09 October 2022

The Consolidated Operations of Milford Sound Flights

Milford Sound Flights traces its whakapapa back to a number of operators including Mount Cook Airlines, Real Journeys Air Fiordland and Milford Sound Scenic Flights. 

In 1986 Mount Cook Airlines started to rebrand its Queenstown-based general aviation division Milford Sound Flightseeing. With Air New Zealand's takeover of Mount Cook Airline there was less interest in its general aviation divisions and in 1993 Fiordland Travel bought a 25% stake in Mount Cook’s Milford Sound Flightseeing. In 1988 Air New Zealand sold the Mount Cook Airline general aviation fleets at Mount Cook and Queenstown. Fiordland Travel took another 25% of the Queenstown operation with The Helicopter Line taking the other 50%. At this time the name was changed to Tourism Flightseeing. In 2002 The Helicopter Line sold its share and Fiordland Travel took over the whole company and subsequently changed its name to Real Journeys.

On the Milford Sound Scenic Flights side of the family tree Chris Willets established Waterwings Airways in 1983 when he took over Mount Cook Airlines’ loss-making floatplane service at Te Anau. In 1984 Waterwings Airways expanded into land-based aircraft. This enabled expansion into Queenstown and the company started operating on the lucrative Queenstown-Milford Sound route under the name of Milford Sound Scenic Flights. while the holding company remained as Waterwings Airways (Te Anau) Ltd. Christ Willets formally established Milford Sound Scenic Flights Ltd as a company on the 8th of April 1997. He sold this to Mark and Jacqualine Quickfall on the 30th of March 2001. 

The final branch of the family tree is Air Fiordland. Fiordland Experience Group Ltd was registered as a company by Russell Baker and Roy Toms on the 24th of October 1984. Operating as Air Fiordland from Te Anau using a Cessna 185 the company offered tourists scenic flights over Fiordland and into Milford Sound as well as flying trampers, fishermen and hunters to Fiordand’s remote valleys and beaches. By 1986 the company had established a base at Queenstown and joined the competition on the Queenstown-Milford Sound tourist route. On the 14th of October 2008 Mark and Jacqualine Quickfall of Queenstown established Air Fiordland Ltd and this company took over Fiordland Experience Groups “Air Fiordland” operation, the aircraft being registered to the new company on the 29th of May 2009. 

On the 1st of October 2009 Real Journeys Limited and Totally Tourism Limited consolidated their Queenstown based aircraft flight and engineering businesses into a 50/50 Joint Venture into a new company, Milford Sound Flights Ltd. At the time it was announced that the three brands, Air Fiordland, Milford Sound Scenic Flights and Real Journeys - Milford Sound Flightseeing would continue to offer their respective products to the market, unchanged. The company's media release said that, The consolidation of the flight operations is in response to the Department of Conservation’s possible policy to limit the number of landings at Milford Sound, as well as in response to current economic conditions. Dave Hawkey, CEO – Real Journeys, comments “it makes sense both from an environmental and economic perspective to utilise the flightseeing assets in this way. Half the time the planes sit on the ground due to weather conditions at Milford Sound.” Mark Quickfall, owner of Totally Tourism comments, “Putting the Flightseeing businesses together is a good move, while the flightseeing brands continue to compete in the marketplace. Both organisations have similar attitudes towards excellence in customer service and a strong safety culture, so it’s a sensible arrangement.” 

Six months later Aviation News reported that The consolidation in October last year of Queenstown-based Real Journeys' Milford Sound Flightseeing's seven Britten-Norman Islanders with Totally Tourism's Milford Sound Scenic Flights' two Cessna 207s has, over its first summer, been described as a success... Totally Tourism owner Mark Quickfall says consolidating the two companies' fixed-wing resources negates for the time being the need to upgrade the fleet, which could cost around $1 million per aircraft. Milford Sound Flightseeing's Dave Cross says there were times when their 10-seat Islanders were going to Milford Sound with as few as four passengers. Now when a small number of people are booked with them - or if there's a slight over-capacity for the Islanders - it is more cost-efficient to put them in the Cessnas. Mark Quickfall says the objective of both Real Journeys and Totally Tourism to run professional operations will continue, and fairness to both companies will not be affected as each has its own brand and own packages, and that they market to different clienteles and will still compete. Both companies have their own coaches for ground transport into Milford Sound, as well as their own cruise vessels in the fiord... The other flightseeing companies owned by Totally Tourism - Air Fiordland, The Helicopter Line and Wanaka Flightseeing - will continue to operate independently. 

