12 June 2011

West Coast Airways - The Last Airline to Haast

I remember as a child watching the Dragon Rapide/Dominies fly south from Hokitika. Sadly I was too young to capture any of this airline on film! This is the story of West Coast Airways, the last airline to Haast.

As early as 1952 NAC was looking to transfer its South Westland service to a private operator. At this stage the road was still some years away from Haast and the air service pioneered by Air Travel (NZ) Ltd’s Bert Mercer, along with the shipping service from Hokitika  provided Haast with its only connection with the rest of the country.

Following an approach by the National Airways Corporation about South Westland air services Queenstown-based Southern Scenic Air Services Ltd appeared before Air Services Licensing Authority seeking to take over  the National Airways Corporation’s Hokitika-Haast services. Some months before NAC indicated that it would not oppose an application by a private operator for a licence to operate the South Westland air services from Hokitika to Haast if the applicant could meet the requirements of the Civil Aviation branch of the Air Department. In anticipation of this NAC employees at Hokitika received notice of the termination of their services and transfer, pending the transfer of the South Westland portion of the West Coast service to Southern Scenic Air Services. Agreement for the purchase of NAC’s assets used on the Hokitika-Haast service had been signed by NAC and Southern Scenic. Southern Scenic's  Mr F J "Popeye" Lucas told the Authority that his company was making the necessary alterations in its capital for the purchase of the aircraft and assets. He said NAC has made a loss on the Hokitika-Haast service and his firm intended to operate scenic flights and charter service as well as the scheduled passenger and freight service. He considered that scenic and charter flights - a field into which the National Airways Corporation had not entered-would offset any loss which occurred in the scheduled passenger and freight service. While it looked like a done deal Southern Scenic's application was adjourned by the Authority. It expressed the view that the licence held by NAC and applied for by Southern Scenic Air Services should be considered jointly at a future hearing.

On the 29th of January 1953 such a joint hearing of the the Air Services Licensing Authority was scheduled to sit in Hokitika to consider Southern Scenic Air Services Ltd  for “a scheduled passenger and freight service between Hokitika and Haast with stops at Whataroa, Waiho and Weheka.” The application sat comfortably with NAC who intended to introduce a DC-3 service to Hokitika from the 2nd of March 1953. Until this point Hokitika's NAC based aircraft operated a feeder service to connect with the DC-3 at Westport. Southern Scenic, however, withdrew their application. 

It was almost four years before Southern Scenic applied again to take over the South Westland service. On the 31st of July 1956 the Auckland Star  reported that the National Airways Corporation's South Westland Dominie air service is expected to be taken over by a private operator on October 1. The corporation has been operating the service at a loss for some years. If the Air Services Licensing Authority approves, it will sell its two seven-passenger aircraft, hangars at Hokitika and Franz Josef, and spare parts to Southern Scenic Airtrips, Ltd., of Queenstown, for something less than £10,000. 

On the 3rd of October 1956 a hearing of the Air Services Licensing Authority was scheduled in Wellington to consider an application by West Coast Airways Ltd,  a subsidiary company of Southern Scenic, to operate; 
(a) Scheduled service for passengers, freight, and mails, operating Hokitika to Haast and return, Monday, Wednesdays, Thursday, and Friday of each week: 
(b) Air taxi services for passengers, mails, and/or freight from and to any of Hokitika, Wataroa, Waiho, Haast, Franz Josef, Milford Sound, and Greymouth: 
(c) Joy-rides from Greymouth, Hokitika and aerodromes south of Hokitika on the West Cost of the South Island of Now Zealand: 
(d) Non-scheduled passenger, charter, short flights, end excursion flights, from Hokitika, Greymouth, Wataroa, Waiho, Haast, Franz Josef, and Milford Sound, to anywhere in New Zealand: 
(e) Aerial topdressing and other aerial work on the West Coast of the South Island of New Zealand from Inangahua Junction to Haast. 

