14 July 2013

Go the Friendship Way - Oamaru, NAC's last Friendship destination


Following the Second World War, like many other towns in the country, Oamaru was keen for an air service to be developed. The National Airways Corporation showed no interest in serving Oamaru even though their aircraft diverted to Oamaru when Dunedin’s Taieri airfield was closed.

An early NAC visitor to Oamaru, Douglas DC-3 ZK-AOF, Pukeko, presumably when Taieri was closed 

There was a boom period for the airport in the mid-1950's when SAFE Air developed a freight service, based mainly on eggs from the district being despatched to Wellington and general cargo for Oamaru helping to reduce the cost factor. Southern Scenic Air Services tried a service connecting Oamaru with Dunedin and Central Otago and later South Island Airways and Trans Island Airways tried to operate an air service to Christchurch. It was not until the collapse of SPANZ in late February 1966 that NAC officially began flying to Oamaru.

Officially the National Airways Corporation started flying to Oamaru on the 2nd of March 1966, though its services were operated under charter by Mount Cook Airlines who used Douglas DC-3s and, later, Hawker Siddeley 748s. This charter operation was an expensive operation for NAC. In the 1969-70 financial year the Christchurch-Timaru-Oamaru service lost $72,763.
Oamaru Mail, 7 March 1966
By early 1972 construction was well underway of a sealed runway at Timaru. This work necessitated Mount Cook Airlines’ 748s being replaced by their Douglas DC-3s on the Christchurch-Timaru-Oamaru service. While Timaru was proactive in upgrading its airport to Friendship standard Oamaru was more reticent, insisting on NAC’s assurance of a Fokker Friendship air service before it sealed its airport’s runway.

In March 1972 the Minister of Transport Mr J B Gordon assured the Oamaru Chamber of Commerce that, “as far as the Government is concerned, and I personally as Minister, there is no threat to your air service” and that he did not think there would be a great deal of difficulty into entering into a 50/50 deal with the Government in funding the $180,000 project to seal the runway.

Meanwhile the Oamaru Chamber of Commerce was becoming somewhat agitated insisting that the replacement of Mount Cook’s 748 with the smaller DC-3 had caused a downturn in passenger and freight traffic. This claim was borne out by the passenger and freight figures for 1971 and 1972.

Passengers out of Oamaru Jan 1972 and (1971) :        274 (356)
Passengers into Oamaru Jan 1972 and (1971) :           236 (336).
Passengers out of Oamaru Feb 1972 and (1971) :       178 (200)
Passengers into Oamaru Feb  1972 and (1971) :          198 (178)

The January northbound and southbound totals for the 1970 and 1969 years were well over the 300 mark, while the February totals for these two years were around 250. While the loadings clearly reduced with the re-introduction of the DC-3 the greater problem for the retention of a long term air service to Oamaru was that the loadings to and from the town were so light.

While North Otago business leaders would have been happy with the return of Mount Cook Airlines’ HS748 this was becoming increasingly unlikely due to two reasons. The first of these was the growth of Mount Cook’s core tourist services. On the 18th of April 1972 the Oamaru Mail reported NAC’s general manager, Doug Patterson, saying that “If Mount Cook Airlines continues to fly the route under charter it will fly a Hawker Siddeley 748 on five days of the week with a DC-3 on the remaining two days. But the 748 will be withdrawn three months of the year to meet Mt Cook’s tourist traffic demand when the local service will be flown entirely with DC-3s.” The other reason for the termination of NAC’s contract with Mount Cook Airlines was the cost. Mr Patterson was quoted as saying “Total operating costs on the sector last year were approximately $68,000, with revenue only totalling $37,000, giving a direct loss to the corporation on the Christchurch-Timaru-Oamaru route of $31,000.”

