14 July 2019

Flying Dragons - East Coast Airways

In 1934 Gisborne remained quite isolated. The railway had not arrived and it took seven hours for a service car to travel between Gisborne and Napier. In the early 1930s Dominion Airlines and Gisborne Air Transport had offered regular flights between Gisborne and Hastings using single engined Desoutter aircraft. In late 1932 Gisborne Air Transport sold their Desoutter to the Hawke's Bay and East Coast Aero Club and the air service petered out.

In June 1934 newly registered East Coast Airways Ltd announced An air service between Napier and Gisborne will be operated with the most modern British aeroplanes carrying six or eight passengers… The aeroplanes to be used will be de Havilland Dragons or Dragon Rapides. The former type is considered to be the most economical commercial aeroplane in the world, carrying six or eight passengers at 110 miles an hour with two Gipsy Major engines of 135 horse-power each. It is used by a number of unsubsidised commercial air services in Great Britain and other countries. This announcement was the culmination of two years of preliminary work, largely done by Mr E A Robinson. The company announced that its timetable provides for a service each way every day all the year round, a machine leaving Gisborne at 7 a.m. and arriving at Napier at 8 a.m., giving plenty of time to catch the express for Wellington at 8.30, and leaving Napier again at 11 a.m. For nine months of the year - that is, for as long as daylight will permit, there will be an additional daily service each way leaving Gisborne for Napier at 3 p.m., so that passengers can catch the 4.30 train from Napier, and leaving Napier on the return journey at 5.15 p.m. It is proposed to charge £2 single and £3 15s return. The company sought to raise £15,000, which was considered enough to buy the aircraft, essential spares and have a reserve fund.

Poverty Bay Herald, 4 August 1934

On the 1st of December 1934 it was announced that East Coast Airways had been a granted licence for five years to operate a service from Gisborne to Napier or Hastings and that this service should be commenced on or before the 1st of March 1935 using two de Havilland Dragons. The company was given the option of having Napier or Hastings as the southern terminal point of service. By this time the company's capital was £15,000 fully subscribed and 10s a share had been called up.

1935 began with the announcement that Squadron-Leader Trevor (Tiny) M. White, had been appointed as the chief pilot. Before taking up the position he was flying a Codock, an aircraft developed with the help of Sir Charles Kingsford-Smith, on a service between Sydney and Newcastle in Australia. From this job he came back to New Zealand to join the staff of East Coast Airways. Previously he was one of the many New Zealanders who served in the Royal Air Force during the war and was held as a prisoner of the Turks for a long while. He appointed as instructor to the Hawke's Bay Aero Club when it was formed, and for some time afterwards. Then he was appointed chief pilot to New Zealand Airways, Ltd., and with his base at Dunedin he did a good deal of pioneer flying in Central Otago. The company's headquarters were then shifted to Timaru where he lived for some time. The other pilot appointed was Mr Ron A. Kirkup, who at that time was the only club-trained New Zealand pilot employed as a pilot on a commercial airline. He learned to fly with the Auckland Aero Club and then bought an aeroplane himself. In this he made flights with passengers all over New Zealand. He was then appointed instructor to the Canterbury Aero Club in succession to Mr J. (Bert) C. Mercer. Mr. L. Maugham was appointed as the ground engineer, though he subsequently withdrew from the position and Mr A. Brazier was appointed instead. The managing director of the company, who did much of the work of establishing it, was Wing Commander Stuart Grant-Dalton. During the First World War he was an officer in the Royal Air Force, and some years after the War he came to New Zealand to act as Director of Air Services while the New Zealand director, Wing Commander T. M. Wilkes, was in England. He liked the country and after his term of office was finished, he decided to settle in New Zealand. Another key figure was Mr. E. A. Robinson, of Napier, who was largely responsible for the organisation and flotation of East Coast Airways after three and a-half years of hard work and in the face of very little encouragement in the earlier stages of his efforts. He was manager of East Coast Airways at Napier until he accepted a position with Union Airways as a co-pilot of the DH86 Express airliners in March 1936.

By March 1935 the Gisborne Borough Council had agreed to lease Darton Field to the new airline for a five year period with an annual rental of £200 for the first two years, and subsequently a rental fixed by mutual agreement or arbitration. On the 25th of March ZK-ADR, the first of the de Havilland DH84 Dragons was test flown from Hobsonville and would be ready for the start of services on the 15th of April. An unexpected glitch happened a few days later when on the 1st of April ZK-ADR struck a ditch during landing damaging the undercarriage, wings, and both propellers on a test flight. The pilot of his one passenger were unharmed. By this stage ZK-ADS had been assembled and test flown.

