12 September 2021

Union Airways' Gisborne Air Service

Union Airways Limited took over East Coast Airways Limited on 30 June 1938, acquiring its DH84 Dragons and staff.  Its DH86 Express' would replace the Dragons on most of East Coast’s main routes. On the 1st of July, de Havilland Express ZK-AEH, Korimako, under Commander T W White (the company by then had introduced the nautical rank) with Second Officer L D Loasby flew the first Gisborne-Napier-Palmerston North service.  Commander White with Second Officer R M Stewart flew the return sectors in ZK-AEG, Karoro. All were former East Coast Airways' pilots. 

Poverty Bay Herald, 1 July 1938

While these were the first official Union Airways flights the DH86 Expresses has been operating the air service to Gisborne on behalf of East Coast Airways since the 28th of May 1938. Earlier there had been a massive flooding event that closed the Napier-Gisborne road for some months. This had placed extra demand on East Coast Airways' de Havilland Dragons meaning they both had to go on their half-yearly overhaul at the same time.  

On the 1st of July 1938 the Poverty Bay Herald reported on the interim service operated by Union Airways and detailed Gisborne's new airliner... During the past month, Union Airways has been operating between Palmerston North and Gisborne one of its D.H. 86 planes, and in that period has carried 1203 passengers, 5694lb. of freight, and 2804lb. of mail. The mileage for the month has totalled 19,825, and of the 180 trips scheduled, every one has been completed. On the Palmerston North-Gisborne service. Union Airways proposes to continue the use of one of its D.H. airliners, with a load capacity of 10 to 12 passengers, with a crew of two pilots, and provision for baggage; the total permissible load being 4065lb. The machines have a top speed of 173 miles per hour, and cruise at 145 miles an hour, 'with a range of 500 miles without refuelling.

In normal operation the D.H. 86 has a ceiling of 17,100 ft.; flying with one engine stopped, it can climb to 13,500 ft., and with two of its four engines out of action, it can still maintain an altitude of 4500 ft. If both engines on one side stop, the plane can make 2500 ft„ a safety margin sufficient for normal requirements on the Gisborne-Palmerston North route. The cabin of the airliner is enclosed warmed, and automatically ventilated. and has comfortable individual seating The machine is fitted with wireless telephone and. telegraph equipment.

On 22 October Union Airways replaced the existing DH86 Express services between Palmerston North and Dunedin with a Lockheed Electra flight which ran from Wellington to Dunedin via Christchurch.  The DH86 was used to open a new Gisborne-Christchurch service via Palmerston North.

A couple of shots of de Havilland DH.86 Express ZK-AEG Karoro. Taken at Palmerston North

Any idea where this is taken?

Auckland wanted connections to the North Island’s east coast so on 20 March 1939 Union Airways commenced an Auckland (operated from Mangere) to Gisborne service with ZK-AEH Korimako under Commander G R White and Second Officer Brownjohn flying via Tauranga and Opotiki (using the racecourse as a landing ground) to Gisborne’s Darton Field. The return service was flown the following day.

A week earlier, on the 11th of March 1939, the Poverty Bay Herald outlined the new air link. Commencing on Monday, March 20, Union Airways, Limited, Will conduct a tri-weekly service between Gisborne and Auckland, initiating what it is hoped will become, after a few weeks, a daily service between the Queen City and the leading provincial town on the East Coast. The first scheduled trip will be made by one of the De Havilland 86 machines, which pioneered the Auckland-Dunedin service, on March 20 from Auckland. Thereafter, until traffic reaches a volume sufficient to justify the operation of a daily service, planes will leave Auckland for Gisborne, via Tauranga and Opotiki,' on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays; and departures from Gisborne will be made on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays. Initial Timetable

Service considerations and the convenience of passengers have been consulted in the compilation of the schedule for this tri-weekly service, which has been fixed as follows: — Leave Auckland 8.10 a.m.; arrive Tauranga 9 a.m. Leave Tauranga 9.10 a.m.; arrive Opotiki 9.50. a.m. Leave Opotiki 10 a.m.; arrive Gisborne 10.40 a.m. Leave Gisborne 7.30 a.m.; arrive Opotiki 8.10 a.m. Leave Opotiki 8.20 a.m.: arrive Tauranga 9 a.m. Leave Tauranga 9.10 a.m., arrive Auckland 10 a.m.

