13 April 2014

The RNZAF - Pioneering Air Services to the Chatham Islands




To coincide with my first visit to the Chathams this post looks to the pioneering of the Chathams' first air service and the introduction of a regular land-based service to the Chathams

The Royal New Zealand Air Force’s first connection with the Chatham Islands began when German raiders sank the Chatham Island supply vessel, the Holmwood in December 1940 during the Second World War. This action prompted the Public Works Department to secretly build a flying-boat facility at Point Waikato on the Te Whanga Lagoon. The Chatham Islanders, who felt they had been unable to contribute to New Zealand’s war effort, provided all the labour for the landing area free of charge, and apparently a local storekeeper refused to accept payment for stores which the authorities had to purchase while on the Island.



Location of the three landing sites on Chatham... From left to right, Point Waikato flying boat base, the current Tuuta Airport and Hapupu airstrip which was used by the RNZAF and Safe Air's Bristol Freighters and Tasman Air's Piper Navajo. 


With wartime secrecy there was some confusion as to when the base was first used. The Evening Post of the 2nd of July 1945 carried a report that indicates that it was a TEAL flying boat that was the first aircraft to visit the Chathams but on the first post-war flight to the Chathams Flt Lt C G Green, an RNZAF meteorological officer on board the flight was told by the locals “that theirs was the first landing by an aircraft there. It was also the first occasion on which the public had been told that a landing area had been provided in the Chathams.” The locals on this occasion were wrong with details of the previous flight shrouded in wartime secrecy. The Evening Post of the 2nd of July 1945 reported that

Tasman Empire Airways flying-boats Aotearoa and Awarua, usually engaged on peaceful missions, have carried 500lb bombs during the war, when they made a number of reconnaissance flights searching for enemy surface raiders and checking unidentified vessels. This duty was under the direction of the R.N.Z.A.F., and, as members of the Air Force Reserve, the company's flight personnel on board wore Air Force uniforms. Long-range searches were made in an effort to find raiders at the time of the loss of the New Zealand Shipping Co.'s liner Rangitane and other vessels. When engaged on these missions, the aircraft carried bombs. Personnel of the R.N.Z.A.F. supplemented the company's flying crews. One of the company's aircraft was the first large flying-boat to land at Chatham Islands when it called there during a reconnaissance flight. On the return trip, it also alighted on Lyttelton harbour.

In the Aviation Historical Society of New Zealand Journal of December 2007 J W Best outlined the development of the Air Force Base and the first visit of an aircraft to the Chathams.

It could not have been long after this (the sinking of the Holmwood) that preparations to get the base established were started. A temporary jetty, a large motorised refuelling barge, a launch, and kerosene flare floats, were provided. Two buoys were placed in Waikato Bay, a small inlet off the lagoon. Petrol (20,000 gallons) and oil (176 gallons) was stockpiled. Two sighting beacons were installed on land as night mooring aids. The base was under the supervision of a local resident, Mr Glennie.

Short S.30 Aotearoa (Capt J. W. Burgess) left Auckland at 2:30 am on 29 April 1941 to undertake a reconnaissance flight around the Chathams.  The flying boat searched some 15,000 square miles without incident then landed in Te Whanga lagoon at 11:19 am. Burgess was taken by launch to the refuelling barge. Only 44 gallons of petrol were taken aboard the S.30 "in ... accordance with instructions" Burgess reported. (This first visit by an aircraft was probably made primarily to test the facilities and equipment at the newly established mooring.) Burgess and his crew stayed less than 1 hour 30 minutes at the Chathams. The S.30 took off at 12:45 pm and arrived at Lyttelton at 4:36 pm. They flew back to Auckland next day (30 April), arriving at 3:55 pm.

