Saturday, 19 October 2019

WHITIANGA WEATHER

The first 40 years of the Mercury Bay Aero Club - scratching the surface

Driving into Whitianga from the south, the Whitianga Airport, owned by the Mercury Bay Aero Club, is one of the first and biggest landmarks that attract the eye of people entering our patch of paradise. And while there is a regular flow of air traffic all year round, the summer months certainly see an increase in numbers on or above the grassed runway.

For many visiting flying enthusiasts, Whitianga is just a hop, step and a jump from main centres such as Auckland and Hamilton. It is aviation’s version of a Sunday drive for enthusiastic pilots and passengers who love the picturesque view of Mercury Bay before touchdown and after takeoff.  

So popular has the airport become that hangar space is at a premium and the demand from owners wanting their own private space to park and tinker with their planes currently exceeds supply.

The airport is also used by a couple of boutique commercial operators to transport passengers on regular routes as well as offering charter flights to destinations around New Zealand.

So where did it all begin?

Well, like most things in the greater Mercury Bay area, the Whitianga Airport and the Mercury Bay Aero Club had small beginnings and a keen volunteer labour force to help get it off the ground (excuse the pun).

According to notes taken from the aero club’s 40th anniversary celebrations held in 1988, it all started on 30 April 1948 when a number of interested gentleman signed their names to a piece of paper expressing a desire to become members of an aero club in Mercury Bay. What instigated the interest initially was when Mr L Russell and Mr H Rees discovered the government had drawn up a proposal for an airfield in Whitianga during World War II.

The thinking at the time was that by having its own airfield, Whitianga would gain better access to the outside world as well as creating an opportunity for those locals wanting to learn to fly. 

On 1 October 1948, the Mercury Bay Aero Club became an incorporated society and not long after the first organised, albeit unofficial, flying day took place. Two Tiger Moths were flown from Auckland and landed on Buffalo Beach, where local aviation enthusiasts were taken for joy rides around the Bay. When the tide came in, the planes were pulled up onto Albert Street and parked in a paddock behind what was then the home of the Mercury Bay Bowling Club.

In the early 1950’s, Norman (Boy) Wells expressed an interest in forming an aerial top-dressing strip on his Whitianga farm at the northern end of Racecourse Road. The aero club, keen to get something happening, agreed to form the airstrip on Boy’s farm for an agreed sum of 450 pounds, which was to become the start of the club’s aircraft fund. Soon to follow was the start of another fund by way of things such as debentures and scrap metal drives to build a hangar on the land. 

A temporary strip licence for dual flight training using an Auster aircraft based in Thames was also sought from and approved by the Civil Aviation Authority.

On 26 June 1955 the Mercury Bay Aero Club’s first official flying day took place when 30 club members were taken for dual flight training by Mr BH Packer, an ex-Air Force instructor, who had been duly elected as club instructor. 

In August 1955, Midland Air Services approached the club to operate an air service out of Whitianga, which was first flown by John Stokes.

With the runway complete and a hangar under construction, an aircraft of their own was the next priority for club members. They finally settled on a Tiger Moth purchased from the Waikato Aero Club for the sum of 525 pounds. It was to be first of several aircraft the club was to purchase over the years.

The club decided in 1963 to make an application for a charter licence. This was followed in early December of the arrival of the club’s first commercial aeroplane, a brand-new Cessna 172, registered ZK-CDB. It had seating for four and a cruising speed of over 120 knots.

Never happy to simply sit on their hands, the next item on the club’s wish list was purchasing their own airfield and on 4 May 1965 a proposal was put forward to obtain 200 acres of land owned by Mr R Rohrlach. The price was 15,000 pounds. After arranging suitable finance, a resolution was eventually passed at a meeting on 16 February 1966 that the Mercury Bay Aero Club should take the bold step to purchase the land.

And so began the formation of the Whitianga Airport as we know it today.

In 1984, a committee was formed to look into the feasibility of operating a twin aircraft out of Whitianga, which resulted in the formation of Whitianga Air Services Limited two years later. It was a move designed to segregate the club completely from their commercial operations, leaving the club members to concentrate on getting on with running an aero club.

This summary of part of the history of the Mercury Bay Aero club is only scratching the surface of the club’s first 40 years. The making of two airfield and building some outstanding club facilities have been great achievements for a small club.

The last paragraph of an anniversary booklet published in 1988 seems to sum it all up perfectly. It reads, “Many pilots have passed through our doors over the years as have a number of instructors. Some have gone onto fame or fortune, some haven’t, but one thing you can be sure of, they all had a lot of fun along the way.

In 2020 the Mercury Bay Aero Club will celebrate their 80-year anniversary.

Isn’t it amazing how time flies?

Picture: The first airfield the Mercury Bay Aero Club developed on Norman (Boy) Wells’s farm in Whitianga. The photo, courtesy of the Mercury Bay Museum, was taken in 1963.

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The Mercury Bay Informer is a highly popular community newspaper, based in Whitianga. The paper is distributed throughout the Coromandel Peninsula, coast to coast from Thames to north of Colville.