14 May 2023

Tauranga Air Services - The First Air Service to Whakatane

Tauranga Air Services Ltd was formed by Alf Bartlett on the 26th of November 1956 as a private company with a share capital of £8000. Financial backing came from Charles Edwards, of Edwards Motors, a provincial bus company, Jack Lloyd, a local accountant, and John Roake. The new company was granted an a licence to operate non-scheduled passenger and freight services from Motiti, Matakana and Mayor Islands and from Tauranga, Opotiki, Whakatane, Galatea, Murupara and Kawerau to all aerodromes in New Zealand.

The new company subsequently acquired Cessna 182 ZK-BRI (c/n c/n 33690). Over the 1956/57 summer holidays the Cessna offered scenic flights from Tauranga using an airstrip at Tauriko as well as the main Tauranga airport at Mount Maunganui. 

1957 saw the company develop an on-demand service from Opotiki and Whakatane and later Tauranga to Auckland. 

A few days before the service started the NZ Herald reported that the Cessna aircraft can carry three passengers and some 200lbs of freight. The president of Whakatane Chamber of Commerce, Mr C. R. Whittle. He called it "good news for Whakatane." The air service would not be in competition with N.A.C., he said. "Actually, N.A.C. is quite pleased with it. It may be a good feeder service for the Whakatane aerodrome later." The aircraft would be a "brand new Cessna.” Three passengers could be carried besides the pilot. By landing at Mangere, the "long, tiresome trip from Whenuapai" was cut out, said Mr Whittle.  The service also meant that a Whakatane traveller could get to Christchurch or Dunedin on the same day. The plane would also make charter flights. It could easily be converted into an ambulance plane if there was an urgent hospital case. The Poroporo airstrip had been passed by Civil Aviation. Windsocks would be erected this week. A few cabbage trees had had to be removed. The pilot-proprietor, Mr A. Bartlett; was apparently highly experienced as he had recently had to test trainees for solo flying. Mr Whittle, who has had some flights "in the Cessna, said: "It's a great little plane. It is surprisingly quiet inside; there is ample visibility; you can smoke in it; it has a tricycle undercarriage which enables a level take-off and landing. It is a real deluxe aircraft." Mr B. L. Butler commented: "It is certainly a milestone in the history of Whakatane. This man should be congratulated on his initiative and enterprise." If there was sufficient demand after the service had been extended to a daily schedule, there was a good chance that the service would buy a De Havilland Dove, a 10 to 15-seater depending on the amount of freight. The aircraft had cost about £8500, said Mr Whittle. Mr Butler: "We, as a Chamber, should congratulate this man on inaugurating the first air service to Whakatane." 

On the 1st of April 1957 Tauranga Air Services was all set to inaugurate its thrice-weekly Opotiki-Whakatane-Auckland service. Misfortune, however, cancelled the first flight as the Opotiki News of the 5th of April 1957 reported. The Tauranga Air Services Cessna plane was damaged on Monday when left unattended on Tauranga aerodrome with the engine warming up. The plane was about to leave for Whakatane on the first flight from that district. The wheels were not chocked and the plane commenced to roll forward, finally hitting a band and damaging the propeller and engine cowling. A replacement aircraft was secured from New Plymouth and this flew the first two passengers from Whakatane next day. Parts for the damaged plane will have to be flown out from America. Mr Bartlett the pilot of the Cessna said he chose the wrong day for the inaugural flight from Whakatane – April 1. 

The normal routine was that the Cessna flew an early morning service from Tauranga to Whakatane and Opotiki before flying the service from Opotiki and Whakatane to Auckland. A return service was offered in the afternoon. At this time the current airport at Whakatane had not been developed and the company used Bloor's Paddock airstrip at Poroporo. At Auckland the company used the undeveloped Mangere aerodrome. On the 4th of April the Christchurch Press reported that, Whakatane residents, seizing the chance to get to Auckland in less than an hour, have booked out the service for the next few weeks. It is the first direct air link that they have had with Auckland.

