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by  Peter Aimer

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.

The beginnings of aviation

Although the technical breakthrough of the internal combustion engine in the 1870s is associated with the arrival of the motor car, it was also the basis of a 20th-century revolution in transport – aviation. Flying heavier-than-air craft is one of humankind’s major technological achievements in recent history.

First flights in New Zealand

In New Zealand, as elsewhere, aviation began with experiments in the design, construction and testing of potential aircraft. Among such attempts were those of a talented and inventive South Island farmer, Richard William Pearse. Some time in 1902–1904 Pearse achieved ‘long hops’ in his flying machine constructed of bamboo, tubular steel, wire and canvas, but never the sustained, controlled flight that marked the advent of aviation. That historic accomplishment was claimed by the Americans Wilbur and Orville Wright in December 1903. Within a few years, Wilbur Wright was achieving flights lasting over an hour. In 1909 newspapers trumpeted Louis Blériot’s crossing of the English Channel. The age of aviation had arrived in America and Europe.

In New Zealand, attempts to fly continued. Herbert John Pither, John Pechugin, Henry Little, Arthur Shaef and others designed and constructed machines that taxied and sometimes rose briefly. In early February 1911 Vivian Walsh finally achieved sustained, controlled flight at Glenora Park, Papakura, in an imported biplane named Manurewa (floating bird).

Flying demonstrations

New Zealand aviators now turned to aircraft of tested design to embark on pioneering flights. In 1914 James William Humphreys Scotland, piloting his imported Caudron biplane, began a demonstration tour around New Zealand. He visited Invercargill, Gore, Timaru and Christchurch, to the wonder of earth-bound onlookers. The Caudron was put on a ferry to cross Cook Strait for a North Island tour, only to be wrecked by a Wellington storm.

Auckland citizens, however, were not denied the spectacle of flight. Early in 1914, Lieutenant Joseph Hammond demonstrated the noisy capacity of a Blériot aircraft to appreciative crowds at the Epsom Showgrounds. One flight over the city at a very low altitude lasted for an hour.

Wartime training

Aviation gained impetus from the advent of air warfare. During the First World War, the design and capability of aircraft advanced significantly. War also gave New Zealand’s aviation leaders an added purpose. In Auckland the Walsh brothers, Vivian and Leo, established the New Zealand Flying School at Kohimarama, using sea planes to train pilots, many of whom then went on to serve with the Royal Flying Corps in Britain. Henry Wigram followed suit in Christchurch, establishing the Canterbury (NZ) Aviation Company at Sockburn (later Wigram) air base.

By 1919 nearly 300 men had learned to fly at the two schools. The war over, some at least were keen to turn to civilian flying. War also left a stock of surplus aircraft, which Britain distributed to its loyal dominions. New Zealand accepted 33 planes, which were made available to individuals, aero clubs and the flying schools.

Early flying feats

The immediate post-war years were active and optimistic times for the emerging aviation industry. The more robust wartime and post-war aircraft that became available after 1918 proved the feasibility of long-distance flying. Around the country, crowds of spectators were thrilled by itinerant aviators offering joyrides from parks, racecourses, paddocks and beaches. The improving technology brought a spate of flying ‘firsts’ that would continue for decades in New Zealand. Pioneering flights were made from both ends of the country.

North Island firsts

The New Zealand Flying School’s chief pilot, George Bolt, used its new Boeing floatplanes to reach into Northland. His flight of 233 kilometres from Auckland to Russell in 1919 was a record distance for the time. The next year Jimmy Woods, also from the school, made the first flight from Auckland to Hamilton. Continuing on a joyriding tour of the East Coast and Wairarapa, he became the first to fly into Wellington since 1914.

Connecting the islands

In August 1920 Captain Euan Dickson of the Canterbury Aviation Company, with two passengers and some mail, left Christchurch. Flying via Kaikōura and Blenheim they landed on the Trentham Racecourse in the Hutt Valley, having made a historic first crossing of Cook Strait. Shortly after, Captains Tom Wilkes and Leonard Isitt were the first to fly over Mt Cook, and early in 1921 Stewart Islanders heard an aircraft overhead for the first time. Pilot Maurice Buckley dropped copies of the Southland Times before heading back to Invercargill.