The first aircraft to visit the Chatham Islands, was TEAL's Short S30 Empire flying boat ZK-AMA Aotearoa while on a patrol for the RNZAF


The next flight to the Chathams was made by a Catalina of Number 5 Squadron Catalina on the 11th of February 1946. The purpose of the flight was to determine whether the flying boat base would have any peace time use. Those on board included the pilot, Flt Lt P Warner, Flt Lt C G Green, an RNZAF meteorological officer, Sqn Ldr G J Dunstan, Director of Operations, Sqn Ldr H W Lett, RNZAF Airfields Inspector Mr F Langbein, assistant chief engineer of the PWD, Mr A M Prichard, PWD pilot, Mr D Haskell PWD Aerodrome Engineer. Mr T H McCombs, MP for Lyttleton and Mr M Ratana MP for Western Maori. The Catalina returned to Wellington on the 14th carrying two hospital cases on the five hour flight. It was of this flight that Flt Lt Green recounted in the AHSNZ Journal in 1968, “that after their arrival at the Chatham Islands they were told that theirs was the first landing by an aircraft there. It was also the first occasion on which the public had been told that a landing area had been provided in the Chathams.”


The Air Mail Society of New Zealand records another RNZAF flight to the Chathams being operated from Wellington on the 30th of May 1946 using Shorts S25 Sunderland NZ4103, Mataatua and that the flight carried passengers and mail in each direction. On board this flight was the Minister of Internal Affairs, the Hon. William Parry. His flight to the Chathams impelled him to write to the Hon. Frederick Jones, the Minister of Defence and the Air Department raising the possibility of an air service to the Chathams. As a result of my recent visit to the Chatham Islands, I could not help but be struck with the poor transport facilities which exist between these islands and the mainland. We were fortunate enough to have the use of a Sunderland aircraft which was on a test flight and from my own experience and the information given me by the flying officers it seems that this machine would be admirable to inaugurate an air-service with the Islands… The, actual flying time from Wellington to the Chathams was three hours, and as there is little extra expense in establishing bases either et Wellington or at the Chathams, this could be, if otherwise practicable, an immediate solution to an outstanding difficulty. The initial reaction was it would be necessary to secure revenue each way of £260 from each flight from Auckland or £210 from Wellington. With such a small population on the Chathams it was doubted that there would be sufficient traffic to justify a service, except at most irregular intervals. Nonetheless, the seeds had been sown. 

Later in 1946 this same Sunderland was reconfigured providing seating for 28 passengers in a civilian standard of accommodation. This enabled the inauguration of a flying boat between Auckland and Suva route with the aircraft also being available for flights to the Chathams. NZ4103 did its post-conversion test flight at Auckland on the 26th of October 1946 and a few days later it flew to Evans Bay to operate a proving flight from Wellington to the Chatham Islands. Wellington’s Evening Post carried extensive coverage of this flight…

