13 September 2020

The Flying Dolphin - Float Air Picton

I am very much indebted to Jim Anderson in the preparation of this post... Jim has recorded an oral history and transcribed his own amazing history of his story with Float Air. He also kept his scrap books and photos giving an amazing archival resource. I am also grateful to John and Gordon Low and Bruce Gavin for their photos and archival information.

Perhaps the most loved features, or rather creatures, of the Marlborough Sounds are the dolphins. But there was a time when dolphins where not only in the waters of the Marlborough Sounds but also on and above the waters. This is the story of Float Air Picton and its Flying Dolphin service. 

Over the summer of 1973/74 the Air Services Licencing Authority heard two applications to operate air charter and air taxi services from the Marlborough Sounds. In November 1973 Christchurch businessman Garry Berryman’s Geo Berryman Ltd was granted air charter and air taxi rights to operate from the Pelorus and Queen Charlotte Sounds and Port Underwood and the waterways connected therewith. The company, which traded as Sounds Air (no relation to the current Sounds Air), commenced operations with one Lake LA4 Amphibian, ZK-DNK, and was based in the Bay of Many Coves at Garry Berryman’s property. Garry Berryman and Peter Perano were the pilots. Peter Perano’s family were known for whaling in the Cook Strait area. Previously Peter had been an instructor with the Canterbury Aero Club for a number of years, but his 5,500 hours of flying experience also included some Cook Strait whale spotting time in a Piper Apache. Such local flying experience was invaluable to the new operator in its VFR environment. In April 1974 Geo Berryman Ltd applied to add a second Lake to its licence between October and May each year.

Meanwhile, dairy farmers Russell and Flora Smith had been in the Koromiko area for some years after moving to Marlborough from Dunedin. With the move north Peter learned to fly with the Marlborough Aero Club and over a period of years gained his commercial pilots licence with a view to starting a floatplane operation in Picton. Eventually the Smiths sold their dairy farm and established Float Air Picton Ltd. In February 1974 they applied for air charter and air taxi rights to operate from Picton Harbour. To do this they had to prove at the March 1974 Air Services Licencing Authority hearing that a second plane was needed in an area where there had been no operator a year earlier. Russell Smith recounted the difficulties of getting a licence in Marlborough Express in 1980. The Smiths did this by getting in touch with 800 Sounds property owners who lived in the Wellington area. Successfully over that hurdle, the next one appeared. Float Air could not get an import licence for a float 'plane until they were granted an Air Service licence. Yet they were not able to get an Air Service licence until they had a 'plane, Deadlock! Finally, the circle of red tape was broken, when the Air Licensing Authority agreed to give them an Air Service licence. Meanwhile, George Berryman flew from December 1973 to August 1974, when Float Air bought them out. A condition of the sale was that their pilot, Mr Pete Perano, was offered a job.

The October 1974 issue of NZ Wings reported on the success of the Berryman amphibian operation... The service has proved a boon to the residents and visitors to the area. The amphibious Buccaneer, based on the Picton foreshore, will be an asset for passenger demand for direct flights to Wellington while the Cessna 206 will more readily handle the bulk Sounds operations with its larger passenger and freight capacity. The Marlborough Harbour Board is building a floating jetty and ramp near to Float Air Picton's office in the rail-ferry terminal. Chief pilot of the expanded operation will be Mr Peter Perano in company with Mr Russell Smith, the owner of Float Air. Mrs Flora Smith is to be the business manager of the new company. 

Float Air's Lake Buccaneer ZK-DNK at Christchurch in 1979

The expanded company was licensed to operate charter and scenic flights from anywhere in the Marlborough Sounds, which the Air Services Licensing Authority considered as one licensed waterway, "to all licensed aerodromes and waterways in New Zealand", using one Lake LA4 amphibian and one Cessna 206 float plane. This enabled Float Air flights to operate exactly where the customer wanted in the Sounds. Float Air officially began operating on the 23rd of December 1974 - with both its aircraft tied down, because it was too windy to fly. The company had two aircraft, a new Cessna 206 ZK-DRH and the Lake amphibian ZK-DNK inherited from Berryman's Sounds Air. At the time of the launch of Float Air ZK-DNK was on annual survey and another Lake Buccaneer, ZK-EDK, was being used in its place. This aircraft was hired from a Christchurch businessman and it had a 200 hp engine, as opposed to ZK-DNK’s 180 hp engine. This allowed one extra passenger to be carried on longer flights.

