04 April 2012

The New Zealand Airline scene 40 years ago...

While scanning articles of my old copies of WINGS magazine into my computer I came across this article from the April 1972. It is interesting to see how the crystal ball gazing of 1972 panned out how basically all the airlines mentioned are but a memory...

WITH the economic ills that are besetting NAC on its provincial services the time would seem to be coming when the country could well revert to the post-war situation where the major airline of the time, Union Airways, contented itself with only the trunk routes. With the number of smaller airlines that are now operating in various parts of the country it could well be that NAC would find it more economic to palm off many of its provincial services onto these smaller operators. As one basis, NAC could confine itself to an all-Boeing 737 fleet and operate only through the four main centres and, say, Palmerston North and Rotorua.

An airline based in Rotorua, such as Geyserland, could then operate feeder services to such places as Gisborne, Tauranga, Hamilton, Whakatane etc; the carrier based in Palmerston North, such as Midland Air Services, could carry passengers off the main trunk airline through to Napier, Wanganui, New Plymouth etc. A similar sort of set-up could operate from Wellington with Capital Air Services and in parts of the South Island with Mt Cook Airlines. The beauty of this, as we see it is that NAC could divest itself of all its Viscounts and Friendships and reach a degree of profitability by confining its activities to the wealthy main trunk routes. By operating smaller aircraft, such as Islanders, King Airs, Twin Otters etc, the smaller carriers would, surely, find it more economic carrying a full load of ten passengers between provincial centres than NAC could with a half-full load on a 40-seat Friendship.

Although NAC has carried out its statutory function and provided air services to almost every populous centre, and lost on many of them, it is time the economic reality of the situation was faced. Smaller centres must be made to realise that New Zealand simply does not have the population to support air services to provincial centres such as we have now. If they are to continue as now the only result must be ever-increasing fares to meet ever-increasing costs, with a consequent fall-off in demand. And thus the vicious circle would come back again to higher fares. Smaller operators with more services connecting with more trunk flights must surely make more sense to both NAC and the consumer than a very minimum service with an only two-thirds full Friendship. It would mean that more provincial centres would obtain more regular air services. If the clamour of business organisations for more NAC services to their towns is right then there would be a big demand for the feeder carrier. Lower fares should result and more passengers should be carried to be channelled into the main trunk airports. After all, Air New Zealand does not start its Los Angeles service in Dunedin and work its way through the country picking up passengers at every provincial centre in creation. And neither it should with NAC. If one thing is illustrated by looking at the development of air services in New Zealand it is the number of companies that have fallen by the wayside because of a lack of passenger demand.

While NAC is hardly likely to follow suit, the only alternative is to force fares higher and higher and take us back to the early thirties when air travel was so expensive as to be accessible only to the very wealthy. What sort of aircraft? The criteria would seem to be full IFR capability, preferably turbine-powered to give at lease some element of competition with surface transport, but not too sophisticated so as to be out of reach of the capabilities of the smaller operator. Perhaps here Aero Engine Services could come up with a twin-engined stretched Aircruiser, and keep it entirely in the family. The history of the development of regular airline services in New Zealand is a remarkable example of the old adage "if at first you don't succeed, try, try again". Because, for the last fifty or so years this country has spawned any number of concerns in an effort to get regular passenger services going. And the unfortunate thing about this is that many of these efforts have either failed or been forced to close up shop within a comparatively short time. It seems to be an unfortunate trait of New Zealand that with our habit of congregating ourselves at various distant points around our long and thin country we can manage trunk air services but seem to fall flat when it comes to serving smaller centres.

One of the earliest plans for regular air services came from New Zealand Aero Transport of Timaru (the predecessor of today's Mount Cook Airlines) which, in 1920, proposed to inaugurate services between Timaru, Dunedin and Invercargill, and Timaru and Mount Cook. The company had received three DH9 aircraft from the Imperial Gift batch, and carried out a number of route-proving flights with them. One of the best remembered is the first Invercargill-Auckland flight, the 50th anniversary of which was commemorated in October last year. However, New Zealand Aero Transport did not carry out any regular passenger services and it went into liquidation. These first thoughts at regular services were at least in keeping with what was happening overseas, as the first passenger services in the world were flown in late 1919 and the early twenties. However, New Zealand's population at this time was not big enough to support air services and as a means of travel it was too expensive for the large majority of the populace. Commercial aviation for the rest of the 1920s was largely confined to flying training, barnstorrning and pioneering flights, but, generally, the fledgling industry was in the doldrums.

