11 July 2010

Air North to Tokoroa

Air North had its origins in the Rotorua Aero Club. The development of the company was recounted by Ian Palmer in NZ Wings in August 1976 who said, "The idea of forming some sort of airline really came more as an outcome of circumstances than as a brain wave by anyone. We were getting a fair amount of charter work after taking over some of the licences of James Aviation (Rotorua) Ltd so it was decided to separate this facet from the rest of the club activities and form Rotorua Aerial Charter. We were getting good work from all sorts of people - forest fire patrols, scenic work, photography, plus a lot of passenger charters so the proposition was more or less forced onto us. But the commercial flying grew faster than the club flying, so it was decided to form a company to take over the commercial activities which we had provided in the name of Rotorua Aerial Charter. The club committee asked me to organise the company, and in March 1969 (seven years after I joined the aero club!) Geyserland Airways commenced operation as a private company... Initially our fleet consisted of an Aero Commander 500 ZK-CWP and two single engine Cessnas, including a floatplane. Geyserland Airways progressed well over the next few years, and we added two Grand Commanders (DBQ and DHF) and another Cessna 185 floatplane to the fleet. But already we could see conflict arising with the varying nature of the work we were doing. I was more keen on the passenger services, which were becoming regular, but this wasn't really synonymous with our floatplane operations, nor the jobs for the various Government departments that we were still doing. So in 1972 I formed Air North Ltd and took the three twin-engined Commanders and began operating more or less regular flights from Rotorua to, initially, Auckland and then Gisborne.”

As early as July 1974 Air North was applying to the Air Services Licensing Authority to use Tokoroa for scheduled air services. It was not until 1976, however, that the company received the necessary approvals to have charter rights from Tokoroa as well as having Tokoroa as a stopping place on its Rotorua-Auckland scheduled service.

The smallest in Air North's fleet, Aero Commander 500, ZK-CWP, at Palmerston North on 30 January 1976
Flights began on the 5th of July 1976, three months after Akarana Air had commenced their service to Tokoroa. Akarana's service seemed to have petered out... (Does anyone have any details about this???) Air North offered three weekday flights to Tokoroa. The Rotorua-Tokoroa-Auckland flights left Tokoroa at 7.20 am and 4.00pm with the afternoon flight landing at Hamilton if necessary. The morning flight from Auckland and Hamilton arrived at 9.10am before continuing on to Gisborne, stopping as necessary at Rotorua, Kawerau and Whakatane. The aircraft then continued on to Napier and Palmerton North. The afternoon service took the same route back to Tokoroa before leaving for Hamilton and Auckland at 4.00pm and arriving back at Tokoroa at 5.50pm. Fares for the new flights ranged from $11 one way to Rotorua to $45 to Palmerston North.

Lack of patronage, however, caused the number of flights to be reduced to a single flight effective from the 15th of November 1976. The new schedule saw the flight arrive at Tokoroa from Auckland, via Rotorua, at 10.40am and leave for Auckland, via Hamilton, at 10.45am. While Tokoroa locals were unhappy Air North maintained there was very little support from Tokoroa residents. Ian Palmer told the South Waikato News that number of passengers between Tokoroa and Auckland were; in July, 15; in August, 6; in September, 12; in October, 7; and in November, 5. “Following the change we catered for 20 passengers in December,” Mr Palmer said.

In response to public pressure Air North announced on the 22nd of March 1977 that it was considering rearranging its timetable to suit Tokoroa people and was considering an early morning and mid-afternoon flight to Auckland returning around 5.00pm. Patronage figures for January had not been good, with a total of eight people flown to Kaikohe, Auckland and Gisborne. No freight was uplifted. In the same month 5 people were flown from Auckland to Tokoroa, 2 from Gisborne and 3 from Napier.

It seems reasonable to assume that during its operation into Tokoroa Air North operated all its aircraft types. Mike Feeney recently wrote in the May 2010 issue of Aviation News about an Air North DH Heron that had landed 'hot' on wet grass and ended up one metre from the airstrip end, following an intentional groundloop.

Air North De Havilland 114 Heron, ZK-BBM, at Ardmore, 5 January 1976.

Consideration did not translate into action and Tokoroa was quietly dropped from Air North’s timetable. With patronage figures like these, one can see why both the Akarana Air and Air North service failed. Any successful service to Tokoroa needed the NZ Forest Products traffic which, at this time, was being carried by their own private aircraft. The NZ Forest Products service, which later became a public air service operated as Auckland Tokoroa Air Service was covered in an earlier post, http://3rdlevelnz.blogspot.com/2010/06/forestry-towns-businessliners.html.  

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