Float Air Picton took to the air for the first time on the 24th of December 1974. Media coverage reported that on that day Lake Buccaneer ZK-EDK flew from Picton Harbour to Wellington, opening Picton's new air service. Float Air Picton flew its first charter flight with a Lake amphibian which is under hire from Christchurch. But the company has bought a similar aircraft which should arrive in about two weeks. Float Air has also bought a Cessna 206 floatplane which will be piloted by Mr R. Smith. The Lake amphibian is piloted by Mr P. Perano. The company is licensed to fly from the Sounds to all authorised waterways and airports in the country. It is expected that two-thirds of the flights would be on charter across Cook Strait and the rest scenic flights over the Sounds. The Lake Amphibian can carry three passengers and the Cessna five passengers. 

Lake Buccaneer ZK-EDK which was used as the replacement for Cessna 206 ZK-DRH. Photo taken at Picton on 29 January 1975

Disaster struck Float Air on the 29th of December 1974 when the new Cessna 206 ZK-DRH was up-ended by a whirlwind in Shakespeare Bay. Although under water for only about four hours the Cessna was considered a write off. The company continued with just the hired Lake, but bad luck was to strike that, too. After the company's own Lake returned from survey in February 1975 the hired amphibian ZK-EDK was returned. Within three weeks it was a write-off — wiped out by Cyclone Allison while sitting at Christchurch Airport.

The six day Cessna 206... ZK-DRH at Picton in December 1974

ZK-DRH being recovered in Shakespeare Bay, attended by the Picton Pilot vessel MARLBOROUGH, and Kenny's Red Funnel launch RAMONA with the Edwin Fox yet to be moved in the background. Source : Chris Manning, https://www.facebook.com/Then-Now-Picton-The-Marlborough-Sounds-150266098432005

This loss of the Cessna 206 meant that in 1975 Float Air's operations were sustained by the Lake LA4 Buccaneer ZK-DNK. The June 1975 issue of Wings reported that The LA4 has been proving quite effective, and has carried stock and station agents, Internal Affairs officials, Health Department nurses, priests, builders, electricians, ambulance men, two dogs, a few locals, and many tourists throughout the Marlborough Sounds and to many other parts of New Zealand. Surprisingly, there was initially a detectable degree of apathy toward the company among the locals, but this has been largely overcome, due no doubt to the efforts of its administrator, Flora Smith. Flora Smith, 37 and mother of four, could be described as the driving force behind the company. Being responsible for administering what is in fact an airline - and as such required to regularly furnish all airline-type statistics and other administrivia - is no mean task. She is also the booking agent and handles all financial and legal matters. Having as a fleet a Lake amphibian and a Cessna float plane might seem at first glance an odd combination, but closer investigation reveals that Float Air has initiative and foresight. The choice stems basically from the "lightness" of the Lake and the inability of the float plane to use land aerodromes. The load capacity of the smaller Lake is not great (450 Ibs) but, as the company predicted, the attraction it provides in being able to move passengers between a city airport and the Picton waterfront makes it very popular. The larger Cessna not only handles rougher waters (the Lake is limited to "one foot" seas) but can lift greater loads (about 1,000 Ibs) making it an ideal taxi for groups of weekend fishermen and hunters and their gear, or for reaching isolated baches with a good load of supplies… Asked what their aim was in forming Float Air, Russell Smith replies, "To provide a service ... a charter and scenic service to anyone who wants it. By doing this we hope we will open up the Marlborough Sounds to the people of Wellington, Nelson, Picton and further afield".

Float Air's Lake Buccaneer ZK-DNK at Picton

In November 1975, a new Cessna 206 floatplane, ZK-DXD was added to the fleet. Within a month of its arrival the Lake Buccaneer ZK-DNK was withdrawn from service. In December 1975 Float Air turned its attention towards Porirua Harbour as a terminal for flights from Picton. The Evening Post reported that on the 12th of December 1975 the chairman, Mr J W Brown, and other members of the Porirua Harbour Authority granted Float-Air Picton permission to use the harbour as a float-plane base to set down and pick up passengers under a trial arrangement for a year, during which time the effect of the operation on aquatic sports groups would be examined. The chief pilot for the air service (Mr Peter Perano) said he did not think the company would have any problems with pleasure craft on the harbour, which was not likely to be as congested as the Picton terminal. Both Mr Perano and the manager of the company (Mr Russell Smith) who is also a pilot, agreed that the area designated by the authority as a water aerodrome was suitable for their immediate needs. A float plane carries five passengers, and an amphibian carries three. They have already made chartered calls to Porirua, and it is expected that as the service becomes more widely known the planes will be regular visitors to the harbour. Both pilots said the Porirua Harbour had less turbulence than flying over Wellington to a landing area at Petone. 