In 1928 New Zealand Airways was founded in Dunedin (later shifting to Timaru), initially as a training and charter company, but with the intention of operating regular air services between Dunedin and Nelson. These did not come to pass however. New Zealand Airways also intended to operate main trunk services and purchased two Boeing 40H-4 aircraft. However, the Transport Co-ordination Board refused to issue the company the necessary licence, and by 1936 it had suspended operations.

Throughout the early thirties a brace of small companies were started up and down the country; such names as Taranaki Airways (which, for a few months from November 1930, operated a regular service, between New Plymouth and Wellington), Taumarunui Airways, Rotorua Airways, Southland Airways, Falcon Airways, Hamilton Airways, United Airways, Southern Cross Airways. They were, however, little more than one-aircraft concerns and despite the connotation to be derived from their title 'airways' they generally confined themselves to charter operations. What was .probably the first regular passenger air service in New Zealand, albeit only for a few months, was that operated by Air Travel. The company was formed jointly by F. Maurice Clark, later to be first general manager of Union Airways and of NAC, and responsible for the formation of TEAL, and Sqn Ldr M. C. McGregor, later the service manager of Union Airways. They obtained a DH50 on loan from the Government and in November 1930 started a three-times weekly service between Christchurch and Dunedin. A total of 143 passengers had been carried by the time the aircraft was handed back in April 1931. The company continued until June 1932, however, using a Simmonds Spartan on a variety of airmail and charter flights, especially on the West Coast of the South Island.

Early the next year West Coast Airways was formed at Hokitika, and from August 1933 to November 1934 continued air services on the coast. In December 1934 a new company, Air Travel (NZ) Ltd, was formed and operated all services on the Coast until 1947 when it was taken over by NAC.

One of the first regular services in the North Island 'began' in 1930 when Dominion Airlines began flying a, Desoutter between Hastings and Gisborne. However, these were curtailed when the aircraft crashed at Wairoa in February 1931. About a month later the Gisborne Aerial Transport Company was formed and continued the daily services with another Desoutter until December 1932 when the aircraft was sold to the Hawke's Bay and East Coast Aero Club, which continued the service for a while. Dominion Airlines also had plans to operate New Zealand-wide services with amphibians and light aircraft, and also larger aircraft on the trunk routes, but in the end nothing came of these ideas.

In 1934 steps were taken which were to lead directly to the establishment of NAC thirteen years later and the network of air services which has steadily grown throughout the country. In this year the Transport Board approved applications from four airlines to operate the major air services in this country; these were Union Airways, East Coast Airways, Cook Strait Airways and Air Travel (NZ) Ltd.

Air Travel (NZ) was the first of these to begin flying, in December 1934, and although its operations were largely outside the 'airline' context it did provide the only air services on the West Coast until the formation of NAC. East Coast Airways was next to start, in May 1935, flying DH Dragons between Napier and Gisborne. The company's services were later extended to connect with Union Airways at Palmerston North, and in 1938 its services became integrated with those of Union, when its DH86 Express aircraft connected Palmerston North (then the hub of the main trunk network) with Auckland via the East Coast. Cook Strait Airways started in December 1935 with services between Blenheim and Nelson and Wellington, and later extended to Westport. The company's DH89 Rapides made 19,821 crossings of Cook Strait and 1843 flights to the West Coast before they were taken over by the RNZAF in November 1939. From that date Union Airways continued the Cook Strait services. Union Airways - formerly National Airways - had been sponsored by the Union Steam Ship Company (also a shareholders in Cook Strait Airways), and was granted a main trunk licence between Dunedin and Palmerston North, later extended to Auckland. It began services in January 1936 with three DH86 Express aircraft, at the time the largest, heaviest and most powerful aircraft in the country. Consequently, they were able to outrun anything the military of the day was able to put up! Electras were added to the fleet in June 1937 - the first 'modern' airliner in the country - to permit the Wellington-Auckland sector to be opened up. The Expresses were impressed into the Air Force in September 1939 and Union Airways continued all its services with four Electras. The war, however, forced the abandonment of plans to extend air services to Northland, and the service from Palmerston North to Auckland via the east coast was closed down. Union Airways operated the only scheduled services in New Zealand during the war, although Air Travel (NZ) continued by itself on the west coast. Union Airways received its first Lockheed Lodestar in November 1943 from a batch which was allocated to the RNZAF. A further 13 were purchased from the Air Force and the RAAF in 1946 and 1947 when the quasi-airline services run by the RNZAF were closed down and civil flying came back into its own.