Tauranga Air Services' Cessna 182 ZK-BRI at Rotorua in the late 1950s

The service was met by one delighted customer who, M. J. Thompson, wrote a letter to the Editor of the Opotiki News on the 21st of May 1957... Sir, I am yielding to a strong  impulse to share with the readers of your paper a very enjoyable experience of mine about a fortnight ago. I flew in the Cessna plane to Auckland and later home again; delightful trips like sitting in a chair at home. So smooth. The courtesy and kindness of the pilot pointing out different places added to the enjoyment. A taxi (efficient) service takes you to and from Queen Street. It would be a great loss to Opotiki if this service ceased for lack of patronage. 

A few days later as Opotiki residents were pushing their local MP to extend a couple of cross runways at the local aerodrome it was reported that the plane was now landing at Opotiki "sometimes four times a week."

The next major development was including Tauranga in the regular service which was brought about by the contract to carry Auckland's afternoon newspaper, the Auckland Star, on the return flight. On the 10th of October 1957, to launch the Tauranga service, Alf Bartlett flew the Mayor of Tauranga, Mr D S Mitchell, Mr C F Washer, a Tauranga Borough councillor and a Bay of Plenty Times were flown to Auckland. This service operated in the morning. The carriage of the Auckland Star was a game-changer for the airline and very rapidly the company was applying for a larger aircraft. 

The possibility of a larger aircraft was problematic for Whakatane and the local newspaper, The Beacon, reported that a twin-engined aircraft that will not be able to use the present airstrip at Poroporo. Whakatane's status in the service will be affected. The town will not be left without a service at all, but it will have to depend on a feeder link with one of the other Bay centres where the new aircraft is able to land. This could be Opotiki or Rotorua, but is more likely to be Tauranga. The feeder service would be operated with the existing Cessna. A representative of Tauranga Air Services Ltd. told "The Beacon" that the aircraft his company was considering purchasing was a Beechcraft Bonanza. This low-wing monoplane carries a pilot and five passengers. Its twin motors give it a cruising speed of 200 m.p.h. and it has been described as a "really rugged but good-looking aircraft." It has a retractable tricycle undercarriage and is considered to be ideally suited for the service which the Tauranga company plans to provide. "We made a really wide search for a suitable aircraft and there were only two that met our requirements," said the company spokesman. "One was the American Beechcraft and the other another American machine, the Aero-Commander." One factor that influenced the decision in favour of the Beechcraft was that it was a low-wing monoplane while the Aero-Commander was of the high-wing type. This has a bearing on maintenance costs. The Beechcraft will cost just all £30,000 and it will be flown to New Zealand from the United States by an American ferrying company. It had been hoped that the new aircraft would have been in use by Christmas, but the company ran into trouble with the Capital Issues Committee. The company had arranged to finance the purchase of the new plane by loan, but this scheme was turned down by the committee. The company was told that it would have to increase its capital and apply again for authority to make the purchase. The company, which formerly had a capital of £8000, is at present increasing the figure by £16,500 to a total of £24,500. Most of this sum has already been obtained. When financial details have been completed, the company will again approach the Capital Issues' Committee. If all goes well .the new aircraft may be operating by March. When the new aircraft is available it will probably be used for two or three services a day between Bay of Plenty and Auckland. Timetable details have not yet been worked out, but the aircraft is expected to operate from Tauranga, Opotiki and Rotorua. Whakatane will merely see it flying overhead, until the new airport is opened. But the company does not intend to leave Whakatane right out in the cold and it is expected that the single-engined Cessna that is now operating the service to Auckland will be used for feeder flights -probably between Whakatane and Tauranga. The Cessna has been obtaining loadings of 80 to 90 per cent capacity on its Auckland run, and Whakatane has contributed a good proportion of the passengers, although the district's support has slackened over the past month. 

On the 26th of June 1958 the Air Services Licensing Authority approved an application by the company for an amendment to its licence by adding an Aero Commander to its fleet and to operate non-scheduled passenger and freight services twice daily between Auckland and the Bay of Plenty. As part of application the company sought to add Rotorua on its service and approval for this was granted on the  8th of July 1958.  

In August, 1958 the capital was raised to £18,000 and the name of the company was changed Bay of Plenty Airways which was ushered in with arrival of the Aero Commander, ZK-BWA, which commenced operations on the 10th of November 1958. 

Much of this post draws on the research of the late Bruce Gavin

1 comment:

  1. In January 1959 my father & I flew up to Auckland in the Aero Commander. Such a wonderful flight! The Goldem Master had beached on Matakana Island at the time.