Updated December 2016
Any regional or 3rd level airline that wants to survive in New Zealand really needs a niche market. One regional airline success story is Air Chathams which has grown from a fleet of one Cessna 337 in 1985 to a fleet of three Convairs, two Metroliners, a Rockwell Commander 690 and a Cessna 206 today.
Craig Emeny's association with the Chatham Islands began in the early 1980s when he began flying crayfish between Pitt Island and Chatham Island for various fishing companies using Cessna 180K ZK-EYH (c/n 180-53011) which was based at an airstrip at Owenga.
Craig Emeny's original Cessna 180 ZK-EYH at the strip at Owenga.
Seeing the need for this air service to Pitt Island and for a more economic way to get the crayfish to mainland New Zealand Craig and Judy Emeny decided to form their own Chatham Island based operation and they purchased Air Rarotonga's Cessna 337F Super Skymaster, ZK-TAI (c/n 337-01456) in 1984. Initially the aircraft was operated under Napier-based East Air’s licence with crayfish and passengers being flown from the Chathams to the mainland. Most flights went to Gisborne but the 337 also flew to other mainland destinations as well as providing a regular link to smaller Pitt Island. The impact was immediate – the return on live crayfish increased from $6.80 per kg to $10.00 per kg!
|Cessna 337F ZK-TAI seen still sporting the same livery it flew in for Air Rarotonga photographed while on maintenance at Hastings on the 20th of February 1985. At this stage it was still operating on East Air's licence.|
|Repainted and titled - Cessna 337F ZK-TAI on a visit to Christchurch on 4 May 1986|
In March 1985 Air Chathams was granted its own licence and began operating in its own right. On the 3rd of December 1986 disaster struck the young company when the nose wheel of ZK-TAI collapsed on Pitt Island's Waipaua strip. On board were the newly appointed Catholic Bishop of Christchurch and the local Catholic Parish Priest. No one was injured, though the bishop did sport a black eye which caused suitable comment on his return to the mainland.
|Air Chathams' second Cessna 337, ZK-TSH, at Christchurch on 22 March 1987|
|Above, the Beech Queen Air at Christchurch on 4 April 1988 still in her American registration, N640K. Below, the Queen Air has assumed her New Zealand identity, ZK-CIA. Photo taken at Christchurch on 23 April 1988.|
The Queen Air could carry nine passengers or one ton of freight. NZ Wings wrote a profile on Air Chathams in October 1996, and this spoke of the aircraft’s “cabin class comfort and capability.” Air charter freight operations remained the bread and butter work for the growing company. Passengers fitted in and around the freight operations but the plane was used for charter flights enabling Chatham Islanders to attend rugby matches, races, funerals and the likes easily without being constrained by the Safe Air schedule. In the article Craig Emeny described the impact of the Queen Air on the Chathams economy: “The biggest thing was the increase in crayfish prices, from $7 a kilo up to $50 in winter. We more than doubled the returns to the fishermen, and the cash flow quadrupled for the locals. The factories wanted to take shares in the company and control the airline, but I wanted to run an air transport operation only. That led to a lack of investment capital but a continuing trust. You must stick to your principles." Air Chathams was becoming a fast growing part of the island's economy.
No sign of the Beech Queen Air's American registration, but marked as the purists like it, with a "ZK-", ZK-CIA at Nelson on 5 October 1991.
Pitt Island’s Waipaua strip again proved problematic in 1988. On the 6th of September 1988 Cessna 337 ZK-TSH was caught by wind shear on take-off and ran into scrub and fern, badly damaging a wing and twisting the fuselage.
In 1996 NZ Wings reported that “Craig Emeny is not one to dispose of his aircraft unnecessarily - he still has the hulks of both Cessna 337s, one in a shed behind his house at Te One, Chatham Island, and the other in Taranaki. ‘One day I'm going to rebuild one good 337 out of the two. One day.’”
|Cessna 337 ZK-TAI looking rather sad on the 18th of October 1987|
Sadly, since then, ZK-TAI has been scrapped. It would have made a wonderful addition to the development of the Chathams Island's aviation museum given it was the first of Air Chathams' aircraft.
With Cessna 337 ZK-TSH's written-off Air Chathams had need for a new aircraft to service the on-demand Pitt Island flights. The Pitt Island service had established itself as an important passenger and freight link to Pitt Island as well as being important for the freighting of fish from Pitt to the Tuuta airport on Chatham for connecting flights to the mainland. The Pitt Island plane was also extremely useful for off shore search and rescue work as well as sightseeing flights.