On the 26th of October the Evening Post reported that… At 9.10 am today, the Mataatua, a Sunderland flying-boat of the RNZAF touched down at Evans Bay for a brief stop to take on luggage and mail before continuing her flight to the Chatham Islands. The trip is in the nature of a test flight to check various modifications that have been carried out on her, including the installation of hydromatic fully-feathered propellers. The conversion of the Mataatua from a military machine to a comfortable civilian passenger aircraft has been carried out at Hobsonville by members of the RNZAF Sunderland Squadron under the supervision of Squadron Leader G Tillson, OBE engineering officer of the flying-boats. She is the largest New Zealand aircraft yet converted for civil passenger service. Several of the Air Force personnel who carried out the works are accompanying the aircraft, and if performance is satisfactory will bring passengers from the islands on the return trip on Thursday. She will then replace her sister ship Tokomaru on the Auckland-Suva service so that the Tokomaru may be overhauled and later fitted out similarly. A wonderful transformation has been effected on the Mataatua. Once an austere military aircraft, she is now one of the best-equipped passenger planes in the South Pacific services. No other boat operating in New Zealand is so well fitted out. Twenty six passengers can be carried and their comfort was the primary consideration in designing the alterations. The lower deck has been divided into four compartments. The seats are designed to give the greatest degree of comfort and safety, and are so placed to the passengers the best possible view. Luggage is carried on the upper deck and in the nose. The galley is a model of compactness and there is sufficient space to store all the provisions that would be necessary on a long flight. Everything is stored in convenient little cupboards, and there is a spacious “dry-ice” box which has proved most satisfactory. The boat carries 22 gallons of fresh water and four and a half gallons can be boiled at a time from the aircraft’s own power. There is sufficient crockery and cutlery for 36 people. Another interesting feature is the toilet rooms, including a ladies’ powder room, which is fitted with a dressing table, a large mirror and a stool. The Mataatua now weighs only 180lbs more that when she was equipped for military purposes. The captain and first pilot of the aircraft is Squadron Leader R J Makgill, AFC, commanding officer of the Sunderland Flying Boat Squadron at Mechanics Bay, Auckland.  The second pilot is Flight Lieutenant W Mackley, DFC, and Bar. The other members of the crew are Flight Lieutenant D Patterson, MBE, navigator, Squadron Leader G Tillson, OBE, engineering officer; Warrant Officer R Riggir, second engineer, Flying Officer, N E Dawson, wireless operator; Sergeant D Paterson, flight clerk. An unusual item in the aircraft’s freight is two large cans each containing 5000 brown trout fry, which are being sent to the Chatham Islands by the Wellington Acclimatisation Society for release in the streams there. It was originally intended that the Mataatua should take off at 10.00am but it was 11 o’clock before the four powerful engines were warmed up and the great machine moved slowly down Evans Bay. Squadron Leader Makgill taxied his aircraft down towards Rongotai, turned slowly, and sped up towards the entrance to the bay to take off.

Airmail to and from the Chathams... the 29th of October outbound and backstamped for the return flight for the following day.

A report on the return flight on the 31st of October 1946 was carried by the Evening Post on the 1st of November 1946… Embarking passengers on the Royal New Zealand Air Force Sunderland flying-boat Mataatua at Waikato Bay, Chatham Islands by dinghy yesterday afternoon, under squally conditions, was a dangerous and difficult operation, said passengers and crew after the flying boat had landed at Evans Bay at 6.35 pm yesterday. It took four and a half hours to get the 28 passengers aboard, the boats shipped water continuously and more than once the outboard motors broke down. Many of the passengers boarded the aircraft soaked to the skin. Seven residents of the island, five women and two men, were passengers on the return trip, and the other passengers, civil servants and others who made the round trip brought the number of passenger who came to Wellington up to 28. Conditions at Waikato Bay were not sufficiently bad to make the take-off difficult and the flight was uneventful. Squadron Leader R J Makgill AFC, captain of the Mataatua sad the flight had proved the machine to be eminently suitable for use in civilian service. Incidentally, Squadron Leader Makgill does not believe in serving hot meals for passengers on board aircraft. “We can serve them with cold chicken and salad, and I think they are much better off,” he said. Squadron Leader G Tillson OBE who supervised the conversion of the flying boat from a military aircraft to a luxury long-distance machine, also expressed himself as satisfied with the result of the flight.

Following this flight NZ4103 then entered regular service with the RNZAF’s Flying Boat Transport Flight on quasi-civil transport operations. Meanwhile, the Public Works Department also raised the question of a regular air service to the Chathams. In writing to the Air Department the Public Works Department noted that, On each occasion full bookings of the seats available have been arranged at short notice. On the last trip, I understand no fewer than 7 or 8 Chatham Islands local passengers were unable to travel. None of the trips so far could be considered as scheduled in that, although they were considered some time in advance, no publicity was given so that the full advantage of passenger transport could be obtained. In addition to this, it is the confirmed opinion of all those who have travelled that if an air service were available none would again travel by the ordinary surface means. Further, just at present and probably for some time yet the matter of general development of the Chatham Islands is and will be receiving some consideration with the Government. Such development is likely to be indefinitely delayed unless transport to and from the Island is improved. Lastly, this Department has at present an active programme of road construction under way in the Chathams. All these facts summed up indicate to me that if a flying boat could be made available, a service fortnightly, three-weekly or monthly, depending on results obtained from first experiments, might easily justify itself apart from setting a programme of development in the Islands in motion.