An interesting feature of the application was West Coast Airways' intention to operate an air link between Greymouth and Hokitika. The Grey River Argus reported that the company proposed, for a start, to use a Proctor or Auster aircraft as and when required, giving, Greymouth its first direct air connection with the main trunk service from the North Island since N.A.C. Dominies were no longer permitted to operate from Karoro airport several years ago. The development, however, is connected with the application before the Authority for the transfer of South Westland services from N.A.C. to the new company. Mr B. McCook, who flew into Greymouth yesterday in a Proctor, said that a Dominie would be placed on the Greymouth service, once the airport meets licensing requirements. At present there is a restriction on wheel loading, and consolidation of the airport surface will be required. An extension in runway, possibly under 600ft. will also be needed. 

Mr McCook said that there appeared to be an impression on the West Coast that there would be a large rise in fares and freight rates with the transfer of the licence from N.A.C. to a private company. "There will be no increase in freight, excess baggage, or mail rates," Mr McCook said. "Passenger fares also will not be changed immediately, but naturally the position In this regard will have to be reviewed from time to time." The reason for N.A.C. wishing to put the service out to a private company was that it was uneconomic, he pointed out. The new company confidently expects that, through the increased utilisation of aircraft and through less staff having to employed, it could make the service pay. A wide range of charter work will be undertaken, and by an integration of various services there will be less idle time for staff and men. 

The hearing in Wellington didn't proceed due to protests from West Coasters that it should be held on the West Coast where local evidence could be taken. West Coasters were concerned that passenger or freight rates were increased and that twin-engined aircraft should he used on scheduled flights. The decision was made to hold the hearing in Hokitika on the 24th of October. After being given assurances that there would be no fare increase and twin-engined aircraft would be used on the scheduled services there were no objections to the transfer of the licence.

On the 10th of October the Greymouth Evening Star reported that depending on the decision of the Air Services Licensing Authority at Hokitika on October 24, West Coast Airways will begin operating its proposed new schedule of services early in November. This was stated today by Mr F. J. Lucas, managing director of Southern Scenic Airways, Queenstown, the parent company. Mr Lucas was in Greymouth on a business trip. Mr Lucas told the Evening Star this afternoon that there would be definitely no increase in the fare schedule as at present operated by National Airways. In place of the four times a week service between Hokitika and Haast West Coast Airways will operate a daily schedule. This will be a direct service without stops at Franz Josef and Fox Glacier landing fields. These latter places will be served by a separate schedule of flights. The company will extend its charter air work once it becomes established with a more frequent link to Milford Sound and Queenstown in sight. A connection through to Dunedin will also be possible. Apart from passenger and mail services the company plans to introduce aerial topdressing work on the West Coast, bringing. specially equipped aircraft from Queenstown for this purpose. A demonstration will be given on a South Westland farm early next month. Mr Lucas gained distinction as a pilot during World War II when he gained the well-known nick-name of “Popeye.” Following the war he pioneered tourist flying in the southern lakes district, developing his company to cover all phases of aerial work, including supply dropping and laying poison baits in areas difficult of access.

The Hokitika Guardian reported in a similar vein and even more enthusiastic way the following day. West Coasters generally, and South Westlanders in particular, will have read with interest the outline of future flying activities proposed by West Coast Airways when it takes over from the National Airways Corporation: The company is no newcomer in aviation, being a subsidiary of the organisation based on Queenstown which has had restricted air services to and from South Westland for some years. Its executives are all practical flying men, and the managing director, Mr F. J. Lucas, is well-known in these parts as a "bush pilot!' with long experience in handling the problems of outback aviation. That is what the West Coast needs: Some brilliant rough country pioneering was done in this part of New Zealand by such men as the late Captain Mercer, but the consolidation of it was interrupted by the policy of centralised Government control which brought National Airways here. The corporation is not the type of organisation suited to provide an efficient service for Westland, being, as a semi-State oft-shoot, too bound by inelastic Public Service methods. West Coast Airways, with a wealth of experience in handling the problems peculiar to bush flying, is in a position to provide a range of service beyond the policy which restricts N.A.C. operations largely to the provision of passenger and freight schedules on set major routes. It is also refreshing to note that the Company plans to operate successfully without raising present rates, and without support of a Government subsidy. In addition to continuing the regular flights to South Westland, West Coast Airways will also give an aerial top dressing service to farmers, who will also be able to receive from the air in the remotest places such important supplies as building and fencing material. Those operations alone, if they are given the support they deserve will be an important factor in expanding the economic life of the West Coast. With the new company operating from the local airport as headquarters, Hokitika will make. another move forward as an important communications centre, and the focal point of branches of aviation on the West Coast from Buller to Milford Sound. The importance of this development to the town and district cannot be over-emphasised. If regular tourist flights from here to the Sounds can he popularised for Coasters and New Zealanders for a start, determined publicity and organisation should make possible within a few years a considerable air traffic in tourists from Australia and beyond—with Hokitika Airport as the point at which visitors will transfer to smaller planes for sight-seeing flights south. The airport can be expanded into one of international standard, and the project is one which local bodies and organisations should keep in mind. Present indications are that Westland is about to start a new era in aviation, and every possibility of developing it must be exploited. 

