The development of aviation in New Zealand has inevitably been accompanied by accidents, from which tragic but necessary lessons have been learned.
First air accidents
Nineteenth-century balloonist David Mahoney (alias Captain Charles Lorraine) was the first New Zealander to die in an air accident, drowning after his balloon came down in the sea beyond the entrance to Lyttelton Harbour in 1899. Balloons gave way to aeroplanes before the First World War, and the pioneering phase of aviation stretched into the 1930s. During these years aerial displays and tours were popular, and there were numerous mishaps. The first aircraft fatality occurred in 1919 when a biplane crashed during an aerobatic display over a race meeting at Christchurch, killing pilot Cecil Hill. Such accidents brought home the hazardous nature of flying.
An aerobatic error
Formation flying is risky – the slightest error of judgement can lead to disaster. A miscalculation led to the fatal crash of a Skyhawk in the RNZAF formation flying team, Kiwi Red, in 1989. The plane clipped another as it attempted a roll, and crashed into the ground. Subsequently, the team disbanded.
Early commercial aviation disasters
Commercial aviation began before the Second World War, flourishing after 1945 when a state airline, the National Airways Corporation (NAC), was established. In just under 11 years from 1938 there were five major fatal accidents. The two crew members of a Union Airways Electra that crashed at Māngere, Auckland, in May 1938 were the first people to die on a scheduled air service in New Zealand. In May 1942 another Union Airways Electra collided with Mt Richmond on a flight from Wellington to Nelson, killing five people. An NAC DC3 freighter carrying two crew hit a ridge overlooking Tory Channel in August 1948, and then in October 13 people died when an NAC Electra flew into Mt Ruapehu on a flight from Palmerston North to Hamilton. In March 1949 NAC suffered another calamity when a Lodestar flying from Auckland crashed only minutes from landing at Paraparaumu, killing all 15 on board.
While there were various causes, these disasters highlighted the need for industry regulation – including more rigorous in-flight safety procedures for commercial pilots – and revealed deficiencies in both aircraft and ground navigation aids. At that stage navigation beacons were not available everywhere in the country, and aircraft instruments were often unreliable. Influenced by recent events, in 1948 a government commission recommended restructuring civil aviation.
Stewards of safety
‘In the unlikely event of an emergency, follow the instructions of your crew – they know what to do.’ These words are familiar to New Zealand air travellers, but before the mid-1950s cabin crew were carried on only a few flights. After the crash of a DC3 near Raumati in 1954, some surviving passengers suggested that a flight attendant might have helped save the lives of the three children who died. In 1956 NAC began employing flight attendants, and from 1960 attendants were mandatory on aircraft seating more than 14 passengers. They are trained in first-aid and emergency procedures and play an important safety role.
The 1963 Kaimai crash
The 1963 crash of an NAC DC3, with the loss of 23 people, remains the worst air accident within New Zealand. On 3 July the flight departed from Auckland, bound for Wellington via Tauranga, Gisborne and Napier. The weather was stormy, but forecasts underestimated the force of the wind. As the plane began its descent towards Tauranga it was caught in a downdraught and slammed into a ridge on the Kaimai Range. Insufficient altitude and navigational problems contributed to the crash, but the ferocious winds were the deciding factor. It took two days for rescuers to locate and reach the crash site.
The inquiry noted that there was no distance-measuring equipment at Tauranga airport, which would have given the pilot an accurate indication of how far he was from his destination. One recommendation was that this equipment be installed at all airports served by commercial flights. It also suggested a review of minimum safe altitudes for flights, taking into account terrain and weather conditions, and the provision of locator beacons for aircraft so they could quickly be found in the event of a crash. These were finally made mandatory in all passenger planes after several light aircraft were lost without trace in the early 1980s. Digital data flight recorders were gradually introduced to help determine the cause of accidents. Since 1989 they have been required on all multi-engined turbine-powered planes.
The New Zealand government regulated the aviation industry from 1918, when it passed an act to control civil aviation. The Air Board was established in 1920. Licensing of air services began in 1934, and from 1951 was administered by the Air Services Licensing Authority. In 1937 the Air Department was established to administer both military and civil aviation, and in 1964 a separate Department of Civil Aviation was set up. It became a division of the Department of Transport in 1968.
Restructuring and funding cuts in the 1980s reduced the government’s involvement in aviation. The much-reduced Air Transport Division, responsible for policing the industry, and the profit-making Airways Corporation, which managed air traffic control, were both established in 1987. Another development was the deregulation of the aviation industry, which led to a proliferation of new, mostly small, airlines. In 1990, air services licensing was abolished.
The diminished government role overseeing an expanding industry is widely believed to have contributed to deteriorating air safety. 1989 was a particularly bad year for accidents. Although there have been further changes, notably the establishment of the Civil Aviation Authority in the early 1990s, the monitoring of air traffic control and airline operations draws criticism into the 2000s.