Longer flights

In the North Island on 4 October 1921, George Bolt, flying a floatplane, achieved the first one-day flight from Auckland to Wellington, via Kāwhia and Whanganui. This feat was surpassed later that month by a spectacular flight from Invercargill to Auckland, piloted for most of the way by J. C. ‘Bert’ Mercer, with aviation entrepreneur Rodolph Wigley as a passenger. Bad weather forced them to put down in Timaru on 24 October, but they continued the next day, landing in Auckland’s Cornwall Park in the evening. The total flight time was under nine hours. Compared to the much longer and more demanding excursion by car and boat, this was an extraordinary accomplishment, and a portent of the transport revolution to come.

An aviation industry

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.

Air shows

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.

Crossing the Tasman

Public interest in aviation was stirred by a new generation of long-distance fliers, who led the way for future international air services.

The 1920s

In 1927 Charles Lindbergh had famously flown the Atlantic. For New Zealand pilots, the Tasman Sea between New Zealand and Australia was a closer challenge. Although aircraft had flown in stages from England to Australia, none had yet crossed the Tasman in either direction. In January 1928 two New Zealand airforce pilots, Captain George Hood and Lieutenant John Moncrieff, attempted the crossing from Sydney in a single-engine aircraft. An excited crowd assembled at Trentham in Lower Hutt to welcome their arrival. They never appeared – men and aircraft vanished forever.

Only six months later however, the Australians Charles Kingsford Smith and Charles Ulm and crew, made the first historic crossing of the Pacific from California to Queensland, in the now legendary three-engined Fokker, Southern Cross.

In September they continued to New Zealand. After a stormy night flight, the Southern Cross circled Wellington on the way to Wigram, where it landed before a crowd estimated at between 30,000 and 40,000. The event was filmed and broadcast live over the radio. The nation shared in the jubilant celebrations.

The 1930s

Novel and daring aviation feats continued to capture people’s imagination into the 1930s. Once a route had been pioneered, it remained for someone to do it faster, or in a smaller aircraft, or alone, and for women to make their mark in ventures undertaken mostly by men.

In 1931 an Australian, Guy Menzies, became the first to fly the Tasman solo, and in a single-engine aircraft. In the same year, Englishman Francis Chichester threaded his way alone from New Zealand to Australia via Norfolk Island and Lord Howe Island. In 1933 and 1934, the ever-popular Kingsford Smith and Ulm were back, joining forces in crowd-pulling tours. Mrs Ulm and a friend, travelling as passengers, became the first women to fly over the Tasman.

Jean Batten

In 1934 the Tasman was crossed by air nine times. If there was a danger of the novelty wearing off, public excitement in New Zealand and around the world was stirred afresh by the record-breaking feats of the New Zealand aviator Jean Batten. Flying alone in 1934 from England to Australia, she became the fastest solo woman pilot to achieve the distance. Two years later she broke all records, and then on 16 October 1936 extended her flight across the Tasman – the first woman pilot to do so – and in record time. The crowds were ecstatic.

The main trunk route

By the mid-1930s, with scheduled air services well established in many other countries and long-distance international flights becoming more commonplace, New Zealand was ready for commercial aviation. Plans for a main trunk (Auckland–Dunedin) service had long existed on paper. What the fledgling aviation companies most needed was money.

Financial support

In 1934 F. Maurice Clarke, who had already unsuccessfully attempted a service between Christchurch and Dunedin, approached Norris Falla, the managing director of the Union Steam Ship Company of New Zealand, seeking financial support for a new company called National Airways. Receiving an enthusiastic response from Falla, Clarke gave him a detailed plan for the development of a service bridging the two islands.