At the hearing a letter was presented from Mr Mick Sullivan. manager of the Fox Glacier Hotel. "I am concerned as I don't consider that the existing services are adequate and would like to put to the authority my views on what services should operate from Franz Josef. Glacier and Fox Glacier. These aerodromes are licensed to operate the type of aeroplane which will be used on the services, and I would like to see an improvement in the services provided by National Airways Corporation. The present service is one south flight per week from Hokitika and two north flights per week from Franz Josef. The present service connects with the D.C.3 plane from Hokitika but this is not an adequate service to satisfy the demands of the district. It is suggested that a more satisfactory service would be three weekly return trips from Hokitika on the days of the week on which the DC-3 flies to Hokitika. This service would cater for passengers arriving in Hokitika on the Christchurch railcar provided the plane leaves Hokitika at approximately 8 a.m. The return flight would cater for passengers from the Fox and Franz Josef Glaciers who would arrive In Greymouth at approximately 10 a.m. and connect with the railcar for Christchurch, or the DC-3 leaving from Hokitika at approximately 2.10 p.m. This proposed service may not be fully economic at this stage but when the proposed Franz Josef Hotel is completed there will be more than sufficient passengers offering for the services. It is submitted that until a service is commenced people will not be in a position-to travel to the Fox or Franz Josef Glaciers on account of a lack of ready transport, and it would be in the interests of the district if such services could be inaugurated," Mr Sullivan stated. Mr Sullivan added that the new Co. had expressed great willingness to, "meet me in every way." 

And certainly West Coast Airways wanted to offer a good service to South Westland. Its proposed services submitted the Air Services Licensing Authority were:-
Haast-Hokitika, four times weekly. 
Hokitika-Fox Glacier-Franz Josef Glacier-Hokitika, three times weekly. 
Hokitika-Franz Josef Glacier Fox Glacier-Haast-Milford Sound Haast-Fox Glacier-Franz Josef Glacier-Hokitika, once weekly. 
Specials:—:Charters and aerial work including top-dressing, aerial photography, supply dropping, fire patrol, search and rescue, air ambulance and air freighting by Anson. All schedule flights by D.H.89 aircraft. Fares and freight rates to be those used by National Airways Corporation at present. Greymouth to be brought into scheduled operation when aerodrome there permits. Fox Glacier operations subject to airfield there being approved for DH.89 aircraft. (This has been given). Timetable is only a tentative one and subject to alterations to meet the demands of the South Westland people.

The Hokitika Guardian of the 25th of October 1956 reported on the hearing. "If we thought that the present organisation's application was a fly-by-night affair we would not listen to the application," Mr Blundell, chairman, said in the Hokitika courtroom yesterday when the Air Services Licensing Authority heard an application by West Coast Airways for a scheduled air service to South Westland taking the place of the National Airways Corporation. Mr Blundell praised Southern Scenic Airways Service when he granted the application on the basis of a new licence and a licence to do aerial topdressing. Westland farmers as a whole would benefit. With regard to Mr F. Lucas' acceptance of the conditions of the Haast-Okuru Progress League, Mr Blundell said that it would be wiser if the Authority studied them and included those it saw fit, in the licence. The Authority agreed that the licence would not be granted earlier than November 15. Mr Blundell said that there had been some criticism of the setting down of the hearing in Wellington, some of which was justified at that time. lt had been the practice of the Authority to take hearings in the district concerned. This hearing was first set down for Hokitika, but usually reliable sources had said that the position was explained and it was changed to Wellington. That would have involved the country witnesses in excessive costs. Mr C. McGinley, presenting West Coast Airways, opened his submissions by briefly stating what service the new company would offer and pointed out the calibre of the men who would run it. He said that for the past five years Southern Scenic Airways Service had been negotiating with the National Airways Corporation regarding the taking over of the licence for regular schedule flights to South Westland. Mr McGinley pointed out that the shareholders in the new company would be the same as in  Scenic Air Services. 

