16 October 2011

The Motiti Airline - Island Air Charter


With the grounding of the container ship Rena off Tauranga Motiti Island has been in the news a lot this week. This post, which is largely the work of Bruce Gavin, looks at Island Air Charter, a company that has provided an air service to Motiti Island for 16 years and, that for a time, operated an air service to Whitianga and Great Barrier Island. Prior to this company being founded Motiti Island was serviced by Motiti Air Safaris, Motiti Air Services and Sunair Aviation.

In the 2018/19 Summer issue of the Bay Waka Paul Ensor wrote of his early years. As a Tauranga local, my love for machinery and particularly aeroplanes began as a young lad when I would frequently ask to go to the Tauranga Airport to watch the planes taking off and landing. Attending Otumoetai College, I grew up alongside the Nuku family from Motiti Island. As a teenager, I would regularly holiday on Motiti Island with the Nuku's whenever the opportunity arose. The flights to the Island were always a highlight for me. On one trip, our pilot was local identity John Martin. Once I got chatting with John and because of my obvious interest in aviation, he encouraged me to consider taking up flying lessons. After leaving school, while working in the construction industry in 1989, I began flying lessons and didn't stop until I completed my Commercial Pilots Licence in 1991. Flying had become my passion and I soon got a job as a Line Pilot for Sunair, flying the Motiti run.

On the 29th of August 1995 Sunair's Cessna P206 Super Skylane ZK-DRD (c/n P206-0135) was registered to Paul and he took over the Tauranga to Motiti Island air service from Sunair. Operating as Island Air Charter, the major part of the business was providing the important air taxi link for passengers, freight and mail to and from Motiti Island, 21 kilometres to the east. As well, air charter services were offered including flights between Tauranga and Slipper Island and the more distant Great Barrier Island.

Cessna 206 ZK-DRD still in Sunair colours but with Island Air Charter titles taken at Tauranga on 17 January 1996. 

Paul writes, With just one Cessna 206 aircraft parked outside on chains and a small flight office at Tauranga Airport, I began building up the business through my close relationships with the Motiti Island people. The small pre-fab office building that I built lived on the same site where the hangar stands today. 

The Cessna 206 and the original flight office. Source : Bay Waka, Summer 2018/19

Headquarters for Island Air Charter was initially a hangar at Tauranga Airport situated near where the Classic Flyers Museum was established in 2005. With the development of the Museum, Island Air moved to a new hangar near the southern end of the airport, from which it continued to operate in September 2011.

In November 1996 Cessna TU206A ZK-SUN (c/n U206-0511) was added to the fleet - this aircraft also acquired from Sunair Aviation Ltd. As the Tauranga region grew the demand also grew for aerial photography, air charters and scenic flights. From May to October 1998 the registrations of the two aircraft were transferred to the Motiti Residents Club of Mount Maunganui, before being transferred back to Paul Ensor on 7 October of that year.

Another of Island Air's ex Sunair Cessna 206s, ZK-SUN, taken at Tauranga on 2 December 1996

Paul continues his narrative, About this time, we were also outgrowing our small flight office, so I campaigned to try and build a hangar on a horse paddock next to our flight office. But at that time, the Airport wasn't sure where their future development was heading, so I couldn't get permission. Instead, in 2000 we purchased Bay Aircraft's old hangar, bought a third aircraft and we operated out of there until 2004 when the museum opened next door to us and it became cramped. In alignment with the new Airport development plan, we were graciously granted permission by the Airport to move the horses along and we built our current hangar where it still stands today and where it all began!

Cessna 172N ZK-WFT (c/n 17267712) was part of the fleet between November 1998 and December 1999. ZK-WFT was replaced by Cessna 172K ZK-WGE (c/n 17258978) in September 2000 and it remains in the fleet today. In September 2001 Cessna U206C Super Skywagon ZK-JCB (c/n U206-0922) replaced Cessna P206 ZK-DRD. ZK-JCB left the Island Air fleet in January 2003.

Cessna 172, ZK-WGE, at Tauranga on 1 November 2001.

Ex ZK-SUN, Cessna 206 was reregistered as ZK-PAI. It is seen at Tauranga on 11 December 2005.

In July 2004 Cessna TU206A ZK-SUN was re-registered as ZK-PAI,  Then, in October 2004, ZK-PAI and Cessna 172 ZK-WGE were joined by twin-engined Britten-Norman BN-2A-27 Islander ZK-WNZ (c/n 278). This aircraft provided a large increase in carrying capacity and with three aircraft Island Air needed extra business to utilise them efficiently. At the start of summer 2005 Island Air started advertising a regular summer service from Tauranga to Great Barrier Island via Whitianga. Return flights over the route were timed for Friday and Sunday afternoons with an additional Wednesday flight being added the following summer.