Speculating on what NAC might be able to offer the town Doug Patterson told Oamaru business leaders, if NAC flew the route it planned to re-activate one of its four DC3s at the moment flying in Polynesia. It would be based overnight in Oamaru and fly to Christchurch via Timaru in the morning, returning to Oamaru at night. Also, when the Timaru runway was sealed, that city would get a mid-day “loop” from Christchurch into Timaru returning direct to Wellington – either with a Mt Cook Airlines 748 or an NAC F27. If NAC flew the route it was planned to give the DC3 only a three-year certificate of airworthiness. After that the corporation would revert to F27s – if the runway here was sealed. The 24-seater DC3 would have four seats removed to give a 1,000lb to 1,500lb increase in freight capacity. Mr Patterson gave the Airport Committee the assurance there would be no possibility of putting a smaller aircraft on the Oamaru-Christchurch route to replace DC3s. A DC3 at 3c per seat mile was far cheaper than say a Britten-Norman Islander or de Havilland Twin Otter at 15c to 18c per seat mile. “If we operate a DC3 we could break even in operating costs, provided these can be held at Present levels,” Mr Patterson said. Total operating costs on the sector last year were approximately $68,000, revenue only totalled $37,000, giving a direct loss to the corporation on the Christchurch-Timaru-Oamaru route of $31,000.” It was unlikely that a Friendship would be based in Oamaru, overnight, nor would it fit into a southern network pattern. A likely service envisaged with a Friendship would be Wellington-Timaru-Oamaru in the early morning and return to Wellington direct, then back again to Oamaru in the early evening and straight out again. Failing that Oamaru would get a midday “loop” Wellington-Timaru-Oamaru and return to Wellington. “I do not think we would fly into Christchurch as traffic figures did not warrant this,” Mr Patterson said.  Oamaru was the only centre in New Zealand without a fully-sealed runway still getting a regular service and until the runway was sealed there was no possibility of NAC flying a F27 Friendship into Oamaru Mr Patterson said.

The following day the Oamaru Mail’s editorial called for urgent action on sealing the runway. The decision of the National Airways Corporation to offer North Otago a three-year air service with a view to enabling the district to seal the Oamaru Airport runway to Fokker Friendship standard is welcome news. It is disappointing that passengers will have to revert to travelling in Dakota aircraft; but this is a small price to pay to retain the service, That NAC should be prepared to re-activate the Dakotas after phasing them out of the fleet is surely proof of its earnest endeavours to provide Oamaru with a satisfactory service. In behind the scenes activity the member for the district, Mr A D Dick and Mr G L Berry, a member of the NAC board of directors, have helped considerably to have the service continued. The Mail has over more than a couple of years advocated that the Oamaru Airport runway should be sealed immediately. In doing so it was reflecting public opinion and has since had its stand endorsed by the Chamber of Commerce and the Progress League. Oamaru is now the only centre service by a regular National Airways Corporation service which does not have its runway sealed, which indicate a dilatory attitude by the Oamaru Airport Committee on the question of sealing. Despite the fact that the Oamaru Chamber of Commerce has been striving for information on the progress made in this field over the past two years it is only in the past two weeks that the Airport Committee had admitted that it has not even made application to obtain approval to seal the runway. It has been suggested that the committee wanted not only a guarantee of a subsidy; but also assurance of a permanent air service before considering sealing the runway. Unfortunately, while this might be desirable the committee was in no petition to bargain. The situation is now critical. Oamaru has lost much of its shipping and to survive it must have good links with the rest of New Zealand not only for passenger but for freight. For this reason a first-class airport is essential, if the district is to progress. The Oamaru Airport Committee does not include representatives of various sectors who are vitally interested in the airport’s development and this could for the lethargy shown in the past. Now that Oamaru’s air service has been retained, a timetable must be set out for the sealing of the runway within three years and no excuse must be accepted should the work lag. No doubt the Oamaru Chamber of Commerce and the North Otago Progress League will keep a watching brief on progress to ensure the target date is met.