"In the nine years that the Southern Scenic Air Services has been in operation it has increased the value of its assets from £2200 to £30,000. This is indicative of the calibre of the men who run it,” Mr McGinley said. He pointed out that the new company would not in any way curtail, but would in fact increase the service both In passenger and freight flights. Mr F. Lucas, managing director of West Coast Airways, stated that the company would not alter the present fares charged by the N.A.C. and in fact would better the service. He said he would also provide topdressing and other services. A tentative date had been set for a topdressing demonstration, and Mr Lucas stated that some farmers he had spoken to were very enthusiastic though they would like to see a demonstration first. The aircraft of the company would not be used except from approved airfields. 
Mr McGinley: You feel that once the farmers have seen your demonstration of topdressing they will apply for the service? 
Mr Lucas: Sure of it; the charge of £14 per hour is reasonable. Mr Blundell said that he understood that Dominie aircraft would not be used for topdressing and he would like to know where the aircraft would come from. 
"As far as I understand, that is an extension of the work of Southern Scenic Airways, and not of the new company," said Blundell added. Mr Lucas said he proposed to use an Auster Aircraft which would be on rental to the new company from the S.S.A.S. Mr Blundell said that an amendment should be made. Mr McGinley asked that this be done allowing the new company to use an Auster, a DH.82, for topdressing, and a Proctor single-engined aircraft for charter work. “I suppose the Proctor will be on the same terms as the others?" Mr Blundell asked. 
Mr McGinley: Yes. 
Mr W. D. Taylor, representing the Haast-Okuru Progress League: You have given an assurance to the Haast-Okuru people of the same service as the N.A.C.? 
Mr Lucas: That's right. 
Mr Taylor queried the timetable and said that one date was missing from the schedule. Mr Lucas said it would be the extra flight made to Milford. He said he agreed to the seven points raised by the Haast-Okuru Progress League that there would be no increase in freight and fares, and generally that the service would be reasonable. Mr Lucas had no objection to these matters being written into the evidence.
Captain J. J. Bush. general manager of N.A.C., asked if the new company had been assisted by the N.A.C.  
Mr Lucas: In every way. 
Mr M. Sullivan, Fox Glacier, asked Mr Lucas what schedule he proposed to have if he took over the service. Mr Lucas pointed out that as yet the timetable had not been finalised because as yet they did not know the requirements of the people. Mr T. W. White, a member of the Authority, asked questions on topdressing and enquired if it would not clash with requirements on the other side of the Alps. Mr Lucas said it would not as topdressing on the other side would be done at a different time of the year. The capital of the new company would be £9000, and the assets would all be in the name of West Coast Airways. Mr Blundell asked what would happen if the company found in two years time it was running at a loss. Mr Lucas said that it would carry on and that it had never visualised running at a loss. Have you thought of it this way: if you find your company running at a loss you could run out to the other side with-out affecting the other company," Mr Blundell asked. Mr Lucas: I have not thought of it that way. Mr Blundell: I'm surprised. Mr Lucas explained that the application for the licence was not made by Southern Scenic Airways Service because of the extra taxation it would incur, and not because it would protect that company should West Coast Airways fail. 

With the licence granted NAC's South Westland service ended on Friday the 16th of November 1956. On the following Monday, the 19th of November 1956, West Coast Airways’ inaugural flight was operated by De Havilland DH89A Dragon Rapide ZK-AHS on a Hokitika-Haast return service. Special airmail first day covers were flown.

