10 April 2022

Sky Travel (NZ) - The Brave New Feeder Operator

In 1967 Rex Aviation (NZ) Ltd, New Zealand's agent for Cessna aircraft, explored the possibility of establishing, what could be described as New Zealand's first true third level airline to serve North Island destinations. In looking for a partner for the enterprise Rex Aviation approached Tauranga-based Adastra Aviation Ltd. Adastra Aviation was primarily an agricultural aviation company specialising in aerial topdressing and spraying but it had previously operated an air service between Tauranga and Auckland while the Tauranga airport was being reconstructed to cater for NAC's Fokker Friendships. The history of Adastra Aviation gives some insight into the early negotiations and the history of Sky Travel (NZ). Adastra Aviation's Garry Touslon entered into talks with Rex Aviation Sales Manager Phil Lightband, the pair envisaging a faster and more direct service from Tauranga to Wellington and other centres such as Rotorua and Taupo which had no scheduled air services at this time. Rex Aviation Ltd's motivation was to sell Cessna aircraft, and to this end suggested the Cessna 402 twin, configured with the maximum number of 10 passenger seats. In turn Adastra Aviation approached well known Tauranga-businessman Bob Owen's Mount Maunganui and Tauranga Stevedoring Co Ltd to invest in the project. Bob Owens throughout the years was always keep to promote transportation links to Tauranga.   

On the 5th and 6th of October 1967 an Air Services Licensing Authority hearing heard an application by Philip Lightband, sales manager for Rex Aviation and a trustee of the yet unformed company, to operate a non-scheduled passenger and freight service and an air charter service connecting Auckland, Tauranga, Hamilton, Taupo, Rotorua, Whakatāne, New Plymouth, Gisborne, Napier, Palmerston North, Masterton, Wellington, Taumarunui and Te Kuiti using two Cessna 402 and two Cessna 185 aircraft.

The hearing was told that a purchase agreement was ready to put for two 10-seat Cessna 402s. The agreement required a 20% deposit with the balance to be paid off over three years. The hearing heard that the Cessna 402s were “economical to run, able to operate from small airfields, require no special fuels or ramps, and will be cleared for IFR operations after approval by the Civil Aviation Authorities.” Initially the National Airways Corporation had thought to object to the proposal but by the time of the hearing it saw this as an opportunity to relinquish unprofitable routes as the airline moved to retire its Douglas DC-3 fleet. With the initial attitude of opposition changed to one of cooperation NAC agreed to relinquish its Hamilton-Gisborne and Wellington-Masterton routes in favour of the new company, while in its turn, Sky Travel (NZ), as the company was eventually named, sought to offer a feeder service to NAC who also agreed to handle bookings for the new company. The unformed company were not able to furnish all the information needed to be granted a licence but at the conclusion of the hearing on the 6th of October the Authority felt the application was in the public interest and an initial oral decision was given enabling the company to place an order for two Cessna 402s.

A pre-take off publicity image of a Sky Travel (NZ)'s Cessna 402... though it never looked like this.

The Adastra Aviation history records, With the granting of the licence Garry Toulson became the point man in furthering Sky Travel's objectives and wrote up the operational manual required by Civil Aviation as well as overseeing the printing of schedules and tickets, the recruitment of staff, advertising, design of uniforms and the tirade of other needs of a new small airline. Bob Owens Company, Mount Maunganui and Tauranga Stevedores Ltd provided the seed capital required to get Sky Travel (N.Z) Ltd started.

