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​Early aviation and true trailblazers​

New Zealand's airline industry is built on the determination of a few enterprising aviation enthusiasts who fostered a proud tradition of flying. ​

A proud tradition of New Zealand aviation

The importance of air travel to New Zealand - given its remote and hard-to-access regions - cannot be overstated and it didn't take long to get started in this country.

Some of aviation's early advances came from the efforts of passionate backyard inventors. New Zealand's very first pilots were keen amateurs and thrill-seekers. Their aerial displays drew crowds of people, agape at the feats of daring pilots in their amazing contraptions.

A flying bicycle

The first attempts at flight in New Zealand took place in rural Canterbury. Richard Pearse patented his first invention for a "flying machine" in 1906. Built in 1902, it was an adaption of bicycle with a bamboo frame that looked similar to a monoplane.

Debate still rages about whether Pearse managed sustained controlled flight before the Wright brothers' successful effort in North Carolina in 1903. The Timaru Post (17 November 1909) quotes Pearse:

"I did not attempt anything practical with the idea until, in 1904, the St Louis Exposition authorities offered a prize of 20,000 to the man who invented and flew a flying machine over a specified course. I did not, as you know, succeed in winning the prize ... I have had several tests. Last week's was my most successful one, the machine rising readily."

Brothers Vivian and Leo Walsh built their first aircraft, the Manurewa, from imported plans. Vivian Walsh flew this plane when he flew New Zealand's first official controlled and powered flight in February 1911. He flew in front of a small group of spectators at Glenora Park, Auckland.

Leo and Vivian Walsh with the three syndicate financiers of their first aircraft (Manurewa).

Arthur Ninnis Breckon. Auckland War Memorial Museum - Tāmaki Paenga Hira. PH-NEG-A168.

Meanwhile, New Zealand-born Joseph Hammond was working in England as a flight instructor. He returned to New Zealand via Australia, where he acquired a Blériot XI-2​ plane, Britannia. After equipping it with a propellor, Hammond gave a demonstration at Auckland's Epsom Showgrounds in January 1914.​

A month later, James William Humphrys (Will) Scotland flew from Invercargill to Gore, making the first cross-country flight. He flew a Caudron aircraft - continuing on to Dunedin, Timaru, Christchurch and Wellington, where he crashed. After repairing his plane, he flew to Christchurch, carrying some of the first airmail. He dropped a letter in Christchurch, and a parcel to a friend in Temuka as he flew over. "There was nothing breakable in it," he noted.

The flying schools

A year later in Auckland, brothers Leo and Vivian Walsh founded the New Zealand Flying School at Kohimarama and a year after that, in 1915, Henry Wigram founded the Canterbury Aviation Company. 

Between them, the two enterprises trained nearly 300 pilots - many of whom went on to fly in the First World War. Despite the tragic loss of young life, they were certain the war would improve technology and create demand for commercial air transport.

In 1920, Rudolph Wigley founded the New Zealand Aero Transport Company in Timaru. 

But it would be 15 years before commercial aviation really took off - the first regular scheduled air service was by Bert Mercer's Hokitika-based Air Travel (NZ) Ltd, which flew the West Coast in a de Havillant Fox Moth in 1934. 

By the end of the decade, every major town had an air service and journeys between the far-flung reaches of New Zealand had been slashed from days to hours by the start-up airlines.

Jean Batten standing by her aircraft.

New Zealand Herald. 1934.Auckland War Memorial Museum - Tāmaki Paenga Hira. PH-NEG-18689.

International travel

In 1928, Australian aviator Sir Charles Kingsford Smith made the first trans-Tasman flight - he was an adventurer at heart but one of his primary motives was the hope of winning a government mail contract.​

Such long-distance flights were publicised in the media and closely followed by the public. Aucklander Jean Batten was determined to learn to fly. Her mother was very supportive and in 1929, she organised for her to travel to Sydney and fly with Kingsford Smith. In 1930, Batten and her mother left for England where she learnt to fly. 

Batten achieved many records. After two failed attempts, she flew from England to Australia and back in 1934. In October 1936, she flew solo from England to New Zealand  - the first ever direct flight. Her journey took 11 days and 45 minutes. 

Pocket compass used by Jean Batten for her world record flight to New Zealand, 1936.

Auckland War Memorial Museum - Tāmaki Paenga Hira. col.3293, 1990.138, 1974.103.10.

War and the flying boats

There was already a proud tradition of New Zealand aviation endeavour by the time of the first flight by Air New Zealand predecessor Tasman Empire Airways Limited (TEAL).

In August 1939, TEAL went into business with two Short S30 Empire-class flying boats ordered from Britain - ZK-AMA Aotearoa and later Aotearoa II. Captain John Burgess piloted TEAL’s inaugural commercial flight to Sydney – 30 April 1940. That flight, on ZK-AMA Aotearoa, carried nine passengers and 41,000 pieces of mail, and took over 9.5 hours. 

View of the ZK-AMA Aotearoa flying boat, 1939.

Tudor Collins.Auckland War Memorial Museum - Tāmaki Paenga Hira. PH-2013-7-TC-B704-07.

The passion and innovation of New Zealand's earliest pilots inaugurated a great airborne tradition.​​


Cite this article

Keith, Michael. ​Early aviation and true trailblazers​. Auckland War Memorial Museum - Tāmaki Paenga Hira. First published: 7 March 2016. Updated: 20 October 2017.
URL: www.aucklandmuseum.com/discover/collections/topics/​early-aviation-and-true-trailblazers​

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