Bill Laney, the Mayor of Oamaru, didn’t perceive that there was a problem. “When Mr D A Patterson, general manager of the NAC met the airport committee of Tuesday, April 18, his opening remark was that there had been a good deal of unnecessary talk and needless alarm in Oamaru. This I feel would sum up the feelings of the airport committee on the subject of the air service and the sealing of the runway at Hilderthorpe. In spite of all this unnecessary talk, the situation, so far as the airport committee is concerned, has always been under control. At no time were we ever given cause to fear that our air service was in jeopardy. We have been in constant touch with Civil Aviation and the Minister of Transport, Mr Gordon, on these subjects and as late as November 11, 1971, I received from the Minister himself a telegram stating that the Oamaru air service was to continue. So far as sealing the runway is concerned the situation here too has been carefully watched. We had stated immediately that if sealing was necessary to ensure the retention of the air service then sealing would be done (Oamaru Mail, November 4, 1971).  At the same time, we insisted that it was our policy to have the runway sealed as a cost sharing operation between local authorities and the Government. We in Oamaru as taxpayers have contributed to the sealing of all other airports in New Zealand therefore it is only right that our airport should be sealed on the same basis. When Mr Gordon visited Oamaru he left no doubt in the minds of those who heard him or read what he had to say that this would be the case – this confirming the airport committee its attitude. In answer to a question, the Minister did say that no application for a subsidy had been made. That was the correct answer to the question asked but what the Minister should have been made clear was that the question of subsidy does not arise until the case for sealing has been established. He did say that the plane servicing did not require a sealed runway. This was in line with his reply to the airport committee on this subject. The Chamber of Commerce received a similar reply in June 1971, through Mr A D Dick. At this point we called on the chamber of Commerce, the Progress League and all other organisations to give us the facts and figures to justify a case for sealing. So far all we have received is a file made up of mainly Photostat copies of correspondence and newspaper statements which did not constitute a convincing case for sealing. The airport committee came to the conclusion that the stumbling black so far as both the air service and the sealing of the runway was concerned was the Mt Cook Airlines charter. Their plane did not require a sealed runway and their charter fee made the Christchurch-Timaru-Oamaru air service as one of the costliest of the NAC services. We therefore put to the Minister the request that NAC should operate the service. In his reply on December 15 1971 Mr Gordon said that that he was referring our request to NAC for consideration. I raised this point with him again on his subsequent visit to Oamaru. In less than a fortnight we were advised of Mr Patterson’s visit. He came on April 18 with the news that NAC planned to operate the service with DC-3 aircraft until such time as the airport was sealed and then with F27s (Friendships). With the return of NAC the cost of our service will be cut in half the case for sealing the runway with Government assistance has been established. This means a saving of around $150,000 – a vindication of the policies of the airport committee.”

But not everyone in Oamaru was as relaxed about the lack of action towards the sealing of the runway. A few days later the local paper carried a statement Mr Crombie, the chairman of the Oamaru Licensing Trust. He said that the basic problem was that Oamaru has not sealed its airport. Its neighbour Timaru, which is linked on the same scheduled service to Christchurch, decided some time ago to seal its runway, this operation will be concluded need month. It is a great pity that the Oamaru Airport Committee did not move at the same pace. It has been obvious to many interests in North Otago that as Oamaru and Timaru are linked in the same scheduled service to Christchurch that problems for the local airport must arise if Timaru sealed and could take aircraft that Oamaru was unable to handle. It is unfortunate that the Airport Committee has shown such little progress in this direction, especially when the Minister, Mr Gordon, recently informed a business gathering in Oamaru, that the Airport Committee had not asked him for a subsidy during his term of office. Finally, that it was lamentable for representatives of local bodies, Chamber of Commerce, Progressive League and businessmen to be told by Mr Patterson general manager of NAC “that Oamaru was the only airport serviced by NAC that was not sealed." And so we are assured of a DC-3 service at least, until the province upgrades its airport so that it can accommodate the modern aircraft of the age. These are the views of the Chamber Of Commerce, Progress League and chief users and not necessarily a personal opinion and the facts as stated are correct and the contention is proved by the fact that already Timaru has now been promised a Friendship service daily whilst we have been reduced to a DC-3 all the year. Mr Paterson stated to the meeting of 55 businessmen to which the Mayor was invited, but did not attend that if and when Oamaru was sealed it would be reasonable to extend the Friendship link to our own airport. In other words it Oamaru had moved at the same pace as suggested as Timaru we would be enjoying this additional service In the near future.  The Mayor states, in his report, “The plane servicing the airport does not require a sealed, runway." The same plane serviced Timaru so, applying the same philosophy, Timaru did not require a sealed runway. But with a progressive Airport Committee under the chairmanship of Mayor C. R. Hervey as quoted in the Timaru Herald 19/4/72, he states, "I am delighted with the new Friendship service. We in Timaru set out to help ourselves by sealing the runway and up-grading the airport and now NAC feels it should get behind us.” The comparison of Airport Committee policies crystallises the present position of the two airports – one committee progressive with a “get up and go” policy has the service expected plus a subsidy when they pressed for; the other committee with “its Inertia" and left-handed bargaining policy of "give us the service first and then we will seal" has been left with the dregs and has been told by Mr Paterson of NAC, "If you have not finished sealing in three yeas NAC will run out of aeroplanes capable of servicing grass runways." "If Oamaru is to hold this present industry, attempt to attract new centures, develop its tourist potential and provide a domestic service to both rural and urban ratepayers then it has to be prepared to invest in the future. This is why genuine people with the interests of the province at heart get alarmed when unnecessary delays become evident. "The report of the Mayor to the council on Monday from the Airport Committee has caused further misgivings with the Progress League, Chamber of Commerce and many business houses, as it suggests further delays. It seems that with Mr Paterson's guarantee of the continuance of a permanent service that the committee do not need further insurances, but could actually start now by preparing for subsidy, drawings of plans etc. "As Mr Paterson told the business group, I cannot see Oamaru getting a Friendship before mi or late 1973, this would be the earliest possible date before a sealed runway was operational, as a matter of politics you would have to commence now to be ready by then.”  All the Progress League, Chamber and business fraternity are asking for is for the Airport committee to do just that, and not to let the three years roll on. We would all like a Friendship Service late in 1973, said Mr Crombie.