In 1976 Peter Perano left the company and in 1977 moved to Fiji and became Turtle Airways' first pilot. Russell and Flora continued operations with the Cessna 206 and in 1979 Jim Anderson joined Float Air as a pilot. In his 2010 audio history of Float Air Jim recounts, Float Air operated all round the Marlborough Sounds and had extended their service, in and out of Wellington from a new water aerodrome at Petone They also obtained a base, or water aerodrome, round the Wellington coastline on Porirua Harbour. The two "aerodromes" allowed Wellington people to connect with their baches and boats in and out of the Sounds. Before that they would have had to catch a ferry and then maybe water transport to their baches but it enabled them to leave work of an afternoon and be down at Porirua harbour late in the afternoon when Russell was able to pick them up and whisk them over to their bach in the Sounds. This in itself proved a very popular asset, or side to the business. 

The bread and butter business of the company was really work with stock agents and Post and Telegraph who used to use the company probably 2-3 days a week. Often the guys from Post and Telegraph would turn up with their vans and their ladders would be tied on the side of the floats and all their equipment would be loaded in and they’d be shuttled off into the Sounds. You’ve got to remember at that time in the Sounds, the whole of the Marlborough Sounds was still on what was called a manual exchange, or on party lines in those days, and often with severe storms and weather events, the lines would go down or trees would go down over lines and these fault men would be taken out into the Sounds and often posted round at various places to rectify these faults. Often it meant taking maybe 3 or 4 men out and posting them in different places... it was like playing musical chairs with them until they got these faults sorted out throughout the course of the day so work was done on a charter basis, the likes of Post and Telegraph, with stock agents, land agents, catchment boards, engineers, lots of different sorts of things. They used to take Health Department and Correspondence School people to check out children in the Sounds. It was many and varied type of work that was undertaken in those days and the company at that point, I think, was doing something in the order of about 500 hours a year. 

On the 26th of July 1978 ZK-DXD struck a submerged rock and bank while taking off. The pilot, Russell Smith, and four passengers were not seriously injured but Russell "did his back" and was not able to fly for some months. The Cessna experienced minor damage to one float. This was to be the only reported incident Float Air was to experience on its services.

But rocks weren't the only hazards in the Marlborough Sounds. Russell Smith recounted of being 'imprisoned' by porpoises in the Marlborough Express... They were playing around his float plane, just as they might around a boat. They seemed to particularly enjoy it, because those near the plane were calling, and more were coming from miles around. "There were only five initially, but we ended up with several dozen." That was all right while taxiing, but then it came time to take off. At 30 knots, the porpoises were easily keeping up. In fact, they were making a wake in front of the floats, and the plane kept ploughing in. Mr Smith was loath to increase speed, in case the floats ploughed right under, tipping the plane over — or in case he hit a porpoise. But he finally edged his craft up to 40 knots, "and at that speed we just managed to get past them. They were really stretching to keep up. You could see them out the window.

Float Air's second Cessna 206, ZK-DXD, at Picton on 1 November 1980

On the 17th of March 1981 escalating cost increases coupled with a severe downturn in passengers forced Float Air to cease operations. Russell Smith told media that business to the Sounds’ guest houses was down to about one-sixth of the previous year's levels and the numbers of those wanting scenic flights was drastically reduced. Meanwhile, the price of aviation fuel had risen dramatically over the previous three to four years and the addition of a Government tax of 5 per cent had added to company’s woes. Losing the floatplane from the Marlborough Sounds meant the cessation of air ambulance and emergency flights. Doug Macdonald, of Pohuenui in the Pelorus Sound, told the Nelson Evening Mail, "It is a real lifeline to us," Mr Smith saved Mr Macdonald's life about four years ago after an accident in which a boulder hit his head. Mr Macdonald was whisked to Wairau Hospital by amphibian. "My wife was told at the hospital that I would not have survived a boat trip," he said. Picton general practitioner Dr Ron Mills says the loss of Float-Air will be severely noticed. "It is very sad to see it go. It puts the clock back a very long way. If there was some way to keep it viable, I would give it my support," Dr Mills said. Mr Smith is conscious of the gap Float-Air's closing will leave. "I feel as if I am deserting them," he said. 