Milford Sound Flights' Britten Norman Islanders ZK-MFN (above) and ZK-ZQN (below) at Milford Sound in January 2013. Notice the three logos on the tail, Real Journeys, Air Fiordland and Milford Sound Scenic Flights.

On the 21st of June 2010 Air Fiordland was taken over by Fly Fiordland Ltd but for some time the Air Fiordland logo remained the sides of the aircraft. 

In June 2012 Milford Sound Flights closed its engineering base at Queenstown Airport contracting the maintenance work to Dunedin’s Flightline Aviation. The base had been established by Southern Scenic Airways some 60 years before and had been operated by big names like Tourist Air Travel and Mount Cook Airlines. Skyline Enterprises chief executive Jeff Staniland said the move is partly caused by a drop-off in Milford flightseeing business but is mainly aimed at reducing a fixed cost. “You look at most businesses, you contract everything out, don’t you, if you can. “You get a specialist provider to provide your services rather than having a big fixed cost infrastructure.” Staniland admits the decision mightn’t have been taken if business had been buoyant. “But I think, logically, you would have got there eventually.” 

One of the engineers made redundant suggested that “The reason, if any, that our engineering costs are perceived to be high is the fact that some of the aircraft are over 40 years old, so they get dearer to look after.” From 2012 Milford Sound Flights started changing its fleet, with the first Cessna 207 ZK-DEW going in 2012 and ZK-LAW in 2013 after being written off in a training flight accident. The first of the Britten Norman Islanders left the fleet in 2013 with ZK-MFN, ZK-MSF, ZK-TSS and ZK-ZQN departing the fleet. 

Cessna 207 ZK-LAW at Queenstown on 21 February 2013

Added to the fleet in 2013 was Cessna 206 ZK-DXZ which joined from related company Wanaka Flightseeing (2006) Ltd. 

Cessna 206 ZK-DXZ, previously operated by Air Safaris, Aspiring Air and Wanaka Flightseeing, in service with Milford Sounds Flights at Milford Sound on the 10th of January 2014. The Air Fiordland logo still remains.

The more important addition was the arrival, also in 2013, of Gippsland GA8 Airvans ZK-MCM and ZK-MCZ and ZK-ZQN. The first Airvan flew into Queenstown from Melbourne as VH-NYD on 5 February 2013. It then underwent New Zealand certification at Flightline in Dunedin becoming ZK-MCM. It entered service on the 30th of April 2013. A Real Journeys' media release said, The new generation GA8 Airvan seats seven passengers and is optimised for passenger viewing with high-wing configuration and panoramic windows. It’s also designed to meet the latest international safety standards. Richard Lauder Chief Executive of Real Journeys, which co-owns Milford Sound Flights with Skyline Enterprises, says the purchase of the new Airvan signals confidence in the continued growth of Queenstown’s tourism market. “We know ‘flightseeing’ into Milford is a compelling offering for visitors, especially when they combine it with a cruise option. This new plane will optimise the customer experience considerably,” says Richard. Jeff Staniland Chief Executive Officer at Skyline Enterprises says the purchase of the Airvan is the first in a series of possible investments to upgrade Milford Sound Flights existing fleet. “The Airvans are also better in an environmental sense, using less fuel and therefore having less environmental impact – so it’s a win win really,” says Jeff.

Milford Sound Flights’ new Airvan passed through its ‘crossing of the guard’ at Queenstown Airport on 30 April 2013 following its first passenger flight.

The arrival of Milford Sound Flights' Gippsland GA-8 Airvans ushered in a new colour scheme. Airvans ZK-MCM (above) and ZK-MCZ (below) at Milford Sound on the 10th of January 2014. The Air Fiordland logo still remains.

Three Britten Norman Islanders from Mount Cook Airlines' days... ZK-DBV (above) ZK-MCD (centre) and ZK-MCE (bottom) at Milford Sound on the 10th of January 2014. The Air Fiordland logo still remains.

