10 February 2013

Dominion Airlines - the East Coast's first air service


 
 
 
 
In September 1929 Dominion Airlines Ltd announced its plans to establish a daily air service between Gisborne and Hastings. The company intended to start the service in March 1930 subject to the provision of a suitable landing ground at Gisborne. The company also announced that it planned to extend the East Coast service to Wellington on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays and that it had longer term plans to establish daily services from Wellington to Christchurch, Blenheim and Nelson using three-engined four-passenger cabin monoplanes on the land services and six-passenger amphibian on the Cook Strait services. In regards to the latter, the company told the Evening Post that, “the advantages of the amphibian are obvious, since it will be thus possible to safely cross the Strait at no greater height than 500 feet, as the amphibian can alight at any time on the water.”

 
The directors behind the company included Sir John Luke of Wellington, Arnold  Williams of Tokomaru Bay, William Richmond of Hastings, Ivan Kight of  Dannevirke, James Kirk of Gisborne, Jack Newman and Henry Duncan both of Nelson. In these early days of commercial aviation it was recognised for services to be viable they needed to be operated with mail contracts, the company stating “that direct services between Auckland, Wellington, Dunedin and Invercargill cannot be run profitably without mail contracts!” Moves were made to secure such contracts from the Government.

 
In preparation for its services the company sought to raise a capital base of £200,000 by offering 150,000 £1 shares to the public. The company appealed to the patriotism of the investors stating that, “it is realised that Air Defence is the most efficient and economical defence for this country. The company is being promoted by men who have the interests of aviation and the welfare and advancement of their country at heart” and it promised prospective investors that “all capital invested will receive a handsome return.” The company further claimed that it “only requires four passengers to make a payload, and as seventy people travel between Napier and Gisborne each day, and 50 people between Nelson and Wellington each day, the expectation of the company for such loads should be more than justified.”

 
In addition to the air services the company also had visions of offering tourist oriented taxi services from Hastings to Taupo, Auckland to Rotorua and Christchurch to the Hermitage. However, as the commentator “Fiat Lux” said in the NZ Truth, this complete scheme is, in this writer's opinion, likely to remain outside the scope of practice for several years to come, but he believes the. company would have a splendid opportunity of showing what can be done if it would put the Gisborne-Hastings-Wellington run into operation; follow it up with the Wellington-Blenheim-Nelson service, and after these, have been thoroughly proved go back to the Government for the Auckland-Gisborne mail contract… The prospectus is a very interesting production and contains a number of very definite opinions. For instance, one cannot help wondering how far the following statement has the backing of the world's naval authorities:— "No battleship yet built, can remain afloat if attacked by aeroplanes which are manned by courageous pilots." Again, "aerial transport has moved from the experimental to the commercial stage and now ranks as one of the soundest industrial ventures giving a high dividend return with capital accretions. Furthermore, while all capital invested will receive a handsome return there is the national viewpoint." This writer agrees entirely with, the national viewpoint, but as to the certainty of handsome returns he is not convinced.

 
The company decided to inaugurate the East Coast and the Cook Strait air services first, because “the superior comfort and speed of air-travel, as compared with land and water travel, will be more clearly apparent on these routes than, for instance, on that between Wellington and Auckland, already admirably served by night express trains.” The East Coast service was of particular interest as the railway link between Napier and Gisborne did not open until 1942 and road transport between the eastern cities was arduous.
 

Despite the focus on the East Coast plans were advanced for an Auckland-Wellington service using Westland tri-motor aircraft with the flights stopping at Hamilton, New Plymouth, Hawera and Wanganui en route. These plans came to nothing but in March 1930 the company did order a six-passenger Saro Windhover amphibian for the inauguration of the service between Wellington and Nelson. The Windhover was equipped with three 95 horse-power Gipsy engines.

 
By November 1930 the company had obtained a Desoutter II, ZK-ACA (c/n D.36), a high wing 3-seat cabin monoplane. In mid-November 1930 it made a flight between Hastings and Wellington followed by another return flight between Hastings and Wellington on the 21st of December 1930.



Dominion Airlines' Desoutter ZK-ACA. Photos : G Claridge Collection

 

 
By this stage the company was well geared up for the commencement of services. On the 13th of December 1930 the Port Huron arrived in Wellington Harbour with Dominion Airline’s Saunders Roe (Saro) A.21 Windhover amphibian ZK-ABW (c/n A21/1) on board. The five packing cases were held at Wellington for a month before being moved to the Hobsonville air force base where the Defence Department had granted the company permission to use its facilities to assemble the aircraft. ZK-ABW was the prototype Windhover. It had its first flight at Cowes in the UK on the 16th of October 1930 before it was shipped to New Zealand. Unfortunately events overtook it and the aircraft was neither assembled nor flown in New Zealand.

