Nelson's aviation history
Aviation’s influence on Nelson has been profound. With challenging road access, no outside rail link and the barrier of Cook Strait, Nelson had the reputation of being a ‘sleepy hollow’. A number of Nelson people experimented with and thought about early aeronautical theories and designs including Joseph Taylor, Felix Tanner (real name Charles Jackson), Hunter Bros (Tākaka) and Frederick Lilley.
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Nelson was isolated and in some ways still is, yet has never been the same since the first aircraft visit on 11 November 1921. Piloted by Captain P.K. ‘Shorty’ Fowler with mechanic Ted Ranish, the Avro 504K E9429 was chartered by well-known Nelson transport pioneer Tom Newman, of Brightwater.
The aeroplane made an emergency landing in a paddock on James Marsden’s property (now part of the Greenmeadows playing fields) in November 1921 when it ran short of fuel on a flight from Wellington to Brightwater.1 James was less than impressed with the uninvited stopover and sent his gardener to tell the pilot to leave immediately.
The first floatplane to come to Nelson alighted on Nelson harbour on 17 February 1923, flown by Captain P.K. ‘Shorty’ Fowler, who had flown the first aircraft to Nelson in 1921. The Avro 504L H2989 was an early sponsored aeroplane by National Oil Co.. After this floatplane visit, it was another three years before the next Cook Strait flight and several years before the next aircraft visited Nelson.
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After initiatives to form an aero club were taken in the late 1920s, a club was finally established in 1932 by a range of prominent citizens. Nelson businessmen, especially those with transport interests, were instrumental in forming Cook Strait Airways, a pioneering scheduled airline established at the Stoke Airfield in 1935. The airline pioneered the first air services to link the South and North Islands – and the first airline to serve the capital city of Wellington. By the time its operations (with a fleet of five DH89 de Havilland Rapide airliners) ceased in October 1939, due to the start of World War II, a remarkable 19,821 trouble-free flights had been made; 16,313 across Cook Strait and 1,843 to the West Coast.
The construction and opening of Nelson’s new ‘Class A’ airport at Tāhunanui in 1938, close to the city centre, was a key milestone for the region’s social, economic and tourism future. Waugh and McConnell state in their book, “The airport opening and development can now be ranked in equal importance to that of the 1906 harbour entrance opening and growth of the port.”2
The establishment of RNZAF Station Nelson (1941-1946) was a significant development in Nelson’s mid-20th century history and, with an operational squadron defending the city and region, thousands of young men and women passed through the station. Many Nelsonians were killed on air force service overseas (and some in New Zealand) during the war years. Most of these young men’s names are on Nelson war memorials, but there are notable exceptions such as the World War I omission of 2nd Lt John ‘Jack’ Herbert Cock, a Gallipoli and RFC veteran who came from an influential Nelson family.
An accident at the aerodrome, on the 23rd of June 1942, had unfortunate consequences, bringing the war closer to home. No. 1 section of the 91st Composite AA Battery at Nelson Aerodrome accidently fired two Borfors Shells during a loading drill. One shell hit the Wilkes' timber yard in Richmond (Tasman, New Zealand) causing £200 worth of damage.3
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After World War II there was a rapid growth of flights serving Nelson, especially those of the New Zealand National Airways Corporation (NAC), which was created when the Labour Government nationalised all small airlines in 1947. However, it was a private enterprise airline, South Island Airways (owned by Airwork NZ Ltd) which pioneered the first Christchurch to Nelson air services from February 1954.
NAC and Air New Zealand, which flew overseas, were amalgamated in 1978. The number of airlines continued to grow however, especially after 1983, when the Government deregulated the airline industry. Air Nelson and Origin Pacific Airways both had their beginnings with Robert Inglis and Nicki Smith, with the former continuing to be influential in the Nelson region. In recent decades Nelson Airport has become the main commercial aviation centre for the upper South Island and base for New Zealand’s largest regional airline, and continues with important helicopter work, especially that of internationally renowned Helicopters (NZ) Ltd, and named HNZ Global, which itself was acquired by the United States-based PHI Inc in 2017. In 2022 it was announced that this company was relocating its headquarters from Nelson to Perth.