De Havilland Dragon ZK-ADS on a test flight over Auckland

Poverty Bay Herald, 8 April 1935

On the 15th of April 1935, despite unfavourable weather, with misty rain and poor visibility, the opening East Coast Airways air service between Gisborne and Napier took place at noon at Gisborne, the ceremony being performed by the acting-Prime Minister, Hon. E. A. Ransom. The company's De Havilland Dragon ZK-ADS, Tui, had flown to Napier earlier in the morning and conveyed the official party to Gisborne. The passengers were Mr. Ransom, Sir Alexander Russell, of Hawke's Bay, and Mr. Barry, of Wellington. The acting-Prime Minister congratulated the people of Gisborne on the inauguration of such a fine air service. It was a matter of gratification that the service had been commenced to overcome the isolation the district had suffered in the past. The service marked a definite advance in aviation in the Dominion. East Coast Airways, Limited, continued Mr. Ransom, was the second company to commence a regular air service under the Transport Licensing Commercial Aircraft Services Act. An indication of the development which might be expected was given by the result of the first three months' operations of Air Travel (N.Z.), Limited, which controls a service from Inchbonnie to Okuru in South Westland. During this period the amount of mail matter had been doubled and more than 700 passengers had been carried in one four-passenger machine. The Minister said New Zealand had been comparatively slow to reap the advantages of air transport, but there were now practical signs that she did not propose to delay any longer than necessary. Internal air lines covering the Dominion were being started, or were under consideration, and the Government had already conferred with representatives of the Governments of Great Britain and Australia with a view to the early linking up of the Dominion with the existing Imperial air route between England and Australia. After addresses had been given by various officials, the Dragon, under the command of Squadron-Leader T. W. White flew to Napier to inaugurate the service and where a similar ceremony was performed.

A couple of photos of de Havilland 84 Dragon ZK-ADR flying between Gisborne and Napier

In the first month of operation of the air service 96 flights were made and 288 passengers were carried. The first cancellation due to weather was on the 23rd of May and when a full complement of passengers had been booked.

On the 5th of June 1935 the NZ Herald carried an article that gave an insight to the VFR operation that had to at times operate in marginal conditions.

When the East Coast Airways passenger aeroplane that landed safely through a fog on the Napier aerodrome at 8.50 o'clock this morning the six passengers stood round the machine and gave three cheers for the pilot Squadron-Leader T. W. White. This was a spontaneous expression of appreciation of the pilot's skill in bringing the aeroplane safely to earth under trying conditions after having cruised round for about an hour after arrival over the airport. During that hour the fog was so thick that the ground was quite invisible to those in the aeroplane. A landing was made while the fog was very dense, but a temporary rift over the airport itself gave the pilot sufficient visibility to make a safe landing,

Squadron-Leader White said that the aeroplane left Gisborne at 7 a.m. in clear weather. The weather report being to the effect that visibility was bad at the Napier terminal, three times the usual petrol supply was taken. This left a big margin of safety because it meant that the aeroplane had plenty of mileage in reserve and could easily return to Gisborne if it were found impossible to land. The fog was first encountered at Waikari. It was too low on the water for the aeroplane to get under it, but at 400 ft. there was no fog at all. Flying high, the pilot arrived over Napier at 7.50 a.m., and the top of Bluff Hill was the only part of Napier visible. The passengers were then taken for a cruise over Hastings, where the fog was even thicker than at Napier.

In the meantime the ground organisation at Napier as a precautionary; measure had prepared and displayed flares and red lights as a guide for the pilot. Squadron-Leader White could have landed by the aid of the lights on the aerodrome, but after discussing the situation with his passengers he decided to remain "upstairs" until the fog lifted. Finally at 5.50 there was just sufficient visibility to make a perfectly safe landing. Included among the passengers was Dr. G. Rice, who had an argent appointment to perform an operation at Palmerston North. Owing to the delay the doctor and other passengers had missed the mail train connection at Napier, but a car was available at the airport to take the travellers straight through to Dannevirke to connect with the train there at 11.15 a.m.

On the 20th of June the second de Havilland Dragon, ZK-ADR, arrived from Auckland, the flight taking two hours five minute.

