Early aviation companies
Despite the promise of the pioneering flights, little progress was made towards establishing commercial flying in the 1920s. Three aviation companies existed by 1920 – the Walsh brothers’ New Zealand Flying School (Auckland), Henry Wigram’s Canterbury Aviation Company, and Rodolph Wigley’s Timaru-based New Zealand Aero Transport Company. All aspired to provide passenger and mail services over a variety of routes in both islands. Weighing against their entrepreneurial optimism, however, were the country’s small population, the often depressed economy, and the government’s reluctance to be involved with untried ventures in commercial flying, other than by the release of war-surplus aircraft.
The aviation companies fell back on the only alternative to scheduled services, that of joyrides and aerial displays around the country. It was not enough. While the aircraft attracted significant numbers of joyriders, expenses were also high. In addition to normal maintenance costs, frequent take-offs and landings on rough ground and a high rate of mishaps took their toll on the aircraft, and sometimes the pilots.
By the end of 1924, all three companies had disappeared. Wigley’s Aero Transport Company closed down in 1923. In June that year, Wigram signed over the assets of the Canterbury Aviation Company to the government, to establish the New Zealand Permanent Air Force (later renamed the Royal New Zealand Air Force). In 1924 the Walsh brothers abandoned aviation. The government bought some of their assets, but the brothers were forced to burn unwanted aircraft at Kohimarama. There followed an extraordinary pause in the development of aviation: civil flying virtually ceased until the end of the decade.
Aviation historians link the revival of flying activity after 1928 to the development of a new aircraft – the de Havilland Moth – a change in government policy, and a rekindling of public excitement in aviation. The Moth, a cheap, reliable, two-seater biplane, attractive alike to private individuals, aero clubs, and the government, began to be imported in numbers.
At the Auckland Aero Club’s first air pageant at Māngere in April 1929, about 20,000 people watched stunts including formation flying and flour-bag bombing, followed by an aircraft ‘derby’. These events were to become a typical pre-war air show routine.
The government, by now persuaded of the need to foster and maintain a reserve of flying skills that could be called on for military service, began to support aero clubs with financial grants and the loan of aircraft for training. In a true symbiosis, military and civil aviation depended on each other. Aero clubs in Auckland, Hawke’s Bay, Wellington, Marlborough and Canterbury were subsidised by the government. One condition, however, was that the clubs would organise air pageants, which the Air Force attended. Drawing large crowds, the pageants took the place of the travelling aviators as a popular spectacle.