The initial timetable for the first month of operations saw, as promised a daily direct service to Haast, with the exception of the Thursday flight, that landed at Fox Glacier as well. The Thursday service also continued on to Milford Sound. In addition to the Haast service a Monday, Wednesday and Friday service was operated to Fox Glacier and Franz Josef. The morning service flew direct to Fox Glacier and then returned to Hokitika via Franz Josef.

The new schedule from the 18th of December 1956 saw some changes. Flights 701 and 702 operated on demand. The plane left Fox Glacier at 7.45am and arrived in Hokitika by 8.45am leaving time to connect to the railcar to Christchurch. In a similar way the afternoon return service departed Hokitika at 4.30pm well after the railcar arrived from Christchurch. The Haast service was reduced to four flights a week, with the aircraft landing at Franz Josef or Fox Glacier as necessary.

West Coast Airways' timetable, effective 15 January 1957

West Coast Airways used a number of Southern Scenic Air Services aircraft, particularly their de Havilland 89 aircraft, but also Cessnas, Proctors and their Anson. Only three aircraft carried West Coast Airways’ titles; De Havilland 89A Dragon Rapide ZK-AHS, De Havilland 89B Dominie ZK-AKT and Cessna 180 ZK-BJY.

West Coast Airways' De Havilland DH89A Dragon Rapide at Franz Josef
West Coast Airways' Cessna 180 ZK-BJY at Taieri

In addition to the air service the company was involved in a variety of activity including scenic flying, supply dropping, air ambulance work and general charter work. West Coast Airways' licence permitted aerial topdressing and other aerial work on the West Coast from Inangahua to Haast. In July 1961 Piper PA-18A-150 Super Cub ZK-BKS was registered to the company and worked under this licence. 

The construction of the Haast Pass meant flights to Haast were the mainstay of the scheduled service, these carrying both passengers and freight to cater for the locals and construction workers alike.

A couple of images of de Havilland 89 Dominie ZK-AKT at Fox Glacier

Cessna 180 ZK-BJY at the Paringa River in 1959.

West Coast Airways was conscious there were often people from Greymouth who needed to fly to South Westland and so the company applied to operate a non-scheduled service between Greymouth and Hokitika from the 1st of July 1957 using Des Wright’s Auster J/1B Aiglet, ZK-AUO (c/n 1955), as the Greymouth airfield was not licensed to take Dominies. A non-scheduled service was not approved but the company was able to continue to operate an air taxi service between Hokitika and Greymouth to connect to the regular air service.

Des Wright's Auster Aiglet ZK-AUO taken at Hokitika in the early 1960s. 

The importance of the air service and, more importantly, the provision of good airfields for remote areas was highlighted in a letter Popeye Lucas wrote a letter to the Hokitika Guardian on the 26th of March 1958.  

Sir, - Now that South Westland has again experienced the inconvenience of having roads and .bridges out of action through flooding it is perhaps time to take a more definite and determined step towards constructing a permanent all-weather airstrip to serve this area. As from Monday, March 24, 1958, Waiho airfield was closed to all air traffic indefinitely. Fox airfield is usable in dry weather by light aircraft only, and Whataroa, which has the firmest surface of all, lacks the necessary length by 700 feet to bring it up to schedule aircraft standards. Ferguson Bros. are to be commended for their initiative in constructing a 1000-yard strip at Paringa. which will be ready for use shortly. This should be of great benefit to the Bruce Bay, Maitahi and Paringa people, as it will enable the schedule service to call there on the Haast-Hokitika run. Is it not considered worth it, even for medical services only, to have all-weather strips at other centres? We are only a private limited liability company licensed to provide under the Air Services Licencing Act, an air service operating in the public interest. I, feel we are unable to adequately provide this service to Westland unless there are a number of these strips on the Coast so at least the sick, and expectant mothers are assured of less suffering and worry by more prompt medical attention. The road south has been in use for some 40-odd years or more and is still not all-weather, but an airstrip need only be 1000 yards long and if  constructed with sufficient drainage can be all-weather with negligible upkeep. I solicit the assistance of the public and local bodies of the area to really get together and not be satisfied with "near enough" which has been going on for too long, but - push for better air service facilities for South Westland: 
F Lucas, Managing Director 
West Coast Airways Ltd. 

de Havilland DH89B Dominie ZK-AKT at Hokitika all loaded up for a South Westland flight 

de Havilland DH89A Dragon Rapide ZK-AHS at Hokitika all loaded up for a South Westland flight 

NAC connections to and from NAC at Hokitika's Seaview Airport

By 1958 the service was operating four days a week with stops at Franz Josef and Fox Glacier as required. From the timetable the Thursday Milford Sound service was operated on Thursdays as required.