The two de Havilland Dragons, ZK-ADR and ZK-ADS at Gisborne. Photo : Gisborne Photo News

Another insight into East Coast Airways was printed in the Press of the 30th of July 1935. A Christchurch business man's first air trip in the newly-established service from Gisborne to Napier is humorously described in a letter to another member of his firm. "It was now noon," he says, "and the town was deserted for the races. I couldn't do any more or get away for 24 hours except by aeroplane, which left in half an hour, so I flew upstairs, literally threw my things In my bag, paid my hotel bill, jumped into an East Coast Airways waiting taxi (fare 1s), and in no time was being weighed at the airport. ‘Will you take this seat?' and I found myself looking out of the window of a twin-engined De Havilland Dragon aeroplane with two other passengers. We taxied across the aerodrome, turned round, and with a roar were in the air, missing the hangar with a clear inch to spare; at least, that's what it looked like. Squadron-Leader White was twisting this and that, what for I don't know, but the more he twisted the higher we got. We flew straight out to sea. I almost called out, 'Napier for me, please, not Sydney.' We were soon up a couple of million feet and closely followed the coast line. Then it came up foggy, but White seemed to know the way. We came down to get out of some rotten bumps, and flew over the water but close into the cliffs, close enough to see the eyes of grazing sheep. Then we flew over a small steamer—missing its masts narrowly. Then more rain; but we were very comfortable and warm in a good cabin—no flying helmets or anything like that, and very comfortable single seats. Then we came to .Wairoa and some other place, and then to a huge bay,' which we flew straight across for 20 minutes, gaining height slowly. 'Higher yet, you fool,' I said to White under my breath. 'Good Heavens, White, my man, you never know when a few of your engines might konk out, and then what!' Heavens, what a thought! What a passenger! Then I thought that if we did crash I might save White's life and lose my own, but a posthumous V.C. would be greatly treasured by my wife. "After a while we flew into a patch of sunshine, but White refused to stay in it. On and on we went, and then he was good enough to tell us that we weren't going to Napier at all. 1 threatened to get out, but the door was locked. Napier was too wet at the aerodrome, so we bumped our way over Napier and knew what an earthquake in Hawke's Bay was like. Had a good look at the Napier aerodrome, which was once the inner harbour, and now looked like a flooded mudflat, and was quite satisfied to push on to Hastings, where we landed one hour 35 minutes after leaving Gisborne. "'A very slow trip,” says Pilot White. 'I suppose so,' said I, with all the airs of a constant air traveller. He immediately took off for Gisborne with a strong following wind, and expected to make the trip in well under three-quarters of an hour. A waiting taxi (no charge, fortunately) flitted us to Napier, where we arrived at about the time that my man White would be missing the hangar at Gisborne again."

East Coast Airways Ltd. East Coast Airways Ltd :Napier to Gisborne in 50 minutes. [ca 1935]. Ref: Eph-A-AVIATION-1935-01. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. /records/22670287

In late June 1935 East Coast Airways applied to the Transport Coordination Board to extend its routes to include a  Napier/Hastings-Dannevirke service and a Napier-Taupo which it hoped to operate for summer months. Neither of these services ever came to fruition.

By late November 1935, East Coast Airways had flown over 2000 passengers between the two centres maintaining a 97½ per cent regularity with 706 flights out of 724 having been flown. In this time there were only five or six days on which flights had to be cancelled, and only three days when it was impossible to fly at all, some of these cancellations being due to the condition of the aerodrome at Napier. During this time there had there had been an average load of three persons on each flight. The state of the runway at Darton Airfield at Gisborne had proved troublesome for the company with the runways having a rough surface and having insufficient length. This necessitated restricting the load, except under favourable conditions, to four passengers. The Dragon, however, was supposed to be able to carry seven passengers. The company was encouraged by the steady increase in passengers as the public became more air-minded. In the early months it was found that while regular loads were generally available from Gisborne there was a dearth of passengers travelling northward. This, however, was largely due to the timetable not connecting with the express train reaching Napier in the afternoon. The summer schedule overcame this and traffic in both directions became more or less evenly balanced. The company also reported heavy future bookings.