The Saro Windhover, ZK-ABW in Britain. Photo : Ed Coates Collection

At about the same time that the Windhover arrived in New Zealand George Bolt also arrived back home. His arrival enabled Dominion Airlines to commence its East Coast air service.

 
In preparation for the East Coast air service a new aerodrome was prepared  at Gisborne which well-known New Zealand aviator Oscar Garden described as “one of the best in the Dominion.”  Dominion Airlines’ plan was to operate a regular service during the 1930/1931 holiday season in conjunction with the Blue and White Taxi Co of Gisborne, and Aards Tours Company’s taxi service of Hastings. The fare for the journey by air between Gisborne and Hastings and the taxi at each end was set at £3 3s. The timetable was arranged to connect with the Wellington-Napier express which meant people could travel between Gisborne and Wellington in one. At this time the road journey between Napier and Gisborne alone took some eight hours!

Poverty Bay Herald, 20 December 1930
 
The first flight, piloted by Captain George Bolt, departed from Hastings at 5.20 p.m. on the evening on the 22nd of December 1930 and arriving at Gisborne at 6.30 p.m. The Desoutter took off without passengers and without any ceremony, its departure being witnessed only by a couple of the aerodrome staff and a reporter from the Hawkes Bay Tribune. On board the plane were copies of the Hawkes Bay Tribune for the editors of the Poverty Bay Herald and the Gisborne Times and the following day the Poverty Bay Herald reported that, by courtesy of Dominion Airlines Ltd., the editor of the Herald last evening received a copy of the Hastings Tribune, of yesterday's date. The newspaper was brought to Gisborne by the plane which left, Hastings last evening, and was delivered at 7.15 p.m. A considerable saving in time was thus effected, as had the paper been posted in the ordinary course it would not have been delivered in Gisborne until tomorrow morning.
 

The next morning Dominion Airlines carried its first passengers on the service with the Desoutter departing Gisborne for Hastings at 7.00 a.m. Mr J. McLeod and Miss Harris on board. The Poverty Bay Herald of the day reported that the popular support attending the service is indicated by the fact that for the remainder of this week there is fully one seat in the machine available… One passenger, Mr W. Mason, will leave tomorrow and Messrs. Goodwin and Smith will leave on Christmas Day, while two, others, Messrs R Aislabie and V. Hay, have booked their seats for the following day… The aeroplane chosen for the service is one admirably suited to that purpose, being a Desoutter limousine monoplane, which accommodates the pilot and two passengers in the greatest comfort, the fully enclosed seats enabling passengers to travel in their ordinary clothes.


Cover flown on the first flight, signed by George Bolt


What did ordianary clothes look like in 1930? A classic photo of the Desoutter and passengers signed by George Bolt. Photo : B Gavin Collection
 
A feature of the service was the air mail that was carried. The company charged sixpence to carry airmail letters and a special sixpence label was affixed in addition to the ordinary 1 penny stamp as letters went via the normal post from Gisborne or Hastings to reach their final destination. The labels were problematic, however, in that they named the company Dominion Airways instead of Dominion Airlines and the Post Office also complained that the labels were illegal and their use was stopped on the 29th of December. (For more on Dominion Airlines’ air mail service see http://www.nzstamps.org.uk/air/survey3132/dominion.html)

 
 

The success of the service suggested to the company that there was an on-going demand. The service was suspended after the flights on the 30th of January 1931, to enable the Desoutter to be overhauled. The Hawkes Bay Tribune reported that The Hastings-Gisborne air service is rapidly gaining in popularity, the ‘plane making the journey with a full load each day. Since its inauguration the return journey has been made every day without missing a single trip, Captain Bolt having successfully completed 76 trips up to date. In addition to the regular service to Gisborne and back, the machine has made several trips to Dannevirke, Auckland and Rotorua.
 

Within days two tragedies were set to affect the airline and the people it served. On the 3rd of February 1931 Napier was struck by a massive earthquake which disrupted all land transport between Gisborne and Napier and Hastings. The Desoutter was rapidly brought back into service and was operating three flights a day between Gisborne and Hastings.
 