Jim Anderson and Russell Smith about the time of the closure

Initial attempts to sell Float Air were unsuccessful, but in September 1981 a Christchurch businessman and part time flight instructor, Bruce Fulton, became interested in starting a floatplane business. Bruce negotiated with the Float Air shareholders and bought the name and the assets of Float Air and set about re-establishing the business as Float Air Picton (1981) Ltd. Float Air recommenced operations in mid-October 1981. At the time of purchase ZK-DXD was starting to show signs of wear and the cost of maintenance was starting to become more expensive and so Bruce looked to purchase a new Cessna 206. That new aeroplane was going to be Cessna 206 ZK-EXB.

Jim Anderson's oral history of Float Air records that on the 19th of September 1982 only a matter of weeks before delivery of this new aeroplane, ZK-DXD was tied up on the jetty and a severe wind gust, which Picton is not unknown for, came through and lifted the aeroplane up and the port wing came in contact with the jetty and it crumpled the port wing sort like of into a gull wing almost, and it was severely damaged so it couldn’t be flown at that point. The Cessna agents then came from Dunedin and dismantled ZK-DXD for shipment along with its floats. The floats, of course, had to be changed over to the new aeroplane. It went down to Dunedin by road, where the new one was sitting on its’ wheels. 

Ouch... Look at that wind-gust damaged wing... Cessna 206 ZK-DXD at Picton on 18 September 1992

Bruce went down and ably assisted the changeover of the floats onto the new aircraft, Cessna 206 ZK-EXB. Dalhoff and King engineers weren’t completely familiar with the float operation and when they put the old floats on the new aeroplane they didn’t do a terribly good job of what they call sealing the bulkheads between the floats. Each float had about 7 different compartments in it so that if you ever holed a float, or put a hole in it with a rock or any such thing, the whole float wouldn’t fill full of water, only one bulkhead or one compartment would fill up. You had a little hose stack pipe on each float that you could actually use to pump the floats out. That’s something you checked for every morning on your inspections… Was there any water in your floats?

When Dalhoff and King put the floats on the aircraft they didn’t seal these bulkheads well enough. There was a lot of razamataz in getting the floatplane from the hangar down to the Taieri River and they lowered it to the river with a big crane and Bruce took off out of the river and flew it in one hop from the Taieri right up to Picton. The aircraft had only been here something in the vicinity of 3 weeks when the left hand side of the aircraft, or the port side, had a problem with leaking. Bruce alerted the engineers to this and they said they’d look once it’d done 50 hours when they’d be up to do its first check on the new engine and they would try to remedy any problems they had at that point. 

Cessna 206 ZK-EXB crossing the Taieri River near Dunedin for its launch in the river and delivery flight to Picton. Photo : Otago Daily Times 

The aircraft was only 3 weeks old from brand new, when on the 22nd of November 1982 Bruce looked down on a calm Picton Harbour and saw the horrifying sight of the underside of two floats looking back at him. Horrifying sight because here was this brand new aeroplane that hadn’t even done 50 hours, lying upside down attached to its mooring in the middle of the harbour. It was a pretty sad sight and throughout the course of that day the aircraft was righted with the help of Kenny’s Barging Company who came and assisted, lifted it back up and bought it over to the launching ramp. They were able to drain the water out of it but once an aircraft like that has been under salt water, a lot of the components are all magnesium and so they all start fizzing and of course it wrecks all the electronics and all the wiring and the aircraft is essentially... well it has to be either virtually written off or just bulk stripped and rebuilt. Bruce at that point, alleged that the engineering company were at fault and that they should give him a new aeroplane. They sort of dragged their feet a little bit on the issue but later on they came to the party and the insurance came through which took about 3 months.

Float Air's Cessna 206 ZK-EXB floating at Picton in November 1982...

