29 December 2022

(4) Cliff Lewis' Air Travel Memoirs

Part 4 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 4- Aerodromes and Landing Places


When Bert Mercer made his first exploratory flight to the Coast there had only been one area prepared that could be termed anything that resembled an airfield. This was a flat alongside the Hokitika River just below the late Paul Renton Snr's property upon the southern bank of the river, immediately adjacent and below the rail bridge. It was upon this site that Air Travel (NZ)'s first hangar was erected.

Flying south to the small township of Ross, Mercer sought out a paddock alongside Stewart and Chapman's sawmill, landed his aircraft and persuaded the local residents that if they could keep this area clear for his aircraft to land on, he would be able to render them a service.

Link to more on Ross aerodrome

On south again he chased the sheep off Mr Nolan's paddock at Wataroa and delivered his message again. 

Link to more on Wataroa aerodrome

Then onto the Franz Josef Glacier where stood the Graham's hostel, just below which, alongside the Waiho River, was a small grazing area. Again the same message was passed. 

Then over the hill to the Fox Glacier river valley and once more after a little sheep mustering with his sturdy Fox Moth he landed in the paddock belonging to the Williams family who were conducting the Fox Glacier hostel. The message was passed once more.

Link to more on Weheka aerodrome

Air Travel (NZ)'s de Havilland DH83 Fox Moth ZK-ADI landing at Weheka, with the Fox Glacier in the background

Still aiming for the south, but with the advice that the road terminated at the Mahaitai River and there would be no more suitable areas for an aeroplane to land on that there were residents located at Bruce Bay, the Haast and Okuru, Bert promptly put his aircraft down upon the beach at Bruce Bay. He repeated the message and explained to the residents that if they would be kind enough to see that their beach was always kept clear of debris after spring tides he would be able to offer them a regular service.

Here he learned that they were men engaged in whitebait fishing upon the Paringa, so, he sorted out a reasonable shingle strip adjacent to their hut (MacIntyre and Douthwaite) and assured them that he would call and regularly during their fishing season and uplift their catch and take it to the railhead at Hokitika in time to catch the night goods train to the Christchurch market. He would charge them 6 pence per pound for freighting it. (They used to receive 7/6d per pound on the market).

On to the Haast and nowhere to land except upon another shingle strip in the Haast River. He had attracted the attention of the local resident, the late John Cron, and in true West Coast custom he came over upon his horse to aid a friend in need, doubled Bert across the river to his homestead, offered the customary hospitality, first, a White Pidgeon whisky and milk, and then from the wood fired stove where the kettle was never off the boil, his lovely wife brewed the traditional cuppa and presented homemade bread, fresh scones and homemade biscuits. Again Mercer’s message was given to the Cron family. They assured him that a paddock adjacent to the homestead would be made available. 

A 1935 photo of Haast Aerodrome with the Cron homestead... Photo : National Library... PA-Group-00080: Whites Aviation Ltd: Photographs

Link to more on Haast aerodrome

John Cron introduced his son Allan to Mercer. Allan told him of an area away up the Haast River where the Clarke and Landsborough Rivers met where he ventured up to and camped when deer stalking. He asked if Mercer thought it would be possible that an aeroplane could be put down in such a place. The cuppa finished, Mercer said to Allan let's go up and have a look at this spot. Out came two horses and back to the river where the aircraft was. John Cron took the horses back to the homestead and Mercer and Allan flew up river to the location. Bert expertly put the little Fox Moth down and he and Allan discussed the possible construction of a sleeping hut and separate cookhouse and refrigerator (West Coast style, a 40 gallon drum set in the ground). Yes!!! It was on, shooting parties could be brought into this place and Mercer again offered Allan and any parties he brought in to freight out the deer skins at 6d per pound. 

Back to the Cron Homestead where John Cron told Mercer of his great friend and neighbour Dinnie Nolan whom he felt sure would clear a paddock for him at Okuru. Out came the horses and they both rode down some 4 miles to meet the Nolan family. The White Pidgeon and the cuppa once more. Why, yes!!! Dinnie assured Mercer he would be only too grateful to have a paddock kept clear. 

Link to more on Okuru aerodrome

Dinnie and John mentioned to Mercer the Public Works Department were building a camp at Jacksons Bay from whence they would commence road construction and bridge building but at the moment the only way they got the supplies into the Bay was by the coastal vessel “Gael” which had to stand offshore while all cargo was taken ashore in the vessel's dinghies. The alert Mercer bade farewell to Dinnie and John and hopped into the little Fox Moth and promptly put her down upon the very narrow Jacksons Bay beach. Bert chatted with the PWD, got his message across, and again he was assured the beach would be regularly inspected. 

The landing places were all practical to Mercer’s careful judgement. It was on!!! So, back to Hokitika. Mercer had eleven points of call. Air Travel (NZ) was afloat.

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