East Coast Airways' timetable, effective 1 October 1935

The summer schedule enabled passengers to leave Gisborne in the morning, connect with the express at Napier and reach Wellington the same afternoon, while on the return journey travellers by train connected with the aeroplane at Napier and arrived at Gisborne at 6 p.m. Reports stated that “On an average, the journey between the two centres, a distance of approximately 100 miles, occupies almost exactly an hour, but varying climatic conditions are responsible for wide disparities in the times taken. The fastest trip was done in 36 minutes, while on the longest the machine was an hour and a half in the air.”

On the 3rd of December 1935 the company announced a loss of £786 for the first year. The report pointed out, however, that the company's service was not inaugurated until April 16 with the result that the summer traffic was lost. Included in expenses was £562 for improvements to the Gisborne aerodrome, the condition of which was largely responsible for the loss on operations. The loss also included £1146 being set aside for depreciation on the two Dragons.

On the 11th of December 1935 Tui ZK-ADS tipped over on its nose after landing at the Napier at 7.45 in the morning.  Te pilot and his four passengers were unhurt. The aeroplane suffered slight damage to its nose, starboard wing tip, undercarriage and engine cowling. Immediately after the accident East Coast Airways telephoned its Gisborne headquarters and the company other aeroplane, Huia, was dispatched to Napier, arriving at 9.30am. It left with passengers immediately.

On the 20th of December 1935 ZK-ADR, Huia established a new record when, commencing at four o'clock in the morning, it made eight trips between Gisborne and Napier. The extra running was necessary on account of Tui being out of action and the heavy bookings of holiday traffic.

1936 began with serious concerns about the Gisborne Aerodrome. On account of the aerodrome the company restricted its load to five passengers, although the Dragons were configured to carry seven. East Coast Airways was determined to maintain its safety margin and in February it was announced the company would feel compelled to make a further reduction in the maximum number of passengers carried unless better facilities were provided before winter set in. Should the company have to reduce the maximum loading, an official said, a point might be reached at which the company would lose more by continuing the service than by keeping its 'planes oil the ground for the winter. Nonetheless the company was hoping to expand. At times both aircraft were flown to carry the numbers wanting to fly while in February 1936 East Coast Airways made an application to extend its service south from Napier to Palmerston North.

On the 13th of March it was announced that the Gisborne Aerodrome would be closed from the 18th of March 1936 to enable the Public Works Department to level and returf the runways.  Newspaper coverage said The short notice given will mean the temporary cessation of East Coast Airways' services to Napier for the next few weeks, and the company will suffer a substantial loss through cancellation of bookings for the Easter traffic in particular. The company had received a large number of inquiries for the holiday period and would have had its machines fully employed during Easter. The improvements to be made to the field, however, will be of substantial benefit to the company, and the directors are accepting philosophically the prospect of an immediate loss of business in view of prospective gains after completion of the work.

By the 1st of April 60 men were employed on the project removing turf from the runways in preparation for the process of filling and spreading with horse teams and a machine especially brought from Canterbury being used. The scheme of reconstruction now being applied to Darton Field is to be portion of a bigger plan of aerodrome provision for commercial air transport for this district, the immediate object being to provide three runways which should meet the requirements of East Coast Airways machines and private aeroplanes, which from time to time use the field. Two of the runways are to be 440 yds. in length, while the principal stretch of level ground will be 600 yds, this being so placed as to serve for the majority of landings and departures in a normal season.

By the middle of June 1936 most of the levelling work been completed thought extensive filling work at the south-eastern end of the 600yd runway was still to be done. As work continued on the Gisborne aerodrome, the old aerodrome at Napier was closed for remedial work necessitating a move to the Beacon's aerodrome at Westshore, which is the site of the present Hawke's Bay Airport. Moves to reopen the Gisborne Aerodrome proved to slow and in early July 1936 it was announced that it was unlikely to reopen until October 1936.

De Havilland Dragon ZK-ADR, East Coast Airways, at Beacon's aerodrome, Napier. Ref: WA-17003-G. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. /records/22791646

Airline flying at this time was still in a primitive stage. The Auckland Star of the 11th of July 1936 reported that consideration of alternative systems of signalling, for use between aeroplanes engaged in its Gisborne-Napier service and the grounds staffs of the aerodromes at both terminals, has been given by the directors of East Coast Airways, Ltd. The necessity of some signalling device being made available has been recognised since the early days of the service, and it is probable that, pending the installation of radiophones in the 'planes and in the ground staffs' offices - a development still some distance in the future - a simplified code of signals given by means of Verey pistols will be used. The Verey pistol was developed during the war as a means of illuminating the terrain between opposing lines of trenches, and also for signalling purposes, both on the ground and in aeroplane manoeuvres. It remains the most portable form of signalling apparatus available for general purposes, and especially in connection with 'planes.

