18 May 2014

Flying Safe to the Chathams

On the 6th of October 1967 it was announced that Straits Air Freight Express Limited, had been awarded the Internal Affairs contract to provide a seven-year, weekly air service to the Chatham Islands. The service, which was to begin in 1968, was to operate between Wellington and the Chatham Island’s Hapupu airfield with Bristol Freighter aircraft. NAC was to provide agency and management facilities and prospective passengers would be able to buy through tickets for the Chatham Islands from any NAC office.

On the 31st of October 1967 Straits Air Freight Express changed its name to Safe Air. To mark this a booklet was published entitled, What’s in a Name? which concluded with a statement about the proposed Chathams’ service: Under a contract with the Internal Affairs Department we will be operating a passenger service for real live humans after Christmas. We treat our livestock well – but our passengers can look forward to home comforts too. Two Bristols are being converted to take passenger capsules, a new concept in mixed passenger freight loading.

The “passenger capsules” were designed to give a much higher standard of passenger accommodation than normally have been expected in a Bristol Freighter with its unlined hold. The passenger capsules were 20 feet long, 8 feet wide and 6 feet high and were designed to slide into the hold of the Freighter in the same manner that Safe Air’s freight cargons used. In 1970 Safe Air issued a booklet on the company’s role in New Zealand’s air transport that gives a good description of the capsules. The capsules were built in two sizes – one for twenty passengers, the other for twelve. They were completely self-contained with comfortable airline seating, a galley for in-flight refreshments, carpeting, storage racks, cold and warm air circulating systems, a toilet and emergency equipment. To achieve ultra-light weight, Safe Air engineers in conjunction with Glenroy Products of Blenheim evolved a novel combination of materials to form the capsule. Aircraft alloy was used for the outer skin, a light formica material provided the cabin lining and between these two surfaces was sandwiched a practically weightless polystyrene with high thermal-retaining qualities. Much of the credit for the capsule is given to Safe Air’s chief pilot, Captain Keith Beattie, DFC, who conceived the idea of utilising a capsule for transporting passengers. The design and manufacture of the capsule was directed by Mr Jacek Kundycki, the company’s engineering manager. The capsules weighed less than a ton and could be loaded in minutes. A stewardess was provided for the comfort of passengers on the two to three hour journey to and from the Chathams. At this time Safe Air had eleven Bristol Freighters and two of these, ZK-CLT and ZK-CRK, retained their fuselage windows for the passenger operation. Both were fitted with DME and HF radio for the 770 km flight to the Chathams. Press statements made it clear that the service was principally for passengers but the aircraft would also have a limited amount of space available for the carriage of miscellaneous small cargo and other goods such as spare parts for the fishing fleet.

The passenger capsule being winched into the Bristol Freighter for its service to the Chathams and a photo of the interior. Source : "Safe Air's Role In NZ's Air Transport" booklet

For the nine years prior to Safe Air operating its regular service to the Chathams the islands had been linked to the mainland by the Royal New Zealand Air Force. Sunderland flying boats were used until the 22nd of March 1967 when Sunderland NZ4113 took off from the Te Whanga Lagoon on the final flight to Wellington. Following this RNZAF Bristol Freighters provided regular flights to the Chathams. The last RNZAF flight was flown by Bristol Freighter NZ5904 on the 19th of January 1968. 

The RNZAF had been able to operate to Hapupu airfield under less stringent requirements than a civil operator and handover from the Air Force to Safe Air meant the grass runway at Hapupu had to be extended from 1035 to 1425 metres. This work was completed in September 1967 though it took some months for the grass service to be consolidated to the point of allowing the licencing of the runway extensions.

On the 23rd of January 1968 Safe Air Bristol Freighter ZK-CLT made a route proving flight to the Chathams carrying a ton of cargo. On board were Safe Air and Department of Civil Aviation Authority officials. The outbound flight time was 2½ hours with the return being 3 hours, 10 minutes. A second proving flight with the capsule installed was made on the 25th. Safe Air’s first scheduled flight to the Chathams was operated by Bristol Freighter ZK-CLT on the 30th of January 1968 with 12 passengers flying out to the Chathams. ZK-CLT flew the initial services while ZK-CRK was modified for passenger use a few months later.

