Fifty years ago, in March 1967, West Coast Airways concluded operations as the last of the pioneer airlines to fly the South Westland Air Service from Hokitika. Former Hokitika man Rev Dr Richard Waugh New Zealand’s foremost authority on aviation history, grew up under the wings of West Coast Airways, where his father was chief pilot. In this abridged report he recalls some of the stories and personalities who carved out this pioneering air service — the first licensed scheduled air service in New Zealand — which ended 50 years ago following the opening of the Paringa-Haast highway. West Coast Airways is one of several former airlines being celebrated at a reunion in Queenstown this weekend.
The geographical isolation of South Westland was overcome on December 18, 1934, when legendary West Coast pilot Capt Bert Mercer and his Air Travel (NZ) Ltd commenced scheduled services from Hokitika to South Westland.
The aeroplane used was DH83 Fox Moth ZK-ADI.
By the outbreak of World War 2, five aircraft operated and services extended to Greymouth, Westport and Nelson.
New Zealand National Airways Corporation (NAC) compulsorily acquired Air Travel and all other private airlines in 1947, and continued services with Fox Moth and DH89 Dominie aircraft.
However, NAC realised the South Westland air service was incompatible with the formality of its other work and sold it — the only time part of the NAC nationalised route structure was sold.
The successful purchaser was Queenstown-based Southern Scenic Air Services, which had experience with similar versatile aircraft operations.A new subsidiary, West Coast Airways Ltd, was formed, with foundation directors Tom Harris, John Kilian, Fred "Popeye" Lucas, and Barry Topliss.
Services commenced on November 19, 1956, with two DH89 aircraft, the Dominie ZK-AKT, veteran Rapide ZK-AHS, Cessna 180 ZK-BJY and other aircraft from the Queenstown base.
Scheduled services were to Haast with stops at Franz Josef and Fox Glacier. Charter flying was extensive, including south to Milford Sound.
In the highly regulated environment of the late 1950s and early 1960s, West Coast Airways was one of the few scheduled airline operators in New Zealand outside NAC.
Pilot Jack Humphries, who later went on to fly with Air New Zealand, reflected on his year of flying the service in 1957: "Life on the Coast was one long adventure, punctuated by the conflicts of the locals in Haast. There was some tremendous rivalry and fights when passions ran high. Some of the South Westland women could knit barbed wire!"
He said he fell in love with flying the Dominie, as it was an aircraft that "just wanted to fly, not overly powerful, and so it called for your input as a pilot."
Sadly, Tom Harris, the West Coast Airways manager and engineer, was killed on October 29, 1957 in the crash of Auster ZK-AYB, near Maruia Springs, while checking a potential top-dressing job.
Harris was born at Kaniere and had worked for the local airline since prewar days.
Paul Beauchamp Legg soon after began a three-year flying stint from early 1958.
He recalled Dominie scenic flying work: "Based at Franz Josef Glacier, I would start scenic flying at daybreak. There was a very large area at the head of the Franz Josef above which we flew at 500 to 1000 feet, gradually descending close enough to the ice for the passengers to be able to look down the crevasses.
"For a brief period, when the glacier drops very steeply, and we descended sharply, I became more skilled and did a turn at the narrowest point. The passengers often screamed at this stage and when we landed they were very enthusiastic, and their talking did all the selling of more scenic flights for me!"
Former RAF World War 2 pilot Brian Waugh commenced duties with West Coast Airways as chief pilot and chief engineer in 1959, for a long period of service.
He later wrote: "On my first day in the office at the back of the hangar, Mervyn Rumsey, the airline manager, told me: "You’ll carry dentists, farmers, doctors, deerstalkers, sight-seeing types, trampers, alcoholics, dead bodies, bobby calves, crates of butter, bicycles, bread, anything that will go through the Dominie door.
"And that’s what we did carry, and often in atrocious weather conditions, too. Nine o’clock every night very soon became a sacred moment — the weather forecast. What would it be like tomorrow? Would we be able to get the workmen back from their grog sprees in town?"
