10 July 2011

Mount Cook Airlines’ Amphibian Service - Flying to the Hauraki Gulf, the Bay of Islands and Stewart Island

This post continues two series of posts on air services to Great Barrier Island and air services to Stewart Island. Please feel free to contact me with any corrections or additions or any stories you might have that gives flesh to this fascinating piece of New Zealand aviation history. Posts on Tourist Air Travel's and Sea Bee Air's amphibian operations will follow at a later date.

When the Mount Cook and Southern Lakes Tourist Company Ltd acquired control of NZ Tourist Air Travel Ltd on the 1st of January 1968 it inherited two amphibious operations, the northern one based at Auckland’s Mechanics Bay which serviced the Hauraki Gulf and the Bay of Islands and the southern one based at Invercargill which serviced Stewart Island, Fiordland and the Southern Lakes. Between them the amphibian fleet consisted of five Grumman G-44 Widgeons. The Widgeon was a 5 passenger aircraft that were manufactured between 1941 and 1955. The fleet Mount Cook Airlines inherited included had two slightly different models; ZK-BAY (c/n 1362), ZK-BGQ (c/n 1391) and ZK-CHG (c/n 1356) were G-44 models which were the main production variant, while ZK-AVM (c/n 1466) and ZK-CFA (c/n 1439) were G-44A models which were an improved post-war production variant with a redesigned hull.

Grumman Widgeon ZK-CFA taken at Mechanics Bay soon after being painted in Mount Cook Airlines' colours.

At the time of the take over both the Auckland and Invercargill operations were isolated from the main Mount Cook Airlines network which at that time extended from Christchurch in the north to Manapouri in the south. The two operations were quite different.

Mount Cook Airlines’ timetables for the late 1960s and early 1970s give a good account of the scheduled services offered. One Widgeon was based at Invercargill for the Stewart Island service which had two return flights on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays enabling the islanders or people from Invercargill a full day in the city or on the island. A service was also flown on Saturday mornings and Sunday afternoons. The Invercargill-based amphibian was also used widely for trampers, hunters and fishermen as well as in support of the lighthouses in the Fiordland, Foveaux Strait and Stewart Island area.
Everyone knows it is a gaggle of geese, but did you know it is a company of widgeons... Three Widgeons from Mount Cook Airlines company taken at Great Barrier Island. Photo : Mike Newman
The other four Widgeons were based at Mechanics Bay in Auckland. This downtown location had earlier served the much large Pan American and TEAL flying boats. From Mechanics a regular, more commuter type service was flown to Surfdale on Waiheke Island (WIK) four times daily. Also, more on the nature of a regular service, were the flights to Great Barrier Island (GBZ) which operated five times a week on a Monday, Wednesday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday. Mount Cook also operated more tourist oriented flights. Four daily flights were scheduled to Pakatoa Island and Waiheke East Coast (ZED). Pakatoa Island had been bought by Sir Robert Kerridge in 1964 and he had developed it as a holiday resort. Daily flights were flown listed to Kawau Island, described as the Jewel of the Gulf. In the 1960s and early 1970s this was a particularly popular spot for tourists who visited Mansion House, the home of Sir George Grey, the Governor of New Zealand in the 1860s. Twice daily flights were scheduled to Kawau Island (KUI) during the summer season with a daily service operating during the winter. In addition the company also operated a thrice weekly service north to Waitangi (WGN).
The amphibian services in the Mount Cook Airlines' timetable of summer 1969-1970.
The Gulf and Bay of Islands Network - Pakatoa Island is at the eastern end of Waiheke Island
Flightseeing was an important part of the Hauraki Gulf operation. Harry Wigley, the company chairman noted in his 1972 Chairman’s report that, the novelty of a water take-off and landing is of tremendous appeal to overseas tourists as it provides the same kind of novelty that is provided by the ski-planes.
Anyone for a scenic??? Widgeon ZK-BAY at Paihia. Gladys Goodall Postcard
Following the takeover NZ Tourist Air Travel operated as a wholly owned subsidiary of Mount Cook Airlines but in June 1969 it was announced that the aircraft would be rebranded in Mount Cook Airlines colours and the Tourist Air Travel name would disappear. With the development of a container terminal for the Port of Auckland a modern engineering workshop and passenger facilities were set up in 1970. These two moves heightened the company’s profile in the Queen City.