The replacement aircraft came in the form of Cessna U206F Stationair ZK-DOA (c/n U206-02203) which was registered to Air Chathams on 8 September 1989. Despite a rather unfortunate registration it proved to be a faithful workhorse for many years. The aircraft was also useful in emergency situations. In 1996 local doctor was flown to Pitt in atrocious conditions in the Cessna after a paua diver experienced a shark attack suffering deep bites on his back, arms and neck, losing a great deal of blood. The patient was flown back to Chatham before being transferred to the mainland in Air Chathams’ Metroliner ZK-CIC.
|Cessna 206 ZK-DOA on Pitt Island in April 1996.|
The following series of photos sent to me by Dave Paull of the NZ Civil Aviation blog (http://www.nzcivair.blogspot.com/) give a great example of the Pitt Island operation, though they don't do ZK-DOA justice her covered he anti corrosion paint... The photos were taken on Chatham on the 18th of October 1997.
|Preparing for a flight to Pitt with empty plastic tubs for fish on the return flight..|
|A mix of passenger(s), freight and empty fish containers taxiing for the flight to Pitt..|
|The heavy load of fish has arrived back from Pitt ready to be transhipped to the waiting Convair|
With a price tag of $1.2 million dollars, the purchase of the Beech 99 was a big investment for the company. The Beech marked a big step up for Air Chathams and it was this aircraft that established the shape of Air Chathams as an airline. The turbo prop was faster than Mount Cook's 748s and could carry about one and a half ton of freight or up to 15 passengers on the service to New Zealand. In October 1991 Air Chathams began a twice weekly scheduled service to Wellington and a weekly service to Napier with other non-scheduled freight flights operated as required.
Meanwhile, the Beech Queen Air ZK-CIA found no work and it was eventually flown to Bridge Pa Airport at Hastings where it languished and grew moss for many years until it was sold to a local farmer in 2014.
|Sadly languishing... Beech Queen Air ZK-CIA at Bridge Pa on 30 November 2013|
The Beech 99 proved to be a great success and passenger and freight traffic grew despite fierce competition from Mount Cook Airline. In September 1993 Air Chatham added Fairchild SA227-AC Metroliner III ZK-CIC (c/n AC623B) to its fleet. At the same time the company introduced a more comprehensive schedule to the mainland with twice weekly flights from the Chathams to Christchurch and three or four flights to Wellington, one of these also including Napier. Flying at 250 knots with a capacity of 17 cubic metres and equipped with a rear-loading cargo door measuring 1.3 metres, the Metroliner was an ideal combi aircraft, being used to transport one tonne of freight with 11 passengers or in an all-cargo configuration carrying two tonnes. In early 1994, after the arrival of the Metroliner, the Beech 99 ZK-CIB was sold and exported back to the USA as N900AR.
With the withdrawal of the Mount Cook Service Air Chathams became the sole operator to the Chatham Islands and with the Convair not yet delivered flights were maintained using Metroliner ZK-CIC. With Mount Cook gone the future looked bright for Air Chathams but on the 17th of February 1996, the Civil Aviation Authority grounded the company after a supposedly normal inspection the previous month. In grounding Air Chathams the CAA raised questions about the pilots’ Metroliner ratings and whether the pilots were properly trained or checked. The CAA also questioned whether the check pilot was appropriately licensed and expressed doubts about the prescribed safety standards, practices and training being recorded correctly.
|Heavy in the tail... Metroliner ZK-CIC fuelled and loaded starts at Christchurch for the long haul to the Chathams on 11 November 1996.|
So was the grounding justified? The CAA was subjected to a Parliamentary Transport Select Committee hearing where questions of vested interests within the authority and an allegation of bias against Air Chathams were explored. The Committee felt that the CAA had not proven there was a safety issue with the company. NZ Wings' September 1996 edition reported that Air Chathams felt that the CAA had been unfair, obstructive and over-zealous in applying the rules, had falsely induced Air Chathams to sign its own suspension warrant and then actively prevented the airline from becoming operational again by removing its checking and training organisation. It named three CAA employees, one a previous employee of Air Chathams, who it maintained were particularly obstructive during the 55-day affair. It also said that the CAA's actions had created enormous financial difficulties for the airline. The CAA contested many of the Air Chathams claims and has stated that at the time of its investigations the airline was unsafe and was unable to demonstrate that it complied with the necessary safety requirements. It said that its investigations "showed serious safety deficiencies", and it "utterly rejected" the allegation that it had been obstructive in any way. The authority said that it "positively and proactively attempted to facilitate Air Chathams training which was a basis of the airline regaining its operational approvals."
The grounding put the finance for the Convair in doubt. Air Chathams had lost close to $400,000 fighting Mt Cook Airlines and the grounding cost the company some $600,000. With assistance from the Chatham Island Enterprise Trust and Pitt Islanders and with the support of some of the fish processors on the mainland the company was able to put the finance together to complete the purchase.