Meanwhile facilities at the Chathams were slowly being improved. On the 27th of January 1947 Sunderland NZ4102, Tokomaru, returned from the Chatham Islands with 23 adult passengers and three children. Passengers included the assistant under-secretary and the private secretary to the Minister of Internal Affairs, Messrs. A. G. Harper and D. Paul respectively, and Public Works Department officials. The Southern Cross newspaper reported that “Landing and embarking arrangements at the Chathams have been much improved by the provision of a permanent launch at the base since the Sunderland's last visit, when great difficulty was experienced in embarking passengers in dinghies in squally weather. However, as the weather was fine yesterday, passengers were embarked without trouble in outboard motor-boats.”

The Department of Internal Affairs annual report for the year ended the 31st of March 1947 reported that further flying boat flights were made to the Chathams over the remainder of the financial year. “The opportunity of a few trips to the Chatham Islands by Sunderland flying-boats, arranged by the Air Department so as to assist the Public Works Department in certain road and bridge constructional work that had been undertaken by that Department, was availed of by this Department to arrange for the Assistant Under-Secretary, Mr. A. G. Harper, and other officers to fly to the islands to make some study of the needs of the islands as regards local government, acclimatization matters, recreational activities, and general amenities for the islanders.”

At this time the Air Department also looked at the possibility of using Lake Huro as the landing area for the flying boats. While this conversation continued for some years nothing ever came of it.

Over the remainder of the 1940s the RNZAF flew a number of Catalina and Sunderland flights to and from the Chathams. Often these were mercy flights but passengers and mail were also flown on charter flights. The Chathams’ air links to the mainland were sporadic until the 1st of December 1950 when TEAL introduced a bi-monthly service to the Chathams.

Over the next few years the Air Force continued making other flights to the Chathams, including mercy flights. On the 8th of October 1954 a Shorts Sunderland made a special flight to the Chathams from Evans Bay, Wellington carrying a party of Air Department surveyors to investigate possible airfield sites. Mail was also carried on this flight and the aircraft and surveyors returned to Wellington on the 10th of October.

On the 7th of April 1954 TEAL operated its last service between Wellington and the Chatham Islands and the RNZAF were again prevailed upon to operate some flights to the Chathams with their Sunderlands. The records of the Air Mail Society of New Zealand show a Sunderland flying boat returning secondary school children from the Islands to mainland schools on the 1st of February 1955 on behalf of the Department of Island Territories. Such flights for school children travelling between home and school were to become a feature of the Chathams service. 

Launch taking cargo and mail for the Chatham Islands out to RNZAF Sunderland NZ4112 anchored in Wellington's Evans Bay in 1959 - Photo : Archives NZ, Reference AAME 8106 114/ 11/8/61
 RNZAF Sunderland NZ4112 on departure for the Chathams from Wellington's Evans Bay in 1959
Both Photos : Archives NZ, Reference AAME 8106 114/ 11/8/61


Flights were operated by the Air Force until the 1st of November 1955 when Ansett Airlines of Australia took over operating the Department of Island Territories’ charter flights to the Chathams using their Shorts Sandringhams. Ansett operated this Chathams service until late January 1957.