Ouch - ZK-EXB not floating - being recovered from Picton Harbour. Photo : Marlborough Express

The recovered Cessna 206 ZK-EXB at Picton on 22nd of November 1982

In January 1983, while awaiting the delivery of a new float plane, Float Air took to the air again with a wheeled Cessna. Bruce Fulton told the Marlborough Express, "Having a wheeled aircraft is only a temporary measure, but I had to do something to keep the business going in a small way." The Cessna was leased from Palmerston North and operated from the airstrip at Waikawa Bay. 

In January 1983 a replacement Cessna 206 was ferried from from the United States to New Zealand. O
the 24th of January 1983, after gaining New Zealand certification and having its floats fitted, the new $150,000 aircraft embarked on the two and a half hour flight from Dunedin to Picton. The aircraft was registered ZK-KPM after Bruce Fulton’s partner's first names - Karen Pamela Mary. Within half an hour of its arrival it was earning its keep, but not before some locals had quipped "Don't sink this one."

Cessna 206 ZK-KPM at Picton on 5 May 1984

Unfortunately the quip was quite prophetic. Jim Anderson continues his narrative... Bruce continued to operate ZK-KPM throughout that year. An interesting point is that Bruce didn’t have a very good swimming ability so he was somewhat reluctant to have the aircraft way out in the middle of the harbour, especially on rough days when he had to row back, so he had the mooring of the floatplane moved from out in the middle of the harbour, closer in to the jetty. Bruce saw the opportunity for the Waitohi Stream coming out from under the road by the Edwin Fox Centre, to assist in helping keep the weed growth down on the bottom of the floats. This was Bruce’s idea plus the fact that it was closer to the jetty was a bonus! He had this mooring shifted in a wee bit closer and everything seemed quite good until about October that year, when we had a huge storm in the harbour. 

A beautiful reflective shot of Cessna 206 ZK-KPM at North West Bay in Pelorus Sound

Normally, the mooring system on the floatplane worked very well, it was an interesting concept, in that it worked on a bridle system from the floats back to an eye about 2 metres under the water and when the wind blew the aeroplane just naturally sat into wind and when the wind blew harder, the aeroplane pulled back on the mooring lines on this bridal system and pulled the nose of the aeroplane down. When the nose of the aeroplane came down, it was actually quite a safe position for the aircraft to be in. On the 21st of October 1983 the Waitohi Stream was flowing very strongly, almost in full flood and the aircraft wanted to weathercock into the stream in an almost south westerly direction but the wind was blowing down the harbour at about 70 knots from a northerly direction and it was a fight between the river and the wind which way the aircraft was going to face. At one point the aircraft was facing into this full flooded Waitohi Stream and a wind gust came down the harbour, an easterly strong wind gust and therein lies the tale of another aeroplane going to the bottom. As we all watched the storm in the harbour, we saw this new aeroplane, only a few months old, go upside down. It was recovered and some months later there was another battle with the insurance company.

December 1983 competition came to Picton in the form of Outdoor Aviation's Skyferry operation. As well as the air service from Wellington to Picton's Koromiko airport Outdoor Aviation also operated charter flights to Havelock, Nopera Bay, Elie Bay and Titirangi in the Marlborough Sounds. 

Meanwhile, ZK-KPM was replaced by another Cessna 206, ZK-FHE, which was registered to the company on the 29th of December 1983. While the bulk of the company's business continued to be within the Marlborough Sounds, the company also continued to offer a service to Wellington’s Porirua Harbour that operated on a charter basis. 

The arrival of the new floatplane, Cessna 206 ZK-FHE on 29 December 1983

The Picton Paper reported that January 1984 was a record month for Float-Air Picton. During that time, 732 people flew on the float plane. It meant that pilot Mr Bruce Fulton chalked up the biggest number of flying hours in a month since he started flying out of Picton. "It's very heartening," Mr Fulton told The Picton Paper. When he decided to begin flying again after the accident last year when the float 'plane turned over in the harbour, he did so with some apprehension. The record month, however, "has removed a lot of doubts," he said. "It has given us a good start, and it's happened just when we needed it." A big boost in January came with scenic flights. "We have done more scenic flying than we have ever done before. A lot of local people have come on scenic flights, and a lot have brought their visitors along. "Also, we have had a lot of Wellington trips," Mr Fulton said. Generally, the 'plane has proved on the very good, and there has been a lot of interest 

The replacement for ZK-KPM, Cessna 206 ZK-FHE at Picton on 6 February 1989

Jim continues his narrative - Bruce continued operating it but he was ready to move on. He had the company up for sale in October of 1984 when Gordon and Pam Low arrived from Auckland looking for a new challenge in life. They bought the business from Bruce and commenced operations in 1984 establishing Float Air Picton (1984) Ltd. Gordon, of all the owners who operated the business, had probably the most charmed run in so much as it was largely uneventful in terms of any incidents, sinkings or dramas of any sort. 

