02 December 2012

Important Airways Development - Cook Strait Airways' Service to Hokitika

As early as October 1934 the still unregistered Cook Strait Airways was planning an air service between Wellington and Hokitika. Wellington’s Evening Post of the 30th of October reported that, “An air service joining Wellington, Blenheim, Nelson, and Hokitika is planned by Cook Strait Airways, a new company of which registration will be gazetted within a few days. The three main shareholders are the Union Steam Ship Company of New Zealand, Ltd., Newman Brothers, Ltd., and the Anchor Shipping and Foundry Company, Ltd. The present intention is that the company aeroplanes shall leave Wellington in the morning and cross to Blenheim, Nelson, and Hokitika, which will be reached about noon. There the service will connect with the South Westland service, to be operated by the company in which Mr. J. C. Mercer is interested. In the afternoon the machine will return by the same route, arriving at about 5 or 0 o'clock in the evening. The schedule is, however, only tentative, as the company has at present no idea what type of aeroplanes it will use, except that, because of the water crossing, they will have more than one engine.”

Cook Strait Airways began operations between Wellington and Blenheim and Nelson on the 30th of December 1935 using de Havilland DH89A Dragon Rapides ZK-AED Venus (c/n 6305) and ZK-AEE Jupiter (c/n 6306) but it was to be some 15 months later before the company expanded south to Hokitika. The first move towards inaugurating this service was the arrival in Wellington of the company’s third de Havilland DH89A Dragon Rapide on the 19th of September 1936. The Evening Post reported that the aircraft had been shipped “from England, via Auckland, by the liner Tamaroa. The machine, which has a slightly higher performance than the two already in use, will be used first as a relief machine, and subsequently tor the extension to Hokitika via Westport and Greymouth.” The new aircraft was subsequently registered ZK-AEC (c/n 6334) and named Mercury. However, by the time the service was ready to be inaugurated the company had received its fourth Dragon Rapide, ZK-AEW (c/n 6343), which was named Mars.

By early February 1937 plans for the West Coast service were well under way. Both the Greymouth and Hokitika aerodromes were expanded to handle the Dragon Rapides and the Greymouth Aero Club erected buildings for the company to use. The company proposed that a-fairly powerful wireless station should be erected at Hokitika, with lesser stations at the intermediate aerodromes, Westport and Greymouth, though at this stage Westport was not to be included due to its aerodrome being reduced in size by sea erosion.

On the 20th of February 1937 De Havilland 89A Dragon Rapides ZK-AEC, named Mercury, and ZK-AEW, Mars, flew a survey flight from Nelson to Hokitika and Greymouth. It was a milestone day for Greymouth with the new aerodrome and the aero club’s hangar and clubrooms being opened.

De Havillands over Hokitika on the survey flight of 20 February 1937 - Above, Cook Strait Airways' de Havilland DH89A Dragon Rapides ZK-AEC and ZK-AEW in formation over Hokitika with Air Travel (NZ)'s de Havilland DH83 Fox Moth ZK-ADI. Hokitika's Southside airfield is to the right of the road-rail bridge. Below, Cook Strait Airways' de Havilland DH89A Dragon Rapide ZK-AEC and an Air Travel (NZ) de Havilland Fox Moth over Seaview hospital and what was to become, some 15 years later, Hokitika's new Seaview airport. Photos : S Lowe Collection

Above, some of the dignatories after a formal photo on the day of the survey flight to Hokitika on 22 February 1937... including on the left Cook Strait Airways'  managing director Ernie Thomson and one of the two pilots George Bolt, under the nose of Dragon Rapide ZK-AEC Bert Mercer, managing director of Air Travel (NZ) and Jack Newman of the Newmans Group. Below Dragon Rapide ZK-AEW being inspected by interested locals.  

The first attempted scheduled flight took place on the 23rd of February 1937 but the flight encountered bad weather rounding Farewell Spit and had to return to Nelson. The first successful scheduled flight operated on the 24th of February 1937. The Coast weather again precluded a direct flight to Greymouth with the aircraft, Dragon Rapide ZK-AEW Mars, under the command of Captain George Bolt having to fly around Farewell Spit and then down the Coast. The delayed flight arrived at Greymouth at 10.00am before continuing on to Hokitika.

Two date stamps on the first day covers, reflecting the interrupted first flights...

