15 May 2011

Air West Coast - Flying on a Wing, a Prayer and a Dornier

Air West Coast was established by the Gloriavale Christian Community in 2002. This community had its origins at Cust in Canterbury and moved to Lake Haupiri on the West Coast in 1991. Among its other activities the community established an airstrip and maintenance base at Lake Haupiri.

Air West Coast began scheduled operations on the 8th of November 2002 offering flights to Wellington and Christchurch. On Mondays and Fridays a Greymouth-Westport-Wellington service was flown, while on Tuesdays and Thursdays a Greymouth-Westport-Christchurch service was flown. Both routes saw the aircraft leaving Greymouth early in the morning and returning in the late afternoon/early evening. Initially the company used Piper Pa31-350 Chieftain ZK-VIP (c/n 31-7405482) and Piper Pa34-200 Seneca II ZK-KAE (c/n 34-7670251) to fly these services.

Air West Coast's Piper Seneca ZK-KAE at Greymouth on 24 November 2002

Piper Chieftain ZK-VIP arrives back in Greymouth from Wellington and Westport on 9 March 2005.

Timetable effective 8 November 2002

The Christchurch service did not garner much support. On the 2nd of April 2003 Westport's The News reported that Air West Coast has shelved its West Coast to Christchurch scheduled service, but expanded its West Coast to Wellington one. Chief executive Fervent Stedfast said the twice-weekly Christchurch service began in response to public demand. Travel agents and Buller Mayor Pat O'Dea had believed the service would be popular, but so far Westport people hadn't seemed interested. "We've had whole weeks go by and not a single booking. We've had people on every flight to Wellington and people asking us "look, we'd use the service more if you had more flights. If you had another day in the week it would be more useful to us." The airline would now fly to Wellington on Wednesdays as well as on Mondays and Fridays, starting today. Anyone wanting to fly to Christchurch could still contact Air West Coast. "We'll fly to Christchurch when the need is there but no-one's going to fly empty aeroplanes very far anywhere in the world." Air West Coast aimed to provide services people wanted, Mr. Stedfast said. "We're adaptable, we’re a flexible service to meet the needs of the people as they bring them forward. They might turn around another season, they might start wanting to go to Christchurch. "If that's the case, we'll be there as quick as we can, we'll adjust to that." Mr O’Dea. was surprised Air West Coast had pulled the Christchurch service so soon. "We've got the winter months coming on - road closures, people not wanting to drive in icy conditions. Personally, I would have thought that would have been a more viable time to try it" He fears the new air service will jeopardise Westport's six-day a week Air New Zealand service to Wellington. "The number of people flying isn't great. Any competition to Air New Zealand has a possibility of withdrawing that service. "If they withdraw that service we would be much the poorer." When Air West Coast launched the new service Mr Stedfast said it aimed to complement existing flights, not squeeze them out. Mr O'Dea disagrees. "It all amounts to bums on seats. You can only have one bum on one seat" Air West Coast is owned by the 320-strong Gloriavale Christian Community at Lake Haupiri. 

A few days later Air West Coast denied cuts. Speaking in The News chief executive Fervent Stedfast said "It's still available and we're still flying to Christchurch." Mr Stedfast said the airline had always provided a regular air service, not scheduled flights. “A regular air service flies when passenger numbers are there, but when they aren't, it doesn't fly. If there are no flights on a given day, it's not because we've 'pulled the plug,' but because of lack of bookings. We fly on demand." Buller Mayor Pat O'Dea had requested the Christchurch flights and Air West Coast had provided them, he said. "But for any air service to run, there must be a reasonable usage. So it's up to the people of Westport to develop this route. We've not gone away. If you support our Christchurch service, we'll fly you there. Let us know you want it by your patronage." Mr Stedfast seid The News incorrectly quoted Air West Coast's flight time from Westport to Wellington as 75 minutes and Air New Zealand's as 40 minutes. In fact Air West Coast’s flight time was 65 minutes each way. Air New Zealand's was 50 minutes to Wellington and 55 minutes to Westport.

The Wellington service continued to grow and so the Seneca was replaced at the end of 2003 with a second Piper Pa31-30 Chieftain, ZK-EBT (c/n 31-7552044). About the same time Cessna 210-5A (c/n 205-0570) was added to the fleet for scenic and charter work.

