08 January 2023

(12) Cliff Lewis' Air Travel Memoirs



Part 12 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 12 - - Mishaps and Disasters

All the foregoing sounds very romantic and historical but now let me tell you all of some of the misadventures that always accompany any aircraft services. 

Before the now great Haast airfield was constructed Bert Mercer had one of John Cron's steers take dislike to these aeroplanes and promptly charged this intrusion in it's grazing ground. Result, a damaged lower wing. Result again, we had to wait for Owen Templeton to be flown to the Haast with all his repair equipment to make the aircraft serviceable enough to fly back to Hokitika. 

(Cliff's memoirs were written well after his Air Travel days and this incident was well before he started with Air Travel. I the incident he is referring to actually happened at Weheka - Fox Glacier on the 8th of February 1935... The Hokitika Guardian reported on the incident the following day... "An accident occurred to Mr J. C. Mercer’s plane when taking off from Weheka yesterday afternoon. With two passengers on board, the plane was moving off when, a bullock ran out of a clump of trees and charged the machine, causing it to turn over. The occupants escaped with minor injuries, but structural damage was sustained by the plane, which is being brought up to Hokitika for repairs").

I, myself, had an unbelievable experience. I was taking off from the Maitahi River strip and suddenly my aircraft developed some most disturbing noises. I was lucky and just managed to get the aircraft back to the landing strip. Upon examination we found that a conrod had pierced the crankcase. Once again Owen Templeton to our aid with a serviceable engine. We, with all the primitive accessories available, were able to replace the damaged engine. I flew on south and Owen returned to Hokitika. 

Our next mishap was definitely a tribute to a very competent pilot whom Bert Mercer had engaged. He had a terrific thing happened to him. This was Ossie Openshaw who had an engine failure while he was flying tourists over the Franz Josef Glacier. He managed to safely put his aircraft down upon this terribly rough glacier without a loss of life to all occupants. If ever a George Cross was entitled this man deserved it. Well done Ossie. 

It was after I, myself, left Air Travel to offer my services to the RNZAF, that a very unfortunate accident occurred for the company. One of the company's aircraft lost a propeller just north of Westport. The pilot, Mr Arthur Baines, did his utmost to help all passengers but finally had to save his own life. A tribute to you Arthur for your valiant efforts. 

Then came the greatest tragedy of all. Bert Mercer travelling in one of his own aeroplanes struck a hilltop at Glenhope. Bert Mercer along with our company's secretary Maurice Dawe  lost their lives. 

The West Coast of the South island will never forget Bert Mercer

The War time Air Travel (NZ) fleet 19391200 Fox Moths ZK-ADI, AEK and AGM and Dragonflies ZK-AFB and AGP at Hokitika in December 1939 as the airline celebrated its 5th anniversary. 

The Aircraft

DH Fox Moth
ZK-ADH - Lent by Canterbury Aero Club
ZK-ADI - Air Travel’s first
ZK-AEK - The Prince of Wales’ aircraft
ZK-AGM - Rebuild using parts of ZK-ADH 

DH Dragonfly

DH Dragon
ZK-AHT On loan from RNZAF in which Mercer lost his life 

DH Dragon Rapide
ZK-AHS - Replacement for ZK-AHT

The Pilots

The Indomitable “Bert Mercer”
The Greatly Loved “Jim Hewett”
Cliff Lewis - The Author - Canterbury Aero Club
Johnny Neave - Canterbury Aero Club
Ossie Openshaw - from Australia
Arthur Baines - Canterbury Aero Club
Colin Lewis - Ex Auckland Aero Club

The Engineers

Owen Templeton
His young apprentice Tom Harris 

The Office

Billie Mercer
Marie Mercer
Andy Drummond

Every one of you came up to the highest standards of the West Coast way of living and I trust that the rest of New Zealand will be inspired to emulate your efforts.

No comments:

Post a Comment