Story: Transport – overview

Page 5. Air travel

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The greater power-to-weight ratio of the internal combustion engine made air travel possible. The attractions of aircraft (besides novelty and the new views they provided) were their speed, their capacity to cross both land and water, and the comparatively limited infrastructure they required.

Early New Zealand flights

Richard Pearse achieved the first ‘powered take-off’ in New Zealand in South Canterbury in 1903, shortly before the Wright brothers, but New Zealand’s first sustained, controlled flight is credited to Vivian Walsh at Papakura, Auckland, in February 1911. Private enterprises, like Henry Wigram’s Canterbury Aviation Company, provided training, joyrides and mail transport early on. The first regular licensed air service for passengers began on the West Coast in 1934, and two years later Union Airways had services connecting Dunedin and Auckland.

International connections

In 1928 Charles Kingsford Smith and his crew crossed the Tasman Sea in the Southern Cross, the first flight to New Zealand from the outside world. Within a decade aircraft were an alternative to shipping for transporting people and goods (mainly mail) to and from New Zealand. A flying boat service between the United States and Auckland was operated briefly by Pan-American Airways in 1937 and 1940–41. A service to Australia was established by Tasman Empire Airways Limited (TEAL) in 1940. For most New Zealanders domestic air travel, let alone international flights, remained unusual until the 1960s, but the rich and powerful appreciated the speed with which aircraft took them around the country and overseas.

1940s aviation developments

Continuing aviation developments, some for military use during the Second World War, helped air transport grow in New Zealand. From 1949 the aerial topdressing industry began, using ex-military aircraft and pilots. This led to intensive farming of hill-country pastures, particularly in the North Island, and a massive increase in stock numbers.

The jet engine

Jet propulsion made air travel faster and much cheaper, and allowed perishable goods to be transported long distances. The first jet to arrive in New Zealand was a Gloster Meteor in 1946. Its speed was demonstrated throughout the country by Squadron Leader Bob McKay. Jet technology was first introduced on internal routes, with jet-prop aircraft such as the Vickers Viscount (1958) and the Fokker Friendship (1961). In 1959 TEAL began flying jet-prop Lockheed Electras across the Tasman. The first international jet service was established between London and Auckland by BOAC in 1963, using a De Havilland Comet. Two years later Air New Zealand began a service to Los Angeles using DC8 jets.

Flying and sport

The advent of jumbo jets influenced the frequency and nature of sports competitions. Previously widely-spaced international sporting tours were transformed into annual events, and professional rugby franchises in New Zealand, Australia and South Africa competed in a joint annual contest.

Jets, travel and tourism

In the early 1970s wide-bodied (‘jumbo’) jets heralded a new age of cheaper and faster international travel for New Zealanders and boosted tourism. In 1999–2000, 1.65 million overseas visitors came to New Zealand, compared with around 70,000 in 1959–60. Some arrived on cruise ships, but they too had typically travelled by jet to join the cruise. There were almost 1.2 million short-term departures of New Zealanders overseas that year, compared with fewer than 40,000 in 1959–60.

Emigration and immigration

Emigration and immigration were also facilitated by international air travel. Queensland became an attractive retirement option for many New Zealanders, while higher wages and novelty drew younger people to Australia in droves, undoubtedly helped by the much lower cost and greater ease of air travel. Britain remained a major focus for young New Zealanders on their often extended ‘OE’ (overseas experience), but the flexibility of air transport also opened up a wider range of destinations in North America and Asia. From the 1970s and 1980s increased immigration from a wider range of countries could be traced to diversification of air routes as well as changes in immigration policies.

Helicopters

Helicopters reached New Zealand in the 1950s. They were rapidly deployed for agricultural spraying, and for transporting workers and materials to inaccessible places. From the 1960s they were used for commercial hunting of deer. They proved ideal for search and rescue, and for rapidly transporting seriously ill patients to hospital.

How to cite this page:

James Watson, 'Transport – overview - Air travel', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, http://www.TeAra.govt.nz/en/transport-overview/page-5 (accessed 19 September 2021)

Story by James Watson, published 11 Mar 2010