02 September 2012

NAC's Trans-Alpine and Round the Rocks Services to Hokitika

As far back as the opening of the new Hokitika airport in 1951, the town fathers were looking towards a trans-alpine service to Christchurch. The answer was always the same – a pressurised aircraft was needed for the service, and when Friendships arrived they were employed on main trunk and services to major provincial centres. It was the introduction of Boeing 737s that freed a Friendship to be used to inaugurate Hokitika’s trans-alpine service. 

As a prelude to the new service Hokitika received its first Fokker Friendship flight on the 4th of November 1967 when a group of West Coast racing enthusiasts chartered a Friendship to who fly them from Hokitika to Christchurch and back for the New Zealand Cup Day race meeting. The first flight was flown in ZK-NAH under the command of Captain D W Barr. NAC used the occasion to bring a number of airline officials and media representatives across the Alps. During the two 20 minute-stops at Hokitika hundreds of people took the opportunity to inspect the aircraft. 
The first Friendship flight to Hokitika. ZK-NAH at Hokitika on 4 November 1967. Photo : Robbie Condon

Following this visit, in February 1968, NAC received permission to use Hokitika airport for Friendship services and preparations were made for the launch of a regular Christchurch-Hokitika Friendship service to begin in December 1968. On the 3rd of September 1968 a promotional Friendship flight was made to Hokitika by ZK-BXC. The Nelson Evening Mail recounted that the airline officials and invited guests were wooed with words, an airport welcome by the Kokatahi Band, schooners of beer, more whitebait than they could eat at lunch and greenstone gifts as they departed. One of the guests was 84 year old Mr T. E. Y. Seddon, son of “King Dick”, Richard John Seddon and himself M.P. for Westland from 1906 to 1920 and again from 1925 to 1928. Mr Seddon recalled that he rode in a cattle truck on the first train from Greymouth to Hokitika in 1983! During the day scenic flights were to be offered around Mount Cook but cloud around Mount Cook prevented the Friendship getting that far south.  

Greymouth Evening Star, 2 December 1968

NAC inaugurated its Christchurch-Hokitika Friendship service on the 20th of December 1968. Fokker Friendship ZK-BXI flew the first flight which was under the command of Captain R W Patterson and First Officer R F Trowsdale with a local woman, Joan Gilbert, as hostess.  On board were the mayors of Christchurch, Mr A. F. Guthrey, Hokitika, Mr W. J. Richards, (Hokitika), Greymouth, Mr O. H. Jackson and Westport, Mr W. A. Craddock, and Mr W. J. Harrington, who made the first trans-alpine flight in 1925 and Mr Frank Molloy, former NAC chief pilot of Hokitika. 

Hokitika Guardian 20 December 1968

Greymouth Evening Star, 20 December 1968

The trans-alpine initially operated on a daily basis with the Christchurch flight connecting with the DC-3 flight from Wellington, Nelson and Westport as well as the Mount Cook Air Services ski-plane service to Franz Josef and Fox Glacier (http://3rdlevelnz.blogspot.co.nz/2011/02/south-westland-skiplane-air-service.html). 

NAC’s service was not the first trans-alpine service, however. That honour belongs to Greymouth-based Phoenix Airways http://3rdlevelnz.blogspot.co.nz/2011/03/first-trans-alpine-air-service-phoenix.html. The NAC service, however, was much more successful. In the first five weeks close to 2000 passengers were carried on the trans-alpine Friendship flights, with an average of 28 passengers out of Hokitika and 25 in each day. NAC was delighted with the response which was been greater than anticipated.  
Great evidence of Hokitika's gravel runway. ZK-BXC at Hokitika in December 1968. Photo : W Cropp

On the 3rd of February 1969 NAC reduced the frequency of the service to four flights a week. On Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays the flight left Christchurch at 1.00 p.m. for the 50 minute flight with the return flight leaving Hokitika at 2.10 p.m. On Sundays the Friendship left Christchurch at 3.05 p.m. and with the return flight leaving Hokitika at 4.15 p.m. The impact of the trans-alpine service quickly became apparent on passenger numbers handled at Hokitika. For the year ended 31 March 1968, with the DC-3 service to Wellington alone, Hokitika had 3,581 passengers pass through. The following year, with the trans-alpine service being operating for three months, 7,400 had been handled at Hokitika. The following year, ended 31 March 1970, 13,595 passengers had used NAC’s Hokitika service. 

From the NAC timetable 20 December 1968, showing the first Friendship flights. These ran daily over the summer before the schedule reduced to four flights a week.

On the 5th of June 1970 NAC operated its final Douglas DC-3 flight to Hokitika. The service to Westport, Nelson and Wellington was suspended while Westport's Kawatiri Airport was brought up to a suitable standard for Friendship operations. Up until this point the flights to and from Christchurch had operated on four days a week. With the withdrawal of the DC-3 Friendships operated a Sunday to Friday service. Hokitika saw further expansion on the 1st of  November 1970 when the Westport Airport was reopened. A two-way service Friendship service from Wellington to Nelson, Westport, Hokitika and Christchurch which operated six days a week, though the two Friendship services departed at similar times to each other.

Friendship ZK-BXG at Hokitika a few days before the DC-3 service ended. The DC-3's wing is to the left of the photo. Photo taken at Hokitika on 2 June 1970 by B Whebell

While the trans-alpine service continued to be successful the Nelson-Westport-Hokitika service continued to be a loss maker. There was very little through traffic on the Nelson-Hokitika and Westport-Christchurch links. Only 1.8 passengers travelled from Westport to Christchurch each day, 1.4 from Westport to Hokitika and 1.85 from Hokitika to Westport and Nelson. NAC announced it was going to withdraw the flights between Westport and Hokitika from the 6th of June 1972 with Hokitika receiving a Sunday to Friday service from Christchurch and Westport a Sunday to Friday service from Wellington and Nelson. This cut saved the National Airways Corporation some $ 85,000.

The 1972/73 summer season  saw quite a demand on the NAC Friendship fleet  and so for a two week period in January 1973 Mount Cook Airlines’ Hawker Siddeley 748s replaced the Friendships on the Christchurch-Hokitika service. In the early 1970s it was not uncommon for Mount Cook 748s to replace the Friendship on Hokitika service.

The daily summer holiday schedule with flights to all centres being via Christchurch, 21 December 1973

By 1974 16,945 people were flying through Hokitika each year and from the 14th of September 1974 NAC introduced Saturday flights from Hokitika to Christchurch. This was the first time Hokitika had had a daily air service. While the Hokitika-Christchurch service was enjoying good loadings passengers often found they were unable to get seats and make connections at Christchurch with flights to the North Island. To counter this NAC reinstated the Hokitika-Westport link on the 3rd of June 1975 on a year’s trial. The airline hoped that a proportion of passengers wanting to get to the North Island would use it and get to Wellington, via Westport and Nelson, more quickly. 

Christchurch Star, 17 September 1974

In 1975 NAC introduced its new "Wings of the Nations" orange and red colour scheme and it carried this scheme until the merger with Air New Zealand in 1978.

From the NAC Sales Brief, November 1975... Above "Dad's Army" and below long time NAC agent Des Wright

The two Friendship timetable as in the NAC timetable, effective 31 January 1977

Friendship ZK-NAH at Hokitika on 25 September 1977. The new terminal on the left is still under construction while the original terminal that was used on the Southside aerodrome by Air Travel is behind the Friendship. Photo : B Whebell
My only photo of an NAC Friendship. ZK-BXE at Hokitika in 1978. Photo : S Lowe

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

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