Handing over the keys - Gordon Low (left) and Bruce Fulton (right)
Float Air advertising, from 1985 when owned by Gordon and Pam Low

In August 1987, Pete and Sue Anderson along with Rob McPhail, bought Float Air. Pete was a veteran agricultural pilot, started flying, before doing topdressing operations about 1956 in Tiger Moths. He then went overseas to Zimbabwe, where he met Sue, and established a floatplane on Lake Kariba in Zimbabwe. When things started to deteriorate there he went flying floatplanes in Fiji for a short while then came back and worked for Wanganui Aero Work. His business partner Rob McPhail was a helicopter pilot from the Taupo area. 

Cessna 185 ZK-CHK and Float Air's Cessna 206 ZK-FHE at Gore Bay.
ZK-CHK was owned by Cliff Marchant who was one of the founders of another airline that served Picton, Skyferry, the precursor to today's Sounds Air.

Float Air advertising, from 1987 when owned by Pete and Sue Anderson 

Just before Christmas 1987 Float Air formalised its flights to Porirua Harbour and began a twice daily scheduled service, which was known as the “Flying Dolphin” service. Float Air established an office at Porirua and built 2 jetties, one at the south end of the harbour down near the Polytech and one at the north end by the launching ramp along with fuel facilities. Two flights a day were scheduled between Picton and Porirua but during summer as many as five flights a day could be operated. The twice daily 50-minute flight between Picton and Porirua Harbour became the Float Air's main activity. Though scheduled at 50 minutes every flight was different depending on who wanted to be picked or dropped off at various lodges, baches or boats that were moored enroute. 

The first timetable for Float Air's Flying Dolphin Service, effective December 1987

The first scheduled services were operated by the Cessna 206 ZK-FHE but the 206 was not able to meet the growing demand and so, just before Easter in 1988, a De Havilland Canada DHC-2 Beaver, ZK-FPZ, was added to the fleet. This was New Zealand’s first Beaver floatplane and was bought from an Alaskan owner. In April 1988 Rob McPhail told Aviation News, It’s an impressive performer. It’s lighter in the controls, handles rough water and rough air better than the 206… Another advantage the Beaver has over the 206 is that it can operate one way with a full load and be brought back empty but still pay its way on an hourly basis. Because a great deal of the traffic across Cook Strait is one way, especially at holiday times, this affects Float Air considerably. Over the Easter long weekend the two aeroplanes did seven flights a day between them. 

Floatplanes at Porirua - Cessna 206 ZK-DXD, back in the fleet, (above) and DHC Beaver ZK-FPZ (below) on 8 December 1989

Float Air and the Flying Dolphin Service, ca 1988

The early Flying Dolphins... Float Air's Beaver ZK-FPZ and Cessna 206 ZK-FHE

The Porirua jetty with Float Air's Beaver ZK-FPZ and Cessna 206 ZK-FHE 

There was a change of Cessna 206s in December 1989. Cessna 206 ZK-DXD returned to the Float Air fleet early in the month while Cessna 206 ZK-FHE left the fleet later in December. Meanwhile, the Beaver’s ZK-FPZ's service with Float Air was cut short. At 5 pm on the 22nd of March 1990, during a severe storm, a 100 knot wind gust which sent a wall of water over the aircraft. Float Air's Peter Anderson watched helplessly as his Beaver was overturned. It was some twelve hours before the Beaver could be righted and recovered, and the damage and onset of corrosion meant the end for ZK-FPZ. Float Air’s service was able to be maintained by the Cessna 206, though a Sea Bee Air Grumman Goose, ZK-DFC, helped with the extra demand over Easter. A replacement Beaver, ZK-CMU, was sourced from Fieldair who had previously used it as a topdresser and had been in storage for some time. After being refurbished it arrived in Picton in August 1990.