Two Dominies in Southern Scenic colours being operated for West Coast Airways at Hokitika 
A glimpse of the Haast aerodrome after the construction of the Haast Bridge.. With the construction of the road the days of the air service were numbered. Photo : Dawber, A R :Photographs of the West Coast Region. Ref: 1/2-116223-F. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. http://natlib.govt.nz/records/23167713

de Havilland DH89A Dragon Rapide ZK-AHS (left) and de Havilland DH89B Dominie ZK-AKT at Haast on West Coast Airways' services.

Tragedy struck the West Coast Airways on the 7th of February 1964. Pilot Geoff Houston was flying Southern Scenic's Cessna 180 ZK-BJW retuning to Hokitika.from Haast after being doing venison recovery work. As he flew north he encountered a sea fog. The wreckage was found two later near Opuku Cliff, between the Wanganui and Waitaha River mouths.  

The ill-fated Cessna 180 ZK-BJW at Hokitika.

The opening of the Hasst Pass on the 6th of November 6, 1965 decimated West Coast Airways. The opening of the road to Haast and the introduction of regular bus services to Haast eliminated the bulk of the company's scheduled passenger and freight business on the Haast-Hokitika service. In the year ended 31 March 1965 the company carried 1309 scheduled passengers and flew 456 scheduled hours. 1205 passengers were to or from Haast as was 43,956 lb of freight and 36,399 lb of mail. The Glaciers, which  were served on a non-scheduled basis, had generated only 160 passengers. Nonetheless, a service to the Glaciers seemed the best option for the company and so West Coast Airways amended their air service licence amended by deleting their scheduled Hokitika - Haast service, replacing it with a non-scheduled service between Fox and Franz Josef Glaciers and Hokitika connecting with NAC's DC-3 service and railcar services at Hokitika.

Southern Scenic' de Havilland DH89 Dominie ZK-AKS on the taxi from Hokitika... Underneath the main titles it reads Southern Scenic airservices Ltd and West Coast Airways Ltd. 

Traffic on the Fox Glacier-Franz Josef-Hokitika route was not sufficient to sustain the company. On the 20th of March 1967 the manager of Southern Scenic Air Services, Mr W Davies announced the closure  of the service with all operations ceasing on the 31st of March 1967.

De Havilland 89A Dragon Rapide ZK-AHS first flew out of Hokitika for Cook Strait Airways as ZK-AGT. During the latter years of the War it returned to Hokitika as ZK-AHS being operated for Air Travel (NZ) Ltd north to Westport and Nelson. With the formation of NAC it operated the service north to Nelson and to South Westland. During its time with West Coast Airways it carried West Coast Airways and Southern Scenic titles as seen above at Haast on a West Coast Airways service.
When the air service ended it was transferred to Queenstown and rebranded in NZ Tourist Air Travel titles. It was for a number of years stored back at Hokitika before being donated to MOTAT in Auckland. It is seen in Tourist Air Travel titles at Hokitika in the early 1970s.


  1. does anyone now anything about the Massey Ferguson tea 20 tractor that is in old photos I think I have it in my shed ready to restore

  2. in hoktika air port 1950 to 1980s

    1. Paula... if you have a look at this post there is a photo of it towards the end of the post...

  3. Does anyone have more information or pictures of Des Wrights Auster Aiglet, ZK-AUO? We recently took possession of her, and had no idea she has such an incredible history until we came across this. As a result, we are considering returning her to the stunning West Coast Airways livery, any information would be most appreciated.

    1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  4. Flick me an email... westland831@gmail.com