Still showing signs of being with Great Barrier Airlines and Wings Over Whales, Britten Norman Islander with Island Air titles on the engine cowls at Tauranga on 11 December 2005.

Barrier Bulletin, 4 November 2005

In November 2006 the Civil Aviation Authority suspended Island Air’s operating licence over concerns that unauthorised maintenance had been carried out on the company’s aircraft. Operations resumed together with the appointment of a new maintenance controller and chief executive. However the operator’s problems compounded the following month when Britten-Norman Islander ZK-WNZ suffered two forced landings on 22 and 28 December 2006. The second of these resulted in a forced landing on mudflats near Tauranga, unfortunately and ironically, while on a ferry flight to Hamilton for maintenance. The aircraft was later airlifted to Hamilton by helicopter, It was subsequently passed on to Great Barrier Airlines, broken up for spares and its registration cancelled. Court action in the in late 2007 resulted in Ensor being fined.

To continue operations, particularly the essential link to Motiti Island, the company initially utilised the licence of Mountain Air Ltd but in the first part of 2007 a more permanent arrangement with Sunair Aviation Ltd was put in place. Both the Cessna 206, ZK-PAI, and Cessna 172, ZK-WGE, were registered to Sunair on 18 May 2007 who operated the Motiti service on Island Air's behalf. In late 2009 this arrangement was in turn transferred to Adventure Aviation Ltd with registrations of both aircraft changing on 14 December 2009.

Island Air's Great Barrier Island summer service timetable effective 7 December 2007

On the 22nd of July 2011 Paul Ensor bought out Adventure Aviation and a formed a new company, Adventure Aviation 2011 Limited, which continues to operate Island Air Charter's services. The grounding and incident with the Islander was an unfortunate moment in Island Air's history, but as with a number of other New Zealand operators who had similar learning moments, Island Air Charter has come out of it stronger and focused on its core business which is the Motiti Island service and local scenic flying.

Bay Waka, November 2018

In November 2012 Cessna U206G Stationair ZK-WWH (c/n U20603550) and this eventually replaced Cessna 206 ZK-PAI. In the Summer 2018/19 issue of Bay Waka Paul Ensor talked about the Island Air operation: Without a doubt the 1,500-2,000 yearly flights to Motiti over 30 years have been a privilege to be involved with, to say the least. In the early days, with no regular boat service and just one barge, the Motiti locals relied heavily on the flight service to get to and from the island. Island Air has also carried freight, from avocados and crayfish coming off the island, to delivering bobby calves, sheep, goats, chooks, pigs, pallets of beer, cement, building materials, motorbikes, you name it, we've carted it. Today we're as much a part of the Motiti way of life as we were when we started and even carry the Flying Doctor service there each month. It has been a privilege beyond words to share in the lives of the families that live on Motiti. I am equally grateful for the support that they reciprocate to Island Air and our pilots. 

One of the great unanticipated spin-offs of the past 22 years we have been in business, is the training and employment of about 20 young pilots who are now dotted around the world captaining all types of aircraft from float planes in Hamilton Island, Dash-8's for Air NZ, to intercontinental. Boeing 737 Max aircraft. The hands on experience gained flying at Island Air, sets up pilots to manage many different scenarios with comfort and ease. Giving these young people a chance in aviation, as I was also given in the early years, is an essential process within the aviation industry and one that builds a bond of mutual trust and respect for life with each other.

Bay Waka, March 2019

Island Air's Cessna 172 ZK-WGE at Tauranga on 13 May 2019

Cessna 206 ZK-WWH departing Tauranga for Motiti Island on 19 June 2016

Twenty five years on from its foundation Island Air Charter continues to serve Motiti Island. It currently uses three aircraft, the Cessna 206 ZK-WWH, Cessna 172 ZK-WGE and Cessna 172M Skyhawk, ZK-FII, (c/n 17264190) which was added to the fleet in December 2017.

The latest aircraft in the Island Air stable, Cessna 172 ZK-FII at Tauranga on 26 January 2019

In late 2021 Island Air's three engine fleet received titles on the engine cowling of each aircraft. 

Island Air's Cessna 172 was off to Motiti Island

Cessna 172 ZK-WGE on a very dry Tauranga airport on 22 January 2022... 

...and on the same day Island Air's meaty Cessna 206 ZK-WWH. 


  1. Very Interesting. I live in Tauranga and this event is the biggest i think Tauranga has ever seen.

  2. my mum lived on harbourview drive for 35 years i had a great time visiting until she passed away in 2002 i did aq bit if training with ewan gray a most highly skilled instructer hopping around whitianga pauanui and waihi beach in his c 172 constant speed kite i remember my youth in the 50 s on my bsa 350 at the beach and the mount with my brother dickie we came down to queenstown in 1957 60 yrs ago wow bobby rout ex hamilton now invercargill

  3. Great airline cool to know there backstory