Continued dry weather preventing the growth of grass on Gisborne's Darton Field and so October rolled around without the reopening of the aerodrome. Grass growth was necessary to provide a good binding medium for the surface of the aerodrome. Officials were afraid that if the aerodrome was opened too soon the influence of prevailing winds and the slipstream of the aeroplanes would erode the runway surface. Rain finally came at the end of October and this enabled the aerodrome to reopen in December 1936, almost nine months after closing. A condition was placed that the aerodrome is not to be used by any aeroplanes other than those fitted with tail-wheels of the "doughnut" type, which are standard equipment on the Dragon machines. Recent experience of the use of the ground by a machine with a tail-skid gave ample indication of the need for this stipulation. The growth of grass on the aerodrome is not yet sufficiently advanced to resist damage by tail-skids, and a visiting aeroplane left deep incisions.

During the closure of the air service the Squadron-Leader White acted as instructor to the Manawatu Aero Club at Palmerston North while Flying-Officer Kirkup spent some months on the Cook Strait Airways service and the Union Airways trunk service between Palmerston North and Dunedin. The two de Havilland Dragons were hangered at Palmerston North, and with the exception of a trial flight from Palmerston North to Napier and back and a flight to Gisborne to test the aerodrome before its reopening. Both received a general overhaul ahead of the recommencement of services.

With the air service not operating for almost nine months East Coast Airways posted a £3545 loss in its second annual report. With the resumption of services imminent the Post and Telegraph Department announced that airmails would be carried on the Gisborne-Napier route. 

East Coast Airways recommenced operations on the 7th of December 1936. By the 30th of April 1937 the reinstated air service had carried 2060 passengers, 2524lb of freight and 1765lb of mail with a 99.6% regularity of flights maintained. During the summer the afternoon service from Napier to Gisborne was able to leave after the arrival of the express from Wellington. In winter this was not possible and many passengers prefered to make the seven-hour journey to Gisborne by car at night rather than spending a night in Napier. To remedy this situation the company planned to extend its service to Palmerston North in order to connect directly with rail and air services there. 

On the 30th of October 1937 East Coast Airways inaugurated a daily service from Gisborne and Napier to Palmerston North, connecting with the Union Airways services to other parts of the North and South Islands. It was necessary to use both of the company's planes for the first day of the service, one having a full complement from Gisborne to Napier and the other taking passengers through to Palmerston North. The schedule saw a Dragon leaving Gisborne at 6.40am and Napier at 7.50am to reach Palmerston North at 9.05am to connect with Union Airway’s southbound service to Blenheim, Christchurch and Dunedin, leaving Palmerston at 10.30am. A connection was also possible at Palmerston North for Union Airways’ Wellington service. The Dragon was scheduled to leave Palmerston North each afternoon at 1.00pm to arrive at Napier at 2.10pm and Gisborne at 3.20pm.

De Havilland 84 Dragon, Tui, ZK-ADS at Palmerston North

Poverty Bay Herald, 30 October 1937

The company’s annual report released in December 1937 reported a loss of £2199. The report stated that a portion of the financial year was lost through the Gisborne aerodrome not being serviceable until late 1936. During the twelve months to October 31, 4264 passengers and a considerable quantity of mail and freight were carried. Services between Gisborne and Napier have been maintained with 99.3 per cent, of regularity, and this, the directors comment, reflects the conscientious and enthusiastic work of pilots and ground staff. The company’s report also stated that the lack of hangarage at the Beacons aerodrome at Napier was problematic and the considerable expense has been incurred through planes having to stand exposed to sun and rain. The depreciation caused was much greater than realised and the directors seriously considered making a change to Hastings aerodrome.

On the 30th of December 1937 de Havilland Dragon ZK-ADR, Huia, was reregistered as ZK-AER. The change was due to ADR being the telegraphic code for “address.”

Reregistered, de Havilland DH84 Dragon Huia now as ZK-AER

From the 10th of January 1938 East Coast Airways commenced a trial feeder service between Palmerston North and Wanganui on behalf of Union Airways. A Dragon left Palmerston North at 10.45am to arrive at Wanganui at 11.15am. The return left departed at noon to arrive at Palmerston North at 12.30pm. This timetable did not connect with services to the south and so it was adjusted to leave Palmerston North at 9.10am with the retun service departing Wanganui at 9.50am after a 10 minute stop. The one-way trip took exactly 30 minutes and the fare each way was 15/. However, the service failed to generate sufficient traffic and it ended on the 20th of February 1938.