Evening Post, 13 March 1937

The timetable for the three day a week service which operated on Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Fridays started from Nelson rather than from Wellington. The service departed Nelson at 8 a.m., arriving at Greymouth at 9.15am for a 15 minute stop before continuing to Hokitika, arriving there at 9.45am in time to connect with road services to South Westland. The call at Greymouth enabled passengers from the north to connect with the Greymouth-Christchurch express at 10.18 a.m. The northbound flight left Hokitika at 10.30am for the 15 minute flight to Greymouth. Again a 15 minute stop was scheduled before the flight left Greymouth at 11.00am to arrive in Nelson at 12.15pm. A connecting flight to Wellington left at 1.45pm. Fares were set initially at £4 5s from Nelson to Greymouth and £4 10s from Nelson to Hokitika. The fare to or from Wellington was 30/- higher and between Greymouth and Hokitika the princely sum of 10/- was charged.

The new service proved particularly popular with northbound passengers who were able to fly right through to Wellington. The southbound service, which originated in Nelson, was not as well patronised as passengers from Wellington either had to fly over the previous afternoon or cross Cook Strait by the overnight ferry to Nelson. Responding to this need, from the 1st of October 1937 the service ran Wellington-Nelson-Greymouth-Hokitika and return three days a week. Dragon Rapide ZK-AED Jupiter inaugurated the expanded service. The new through service left Wellington’s Rongotai Airport at 7.45 a.m. arriving at Nelson, arriving at 8.30. After a 15 minute stop the aircraft left on a direct flight to Greymouth, and after a few minutes stop, it continued on to Hokitika, arriving at 10.40 a.m. Cook Strait Airways’ northbound service to Nelson and Wellington arrived back in Wellington at 2.15 p.m. 

At Hokitika Air Travel (NZ) adopted a new timetable enabling passengers from Wellington to fly to Franz Josef or Fox Glaciers and South Westland in a single day. The Air Travel (NZ) connection to the Glaciers didn’t produce a huge amount of traffic, the first passenger availing himself of the new service being Mr J. L. Squire, of Union Airways. From Wellington to Franz Josef the trip took three and a half hours, compared with three days by boat and service car!

The meeting of the air services... Cook Strait Airways De Havilland 89A Dragon Rapide ZK-AEE ad De Havilland 83 Fox Moth at Hokitika.

Evening Post, 22 June 1938

On the 15th of April 1938 the West Coast service flew only as far as Greymouth owing to flooding at the Hokitika aerodrome. The flood damage was serious enough that the Dragon Rapides could not use Hokitika for some time. During the closure the tri-weekly mail and passenger air service terminated at Greymouth and passengers took a railcar service to Hokitika. The Hokitika aerodrome was prone to being boggy and to flooding and it was there, some months earlier, that Cook Strait Airways had its only incident when on the 5th of August 1937 Dragon Rapide ZK-AEE nosed over while taxiing after striking a soft patch of ground. As it was travelling slowly at the time there was little damage done, and no injuries were sustained by the pilot, Mr Arthur Orchard, or his passengers.

Ouch, de Havilland DH89A Dragon Rapide ZK-AEE on its nose at Hokitika on 4 August 1937. 

The West Coast service grew steadily in popularity. The Evening Post of 17th of December 1938 reported that on the Nelson-Blenheim-Wellington service for the 11 months to November 30, 1938 the number of passengers carried was 20,520, compared with 10,372 “while the West Coast service to Hokitika, which is run three days a week only, shows an even greater proportional increase.”

In 1938 work began on upgrading the Westport aerodrome to take the Dragon Rapides and on the 15th of March 1939 Westport was included in the West Coast service which was increased to a six day a week Monday to Saturday service. At the same time Hokitika was dropped from the Cook Strait Airways service and Greymouth was made the terminus for the West Coast route. Passengers to and from Hokitika and the Glaciers were flown to and from Greymouth by a connecting Air Travel (NZ) service.

ZK-AEC         de Havilland DH89A Dragon Rapide      Mercury          c/n 6334
ZK-AED         de Havilland DH89A Dragon Rapide      Venus             c/n 6305
ZK-AEE         de Havilland DH89A Dragon Rapide      Jupiter            c/n 6306
ZK-AEW        de Havilland DH89A Dragon Rapide       Mars               c/n 6343
ZK-AGT         de Havilland DH89A Dragon Rapide      Neptune         c/n 6423

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