Air Chatham’s first General Dynamics Allison Convair 440/580, ZK-CIB (c/n 327A), began services to the Chathams on the 29th of July 1996 flying from Wellington to the Chathams with 13 passengers and 3 tonnes of freight and returning the next day with 5 tonnes of freight and 7 passengers. The Convair was configured as a combi meaning it could easily change from an all freight configuration with a total capacity of 6.3 tonnes, an all passenger configuration with a capacity for 39 passengers, and the normal mixed passenger/freight configuration with a capacity for 19 passengers and 4 tonnes or freight. The Convair’s large cargo door enables a palletised freight system similar to the cargons Safe Air used with Bristol Freighters and Argosies. Despite its age the Convair with its Allison turboprops give the aircraft a cruising speed of 285 knots at a normal operating altitude of 22,000 feet. It also offers the advantage of being able to carry a commercial payload to the Chathams of 5.1 tonnes eastbound and 6.1 back to New Zealand with all the refuelling being done on the mainland. A flight attendant is carried on all Convair passenger flights.
|Air Chatham's flagship, Convair 580 ZK-CIB at Chatham on 20 April 2014|
|ZK-CIB's front office|
|On the flight down to the Chathams on 15 April 2014 the Convair was in a full 39-seat passenger configuration - note the seats on the left hand side of the cargo door. The large door is ideal for this combi operation.|
As time moved on Air Chathams had to look for new work for the Metroliner. In September 1997 the Southland Times announced that it was going to fly consignments of live lobsters between Invercargill and Christchurch. In late 1997 and 1998 it was used on contract with Ansett Air Freight and Air National while still being available to support the Convair during maintenance or breakdowns. Later Origin Pacific also used the Metroliner for both passenger and freight services.
|Above, Metroliner 23, ZK-JSV, arrives at Christchurch on 23 October 2001 on an Origin Pacific freight flight. Below, ZK-JSV again on a freight flight this time in full Origin colours at Nelson on 15 February 2005.|
|Metroliner 23 ZK-JSJ at Christchurch on 23 June 2001.|
Air Chathams hit the news on the 18th of March 1999, when shortly before 5.00pm Cessna 206 ZK-DOA had a sudden engine failure north of Pitt Island. The pilot managed to get off a mayday call and to glide closer to shore before ditching in the sea. The plane filled with water and sank within seconds. The pilot, Steve Kihi and his four passengers safely escaped from the aircraft before swimming an hour to shore without the aid of life-jackets. Life-jackets were on board the aircraft but there was insufficient time for the pilot and passengers to locate them and put them on. By the time the five made shore Pitt Islanders were on hand to offer help and a fire was lit and tea brewed. The survivors were treated for cuts and bruises and two were treated for mild hypothermia. The aircraft was never recovered and the cause of the engine failure was not determined.
|ZK-KAI on Chatham in June 2001...|
|...and on Pitt Island on 20 April 2014|
|The facilities at Pitt Island's Waipaua airstrip|
|The all passenger Convair ZK-KSA about to line up on Wellington's Runway 16 on its flight to the Chathams on the 30th of March 2005.|
|Convair 580 ZK-CID at Auckland while still in use...|
|...sadly languishing at Palmerston North on 30 September 2007... |
|Convair 580 ZK-CIE was painted in Air Chathams' colours but never carried titles. It is seen here on the taxi at Christchurch for its flight to the Chathams on 29 August 2006.|
|A couple of shots of Convair 580 ZK-CIF at Auckland - above on 24 November 2005 and below a stunning sunset shot on 29 November 2005.|
|CIF was never painted in Air Chathams' two tone green colour scheme... instead it was repainted in an all-white scheme as seen here at Auckland on 29 June 2008 soon after Chathams Pacific started operations|
Source : The Chatham Islander, 11 July 2006
Following the collapse of Origin Pacific in 2006 the Metroliner returned to the Air Chathams fleet for use on charter work as well as back up for the Convair and during this time it was used to operate an extra Friday flight between Christchurch and the Chathams over the summer months.
|Back operating for Air Chathams but still in Origin colours, ZK-CIC, on finals for runway 02 at Christchurch on 7 December 2007.|
For more on Air Chathams' Pacific operations see
|ZK-CIF was the only Convair to wear Chathams Pacific titles. It is seen here at Auckland on 2 March 2012|
|Still with Origin Pacific colours but Chathams Pacific titles ZK-CIC arrives back into Tongatapu's Fua'amotu International Airport on 6 January 2011|
|Convair 580 at Manapouri on a Tauck Tour on the 9th of May 2012|
|The Tauck Tour of New Zealand... red is road transport|
A couple of days after arriving back in New Zealand Britten Norman BN2A-27 Islander ZK-LYP (c/n 821) flew from Auckland to the Chathams to cover for the Pitt Island service while the Cessna 206 which was having its engine changed. As the main summer tourist season was coming to an end the Islander was used for only a few flights in early 2014 but even in that brief time it proved very popular with the locals. It flew back to Auckland in August 2014 and was chartered by Great Barrier Airlines for a time before being sold in Australia in October 2015 becoming VH-TRS.
