Marlborough Aviation


Imagine the excitement in August, 1920 when Captain Euan Dickson touched down in his Avro 504K, D6243 on a Dillon's Point (Blenheim) farm. He was en route from Christchurch to Wellington – the first flight across the Cook Strait. On his return, Dickson carried mail with the words ‘Aerial Post’ stamped on the envelopes- New Zealand’s first airmail.

firstflight.jpgFirst crossing of Cook Strait by air Marlborough Historical Society - Marlborough Museum Archives
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The Marlborough Express of September 4, 1920 described Dickson’s return to Christchurch: “ The machine rose gracefully, circled once over the heads of the spectators, and then like a homing pigeon sailed swiftly off over the Vernon Hills.”1

When Charles Kingsford Smith made the first trans-Tasman flight from Sydney to Christchurch in the Southern Cross on September 11 1928, Marlborough’s new aero club encouraged him to use a Woodbourne paddock for the historic return flight on 13 October 1928.  Preparations to turn the field into an aerodrome included building a large temporary hangar.2

About 12,000 people (including folk from Nelson and Wellington) came to see the flying heroes. The Southern Cross came into view as a tiny speck high in the sky and flew over the cheering crowd, dropping “lightly to earth fair in the runway, one of the most perfect landings ever made.”3

Interest in flight was intense in the 1920s. To foster and maintain a reserve of flying skills that could be called on for military service, the Government began to support aero clubs. The Marlborough Aero Club was loaned one of the first Gypsy Moth aircraft by the Government in 1929 and flying operations began.4

woodbourne.jpgWelcome at Fairhall's farm 'Woodbourne' Marlborough Historical Society - Marlborough Museum Archives
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When the Second World War broke out in 1939, the aero club facilities at Omaka were taken over by the Royal New Zealand Airforce. Work also began on building an RNZAF base at Woodbourne. 5

Following the attack on Pearl Harbour there were fears that New Zealand might be invaded by the Japanese. Marlborough was regarded as being strategically important, and in June 1943 the Air Force moved into the Delta Military Camp. Five Delta camps and an airfield covered 1003 acres of farmland near Renwick.6

The Delta Camp was wound up when the war ended and the base at Woodbourne was virtually shut down. In 1949, however, the Air Force’s No 1 Repair Depot was moved to Woodbourne and has been there ever since.7

safeair.jpgSAFE Air Bristol Freighter Marlborough Historical Society - Marlborough Museum Archives
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The bull-nosed Bristol Freighters, later joined by the equally lumbering Argosy 222s, provided an important cargo air-bridge around New Zealand and to the Chatham Islands. They were operated by Blenheim-based Safe Air, registered as Straits Air Freight Express Ltd in 1950.

Safe Air (a subsidiary of Air New Zealand) stopped flying operations in 1990 and began to build a maintenance company of international repute.8 The company gained the contract to run the Air Force’s heavy maintenance facilities at RNZAF Woodbourne in 1998, and this work continues.Today, the RNZAF Base Woodbourne has the Air Force’s only heavy maintenance facility and support base in New Zealand.10

Marlborough’s reputation as an aviation centre has continued to grow, with the development of the Omaka Aviation Heritage Centre, Wings over Omaka air pageants and the Nelson Marlborough Institute of Technology’s (NMIT) School of Aviation.

2008 (updated 2022)

Sources used in this story

  1. A Century of Marlborough News 1866-1966: the first 100 years of the Marlborough Express, supplement, p.27
  2. A Century of Marlborough News, p.31
  3. Marlborough Museum Exhibition (December 2006-June 2007): Kiwis Get Wings: 1920’s Marlborough Aviation (some material available for viewing at Marlborough Archives)
  4. Aimer, P. (2007) Aviation ;  
  5. Wright, M (1993, March 30). Woodbourne’s future looks secure now. Marlborough Express 
  6. Inkster, Dean (1985) The History of Delta Military Camp 1942- January 31, 1945, p.7
  7. Wright
  8. Hope, L et al. (2000) Safe in the Skies. Blenheim, N.Z. : Lester Hope, pp. 11, 42, 48, 62, 97
  9. Straits Air Freight Express. Retrieved from Wikipedia 20 January 2022:
  10. Base Woodbourne. Royal New Zealand Airforce:

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Further sources - Marlborough Aviation



  • Epic Journey, Blenheim to Sydney (1928, October 15). Marlborough Express
  • Farewell the Southern Cross (1928, October 13). Marlborough Express 
  • The first 12 months of aviation in Marlborough (1930, February 21) Marlborough Express 
  • Wright, M (1993, March 30). Woodbourne’s future looks secure now. Marlborough Express 


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