05 December 2010

Wairoa's Cookson Airspread

William Bolton (Bill) Cookson formed Cookson Airspread Ltd in 1953. His company was probably more known for aerial topdressing but for almost 40 years the company offered scheduled services from Wairoa to Napier, Gisborne and, for a number of years, Auckland. The first move towards a scheduled service was taken in October 1957 when Cookson Airspread was granted a charter licence with the company taking delivery of a Piper Pa22-150 Tripacer, ZK-BSD (c/n 22-5548), in December 1957.

Bill Cookson

The Wairoa Star proudly praised the virtues of the Tripacer in its report on the new arrival. “The new aircraft is larger than any other type already in the district and offers a maximum in travel comfort. Because of its American manufacture it possibly possesses a measure of luxury in respect of passenger and pilot than many other aircraft in operation today The construction makes the plane faultless in appearance and it is designed for absolute safety. The two forward seats are ‘bucket’ shaped and the rear seat is for double accommodation. The seats are upholstered in red leather with a silver and fawn threaded furnishing inlay. They are also adjustable to permit passengers to relax. An unusual feature adding to air travel comfort is that passengers are permitted to smoke whilst in the air and ashtrays and a cigarette lighter are installed for this purpose. Vision is unrestricted and air vents in the perspex windows give excellent ventilation whilst heating and cooling provides the utmost in air conditioning.” Never before have the praises of a Tripacer been so highly sung!

Cookson Airspread's Cessna 180, ZK-BVQ at Wairoa. BVQ introduced the Dominion newspaper service with Petersen Aviation before the service and the Cessna was bought by Cooksons.

Wairoa Star, 25 July 1958

The move to scheduled air service happened in July 1957. The Wairoa Star of 23 July 1958 reported that Cookson Air had taken over the Dominion newspaper service that had been started by Petersen Aviation in late 1957. To serve the newspaper contract and provide for passenger and freight Cookson’s bought Petersen’s Cessna 180, ZK-BVQ (c/n 31342). This continued the service until 1963 when it was replaced by a larger Cessna 185, ZK-CAK (c/n 185-0017), number 17 off the production line.

Two views of Cessna 185, ZK-CAK... at Wellington above and below at Fielding on 18 August 1979

Wairoa Star, 27 March 1963

Over the years a number of aircraft were operated on the service. The company was bought by Manawatu Aerial Topdressing Ltd in June 1967. Cookson Airspread Ltd continuing to operate under its own name as a fully owned subsidiary of the Manawatu Company from this time with Bill Cookson continuing to managed it until about November 1969 when he retired from aerial topdressing. A Cessna 172, ZK-BWL (c/n 47320), was also used in the early 1970s. On the 22nd of February 1978 a twin engined aircraft was registered to the company in the form of Piper Pa23-250 Aztec D ZK-CUS (c/n 27-4499). This maintained the services to Gisborne and Napier.

A later addition to the fleet was Cessna 172A ZK-BWL taken at Fielding in June 1974. 

Piper Aztec ZK-CUS at Wairoa on 4 November 1980.

Cooksons were not only the operator offering flights into Wairoa. In the mid-1970s Databank’s weekday courier service from Auckland to Gisborne, which was operated by Akarana Air, was extended to Wairoa. In 1976 Akarana Air added a three times a week direct air service from Wairoa to Auckland. This company underwent various ownership changes until in 1979 an order to wind up Nationwide Air (Akarana) was made. While this was in process D H R Wilkie Ltd of Auckland and Cookson Airspread applied for a licence to operate the Wairoa–Auckland service. The Air Services Licensing Authority granted in favour of Cooksons a non-scheduled licence to operate three flights per week between Wairoa and Auckland. These flights commenced on 4 May 1979 after Akarana suddenly withdrew their service. Flights departed Wairoa at 7.00 am on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays arriving in Auckland at 8.30 am with the return flight leaving at 9am, arriving back in Wairoa at 10.30am. This timetable enabled Auckland businessmen to come to Wairoa for the day and return on the Wairoa to Gisborne or Napier feeder service connecting with Air New Zealand to Auckland the same evening.

Wairoa Star, 25 May 1979

Later in 1979 Piper Pa32-300 Cherokee 6, ZK-DOP (c/n 32-7440045), was added to the fleet while Piper Pa23-250 Aztec F ZK-EVP was registered to Cooksons on the 10th of October 1980 and to replace the older Aztec, ZK-CUS.

For Sale - Cook Airspread's Piper Cherokee 6 ZK-DOP taken at Ardmore on the 18th of May 1984.