The fares fixed by the company include a Gisborne-Auckland fare of £4. From Gisborne to Opotiki the fare will be 27s 6d, and from Opotiki to Tauranga a similar charge will be involved. The Gisborne-Tauranga fare will be £2 15s.

At each aerodrome the company will tender the same surface-transport facilities as are available on the longer-established runs, including free carriage of passengers between the depots and the aerodromes. At Tauranga a short launch trip will be included in the service to passengers. 

Time in Auckland 
The Auckland aerodrome is an hour's run from the city, and this fact has been given due weight in framing the schedule for north-bound flights. If a later start from Gisborne had been decided on, the time available for passengers reaching Auckland would have been cut down correspondingly, and it is the experience of Union Airways that the early start is preferable from the passengers' point of view. When traffic justifies the commencement of a daily two-way service between Gisborne and Auckland, the schedule announced in January will be adhered to, with the exception that the trips from Gisborne will start earlier in the winter months. The original schedule drawn up for daily service provided for a 3.30 p.m. start from Gisborne, but during the winter this will be amended, and the. north-bound plane will probably set out at 1 p.m. or 1.30 p.m. daily.

Poverty Bay Herald, 18 March 1939

The first Auckland-Gisborne service about to depart Mangere (Whites Aviation)

The first service from Auckland to Gisborne utilised the old racecourse at Opotiki (Evening Post).

The Poverty Bay Herald of the day reported on the new Auckland air service... The air service between Auckland and Gisborne - a link which completes a look of services connecting the main centres of the North Island - was inaugurated under ideal flying conditions this morning, 11 passengers being carried in the course of the trip. 

Following the final survey flights last week, when the Union Airways liner Korimako flew from Auckland to Gisborne and back, the same liner set out from Auckland at 8.10 o'clock this morning to make the first of the regular passenger journeys. Gisborne was reached at 10.30 a.m., a few minutes ahead of schedule, after short stops had been made to set down or pick up passengers at Tauranga and Opotiki. 

Although Auckland city this morning was under fairly heavy clouds, at Mangere the sky was clear and these conditions prevailed for the greater part of the journey. Tauranga, the longest stage on the route, was reached in about fifty minutes, and after a stay of about 15 minutes there, the flight was continued to Opotiki, this section being covered in little more than half an hour and another half-hour sufficing to reach Gisborne. 

Varied Scenery 
A feature of this route is the variety of scenery it offers to travellers. Between Auckland and Tauranga, much of the country is developed and settled, but the cultivated land is interspersed with occasional low ranges, of which the Coromandels are the most notable. From Tauranga to Opotiki, the route more or less follows the coast, a larger part of the journey being made over the sea and giving passengers a fine view of the coastline on the one side and small islands further out to sea on the other. 

From Opotiki to Gisborne there is the rugged scenery of the high mountain range, the plane flying comparatively low and presenting a reasonably clear" view of the country over which it passes. The Poverty Bay fiats on this side of the range present a striking contrast and impress the traveller as being the most attractive country on the whole route. 

Aerodrome Facilities 
Gisborne travellers to Auckland cannot fail to appreciate the excellent aerodrome facilities at this end. At Tauranga and Opotiki, of course, allowance must be made for the fact that the work has only recently been undertaken and that little opportunity has yet presented itself for improvements to detail. Tauranga is under a disadvantage, compared with Gisborne, in that the aerodrome is some distance from the town, and a similar disability is noticeable at the Auckland end, the Mangere aerodrome being the best part of an hour's journey from the city. 

