27 December 2022

(2) Cliff Lewis' Air Travel Memoirs


Part 2 of a twelve part memoir written by Cliff Lewis, an Air Travel (NZ) pilot... 

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

Chapter 2 - Pilots and their Planes


Bert Mercer could not do all this alone and being a cautious man he very carefully chose one of New Zealand's greatest and safest pilots to join him, Wing Commander James Duff Hewett. Jim Hewett was loved by everybody on the West Coast, just as much as Bert. They were wonderful gentlemen to be associated with. 

Then it came my turn to be associated. Both these wonderful men not only helped me to improve my flying techniques but also taught me how to be a West Coaster and how to respect the West Coast way of living. It is fantastic. You will not find it anywhere else in New Zealand.

Mercer would not have employed me unless he personally knew that he had taught me to fly according to his own standards.

I came all the way from Auckland with no guarantee of a job, just an interview with this wonderful pilot who wanted to see that I was still conducting myself in the manner he remembered me by. I was grateful, I got the job, £5 per week. I was a commercial pilot approved by the most critical and wonderful pilots of New Zealand's history. Fantastic!!!

For the first two months of my employment I was given the job of washing and cleaning the company's new aeroplane, a Fox Moth, registered in New Zealand as ZK-AEK. This was an historic aircraft as it had previously belonged to his Royal Highness, the Prince of Wales (Teddy, or if you prefer it, the late King Edward VIII). His personal pilot had won the King's Cup Air Race with the same aeroplane. Now it was ours and, in particular, my own aircraft to look after and fly for our company, Air Travel (NZ) Limited. Oh, how I cared for this famous aeroplane. It really glistened every time I wheeled it out onto the tarmac only to fly south into the filthy weather that only the West Coast can produce, then brought it home again to Hokitika and cleaned it up again to show off its “House of Windsor” colours (which it still bore).

In my first six months I was never allowed to fly alone but was always led by either Bert or Jim who showed me the art of approaching every airfield, river bed or beach... such was the drill of these two famous pilots. It was perfection or else! They showed me how to fly into the head of a glacier valley, turn and bank and glide down, occasionally warming the motor to avoid stalling in the cold air and yet not to gather too much speed or to disturb any passengers. This was an art that any pilot was privileged to be taught.

A third aircraft was purchased, another Fox Moth, ZK-AGM. Mercer himself usually flew ZK-ADI, Jim Hewitt ZK-AGM, myself Teddy’s ZK-AEK. It was highly competitive as to who kept the aircraft in the best condition. I am sure to this day that Mercer and Hewett always had the edge over my inexperience in this matter, however, neither of them would let me think so, and frequently encouraged me in my efforts by some days telling me that Teddy’s really was a credit to me. So I kept trying harder to emulate their wonderful example.

(Cliff is a little bit wrong in his memoirs here... the third aircraft bought was de Havilland DH90 Dragonfly, ZK-AFB, which arrived in Hokitika on the 29th of September 1937. De Havilland DH83 Fox Moth Moth was test flown on the 10th of June 1938.)

Cliff Lewis (centre) with the Royal Fox, de Havilland DH83 Fox Moth ZK-AEK and two passengers at Bruce Bay

Here was the full nucleus of an air service, three good aircraft manned by well trained pilots, two of them absolute experts who flew with silken hands. How I envied their tremendous ability, it was something to be seen and made you proud to emulate!

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