Air West Coast's Cessna 205 ZK-COY at Greymouth on 30 January 2005

The arrival of the second Chieftain enabled the Greymouth-Westport-Wellington service to become a five day-a-week Monday to Friday service from the 1st of November 2004. A few weeks later, on the 20th of November 2004 Paul Gorman reviewed the Air West Coast service in the Christchurch Press... 

Five miles out from Wellington above a foaming Cook Strait, it suddenly strikes me that eight people died in this type of small plane in June last year. I'm on assignment on one of the South Island's numerous little airlines to experience flying in a plane carrying fewer than 10 people and see how rigorously the airline operates and carries out its safety procedures. It's pure coincidence that this is a Piper Chieftain, the same as the Air Adventures plane that crashed near Christchurch International Airport, killing pilot Michael Bannerman and seven Crop and Food Research Institute staff. Now we're bouncing down through the clouds on descent into Wellington, catching glimpses of the wind-racked sea below, and I'm feeling vulnerable. There's little visibility and each bit of turbulence thumps me hard in the stomach. We're about to go head-to-head with the big planes and the strong winds down on the tarmac of one of the country's most notorious airports. Two hours earlier, in the post-dawn Westland murk, with drizzle hanging in the air and low cloud clinging to the hills, I'm sitting waiting with seven others in a room that could only euphemistically be called Greymouth Aerodrome's "terminal", preparing to board Air West Coast's daily service to Westport and Wellington. In the hotel last night I'd been given two pieces of advice. The first was not to drink coffee before the flight - there being no toilet facilities on the Chieftain - and the second was that there was nothing to worry about when the plane bounced around a lot. I dismissed that bit of advice when the guy subsequently admitted he used to throw himself out of planes when he was younger. On the way to the terminal I was pleased to see Greymouth Aerodrome doing its bit in the fight against terrorism, with a sign on a waist-high wire fence proclaiming: "In the interests of airport security, please shut the gate." The terminal hardly inspires flying confidence. On one wall is the Greymouth Aero Club's roll of glorious dead; on another are faded photos of tiny aircraft, including one that's flipped.  A man in a white shirt with three gold stripes on his shoulders, who looks far too young to be the pilot, is talking to a passenger with a very large pull-along suitcase, saying he will be "interested in where we'll put it". My small backpack is toeOlarge to go under the seats and also needs to go in the hold. The young man, Steven Provis, is indeed the pilot and leads us on to the apron next to the plane. "Now I need someone with short legs up the front with me," he says. "It's not too bad in Wellington today. There's very little wind, so you'll all be happy." Boarding is an organised affair given the lack of a proper aisle on the plane. Once seated - I'm down the back on the right, next to the door - I'm left clutching my notebook and pen, camera and an apple, a strange collection of objects to have with me if this turns out to be my last hour. Provis gives a thorough safety briefing, encourages us all to read the card in the "pocket in front of us and shows the emergency exits. "Air West Coast - your safety is our concern", the card says. That's a relief. After warming-up the engines on the taxiway, we race down the runway and take off. It's pretty rattly and noisy, and I'm concerned the flock of butterflies that seems to be coming out of my stomach will constitute an aircraft strike hazard. There's a disconcertingly lovely view of the cemetery on the left before the pilot turns the plane to the right over the sea and we do a 180-degree turn to head north. The plane settles at around 700 feet, which feels awfully low. We’re sandwiched between the scudding cloud and the rolling green sea that seems to be just below us, but still a long way to jump. Eventually, somewhere near Punakaiki, Provis pushes the plane into a gentle climb and we come out of the clouds into the morning sun at 3000 feet and carry on in smooth conditions up to 9000 feet. Now we've levelled out I can hand the controls back to the pilot, relax and look around. The plane's interior has seen better days - the carpet is old and frayed, the sheepskins on the seats are yellowing and the lining is a bit ripped in places. After about an hour of enjoying the view, the North Island is visible through the pilot's windscreen. Soon after, the plane starts to descend and the ears begin to pop. 'Things start getting bumpy and Cook Strait is in its usual state of turmoil. Once we're below the cloud again at about 1600 feet there's a comforting clunk as the wheels lock down. Despite the plane leaping about, we can see the Wellington runway, with lights blazing, straight ahead. A Boeing 737 is kindly waiting at the side of the runway for us to land. Provis eases back on the throttle as we cross the southern threshold and land smoothly. It's hard to believe we're really here. There's obviously a real pecking order about where you park and Provis knows the Chieftain's place, right round the back of the domestic terminal. It's amazing how big those jets look from one of these planes. But those 737 services are just like buses. In a small plane, you really feel like you've travelled.

