26 December 2022

(1) Cliff Lewis' Air Travel Memoirs

Sorting through the late Jim Jamieson's aviation collection I have come across many really interesting photos and historical records which I hope to share in this blog and digitise so they can be deposited with the Aviation Historical Society of New Zealand of which Jim was a long time member. 

This post is part of a twelve part memoir written by Cliff Lewis, an Air Travel (NZ) pilot. It is a great story and I have tried to leave it as Cliff wrote it, with the exception of some grammatical corrections to make it an easier read. Some of the history is slightly wrong and I will make comment on alongside each post.

I hope this makes a good summer read.

This memoir relates to my my larger post on Air Travel (NZ) Ltd which can be found here -


Chapter 1 - The West Coast of the South Island of New Zealand


The country lies roughly, as the crow flies, only some 30 miles from the Tasman Sea to the Southern Alps. It is smothered in native bush and swamp and interspersed with many an occasional beautiful lake which suddenly appear as one rounds a bend on the new great highways which have been built throughout this density. Our country owes a tribute to the Ministry of Works for enabling our people to enjoy such beauty. Interspersed amongst all this bush and swamp is an occasional river flat upon which pioneers grazed the cattle and the odd flock of sheep.

These pioneers went into this difficult country, cut down the bush, cleared grazing areas and built their homesteads, grazed their cattle and sheep, built their herds and flocks, drove them out on a single bush track to the nearest road and sent them to market to provide their families for the whole of the forthcoming year. What fortitude these people had.

Dense bush, swamps, the Southern Alps, the Tasman Sea, where was it possible to land an aeroplane?

The late Air Commodore Maurice Buckley showed the way in 1923.  He crossed the Southern Alps in Avro 504K G-NZAO called "The Blazing Arrow." He landed this aircraft upon the beach at Okarito. His aircraft had to be transported by pontoon back to the highway and eventually back to Hokitika. However, the aeroplane and it's possibilities were in the minds of all West Coasters. 

The Air Commodore was quickly followed by another magnificent airman of this country, the late Malcolm McGregor.  I will refer to Malcolm McGregor as Mac from here on as I knew him personally.  Mac came barnstorming the West Coast.  He landed on beaches, got a push from local residents to get out of soft sand and, if I remember correctly, he only charged a sum of ten shillings for a flight.

The late Air Commander Maurice Buckley and the late Malcolm McGregor had sown the seed that was to blossom in South Westland.

Then came the man to give the West Coast it's magnificent air service, Bert Mercer.  He was a great friend of Maurice Buckley and Malcolm McGregor. At the time he was the Canterbury Aero Club's chief instructor.  We called him Captain. Bert religiously believed in the safety of flight. He always wanted his passengers and pupils to be thoroughly at ease in an aeroplane.  What a tremendous expression of relaxation and how enjoyable to all concerned, that was Bert Mercer at his best.

Captain Bert Mercer in front of de Havilland DH90 Dragonfly ZK-AFB... Given this photo shows Greymouth and Nelson as Air Travel (NZ) destinations it was probably taken sometime after the 10th of November 1939 when Air Travel (NZ) took over Cook Strait Airways' service from the West Coast to Nelson

Then it started. How? Young Jack Renton of Hokitika was undergoing an Air Force training course for his commission as a General Duty Pilot. When off duty he used to come over to our Canterbury Aero Club.  There he met a chief instructor Bert Mercer and myself. They became great friends. Jack Renton assured Bert Mercer that his family and several other Hokitika businessmen would be prepared to finance an air service to South Westland if he would consider doing it for them.

Mercer, always a safe and cautious man, requested from the Canterbury Aero Club their permission to use their Fox Moth aeroplane to make an exploratory flight down the West Coast seeking possible landing grounds and the possibility of tourist attractions.  Bert's first exploratory flights were carried out in the Canterbury Aero Club's Fox Moth ZK-ADH.

These flights were a tremendous success. Everybody in Westland wanted to help Bert. They cleared paddocks, they got the driftwood off the beach after the high tide and they made sure that there were no dangerous logs lying on the river strips after a flood. They just wanted Bert Mercer's aeroplanes to reach them safely.

West Coast and Dunedin financiers then provided Bert with the money to buy his very own Fox Moth ZK-ADI. Bert resigned his commission as chief instructor to the Canterbury Aero Club and went west. What a wonderful day that was to South Westland.

For the first year he flew alone. At night he worked on his aeroplane to be ready to take off at first light. Then he felt he had to have some help. That help came from a young, keen and able engineer called Owen Templeton, thoroughly qualified to Civil Aviation requirements.

In the following chapters I propose to tell New Zealand of the magnificent things that were done in this remote part of our country.

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