Hailing a Queenstown tourism game-changer

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How things have changed.

It’s February 3, 1964 and two buses wait by Frankton aerodrome’s then-grass strip as Douglas DC-3 ZK-BKD approaches from the Shotover River.

Alistair McLeod, co-captain of this first scheduled commercial flight to land in Queenstown, recalls one of the buses approaches to take the inbound passengers off the plane: “The other came a few minutes later with the outbound passengers.”

Among the passengers stepping off a wooden ladder is Mount Cook & Southern Lakes Tourist Co. Ltd’s managing director Harry Wigley, greeted by local mayor George Cochrane and company boffins.

McLeod – whose other job on landing was to help off-load and on-load baggage – says Wigley pushed hard for the Queenstown service because of a threat from rival South Pacific Airlines of New Zealand (SPANZ) to beat him to the punch.

“SPANZ had an emphasis on highly attractive young women as their stewardesses and their DC-3s had extended windows.”

Veteran local aviator Jules Tapper – organiser of functions tomorrow and on Saturday to mark the 50th anniversary of the resort’s first scheduled air service – says Mount Cook originally flew in and out of nearby Cromwell.

“Because the Queenstown council wouldn’t extend the airstrip to take a DC-3, Harry Wigley built his own aerodrome on a terrace just north of Cromwell and bussed people through the gorge into Queenstown.

“Then he went to the council and said, ‘Look, I’ve brought all these extra people in here, extend the bloody runway’.” 

Tapper says the council bought the land at Frankton from the Grant family and extended the grass runway up Grant Road.

Local tourism heavyweight Sir John Davies, whose father Bill ran Mount Cook’s light aircraft division at that time, says Queenstown should thank Sir Henry Wigley – as he was to become – and his company for ushering in the modern tourism era. 

“A lot of people said, ‘fancy starting an airline up to compete with your buses’ – they were the only people running a bus from Christchurch to Queenstown, through the dusty road on the Lindis.”

Davies recalls early DC-3 passengers and their luggage were weighed in the old Mount Cook office in downtown Rees Street.

McLeod – whose captain on the original flight, Geoffrey Williams, died last year – says Queenstown wasn’t too challenging.

“The airline started in 1961 flying through to Manapouri so after landing at Cromwell you still had to negotiate the Kawarau gorge and the southern arm of Lake Wakatipu so quite a bit of experience around the mountain area was accumulated before landing and approaches to and from Queenstown were attempted.” 

John Evans, who was co-pilot on the second Mount Cook plane into Queenstown, says pilots initially received flight information from Alexandra before a beacon was installed.

If they couldn’t find a hole in the cloud above Queenstown they’d let down at Alexandra and pick their way through the gorges, he says.

As the Queenstown service grew, a concrete block terminal was built.

The council bought more farmland towards the Shotover River to extend the runway for Mount Cook’s larger Hawker Siddeley turboprops to land, from 1968.

“Hawker Siddeleys needed more runway and a sealed strip because they didn’t want to get prop damage off stones,” Tapper says.

Evans says the Hawker Siddeleys were welcomed because they were pressurised – “the DC-3 in theory was limited to 10,000 feet and you can’t get above the turbulence at that height”.

Ironically, Evans flew a Mount Cook Hawker Siddeley in Tonga in 1998, 10 years after last flying one in NZ. 

McLeod, meanwhile, had the distinction of also ushering in Queenstown Airport’s jet era. In 1982, he was on the first jet – a British Aerospace 146 on a demonstration flight – to fly into the airport.

“I was on the flight deck and guided it into Queenstown because neither of the demonstration pilots had been there before.”

Both Evans and McLeod will be among 38 former pilots and pursers – the historic term for airline stewards – attending this weekend’s functions along with 41 former ground staff, eight former executives and other guests.
Mount Cook Airline survives only as the operating name for Air NZ’s regional service. 

“Unfortunately you don’t see a Mount Cook lily any more,” Tapper says.

Fifty years on, Queenstown Airport recorded more than 1.2 million passengers through its terminal in 2013.