Back in the fleet from Milford Sounds Scenic Flights Cessna 206 ZK-DXD at Picton on 14 August 1990 (above) and repainted at Picton on 4 February 1992 (below)

Jim continues his oral history... At this point, (after the loss of the Beaver), the insurance company baulked at insuring aircraft on a mooring ever again so the decision was made to actually build trailers for the aircraft and have them moored on the hard. The hard stand area was adjacent to the Edwin Fox which had been recently moored was against the wharf, and was sort of in the car park behind there so the aircraft were brought onto trailers at night and backed up and tied down. It was probably a better operation in many respects because we were able to wash them down easily and maintenance was a lot easier in terms of bringing people in to do the maintenance. Over that winter Rob McPhail secured work on helicopter operations.

DHC Beaver ZK-CMU with Flying Dolphin Service titles at Picton on 14 August 1990 (above) and with Float Air Picton titles at Picton on 7 January 1994 (below)

In 1992 Float Air was sold again. The new company, Float Air Picton (1992) Ltd, was a partnership between Garth and Francie Nicholls and Marlborough Helicopters. Garth originated from Seddon and grew up in Marlborough. He undertook his flying training at Marlborough Aero Club and worked for Marlborough Helicopters as a loader driver for some years before moving on to get his commercial and then go agricultural flying. He flew agricultural aircraft on the West Coast and went on to fly skiplanes at Mount Cook then moved on to Hawker Siddeley 748s before returning to Blenheim to buy Float Air along with his old employers, Marlborough Helicopters. Marlborough Helicopters was owned by Colin Bint and John Sinclair as the primary shareholders along with a number of other smaller shareholders. Marlborough Helicopters provided the financial oversight and the maintenance facility and at that point, Gordon Low was recruited back as Chief Pilot to assist with the operation alongside Garth.

In June 1994, a second DHC Beaver, ZK-CCY, was registered to Float Air. Like ZK-CMU it had previously been a topdresser and after refurbishment it arrived in Picton in November 1994.

DHC Beaver ZK-CCY out of the water at Picton on 26 November 1994

Jim continues, Just before this, Garth had stumbled across the idea of providing a realistic way of undertaking maintenance on the aircraft. What had happened prior to this was that engineers had normally packed up their trailers and scaffolding and planks and compressors and all their gear and brought up to 4 engineers at a time from Blenheim to Picton to do the maintenance down on the Marina which, if you got a wet or windy day, wasn’t always that good. Garth had done a little bit of research and came up with the idea of being able to fly the aircraft from Picton out of the water and taking them through to Blenheim and landing them on the grass on their floats. This was something that we all sort of struggled with a little bit and didn’t think could be done but Garth took the opportunity one day and got the boys to wet the grass down at Omaka and flew the Cessna through to Omaka and landed it without any incident slithering on this wet grass. He then decided he’d do the same thing with the Beaver and take that through, but the Beaver was quite a lot bigger and had a lot more weight hanging out the front than the Cessna did however, he eventually took it through there and landed it on the grass again, without incident. The engineers had built a trailer on which they could tow it into the hanger. It was a new way of doing maintenance and the engineers were quite happy because it brought the aircraft right into their maintenance facility. Then came the idea of getting it back off the trailer, back into the air again. Unperturbed, Garth took this task in hand and the aircraft was just flown off the trailer without any incident. The trailer sort of trundled along the runway and stopped in its own time and Garth continued on back to Picton. So it was a new way of undertaking maintenance. This all happened at the end of ’94.

Cessna 206 ZK-DXD at Omaka after a grass landing
And the departure... tow the aircraft to the end of runway, 
Start the engine, roll, and fly off. Photos of Beaver ZK-CMU taken at Omaka

On the 7th of June 1995 was Garth tragically killed while doing topdressing and in July of that year, Garths wife, Francie made the decision, along with the Marlborough Helicopters' directors, to put the business on the market. 

A couple of Jim Anderson's photos, inside and out of Float Air's DHC-2 Beaver ZK-CCY at Picton in 1995