Trains, but not planes

Incredibly, when the first air trunk service was planned, Auckland was left out. Aviation promoter F. Maurice Clarke commented, ‘As regards Auckland as a terminus; it has usually been agreed in Aviation circles, that, as the City and Province is so well served by express trains to the South, it would be very doubtful if any air service could operate successfully against such an established and convenient service’. 1

An air network

The next year, 1935, became a key date in the development of commercial aviation in New Zealand. National Airways of New Zealand, renamed Union Airways, was granted a licence to develop services between Palmerston North and Dunedin, via Blenheim and Christchurch. A rival applicant, Great Pacific Airways, was also licensed to fly routes, partly in competition with Union Airways, linking Auckland, New Plymouth, Whanganui, Wellington, Blenheim, Christchurch, Timaru and Dunedin.

In addition, licences were granted to three regional airlines, in all of which the Union Steam Ship Company had a major interest:

  • Cook Strait Airways (Wellington–Nelson–Blenheim)
  • Air Travel (NZ) Ltd (the West Coast)
  • East Coast Airways (Gisborne–Napier, with links to the main trunk route between Auckland and Dunedin).

The considerable resources of the Union Steam Ship Company thus underwrote the country’s first commercial aviation network.

Passenger numbers

When Great Pacific Airways failed to begin operations, Union Airways extended its services to Auckland. The licensed monopoly of a single airline on the main trunk remained a distinctive feature of New Zealand’s domestic air transport until the 1980s. Before the Second World War impeded air travel, passenger numbers on the licensed airlines were growing rapidly, the Cook Strait services being especially popular.

Between 1940 and 1944 however, passenger numbers slumped, when civil flying was much reduced. In 1945 only nine aircraft, capable of seating about 68 passengers, were flying. This situation changed dramatically after the war.

  1. F. Maurice Clarke, ‘Consideration of the provision of air transport in New Zealand with special reference to an air main trunk line from Palmerston North to Dunedin’, 1935. MS, private collection. › Back

International destinations

Trans-Tasman services

At the same time as domestic air services were being established after 1935, moves were afoot to extend them across the Tasman Sea to Australia. F. Maurice Clarke and Norris Falla again emerged as key initiators. They had an ally in A. E. Rudder, the Sydney agent for the British national airline Imperial Airways (later BOAC).

Their proposal for a joint trans-Tasman venture between Union Airways and Imperial Airways won political sympathy. This was still an age when international policy was shaped by British imperial perspectives. Imperial Airways had already joined with the Australian airline Qantas to extend its mail and passenger service to Brisbane, and the Empire Air Mail Programme had begun, initially between Britain, Africa and Canada. A trans-Tasman service would splice the last section of an air link between Britain and the southern hemisphere.


In 1937 the New Zealand, Australian and British governments finally negotiated the structure of a new company, Tasman Empire Airways Ltd (TEAL), to provide the trans-Tasman link. Shares in TEAL were divided among the participants: Imperial Airways, Qantas, the New Zealand government, and Union Airways. TEAL’s flights from Mechanics Bay in Auckland to Rose Bay in Sydney began in 1940, using the Short S30 Empire flying boats Aotearoa and Awarua. The inaugural flight on 30 April carried 10 passengers and took 10 hours. During the Second World War, TEAL’s trans-Tasman flights continued even as domestic aviation came to a halt.

Pacific services

Britain also had colonial and strategic interests in the Pacific, where Anglo-American rivalry was growing. New Zealand shared many of these interests – in Fiji, Samoa, the Cook Islands and Tonga. Before the outbreak of the Second World War, British and New Zealand personnel were surveying possible flying-boat landing sites in the Pacific. New Zealand’s strategy for aviation in the Pacific strengthened during and after the war.

In the 1930s, however, American aviation interests, in particular Pan American Airways (Pan Am), took the initiative, securing approval from the New Zealand government in 1935 to fly into Auckland. Pan Am’s Pacific flying-boat service between San Francisco and Mechanics Bay began in December 1937, but was curtailed almost immediately by the loss of Captain Edwin Musick and his crew when their aircraft exploded. Flights did not resume until 1940, but ceased again in 1941 after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.