Nelson Airport has long been the fourth busiest airport for scheduled flights in New Zealand (after Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch) serving more than 750,000 passengers annually. Nelson Airport celebrated its 75th anniversary in 2014. In 1994 Nelson and Tasman District Councils started negotiating to buy the Government's half share in the airport. This was a complex process,4 but currently the Airport is a Council Controlled Trading Organisation, with shares held by Tasman District Council (50%) and Nelson City Council (50%).
In October 2019 a new terminal was opened to much acclaim, replacing the 1974 terminal building. It was planned to cater for growth projections out to 2035, when 1.4 million passengers a year are forecast to pass through the facility.
Listen to Graeme McConnell talk about the book The story of Nelson aviation, originally aired on Radio New Zealand, Afternoons, 27 November 2013.
This article was first published in the Nelson Historical Society newsletter, February 2014. It is a report of a talk delivered by Richard Waugh and Graeme McConnell. Updated 2022.
Sources used in this story
- Stevens, Bob.(1985) Flying Home: A History of Nelson Aviation.(1985) Nelson N.Z. : Nelson City Council : Nelson Mail Promotions, p.7
- Waugh, R. & McConnell, R. (2013) The story of Nelson aviation. Invercargill, N.Z. : The Kynaston Charitable Trust, p.285
- The Wilkes' Shell Incident: transcript of the Oral History Interview about the ‘Wilkes’ Shell Incident', the accidental shelling of Wilkes' Timber Yard during World War II (1984).
- Collett, G. (1996, September 2) Nelson Airport deal explained. Nelson Mail, p.7; Collett, G. (1996, September 3) Exploring Nelson Airport deal. Nelson Mail, p.7
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Further sources - Nelson's aviation history
- Waugh, R. & McConnell, R. (2013) The story of Nelson aviation. Invercargill, N.Z. : The Kynaston Charitable Trust
- Bradshaw, A. (2000) Flying by Bradshaw. Nelson: Proctor Publications
- Brough, H. (1982) Nelson Aero Club 50th Jubilee commemorative magazine. Nelson: Nelson Aero Club
- Brough, H. (1982) Nelson Aero Club 60th Jubilee commemorative magazine. Nelson: Nelson Aero Club
- Clouston, A.E. (1954) Dangerous skies. London: Cassell & Co. Ltd
- Ewing, R. & Macpherson, R. (1986) The history of New Zealand aviation. Auckland: Heinemann
- Ewing, R. & Williams, R. (2011) Walsh Brothers: New Zealand aviation pioneers. Auckland: Old Sausage publications
- Macpherson, R. (1986) Airways - the first 50 years. Otaki: Concept Marketing & South Pacific Wings
- McLean, G. & Lewis, P. (2006) Take-Off. The Helicopters (NZ) story. Christchurch: Hazared press
- Stevens, B. (1985) Flying home: a history of Nelson aviation. Nelson: Nelson Mail Promotions
- Waugh, R. with Gavin, B. , Layne, P & McConnell, G. (2003) Taking off. Pioneering small airlines of New Zealand 1945-1970. Invercargill: The Kynaston Charitable Trust
- Waugh, R, (1995) Strait across. Auckland: Cook Strait Air Serivce Celebrations Committee
- Waugh, R. with Layne, P & McConnell, G. (2007) NAC. Invercargill, N.Z. : The Kynaston Charitable Trust
- Winstanley, A. (2009) Down to earth - the story of Origin Pacific airways. Nelson: Aaron Winstanley
- Kerr, A. (1988) Memories of Nelson aerodrome in World War II. Nelson Historical Society Journal, 6(2)
- McConnell, G. (2016) High in the sky: the story of Cook Strait Airways. Journal of the Nelson and Marlborough Historical Societies, 8(2), pp.53-60
- McConnell, G. (2020) Arrivals and departures: Nelson airport terminals. Nelson Historical Society journal, 8(6), 2020, pp.39-50
- Neal, T. (2013, October 5) Nancy and magnificent men in their flying machines. Nelson Mail, on Stuff: