Where it all started
Wigley daughters Annabelle Elworthy (left) and Sally Middleton talk to former Mount Cook Airline captain Chris Willett, now of Arrowtown.
A ceremony marking 50 years since Mount Cook Airlines pioneered the first scheduled passenger flight into Queenstown Airport was held at the airport on 14 February. Over 100 past and present employees, invited guests and members of Sir Harry Wigley’s family gathered at a site near the airport terminal for a number of short speeches and the unveiling of a commemorative plaque by Sally Middleton of Wanaka, the late Sir Harry’s eldest daughter, and Vanessa van Uden, Queenstown Lakes District mayor.
The moving occasion was organised by veteran Queenstown aviator Jules Tapper. The ceremony was short and impressive, with Jules in the role of Master of Ceremonies. It was obvious that he had worked long and hard to ensure the ceremony would be both dignified and meaningful.
Vanessa van Uden paid a fulsome tribute to the company for its pioneering of aviation tourism in Queenstown. Fifty years ago DC-3 ZK-BKD, which made the first flight, carried some passengers as well as a contingent of executives from the airline.
Standard DC-3 passenger capacity was 26. How times have changed! Last year saw 1.2m passenger movements through the Queenstown terminal.
Scott Paterson, Queenstown Airport CEO, also praised the company and the far-sightedness of Sir Harry Wigley in starting the service.
The Rev Dr Richard Waugh, who is not only a minister but also a highly regarded aviation historian, gave a brief history of the service and why it is significant not only for Queenstown but also for New Zealand. The inaugural flight into Queenstown was made on 3 February 1964.The flight out took place the next day with ZK-BKD flown by Capt Geoffrey Williams with Capt Alistair McLeod as his copilot.
Dr Waugh praised the Wigley family for its tenacity in seeking to establish the service. He particularly noted that the first terminal for the airline at Queenstown was a Mount Cook Bedford bus, with the crew and driver loading and unloading the baggage while the cabin attendant prepared the load sheet.
The Mount Cook Airlines service to Queenstown grew quickly, and Dr Waugh believes the company, in introducing a second DC-3, ZK-AOD, in November 1964 created a new “highway of entry”. This was responsible for many more tourists coming to the Southern Lakes district and boosting the economy of Queenstown, at the time still not much more than a sleepy village.
The Bedford bus was soon inadequate as a terminal and a modest building was erected for the processing of passengers. The airline was fortunate to be able to acquire surplus NAC DC-3s as that company introduced Fokker Friendship aircraft to its secondary routes. Continuing growth in business was such that Mount Cook Airlines brought in the larger and modern Hawker Siddeley HS748 turboprop airliners.
While today the Queenstown Airport Corporation operates the fastest growing airport in the southern hemisphere with both domestic and international flights coming and going, it was that first scheduled passenger flight by Mount Cook Airlines that started that movement.
Air New Zealand bought a parcel of Mount Cook shares on the death of Sir Harry Wigley in 1980. It then increased its holding to 30 percent on 5 December 1983, further increasing to 77 percent in October 1985. Mount Cook became a wholly owned subsidiary of Air New Zealand when that company compulsorily acquired all the remaining shares on 18 April 1991.
The company still operates as a separate entity within the Air New Zealand structure, and a function was held at the Air New Zealand Koru Club after the ceremony outside the terminal. Mount Cook Airlines CEO Andrew Ward addressed the gathering, praising the foresight of Sir Harry Wigley and the loyalty and steadfastness of the staff over the years.
- Report and photographs by Peter Owens.
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