Romance returns to the Waitemata
Chris Sattler and his partner Masako have spent the last seven years looking out at the sparkling waters of the Waitemata Harbour from their central Auckland city home, only to see a wide-open area of untapped potential. From a pontoon in the Viaduct, they now look out at the same view, having tapped that potential under the banner of Auckland Seaplanes.
Their dream of operating a seaplane business from the Auckland CBD has finally been realised. More than four years of work have gone into this moment — including thorough feasibility evaluations of the area with Sydney Seaplanes’ chief pilot; lengthy consultations with over 40 different community bodies; extensive writing of operating and procedures manuals to incorporate both maritime and aviation law; and of course CAA operating certification for this new Part 135 venture.
In their field of vision there also happens to be the world’s second lowest-houred DHC-2 de Havilland Beaver, ZK-AMA, named Aotearoa II in tribute to the TEAL Short S.30C Empire Class flying boat that originally wore this registration, based in Auckland from August 1939.
This particular Beaver, however, is in very good nick. Having spent the last 25 years under the ownership of a Canadian gentleman who flew it no more than 40 hours annually, it has been housed inside a heated hangar since a major overhaul in 2006.
In fact, this machine has notched up a mere 4600hr since it rolled off the Downsview production line back in 1961. It originally started life with the Ghana Air Force, where it spent 13yr, largely as an engineering trainer due to the high cost of avgas in the African state.
In 1974 it was fitted with a hopper and registered to Aerial Agriculture Pty of Bankstown, NSW, to spend two years as a topdresser. A downturn in the aerial application industry saw VH-IMN spending an entire decade out of action before being modified with floats and put to work flying scenic charters along the Queensland coast for Air Whitsunday, Reef World Airlines and Seair Pacific between 1984 and 1987.
Chris explains that the versatility of the Beaver adds three strings to his company’s operations bow. Auckland Seaplanes will primarily be flying local scenic flights, giving tourists an unparalleled and unobstructed vantage point of the city itself and the Hauraki Gulf island topography.
Secondly, ad-hoc charter work to a variety of hard-to-reach destinations can be made easy for both the fare-paying public and yacht crews requiring dropoffs and pickups from anchorages anywhere between the Bay of Islands and the Coromandel.
Thirdly, the combination of the Pratt & Whitney R-985 Wasp Junior radial engine, floatplane configuration and a useful load close to half-a-ton — plus fuel — makes the Beaver a useful utility aeroplane. (The design brief given to de Havilland by Canadian bush pilots, more or less, was to create a half-ton flying truck with a forward speed faster than a dog sled!) Auckland Seaplanes has offered its services as a backup to the Coastguard and is also able to help with marine pollution control with the ability to stop on the water’s surface and collect samples if required.
Secluded destinations such as Man O’War Bay and Connell Bay on the remote eastern end of Waiheke Island, Rotoroa Island (opened to the public only since 2005), Rakino and Kawau Islands, plus Port Fitzroy, Tryphena and Whangaparapara Harbour on Great Barrier’s western side, will be regular ports of call for the Beaver. Approach and departure paths to those locations have been deliberately planned a fair distance offshore, followed by a gentle taxi into the beach or jetty to retain the air of tranquillity and isolation that features as the initial drawcard for making the journey from the hustle and bustle of downtown worthwhile.
Other Waiheke restaurant and winery transfers, island picnic packages, luxury resort dropoffs and twin-coast aerial tours are also among the plans for the near future, along with the acquisition of a second Beaver if demand meets expectations. Chris is keen to start off slowly and test the waters, so to speak, with a firm focus on safety before rushing the bookings through.
Swells of more than 2ft or wind speeds exceeding 25kt mean a no-go, primarily for passenger comfort, and with flights under daytime VFR, Auckland Seaplanes has set a realistic 200–250 days of annual operations in place. Flight schedules are designed around existing local ferry timetables and yacht club races for a clear harbour, with the majority of their flying planned between 0900 and 1500 local, when the Waitemata is at its quietest. Discussions have also taken place with Auckland rotary wing providers to share passenger loadings when water conditions don’t favour the Beaver.
To calm the concern of the many boaties using the Waitemata, chief pilot Steven Newland says that even at MAUW, the Beaver uses a mere 450m of water to clear mast height (50ft). In contrast, some of the heavier amphibious floatplanes that frequent Sydney’s Rose Bay take a whole kilometre to get airborne, as well as operating in close proximity to popular swimming beaches, ferry lanes and an abundance of kayak and paddleboard punters.
Instead, the departures from Auckland will be conducted from out in the centre of the harbour, following a low-power taxi from the Auckland Viaduct, and will last for only 10–30-odd seconds each flight, depending on wind, water conditions and aircraft loading.
While on the water, the Beaver is classified as a power-driven vessel and therefore must give way to non-powered traffic. The CAA, however, has authorised a waterdrome for the harbour, soon to be published in the AIP and allowing for both northwesterly departures out over Shoal Bay or easterly exits via the harbour entrance. The option to operate from the western side of the Harbour Bridge during congested boating periods has also been discussed with Whenuapai air traffic controllers, but during major regatta events the Beaver will be sensibly based away from Auckland for the day.
Those who remember the frequent drone of Sea Bee Air’s Grumman fleet over the harbour may wonder why Auckland Seaplanes has not elected to base its flying from their old Mechanic’s Bay base. The answer simply lies with the protruding wharf developments made by the Ports of Auckland, coinciding with a steady increase in international cargo ship and fast ferry activity since the 1980s, making the nearby water often too choppy for comfortable seaplane activity, as well as limiting ascent and descent flight paths from the bay.