Despite objections lodged by the Rotorua, Wellington, Middle Districts, Waikato and Tauranga Aero Clubs a licence was finally granted on the 11th of January 1968. With the wide ranging nature of the objections and agreements the company had made there were a number of restrictions placed on Sky Travel (NZ). The company was granted a licence as follows: 
  • to operate non-scheduled air services throughout the North Island as indicated in the flight schedules below;
  • air charter services for the carriage of passengers AND freight with the Cessna 402s AND 185s from Taumarunui and Te Kuiti;
  • air charter services for the carriage of passengers ONLY with the Cessna 402s ONLY from Rotorua, Whakatane, Taupo and Palmerston North
  • air charter services for the carriage of passengers ONLY with the Cessna 402s AND 185s from Auckland, Tauranga, Hamilton, New Plymouth, Gisborne, Napier, Masterton and Wellington.
  • Charter operations to and from Wellington were restricted to those booked by overseas tour companies or their local agents.
  • The company was not permitted to base an aircraft at Palmerston North.
  • The company’s charters from Rotorua and Whakatane could only be for other than local residents.
  • The Auckland-Tauranga service was restricted to one return service six days a week, leaving Tauranga no later than 7.00am and Auckland no later than 8.00am.  
However, the problems were not all overcome as the Adastra Aviation history notes: A problem arose when Cessna refused to allow the aircraft to be released to the Sky Travel pilots, as the offer of financing that Rex Aviation had claimed to be available from Cessna for the aircraft was refused. Garry Toulson and Bob Owens very quickly resolved to obtain New Zealand financing instead of from the United States in view of the uncertainty of future exchange rates. Garry flew to Wellington where he visited Wellington finance houses who said that while Bob Owens and Adastra Aviation were credit worthy, Rex Aviation were not, a view that must have also been held by Cessna Aircraft Corporation of their own New Zealand agent. Without the consent of fellow directors Bob Owens and Garry Toulson, Phil Lightband arranged and signed for US finance at inferior terms to that previously been claimed to be available from Cessna financing, and duly reported that the delivery flight had commenced to New Zealand.

On the 16th of January 1968, after being delayed by financial storms and meterological blizzards, the two $90,000 Cessna 402 aircraft departed Wichita in Kansas for their ferry flight from the USA using their New Zealand registrations. Phil Lightband  and Gene Steffen (from the Cessna factory) flew ZK-CSX and Bill Smillie and Gary  Wrathall flew ZK-CSZ.

A couple of days after their departure the Wichita Eagle carried a story about the planned trans-Pacific flight reporting that ferry tanks for the new 402s were installed here by Floair Inc., boosting fuel capacity from 100 gallons to 465 gallons for the transoceanic crossing. For Sky Travel pilots Bill Smillie and Gary Wrathill, it was to be their first trans-oceanic ferry flight. The article also reported, much to the amusement of the ferry pilots, that at night, the 402s will be converted over to cargo aircraft and used for transportation of air freight. "Or," quipped Wrathill, "we're thinking of a profitable sideline by installing 2,000 gallon stainless steel tanks and turning them into beer tankers." Such a venture just might work in a nation in which the annual per capita consumption of beer is 221 gallons and where tap beer is buried in 12,000 gallon storage tanks much the same as gasoline is in the United States.

The first hop from Wichita, on the 16th, was to Las Vegas with a flight time of 6 hours and 20 minutes. The following day the two aircraft flew a shorter hop of 2 hours 55 minutes to Oakland (near San Francisco). Strong headwinds delayed the departure to Honolulu until the 22nd with the longest leg taking some 12 hours 35 minutes. On the 25th the aircraft flew to Tarawa in what is now known as Kiribati but them was part of the Gilbert and Ellice Islands. This leg took 11 hours and 40 minutes. With the two long legs completed the aircraft flew to Nadi on the 26th, taking 6 hours and 40 minutes and to Auckland on the 27th taking 7 hours. After clearing customs the two aircraft flew the 35 minute hop home to Tauranga. Bill Smillie told me that the Nadi-Auckland-Tauranga flight on the 27th of January was flown in loose formation, in company with ZK-CSX which carried a photographer. He took a few great air to air shots of CSZ  against cumulus cloud on the Oceanic sector. Sadly I cannot recall his name but saw a really good one published in the Bay of Plenty Times. I did try them for a print or details, but apparently a fire at the paper years back destroyed any chance of success from that period. 

With the than later than expected arrival of the aircraft attention then turned to readying them and their pilots for the commencement of the air service. In his memoir Approaching that Final Approach, Jim Bergman recounts how he was given a 30 minute checkout/conversion/type rating with Phil Lightband in brand new Cessna 402 ZK-CSZ at Tauranga Airport, a bit different from what is required in today’s over-regulated aviation. Initially it was proposed that the 402s were to be flown single-pilot, but two of our pilots, both ex-air force, failed a CAD route and training check. The company was thus restricted to a two-pilot operation. The impact of this and the airline not being granted for single-pilot IFR operations meant reduced the maximum number of passengers that could be carried from 8 to 7 and doubling the pilot-costs. 