It was on one of these flights on the 9th of February 1931 that disaster struck the company. The Desoutter was being flown from Gisborne to Hastings by Flight-Lieutenant Ivan L. Kight on the third flight of the day and was engaged in the air dropping of a bag of letters and telegrams at Wairoa when at 1.30 pm the plane stalled and nose-dived with the deaths of Ivan Kight, a director of Dominion Airways and the acting pilot of the aircraft, Walter Findlay of Gisborne and William Strand of Lower Hutt.

Flight-Lieutenant Ivan Kight. Photo : Evening Post 23 December 1927
 
It was reported that plane “crashed at terrific speed into the railway yards at North Clyde, Wairoa, near the goods shed. The nose or the aeroplane was buried deep in the ground. Men worked frantically to extricate the occupants, and they had to break a portion of the right wing to get to them. However, the victims were past relief. Two had been killed outright, and the third died within a few minutes.”
 

On the 26th of March 1931 the company was placed in liquidation and the Windhover was put up for sale by tender. It was subsequently sold to Matthew Aviation of Melbourne, Australia, where it was registered VH-UPB. It went on to  operate a service across Bass Strait.

Auckland Star, 24 June 1931
 
The initial Court of Inquiry found that the accident was caused by an error of judgment on the part of the pilot in attempting to turn at too low an altitude, when the engine failed. This verdict of an engine failure was later contested in a second case.
 

In September 1931 a civil action was taken in the Supreme Court against Dominion Airlines by the family of William Strand. The estate of the deceased man claimed  £5000 damages from Dominion Airlines, claiming that Ivan Kight, the pilot and managing director of Dominion Airlines, was not the holder of a B pilot's flying certificate which would have enabled him to fly passenger or goods aircraft, and because of this the company was guilty of a breach of statutory duty. 
 

Evidence presented at this hearing indicated that on the fateful day the Desoutter passed over Wairoa, circled over the airmail drop field then flew downwind in a fairly strong southerly wind at a low altitude of some 100 to 150 feet and at low speed. After dropping the mail, the aircraft continued its flight, still at a low altitude before the pilot made an endeavour to turn to the left into the wind, and it was in the course of that turn, or as that turn was about to be commenced, that the machine suddenly nose-dived to the ground, and the three occupants were killed. One of the witnesses to the accident, Richard Edward Pomfret, told the hearing the aeroplane’s mail drops were “usually against the wind, and at a height of 200 ft to 300 ft when the mail was dropped.”
 

The hearing also heard evidence from Wing-Commander Grant-Dalton, the Director of Air Services in New Zealand, who knew the deceased pilot. In answer to questions the witness said that Kight had an A licence, which was the ordinary private aviator's licence. He had fulfilled all the flying requirements for his B licence, and all that remained for him to do was to pass a medical examination. Tellingly Wing-Commander Grant-Dalton told the Court that even had Kight passed the medical examination he would not have granted him a B licence as he did not consider Kight the right type to hold a commercial licence and would not have gone up with him himself.
 

Three months after the hearing the judgement found that the accident was due to the negligence of Ivan Kight in attempting to turn into the wind at too low an altitude at a low rate of speed, thereby causing the machine to lose flying speed and nose dive. Judgment was found in favour of the plaintiff and damages to the order of £3000 were awarded plus costs.
 

Matters did not end there and in July 1932 the matter was referred to the First Division of the Court of Appeal, the company stating that the incident had to be looked at not only in view of the regulations but also in the light of the emergency conditions following the Napier earthquake which necessitated Kight flying one of the three daily flights. The First Division of the Court of Appeal did not return a decision and so the case was reheard by the First and Second Divisions of the Court of Appeal in October 1932. 
 

In December 1932 the judgement of the Court of Appeal overturned the previous Supreme Court decision. The Chief Justice felt that the Supreme Court’s judgment did not prove negligence. He thought the very important question of engine stoppage had not been discussed by the judge and his view was that on the weight of evidence there was at least one stoppage, probably two, of the engine, and that being so the value of the theory expressed by Wing-Commander Grant-Dalton was affected and it was upon the opinion of Wing-Commander Grant-Dalton that the judge had largely relied. The Chief Justice also said Kight had an A certificate and though he did not have a B certificate, as far as the ability to pilot an aircraft was concerned he had all the skill and experience requisite as qualifications for such a certificate. If evidence had been called which could have inferred that the accident was associated with any cause that prevented Kight from obtaining a B certificate, the position as to nexus would be quite different. The Chief Justice awarded Dominion Airlines costs and so ended the history of the East Coast’s first air service.

The ill-fated Desoutter ZK-ACA. Photo : G Claridge
There is a great clip of a Desoutter flying in the UK at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=56dqtAUnZIU - would you fly on one?

 


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