This also means the floatplane will remain exposed to the salt water environment significantly more than its amphibious cousins were. Rinsing the aircraft surfaces with fresh water after each day’s flying is instrumental in protecting the Beaver from deterioration. Steven jokes that often he spends more time cleaning the machine than flying it, with a rigorous daily routine of salt residue removal through hosepipe washdowns, followed by application of epoxy-based rust inhibitors and oxygen-depleting anti-corrosion agents, along with a lanolin wax coating on exposed nuts and bolts to prevent seizing.
Maintenance inspections are conducted at Silo Park on the dry, with a crane lifting the Beaver on to the dockside at standard 50hr intervals.
Both Chris and Steven are members of local yachting clubs and are acutely aware of the importance the boating community plays in the culture of the city. They are equally keen aviation enthusiasts, with Chris having a background in the German air force and aircraft finance before completing his CPL with the North Shore Aero Club.
Chief pilot Steven gained his wings at Thames and has flown floatplanes out of Lake Rotorua, Marlborough Sounds, Townsville and the Whitsunday Islands before returning home to New Zealand. His own long-term goal has been to start up a flightseeing company himself from the Auckland waterfront, but he is thrilled Chris has come forward with the capital to make his vision a reality.
Their sharing such a strong passion for a mutual aim is immediately obvious to anyone who speaks with the team, and passengers can be reassured that they’re in the best hands possible for flying off the water. The Auckland Seaplanes crew displayed an enormous amount of enthusiasm for aviation during the time Aviation News interviewed and flew with them, and they are clearly dedicated to bringing back the sense of occasion to flight that is fading away with advances in large aircraft design, emphasis on efficiency and the ever-increasing commonplace role that commuter air travel plays in modern life.
Since the Sea Bee Air Grumman Widgeon and Goose amphibian operation was phased out in favour of helicopters, much more efficient and versatile for Hauraki Gulf operations, particularly those involving medical cases, the region has lacked the undoubted appeal of waterborne aircraft.
Now everything, from the personalised welcome aboard by the pilot to the smell of burnt 100LL as the radial piston assembly rumbles to life, embodies a sense of romance associated with days gone by, when taking a flight was valued more as a luxurious treat than a convenient timesaver.
Having said that, saving time when travelling by seaplane is a large part of the allure that the new operation is able to offer. But it’s the whole experience from startup to splashdown that sets aside a ride in the Beaver from any other commercial flight able to be taken in the Auckland region.
Last month I was fortunate enough to be invited up for a flight in the Beaver and was thoroughly impressed by the entire experience. Taxying out in the harbour to see the Northcote ferry passing our starboard wingtip was a novel sensation, as was the gentle slapping of the inbound current against the floats as we accelerated out past Devonport. With six POB and 200-odd litres of fuel in the belly tanks, we were still considerably short of the quoted 450m maximum weight distance for takeoff.
Once levelled out to cruise at 1900rpm/29in, a beautiful tone issued forth from beyond the firewall, something that can only be described as hidden halfway between a purr and a growl. The calming rumble of the nine-cylinder radial, along with the unique design of the de Havilland yoke has earned the Beaver a pseudonym as the “Harley Davidson of the skies”.
Indeed, while sitting up in the right-hand seat over the Hauraki Gulf, I’ll admit to feeling a brief urge to grab hold of the motorbike-like handlebars and start leaning into the corners, but alas, I will be saving a type rating on the DHC-2 for another day.
We skimmed along at 110kt, and from 1000ft the eye really notices more on the water than it may see from out the side of a traditional land based aircraft. I found myself wondering whether each little bay we passed would be suitable for beaching the aircraft, and what explorations could be made on foot once landed.
I’ve flown friends on private city scenic trips dozens of times, yet I found myself discovering a multitude of hidden gems as a passenger with Auckland Seaplanes that I’d never noticed before. The varying coloured depths of sea, vast amounts of coastal terrain contours and contrast between urbanisation and untouched island scenery is always impressive and certainly best appreciated from above.
After rounding Waiheke in a clockwise direction, we descended for a splash-and-go in a sheltered area behind Ponui Island. Talking through the touchdown, Steven demonstrated how this phase of flight requires holding a very slight nose-up attitude a few feet off the surface, followed by a progressive power reduction for the floats to kiss the water evenly, without the need for a dramatic flare. The glassier the water, the fewer depth perception clues are available and the more difficult it becomes. I was expecting some sort of lurching motion as we made contact, but the connection was smoother than many of the sealed runway landings I’ve endured.
Flaps were partially retracted, throttle lever moved forward to a maximum continuous setting of 33.5in, and we parted with the sea once again, setting heading for the Waitemata. The confining boating channels and abundance of vessel types sharing the harbour increased the challenge for our pilot, but after a careful assessment of all potential threats, a clear stretch of water was selected for landing number two. (The law requires 60m of separation between the seaplane and other watercraft.)
With 70–80kt IAS on the final approach, Steven dropped the Beaver back down and must have had her stationary within 150m, verified by the discrete wake observed fading away behind the floats. A tickling of the magnetos on and off as we neared the dock acted like foot brakes as we pulled up alongside CEO Chris who was keenly waiting to assure all passengers aboard had enjoyed their time in the air.
I need hardly to add that upon completion of my first flight in a floatplane, I was certain that it would not be my last!
So any pilots aviating in the 120.40MHz Auckland City MBZ anytime soon, be sure to listen out for “Seaplane Alpha Mike Alpha” on your radio and carefully pay attention to where exactly the Beaver is flying. With the closest alternative floatplane operator located nearly three hours’ drive away in Rotorua, I’m expecting that Auckland Seaplanes will be rather busy this summer.
- Report by Andrew Underwood, photographs by John King.
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