Flights were originally scheduled start on the 5th of February but the with Cessna 402s only being in the country a matter of days the start-up was delayed until the 19th of February 1968. 

Waikato Times, 17 February 1968 

Jim Bergman recounts his part of the Sky Travel’s first day of operations, On 19 February 1968 in Cessna 402 CSZ, with co-pilot Fred Hastings I flew Tauranga–Whakatane–Rotorua–Taupo–Palmerston North–Masterton–Wellington in 2hr 30min with 30min IFR. The return after an hour’s stopover was Wellington–Masterton–Palmerston North–Taupo–Rotorua–Whakatane–Tauranga in 2hr 20min with an hour on the dials. Next day with the same co-pilot we flew Tauranga–Whakatane–Rotorua–Napier–Masterton–Wellington and return the same route. The flying time was 6hr with 2hr 20min on instruments. 

Meanwhile, back on the first day of operationsBill Smillie and Bill Griffiths flew the final sectors for CSZ when Jim Bergman and Fred Hastings duty had ended, namely Tauranga–Hamilton–Gisborne–Hamilton–Tauranga. Bill writes, You will see from the timetables you have that the schedule was very tight each day and I have to say, optimistic to boot. VFR conditions and the right runway being in use were the only way apart from the lunch break in Wellington to regain the schedule times, or else a gain from overflying any enroute destinations. My logbook shows the final sector to Tauranga was logged as night time, so I guess we weren’t on time at the end of that day.

Sky Travel (NZ) Cessna 402s at Tauranga on the opening day. Photograph by Renwood Studios of Tauranga in White's Aviation, March 1968

The Waikato Times reported on the inaugural service to Hamilton which joined the North Island grid of the new "mini" airline service, Sky Travel New Zealand Ltd, when one of the company's new Cessna 402s completed its inaugural flight from Gisborne to Hamilton. Piloted by Captain I. McPherson, and Co-Pilot G. Steffen, the twin engine eight-seater aircraft landed at the Hamilton airport shortly before midday after a smooth flight of just over an hour... The eight pilots in the company all have extensive post-war Air Force and overseas airline flying experience and are all of airline captain rank. The Cessna 402s are specially developed models designed for small, fast passenger service with comfortable seating capacity of eight and adequate passenger observation windows. The planes cruise at a little over 200 m.p.h. and have a maximum speed of 260 m.p.h. They are capable of flying up to 20,000 feet but because they are not pressurised they usually cruise at about 7000 feet. They have a maximum range of about 700 miles and carry a payload of 2000 lbs. Sky Travel has several smaller aircraft, including a six-seater Apache, which will be used if one of the Cessnas is out of commission.

In the same edition of the Waikato Times, staff reporter, gave A Female View of an Aircraft, which was the article's title. They sent me to write a story last week on an aircraft's first flight over Hamilton and it was my first flight too — the first I'd ever had. So what could I tell when I came back? "It was a pretty blue and white one with lovely chocolate brown carpet and upholstery inside," was my first burst of information. Male eyes narrowed with disdain — executives raised eyebrows. What about performance? "I held my stomach and clenched my fists at take-off and grabbed my middle portion several times to ease the sensation that it was about to take off on its own." Glares were deeper with this outburst of girlish description. Such was the excitement of the experience that I forgot that I was a journalist there to assess a number of things." What was the aircraft's attraction to passengers — how was its performance — things like that. Even when the pilot gave facts over the inter-communication system I was too fascinated by the sight of land, lake and river below to take any notice. My note book and pencil sat on my lap. But I can tell you that flying's wonderful as a sensation and as a means of transport and that's really what most of us want to know, isn't it? The aircraft will create a new link in a pleasant way with the three East Coast cities of Tauranga, Gisborne and Napier. And it will run six days each week carrying nine passengers at a maximum on each trip. It's assured of at least one passenger in the future — me. I'm looking forward to my second flight and particularly to cutting out the almost day-long trip that road travel involves when I visit relatives in Hawke's Bay.

The operation saw one aircraft based at New Plymouth and one in Tauranga. The first services from Tauranga were flown in ZK-CSZ and the first services from New Plymouth in ZK-CSX. The schedule was busy with up to 18 sectors being flown a day for the Tauranga-based 402. 