On the 1st of May 1972 when NAC’s chairman of directors, Mr Alan Gilkinson, announced that the charter agreement between NAC and Mount Cook Airlines on the Oamaru-Timaru-Christchurch route would be terminated and that NAC would take over the Christchurch-Timaru-Oamaru air service using a Douglas DC-3 on the 7th of June 1972. He said “the early morning service from Oamaru will reach Christchurch at 8.50 am each day thereby allowing time to make connection with the main trunk services. It will leave Christchurch at 6.35 pm on the return flight by way of Timaru, arriving at Oamaru at 7.55 pm. On Saturday evenings, the Christchurch departure time will be earlier, main trunk passengers, making the South Canterbury and North Otago again to meet the convenience of connections.” In addition to the Christchurch-Timaru-Oamaru daily return service Mr Gilkinson also announced that NAC would introduce a return Wellington-Timaru F27 Friendship service three times a week. Mr Gilkinson said “The aircraft is available only three times a week at present but as aircraft capacity becomes available, and provided the service is sufficiently well patronised, the frequency will be increased.”

Meanwhile the sage of the runway sealing continued. On the 1st of May 1972 the Oamaru Mail reported that the Oamaru Airport Committee on Friday reaffirmed its determination to seal the airport runway. But it will not initiate any moves until the National Airways Corporation confirms that it will fly the Christchurch-Timaru-Oamaru service. The Committee will write to the Oamaru Borough and the Waitaki County Councils advising them of the position to proceed. In a resolution approved at yesterday’s meeting the committee decided to inform  the two councils that it is the policy of the committee to seal the runway and that once confirmation is received from NAC that it will resume the Oamaru air service the committee proposes to begin investigations for sealing. The same report, however, carried an ominous warning. The county engineer Mr E W Newton said a danger the committee forgot was the implication behind a comment made to him the Department of Civil Aviation officers at the airport five months ago “That there no was no justification for sealing the runway for one aircraft a day on present loadings.” Loadings and Oamaru’s reluctance to support and invest in the future of its air service were the keys issues that ultimately led to Oamaru losing its service.  

In preparation for the launch of the “new” DC-3 service NAC restored a Douglas DC-3C to its fleet. The Dakota was originally handed over to the RNZAF brand new on the 20th of March 1945 and purchased by NAC on the 1st of May 1947. It was registered as ZK-AOF (c/n 32899/16151) on the 30th of May 1947 and named Pukeko. It received its "Skyliner" conversion in late 1963 and was renamed Blenheim. In 1969 it went to Fiji where it operated with Air Pacific as VQ-FBJ and later DQ-FBJ. In late April 1972 it returned to New Zealand and was reregistered ZK-AOF and named Waitaki. When it returned to service on the Christchurch-Timaru-Oamaru service it had clocked up some 6,310,910 miles and 37,123 hours! Eleven Friendship pilots did a special conversion course onto the DC-3s to familiarise themselves again on the piston-engined aircraft under the supervision of senior pilot Captain Bill Pattie.

The Mount Cook Airlines’ service to Oamaru ended without mention in the Oamaru Mail on the morning of the 6th of June 1972 when the Mount Cook Airlines’ DC-3 departed Oamaru for Timaru and Christchurch. 