Flying boats

TEAL’s trans-Tasman services to Sydney introduced the stately Empire, Sandringham and Solent flying boats to Mechanics Bay and later Evans Bay in Wellington. For 20 years the flying boats provided a memorable spectacle for thousands of people, as well as a luxurious style of air travel that few would experience again. TEAL’s renowned Coral Route from Auckland to Fiji, Samoa, the Cook Islands and Tahiti contributed its own distinctive legends to the era of flying boats. There was also a more prosaic service from Auckland and Wellington to the Chatham Islands.

That the era of flying boats lasted as long as it did was largely due to the political structure of TEAL, and post-war loyalty to Britain. The decision to re-equip TEAL with British-made Solent flying boats from 1949 was bitterly criticised by advocates of land planes such as the American Douglas DC4. TEAL subsequently acknowledged the criticism itself, when it introduced a DC4 Christchurch–Melbourne service in 1951, and began phasing out its flying boat services.

The conversion to land planes began in 1954, when the popular Auckland–Sydney service was switched to DC6 aircraft, using Whenuapai as their terminus. It was completed in 1960, when land planes took over the Coral Route.

Government intervention

In the 1930s governments in all countries were being drawn into aviation. The state’s responsibility for national defence resulted in government-subsidised pilot training and airfield construction. Airmail services were a public good also worthy of state subsidy. Safety issues demanded expensive navigational aids and the certification of pilots.

The state steps in

In New Zealand, licensing of air services was introduced in 1934, to create a more rational commercial environment for the development of aviation. The Labour government elected in 1935 went further: its intention was to nationalise commercial aviation. Labour believed it was the state’s responsibility to provide essential services, like railways, electricity, and now aviation. At first, the war and more pressing social priorities diverted the government from this objective, though in the end the wartime depletion of air transport made it easier for the government to intervene.

The National Airways Corporation

The New Zealand National Airways Act 1945 was a significant turning point. It created an airline structure which defined New Zealand aviation for more than 30 years. It determined that only one airline could profitably serve the main trunk route, and that the surpluses from this service should subsidise secondary routes to provincial towns.

The new legislation created a single domestic airline – the National Airways Corporation (NAC). On 1 April 1947 NAC formally took over the private airlines’ aircraft, timetables, engineering services, and most of their key personnel. The airline was governed by a board chaired by Chief of Air Staff Sir Leonard Isitt. The general manager of Union Airways, F. Maurice Clarke, continued in this role for the new corporation. New Zealand had thus joined other Commonwealth countries, including England, Canada, South Africa and Australia, in having state airlines at the core of their post-war aviation policies.

Teething troubles

NAC’s first five years were difficult. The airline lost money, suffered three fatal crashes, and struggled to meet licensing conditions. As a state monopoly, it was also under political attack from the National party in opposition. After defeating Labour in 1949, National announced its intention to sell the airline wholly or in part.

Rising profits

Despite its difficulties, NAC managed a spectacular expansion of air services. By December 1951 it was carrying passengers on a network from Kaitāia to Invercargill. Provincial businesses, politicians and citizens were quick to appreciate the service, and increasingly reluctant to risk disruption or loss by any dismantling of NAC. The airline had regained profitability by 1952, and National’s threat to sell it receded. Politically secure again, NAC remained the dominant airline until its enforced merger with Air New Zealand in 1978.

Onward and upward: 1940s to 1960s

The National Airways Corporation (NAC) ushered in the age of mass air travel. And during the life of NAC, aircraft went from pre-war types to the jet age.

Early NAC aircraft

Initially NAC had to make do with a mixed fleet, including pre-war de Havillands (Dominie, Rapide, Express, Fox and Gypsy Moth), and Lockheed 10A Electras. To these it added ex-service Lockheed Lodestars and Douglas DC3s, converted to civilian use.

The DC3 rapidly became the backbone of the airline. The aircraft were readily available, reliable, and versatile (able to land on provincial grass as well as main trunk tarmac). For economy, the airline aimed to reduce the variety of aircraft, but restrictions on the use of Wellington’s Rongotai airport forced it to add four de Havilland Herons between 1952 and 1957.

The Vickers Viscount

In 1954, strongly influenced by the ‘buy British’ mood of the early 1950s, NAC settled on the Vickers Viscount aircraft. Introduced to the main trunk in 1958, it was popular with travellers. A pressurised, turbo-prop plane that flew above most turbulence, it reduced the flight time from Auckland to Christchurch from over three hours to under two.