The Chieftain ZK-EBT exited the fleet in rather dramatic style on the 8th of June 2006. The aircraft had been at the Gloriavale maintenance base near Lake Haupiri and was being ferried to Greymouth. The pilot had discussed weather conditions at Greymouth with a company pilot and the conditions at Lake Haupiri were sufficient for a day VFR departure, thought there was significant cloud surrounding the local hills. Upon getting airborne it became apparent that the cloud was lower than anticipated. The pilot made a decision to return to base . A right hand turn was commenced but, shortly after, the aircraft entered low cloud. The pilot descended to remain clear of cloud but during the descent the right wing struck a small tree. The pilot selected full power but was unable to arrest further descent. The aircraft belly landed. The aircraft was subsequently written off. Its demise necessitated the lease of Piper Pa31-325 Navajo, ZK-NOW (c/n 31-7912032), which was used as a backup aircraft, as needed, until the end of the year.

Piper Chieftain ZK-EBT at Greymouth on 19 July 2004. 

Timetable effective 1 November 2004

In February 2007 Air New Zealand Link doubled the frequency of flights through Westport offering a morning and late afternoon Wellington-Westport-Wellington service using Eagle Air’s Beech 1900s. This was rather unfortunate for Air West Coast who had been preparing for some 18 months to extend their service with the addition of a 19-seat Dornier 228 to replace the Chieftain. While unpressurised, the aircraft was fast and had STOL capabilities making it suitable for Greymouth’s short runway. 

On the 8th of March The News reported on the impending battle for passengers between Westport and Wellington. Air West Coast has bought a bigger plane to match Air New Zealand Link operator Eagle Air, but may pull out of Westport if patronage doesn’t improve. The Dornier will fly Monday to Friday from Greymouth-Westport-Wellington in the mornings, returning in the evenings, from March 19. Eagle Air offers morning and evening weekday flights between Westport and Wellington, with one flight on Saturdays and Sundays. Air West Coast operations manager Samuel Valor said it decided about 18 months ago to buy a bigger plane. “We decided to put our money on the line and proved that we were prepared to do what it takes to make this grow.” He acknowledged they were in direct competition with Eagle Air’s weekday twice-daily Westport to Wellington flights, which started on February 12. He said the new Eagle Air service had cost Air West Coast patronage on its Chieftain. However, he believed people preferred bigger planes and hoped the Dornier would pull back customers. “It’s the same size (plane) as theirs, so there won’t be the size issue.” Air West Coast had no competition in Greymouth and he expected flights from Greymouth would be easily filled. “We believe that there will be enough traffic out of Greymouth to fill up the plane. (But) We’ll stick with Westport for a wee while to see how it goes by putting on this big plane, and see how the customer acceptance is and we’ll evaluate it as we go.” Mr Valor said AWC had the advantage of its own Civil Aviation Approved (CAA) portable landing lights for the Westport Airport, which allowed it to land in the dark, unlike Eagle Air. Air West Coast ground staff put out the portable lights prior to the plane arriving and brought them back in afterwards. The portable lighting was also available for emergency landings at the airport and was more effective than Westport airport’s own CAA-approved emergency lighting, he said. Mr Valor said much preparation had gone into getting the new plane ready for the New Zealand register. It was purchased and flown back from Germany last February. “It’s had a new paint job, new interior, new exterior, new avionics fitted, and now its all ready to go.” The plane and its pilots had been in Christchurch for the last month receiving training. AWC was having an open day next Saturday, March 17. Eagle Air manager Doug Roberts said he understood AWC would drop the Westport to Wellington leg of its service. He believed the market was too small for two 21- seater plane flights from Westport. “It’s competition. We don’t have an issue with it but I’m just wondering whether it’s in fact too much capacity, too many seats for the size of the (Westport) market. “But I guess time will tell… The public of Westport will make their decision as to who they prefer to travel on for whatever reasons,” Mr Roberts said.