The Advance Schedule gave a clear indication of the busy day for the two Cessna 402s. The Tauranga-Whakatane, Whakatane-Rotorua, Rotorua-Taupo, Palmerston North-Masterton, Masterton-Wellington, Tauranga-Hamilton and Rotorua-Tauranga sectors were all less than 50 nautical miles.

At Masterton - ZK-CSX (above) and ZK-CSZ (below)

Timetable Number 1 - effective 19 February 1968

The Adastra Aviation history records that due to the skill of the pilots employed, only a very small number of scheduled flights had to be cancelled on account of maintenance or no passengers having booked. The only maintenance glitch occurred when an engineer at New Plymouth over tightened a slip ring through which an engine exhaust passed. In flight this prevented the correct heat expansion and movement of the pipe, which eventually broke off near the cylinder heads of the offending engine. With great skill the pilots shut down the engine to avoid the risk of fire, and made a successful single engine IFR approach through cloud and landed at Hamilton Airport. Most of the services were flown by the Cessna 402s but at times Adastra Aviation’s Cessna 185 ZK-CKU was also used on scheduled flights.

Adastra Aviation's Cessna 185 operating at Sky Travel (NZ) service at Masterton

On the 9th of March 1968 the Rotorua Post reported that some of Sky Travel’s services "have been curtailed because only a limited number of pilots were rated to fly without another pilot in airline’s Cessna 402 aircraft." The same article reported that passenger loadings, particularly on the southern services, were good. In a similar positive vein, on the 25th of March 1985, the Waikato Times reported that the company's first month of operations had been "quite encouraging and up to expectations," the firm's director of administration, Mr R. G. Toulson, said. Sky Travel began regular scheduled flights between 12 North Island airports on February 19. Mr Toulson said the increasing number of passengers and the regular clientele starting to use the service augured well for the future. The Tauranga-Auckland, Hamilton-Gisborne, Hamilton-Napier and Masterton-Wellington flights had been best patronised during the first month, Mr Toulson said, and there had also been a demand for charter services.

Two days later, however, the New Plymouth-based aircraft schedules were dramatically curtailed. The new schedule was New Plymouth-Rotorua-Tauranga-Hamilton-Gisborne-Hamilton-Napier-Hamilton, and then positioning Hamilton-New Plymouth at the end of each day. This meant the curtailing of the Napier-Taupo-Napier, and Hamilton-Tauranga-Rotorua-New Plymouth sectors. The positioning flight from Hamilton to New Plymouth was flown empty as Golden Coast Airlines' Aero Commander flew the same route two hours earlier with an average load of two passengers.  

On the 17th of April it was reported that the Mt Maunganui and Tauranga Stevedores Ltd had withdrawn from the partnership and that company officials were in Australia discussing a shareholding in the airline with Hancock Bros Pty Ltd of Brisbane. A few days before the airline had issued employment termination notices to its air crew. Bill Smillie writes, On a personal note I enjoyed my time with Sky Travel, but with the looming uncertainties showing and a chance of a DC 3 seat on the Department of Civil Aviation’s  Calibration Flight. I  left  the company early April in 1968 and that kept air flowing under my wings for the next 20+ plus years.

Meanwhile newspaper coverage also reported that the Minister of Civil Aviation was open to the possibility of Sky Travel (NZ) taking over NAC's Northland services to Whangarei, Kaikohe and Kaitaia with the possibility of new services to Kerikeri and Dargaville. The following day the chairman of the National Airways Corporation Board, Mr A F Gilkison, “unequivocally and emphatically” denied that N.A.C. would allow a private airline to take over its Northland air services. Mr Gilkison said that that he was authorised by the Minister of Civil Aviation (Mr Gordon) to deny also that the Minister was favourable to Sky Travel (N.Z.), Ltd, taking over the Northland routes. There was no truth in any part of the story. Mr Gilkison said that if Sky Travel applied to the Air Services Licensing Authority for a licence to fly into Northland, N.A.C. would strenuously oppose the application. 

