14 April 2019

Wanaka's Airline - Aspiring Air

In 1961 the Gore Flight of the Southland Aero Club was formed as the Southern Districts Aero Club which trained pilots across a large area in Southland, South Otago, West Otago, Central Otago and the Lakes District. In 1974 the Club founded Aspiring Air at Wanaka, largely due to the work of Peter Plew. Aspiring Air was named after nearby Mount Aspiring, the highest peak in New Zealand outside the Mount Cook region, and it offered flight training and scenic flights from Wanaka’s old Mount Iron airfield. 

Aspiring Air's first aircraft, Cessna 206 ZK-DFW at Dunedin 12 August 1977

In 1979 De Havilland Canada DHC-2 Beaver ZK-CGX was bought to develop back country flying as well as for the scenic flights.

DHC-2 Beaver on the old Mount Iron airstrip at Wanaka. 

In 1981 Alastair McMillan bought Aspiring Air and formed Aspiring Air 1981 Limited on the 25th of November 1981. It was he who was to transform Aspiring Air into a well respected tourist operator in the southern lakes region.

Aspiring Air's Cessna 206 at Greymouth on 27 July 1983

Meanwhile, in the late 1970s, pressure was brought to bear on local authorities to build a new airport and eventually the local authorities decided to develop the current Wanaka airport by expanding a private airstrip on the terrace above Luggate. The airport officially opened in January 1983 with Aspiring Air building a hangar at the airport and with the local Council building other facilities on the site. The airport was administered by Lake County Council but was situated in Vincent County Council.  

As part of Alastair McMillan’s development plans he reintroduced flight training using initially in 1981 Cessna 150 ZK-CKS, which was replaced with Cessna 152 ZK-ETW in 1982. In 1982 he also added to the fleet a four-seat Cessna 177 Cardinal ZK-DKL. The Cardinal was ideal for small groups of tourists or for charter work. Three other Cardinals would later see service with Aspiring Air, ZK-DAO, ZK-DMI and a retractable gear model ZK-DPD.

Aspiring Air's Cessna 152 ZK-ETW at Christchurch on 1 June 1985

Aspiring Air's first Cessna 177 Cardinal, ZK-DKL, at Christchurch on 7 November 1983

Aspiring Air's Cessna 206 ZK-DFW on floats... taken at Lake Wanaka on 8 May 1983. Photo : I Coates

In 1983, with the new airport in operation, the Beaver ZK-CGX, and the original Cessna 206, ZK-DFW, were replaced with a Cessna 185, ZK-JKH, and a Cessna 207 Skywagon ZK-SEV. These provided the company with more economical and flexible aircraft, especially for the Milford Sound and Mount Aspiring flightseeing and also opening the possibility of air ambulance work in the Cessna 207.

Cessna 185 ZK-JKH at Hokitika on 2 May 1984

At some point Aspiring Air were also operating scenic flights and back country flying from Haast but this operation did not last long.

With the new airport in operation Aspiring Air began Wanaka’s first scheduled air service between Wanaka and Christchurch in 1984. The VFR service was primarily aimed at skiers but it also hoped to attract business traffic. The morning service to Christchurch departed Wanaka at 8.30am with the return flight leaving at 3.00pm to ensure the flight arrived in daylight. Either the Cessna 185 ZK-JKH or Cessna 207 ZK-SEV were used on the service with a flight time of about 90 minutes.

The Press, 20 July 1984
Aspiring Air's main "airliner" before the advent of the Britten Norman Islanders was Cessna 207 ZK-SEV seen here at Wanaka on 1 December 1988

In 1984 the Cessna 152, ZK-ETW, which was was for flight training, was replaced with a more flexible Cessna 172 ZK-ELB. In addition to flight training the 172 could also be used for charter, hire and was also used on the company’s later air service to Queenstown. The company later also operated Cessna 172 ZK-DXL.

Aspiring Air's two Cessna 172s, ZK-ELB at Wanaka on 1 December 1988...
...and ZK-DXL, with ELB behind, at Wanaka on 12 December 1987. To the best of my knowledge ZK-DXL never carried titles.

The Christchurch air service continued into 1985. The timetable in March 1985 included an on demand stopover at Cromwell. The northbound flight left Wanaka at 8.30am and Cromwell at 8.50am to arrive in Christchurch at 10.15am. The southbound flight left Christchurch at 3.30pm to arrive at Cromwell at 5.00pm and Wanaka at 5.15pm. But in mid-1985 Aspiring Air were prevailed upon to operate a new service and I am assuming the Christchurch service had ended by the end of May 1985. This seems likely as from the 1st of August 1985 Goldfields Air included Wanaka as a stop on its Alexandra-Christchurch service and it seems unlikely they would have done so with Aspiring Air operating the same route.

Cessna 185 ZK-JKH, with the cargo pod underneath, at Christchurch on 11 November 1985

So what was this new air service? In February 1985 an air war began on New Zealand’s tourist routes with Newmans Air commencing operations in competition with Mount Cook Airlines. Newmans Air were keen to develop feeder services and from the 1st of June 1985 Aspiring Air commenced a seven-day a week service between Wanaka and Queenstown to connect with Newmans Air’s flights at Queenstown using their Cessna aircraft. The flights appeared in Newmans Air’s timetable and carried ZQ flight numbers. The 20-minute flight operated twice a day, depending on traffic and a one-way ticket to Christchurch cost $161 one way to Christchurch - $3 more than the direct Queenstown-Christchurch flight. This air service also operated under visual flight rules. On fine days the flights would fly direct to Queenstown above Cadrona, while on murky days the aircraft would fly down the Clutha River to Cromwell and then proceed through the Kawerau Gorge to Queenstown. This service continued when Ansett New Zealand took over Newmans Air.