The introduction of Dornier Do 228-202 ZK-VIR (c/n 8100) into service was not without difficulties. It began operating between Greymouth, Westport and Wellington on the 19th of March 2007. A few days later, on the 30th of March, fumes overcame the two pilots while on a training flight with the aircraft making an emergency landing at Christchurch. This effectively grounded the aircraft but despite intensive inspections no cause was found for the incident. The following month it was revealed that Air West Coast had not been granted CAA permission to operate the aircraft and were therefore not licenced to fly fare-paying passengers. The subsequent investigation found that passengers had been flown on a "promotional basis" and had not been charged. Air West Coast’s upgrading to the sophisticated Dornier necessitated a higher operating standard than that required for Chieftain operations and it took some months for this to be completed. Air West Coast chief executive Fervent Stedfast said “We had to go through the same process as a big airline does. There were many issues and we had to get everything right down to minute details. Senior personnel had to be recruited, including a flight manager and a quality assurance manager. ” The Dornier finally entered into regular service on the 8th of October 2007 when it flew the Greymouth-Westport-Wellington return service under the command of Captain Tom Sunnex. 

The Dornier 228 ZK-VIR on Wellington operations... Lining up for departure on Runway 34 on 15 November 2007 and the following morning on finals to land on Wellington's runway 16.

Timetable - supposedly effective 19 March 2007

While the flights had good loadings and the Dornier had good passenger appeal it also had high overheads. On the 16th of June 2008 the company announced that the Greymouth to Wellington flights would no longer stop in Westport. Chief executive Fervent Stedfast told The News, Air West Coast established a morning and evening return air service to Wellington to benefit Westport people. “Air New Zealand subsequently duplicated this service which could not economically sustain two operators. Accordingly Air West Coast will withdraw its Westport service,” he said. It would pull out of Westport from June 27. Mr Stedfast said the airline had been running Monday to Friday from Greymouth-Westport-Wellington in the mornings, returning in the evenings. However, patronage had been slow and some days it did not come into Westport because there were no bookings. It would still be flying Greymouth to Wellington as it had no competition in Greymouth. 

On the 1st of July 2008, A few days after the end of the Westport stopover the Greymouth Evening Star reported that Air West Coast is reviewing the future of its daily flights from Greymouth to Wellington. Chief executive Fervent Stedfast, from the Gloriavale Christian Community, said the small airline was having to deal with high fuel and compliance costs. No decision had been made on the future of the airline, but he urged the people of Greymouth to get behind the service. “Our desire has been  to  provide  a  service  that’s  of  benefit  to  the  people  of Greymouth,” he said this morning. “We’re going to need everyone to work together. Do they want the service flying out of their town? What are they prepared to do?” Mr Stedfast could give no date as to when a decision would be made. The following day the local newspaper reported that The Grey District Council says it will try to keep the Air West Coast daily passenger service alive but at the end of the day it is a private enterprise. Mayor Tony Kokshoorn said today that if the service ended the council would lose some money in airport landing fees. “But from a ratepayer point of view, it has got nothing to do with us. We naturally want to see it utilised, as a good service for the public.” The council could only sit on the sideline while Air West Coast reviewed the business, and maybe come up with ideas to help. However, in the end it was a private enterprise, Mr Kokshoorn said. “The Christian community will make the final decision.” 

Three weeks later it appeared to be all over. No investors were found to save the airline and by the 21st of July not bookings were being taken past the end of the month. The Grey District Council's Chief executive Paul Pretorius drew up a “broad brush” business plan and tried to find corporate sponsors. No ratepayer money was ever on the table, he said. “We tried to get a local initiative, involve investors and get it up and running to buy out the service,” Mr Pretorius said. “But the time was just too short — we couldn’t find people.” Mr Pretorius said the business plan showed the service could make money. At the moment, the plane sits idle in Wellington for six to eight hours a day, before flying back to the West Coast. Adding in a destination in those redundant hours could have turned the business around so it made money, he said. Bringing the plane back to Greymouth earlier could also have helped. At the moment the pilots leave at 5am and do not finish until 9.30pm, taking them away from their families for a huge part of the day. On the 25th of July it was announced that Air West Coast's flight would cease on the 1st of August 2008. Spokesman Samuel Valor, said the company was "restructuring" and would discontinue the scheduled flights. Those who had fares in credit would be refunded. Mr Valor said Air West Coast scenic and charter flights from Greymouth aerodrome would still be available. "Air West Coast would like to thank all those who have supported us over the years." 

The Dornier was sold to Divi Divi Air in Curacao, a Caribbean island country. 

While the scheduled services have ended Air West Coast continue to operate charter flights from Greymouth using their refurbished Piper Chieftain ZK-VIP and Cessna P210N Centurion ZK-VIR (c/n P21000482), the latter being registered to the company in June 2009.

Air West Coast's Cessna P210N Centurion ZK-VIR at Westport on Tuesday 28 April 2015 waiting to pick up the doctor to fly him to Karamea. A very nice aircraft!

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