11 October 2020

From Aero Club to Airline - Mercury Airlines

The Mercury Bay Aero Club’s beginnings can be traced back to the 30th of April 1948 when a number of interested men signed their names to a piece of paper expressing a desire to become members of an aero club in Mercury Bay. What instigated the interest initially was when Mr L Russell and Mr H Rees discovered the government had drawn up a proposal for an airfield in Whitianga during World War II. The thinking at the time was that by having its own airfield, Whitianga would gain better access to the outside world as well as creating an opportunity for those locals wanting to learn to fly. 

On 1 October 1948, the Mercury Bay Aero Club became an incorporated society and not long after the first organised, albeit unofficial, flying day took place. Two Tiger Moths were flown from Auckland and landed on Buffalo Beach, where local aviation enthusiasts were taken for joyrides around the Bay. When the tide came in, the planes were pulled up onto Albert Street and parked in a paddock behind what was then the home of the Mercury Bay Bowling Club.

In the early 1950’s, Norman (Boy) Wells expressed an interest in forming an aerial topdressing strip on his Whitianga farm at the northern end of Racecourse Road. The aero club, keen to get something happening, agreed to form the airstrip on Boy’s farm for an agreed sum of 450 pounds, which was to become the start of the club’s aircraft fund. Soon to follow was the start of another fund by way of things such as debentures and scrap metal drives to build a hangar on the land. A temporary strip licence for dual flight training using an Auster aircraft based in Thames was also sought from and approved by the Civil Aviation Authority.

On 26 June 1955, the Mercury Bay Aero Club’s first official flying day took place when 30 club members were taken for dual flight training by Mr B H Packer, an ex-Air Force instructor, who had been duly elected as club instructor. With the runway complete and a hangar under construction, an aircraft of their own was the next priority for club members. They finally settled on a Tiger Moth purchased from the Waikato Aero Club for the sum of 525 pounds.

After the Midland Air Services link to the Coromandel ended members of the Mercury Bay Aero Club, and the local community also believed the basing of an air service at Whitianga was essential. The club had started operations with de Havilland DH82A Tiger Moth ZK-BFH registered to the Mercury Bay Aero Club on the 31st of December 1956. With a growing membership and interest the Tiger Moth was replaced in May 1960 when the Club acquired a Piper PA-18-95 Super Cub, ZK-BWG. This in turn was replaced by a more powerful Piper PA-18A-150 Super Cub, ZK-BRX in 1961.

In mid-1963, following the closure of Midland Air Services, the Mercury Bay Aero Club applied for its own Air Transport Licence. However, they were not the only one applying for a licence and in the end what became Peninsula Air Travel was given rights for non-scheduled and air charter services, with the proviso that it base at least one aircraft at Whitianga, and that the Mercury Bay Aero Club be the first party approached should an additional or replacement aircraft be required. The Mercury Bay Aero Club won rights for scenic flights and joyriding from Whitianga, and if it had the consent of the new airline, air charter services from there also.  Meanwhile the Club had ordered a new Cessna 172D aircraft from the Cessna sales agents, Rural Aviation Ltd in New Plymouth and Cessna 172D ZK-CDJ was registered to the Club on the 5th of December 1963.

The Mercury Bay Aero Club's Cessna 172 ZK-CDJ

Relationships between the two operators soured quickly. In March 1964, the Aero Club complained to the Licensing Authority that Peninsula was using Cessna 172 aircraft hired from Executive Air Travel Ltd (a subsidiary of the Auckland Flying School Ltd), to fly passengers into Whitianga on its behalf. Peninsula in turn accused the Aero Club of operating in quasi-commercial opposition by allowing members to hire the club's Cessna for friends to fly to other centres, even if the hirer did not actually fly in the aircraft.

Peninsula Air Travel was experiencing financial problems and withdrew their hired Cessna 205 from Whitianga, in breach of their licence. In the end the Air Services Licensing Authority resolved the issue stating in its decision, "This Authority is not generally favourably disposed to an aero club being in possession of a commercial licence" but nonetheless, granting the Mercury Bay Aero Club non-scheduled rights for services between Whitianga, Thames, Ardmore and Whenuapai, and air charter rights from Whitianga, with one Cessna 172 aircraft and one additional aircraft of similar capacity.

The Mercury Bay Aero Club flew its first service, presumably in the Cessna 172 ZK-CDJ, on the morning of 9 November 1964. Geoff Norman flew three passengers to Whenuapai and returned with one from there and also picked up another at Ardmore. To provide backup, the club took delivery of a French built Morane­-Saulnier MS.880B Rallye ZK-CDB just eleven days later. The Rallye was the only aircraft of its type used on “airline” service in New Zealand. The Piper Super Cub, ZK-BRX, was sold in January 1965.

The Mercury Bay Aero Club's MS Rallye ZK-CDB. I don't know the location. Can you help?