A few months later, on the 15th of May 1957, the Hapupu airfield was opened. Over the coming summer the airfield saw NAC operate five charter flights to Hapupu but in the event the airfield was not considered suitable for the Chathams service. This led to the Department of Island Territories arranging with the RNZAF to carry out a series of return flights between Wellington’s Evans Bay and Te Whanga Lagoon. From 7th of December 1958 the RNZAF’s flights became more regular with 12 flights being operated each year. In announcing the more regular service the MP for Lyttleton Norman Kirk said the flying-boats offered the best solution to many of the islands transport problems. Asked why flying-boat service had been preferred to land planes, he said that the Te Whanga Lagoon had an area of 86,000 acres and offered multi-directional landing facilities not available at Hapupu which was a grass airstrip.  "The access to the strip is 31 miles, most of which is swamp and fern country and negotiated by tracks and four-wheel drive vehicles, and even these experienced considerable difficulty in driving the last 15 or 20 miles." he said, "This trip necessitates travelling in old clothing and changing into other clothes at the airstrip. This usually takes place in the bush." The lagoon, he said, offered a more regular service immediately with no costly development involved. Holm Shipping became the handling agents for the service at both Wellington and the Chathams. Flights operated on the 11th, 18th and 20th of December 1958, the 15th and 28th of January 1959, the 4th and 5th of February, the 4th of March and the 28th of April. The number in of flights in the earlier part of the year caused problems for the remainder of the year and a request was made for additional flights above what had been approved. Costs and availability of a Sunderland meant additional flights were unable to be flown.

The New Zealand Official Yearbook reports that in the year ending on the 31st of March 1959 the RNZAF flew nine charter flights to the Chatham Islands using Sunderland flying boats. Over the following year there were eleven charter flights to the Chathams, though one of these came to an unfortunate end. 

Sunderland NZ4115 at the Chathams
One of the launches that serviced the Sunderlands on the Chathams
On the 4th of November 1959 Shorts Sunderland NZ4111, under the command of Flight Lieutenant B. Dwyer, struck an uncharted, submerged reef while taking-off from the Te Whanga Lagoon. The impact severely damaged the flying boat’s hull. The Sunderland was abandoned and eventually brought ashore with parts of the fuselage being used as storage while other remains of the aircraft remain as relics of the flying boat service.


Various views of the rather sad and grounded Sunderland NZ4111



Sunderland NZ4111 after the salvage of the engines
Both photos : Archives Reference: AIR 1 807 36/49/9


The discovery of the new reef forced the temporary suspension of flights to the Chathams. Attempts to rechart the lagoon before Christmas were thwarted by bad weather and so alternate plans were made to fly the Chatham Island high school children home on three RNZAF Dakota flight to Hapupu airstrip. High winds, at times reaching almost gale force, that were sweeping across the airstrip ruled this out and the children, who hadn’t been home since the previous Christmas holidays had to wait until after Christmas when a special shipping service was arranged for them. On the 13th of January three RNZAF Dakota aircraft left Wigram for the Chathams and carried members of a survey party and their equipment to complete the re-survey of the Waitangi lagoon alighting area. With the Ministry of Works having laid out a new set of buoys in the lagoon a Sunderland flew to the Chathams on the 2nd of the February uplifting nine of the 20 Chatham Islands schoolchildren. The flight was primarily a proving flight with Civil Aviation and Ministry of Works officials on board. The remainder of the children were flown to Wellington the following day. This enabled the air service to the island to be resumed but on an irregular basis with the Department of Island Territories advising the RNZAF of what air transport was required.

At the Cabinet meeting on the 26th of September 1960 Cabinet expenditure of £9650 was approved for the provision of the facilities needed to maintain civil flying standards at Te Whanga alighting area. This approval gives a good insight into operation of the Chatham Island air service and included demarcation of the alighting area, mooring area and the taxiway (£1,250), provision of two flying-boat moorings (£2,000), replacement of the Civil Aviation Administration launch and its delivery to Te Whanga lagoon (£2,500), provision of fire extinguishing and rescue equipment for proposed launch (£500) and provision of radio communication facilities and a non-directional beacon transmitter for navigation purposes (£3,000).

In the year to the 31st of March 1961 the Sunderland flew only six flights to the Chatham Islands. The frequency increased in the following four years, to the 31st of March 1965, the Sunderlands flew twelve flights between Wellington and the Chathams each year.