The Fokker Friendship

To replace the ageing DC3s on the provincial routes, NAC preferred the Dutch Fokker F27 Friendship. However, this was opposed by politicians and others, who preferred the British Handley Page Herald. The Fokker proved a wise choice: the F27 series was a success internationally as well as in New Zealand, where from 1961 it supplemented the Viscounts on the main trunk services, and replaced DC3s as fast as the provincial grass airstrips were sealed.

The Boeing 737

The airline fought an even fiercer political battle in the mid-1960s over the choice of a jet aircraft for the main trunk route. Issues of access to the British market for primary produce cut across the airline’s firm preference for the American Boeing 737. Confident in its judgement after the success of the Fokker Friendship, the airline held its ground against pressure for the British BAC 1-11. The jet age in domestic services began in 1968 with the delivery of the first Boeing. The airline’s choice was again confirmed by the spectacular longevity of the Boeing 737 series.

Changing times: 1960s and 1970s

The emergence of Air New Zealand

When the government nationalised domestic air services in 1945, it took over Union Airways’ shareholding in TEAL. In 1954 the British withdrew from the consortium, leaving ownership divided between New Zealand and Australia. New Zealand bought out the Australian shareholding in 1961, to become the sole owner of TEAL. A name change to Air New Zealand followed in 1965, coinciding with the building of the new Auckland international airport at Māngere (which officially opened in 1966).

No longer constrained by British or Australian interests, Air New Zealand was now free to develop into a fully international carrier. Within a few years it had diversified the trans-Tasman routes, increased the Pacific destinations, and extended services to Asia, North America and the United Kingdom.

Who was flying in 1966?

Of every 100 passengers: 41 travelled on recreation, 41 on business, and 18 for ‘other reasons’. One in three was a woman. 1

Although it was still a small international airline, Air New Zealand’s local status soared in the decade 1965–75. International air travel and tourism were growing in popularity. Commercially successful, Air New Zealand generated national pride and accumulated valuable political credits. The result was to revive the long-standing question of Air New Zealand’s relationship with the National Airways Corporation. Why did New Zealand need two state-owned airlines?

The end of NAC

After 1975 Air New Zealand, the Ministry of Transport and the National government pushed for a merger. Though this was strongly resisted by NAC, the government announced in December 1977 that the two airlines would amalgamate in 1978. Accordingly, on 1 April NAC ceased to exist as a separate airline. For the next 11 years Air New Zealand was the state-owned carrier on both domestic and international routes.

New aircraft

Air New Zealand replaced obsolete aircraft with modern, larger types, moving into all-jet, wide body, and jumbo versions. The Boeing 747s and 767s carried international travellers into the 21st century, when Airbus A320 models also joined the fleet.

By the time Air New Zealand took over in 1978, NAC had already standardised its domestic fleet with the Fokker F27 series and Boeing 737s. The Fokkers remained until 1990, when they were replaced on the provincial routes by smaller, more economic commuter aircraft such as the Embraer Bandeirante, the Fairchild-Swearingen Metro, the Saab 340A, and the Raytheon Beech. Boeings, however, were still the mainstay of services at the turn of the century.

  1. Bay of Plenty Times, 19 February 1966, citing NAC passenger surveys. › Back

Public and private ownership

The tussle between the state and private enterprise has been a continuous theme in New Zealand’s aviation history. Relegated to a secondary role behind the state’s virtual monopoly at the end of the Second World War, private enterprise triumphed by the end of the century.


Restricting air services to licensed operators began in 1934 and continued until 1990. From 1951, licensing was in the hands of the Air Services Licensing Authority, which judged applicants on a range of criteria, including the effect of proposed services on existing airlines. Although it was government policy during the 1960s and 1970s to develop civil aviation as a mixture of public and private enterprise, in practice, the authority’s judgements safeguarded NAC’s and later Air New Zealand’s main trunk services from competition.

