30 May 2010

NZ's Southern Most Airline: Part 3 - Stewart Island Flights


South East Air was established by Raymond Hector and Bill Moffatt in 1993 using Cessna 185E ZK-JEM for beach operations to Stewart Island's west coast beaches, Dog and Codfish Islands for the Department of Conservation and general New Zealand wide charter flights. 

South East Air Ltd's Cessna 185, ZK-JEM on beach work.

On the 4th June 1996 South East Air started an IFR courier flight for NZ Post from Invercargill to Dunedin and return. Piper PA32 Cherokee 6 ZK-DBC was used for the first nine months of the service. In January 1996 the company bought a Piper PA32-300 Cherokee 6 in Australia which was registered ZK-RTS and this replaced ZK-DBC. The courier service was flown for 13 years. The last flights, from Invercargill to Dunedin and return, were operated by ZK-RTS on the 9th October 2009 with George Cuthill being the pilot. After that NZ Post vans took over the mail delivery. Until that time South East Air was only one of two New Zealand operators who operated at night in a single engine piston aircraft. Air Napier continues to do so on its courier flights between Napier and Gisborne.

Piper PA32 Cherokee 6 ZK-RTS was used for the NZ Post service until 2009.
It is seen at Invercargill on 15 April 2011 and at Doughboy Bay below.   

It was Stewart Island Air Services (http://3rdlevelnz.blogspot.com/2010/04/nzs-southern-most-airline-pt-1-stewart.htmlwho replaced Stewart Island's amphibian service with flights to Ryan's Creek aerodrome in January 1978. In 1981 Stewart Island Air Services was rebranded as Southern Air and which later became Southern Air 1997 Ltd (http://3rdlevelnz.blogspot.com/2010/05/nzs-southern-most-airline-part-2.html). South East Air Ltd bought Southern Air 1997 Ltd in April 2000 and the trading name for the airline was changed to Stewart Island Flights.

Today two Britten Norman Islanders, ZK-FWZ and ZK-FXE, are used to maintain the, at least, three daily return scheduled flights between Invercargill and Stewart Island. The Islanders are also used for ferrying tramping groups  to and from the beaches on the northern and western sides of the island and the main Stewart Island airstrip at Ryan's Creek or Invercargill. 

Ryan's Creek aerodrome is located about 2 km from Oban, the main settlement on Stewart Island

The service is operated VFR and so the pilots really get to know the vagaries of the weather around the island and over Foveaux Strait. The flight to Ryan's Creek airfield is only 74 km and the airstrip at Ryan's Creek is short, with a sealed runway of 620 metres with a sealed/clay extension of 180 metres at the northern end. These facts, along with the transfers to the northern and western beaches, make the Britten Norman Islander the perfect choice of aircraft for Stewart Island Flights with no other obvious replacement type available. 

BN Islander ZK-FWZ at Ryan's Creek on 16 December 2019 - Note the two bladed prop

BN Islander ZK-FXE at Invercargill on 16 December 2019 - Note the three bladed prop

Stewart Island Flights' schedule. Downloaded 8 March 2017

In August 2002 a second Piper PA32 Cherokee 6, ZK-DIV, was added to the fleet. The Cessna 185 and Piper Cherokee 6 aircraft, primarily operate to the north and west coast beaches with the Cessna 185 operating to the islands in Foveaux Strait, though the Cherokee 6 is also occasionally used on scheduled flights.

The company operates to five beaches which the company describes as follows;

Smoky Beach is our northern most landing spot on Stewart Island. Set amongst a beautiful backdrop of rising sand dunes, Smoky Beach offers a pristine setting popular with hunters and travellers alike. Due to the confined landing area, flights are limited to 3 people per trip in the Cessna 185.

Aptly named after the surrounding rocks and mountains, West Ruggedy Beach is situated near the base of the Ruggedy Mountains, offering stunning views of Foveaux Strait and surrounds. West Ruggedy is a popular landing spot for both hunters and trampers wanting to explore somewhere different. Due to the confined landing area, flights are limited to 3 people per trip in the Cessna 185.