The condition of the ground at Darton Field compares favourably with that of any of the other 'dromes on the route and the incidental facilities do not lose anything by contrast even with Auckland. The great convenience of the service was demonstrated by the experience of one Gisborne resident who travelled to Auckland on the final survey flight on Saturday and returned this morning. He was in Auckland city 3½ hours after leaving Gisborne and was able to transact some business before proceeding to Eden Park in the afternoon to renew acquaintance with a member of Sir Julien Cahn's eleven. In the evening he visited friends and yesterday was invited to join the English cricketers on a cruise of the Waitemata Harbour. Last evening was spent visiting more friends and by 10.30 o'clock this morning the traveller was back in his office in Gisborne. 

Maintaining the Schedule 
Both the survey flights last week and the first of the regular services this morning demonstrated that little difficulty will be experienced in maintaining the schedule that has been laid down, this allowing for an elapsed time of 2½ hours between Auckland and Gisborne. Experience has shown that there is a fair margin of time on each section of the route, and, despite unnecessarily long stops at the intermediate points, each journey so far has been completed with a few minutes in hand. The Korimako was again piloted this morning by Commander G. R. White, the second pilot being Commander K. A. Brownjohn. Commander A. G. Gerrand, service manager for Union Airways, was also on board the plane. 'The passengers were: Auckland to Gisborne, Mrs. F. E. Porter and Messrs. Bruce Porter. J. Cowing, A. Waikley and H. H. Barker; Auckland to Tauranga, Miss E. Broome and Mr. W. B. Withers; Auckland to Opotiki, Mr. H, Shove; Opotiki to Gisborne. Mrs. E. Bailey, Mr. T. Bailey, and Miss M. Tabb.

Poverty Bay Herald, 6 April 1939

From the 17th of April 1939 Union Airways commenced a new timetable whereby the de Havilland Express made one flight a morning flight from Gisborne to Napier and Palmerston North with an afternoon return Monday to Saturday. On Sundays the service was operated by a de Havilland Dragon. Prior to this there had been three southbound flights from Gisborne to Napier with one of these carrying on to Palmerston North. A circular issued by Union Airways at the time stated that the "shuttle service between Gisborne and Napier has been temporarily suspended until hangar accommodation is available at Napier. The Dragon, the smaller of the two planes operating in the service, will continue only when sufficient passengers are offering to warrant a return trip being made." 

De Havilland DH.84 Dragon ZK-AER. In behind it is De Havilland DH.86 Express ZK-AEH. I think this is Gisborne.

Poverty Bay Herald, 20 April 1939

Further, more major disruptions, were looming for the Gisborne air service. On the 1st of September 1939 Germany invaded Poland and two days later New Zealand declared war against Germany as World War II began. As the country moved to a war footing airline services through Gisborne were suspended. The final Auckland service operated on the 13th of October 1939 and the final service to Napier, Palmerston North and Wellington departed on the 25th of October 1939. According to the Gisborne Herald of that day, During the time Union Airways was operating on the Gisborne-Palmerston North run, 9172 passengers were carried in and out of Gisborne, these figures disregarding the number between Napier and Palmerston North, while for the 6½ months of operation on the Auckland service 1264 passengers were carried in and out of Gisborne, these figures excluding those carried between Opotiki and Auckland. The figures showing the number of passengers carried to and from Gisborne are given month by month in the following tables:-

In the pre-War period Union Airways operated their three de Havilland DH.86 Express aircraft, ZK-AEF Kotuku, ZK-AEG Karoro and ZK-AEH Korimako and the two ex East Coast Airways' de Havilland DH.84 Dragons, ZK-ADS Tui and ZK-AER Huia which were repainted in Union Airways' colours. The Poverty Bay Herald depicted the three Express aircraft in their advertising...

