15 July 2012

Hokitika’s NAC de Havilland Days

The New Zealand National Airways Corporation (NAC) took over Air Travel (NZ) Ltd’s West Coast services on the 1st of October 1947, some six months after NAC had begun operating under its own licence on the 1st of April 1947. At the time of the takeover the Air Travel services flew south from Hokitika to South Westland and north to Nelson via Greymouth and Westport. NAC’s Hokitika-based operation continued to use Air Travel’s de Havilland aircraft, including de Havilland DH83 Fox Moths ZK-AEK (c/n 4033) and ZK-AGM (c/n T/S2810) and de Havilland 89A Dragon Rapide ZK-AHS (c/n 6423).

De Havilland 83 Fox Moth, ZK-AGM, at Christchurch. Photo R Killick
De Havilland DH89A ZK-AHS. Photo Ed Coates Collection
 The Dragon Rapide, ZK-AHS, had a long association with the West Coast, being one of the Cook Strait Airways’ Dragon Rapides, ZK-AGT, that had pioneered the Wellington-Nelson-Westport-Greymouth-Hokitika route. The Cook Strait Airways Dragon Rapides were impressed into service with the RNZAF during the Second World War, ZK-AGT becoming NZ558. When it was no longer required by the Air Force it was allocated to Air Travel (NZ) Ltd and was registered as ZK-AHS. NAC continued to operate AHS from Hokitika until it and the South Westland service was sold to West Coast Airways in 1956. AHS continued to operate the South Westland service until 1967 when, with the newly opened Haast Pass offering a road alternative, the South Westland service ended.

With the NAC take over the northern service to Nelson Greymouth was dropped as a stopover and the service flew from Hokitika to Westport and on to Nelson. NAC’s first northbound service from Hokitika was flown on the 1st of October 1947 by Commander J F Cane in Dragon Rapide ZK-AHS. The southbound flight was disrupted when the Dominie developed engine trouble and the flight did not operate until the following day.

NAC operated to five destinations south of Hokitika according to its timetable; Wataroa (Whataroa), Waiho (Franz Josef), Weheka (Fox Glacier) Haast and Okuru. The first southbound flight took place on  the 1st of October 1947 with Commander Frank Molloy flying de Havilland 83 Fox Moth ZK-AGM, Matuhi to Haast and Okuru.

A poignant meeting...  Captains Jimmy Cane and Frank Molloy at Hokitika on the 5th of June 1970 for the final DC-3 service to Hokitika. Captain Jimmy Cane flew the first NAC service from Hokitika to Westport and Captain Frank Mollow flew the first service to South Westland on the 1st of October 1947. Photo : I Woolhouse Collection

Some six weeks later, on the 17th of November 1947, the northern air service was changed. The Hokitika-based Dragon Rapide operated a shuttle service which flew only as far north as Westport where passengers transhipped to and from the Corporation’s new Lockheed L10 Electra service to and from Nelson and Wellington. The Electra service to Wellington was operated with the larger Lockheed Lodestars from late 1948.

NAC's West Coast timetable, effective 2 August 1948
In December 1947 NAC announced it had ordered a twin-engined four-seater Miles M65 Gemini 1A (c/n 6472) monoplane for use on West Coast services to evaluate whether it would be  suitable to replace the Fox Moths. The airline suggested the aircraft would also be suitable for use as a light freighter or an ambulance. ZK-AQO was NAC’s first brand new aircraft which it purchased for the sum of £6000. The aircraft proved, however, to be unsuitable and, in July 1948, having flown only some 50 hours, NAC looked to sell it.

Miles M65 Gemini 1A ZK-AQO taken at the old Hokitika's Southside Aerodrome. Photo : I Woolhouse Collection
On the 1st of June 1948 the larger Dragon Rapide replaced the Fox Moths on the Hokitika-Haast route.  The Dragon Rapides and Dominies were not licenced to use Okuru and so it was dropped from the network. The last flight to Okuru was flown by Commander Frank Molloy in De Havilland 83 Fox Moth ZK-AEK, Mohua, on the 28th of May 1948.

In July 1948 NAC’s Hokitika operation received a “new” de Havilland 83 Fox Moth, ZK-ASP (c/n 4097). ASP wasn’t exactly new, however, as it was Air Travel’s original aircraft, ZK-ADI. During World War II it was impressed into the RNZAF as NZ566.

Meanwhile, the Dragon Rapide service to Haast was relatively short lived due to the grass surfaces at Hokitika’s Southside airfield which was also susceptible to flooding. On the 9th of August 1948 the Southside airfield at Hokitika was closed to de Havilland Dragon Rapides and Dominies meaning that from the 9th of September de Havilland 83 Fox Moths had to once again provide all the West Coast services. The reintroduction of the Fox Moths meant that Greymouth gained and Okuru regained regular flights by NAC. The northern Fox Moth service flew Monday to Saturday. The flight would leave Hokitika around 11.00 am arriving in Greymouth 20 minutes later. After a ten minute stop the flight would continue on to Westport to connect with the Lockheed L18 Lodestar flight from Wellington and Nelson. Upon the arrival of the plane from Wellington the Hokitika based Fox Moth would fly the return flight to Hokitika via Greymouth arriving at Hokitika at 2.00 pm.