Bristol Freighter ZK-CRK at Hapupu on 9 October 1969 with great views of the ground handling, ground transport and terminal 

On the 24th of February 1968 a Safe Air Bristol Freighter carried a helicopter and a Cessna 180 ZK-BWK belonging to Graham Stewart & Co (1965) Ltd to the Chathams in support of the booming crayfish industry. The helicopter was based on Pitt Island and lifted the crayfish pots and reset them while the Cessna 180 flew the crayfish tails to Chatham for freezing and packing for shipment to New Zealand and export to the United States.

From the beginning of August 1968 the frequency of flights was increased from one to two a week for a trial period of three months. Between the first flight in January and July 36 flights were made carrying 1147 passengers. The Chatham Islanders were delighted with the new service and saw the opportunities it offered for extending local industry. On the 10th of September 1968 a trial consignment of first grade meat was flown from the Chathams to Wellington. 1000lbs was taken from Waitangi to Hapupu airfield by helicopter before being flown to the mainland. Safe Air made a more auspicious flight to the Chathams the following month. The Governor General, Sir Arthur Porritt and Lady Porritt made an official visit to the islands. After arrival at Hapupu airfield the Vice-Regal party was flown to Waitangi by helicopter.

Helicopter was not the normal transport between the airfield and Waitangi... the "yellow submarine" which connected Waitangi to Hapupu airfield driving across Te Whanga Lagoon
The Chatham Islands flights were further extended from the 1st of April 1969 after which a fifth flight was offered each fortnight. Under this schedule flights were made every Tuesday and Thursday, with an extra flight every other Friday.  In February 1968 158 passengers were flown; in February 1969 there were 407 passengers. During the same time freight increased 1000%, this being largely due to the crayfish boom. An airmail parcel service to the Chatham Islands also started, the rate being the same as for internal NZ airmail plus a surcharge of 10 cents per pound.

Safe Air's Chathams timetable, July-November 1969

During the winter of 1969 the outlet of Te Whanga Lagoon became blocked flooding the Hapupu airstrip thereby reducing the runway length by 1000 feet. The Safe Air service halted after the flight of the 2nd of July. The following day Tasman Air resumed the passenger service using Piper Navajo ZK-CUF. On the 22nd of July Tasman Air started a twice weekly service from Christchurch. However, this service was quite restricted as the Navajo had to have enough fuel for the return flight so with a pilot and co-pilot only four passengers could be carried from Christchurch and six on the return flight from the Chathams. The Safe Air service resumed on the 29th of July. The airfield was again also closed for a week in September after heavy rain made the runway waterlogged. The state of the Hapupu strip was a constant issue for Safe Air’s Bristol Freighter service.

The Tasman Air service from Christchurch prompted Safe Air to explore the possibility of offering a Christchurch-Chatham Islands service. The original decision to use Wellington as the mainland terminus was made by the Internal Affairs Department after a survey of users found that 51% of passengers originated from north of Wellington. Indications were that there was enough demand for a service to and from Christchurch which is where the shipping service operated from. When Tasman Air made application to offer a permanent air service between Christchurch and the Chathams Safe Air made its own application and this was seen as more desirable than the Tasman Air proposal.

On the 2nd of December 1969 the Chathams were linked to Christchurch with Bristol Freighter ZK-CLT "Merchant Hauler" under the command of Captain C. G. Fantham flying a Wellington-Chathams-Christchurch service with passengers and mail. The reverse route was flown on the 4th of December, again in ZK-CLT under the command of Captain J. D. Howard and First Officer J. Faircloth. The normal pattern with the five flights a fortnight was each Tuesday a Bristol would fly Wellington-Chathams-Christchurch with the reverse flight being flown on the Thursday. The every second Friday service was operated from Wellington and return. 1970 saw a reduction in flights. This Friday service was dropped from the 1st of April 1970 and from October 1970 the frequency was reduced to three flights week. In addition to these regular flights up to 18 special flights were operated each year to convey school children between Christchurch and the Chatham Islands, and Wellington and the Chatham Islands as well as to cover for other peak travel periods.

The addition of the Christchurch service - Safe Air's Chathams timetable for December 1969 to March 1970

In September 1970 purchased a holding in Safe Air, thus strengthening the company’s viability and in September 1972 Safe Air became a wholly owned subsidiary of NAC.

The Bristol normally carried 20 passengers from Wellington and 16 from Christchurch but in 1972 passenger loadings from Wellington were also reduced to 16. This was to reduce the risk of offloading passengers because of weight restrictions in bad weather. At that time there was a steady 75 per cent load factor.

