09 September 2012

Who was Akarana Air?

Akarana Air has its origin in Tasman Air Services which, in August 1968, was granted Air Services Licence No 492 to operate air charter and air taxi Services from Auckland with a Piper Navajo, ZK-CUF. Apart from the a brief time, when Tasman Air Services the company was providing services between Christchurch and the Chatham Islands, there was little demand for the company and the Navajo was sold to the Ministry of Transport in December 1969. J V M Kean Ltd, which was a minority shareholder, reached an agreement whereby the licence was transferred to it in May 1970. Approval was also given for the change of aircraft from a Piper Navajo to a Piper Twin Comanche. The licence and company ownership changed to Air Colombus Ltd in May 1972 which operated Piper Pa23-250 Aztec C, ZK-DGT (c/n 27-3437). Then, in August 1972, the company name was changed to Akarana Air Ltd.

Basking in the sun, Piper Aztec, ZK-DGT, at Gisborne

Initially the company remained connected with Columbus Travel and in conjunction with Columbus Travel offered a number of sightseeing and safaris throughout the North Island. In December 1972 this was extended when the company began an air taxi tourist service on Wednesdays and Saturdays from Auckland to Te Kuiti and Rotorua. At Te Kuiti the tourists visited the Waitomo Caves and a local dairy farm and at Rotorua the Agrodrome, Whakarewarewa thermal area, the Rainbow Trout Springs and they had the option of attending a Maori Concert before returning to Auckland the next day.

Akarana Air publicity, September 1972

A defining moment came for the company came in 1973 when it received a contract from Databank to run a weekday courier service from Auckland to Gisborne. Piper Pa30-160 Twin Comanche C, ZK-DOM (c/n 30-1717), was added to the fleet for the new service. The service began on the 20th of August 1973 with the aircraft leaving for Gisborne at 7.00 am and arriving at 8.30am. The return flight departed at 5.30pm to arrive in Auckland at 7.00 pm. The service was extended to Wairoa in October 1974 and included Tauranga from June 1975.

Timetable effective, 20 August 1973

Piper Pa30 Twin Commanche, ZK-DOM, at Auckland on 15 December 1973. ZK-DOM met a watery end in Vanuatu at the end of last year... see http://rnzaf.proboards.com/index.cgi?board=civil&action=display&thread=11295 for more details and photos of this aircraft. Photo : B Gavin

NZ Herald, undated

NZ Herald, 27 July 1974

With the both the Aztec and Twin Comanche getting increasing work, an application was made in January 1974 to add a Ted Smith Aerostar 600 to the fleet. The Aerostar, while having the same capacity as the Aztec, had the advantage of comfort and speed. The company proposed that the aircraft would be purchased by Sir William Stevenson, one of their regular clients, who had a requirement for an aircraft for private and business usage. In turn he agreed to make the aircraft available to Akarana Air for charter and air taxi operations. The entire operation of the aircraft was to be the responsibility of Akarana Air Ltd who would pay to the owner an annual fee of $7,200 as hire for the aircraft. The owner paid for his share of the direct operating costs, excluding pilot costs, which were provided by Akarana. Permission was granted to add the Aerostar on the 4th of March 1974 and the aircraft arrived in the country in November 1974.

The first Aerostar, ZK-DYW, at Invercargill on 26 July 1976. 

Meanwhile, from the 1st of July 1974 Akarana used its Aztec to inaugurate a new five-times-a-week night courier service between Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch for New Zealand Couriers Ltd. The new service, operated as Mercury Air Couriers, and ZK-DGT wore Mercury Air Couriers titles. The Aztec left Auckland at 7.00pm arriving at Wellington at 8.50pm. It left for Christchurch at 9.30pm arriving at 10.45pm. The return service departed at 11.25pm arriving back at Wellington at 12.40am, departing there 40 minutes later to arrive back at Auckland at 3.10am. The service carried documents for computer processing, including punchcards, tapes and other documents.

Piper Pa23 Aztec, ZK-DGT, at Tauranga carrying Mercury Air Courier titles.

Foreseeing an increased volume of courier freight NZ Couriers prevailed upon Akarana to obtain a larger aircraft and late in July 1974 the company successfully applied to the Air Services Licensing Authority to add a Beechcraft B80 Queenair to their fleet, though such an aircraft was never added to the fleet.

November 1974 saw the delivery of Akarana Air’s first Ted Smith Aerostar 600 ZK-DYW (c/n 60-0184-081). This was used on charter work from Auckland and, along with the Aztec, on the Auckland Gisborne-Wairoa service when passenger loadings were too high for the Twin Comanche.

Towards the end of 1974, Akarana came together with Air North Ltd of Rotorua to establish a maintenance facility at Ardmore. The two companies formed a subsidiary known as Norak Aviation Engineering Ltd, whose main task was to maintain Akarana's three twins and the three Aero Commanders of Air North. It was managed by Mr Ken James, who previously was the quality control engineer with Aerospace Industries, and prior to that engineering manager of Air Parts.

In 1976 Akarana Air obtained an 18-month contract with Hunt International Petroleum Co. Ltd which required the Twin Comanche to be based at Invercargill for the duration of this contract. Hunts were off-shore drilling for oil off Stewart Island and the contract with them required the Twin Comanche to be on for standby whenever the Sikorsky helicopter was in operation and to be available for the Hunt’s general use at all times. This meant the Aztec or Aerostar was dedicated to the Databank Systems’ Auckland-Tauranga-Gisborne-Wairoa contract at a time when the Auckland charter business was increasing.