On the 24th of April Messers Toulson and Clegg of Sky Travel met the Minister of Civil Aviation, Mr J B Gordon, to discuss Sky Travel’s position and the possibility of continuing operations. The Minister was advised that Hancock Bros Pty Ltd of Brisbane was interested in providing capital to the company subject to mail contacts being obtained and viable tertiary routes being transferred from NAC to Sky Travel.  Another major issue for Sky Travel was the public perception of smaller aircraft. Although Sky Travel was operating a daily service between Hamilton and Gisborne the passengers carried were less than on NAC's thrice weekly DC-3 service it had replaced. Another issue was operations from centres and routes with low traffic potential and with a limited growth rate. Following the meeting with the Minister he told a Press conference "We have had exploratory talks. There are some very delicate negotiations." The "delicate negotiations" did not necessarily involve the Government. Asked during his Press conference if Sky Travel would be allowed to operate in Northland, Mr Gordon said: "N.A.C. are holding the licences and N.A.C. are prepared to serve the area."

Following up on the meeting the company wrote to the Minister asking him to consider allowing Sky Travel to operate an evening Tauranga-Auckland return service, and a Gisborne-Napier service to consolidate the Hamilton-Gisborne and Hamilton-Napier routes. It also asked for the ability to overfly Masterton on the Auckland-Tauranga-Hamilton-Napier-Masterton-Wellington route and the opportunity to investigate operating other North Island routes either under contract to NAC or that non-viable routes that NAC would relinquish. The company also sought additional concessions in regards to its relationship with NAC. The company also sought consideration of fares being the same as NAC as opposed to being 10% more expensive and the possibility of an air mail contract. Again these proposals indicate the difficulties the airline faced of lean routes with strange routings and the impossibility of competing against NAC. None of these considerations were accepted. None of these concessions were granted, though the company was given approval to cease serving Palmerston North and Taupo.

At Wellington - ZK-CSZ with ZK-CSX behind

From the 29th of April both aircraft were based in Tauranga, a move that was seen as essential to the company’s economics.  The new schedule saw the morning flight out of New Plymouth and the evening return service replaced by an early afternoon flight from Tauranga and Rotorua with connecting flights to other centres. In announcing the cuts in the NZ Herald, the company's director of administration Mr R G Toulson said, "We do have one or two people booked on flights until May 20 and we will be honouring these. We will not be letting any people down." This gave a good indication of the poor loadings the company was achieving. On the 6th of May 1968 lack of patronage forced Sky Travel (NZ) to suspend its services from New Plymouth

Despite these difficulties the airline still thought they could stand on their feet without direct Government handouts or from NAC. Sky Travel did, however, seek from the Minister of Civil Aviation, Mr J B Gordon, consideration of allowing them to operate an evening Tauranga - Auckland service and a Napier - Gisborne service linking to their Gisborne - Hamilton flights. They also sought permission to overfly Masterson on the Auckland - Tauranga - Hamilton - Napier - Masterton - Wellington flights and instead operate a Wellington - Masterton shuttle. 

Further changes occurred with the introduction of a new timetable on the 21st of May 1968. This saw one aircraft operating Tauranga - Hamilton - Gisborne - Hamilton - Napier - Hamilton - Tauranga - Rotorua - New Plymouth - Rotorua - Tauranga - Hamilton - Gisborne - Hamilton - Tauranga. This allowed same day return travel between Tauranga/Hamilton and Gisborne. The other aircraft operated Tauranga - Auckland - Tauranga - Whakatane - Rotorua - Napier - Masterton - Wellington - Masterton - Napier - Rotorua - Whakatane - Tauranga. The company’s desire to operate an evening Tauranga - Auckland - Tauranga service was not approved. At the same time Taupo and Palmerston North were cut from Sky Travel (NZ)'s network.

Sky Travel was facing mounting weekly losses and stopped operating one Cessna 402 from the 7th of June due to the airline receiving a repossession order after defaulting on the first instalment. Sky Travel officials met the Minister of Civil Aviation on the same day to discuss a future financial structure of the company. The Waikato Times reported that The company's director of administration, Mr R. G. Coulson, said earlier this week that the company wanted to discuss the airline's future and its services with the Minister. Through financial difficulties it has recently been forced to drop its Gisborne - Taupo - Napier service. After the meeting the Minister said he had been brought up to date on the company's developments. "I would not use the word problems," he said.