The Fox Moth service was temporary, however, as plans were well underway for a new airport at Hokitika. NAC first used Hokitika’s new Seaview airport on the 14th of December 1950 when a Dominie flew from Dunedin’s Taieri aerodrome to Haast where Ministry of Works’ employees were uplifted and flown to the new Hokitika aerodrome. Three trips were made bringing out workers on the Haast Pass construction for the Christmas holidays.

It was be another year, however, before the new Hokitika airport, officially opened and during this time the Fox Moth service continued. A Lockheed Lodestar, ZK-ANB, Kurawai, piloted by Captain H. C. Walker and First Officer L. J. Ransom, made a survey flight to the Hokitika on the 3rd of December 1951. The Seaview airport was officially opened on the 17th of December 1951 with Captain H. C. Walker again flying the inaugural NAC service from Wellington Nelson and Westport in Lodestar, ZK-AKW. The aircraft arrived at 1.15 p.m., and after a brief opening ceremony took off again on its return flight to Wellington. The end of the Fox Moth service to Westport again meant the withdrawal of NAC’s service to Greymouth.

First day cover to mark the opening of Hokitika Airport
Lockheed Lodestar ZK-AKW at Hokitika. Photo : I Woolhouse Collection

At the opening of the new £144,000 aerodrome, hopes were raised suggestions made for the future expansion of air services, in particular for a trans-alpine service to Christchurch. Mr J. B. Kent, Member of Parliament for Westland, said while this would obviously be a great convenience, it was not so simple to start it as it was to wish for. There were technical problems involved, which although not insoluble, created some difficulties. For passenger comfort and safety a pressurised aircraft would have to be used, and there were none in use here at present. With the rapid development of internal air services, however, that service might come sooner than was expected. It was to be some 17 years before a trans-alpine service came to pass. The original Air Travel terminal and hangars were eventually moved from the old Southside aerodrome to the new airport.

In its first two weeks of operation 63 passengers were carried on the Lodestar service on 13 flights. The Lodestar operated the Wellington-Nelson-Westport-Hokitika run until the 29th of March 1952 when the Lodestars were withdrawn from service and sold in the USA. The Hokitika-Westport sector reverted to Dominies while Douglas DC-3s replaced the Lodestars on the Westport-Nelson-Wellington sectors. Once again Dragon Rapide ZK-AHS was returned to Hokitika to replace the Fox Moths on the service to Haast. The Fox Moths were retained at Hokitika and used to maintain "as required" services to the smaller airfields at Whataroa, Franz Josef and Fox Glacier which were not licensed for the larger Dragon Rapides and Dominies.

In September 1952, at a hearing of the Air Services Licencing Authority, it was announced that agreement for the purchase of the National Airways Corporation’s assets used on the Hokitika-Haast service had been signed by the corporation and Queenstown-based Southern Scenic Air Services Ltd. Mr F. J. ‘Popeye’ Lucas managing-director of Southern Scenic Air Services, told the Authority that 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. The company's application, however, was adjourned by the Authority which expressed the view that the licence held by the Corporation and applied for by Southern Scenic Air Services should be considered jointly at a future hearing. This was to set to be heard in Hokitika in late January 1953 but Southern Scenic withdrew before the hearing.

Meanwhile, from the 2nd of March 1953, NAC extended the Douglas DC-3 service from Wellington and Nelson to Westport further south to Hokitika. The arrival of the DC-3 service meant the Dragon Rapide and Dominies could be released to fly the South Westland service allowing the retirement of the Fox Moths. ZK-AEK was the first to be retired in March 1953, ZK-ASP followed in December 1953 and with ZK-AGM holding the honour of being the last NAC Fox Moth being sold on the 28th of February 1954.

De Havilland Dominie ZK-AKU at Franz Josef. Photo from NAC Airline Review, December 1956
In June 1954 the grass surface of the Hokitika Airport’s runways had deteriorated to the point that the DC-3 operations were briefly suspended and Dominie aircraft had to once again operate the northern link to Westport until the Hokitika airport was brought up to DC-3 standard.

NAC's timetable, effective 16 December 1955, including West Coast services

Meanwhile NAC were still keen to withdraw from the South Westland service. Agreement was finally reached with Southern Scenic Air Services Ltd and the NAC South Westland air service was handed over to a subsidiary of Southern Scenic Air Services’, West Coast Airways Ltd., in November 1956. On the 16th of November NAC’s South Westland service was taken over by West Coast Airways and the inaugural flight was operated by de Havilland DH89A Dragon Rapide ZK-AHS on a Hokitika-Haast return service on the 19th of November 1956.

For more on NAC service's to Hokitika see...

Douglas DC-3s


  1. Where abouts was the airfield at Whataroa they used to operate from ? Do you have any pictures from there ?

  2. I vaguely recall the Whataroad strip was down on the Flst somewhere. Perhaps not far from Guy Menzies memorial airstrip?

  3. Whataroa aerodrome was alongside State Highway 6, about 1 km north east of Whataroa township.

    Guy Menzies' landing place is on La Fontaine Rd about 15 km north of Hariharihari township. Harihari is 35 km north of Whataroa

  4. Correct spelling is Hari Hari, not the two spellings I gave above.