The communications age came to East Coast Airways in February 1938 with the first Dragon equipped with a radio and with ground installations being established at Palmerston North, Napier and Gisborne.

More significant changes were signalled the following month with a circular to shareholders announcing the probability of East Coast Airways being absorbed by Union Airways. By this stage Union Airways had a controlling interest in East Coast Airways. Union Airways agreed to take over the shares at par, so that no loss was sustained by other shareholders. The circular stated that the company's Dragons were becoming obsolescent, and needed to replaced or augmented by more modern and faster machines. Moreover, it is apparent that in the interests of civil aviation in New Zealand in general, and of the maintenance of a proper service for this district in particular, the need for the expansion of the existing services must be faced. Such expansion involves the purchase of extra machines of an improved type, now costing more than double the 'price paid by the company for its present machines… Although the company's service has steadily gained public support since the company commenced business the position as at October 31, 1937, was that we had an accumulated loss of £6531 —to which must be added other items, such as preliminary expenses, £1471, etc.—and these losses cannot possibly be overtaken in the lifetime of the existing aircraft. "It therefore appears that unless some drastic change is made prospects for shareholders are poor indeed. These matters and the future of the company generally have caused the directors grave concern, so that it is with some relief that they are able to report that arrangements have been made whereby shareholders may recover the par value of their shares by accepting an offer made to the company by Union Airways of New Zealand, Limited. Union Airways, although not itself a shareholder in East Coast Airways, controls 9995 shares in our company, and Union Airways is prepared to buy out the remaining allotted shares in our company at par, and to take the service over and include it in the operations of the major organisation.”

On the 20th of April 1938 ZK-ADS, Tui, made a forced landing at in a paddock at Patutahi, near Gisborne. The aircraft had experienced engine trouble soon after taking off in a fog, and the pilot, Flying-Officer D. Campbell, decided to return. The New Zealand Herald the following day reported that The fog meant he was unable to locate the aerodrome he circled until he found a suitable paddock, "making a perfect landing under difficult conditions... The machine was above the fog when the trouble developed and the power from one engine was not sufficient for the pilot to risk going down into the fog to find the aerodrome, for it could not have regained sufficient height in the event of the pilot mistaking the position of the landing ground. Good judgment was exercised by the pilot in deciding to make for the country where the fog had cleared, and he made a perfect landing on the outer fringe of the fog in a large paddock on Mr. Herbert Cooper's property, a short distance on the Gisborne side of the power sub-station at Patutahi. The ground there is perfectly flat and the surface fairly even, so that the machine came to rest without damage. The passengers were unaware that anything untoward, had happened until they found themselves lauding in a paddock. They pay a tribute to the skill arid sound judgment of Flying Officer Campbell for the manner in which he handled the machine. The paddock in which the aeroplane landed is skirted on three sides by low trees, mainly cabbage trees, and there was ample space for the machine to land without danger of colliding with the fences. Immediately after, the pilot had telephoned news to the aerodrome, the Fast Coast Airways ground staff went to the spot and started dismantling the disabled engine and arrangements were made to fly the Tui back to the aerodrome. The passengers in the aeroplane were Mr. and Mrs. Hathaway, Mrs. F. M. Newey, Miss M. Wilson and Mr. F. W. Pearce." 

On the 27th of May 1938 East Coast Airways operated, what later transpired to be, their last de Havilland Dragon flights. The following day the air service was taken taken up by Union Airways'  de Havilland DH86 Express aircraft while the two de Havilland Dragons underwent their half-yearly overhaul. The Union Airway service offered no Sunday service and the early morning flight from Gisborne to Napier during the week days was deleted from the schedule. Instead, the Express departed each morning from Palmerston North and made a northbound service to Napier and Gisborne and then the return southbound service. 

Poverty Bay Herald, 28 May 1938

The timetable was changed from the 20th of June when the Express started overnighting at Gisborne. The morning flight left Gisborne at 7.00am to arrive at Napier at 7.45am. The flight then departed 8.00am and arrived at Palmerston North at 8.50 a.m. Through passengers connected at Palmerston North with Union Airways’ Lockheed from Auckland and arrived at Wellington at 11.00am. Passengers from Wellington left at noon, transhipped at Palmerston North, and arrived at Napier at 2.05 p.m. and Gisborne at 3.00pm.