In the background there were a number of other issues that Sky Travel (NZ) had been battling. NAC suddenly withdrew free use of their terminal facilities and gave notice of payments required for the use of these facilities that was financially prohibitive for Sky Travel. Also a barge that contained as part of its cargo Cessna 402 spares recommended by Cessna and on consignment to Sky Travel beached on the banks of the Mississippi River as the result of a river collision, and Cessna would not supply replacement stock until the Insurer had paid them for the lost shipment, which through no fault of Sky Travel became a long and protracted matter. 

There was also a problem with the landing time at Taupo Airport, which before this service was dropped had to be altered to avoid a twilight landing or take off from this unlit runway. The Air Service Licensing Authority had called for a hearing into the matter which was not to be heard until into the winter, by which time the aircraft if operating to the schedule would be operating after Twilight. Civil Aviation threatened the airline with closure if operations were carried out after twilight, meaning the airline was caught between the Licensing Authority and Civil Aviation. 

It was also found that the Cessna 402 weight and balance limits were exceeded if the aircraft had all passenger seats filled, and baggage was stowed in the area behind the back seat. The remedy was to place a weight in the small space baggage locker in the nose of the aircraft. In this condition the maximum all up weight of the aircraft could easily be exceeded with full fuel tanks, which meant either off loading baggage, and/or passengers in the rear seats. To avoid these circumstances it was necessary when flights were to be commenced with full fuel tanks not to sell and reserve the rear two seats. This as could be expected was a major blow to revenue, coupled with the new charges required by NAC for the use of their facilities, and the increasing costs of payments to service the loan in the US with increasing exchange rates.             
The monthly profit and loss report presented to the other Directors by Garry Toulson showed an increasing accumulation of operational losses, and the financial future looked bleak for the company.

With one Cessna 402 repossessed services were maintained with the other 402 and the Cessna 185. On the 21st of June a proposition was made to the Government whereby the Cessna 402s would be sold and that Sky Travel would purchase two RNZAF de Havilland Devons. The company was told that there were no surplus Devons and the cost of making them ready for civilian service would be substantial. 

Later that day, following a meeting of creditors, the decision was made to cease the non-scheduled air service and to only operate the air charter and air taxi services. "Sky Travel is still an operating company and intends to continue on a charter basis using both Cessna 402s and a Cessna 185," administrations director, Mr R. G. Toulson was reported as saying in the Waikato Times. "We are investigating the possible resumption of the scheduled services in every way we can. We believe there are good prospects for the company, particularly later in the year when the economy picks up." He said the project had been mooted before de-valuation and before the downturn in the economy —factors which the company could not contend with before becoming established. The price of the two Cessna 402s, originally $91,000 each, had jumped to $109,000 after devaluation. Mr Toulson said it was felt the public still needed an airline service like that provided by Sky Travel. Some routes had provided very high load factors but these had been offset by a lack of patronage on others.

Awaiting sale, Cessna 402 ZK-CSX at Ardmore on 6 July 1968...

and ZK-CSZ at Ardmore on 4 August 1968

Sky Travel (NZ) continued to operate charter services using Adastra Aviation's Cessna 185 ZK-CKU until the 23rd of January, the final demise being brought about by the company breaching their licence.

Sky Travel (NZ)'s airline service lasted 110 days. It was a brave attempt at starting what could perhaps be described as New Zealand's first real attempt at a third level airline. However, it was thwarted by an unsuitable aircraft type, the delays in obtaining the certification to operate single pilot IFR operations, an impossible and impractical timetable operated over lean routes and the reluctance of passengers to fly on small aircraft.

People included :

Jim Bergman (pilot)
Ian Brausch (pilot)
Bill Griffiths (pilot)
Fred Hastings (chief pilot)
Miles King (director)
Phil Lightband (training pilot)
Ian MacPherson (pilot)
John Phillips (pilot)
Bob Owens (director)
Bill Smillie (pilot)
Gene Steffen (pilot)
R G Toulson (director of administration)
Garry Wrathall (pilot)

Aircraft :

ZK-CSX Cessna 402 c/n 402-0168
ZK-CSZ Cessna 402 c/n 402-0169
ZK-CKU Cessna 185D Skywagon c/n 185-0931 

References :

Hugh Whitehead, Journal of the AHSNZ, April 1975
The archives of Bruce Gavin, David Phillips and Bill Smillie 

1 comment:

  1. Another great post Steve, sometimes I feel worn out after reading these, the effort you put in is amazing. Cheers M