From just after Christmas 1964 until late January, the club flew the Auckland Star and 8 O'clock Saturday evening sports paper from Auckland to Whitianga, with airdrops at Coromandel, Colville, Whangapoua, Hahei and Tairua. They also flew the Waikato Times from Hamilton with a landing at Thames and drops at Coromandel and Hahei, before arriving at Whitianga. All drops were out the window and no wing racks were used. Norman tried the Rallye several times on the paper drops but found it unsafe because of the need to slide the canopy open to eject the papers. This destroyed the airflow at very critical flight times. The Rallye was relegated to club flying, training, and was utilised on the Auckland service.

The Aero Club was keen to purchase their own airfield and on the 4th of May 1965 a proposal was put forward to obtain 200 acres of land owned by Mr R Rohrlach. The price was £15,000. After arranging suitable finance, a resolution was eventually passed at a meeting on the 16th of February 1966 that the Mercury Bay Aero Club should take the bold step to purchase the land. The Club constructed two long airstrips and a 5000 square foot hangar, mostly with volunteer labour and the current airport was opened in November 1968.

By 1966 Owen Whiting was employed as part-time commercial pilot because of the increasing workload. Another Piper Super Cub, ZK-BKW, was on the line at the Club from January 1967 to October 1968. The Rallye was sold in June 1968 being replaced in the training role by AESL Airtourer 115 ZK-CWD. In December 1968 Cessna 172 ZK-CXD was added to the fleet.

The Mercury Bay's Aero Club Victa Airtourer ZK-CWD.

After the sale of the Rallye the Mercury Bay Aero Club's two Cessna 172s ZK-CDJ and ZK-CXD aircraft were the mainstay for operating the twice-daily air service from Whitianga to Auckland. However, with growing numbers using the air service the Club looked for a larger aircraft.

The Mercury Bay Aero Club's Cessna 172 ZK-CXD

Selected was a three-engined de Havilland Australia DHA.3 Drover ZK-DDD which was purchased in Australia in 1970 and flown to New Zealand by Geoff Norman. From the introduction of the Drover on 14 November 1970 the airline service was known as 'Mercury Airlines.'

Mercury Airlines' DHA-3 Drover, ZK-DDD, at Whitianga on 11 October 1971

Mercury Airlines' DHA-3 Drover, ZK-DDD, at Whitianga on 19 March 1973

The Club’s first Cessna 172, ZK-CDJ, was sold in February 1971. On the 3rd of February 1973 the Club’s Airtourer ZK-CWD was destroyed at Whangamata when it crashed during a cross country flight due to fuel exhaustion.

In August 1975 the Drover was replaced by Cessna 207 Skywagon ZK-DXT and this became Mercury Airlines’ flagship. Supporting the 207 over the next 10 years were a number of Cessna 172 Skyhawks being added to the fleet. ZK-DRT joined the fleet in June 1977, replacing Cessna 172 ZK-CXD. ZK-EJY was on the line from January 1978 to September 1980. ZK-DRT was sold in April 1981 and replaced by ZK-JAZ.

Mercury Airlines' Cessna 172 ZK-EJY at Hokitika in April 1980

By 1986 the Aero Club was looking to divest itself of the Mercury Airlines’ air charter business and the air service to Auckland. To that end Air Services Whitianga Ltd was established which traded as Air Coromandel. The new company took Cessna 207 ZK-DXT and Cessna 172 ZK-JAZ and began operations on the 1st of November 1986.

This marked the end of the Mercury Bay Aero Club’s 22 year operation of the Whitianga to Auckland air service.

Aircraft Operated

AESL Airtourer 115
ZK-CWD - c/n 511

De Havilland DH.82A Tiger Moth
ZK-BFH - c/n 83343

Cessna 172D
ZK-CDJ - c/n 17250492

Cessna 172I
ZK-CXD - c/n 17256521

Cessna 172M Skyhawk II
ZK-DRT - c/n 17263287

Cessna 172N Skyhawk 
ZK-EJU - c/n 17269288
ZK-EJY - c/n 17269393
ZK-JAZ - c/n 17270686

Cessna 207 Skywagon
ZK-DXT - c/n 20700296

De Havilland Australia DHA.3 Drover Mk.3A
ZK-DDD - c/n 5019

Morane Saulnier MS880B Rallye Club
ZK-CDB - c/n 5302

Piper PA-18-95 Super Cub
ZK-BKW - c/n 18-4673
ZK-BWG - c/n 18-5591

Piper PA-18A-150 Super Cub
ZK-BRX - c/n 18-5686


  1. You are to be congratulated. The quality of your research and presentation is excellent. A very fine account of a very busy little airline centred on the community involvement of many local people and the local aero club. Many thanks.

  2. We lived in Whitianga in the 1960's and flew many times in ZK-CDJ with Geoff Norman and also Owen Whiting. Later on in the 70's I had a couple of trips in the Drover and later on saw it at Whenuapai Air Force base where it was being used for skydiving. Great article.

    1. Thanks for sharing Robert... Flying in the Drover... Wow!

  3. Hi, I am very impressed with the level of detail your site. Is it possible to use some on my site? (with accreditation). Thanks David