A few days later it was announced that the East Coast Airways Ltd would cease operations on the 30th of June 1938 and the air service was taken over by Union Airways from the 1st of July 1938. 

On the 30th of June 1938 at a meeting of East Coast Airways' shareholders it was decided that the company be voluntarily wound up. The Poverty Bay Herald of the 2nd of July 1938 carried a fitting tribute to this East Coast pioneer airline. 

The chairman of directors, Mr. J. G. Nolan, called attention to the fact that this was almost the last gathering of the kind, and stated that the company had obtained the first commercial license issued in New Zealand for multi-motored passenger carrying aircraft. The commencement of operations had been in April, 1935 and down to the present time the company had operated with complete success. Apart from a period of nine months during which the aerodrome at Gisborne was unsuitable for use by the planes, the operation record had been continuous, and satisfactory, and was one of which the shareholders might well feel proud. 

Altogether, the company had carried 14,750 passengers, and the service had run with 98.6 per cent regularity. During the past six months, 11,444lb of mail had been carried, this indicating the value of air services to a country in which long distances separated the main centres of population. Passenger mileage registered by the company has totalled 1,435,000 miles in the two years and five months of actual operation. The chairman recalled that considerable difficulty had had to be overcome when efforts were first made to acquire an aerodrome for Gisborne. He thought the shareholders and public generally would agree that in the result, the acquisition of Darton Field by the local bodies concerned had been fully justified. "Civil aviation has gone ahead so rapidly in the last few years that our capital is proving quite inadequate to cope with the purchase of additional machines which we need to carry out the extensions which will shortly be justified; and we are compelled to make way for someone who can command more capital, and thus provide a service which will keep this district apace with the development in aviation throughout the rest of New Zealand," said Mr Nolan. "Your company set out to provide an air service between Gisborne and Napier and it has certainly achieved that; but I doubt if anyone concerned anticipated that progress in aviation would be as rapid as it has proved. "I think it may be said also that unless this company, had commenced operations (here would not have been any air service here to-day," he added. "I feel sure that the district can look forward to the maintenance of the service which this company started, and to its further development as soon as that development is warranted." 

The chairman added that it would not be proper to close without an expression of appreciation of the loyal service which the company had always had from all members of its staff. Without making any invidious distinctions, he would like to mention the chief pilot, Squadron-Leader T. W. White, who had been the first member of the flying staff appointed, and who had been with the company right through its short history. Shareholders would be aware that the staff of East Coast Airways, Limited, were to be taken over by Union Airways. "Only one other matter needs reference," concluded Mr. Nolan. "The company proposes to go into voluntary liquidation. You are not to infer from this that the company is unfinancial for such is by no means the case. We have been compelled to go through the process of liquidation because certain shareholders - a very few - have seen fit to decline the offer made to purchase their shares at par. The shareholders concerned will not benefit by this altitude; but the result is that the expense of liquidation has been forced upon us.” The meeting carried unanimously the formal resolutions in favour of liquidation of the company, and appointing Mr. Crawshaw as liquidator.

While Dominion Airlines and Gisborne Air Transport pioneered an air service to Gisborne it was East Coast Airways who brought that air service to a new level and in the successors of East Coast Airways, Union Airways, NAC and Air New Zealand, that air service endures to today. 


  1. During the 1950s there was a back country farmer with a DH Dragon, perhaps a Rapide, aircraft. Often saw it flying backwards and forwards between Gisborne and his property.

  2. Interesting to see an ex Napier tram being used as Napier terminal building.

  3. "During the 1950s there was a back country farmer with a DH Dragon, perhaps a Rapide, aircraft."

    DH89A Rapide Mk 4 ZK-BFK ex G-AHGF
    Owned by Kenneth G R Bloomfield, Te Karaka 1954 - 57

    1. That's the fellow!
      Just didn't want to put his name out there. He flew my sky a lot.

    2. Thanks for that information. I was wondering what DH89 it was as well

  4. A superb write-up. Thank you Steve.

  5. Great post Steve. If this makes its way into a book one day I would buy a copy on day one!

  6. A really good article; thoroughly researched, well written, and a valuable record of the business and social history of that part of the country. Thanks for the effort.