Industry competition

The most determined challenges to NAC’s monopoly came from South Pacific Airlines of New Zealand (SPANZ), and Mount Cook Airlines. Between December 1960 and February 1966, SPANZ served many provincial towns in both islands, before going into receivership. From 1961 on, Mount Cook Airlines catered more successfully for the growing number of tourists at locations such as Rotorua, Queenstown, and Mt Cook. Complementing rather than competing with the state airline, Mount Cook Airlines became a subsidiary of Air New Zealand in 1991.

A number of small airlines came and went in the 1950s and 1960s, including NZ Tourist Air Travel, Midland Air Services, Bay of Plenty Airways, Golden Coast Airlines, West Coast Airways and Southern Scenic Air Services. More substantial companies, such as Air Nelson and Eagle Airways (which became part of Air New Zealand Link in 1991) and Origin Pacific Airways, found greater scope in the last quarter of the century. As the state employed fewer and larger aircraft, there was more opportunity for private companies to enter the provincial routes, using smaller aircraft.

The profit motive

Commercial conditions were also becoming more favourable to competitive private enterprise in aviation. Even before its merger with Air New Zealand in 1978, NAC had been steering towards a more commercial mode of operation, less constrained by the public service objectives of the 1945 National Airways Act that had established the airline. Air New Zealand, as a limited liability company, was always freer to make unfettered commercial decisions.


In the 1980s competitive private enterprise gained pace. New licensing rules rendered Air New Zealand’s dominance in domestic services more contestable than at any time in the previous 50 years. In 1986 the government opened domestic airlines to foreign ownership. Air New Zealand immediately faced significant competition on the main trunk route from the Australian airline, Ansett (NZ), and later from Qantas (NZ). In 1989 Air New Zealand itself was sold to a consortium led by Brierley Investments Ltd, only to return to partial state ownership after facing collapse in 2001. The long post-war phase of state-owned air services, however, had effectively ended.

Air travel in the 2000s

The experience of flying

In the second half of the 20th century New Zealand, like other countries, underwent a transport revolution. Advances in aviation meant that business, politics, sport, family relations, and leisure activities were increasingly conducted with an ease and a disregard for distance that was inconceivable even in 1945. The world became smaller, and within New Zealand, only the backblocks remained isolated. Flying rapidly progressed from novel to normal.

Pressurised cabins, in-flight service, and weather-protected boarding procedures made the experience of flying more comfortable. Business-class luxury catered for those who could afford it, but for those who couldn’t, there were economy fares and economy airlines.

Kiwis take flight

In 1951 the total number of domestic passengers carried by NAC was about one-sixth of New Zealand’s population. By 1998–99 domestic airlines carried approximately one million more passengers than the entire population.

Air safety

The two state airlines, NAC and Air New Zealand, had established flying as a safe way to travel. Fifty-six passengers and crew died in five separate crashes of NAC aircraft between 1948 and 1963, and none after that. In the entire history of TEAL/Air New Zealand, no passengers died in crashes on scheduled domestic or international services.

The 1979 crash on Mt Erebus of an Air New Zealand Douglas DC10, on a sightseeing flight to the Antarctic, killed 257 passengers and crew. This remains the sole tragic exception for that airline. In 1995 three passengers and a crew member died when an Ansett Dash 8 crashed near Palmerston North. Private ventures, using small fixed-wing aircraft or helicopters, have fared less well.


As flying became more common, the aviation scene grew increasingly diverse. Helicopters made their noisy entry in the 1950s. For nearly 40 years from 1951, SAFE Air’s bulbous Bristol and Argosy freighters carried bulky cargoes across Cook Strait and to the Chatham Islands. Private firms, individuals and aero clubs introduced fixed-wing aircraft and versatile helicopters for such varied purposes as scenic flying, air taxi services, aerial mapping, industrial work, commuting, emergency rescue services, sightseeing, spraying and top dressing, hunting and forestry. There are now thousands of aircraft of all kinds on the national register.

Hononga, rauemi nō waho

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How to cite this page: Peter Aimer, 'Aviation', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 14 July 2024)

He kōrero nā Peter Aimer, i tāngia i te 12 o Hune 2006