The company was keen to develop its services and so when NZ Forest Products opened Tokoroa airfield to public usage in April 1976 Akarana Air introduced a twice daily air taxi service to Tokoroa from Auckland on the 7th of April 1976. The company felt offering an air taxi service would enable it to test the viability of a scheduled service. The results were not promising and a scheduled service never came to fruition, the air taxi operation being short-lived.

For more on the Tokoroa service see

The courier service to Gisborne and Wairoa service was experiencing a good level of passenger appeal averaging four passengers per day. The company could see room to develop the service to Wairoa and it sought approval to operate a direct scheduled Auckland-Wairoa service as well as applying to add a second Aerostar 600 to the fleet.

A three times a week scheduled service between Auckland and Wairoa began on the 15th of July 1976. The direct flights operated on a Monday and Thursday with the Aerostar which had operated the courier service operating a Wairoa-Auckland morning serive and an afternoon Auckland-Wairoa service. There was also a Saturday morning Auckland-Wairoa-Auckland service. 

For more on the Wairoa service see

Also in July 1976 the company, which was the local Aerostar distributor, imported a second Aerostar for Skeggs Foods Ltd of Dunedin. The new aircraft, a 600A model,  ZK-EHR (c/n 60-0312-116), was leased back to Akarana while the other Aerostar 600, ZK-DYW (c/n 60-0184-081), was based in Invercargill for the use of Skeggs Foods and to service the contract with Hunt Petroleum replacing the Twin Comanche.

Aerostar ZK-EHR at Christchurch on 2 December 1977.

The Mercury Air Courier service that commenced between Auckland Wellington and Christchurch in 1974 had gradually grown. In July 1975 an additional once a week Auckland-Wellington-Auckland courier flight was added. On the 1st of September 1976 this was increased to five times weekly making a 10 flight schedule. At the launch of the Auckland-Wellington-Christchurch courier service Mercury Air Couriers had pressed Akarana to provide a larger aircraft but final agreement for the increased capacity was not arrived at and the introduction of the Queenair was postponed to a later date. Later depressed economic conditions precluded the addition of the Queenair but by mid-1976 the company was in desperate need of additional capacity. In September 1976 the company was granted approval to operate a third Aerostar or a Cessna 340. A Cessna 340 was initially used in the form of ZK-DSD (c/n 340-0251) until June 1978 when Sir William A Stevenson took delivery of Ted Smith Aerostar 600A, ZK-WAS (c/n 60-0506-164), which was used by the company as needs necessitated.

Cessna 340 ZK-DSD at Masterton in November 1975

Aerostar ZK-WAS at Ardmore on 25 August 1979

By 1977 the concept of a night courier freight services was well established and the flights were running close to capacity. In February 1977 a successful application was made to the Air Services Licensing Authority to add a 15-passenger Beech 99 to its fleet. The company told the Authority that it required a bigger capacity aircraft to cope with the increase in demand for its main trunk courier service. The Licensing Authority, while granting the licence, restricted the use of the Beech 99 to charter and scheduled services originating from Auckland. As it transpired the company never added the Beech but later, in mid-1977, an Aero Commander 680FL Grand Commander, ZK-DBQ (c/n 1330-15), was added to its fleet as an interim aircraft for night courier services.

An enginelsss, Aero Commander 680, ZK-DBQ, at Christchurch, 5 May 1977

At about the same time an announcement was made that Akarana Air and Air North had signed an agreement to merge their companies and Akarana sought approval to add Air North’s two Herons and Aero Commander 500A to its licence. At that time Air North's scheduled services operated to nine North Island centres from Kaikohe in the north to Palmerston North in the south. The new company, while looking to consolidate the two networks and fleets, was also interested in looking at the routes NAC was considering dropping. They also stated that they would investigate serving minor towns with the Aerostars, as well as a service to the Mt Ruapehu ski fields. Accordingly Akarana acquired a minority shareholding in Air North and had their two Herons and Aero Commander included on its own licence.

A service from Invercargill and Dunedin to Christchurch using Akarana Air's Invercargill-based Aerostar 600was added in October 1977. This service was operated on behalf of Courier Systems and connected with Titan Air Services Cessna 404 Titan in Christchurch. The service ended at the end of September 1978 when Courier Systems terminated the contract.

Tragedy struck the company on the 31st of October 1977 when the Aero Commander 680 ZK-DBQ ditched into sea near Wanganui while on the overnight courier run from Auckland to Wellington and Christchurch. The pilot, Ken Leahy, who was Akarana Air’s chief pilot, was very experienced having had about three-and-a-half years with Akarana. He radioed Air Traffic Control advising then that he had lost the power in both engines, that he was at about 3000 feet, and that he was ditching with his life jacket on and life raft on the seat next to him. Sadly the search that followed failed to find the pilot or plane.

In October 1978 Akarana Air changed its name to become Nationwide Air Akarana Limited though it continued to operate under the name Akarana Air. The new company was one of the failing Nationwide Air’s creditors to the tune of some $116,000. This placed it under financial stress and it was placed in receivership itself on the 13th of March 1979. Some reorganisation enabled it to continue to operate its Auckland-Wairoa air service for some weeks, however, Wairoa-based Cookson Air took over the service to Auckland on the 4th of May 1979 and Nationwide Air Akarana Ltd was wound up on the 9th of May 1979.