In the year ending the 31st of March 1974, Safe Air’s service to the Chathams made a loss of $42,953. During that year the airline operated 116 flights, and carried 3128 passengers, 33,809lbs of mail and 168,431lbs of freight. Nonetheless the importance of the air service was undisputed and in mid-1974 the Government approved, in principle, the construction of a new airfield at Karewa Point on the Chatham Islands with the expectation that it would be operational by 1980.

Revenue collected by Safe Air in operating the Chathams service was retained by the company and any shortfall in providing the service was met by the Government. If a surplus resulted in any year, it was to be a credit to the Government. The service, however, consistently operated at a loss as shown in the losses from 1972 to 1977.

Year   ending    31.3.72      $19,249
"          "              31.3.73      $19,561
"          "              31.3.74      $42,953
"          "              31.3.75      $102,826
"          "              31.3.76      $92,857
"          "              31.3.77      $125,667

In 1971 it was suggested that the Christchurch connection be cut as an economy measure. The Air Services Licensing Authority was then of opinion that the Christchurch link should be retained and the regular weekly running from Wellington and Christchurch continued until 1975 when Safe Air, at the request of the Government discontinued regular flights between the Chatham Islands and Christchurch.

The Safe Air service to the Chatham Islands was a non-scheduled operation and there was no need for it to approach the Air Services Licensing Authority before the change directed by the Government was implemented. Thereafter it operated two return services each week on a regular timetable between Wellington and the Chatham Islands even though two thirds of passenger traffic originated or terminated in Christchurch.

In mid-1977 Titan Air Services applied to the Air Services Licencing Authority to introduce a direct Christchurch to the Chathams service using a Cessna 404 Titan. At the commencement of the hearing the Licensing Authority were informed by the Department of Internal Affairs that consequent on representation from the Chatham Islands interests, the former triangular service which operated Wellington-Chatham-Islands-Christchurch would be reintroduced at an early date provided the Authority approved a revised fare of $88 (up from $77) between Christchurch and the Chatham Islands. The new timetable would operate one direct flight each Friday between the Chatham Islands and Wellington and a flight each alternate Tuesday between Wellington, the Chathams and Christchurch and a flight every other Tuesday between Christchurch, the Chatham Islands and Wellington.

At this stage the Chathams’ business connections and hospital and professional services were largely Christchurch orientated and children undertaking secondary education predominately attended South Island schools. Also, the freight-only shipping service to the Chatham Islands operated out of Lyttelton and these factors undoubtedly kept Christchurch as an important destination for the Islanders. The Government accepted the need for providing an air link for the Chatham Islands but the need it catered primarily for was passengers with freight on a filler basis.

The report of Air Service Licensing Authority carried other interesting details. In the year ended 31 March 1977 a total of 3351 passengers were carried on 127 return flights. Of these 637 (19%) were children paying half fare and in addition, it is estimated over 160 non-paying children under 4 years of age were carried. Accordingly an average of 13.1 paying passengers per single trip was achieved. This figure is influenced by the loadings on the outward and return journeys often being out of balance. It is not unusual at the beginning and end of holiday periods to have full loadings on one leg and only a limited number of passengers on the other leg. This factor affects both the economics of the service and when passenger loadings to the Islands are heavy, the quantity of freight which can be taken. During year ended 31 March 1977 the service carried 12,762 kg of mail (78% or 9954 kg of which was inward to the Chathams) and 83,334 kg of other freight (661 or 55,303 of which was outwards from the Chathams including 19,460 kg of fish and crayfish). Mail was off-loaded on 27 out of the 127 flights operated last financial year. It is accepted that there is more airfreight offering than the present service can cope with. Discussions are being held between the Government and Safe Air Limited with a view to possibly increasing the number of flights.

Not surprisingly the Licensing Authority thought that the introduction of a second service would not be helpful to the existing service - “Nor would the proposed service assist in local emergencies in the Chatham Islands. The Bristol’s are available and used for mercy flights as required.” The Authority approved a fare of $88 by Safe Air Limited between the Chatham Islands and Christchurch and the regular services between Christchurch and the Chathams began again on Tuesday the 2nd of August 1977.

Safe Air's Bristol Freighter ZK-CRK at Hapupu in the late 1970s.