Located just north of Mason Bay, Little Hellfire is a popular destination for hunters looking to access the Big Hellfire Hut and hunting block. Despite the name, Little Hellfire is actually larger than Big Hellfire beach. An impressive dune system provides a beautiful backdrop to the rugged location.

Mason Bay is a popular destination for adventurers because of its historical and wildlife appeal. The bay was once home to ancient Maori and is still held in great reverence by Maori. In the early 1900s Mason Bay was home to pioneer farmers trying, unsuccessfully, to tame the island’s wilderness. The original homestead and a few outbuildings still stand. Mason Bay’s main appeal lies in its significance as home to the highest population base of kiwi in the world. With some luck these shy, nocturnal birds can be viewed in their natural environment. Stretching 19 kilometres from end to end, Mason Bay never fails to amaze. The chance to experience its unrivalled beauty is only an exhilarating beach flight away. Flights operate at low tide landing on the beautiful sandy beach. Stewart Island Flights operate to a number of different landing sites on Mason Bay. These include Duck Creek, Martins Creek, Cavalier and Kilbride.

Doughboy Bay is a truly unique destination from which you can enjoy stunning, untouched vistas. Your flight and approach will take you over breathtaking terrain, before landing within a very short walk to the Doughboy Hut. Doughboy is a popular destination amongst locals and our own pilots for its sheer beauty. Although somewhat challenging tracks, from Doughboy you can walk through to Mason Bay to the north or to Fred's Camp/Rakeahua via the southwestern circuit.

Runway 22, Ryan's Creek Airfield, 13 April 2011
Runway 04, Ryan's Creek Airfield, 16 December 2019

Ryan's Creek Airfield 16 December 2019

Stewart Island Flight's Depot in downtown Oban on 15 April 2011

Up until the March 2009 Stewart Island Flights was the trading name for the air services to Ryan's Creek. On the 16th of March 2009 Stewart Island Flights Ltd was incorporated though all the aircraft remain registered to South East Air. For its scheduled flights Stewart Island uses the callsign Rakiura, the Māori name for Stewart Island. 

On the 9th of August 2011 the Piper Cherokee Six ZK-DIV failed to take off from the beach at Doughboy Bay after hitting a downdraft. It crashed in two metres of water and sank. The pilot and one passenger were unhurt and swam ashore and the aircraft was subsequently written off.

South East Air's Piper Cherokee 6 ZK-DIV at Ryan Creek on 13 April 2011
Southeast Air Cessna 185 ZK-JEM at Dog Island on 16 August 2017. Photo : Stewart Island Flights Facebook page 

Southeast Air Cessna 185 ZK-JEM at  Invercargill on 16 December 2019 

Southeast Air Piper Cherokee 6 ZK-RTS at  Invercargill on 16 December 2019 
BN Islander ZK-FXE over Foveaux Strait enroute to Stewart Island

On the 15th of June 2021 Raymond Hector retired as a Stewart Island Flights' pilot with Raymond and has wife Lynne having sold their shareholdings in the company to Leon and Antony Bax on the 26th of May 2021. 

A couple of months later, on the 21 of April 2022 a RNAV (GNSS) approach and a RNAV (GNSS) Standard Instrument Departure were established at Ryans Creek allowing IFR flights to and from Stewart Island.  

Stewart Island Flights and South East Air quietly continue to operate its flights from Invercargill and retain the total commitment to provide a friendly, efficient air service to Stewart Island that was first seen in Stewart Island Air Services operation and carried on by Southern Air. For over 40 years these companies have been always been there for the Stewart Island community as well as providing easy tourist access to one of New Zealand’s most beautiful locations. Long may the service continue.

A big thanks to Raymond Hector for his help on this post and for the great photos from his collection.

A Photo Essay on Stewart Island Flights’ operation by Bruce Gavin;

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