Above, Grumman Widgeon ZK-CHG at Mechanics Bay on the 6th of August 1972 and below on the 20th of January 1974. Notice the change in the title.script.

Amphibian operations are prone to incidents and these did happen. On the 24th of October 1968, Widgeon ZK-AVM was carrying radio celebrity Selwyn Toogood and the “It’s in the Bag” team across to Stewart Island. However, on landing at Halfmoon Bay the plane flipped over. The newspaper account records that Captain J Hassett freed the passengers, who were hanging upside down by their safety belts. All got out safely and suffered no more than cuts and bruises and ducking in the chilly water. All the equipment for use in the broadcast is now at the bottom of Half Moon Bay. More equipment was obtained and less than four hours after the accident the show went on the air. The show must go on! Meanwhile, ZK-AVM was returned to Invercargill of the ferry, the Wairua, the next day and prompt action in dismantling and washing everything to get rid of the salt saved the airframe. The aeroplane was back in service by Christmas.

A much more tragic event happened on Christmas Eve 1970. Widgeon ZK-BAY had been hired by a TV news team to film a launch that was on fire near Brown’s Island. Witnesses reported that the plane landed, taxied twice round the burning launch and had then taken off again. On takeoff the plane banked as though to give those on board another look at the launch. As it came toward the launch it suddenly dropped into the sea in a vertical dive. It hit the water with, a lot of force, sending up a huge splash. The early morning hydrofoil from Waiheke was only ¼ a mile away and was on the scene within minutes. Despite the heroic attempts of a crew member and passenger on the hydrofoil the plane sank with the pilot, Capt. Roger Poole, and the three film crew members, Stephen With, Wayne Stevens, and David Grant. The accident report suggested the float near the wingtip could obscure filming, but for a better camera angle the aircraft could be flown with the right rudder to skid around the nose, with opposite aileron to counteract any rolling effect. The pilot’s view to the right was obstructed by the camera operator, he was flying into the early morning sun, and the artificial horizon was switched off and locked, all of which prevented him realising the dangerous angle until too late.

The recovery of Widgeon ZK-BAY. Photo : NZ Herald, 26 December 1970
The loss of ZK-BAY led to a lack of public confidence in the amphibian operation. For the company it also meant a reduction in aircraft capacity. The loss of the Widgeon was exasperated by two further incidents in early 1972. On the 28th of February 1972 ZK-CFA overturned while taxiing at Catherine Bay, Great Barrier Island. Then on the 31st of March 1972 ZK-CHG badly damaged one of its floats while taking off from Mechanics Bay when it ploughed into a boat’s wake. While no one was injured in either incident, the damage to aircraft meant the company was again stretched for capacity as they struggled to juggle damaged aircraft and the normal intensive maintenance programme the amphibians required. Dave Bates, in the December 1974 issue of Wings, described how the Widgeons are, each year, becoming increasingly expensive to maintain as they require a two-yearly Certificate of Airworthiness renewal and an annual overhaul in between. In general this means that the aircraft will be out of the air for about three months of the year, in addition to any time spent in the hangar for incident repairs. Although these inspections and overhauls are not expensive in terms of materials, the necessity to strip down the airframe to eliminate salt water corrosion is extremely expensive in man hours.

In 1972 a decision was made to replace ZK-BAY with an 11-seater Grumman Goose. During the 1970/71 summer the scheduled service between Mechanics Bay and Waitangi in the Bay of Islands was operated by a Widgeon on a daily basis. Traffic built up and the company were confident that with the increased capacity of a larger aircraft that the service would be extremely popular during the coming summer. Grumman G-21A Goose, ZK-DFC (c/n B-104) arrived in Auckland on the 5th of October 1972 after a marathon 16,000 mile flight from the United States via Canada, Iceland, Britain, Europe, the Middle East and Australia.