So what did Float Air look like for prospective buyers? The August 1995 issue of Wings gives a good insight into the business at the time. The scheduled service provides 90 percent of the business says part owner John Sinclair, many North Islanders commuting direct to their boats and batches; "It's a niche operation that offers a cheaper and faster direct service"… Jim Anderson, a long-time float plane pilot in the Sounds and chief pilot for the operation following Garth Nicholls accident, commented on the pressures of the job - the operations runs ten hours a day, seven days a week amid the demands of weather and passengers. 'There can be pressure from passengers - sudden weather changes in the Sounds can modify other people's travel plans - having to say no when they cannot see an obvious reason can be difficult," he noted. Management of the company has been excellent over the years, he said, with "absolutely no pressure to go, the decision is yours. Passenger safety and comfort is paramount." Jim began with Russell Smith back in 1980 on the Cessna 206, logging hours part time over the years until going fulltime last Christmas. He commented on the difference between Cessna and de Havilland; the Cessna on floats makes for hard work and. while the Beaver is also underpowered. It's the wing that makes the difference. "The Cessna has to give 10/10ths on takeoff, the Beaver comes off with 70 percent of effort." "It's an easier plane to fly, it's an easier plane to maintain," says Jim - a comment echoed by company principal John Sinclair who noted that the Beaver was cheaper than the C.206 to run as well as having an additional two seats. While the Beaver, due to its rarity, might be more expensive to buy, it was cheaper to maintain and run; the Cessna Caravan formula. "The Cessna 206 required a check every 50 hours, the Beaver every 100 hours. The Cessna was designed for wheels and, after working hard off the water for 7000 hours, was beginning - by comparison - to suffer. The Beaver as a workhorse built for the job was still holding together well after 7000 hours,' commented Jim, "It's basic and it doesn't break."

Float Air's Beaver ZK-CCY in the Sounds

Over the 1994/95 summer the InterIslander Line added the fast ferry, Lynx, to its Cook Strait services between Wellington and Picton. The arrival of the fast ferry had an immediate impact on the Float Air operation and took 40% of Float Air’s business. When the Lynx returned to the run the following year Float Air was forced to downsize and in November 1995 Beaver ZK-CCY was sold and exported to the United States. The introduction of the North by South’s Straitrunner, a second company’s fast ferry, operating from Paramata to Picton, made Float Air’s situation untenable. This new ferry picked up and dropped off passengers in the various Marlborough Sounds’ bays it passed. Float Air’s Francie Nicholls said, “With the costs of operating aircraft today we simply cannot compete with the fast ferries.” 

After over 20 years Float Air Picton ceased operations on the 26th of April 1996. Six casual Porirua staff and three fulltime staff in Picton lost their jobs and the remaining Beaver, ZK-CMU was sold. So ended the story of the Marlborough Sounds' Flying Dolphin.

While Float Air and its Flying Dolphin service ended in 1996 floatplanes have returned to Picton but Float Air remains the only floatplane operator (as opposed to amphibian operators) who operated a regular air service in New Zealand. 


Cessna 206 (normally operated with 5 passengers)

Cessna U206C Super Skywagon
ZK-DRH c/n U2061179

Cessna U206F Stationair  II
ZK-DXD c/n U20602912

Cessna U206G Stationair 6
ZK-KPM c/n U20606210

Cessna U206G Stationair 6 II
ZK-EXB c/n U20606616
ZK-FHE c/n U20605706

De Havilland Canada DHC-2 Beaver (normally operated with 7 passengers)

ZK-CCY c/n 1512
ZK-CMU c/n 1590
ZK-FPZ c/n 717

Lake Buccaneer (normally operated with 3 passengers)

Lake LA4-180 Buccaneer
ZK-DNK c/n 419

Lake LA4-200 Buccaneer
ZK-EDK c/n 469


Jim Anderson (Pilot)
Pete Anderson (Owner - Pilot)
Sue Anderson (Owner - Office)
Valda Aplin (Office)
Garry Berryman (Shareholder)
Colin Bint (Director)
Mick Brannagan (Pilot)
Rebecca Downes (Office)
Bruce Fulton (Owner - Pilot)
Gordon Low (Owner - Pilot)
Pam Low (Owner - Office)
Cherie Marshall (Pilot)
Francie Nicholls (Owner)
Garth Nicholls (Owner - Pilot)
Lee McPhail (Office)                                  
Rob McPhail (Owner - Pilot)
Peter Perano (Pilot)
John Sinclair (Director)
Flora Smith (Owner - Office)
Russell Smith (Owner - Pilot)
Wendy Vinning (Office)

ZK-CCY over the Sounds


  1. A fascinating story of a time gone-by. I passed through Picton in 1994 and remember seeing one of the float-planes in the harbour.

  2. I flew regularily with Peter Anderson on Kariba riding shot gun looking for terrorists

  3. A very comprehensive report on the business my husband, Russell, and I started in 1974. Thank you.