On the 7th of June 1972 the Oamaru Mail reported the arrival of the first NAC DC-3 into the town. A pilot very familiar with Oamaru flew the first NAC DC3 into Oamaru last night. He was Captain Bill Pattie, a senior Friendship pilot who was formerly with SPANZ, when that airline flew north and southbound flights through Oamaru. Captain Pattie was the training officer for the 11 NAC Friendship pilots who did a conversion course onto the piston-engined DC3 which officially starts its daily Oamaru-Timaru-Christchurch run today. Ten passengers were booked out on this morning’s flight. The Union Travel Centre reports heavy air bookings out of and into Oamaru over the next month, with some flights fully booked in July. Friendship flights are scheduled into Oamaru on June 10 and 23 to cope with passenger numbers. (As an aside I could find no mention of Friendship flights into Oamaru on those dates and would be interested if there is any record of a Friendship flying into Oamaru before the runway was sealed).
Douglas DC-3 ZK-AOF, Waitaiki, at Christchurch  while flying the service to Timaru and Oamaru. Photographer unknown
It was to be some two years before work was to commence on the sealing of the Oamaru runway. Tenders were called in mid 1974 for a 4,100 by 150 feet sealed runway which was to be finished with three coats of tar sealing.

The last NAC DC-3 inward flight to Oamaru was scheduled to take place on Tuesday, the 30th of July 1974 and the last outward on Wednesday the 31st of July 1974. While construction was underway a bus link was operated between Oamaru and Timaru Airport. The intention had been that the DC-3 would be retired when Oamaru closed but earlier in July 1974 Friendship ZK-NAF had a landing accident at Wellington and was withdrawn from service necessitating the DC-3 to be kept in service while it was repaired.

As it happened the final DC-3 services to Oamaru were disrupted. The final DC-3 service into the town was operated by ZK-AOF on Monday the 30th of July 1974 under the command of Captain J G Pavitt and First Officer G Vujich. The plane was to have  operated northbound for the next two mornings but heavy, overnight rain flooded the runway and the DC-3 had to remain at Oamaru. Pools of water lay on the runway in several places on the 31st of July which kept the aircraft grounded. By this stage the bus service to Timaru had commenced and when the runway was fit for the DC-3’s departure on the1st of August 1974 it positioned direct to Christchurch making a courtesy farewell circuit over the Oamaru before heading north.

Oamaru Mail, 29 July 1974

Shortly after the contract for the sealing of the runway was let to Burnett Construction Services Ltd for $398,000 and work had begun my mid-August. The first stage of the work involved the stripping an area near the runway for a shingle source so that the metal crushing plant could be set up. 25,000 yards of metal had to be crushed for the contract. The first stage of the construction involved undercutting the runway to a depth of one foot, and then backfilling it with shingle and soil.

The new runway at the Oamaru Airport was passed as fully operational on the 7th of March 1975 after a Civil Aviation Fokker Friendship touched down on the new sealed runway. The reconstructing, sealing and painting cost about $350,000 with lighting and the clearance of trees on the approach path bringing the final cost to about $500,000. The single wheel bearing strength of the runway was sufficient for Boeing 707s or Air New Zealand DC-8s to land on. Oamaru was poised to become the last airport on the NAC to receive Fokker Friendships.

The following afternoon an NAC Friendship flew into Oamaru to operate one of three courtesy flights at 2.45pm. The first two flights carried borough and county councillors and their wives and people associated with the work while the third flight carried local crippled-children. (Does anyone have a photo of this event and/or know the aircraft’s registration).
Oamaru Mail, 6 March 1975
NAC commenced scheduled Friendship services to Oamaru commenced on the 10th of March 1975. The first flight from Wellington and Timaru arrived at 2.15pm was flown by Fokker F27-500 Friendship ZK-NAN under the command of Captain F. Rollands and First Officer A. Highet and hostess C. Harvey in the cabin. The first flight carried five inbound passengers and nine flew out on the flight to Timaru and Wellington at 2.45 p.m. This initial afternoon service operated five days a week until the 2nd of April 1975.

Speaking at the inauguration of the new air service Oamaru’s Mayor, Mr Rex Allen, recalled the uphill battle Oamaru had had for an air service. “The people were air-minded over the years and even back in the 1930s a resident had built his own plane. In recent years the air history of the district had not been good. The people had ploughed money into two air services which had failed; but at last NAC had provided a service and it was a very good one. He said that sealing the runway was one of the greatest moves in the progress of Oamaru. Oamaru was becoming a tourist centre and as the town now had beds to accommodate 500 people there would be a great opportunity for charter flights, particularly as Oamaru was gaining popularity as a conference venue.”
Fokker Friendship ZK-BXF at Oamaru on 8 January 1977

Over the next few weeks work started on the installation of runway lighting and VASI approach lighting. This enabled the reintroduction of the early morning northbound daily service which operated via Timaru to Wellington and the evening southbound return service. NAC were to continue this service until the 31st of March 1978. The following day NAC and Air New Zealand were merged into the one company.
Oamaru Mail, 3 April 1975

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