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Nelson Historical Society Journal, Volume 6, Issue 2, 1998

Straight Across

page 39

Straight Across

Published by Richard J Waugh, PO Box 82056, Manukau 80 pages $24.95 (paperback)

This well produced A4 sized book is a comprehensive history of commercial air travel across Cook Strait and the linking of Wellington with Nelson, Blenheim, Motueka and other centres. Although not the first flight across Cook Strait, aviation came to Nelson when on 11 November 1921 an Avro biplane piloted by PK "Shorty" Fowler, with Tom Newman of land transport fame as a passenger, touched down at Stoke. Two years later an Avro float plane landed on Nelson Haven. These pioneer flights demonstrated to Newman and other forward thinking Nelsonians that aviation could offer a quick alternative to other forms of travel. However, coastal shipping quickly reacted to this potential competitor when four days after the float plane arrived in Nelson it was rammed by the Anchor Company's steamer Alexander. The plane came off worst and was ignominiously shipped back to Auckland for repairs. Realising that air travel was going to be a serious rival to other forms of transport, the owners of the Anchor Company, who operated the nightly Nelson-Wellington passenger ferry service, the Union Shipping Company, Newman Brothers and others founded Cook Strait Airways in 1934 in Nelson. This company, based firstly at Stoke where the Saxton Sports Field is now situated, introduced a fleet of De Havilland Dragon Rapide aircraft capable of carrying 6 passengers. With frequent flights both the planes and the service they provided proved to be an immediate success. To meet this new aviation era there were major improvements to Rongatai airport, and in Nelson a completely new airport was carved out of the sandhills at Tahunanui, At the latter, the company re-established their maintenance base and re-erected the large hangers shifted from the Stoke Aerodrome. As it turned out the hangers were to outlive the company.

The onset of the Second World War resulted in the company's planes being transferred to the airforce and Union Airways took over the Cook Strait Services. The conclusion of the war did not see a return of Cook Strait Airways. Instead all of New Zealand's airlines were amalgamated into the government owned National Airways Corporation. NAC's main workhorse was the DC 3 and, particularly on the Cook Strait service, the Heron. In the early 1960s these planes were gradually replaced by the Fokker Friendship. The faster Friendship with its greater comfort, including a pressurised cabin with wings above the windows, quickly became popular with travellers. It was not until deregulation of the skies was truly implemented in late 1983 that commuter airlines began to seriously compete with Air New Zealand which had absorbed NAC in 1979. Air Albatross was perhaps the best known of a number of small commuter airlines which operated into Nelson in the period following deregulation. Also mentioned is SAFE-Air whose lumbering Bristol Freighters were readily recognisable, and heard, in the skies above Nelson.

page 40

Since deregulation the growth of Air Nelson, established by Robert Inglis of Motueka, has been phenomenal although it is perhaps ironic that this company is now fully owned by Air New Zealand Competing with Air Nelson today is Ansett New Zealand Ltd.

While this profusely illustrated book gives a good account of the airlines, it is also about the people who ensured that the planes kept flying. The pilots, ground crews and the men who had the courage and vision to provide the capital to start the airlines. Considering the large number of flights that have now crossed Cook Strait there have been few mishaps, the most notable being when a Union Airways Electra bound for Nelson in 1942 crashed into Mt Richmond. An equally tragic accident occurred when an Air Albatross Cessna from Nelson plunged into Tory Channel after hitting ill-placed powerlines in 1985.

Despite these accidents, the aeroplane has become a widely accepted means of travel and for formerly isolated Nelsonians has brought the major centres within easy reach. This in turn has resulted in Nelson Airport developing to become the fourth busiest in the country. It is certainly a far cry from the wood and linen covered Avro biplane, with Tom Newman on board, that landed in a paddock at Stoke in 1921.

This book and two other similar well illustrated aviation history books, also edited by Richard Waugh – When the Coast is Clear (Air Travel (NZ) Ltd – West Coast Area) and Early Risers (East Coast Airways Ltd – Gisborne-Napier area) – are available from Graeme McConnell, 27 Wastney Terrace, Marybank, Nelson at $24.95 each.

Mike Johnston