Piper Aztec ZK-EVP taken at Napier on the 20th of January 1992.

In 1984 the company made a $100,000 investment in Wairoa's future by adding Britten Norman BN2A-26 Islander ZK-EVO (c/n 785) to the fleet as the Aztec had not been able to cope with the growing passenger and freight demand between Wairoa, Gisborne and Napier. The Islander, which was relatively cheap to operate, was also ideally suited for Cooksons’ mixed freight and passenger requirements on the short sectors. The Islander was mainly used on the morning newspaper service run but it was also operated on the data bank service in the evenings as well as being available for charter and air ambulance work.

Britten Norman Islander, ZK-EVO, taken at Wairoa on the 8th of May 1984.

Wairoa Star, 23 February 1984

In 1985 Basil Forster-Pratt took over as managing director and in 1986 he announced that the airline and topdressing divisions were being separated, the airline taking the name Cookson Air while the topdressing division was keeping the name Cookson Airspread. At the same time Cookson Airspread combined with Gisborne’s Farmers Air Ltd but locally kept the name Cookson Airspread.

In July 1987, major changes were occurring with Air New Zealand services with Eagle Air taking over Air New Zealand’s flights to Gisborne but also a decreasing of traffic. This necessitated a rescheduling of Cookson’s timetable and a change in the fleet. The Britten Norman Islander was sold to Aspiring Air of Wanaka with Cessna 177RG Cardinal joining the fleet for a year or so at the same time. The Aztec maintained the services while awaiting the arrival of the Islander’s aircraft, Cessna T207A, ZK-FQA Stationair 7 (c/n 207-00455), the flights to Auckland were reduced to twice a week operating in the middle of the day.

Cessna 177RG ZK-DPD taken at Wairoa on the 21st of January 1992.

Cessna 207 ZK-FQA in her two colour schemes. Above, at Gisborne on 22 January 1992 and below, at Napier on 19 December 1993.

For a time the service was extended north from Gisborne to Ruatoria but this was unsuccessful. Problems were also experienced with loadings on the flights to Auckland and these too were unable to be sustained and they subsequently ended. With the improvement of the roads between Napier and Gisborne it was inevitable that the Dominion newspaper would eventually go by road. This happened in mid-August 1991 when Cookson Air lost the Dominion contract. Managing director, Maurice Forster-Pratt told NZ Wings that this and loss of a Databank document courier con-tract, put the airline “in survival mode”. This left Cooksons with a much reduced courier and freight operation with the generally small number of passengers the service carried.

To stimulate growth the company’s base was moved from Wairoa to Napier but on the 1st of October 1994 the base was moved back to Wairoa. At this time an increased schedule was introduced with three flights from Napier to Wairoa, and two flights back from Gisborne with a connection being available to Palmerston North in the afternoon. The Cessna 207 was sold leaving ZK-EVP, the “Spirit of Wairoa”, the sole aircraft in the fleet.

Wairoa Star, 29 September 1994

The end was nigh, however, and on the 13th of February 1995 the Wairoa Star reported that both Cookson Air and Cookson Superspread had suspended all their services on the 3rd of February. The Aztec required “mandatory heavy maintenance requirements” and no aircraft was available for rent which was suitably priced to allow the service to continue.

Sadly this ended the story of one of New Zealand’s longest lasting third level airlines.


  1. neville.cowan.June 02, 2014 8:29 PM

    i was a paper boy in napier for the dominion about 1957 to 1960, the boss was a scot, named jameson, every morning bill cookson would phone to ask if the dominion service car was on time. one morning the service car broke down, boss phoned our schools, bill had to hang around, so he suggested to bring a few boys out for a ride, we flew over napier, over emerson st at 100mph (slow in the air) upside down for a while. on landing bill said, :tell the teacher you did a ton down the main drag"

  2. Thanks for sharing that Bill... These are the stories that bring history to life!

  3. wow this is truely amazing, Bill must have been a top guy? with a great sense of humour, "tell the teacher you done a ton" hahaha totally something i would say...awesome stuff...Mo

  4. Bill was a good uncle to us,untie as well.I remember he use to buzz over our family home at frasertown.I think he was telling dad he be at the tavern soon...funny

  5. Bill Cookson was my mother's whangai brother. Her name was Urunumia Campbell. We met in Wairoa where we lived with my mums partner Dave Rskai at the mill pa papakainga. I met him again when he ran a pub in Opotiki. He knew me straight away and he cried when we hugged.