|BN Islander ZK-LYP in the hangar at Chatham on 20 April 2014... The titles are in a terrible place! Below a better shot of ZK-LYP at Auckland on 23 September 2014|
|The revised logo introduced in 2014|
Like the BN Islander, the Metroliner, ZK-CIC found little work in New Zealand after its return from Tonga. This changed on the 28th of April 2015 when Air New Zealand withdrew its services to Whakatane. Air Chathams took over the service the same day. The first couple of weeks the service was operated using Convairs but the Metroliner has proved a better fit for Whakatane and now ZK-CIC is the mainstay of the Whakatane service. Initially two flights were operated each weekday with a reduced weekend schedule but from the 27th of July 2015 the weekday schedule was increased to three flights a day.
|A rather bland looking Metroliner ZK-CIC looking for work at Auckland on 25 March 2014|
|Convair 580 ZK-CIE arriving at Whakatane from Auckland on 6 November 2015|
|Above, Douglas DC-3 ZK-AWP finishes her engine run ups at Whakatane prior to flying to Auckland on 8 November 2015. Below, AWP shows off her new titling as she taxis at Auckland for her afternoon flight to Whakatane on 19 December 2015.|
For a photo essay on the DC-3 service to Whakatane see
The Whakatane service got further promotion in December 2015 when Air Chathams rebranded its Metroliner in a Whakatane colour scheme.
|Fairchild Metroliner ZK-CIC, the Whakatane plane, taxis to the terminal at Whakatane on 28 December 2015|
|Whakatane Schedule, Effective 28 October 2015|
|Craig Emeny in the right hand seat of Air Chathams' DC-3|
Meanwhile the air services from Chatham to Pitt and to New Zealand that Craig Emeny established continue to do grow. Where in 1985 his Cessna 337 made the flight as freight dictated now the airline flies four scheduled Convair flights a week between Chatham and the mainland during the winter months and six flights a week over the summer months. During this time Air Chathams have been a major player in developing tourism on the Chathams with a growing number of New Zealanders wanting to visit this interesting group of islands. Tourists often avail themselves the opportunity to avail themselves of the service to Pitt Island which continues to be an important link to the Pitt Islanders. It is run on demand but over the summer and the crayfish season there can be several flights each day.
|The winter schedule - The Chatham Islander, September 2015|
|The summer schedule - The Chatham Islander, November 2015|
2016 saw the addition of three additional aircraft. An Aero Commander 690A, ZK-PVB (c/n 11321), was added to the fleet in late February 2016. To date the aircraft has not been assigned for any specific work.
|Aero Commander 690 ZK-PVB on the Chathams on 14 May 2016.|
In April 2016 Air Chathams acquired a second Fairchild SA227-AC Metroliner, ZK-NSS. This was reregistered as ZK-CID (c/n AC692B) and painted in Air Chathams colours.
|Fairchild Metroliner ZK-CID at Auckland on 1 August 2016|
Air Chathams commenced their Whanganui to Auckland service on the 1st of August 2016. Saab 340A ZK-KRA operated flight CV701 under the command of Captain Tom Dunn and First Officer Adam Baker with Flight Attendant Violet Gordon-Glassford in the cabin. Air Chathams is operating three return weekday flights between the two centres, two northbound and one southbound services on Saturdays and one northbound and two southbound services on Sundays.
|Saab 340 ZK-KRA on final approach to Auckland on 1 August 2016, the first day of the Whanganui-Auckland service|
2016 also saw Air Chathams paint the all white Convairs, ZK-CIE and ZK-CIF in full Air Chathams' colours.
|All repainted, Air Chathams' Convair 580 ZK-CIF at Auckland on 19 May 2016 (above) and Convair 580 ZK-CIE at Wellington on 28 October 2016 (below)|
2016 ended with the addition of another Convair to the fleet in late November. ZK-KFL was purchased from Air Freight (NZ) and retained its all freight configuration. It was immediately put to work flying fish from the Chathams to New Zealand.
|Delivering its first load of fish to Wellington, Convair ZK-KFL on 1 December 2016. It is seen below at Auckland on 2 December 2016.|
As for the future the big question for aviation enthusiasts is what will eventually be the replacement for the Convair. The ATR 72 seems to the most rumoured replacement but there are no plans for this as the mighty Convair continues to be the best fit for Chatham Islands. With Air Chathams flying Convairs and a DC-3 it is becoming a magnet for aviation enthusiasts from around the world.
Wherever Air Chathams have operated it has established itself as an airline for the community. One wonders what communities it will serve in its next 30 years as it confidently moves onwards and upwards.