Flights operated by Aspiring Air between Wanaka and Queenstown in the Ansett NZ timetable, effective 1 October 1987 

In 1987, with the regular Queenstown flights and growing flightseeing to Milford Sound, Aspiring Air bought Britten Norman Islander ZK-EVO which replaced the Cessna 185 ZK-JKH and Cessna 177 Cardinal ZK-DKL. Again the Islander provided the company with flexibility including being used on air ambulance work. Cessna 206 ZK-DXZ was also added to the fleet. In later years Cessna 206 ZK-WWH was also registered to Aspiring Air.

Aspiring Air's first BN Islander ZK-EVO at Christchurch on 30 November 1987

The company's second Cessna 206, ZK-DXZ, at Wanaka on 1 December 1988

In early 1988 Air New Zealand and Ansett New Zealand were engaged in an air war and as part of this Ansett New Zealand aligned itself with Pacifica Air who were operating to Wanaka and Alexandra and Aspiring Air moved its allegiance to Mount Cook Airlines. From the 8th of February 1988 it began operating connecting flights between Wanaka and Queenstown. To facilitate this new service and with an expanding demand for flights to Milford Sound a second Britten Norman Islander, ZK-EVK, was acquired in June 1988. Four flights operated each day, on demand, and bookings could be made on Mount Cook Airline's reservations system and flights appeared in the Mount Cook timetable with a NM flight designator. The aircraft used for this service depended on the numbers. If there were more than five passengers one of the BN Islanders were used, with more than two the Cessna 207 and if there were only one or two passengers the Cessna 172 or Cessna 177 Cardinal were used.

This timetable was never dated with a year. I suspect in is effective 6 March to 3 May 1988

The Aspiring Air flights operated between Wanaka and Queenstown on behalf of Mount Cook Airlines

Tragedy struck the company on the 8th of August 1989 when Britten Norman Islander ZK-EVK crashed near the Blue Duck Glacier, in the Upper Dart Valley while on a scenic flight to Milford Sound. Sadly the pilot and his nine passengers being killed. The accident report found no conclusive evidence to establish the cause of the accident or to account for the location in which it occurred. Britten Norman Islander ZK-EVT replaced the ill-fated ZK-EVK in 1990.

The ill-fated BN Islander ZK-EVK at Wanaka on 1 December 1988

One of the aircraft developments that became a feature of Aspiring Air’s Britten Norman Islanders was their being fitted with scenic windows, an American modification to install four extra windows for better passenger visibility. The company was conscious of passenger comfort and so all passengers were given headphones except in the Cessna 207. For Japanese tourists a tape was played pointing out the sights in Japanese.  "The Islander's a marvellous aeroplane for our particular needs," says Alastair McMillan. "With all our work to Milford it's ideal for the high climb routes."

Showing the additional flightseeing windows... BN Islander ZK-EVO at Wanaka on 4 August 1990...
and on ZK-EVT at Wanaka on 16 February 1991

The Britten Norman Islanders and the Cessna 207 were used for ambulance work and the company grew to have four full-time pilots, with another four part-time to help in busy peri-ods with the flight instructor running the office.

Aspiring Air's BN Islander ZK-EVO and ZK-EVT at Wanaka on 14 February 1992

Working from Aspiring Air’s hangar was Great Lakes Aviation, a separate business, which among other customers maintained Aspiring Air’s fleet.

A couple of Cessna 177 Cardinals... ZK-DAO at Wanaka on 28 October 1989

...and the Cessna 177 Cardinal RG ZK-DPD at Christchurch on 13 September 1986

On the 23rd of January 1995 the company changed its name to Aspiring Air Ltd and was sold to Barrie McHaffie, who became the  and Peter Harrex.

Aspiring Air flights in the timetable of 1 September 1996

In 1997 the connection with Mount Cook Airlines and Air New Zealand ceased and the flights no longer appeared in the Air New Zealand timetable. Aspiring Air continued, however, to operate “service flights” between Queenstown and Wanaka to connect with Air New Zealand services. From this time on the Milford Sound flights became even more important for the company.

Aspiring Air's service flight schedule, effective 1 October 1997

However, in September 2008 Aspiring Air found it had lost landing rights at Milford Sound after the Department of Conservation introduced the Milford Aerodrome Concession Allocation Process which granted for landing rights for tourist operators flying into Milford Sound in an attempt to limit air traffic and noise in the area. Aspiring Air had been flying into Milford Sound for 34 years and had operated 220 flights into Milford Sound in the previous year. Managing director Barrie McHaffie told the Otago Daily Times that the value of his company had been slashed by more than $1 million as a result.

In Aspiring Air's new colour scheme - BN Islander ZK-EVT at Wanaka on 22 March 2008

Eventually it appears that a deal was struck that enabled the company to keep operating into Milford Sound but in the first half of 2011 the company ceased flying after the owner and managing director was involved in a serious car accident. At the time of the company’s closure Aspiring Air was still operating Britten-Norman Islanders ZK-EVO and ZK-EVT, Cessna 177 Cardinal ZK-DMI and Piper Tomahawk ZK-WAA which had been bought in 2006 for flight training. 

In July 2011 Aspiring Air’s terminal lease and buildings at Wanaka Airport were sold to the Queenstown Lakes District Council. 

Aspiring Air Ltd was officially deregistered from the company's register on the 7th of July 2015.

1 comment:

  1. Very good article thanks. I remember seeing their flights at Christchurch airport back in the 80s.