07 January 2023

(11) Cliff Lewis' Air Travel Memoirs



Part 11 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 11 - - Then came the War

We now had four aircraft along with four pilots, however, Air Department requirements still had to be made for the annual Certificate of Airworthiness. So whenever this fell due the pilot whose aircraft had to undergo this procedure was withdrawn from service to assist Owen Templeton and the hangar at Hokitika. He helped strip the aircraft down to its last nut and bolt, clean each part thoroughly, to Owen's satisfaction, and helped reassemble them when ready after the Air Department's inspector, Frank Sorrell, had approved of everything being up to standard. When you were one of Mercer's pilots you really knew your aircraft from nose to tail and you took pride in doing so.

The tourist traffic at Franz Josef and the Fox Glaciers was just jumping out of its skin. Jim Hewett had to have a larger aircraft, so the company decided to purchase another Dragonfly,  this to be based at Franz Josef. 

Once again this meant that one of the Fox Moths would become idle unless another pilot was acquired, so under Mercer's careful scrutiny, Ossie Openshaw was engaged. He went through all the drill that each of us had gone through and then out on to the service he went and he also did a magnificent job of work. One particular piece of flying he achieved I will tell you of later. 

Then came the war of 1939!!!

Cook Strait Airways had been operating a service from Wellington to Nelson and Greymouth via Westport. Air Travel were asked to take over the Nelson to Greymouth section as a daily service to release the de Havilland Rapides to the Air Force. Mercer met every requirement, so Air Travel services now covered the entire West Coast, Nelson to Jackson Bay.

A further demand was made of Mercer and his company. They were declared to be an essential service and again the Air Force requested that a patrol be carried out once a week over the southern fiords for any sighting of enemy vessels in the area. Our commission was to inspect every Sound in the Southern area of New Zealand and continue on to Stewart Island and return to Invercargill and Dunedin. To achieve this mission we had to break every rule in the book of Civil Aviation's safety regulations. Our Dragonfly could not carry enough petrol in its tanks to cover such a distance, so I always went with Mercer on these flights. Our wing tanks held 24 gallons and we had a cabin tank that held another 12 gallons. The cabin tank could be fed to the wing tanks as required. My job with eight four-gallon drums in the cabin of the aircraft was to keep replenishing the cabin tank so we could refill the wing tanks as required. We never saw even a fishing smack, but Air Travel did its duty.

Again the War and the Air Force requested the release of Jim Hewitt to form its communications flight at Rongotai.  It supplied, in his place, a pilot of Mercer's choice, one Arthur Baines whom Mercer had also taught to fly at the Canterbury Aero Club. He got the same drill that we had all gone through and he more than proved his worth later as I shall relate. 

I, myself, at this stage just could not stay in Civil Aviation whilst there was a war on and I promptly wrote to Jim Hewitt at Communications Flight Rongotai requesting him to have me seconded by the Air Force to join his flight at Rongotai. This became an immediate arrangement. I said goodbye to the West Coast, did a refresher course with the Air Force at Harewood and Wigram with some 3000 flying behind me and became a VIP pilot of Communications Flight, Rongotai. We were later given the title of RNZAF number 42 Squadron. 

Bert Mercer, I personally thank you.

Jim Hewitt and Cliff Lewis were not the only ones who were enlisted with the RNZAF. Air Travel (NZ)'s first Fox Moth ZK-ADI was impressed into the Air Force as NZ566 where it served with the Communications Flight Rongotai and 42 Squadron. After the War it was based in Rotorua where it was used on on forest fire patrols until April 1948. It later returned to Hokitika as ZK-ASP and was used on NAC's South Westland air service.

With my departure from Air Travel the Air Force once again came to Mercer's aid and ironically enough sent to him a pilot called Colin Lewis. This great pilot had the misfortune to be in charge of one of the company's aircraft when, under atrocious weather conditions, it hit Mount Hope and Bert Mercer along with Maurice Dawe lost their lives. 

To Colin Lewis, please accept my greatest sympathy that such a tragedy could occur to any pilot. My regards and admiration of your flying ability. It was always superb!!!

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