ZK-AEF, Kotuku - Poverty Bay Herald, 21 March 1939

ZK-AEG, Karoro - Poverty Bay Herald, 24 May 1939

ZK-AEH, Korimako - Poverty Bay Herald, 1 August 1939

During the War the DH.86 Express aircraft were impressed into the RNZAF, ZK-AEF as NZ552 on the 17th of September 1939, ZK-AEG as NZ553 on the 13th of October 1939 and ZK-AEH as NZ554 on the 25th of October 1939. NZ554 (ZK-AEH) met an early end on the 13th of November 1940 when it crashed on take-off at Ohakea. Both NZ552 (ZK-AEF) and  NZ523 (ZK-AEG) were shipped to Fiji on the 13th of March 1941. NZ552 (ZK-AEF) was struck off charge on the 7th of December 1943. NZ553 (ZK-AEG) was returned to New Zealand on the 7th of April 1943 and was rebuilt by the De Havilland Aircraft Co (NZ) Ltd at Wellington. On the 10th of November  1944 it was test flown after its rebuild and it was restored to the civilian register as ZK-AHW on the 9th of March 1945 resuming service with Union Airways. 

The two de Havilland Dragons were also impressed, ZK-ADS as NZ550 on the 13th of October 1939 and ZK-AER became NZ551 on the 25th of October 1939. NZ550 (ZK-ADS) was shipped to Fiji in August 1942. It was struck off charge due to airframe deterioration on the 4th of July 1943. NZ551 (ZK-AER) was allocated to the Electrical and Wireless School Wigram from early 1940 until mid 1942. It was then transferred to the Communications Flight at. Rongotai. It was damaged in an accident at Rongotai in 1943. It was rebuilt by De Havilland at Rongotai before being restored to the civil register as ZK-AHT on the 24th of March 1944 and allocated to Air Travel (NZ) Ltd, Hokitika. On the 30th of June 1944 it crashed on Mount Hope after it was caught in a downdraught. 

During the War a major change occurred to Gisborne's transport options with the railway to Napier being finally complete and opened to freight traffic from the 3rd of August 1942. Passenger services began a month later on the 7th of September 1942. The railway line through to Taneatua in the Eastern Bay of Plenty was never to be completed and the road journeys remained arduous. As the War drew to an end the Gisborne local authorities were eager for the return of their air service but rebuilding the service was to be a slow process with the lack of suitable aircraft and air crew and the needs of other local communities in a post-War New Zealand.  

Union Airways resumed East Coast services on the 26th of March 1945. De Havilland DH86 Express ZK-AHW Korimako, (previously ZK-AEG, Karoro) departed Palmerston North for Napier and then Gisborne, where there was an overnight stop, then to Opotiki, Tauranga and Auckland the following day. The initial post-War timetable saw Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays flights departing Palmerston North at 2.30p.m to arrive at Napier, 3.20p.m., departing at 3.30p.m. to arrive at Gisborne at 4.15 p.m. On Tuesdays and Thursdays the aircraft departed Gisborne at 7.45a.m. to arrive at Auckland. 9.45 a.m. The return service departed Auckland at 2.15 p.m. to arrive in Gisborne at 4 p.m. The southbound flights operated on Wednesdays, Fridays and Saturdays depart Gisborne at 7.45a.m arriving at Napier at 8.30a.m., departing at 8.40 a.m. to arrive in Palmerston North at 9.30a.m. The service was arranged as to fit in with the restricted train service south. On Tuesdays and Thursdays when there were trains south, the plane makes return trips between Gisborne and Auckland and on Fridays went to Palmerston North and back. On Saturday there was a flight only one way to Palmerston North, making provision for engineering requirements. 

In post-war colours, Union Airways' De Havilland 86 Express ZK-AHW. Photo : Whites Aviation

Gisborne Herald, 17 April 1945

Gisborne Herald, 26 October 1945

This timetable was maintained until the 3rd of September 1946 when Union Airways introduced Lockheed L10 Electras onto the Gisborne flights. The Gisborne Herald of the day reported, The beginning of a new era in transport to and from Gisborne commences to-day when Lockheed Electra 10A aircraft will replace the de Havilland 86 machine which has grown so familiar on the East Coast.