In 1945 the Government nationalised the three airlines - Air Travel (NZ), Cook Strait and Union - and formed the National Airways Corporation, which took over all services in the country on 1 April 1947. NAC was given the task of establishing and operating air transport services to "meet the needs of the people of New Zealand". But before its network had expanded to any degree away from the main trunk routes, charter, air taxi and air ambulance work provided a considerable source of revenue for the country's aero clubs, and all the larger clubs used aircraft specifically for this work.

For some years before NAC started a regular Cook Strait service, for example, the Wellington and Marlborough Aero Clubs used Geminis, a Proctor and a Fox Moth to maintain an air link between the two centres. The first of the post-war operators around the Southern Lakes was Southern Scenic Air Trips (later S.S. Air Services), formed in 1947 by a group of wartime pilots with Auster and Proctor aircraft. Rapides were added to the fleet and a subsidiary, West Coast Airways, was established to fly Rapides from Hokitika to Milford Sound, in the same area as the 1933-34 company of the same name and Air Travel (NZ) which was nationalised into NAC.

The establishment of the Air Services Licensing Authority encouraged privately-owned airlines to start up again, and from then on many different types of services were inaugurated, giving a scene somewhat reminiscent of the early thirties. In 1951 Amphibian Airways was established for an amphibious non-scheduled passenger service from Invercargill to Stewart Island and other remote parts of the southern South Island. The company initially operated with two Grumman Widgeons, and after ten years of service merged with the similar Auckland company, Tourist Air Travel. TAT itself was formed in August 1954 by Captain Fred Ladd and began operations around the Hauraki Gulf in June 1955, also with Widgeon amphibians. After its 1961 take-over of Amphibian Airways TAT continued to grow and in 1964 took over Ritchie Air Services of Te Anau, which was equipped with Rapides and Cessnas for services around the Southern Lakes. This trend continued, and 1965 TAT took over Southern Scenic Air Services of Queenstown and its subsidiary West Coast Airways of Hokitika, both of which also flew Rapides. Two years later, the very much bigger TAT, which was the largest private airline in the country, merged with Mt Cook Airlines. Mt Cook Airlines was started in 1955 as Mt Cook Air Services by Mr Harry Wigley (son of Rodolph Wigley, founder or New Zealand Aero Transport), who began flying ski-equipped aircraft in the Southern Alps. This company was another fast grower, and in 1961 it was able to begin scheduled DC-3 services between Christchurch, Mt Cook, Te Anau and Manapouri. Mt Cook has been one of the real success stories of New Zealand commercial aviation, and it has grown into the largest private air transport company in the country. Its scheduled network has expanded to Rotorua, Dunedin and Milford Sound, and the fleet has gone from the sole Auster of 1955 to today's fleet of two Hawker Siddeley 748s, two DC-3s, a Twin Otter, two Islanders and a large fleet of Widgeons and Cessnas of its various former subsidiaries.

Also in the early fifties, several private airlines (in the true sense of the word) were started up in the South Island. The first of these was South Island Airways, which was established by Airwork Ltd, and began the first regular service between Timaru and Christchurch in September 1953 with Rapides. The service did not prosper, however, and in about 1956 South Island Airways gave up and the licence was acquired by Mt Cook. In the meantime, Oamaru interests had formed Trans-Island Airways and, Mt Cook handed over to it the rights to the Timaru-Christchurch service, which was resumed with Rapides pending the arrival of a Beech 18 and an Electra. The company flew between Christchurch, Timaru, Oamaru, Nelson and the West Coast, and was also licensed to fly to the Chatham Islands, It had plans to fly to Wanganui, Rotorua and Tauranga, but in April 1957 NAC started DC-3 services into Timaru. The route could not support both operations and in 1959 Trans-Island Airways ceased operations and went into liquidation.

