Story: Aviation

Their symbol may be the flightless kiwi, but New Zealanders embraced the aviation revolution as inventors, pilots and passengers. Some rose to fame – including solo pilot Jean Batten for her record-breaking journeys, and belatedly, inventor Richard Pearse for his early flights. Although air travel flourished everywhere, in New Zealand it was fuelled by the urge to conquer distance and isolation across the islands and the world.

Story by Peter Aimer
Main image: An Air New Zealand jet

Story Summary

All images & media in this story

First flights

At the start of the 20th century people around the world, including New Zealanders, were building flying machines and attempting to fly. A South Island farmer, Richard Pearse, was one of the first in the world to fly. Using bamboo, canvas and metal he built an engine-powered plane and became airborne for short distances in 1902 and 1903. But most people believe that Americans Wilbur and Orville Wright were the first to make a controlled flight, in 1903. The age of aviation had begun.

Aviators travelled around New Zealand. Crowds gathered to watch them in flight, and some people went for joyrides. By 1919 nearly 300 men had been trained as pilots.

Record flights

In 1920 the first plane flew across Cook Strait. The next year, pilot George Bolt made the first one-day flight from Auckland to Wellington (about 500 kilometres), and Bert Mercer flew from Invercargill to Auckland (about 1,150 kilometres).

Flying from Australia

Two New Zealand pilots went missing when they tried to make the first flight from Australia to New Zealand in 1928. But that same year Australian aviator Charles Kingsford Smith made the flight at night in his plane Southern Cross. Over 30,000 New Zealanders watched him land.

Jean Batten

In the 1930s the New Zealand pilot Jean Batten became world famous for her record-breaking flights. She made the first solo flight from England to New Zealand in 1936.

Air travel takes off

By the late 1940s people could fly to most New Zealand centres, and to other countries. Flying was more comfortable and much safer than in the early days. From 1947 the national airline was NAC (the National Airways Corporation). In 1978 NAC was taken over by the international airline, Air New Zealand.

In the 1980s some new airlines such as Ansett competed with Air New Zealand. Today, Air New Zealand is partly owned by the government, and is still the country’s main airline.

How to cite this page:

Peter Aimer, 'Aviation', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, http://www.TeAra.govt.nz/en/aviation (accessed 26 September 2018)

Story by Peter Aimer, published 12 Jun 2006