Lockheed L10A Electra ZK-AGJ at Blenheim

The first Lockheed Electra machine left Palmerston North this morning for Gisborne, being due here about midday. Passengers were to be taken on board and the aircraft was to leave immediately for Auckland. Another load of passengers were to be embarked at Auckland and the aircraft was to return to Gisborne late this afternoon. This will bring the services operated bv Union Airways back to their normal schedule, as the usual machine from Palmerston North did not come to Gisborne yesterday afternoon. With the new aircraft, one additional service will be run each week to Auckland which has proved to be the more heavily booked run operating from Gisborne. The aircraft will fly return trips from Gisborne to Auckland on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays now in place of only Tuesday and Thursday previously.

Flying Times Reduced
The flying times from Darton Field to Mangere will be reduced from two hours to one hour 40 minutes, while the scheduled time for the southward journey will be one hour 35 minutes. The scheduled times from Gisborne to Napier and Palmerston North will not be changed, but passengers will be able to travel through to Wellington on Wednesdays and Fridays, leaving Gisborne at 7.45 a.m. and arriving at Rongotai at 10.30 a.m. This service has been in operation for some time, but passengers had to transfer from the D.H. 86 to the Electra machine. at Palmerston North, arriving at Wellington at 11 a.m. On Mondays the aircraft will fly from Gisborne to Palmerston North, returning on Tuesday morning to carry out the Gisborne-Auckland service. The Electra has provision for two pilots and 10 passengers, compared with the 12 passengers carried by the De Havilland, but as there is one extra trip each week the number of passengers transported will be the same. 

Top Speed of 208 m.p.h. 
The Electra machine has a cruising speed of 170 miles per hour and a top speed of 208 miles per hour. She has twin engines developing 450 horse-power at take-off and is a low-wing monoplane with twin tails and a retractable undercarriage. In the air she appears similar to the Hudson bombers which were used by the R.N.Z.A.F. during the war. She will carry 800lb of freight compared with the 750 carried by the De Havillands. The De Havilland 86 machine commenced the service to and from Gisborne on March 26, 1945, when she was returned to Union Airways after war service. Contemporary models of the aircraft were first put into operation by the company in 1936, when they were used on the main trunk lines and eventually replaced the De Havilland 84’s with which East Coast Airways first operated the Napier-Gisborne run in 1935. Electra machines have been used by Union Airways on the main trunk lines for some time.

Gisborne Herald, 4 September 1946

From the 2nd of December 1946, Union Airways, acting for the National Airways Corporation, commenced a Monday to Saturday air service from Gisborne to Wellington and Gisborne to Auckland and return. Two Electras were allocated to maintain the scheduled trips while a third was being serviced at Palmerston North.

Gisborne Herald, 2 December 1946

A few weeks later, the Auckland service was further extended when, again operating for NAC, a second service was inaugurated from Gisborne to Auckland via Tauranga. The Electra flew up in the morning and then operated an Auckland-Whangarei-Kaikohe-Kaitaia return service before returning to Gisborne via Tauranga in the late afternoon. While still advertised as Union Airways as the New Zealand National Airways Corporation absorbed Union Airways services. The Electras had a busy day, with the southbound aircraft operating Gisborne-Napier-Palmerston North-Wellington and return with a change of aircraft for or from maintenance, as needed, at Union Airways' engineering base at Palmerston North.

Gisborne Herald, 21 January 1947

In the post-War period Union Airways operated de Havilland DH,86 Express ZK-AHW and Lockheed L10A Electras ZK-AFD Kuaka, ZK-AGJ Kahu, ZK-AGK Kaka, ZK-ALH Koreke and ZK-ALI Koweka through Gisborne.

Lockheed Electra ZK-ALI at Mangere

On the 31st of March 1947 Union Airways Limited was taken over by the Government and absorbed into the new state-owned New Zealand National Airways Corporation. With its aircraft and entire network taken over by the National Airways Corporation, Union Airways Limited, went into voluntary liquidation on the 31st of March 1947. So ended the largest of New Zealand's pioneer of air services, an airline that established a reputation for for regularity and efficiency. 

Thank you to Brian Lockstone for his help in preparing this place.

At present I am looking for photos of NAC aircraft at Gisborne. If anyone is able to help can they email me at westland831@gmail.com

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