05 June 2011

Air Travel to Greymouth


This post continues the series on airlines that have serviced Greymouth. Links to the other posts can be found under the “Featured Links” heading at the bottom of the links on the right hand column of this blog.


Air Travel (NZ) Ltd was the first airline in New Zealand to fly scheduled air services. Founded by Bert Mercer in 1934, its first scheduled flight took place on December 18, 1934, from Hokitika to South Westland. The two definitive works on this air service are found in Richard Waugh’s books, When the Coast is Clear and Hoki to Haast. Both these books can be ordered by following the link... http://www.nzairlineresearch.co.nz/order.htm



While more famous for the South Westland service, Air Travel (NZ) Ltd during the War years also flew north from Hokitika to Greymouth, Westport and Nelson. While the Greymouth did not pay a major part in the Air Travel (NZ) story it was serviced during interesting if not sad times for the company. It also saw all the different types of aircraft Air Travel operated pass through it.

The original Air Travel aircraft, De Havilland 83 Fox Moth ZK-ADI at Hokitika on 18 December 2009 celebrating the 75th anniversary of the launch of the South Westland air service. Photo : S Lowe
Air Travel (NZ) Ltd added Greymouth as a destination as a direct result of the outbreak of the Second World War.

Cook Strait Airways commenced flying to the West Coast from Wellington and Nelson on the 24th of February 1937. With the outbreak of the War the Cook Strait Airways were impressed into the Royal New Zealand Air Force. Cook Strait Airways flew its last service to the West Coast on the 9th of November 1939. The following day, the 10th of November 1939, Air Travel (NZ)’s took over the Hokitika-Greymouth-Westport-Nelson service to connect at Nelson with Union Airways flights to Wellington. The company's two De Havilland DH90 Dragonflies, ZK-AFB (c/n 7560) and ZK-AGP (c/n 7566), were the mainstay of the service but the Fox Moths were also used.

De Havilland DH90 Dragonfly ZK-AFB at Greymouth with, I think, Bert Mercer standing in front. Photo : D Walker Collection
With the War restrictions Air Travel’s timetable was somewhat less than the previous six day a week service that Cook Strait Airways had been operating. The new northern route had a different flavour to the southern services. In Richard Waugh’s When the Coast is Clear, Bert Mercer’s daughter Marie Lindsay, spoke about the difficulty her father had in maintaining the schedule. “The main timetable was Hokitika to Nelson. I know my father had to connect with the airline across Cook Strait. Union Airways wouldn’t wait. Going south, the timetable wasn’t adhered to as strictly. It was almost two separate airlines. The South Westland people are different from those north of Hokitika. Time was no object – there was nothing to wait for.”

The 21st of December 1942 was a black day in the company’s history and marked the frist of three serious accidents. Dragonfly ZK-AGP was flying the service. With no passengers from Greymouth the flight had flown from Hokitika to Westport with three passengers. The aircraft picked up a fourth passenger before heading for Nelson at 9.29am. Passing through 4000 feet the aircraft lost the starboard propeller. The aircraft was unable to maintain altitude and lost height before ditching into the sea at 9.50am some seven miles off the Westport breakwater. All survived the impact. The SS Kakapo had just departed Westport and despite it soon being on the scene, only the pilot, Arthur Baines survived, with passengers Albert Johnson, Albert Winters, Michael Hearty and Geoffrey McBride all losing their lives.

In April 1943, one of Air Travel’s De Havilland DH83 Fox Moths, ZK-ADI (c/n 4097), was impressed into the RNZAF as NZ566. (After being released from the RNZAF it was registered ZK-ASP and again saw service on the West Coast). Some six months later, on the 29th of October 1943, the first of a trio of disasters befell Air Travel (NZ). On that day the Royal Fox Moth, ZK-AEK, crashed on a sightseeing flight on the Franz Josef Glacier. Thankfully, the pilot and his four women passengers were unhurt. After a massive effort the Fox Moth was recovered from the Glacier and rebuilt at the De Havilland factory in Wellington. It was, however, out of service until May 1944.

This left Air Travel with only one Dragonfly, ZK-AFB, and one Fox Moth, ZK-AGM. The company managed to purchase De Havilland DH84 Dragon ZK-AHT (c/n 6090). Before the war this had service with East Coast Airways registered ZK-ADR and later ZK-AER. Impressed into the RNZAF as NZ551 it experienced an accident at Wellington. Refurbished it was reregistered ZK-AHT and arrived in Hokitika on the 23rd of March 1944. While primarily used for the Nelson service the Dragon also flew to South Westland.
With De Havilland 84 Dragon ZK-AHT no more, it was represented at the 75th celebrations by De Havilland 84 Dragon ZK-AXI. Taken at Hokitika on 18 December 2009 by S Lowe
On the 30th of June 1944 Dragon ZK-AHT was on the southbound flight between Nelson and Westport with six passengers on board, including the founder of Air Travel (NZ), Bert Mercer. As the plane passed Mount Hope near Kawatiri Junction it experienced a severe up-draught. Control was lost, the plane losing height and crashing into the bush below at 1.48pm. Maurice Dawe, Air Travel’s company secretary, was killed outright while Bert Mercer was seriously injured. The pilot, Colin Lewis and Bruce Perry tramped out to the road and by midnight the rescue team had arrived. Sadly Bert Mercer had died from his injuries by this stage. (See also http://nzcivair.blogspot.com/2011/02/aviation-aritfact.html)

With the crash of the De Havilland Dragon, De Havilland 89A Dragon Rapide NZ558 was released from the RNZAF and allocated to Air Travel (NZ) Ltd being registered ZK-AHS. This aircraft (c/n), had before the war flown for Cook Strait Airways as ZK-AGT (Neptune), and so it returned to its former route. It was to continue flying on the West Coast for the rest of its working career seeing service with not only Air Travel (NZ) Ltd, but also with NAC, West Coast Airways and Southern Scenic Airways. The aircraft is restored to static condition at MOTAT in Auckland.

Air Travel's De Havilland 89A Dragon Rapide, ZK-AHS, at Greymouth. Photo : D Walker Collection
On the 1st of April 1947 New Zealand National Airways Corporation took over the services previously operated by Union Airways, East Coast Airways and Cook Strait Airways. Six months later, on the 1st of October 1947, took over Air Travel (NZ) Ltd’s West Coast services from Hokitika to South Westland and to Nelson.

Air Travel’s last flights were scheduled to operate on the 30th of September 1947. Two flights operated that day, both a morning and afternoon Hokitika-Greymouth-Westport-Nelson and return service. The afternoon service operated by De Havilland 89A Dragon Rapide ZK-AHS, flew from Hokitika to Greymouth and Westport with bad weather meaning the flight was not able to continue on to Nelson. So ended Air Travel NZ’s services and, for a time, air services through Greymouth, with the NAC service overflying Greymouth on its flights from Hokitika to Westport.

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