In 1961 a Government inter-departmental committee looked to the future administration of the Chatham Islands. It recommended

(a) that the present air service to the Chathams be maintained with Sunderland flying boats as long as possible.
OR
(b) that the Civil Aviation Administration investigate and report on the use of smaller alternative aircraft which can operate from grass runways.
(c) that if a suitable aircraft is obtainable consideration be given to providing a grass landing strip within reasonable distance of Waitangi (possibly at Te One) at the lowest possible cost having regard to minimum safety requirements and operating costs on the islands,
(d) that subject to the availability of a suitable aircraft and landing ground, endeavours be made to interest either an established airline or an aero club in the operation of a regular air service to the islands,

The flying service continued to another six years until such time as the RNZAF retired the Sunderlands. On the 22nd of March 1967, after being almost nine years in operation, the Sunderland service to the Chatham Islands ended. The last flight was made by NZ4113 which left Te Whanga lagoon at 12.45pm local time in summer conditions. The Leader of the Opposition, Mr N E Kirk, MP for Lyttelton, was reported as saying “I am very sorry the Sunderlands are being withdrawn before an adequate service from a new airfield has been provided as promised. It leaves the Islands in a most unhappy plight. The flying boats were admirably suited to Chatham Island conditions and have given good service. I am sorry to see them go. It is the passing of an era for both the Islands and the Air Force.” Over the period that the Sunderlands undertook the service, about 4000 passengers were carried.

On the 3rd of May the 1967 a familiarisation flight was made to the Chathams by a Bristol Freighter of No. 3 Battlefield Support Squadron. Then, on the 10th of May 1967 NZ5907 flew the first RNZAF Bristol Freighter service to the Chathams carrying a full load of 18 passengers each way. The NZ Official Yearbooks record that over the next two years the RNZAF Bristol Freighters operated 30 flights each year to the Chatham Islands.

The last of the RNZAF’s air transport flights to the Chathams were flown by Bristol Freighter NZ5904 on the 17th, 18th and 19th of January 1968. Thus the RNZAF, ended in its twenty plus years of serving the Chathams. In doing so it had pioneered the first air service and later the first land-based air service. A few days later after the RNZAF finished, on the 23rd of January 1968 Safe Air Bristol Freighter ZK-CLT flew Safe Air’s first scheduled to the islands. One chapter ended and another was about to begin.

I am indebted to the records of the Aviation Historical Society of New Zealand and the Air Mail Society of New Zealand in writing this. Their records are a great reminder of the importance of recording what is happening today because it will be tomorrow’s history.

For links to other air services to the Chathams see...
http://3rdlevelnz.blogspot.co.nz/2012/05/chatham-islands-index-of-posts.html 

4 comments:

  1. Keith

    Re "The base was under the supervision of a local resident, Mr Glennie".

    This Mr Glennie was my father Charles Alan Glennie. He was from Timaru and employed with the Post Office on the Chatham Islands from 1941 - 1946 as Radio Telegraphist. He passed away at Invercargill in 2012.

    Alex Glennie
    Invercargill
    a.glennie@xtra.co.nz

    ReplyDelete
  2. My father was also a manager of the Flying-Boat Airbase at the Chathams. Reuben Cannon was there in the late 1950s to early 1960s which included the Nov. 1959 incident when the Sunderland hit the submerged reef. I was at the Airbase that day and remember it well. I was 7 yrs old. Some parts of the plane ended up at our place. A pontoon and a ring part from around the engine, made a good sandpit! The 2 launches there while Dad worked there were the Anakoa and the Tasman Air. I have returned to live on the Chathams after 47 yrs in NZ.
    I have many memories of flying in the Sunderlands to go out to Secondary school on the Mainland. Shirley Lindsay [nee Cannon]
    nslindsay@outlook.com

    ReplyDelete