The bigger Grumman Goose at Mechanics Bay on the 20th of October 1975

On the 4th of November 1972 the company introduced its Golden Goose service from Paihia in the Bay of Islands to both Mechanics Bay and, to Auckland International Airport. John Ward, the district sales manager for Mount Cook Airlines, told the NZ Herald that the new service was designed to open up the Bay of Islands as never before. Three flights were offered each day to the Bay of Islands. The Goose began the day at Paihia with the first flight south leaving at 7.00am for Auckland International and Mechanics Bay. Northbound flights left Mechanics Bay at 8.45am, 3.00pm and 5.35pm. An important feature that Mount Cook promoted extensively was the new service linked with their new Hawker Siddeley 748 flights out of Auckland so connecting all the major tourist resorts in New Zealand. This means, the Herald reported, that a tourist can have breakfast at Waitangi Hotel, fly to Auckland, board Mt Cook Airlines' Hawker Siddeley 748 which has just been granted landing rights at Auckland, and head south. The 748 flies to Rotorua, Mt Cook, Queenstown and Te Anau - which means breakfast in the Bay of Islands and lunch among the South Island's mountains.

Mount Cook Airlines' Golden Goose timetable, Summer 1972-1973. Note the morning flights to Auckland International Airport to connect to Mount Cook Airlines' Hawker Siddeley flights to Rotorua and the South Island.
The Goose proved to be equal to the task. In addition to its larger capacity it also had the advantage of being able to handle rougher water and it proved operationally to be an excellent aircraft for the job. 1200 passengers were carried over the summer months with a 68% load factor for February and March 1973. While the Goose was fast proving itself the Widgeons were becoming more expensive to maintain due to salt water corrosion and other factors, and they were reported as becoming more uneconomic each year. The company decided to look toward restructuring the amphibian operation with Goose aircraft and at ultimate disposal of the Widgeons.

Mount Cook Airlines publicity shots... above Grumman Goose ZK-DFC taxis out at Paihia while below a  Grumman Widgeon adds to the beauty of Kawau Island.

The service to the Bay of Islands and Hauraki Gulf work meant the aircraft were always busy. By 1974 Great Barrier Island was receiving a daily flight by either the Widgeon or Goose. In addition to the scheduled services charter flying was an important part of the operation, flying to all parts of the Gulf, Bay of Islands and as far south as Rotorua. Apart from passenger charters other work included the servicing of the lighthouses at Tiritiri, Mokohinau and Cuvier. Mercy flights for accident and maternity cases.
The Goose certainly improved the passengers carried figures as shown in these figures presented by Captain Geoff Parker to the Hauraki Gulf Maritime Services Improvement Committee in March 1974:
Waiheke Island
1972 - 4515 (In) 4517 (Out)
1973 - 4458 (In) 4511 (Out)
1974 - 6900 (In) 7500 (Out) 
Great Barrier Island
1972 - 2362 (In) 2378 (Out)
1973 - 2151 (In) 1967 (Out)
1974 - 3100 (In) 2800 (Out)

Bay of Islands
1972 - 831 (In) 772 (Out)
1973 - 2606 (In) 2496 (Out)
1974 - 3900 (In) 3800 (Out)

(Estimated figures for March included with 1974 statistics)

However, the traffic was seasonal. January was the peak month for traffic. In January 1974 of the figure shown above over 2400 passengers were flown to and from Waiheke, 1250 to and from Great Barrier Island and 1020 to and from the Bay of Islands.

Widgeon ZK-BGQ arrives at Mechanics Bay. Photo : D McVicker postcard
In 1974 it was announced that Mount Cook Airlines had purchased a second Goose with the intent of replacing one of the Widgeons. Unfortunately this Goose crashed on takeoff at Wichita in Kansas on the 11th of October 1974. It was this crash that marked the beginning of the end of Mount Cook Airlines’ amphibian services. Faced with a sudden shortfall in available seats for the coming summer season a Britten Norman Islander was hastily ordered, and ZK-MCC (c/n 395) duly arrived in New Zealand on the 31st of December 1974. The Islander was quickly put to work on non-scheduled flights from Auckland to Kerikeri beginning in January 1975 and to Great Barrier Island from April 1975. Both these operations ran alongside and were complimentary to the amphibian service. By now the amphibian service was making a considerable loss and Harry Wigley told the company’s annual meeting that the company was not at all optimistic about the ability of the service to survive.