Location of the three landing sites on Chatham... From left to right, Point Waikato flying boat base, the current Tuuta Airport and Hapupu airstrip which was used by the RNZAF and Safe Air's Bristol Freighters and Tasman Air's Piper Navajo. 

By 1980 construction had begun on the new airport on Chatham at Karewa Point. The Government had planned that Air New Zealand's Friendships would replace Safe's ageing Bristol Freighters when the airfield opened but in November 1980 Safe Air and Air New Zealand jointly suggested to the Government that Safe Air use its Argosy aircraft on the Chathams run when the island's new air strip was completed. Air New Zealand told the Government that it was unlikely to be able to spare its two Friendships that were equipped for long distance flying as these were needed for the Auckland-Norfolk Island run. The Internal Affairs Department which administered the Chatham Islands were unhappy with the Safe Air - Air New Zealand plan, especially when plans to operate Friendships were so far advanced. The Nelson Evening Mail reported that much to the dismay of the Department of Internal Affairs that the uncompleted runway would have to be even longer if Argosies were to be used and this would cost an extra $190,000. It was also found that the Argosies would lose more money on the thrice fortnightly service than the Friendships - a loss which would have to be met by Government subsidies. And finally it would cost $100,000 to build passenger capsules and covert the Argosies to passenger carrying aircraft. Safe Air argued the Argosies would offer the Chatham Islanders much more air freight capacity. Even though the Government was not happy the decision was announced on the 22nd of December that the Argosies would take over the Chatham Islands run from the Bristol Freighters.

On the 30th of June 1981 the new Inia William Tuuta Memorial Airport was opened on Chatham by the Prime Minister, the Right Honourable Robert Muldoon. The first official landing of an aircraft carrying passengers and mail from New Zealand was made by SAFE Air Bristol Freighter ZK-CLT. 

Bristol Freighter operations at the new Inia William Tuuta Memorial Airport... Bristol Freighter ZK-CRK

However, it was to be another year before the Argosy took over the Chathams service. The first Argosy flight was flown from Christchurch to the Chathams by ZK-SAE on the 16th of June 1982. Like the Bristols before them the Argosy housed passengers in a removable 'passenger capsule' with standard Air New Zealand Boeing 737 seating and facilities. The Argosy carried 30 passengers with a stewardess as well as giving increased cargo capacity.

Argosy ZK-SAE operating the first flight into the new Chatham Island airport on 16 September 1982

The Argosy brought a new level of comfort to the Chathams service. Unlike the Bristol Freight it replaced the Argosy was pressurised, its cabin was considerably quieter and it was faster with the flights from Wellington and Christchurch being reduced by about an hour. The schedule generally saw flights operated three times per fortnight with Christchurch being the terminus for some two thirds of these flights.

Safe Air's Chathams timetable, effective September 1985

On the 30th of June 1990 the Government stopped the subsidy for the Chatham Island service. Some seven weeks later, on the 17th of August 1990 it was announced that Safe Air was to close on the 30th of September 1990. The company's general manager, Ron Tannock, said the loss of a major charter contract, the low demand in the air cargo market, uncertainty over the airline's passenger/cargo service to the Chatham Islands and the limited life of the company's Argosy aircraft all had a bearing on the decision. Safe Air's decision to shut down stunned Chatham Islanders who had been faithfully served by Safe Air for 22 years. The chairman of the Chatham Islands County Council, Mr Bunty Preece, was reported as saying the announcement had come as a bombshell. "They have been associated with the island for 22 years and it came as a shock to us all. From our point of view it is quite a loss."

Safe Air’s final flight from Christchurch to the Chathams operated on the 27th of September and the final flight from Wellington operated on the 29th of September 1990. The last Chathams services being flown Hawker Siddeley Argosy ZK-SAE. The following day Safe Air flew its last cargo flights and its almost 40 year history.

In retirement, HS Argosy ZK-SAE at the Argosy Cafe near Blenheim's Woodbourne Airport... Below, a view of the interior of the Argosy passenger capsule - the inflight entertainment is new! A good film about the history of Safe Air.

For more great photos of the Safe Air service to the Chatham Islands see:

For a good video clip on Safe Air including the Bristol Freighter and Argosy at the Chathams see:

1 comment:

  1. I flew between Wellington and Chathams in 76 on a Bristol Freighter and again in 83 and 85-86 in one of the Argosy's