On November 12, 1960, the Haast Pass road was finally opened, linking South Westland to Otago. Work had begun in 1929 from the Otago side, on a road from Wanaka and Hawea towards Haast Pass, but the early 1930s Depression halted progress at Makarora. Work had recommenced on the road between Haast and Makarora soon after the war ended.
The road opening was marked by a large gathering at Haast, and Waugh and Legg flew in guests in Dominie ZK-AKT and Rapide ZK-AHS.
From 1959 to 1962, Alan Mayne worked as a junior accounts clerk for the Ministry of Works at Greymouth.A large portion of time was spent manually preparing the workers’ pay in cash.
He recalled: "Haast was part of the Greymouth residency and at that time there was no road access. Workers were paid four-weekly and the pay clerk had to fly to Haast from Hokitika with a small suitcase full of cash. The pay clerk was escorted to the plane at Hokitika and then flew to Haast in the Dominie. The pay bag had to be kept with him at all times. He was then met by someone from the Haast office when the plane landed there.
"On one pay trip to Haast the weather deteriorated after the Dominie returned to Hokitika and we were unable to get out for about five days."
Pilot Geoff Houston was appointed in August 1961.
Versatile flying included topdressing, venison recovery, air ambulance, scenic flying and supply dropping, along with the usual busy scheduled flights.
On February 7, 1964, while Houston was returning to Hokitika in Cessna ZK-BJW after venison recovery work at Haast, the weather deteriorated. It included an unusually thick fog which rolled in from the sea. Two days later, the wreckage of the Cessna was sighted on Greens Beach, near the base of Opuku Cliff .
The fatality was a tragic time for the Houston family and all associated with the air service.
West Coast Airways continued its varied operations.
In January 1965, Waugh recorded 25 scenic flights from Franz Josef, two ambulance flights, two Milford Sound scenic flights, three special charters (including two supply dropping flights) and all the usual weekday scheduled services.
Crayfish and whitebait in season continued as prominent freight, and Waugh flew out the biggest single Dominie whitebait load of 1523lb in October 1964.
In May 1965 New Zealand Tourist Air Travel (TAT) took over Southern Scenic Air Services and in turn West Coast Airways.Six months later, the long-awaited Paringa to Haast road connection was opened, closing the gap in New Zealand’s network of national highways.
Demand for the air service to Haast disappeared as new road services eliminated the bulk of the airline’s freight and passenger work.
Working as pilot and manager, Waugh worked to further diversify operations with scenic flying, air ambulance, supply dropping and charter flying, including innovative educational flights for local schoolchildren.
Adding to the challenge, the prewar DH89 Rapide was increasingly obsolete compared with the versatility of new helicopters and ski-equipped aircraft.
Waugh operated final flights over Easter Weekend 1967. On April 1, Rapide ZK-AHS left Hokitika, making a couple of low passes over the town, Franz Josef and at Haast.
Gordon Bowman, Hokitika Airport superintendent, who had long associations with the air service, remarked: "Today sees the end of an era, as West Coast Airways ceases to exist. So this is really the end of the effort which was started by Bert Mercer."
Final boarding call
The last reunion of staff and families from pioneer post-war airlines West Coast Airways, Southern Scenic Air Services, Ritchie Air Services, TAT and early Queenstown-based Mount Cook will be held in Queenstown from today through the weekend.
Many aircraft from New Zealand’s first licensed air service survive:
• all three DH83 Fox Moth aircraft used by Capt Bert Mercer are restored and airworthy; ZK-ADI (Mandeville, Southland), ZK-AEK (Canada) and ZK-AGM (UK).
• DH89 Rapide ZK-AHS resides at Auckland’s MoTaT museum and DH89s Dominies ZK-AKU (Tauranga) and ZK-AKY (Mandeville) continue to fly.
• Cessna ZK-BJY (once wearing West Coast Airway livery) flies in South Canterbury.
• Replica Fox Moths are at Hokitika Airport (ZKADI) and Auckland’s MoTaT (ZK-AEK).