The replacement for the ill-fated second Grumman Goose, Britten Norman Islander ZK-MCC taken at Mount Cook on 18 January 1980.
Trying to keep the service economical meant increases in fares but a 34% increase in fares from the 1st of October 1975 proved too much. The County Chairmen of Waiheke and Great Barrier Islands said the amphibian service had moved out of the reach of the average man and the only people likely to use the amphibians were people from isolated bays who had no alternative. Mount Cook Airlines responded saying that the amphibians only had another two years of life in them. The heat, humidity and corrosion from seawater in the Auckland area created crippling maintenance costs, that they had never made money in Auckland and in the last year had lost $130,000. In addition the company cited how it was bound by the award rates and restrictive conditions of the various unions and it felt that it was quite possible that the operation would be better operated as a small owner/pilot type business.

On the 1st of November 1975 Mount Cook Airlines introduced a four times a day Britten Norman Islander service to Kerikeri (this was flown twice daily during winter) and a daily service to Great Barrier Island. The introduction of the Islander meant fares were lowered.
The Islander timetable to Kerikeri, Northern News, 5 February 1976.

The Islander timetable to Great Barrier Island, Barrier Bulletin, November 1975
The amphibian service was reaching the end of its days and in early March 1976 the company announced that the service would finish on the 30th of April 1976. By this time the Bay of Islands had the land based Islander air service operating to Kerikeri, Great Barrier was served by Mount Cook’s Islanders and the Auckland Aero Club and Waiheke island also had the advantage of a land-based service in the form of Rex Air Charter -

Concerns were expressed that nine major islands, Rangitoto, Motutapu, Rakino, Motuihe, Pakatoa, Rotoroa, Ponui, Kawau, and Little Barrier, did not have airstrips and that the loss of the amphibian would also mean the loss of the amphibian’s air ambulance role. These were not heeded and Mount Cook Airline’s Auckland-based amphibian service finally ended on the 30th of April 1976. There was mixed feeling as expressed in the Barrier Bulletin. Its brief comment in the March 1976 edition read, The end of the Mt Cook amphibian service has been expected for so long, and their fares and freight rates are so high, that there has been no great wailing on the island now that a definite date, the end of April, has been announced. Some of the island’s school children were somewhat more nostalgic as they farewelled the faithful amphibians. Later in the year Sea Bee Air took over the Hauraki Gulf operation.
A farewell tribute to the amphibians by Great Barrier Island school children. Barrier Bulletin, May 1976.
Meanwhile, the Stewart Island service continued to be operated by Mount Cook Airlines until the 3rd of September 1976 when it passed to Stewart Island Air Services -

Grumman Widgeon ZK-AVM at the South Sea Hotel, Oban

This company leased two Widgeons, ZK-AVM and ZK-BGQ from Auckland’s Sea Bee Air to ensure the continuation of the service until the new Britten Norman Islander service could be started to Stewart Island’s new airstrip at Ryans Creek.
As a postscript to the Mount Cook story in the Gulf the Britten Norman Islander service to Claris airfield on Great Barrier Island continued until the end of October 1976 when the company withdrew the service owing to lack of local support. Mount Cook’s Britten Norman Islander service to Great Barrier was the first true airline service to Great Barrier Island in terms of aircraft offered and professional standards. The irony is that this great tourist airline never really promoted the tourist potential of Great Barrier Island – that was left to Great Barrier Airlines several years down the track.

See also : https://sites.google.com/a/aotea.org/don-armitage/Home/great-barrier-island-history/air--sea-transport-tofrom-great-barrier-island/air-transport/amphibians-era-1955-89

For the Sea Bee Air story of amphibian services in the Hauraki Gulf see:

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