Further fleet replacement occurred from 2015 with the delivery of Cessna Grand Caravans. The first Cessna 208B Grand Caravan, ZK-MSF, entered service on the 29th of November 2015.

Cessna 208B Grand Caravan ZK-MSF departs Queenstown on 29 November 2015 on its first flight to Milford Sound Sound. The Air Fiordland logo did not feature on the Caravans. Photo H Turnbull on Milford Sound Scenic Flights Facebook page.

In Dunedin for maintenance on 27 April 2018 was Milford Sound Flights' first Cessna 208 Grand Caravan, ZK-MSF. 

The arrival of the first Caravan saw the Cessna 206 depart from the fleet. My 2019 three further Caravans had been delivered, ZK-MCI, ZK-MCL and ZK-MCS and this allowed the ex-Mount Cook Airlines' Britten Norman Islanders ZK-DBV, ZK-MCD and ZK-MCE to depart the fleet in 2019. 

From the Milford Sound Scenic Flights Facebook page... It's the end of an era here at Milford Sound Scenic Flights with the sale of the last of our twin engine Britten Norman Islanders! These aircraft were manufactured between 1970-1975, and were purchased brand new by Mount Cook Airlines to fly the Milford route. They became a beloved part of our fleet in the 1990's where they have continued to operate ever since. Fun fact: 4 of our 7 Islander fleet were sold in 2013: ZK-ZQN and ZK-MFN went to Australia and ZK-MSF and ZK-TSS went to Germany, and we are now saying farewell to ZK-DBV, ZK-MCE and ZK-MCD who are off on their new adventure to Fiji! Photo credit: Karl LC & Andy W

Covid-19 impacted severely on the Queenstown flightseeing operators. This led Milford Sound Flights leasing Caravan ZK-MCS to Merlin Labs to become the platform for that company's prototype unmanned freighter aircraft. The New Zealand company is a subsidiary of Boston based Merlin Labs, and the project wants to trial a pilotless freight service between Nelson, Westport and Christchurch... (see https://3rdlevelnz.blogspot.com/2020/07/westport-freight-flights.html and https://3rdlevelnz.blogspot.com/2020/08/more-on-pilotless-plane-service.html). Merlin Labs later decided they want a Caravan with a Legacy cockpit rather than the ZK-MCS's G1000 cockpit and this aircraft was subsequently sold to Barrier Air and became ZK-SDE.

Cessna 208B Grand Caravan ZK-MCS at Queenstown

ZK-MCS at Hamilton with Merlin Labs. Photo : R Currie

Mainstay of Milford Sound Flights' operations are the various options for people wanting to experience the grandeur of the flight to Milford Sound including those who want to fly over the Sound, those who want to fly in and out taking with a cruise on Milford Sound, those who want to take the bus one way and experience the beauty the road trip has to offer and those who have walked the Milford Track and flying out. The company also offers a Mount Cook Fly Heli-Hike Fly package with a return flights from Queenstown to Mount Cook with a heli-hike on the Tasman Glacier. 

Milford Sound Flights' Cessna 208B Grand Caravan ZK-MCI at Queenstown on 13 January 2022. Photo : A Murphy

Milford Sound Flights' Cessna 208B Grand Caravan ZK-MSF at Queenstown on 13 January 2022. Photo : A Murphy

Milford Sound Flight's Cessna Grand Caravan ZK-MCL at Paraparaumu on 13 October 2022

Aircraft operated and years operated (Currently operated in bold)

Britten Norman BN2A Islander

ZK-DBV (2009-2018)
ZK-MCD (2009-2018)
ZK-MCE (2009-2019)
ZK-MFN (2009-2013)
ZK-MSF (2009-2013)
ZK-TSS (2009-2013)
ZK-ZQN (2009-2013)

Cessna U206F Stationair

ZK-DXZ (2013-2015) 

Cessna 207 Skywagon

ZK-DEW (2009-2012)
ZK-LAW (2009-2013)

Cessna 208B Grand Caravan

ZK-MCI (2017-current)
ZK-MCL (2016-current)
ZK-MCS (2019-2021)
ZK-MSF (2015-current)

Gippsland GA8 Airvan

ZK-MCM (2013-current)
ZK-MCZ (2013-current)
ZK-ZQN (2013-current)


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