A similar sort of venture was established in Northland where Coastal Airways flew two Dominies between Auckland and Whangarei for a month in 1958. This was a service which NAC later took over and flew with Rapides until 1963.

Another North Island venture of the fifties was Bay of Plenty Airways. Established at Tauranga it grew from charter work with light aircraft to scheduled services in Poverty Bay, Rotorua, Waikato and as far south as Wellington with an Aero Commander and a Dove. The company was started early in 1959, but it met an early end following the crash of the Aero Commander on Mount Ruapehu in November 1961, and the Dove was sold in Australia.

Also started in 1959 was Golden Coast Airways of Nelson which flew light aircraft on newspaper runs and charter services down the West Coast. It, too, grew with time and an Apache was bought to operate services from Nelson to Karamea, Westport and Greymouth. The company became known as Golden Coast Airlines in 1963, and in 1966 took over the old Spanz Nelson-New Plymouth route. Greymouth was also added in 1966. The following year its network was extended to Hamilton and an Aero Commander bought to supplement the two Apaches. In 1969 it was intended that Golden Coast take over the NAC DC-3 service to Westport and Hokitika, and it was planned to purchase a bigger aircraft than the Aero Commander. However, the following year the company went into abeyance, and its Aero Commander was sold to the Civil Aviation Division.

Spanz was another airline which bit off more than it could chew. It was established in 1959 with three DC-3s and flew a considerable network throughout the country, operating into many smaller centres, often in direct competition with NAC. The company finally folded in 1965 and its three aircraft sold, two in Laos and the third is being converted to the topdressing role for Fieldair. Another "nine-day wonder" operation in the late sixties was Sky travel (NZ) Ltd. It began operations in February 1968 with two Cessna 402s to take over two NAC secondary routes. The company expanded its services and operated through most North Island centres south of Auckland, except Wanganui. However, high operating expenses and a passenger demand which didn't eventuate took its toll and the company ceased operations in June, and the two aircraft were sold in Australia.

A similar fate awaited Tasman Air the following year, which started charter operations with a Piper Navajo. Its main activity was towards the end of 1969 when it began running what were in effect scheduled services between Christchurch and the Chatham Islands when the Safe Air service was stopped for some time because of the condition of the Hapupu airstrip at the Chathams. Tasman Air applied for a licence to operate scheduled services to the Islands, but it was turned down in favour of Safe Air. It went out of business and the aircraft was sold to the Civil Aviation Division.

The latest 'little' airline to enter the fray is the Rotorua-based Geyserland Airways which, with two Aero Commanders, is operating scheduled services along a number of points between Kerikeri and Gisborne.

One of the aero club offshoots which has developed into a fairly large 'third level' operation is Capital Air Services, a wholly-owned subsidiary of the Wellington Aero Club. It was developed from the club's commercial arm in 1963, but until 1970 was little more than a name. In April 1970 all commercial services run by the Wellington Aero Club were taken over by Capital. It currently runs a scheduled parcels service across Cook Strait with a Piaggio P.166, and for a period in 1970 operated NAC’s Wellington-Blenheim service. It has been mentioned many times as negotiating with NAC to take over the service completely.

Another aero club third level operation which continues with some degree of success is Midland Air Services, the commercial arm of the Middle Districts Aero Club. It has taken over a former NAC service and operates a daily return flight between Palmerston North and Gisborne with Apache or Cherokee Six aircraft.

One company which flies passenger services as more or less only an adjunct to its main role is Safe Air. Formed in 1950, it has been almost purely an all-freight airline, although it has always been licensed to carry passengers with their cars between Wellington and Blenheim and Nelson. It started passenger operations to the Chatham Islands under contract to the Government in 1968 with a regular weekly service from Wellington. It was later extended to include Christchurch. Despite a faltering due to economic ills, the company still flies the service on a three flights a fortnight basis.

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