09 December 2018

Northland's Own Airline - Northern Commuter Airlines

In late October 1988 Air New Zealand withdrew its Fokker Friendship service between Whangarei and Auckland in favour of Eagle Air using Embraer Bandeirantes. The introduction of the Bandeirantes provided better frequency and timings which better suited Whangarei business people. Whangarei Air Taxi’s had previously had a monopoly on the business traffic and the new competition seriously eroded their business.

Faced with this situation the Aero Club decided to align their service with Ansett New Zealand and seek new investment. Northern Commuter Airlines Ltd was formed as a requirement of the link with Ansett, which would not operate services in conjunction with an incorporated society. The shareholders were the Northland Districts Aero Club (40%) and private shareholders and Aero Club members (60%). The original directors of the new company were Alan Ward, Dave Culham, Denis Davidson and Barry Keay but later ownership passed to Denis Davidson and Dave Culham with a few minor shareholders.

Northern Commuter Airlines officially began operating in January 1990 mainly using the Aero Club’s GAF N22 Nomad ZK-NDB but some of the Aero Cub’s single-engined aircraft were used according to passenger demand. While the airline operated under the Tranzair banner the Nomad carried Northern Commuter Airlines titles. With the introduction of the Ansett connection flights departed and arrived at the Whangarei terminal rather than the Northern District Aero Club clubrooms. 

A couple of shots of Northern Commuter Airlines' GAF N22 Nomad, ZK-NDB, above at Auckland in January 1990 and below at Ardmore

Initially three return weekday flights were offered using the Nomad with one flight offered on both Saturdays and Sundays.

The initial timetable, effective January 1990

Graeme Atchinson, who became Chief Pilot for Northern Commuter Airlines shared some memories of his time with the airline...

My part initially was replacing Alan Ward as CFI when he left to join Eagle Air. Shortly afterward the relationship with Ansett NZ and Northern Commuter Airlines developed and I was given the choice to become Chief Pilot which I accepted. Our Manager was John Clement. 

I recommended replacing the GAF Nomad which although a turbine, did not hold passenger appeal and was slow. I was one of the original night freight pilots at Airwork NZ and was very familiar with the Chieftain and knew they had been used very successfully with Eagle Air. John was biased to the Cessna 402, however, the evidence I presented showed the Chieftain as a superior choice. 

I gave Mike our engineer a long list to identify the right aeroplane with  crew door, high speed 40 degree flaps, heavy duty landing gear and he sourced a Piper PA31-350 Chieftain from Bolivia. 

My Airwork NZ connections allowed us to borrow Chieftain ZK-FOP supplemented with our Nomad ZK-NDB from January until NCA was purchased. Original pilots were Alan Ward, Ian Cowan, Colin Dietschin, Graeme Atchinson (CP) with Shane Thomas and Paul Mountford joining us in February 1990.

In April 1990 the Nomad was replaced by the Piper Chieftain which was registered ZK-NCA. Graeme continues his account of preparing the Chieftain for the Whangarei service. After removing any “white powder” traces  we stripped out the executive interior, even removing the air conditioner and plumbing plus weather radar as I identified unnecessary items to save weight! Also I had fitted a loud and clearly understood decent P.A system for passenger announcements. Additionally I had a professional looking folding stool made up so pax could easily step up onto the aircraft door stairway. My logbook reveals I delivered NCA from Ardmore Aerodrome to Whangarei on the 15 April 1990. The Chieftain was painted in the Ansett Tranzair colour scheme.

Northern Commuter Airlines' Piper Chieftain ZK-NCA with the first Tranzair stars on the tail
as seen at Ardmore on 12 May 1990.
The Chieftain picked up the Nomad schedule but in June 1990 this was expanded to four weekday flights and two on Saturdays and Sundays.

Graeme continues, We operated out of the Aero Club building up to mid-1991. I was very proud of meeting Ansett’s requirement of  plus or minus 4 minutes of scheduled departure time on 92% of occasions. Impressive also was when we arrived at the Ansett Auckland gate with Passenger Service Attendants with brollies on those wet days, while the baggage handlers transferred baggage for those travelling onwards to Wellington or Christchurch on the BAe 146 Whisper jets. We proudly wore Ansett uniforms, NCA was furnished with Ansett seat coverings and carpet and of course the load control and ticketing staff completed the Ansett picture. We were very professional and had an awesome team including dedicated  and friendly ground staff. We won over several passengers from Eagle Air as the Chieftain had more leg room, was quieter than the Bandeirantes and every passenger had a window seat! 

The frequency was further increased to five weekday flights from 29 October 1990 when daylight saving made this possible. Graeme continues, In 1991 Ansett New Zealand requested the possibility of a night service. This might sound amazing but it’s true. I note that even now in the NZ AIP NZWR AD 2- 46.1 the Whangarei runway lead-in light system was designed by myself including all instructions for night approaches, notes 1,2 & 3 for both runways word for word. I devised the placement of lead in lights and a “gate” for both runways by eye balling their locations after flying many visual approaches and marking them on a map, then had this information forwarded to the Harbour Board for them to build. After careful consideration of what to do if becoming visual after 3.0 DME but before the missed approach point, I came up with the idea of using the opposing runway lead-in lights, turn through 270 degrees to then fly downwind to the “gate” for the active runway. Amazingly it was built and approved very quickly in time for me to try it out before I left Tranzair during June 1991 to take up a once in a life time opportunity to sail the South Pacific on board a friends 38ft yacht. I am quite chuffed that this Whangarei night procedure is still used to this day.

It should be stated that operating an airline service without a back up aeroplane was only possible due to Mike ... and his engineers at Northland Aviation making a huge commitment to servicing our plane throughout the night so it was ready the next day.

Northern Commuter Airlines' Piper Chieftain ZK-NCA with the full Ansett tail at Ardmore on 24 January 1992. The revised  tails came in from March 1991

In November 1993 a third Sunday service was offered and the schedule then remained the same until 1996 when Bandeirantes were introduced to Whangarei. The Chieftain continued to operate a couple of the weekday flights and a number of weekend flights. When needed Piper PA31-350 Chieftain ZK-FOP was used as a backup aircraft.

On the 7th of November 1995 Whakatane's Tranzair service, which had been operated by Bell Air, was replaced was taken over by Rex Aviation using Bandeirante aircraft. Instead of offering Whakatane an all Bandeirante service Rex Aviation deployed the Bandeirante to both Whakatane and Whangarei and at the same time the Northern Commuter Airlines’ Chieftain was used to Whakatane as well. On weekdays two Bandeirante flights and three Chieftain flights were operated between Auckland and Whakatane and three Bandeirante flights and two Chieftain flights were operated between Auckland and Whangarei. A reduced schedule operated over the weekend.

On the 29th of February 1996 the Tranzair name was changed to Ansett New Zealand Regional and the Piper Chieftain was rebranded accordingly.

Northern Commuter Airlines' Piper Chieftain ZK-NCA in Ansett NZ Regional colours at Whangarei on 11 November 1996
The Ansett NZ Regional timetable from Whangarei effective September 1996 with Bandeirantes and the Chieftain both used on the route.

On the 3rd  of November 1996 Ansett New Zealand Regional pulled out of Whakatane citing economic factors. This enabled Ansett New REgional to operate an all Bandeirante service to Whangarei and so the 3rd of November 1996 also marked the end of Tranzair flights operated by Northern Commuter Airlines.

The Ansett NZ Regional service to Whangarei continued until 1 August 1998 went it was withdrawn.

A big thanks to Graeme Atchinson for his help on this post.

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