainstay of the operation the Islanders were also to be found on beaches picking up or dropping off fishermen, hunters, or trampers, on air ambulance flights to Taieri, Christchurch, or even Auckland, as well as servicing the lighthouse at Dog Island. The early 1990s saw the start of fish and live crayfish flights starting from the Island. To facilitate this an IFR approach was established for flights into Stewart Island.

BN Islander ZK-FGR on an air ambulance flight to Taieri, 27 September 1991. Photo : S Lowe

The early 1990s saw Southern Air buy the Post Office/depot to serve as a terminal for the waiting passengers. Southern Air bought its own vans to collect and drop passengers at Ryans Creek. Southern Air also bought the South Seas Hotel.

The Depot after its purchase in 1995 : Photo J Kean Collection

The 1992 Southern Air team... Barry Rhodes, Annie Stinger, Philip Kean, Anne Rowley, Keith Smith, Kerry Smith, Michelle, Tony Stewart, Robin Andrews and Murray Donald

The 1996 team - Steve Philips, Robin Andrews, Craig Miller, Jeff Slater, Nathan Helms, Philip Kean, Bill Moffat

In 1997 Southern Air was bought by Allan Aitcheson, and the company was renamed Southern Air (1997) Ltd, the third incarnation of the operation. At this stage the company used two Islanders, ZK-FXE and ZK-FWZ as well as a Cessna 172P, ZK-DNP, and a Cessna 177RG, ZK-DXS.

Cessna 172 ZK-DNP (above) at Ryans Creek and Cessna 177RG ZK-DXS at Dougboy with long time manager of Southern Air, Phil Kean. Both Photos : J Kean Collection

Southern Air restarted flights between Invercargill and Dunedin in 1997. Above, BN Islander ZK-FXE advertises the new service at Invercargill on 4 January 1997. Photo : B Kerr Collection. Below, newly painted but without titles ZK-FXE on the service at Dunedin on 15 September 1997. Photo : S Lowe

Cessna 402 ZK-VAC was registered to Southern Air on 2 April 1998 for the scheduled flights between Invercargill and Dunedin that had restarted in 1997. It was also to be used for air ambulance work, the company having gained air ambulance accreditation from the Aviation Industry Association and also. The aircraft was also modified with a Robertson short-takeoff and landing STOL kit so it could also operate into Ryans Creek. The Dunedin service once again did not prosper and was discontinued in July 1998. It was decided to keep the Cessna 402 and use it to supplement the Islander to Stewart Island when needed. Sadly, this aircraft was to be at the centre of Southern Air’s blackest day.

On the 19th of August 1998 ZK-VAC had a double engine failure on a flight from Stewart Island to Invercargill. A mayday call was made just before five o'clock that evening. The pilot, Robin Andrews, successfully managed to ditch the plane in Foveaux Strait 2.5 nm west of Bluff and he and the nine passengers successfully escaped the aircraft. The aircraft stayed afloat for some minutes after the landing. The pilot, realising that he and three passengers did not have life jackets entered the aircraft to find some to no avail. Due to some confusion as to the exact crash site, it took over an hour for rescuers to reach the spot and in that time five people, including the pilot, died from hypothermia in the wintery cold waters of Foveaux Strait. The aircraft was recovered and while the accident report suggested the cause may have been fuel exhaustion no conclusive cause was ever established.

The Southern Air fleet in 1998 including the ill-fated Cessna 402, ZK-VAC. It was repainted subsequent to this photo into full Southern Air colours but I have never seen a colout photo of this. Photo : J Kean Collection

Despite this tragic setback the company continued as it still does today in its fourth incarnation “Stewart Island Flights.” A big thanks to Jordan Kean for his help on this piece and for the great photos from his collection... One of the dangers of posting a piece like this is making mistakes or having omissions. For historical accuracy could you please write a comment or e-mail me (westland831@gmail.com) with any errors or omissions.

The final and briefest instalment of this series will be on Stewart Island Flights. don't know a lot about this company. If you are able to help with details please email me at the address above.

A beach pick up at Colac Bay sometime around 2000. Photo : J Kean Collection


  1. I worked aboard a trawler called the San Rangitoto. We had just dropped off one of the fishermen with a broken arm into Invercargill using the fast rib boat when we got the mayday call that a plane had crashed on the land. I remember that a land search had been initiated. The call was given to us 50 minutes after the crash. The plane had crashed a mile to our stern and we launched the rib. I went out and helped to retreive the survivors and the bodies. It has always saddened me so much when I think back. if we had the mayday call on time we would have saved everyone. It is something that i will always have to live with.

  2. Sadly, with a number of New Zealand's dramatic disasters, eg Cave Creek, Erebus, one change in the sequence of events that precluded the event could have averted a tragedy. For those invovled in this sequence of events and for those involved in the rescue "what if?" becomes a dominant question. While we can't change history the "what if?" question in people invovled is indicative of a person who ultimately values human life and doesn't like seeing it being lost unnecessarily. Sadly this is often overlooked in the frenzy of apportioning blame.