Recalling Captain Fred Ladd and his amphibian planes

Small amphibian aircraft, Grumman Widgeons, flew Auckland skies for more than 35 years spearheaded by legendary pilot Captain Fred Ladd. These aircraft connected islands in the Hauraki Gulf, remote Northland resorts and many other places, and people… for leisure, on business, responding to medical emergencies or for rescues.  The affable Fred Ladd, and the company he flew for, Tourist Air Travel, deserve recognition for the contribution they made, together with a few personal recollections. While not a “frequent flyer” with Tourist Air Travel, I had my fair share of  flights with Fred and his team.



My first encounter with Captain Fred Ladd and his Grumman Widgeon floatplanes was during my teenage years on a hot summer’s day at Eastern Beach, Auckland. A section of the beach had been cordoned off so Fred, having landed in the bay, could safely taxi the small plane right up on to the sand. It was an afternoon of “flight-seeing”: anyone wanting a short spin in the air would wait until about half a dozen passengers had gathered, pay the modest fare, embark and, soon after, find themselves airborne. It was a one-man show, just Fred Ladd, reminiscent of earlier fairground attractions, a barker (Fred) drumming up business encouraging the punters to come inside the tent (a Widgeon on this occasion) to enjoy this “once-in-a-lifetime, never-to-be-repeated, experience, and all for such a small price!”  It was a sort of modern-day barnstorming, reminiscent of showmen-pliots who travelled the country showing off their planes (for a small fee) and carrying out aerobatics. While there was none of the earlier looping-the-loop and similar daring manoeuvres, there was no shortage of takers that day at Eastern Beach. As we watched the plane come and go many times I reckoned it showed great entrepreneurial spirit by Fred: the very profitable deployment of the Widgeon on what would otherwise have been a quiet Sunday afternoon between scheduled trips to and from Waiheke Island.

Captain Frederick Patrick Ladd

Later I realised that Fred Ladd’s extrovert nature, mixed with his showmanship and keen business sense was what made New Zealand Tourist Air Travel (TAT) so well known, not just in Auckland but throughout New Zealand. It was a small airline based at Mechanics Bay, Parnell, fittingly a place with close associations with the pioneers of aviation in New Zealand. In 1937 Captain Edwin Musick used Mechanics Bay as his Auckland base when he was captain of flying-boat planes on survey flights for Pan American Airways, sussing some of the longest routes in the world between the South Pacific and California.

Captain Edwin Musick’s Sirkorsky 4-engined S-42B ”Samoan Clipper” (later lost near Apia)
and (behind) Imperial Airways’ “Centaurus”
Alexander Turnbull Library Collection

And later, from the 1940s, Mechanics Bay was the site of much larger operations when it became home for Tasman Empire Airways Limited – TEAL – now Air New Zealand. TEAL flying boats on their scheduled flights to and from Australia and Pacific Islands took off and landed on the inner harbour and then taxied and tied up in Mechanics Bay where there were passenger, freight and maintenance facilities. It was New Zealand’s first international commercial airport, birthplace of overseas air travel for civilian passengers to and from this country.

Short S30 Empire Class Flying-boat in a fly-past over Mechanics Bay
Photo: Friends of the Solent

For nearly 20 years these services continued until September 1960, when, with the return from Fiji of a Solent plane flying the Coral Route, TEAL’s (and the world’s) last scheduled international flying boat service landed at Mechanics Bay. Conventional passenger airliners, as we have come to know them, had taken over. TEAL moved out of Mechanics Bay in the early 1960s, leaving the place to an expanding TAT, Fred Ladd and his team, to create the next chapter in Auckland’s amphibious aviation history.

Early TEAL logo

My First flight

Fred joined TAT in 1954 so he’d been some 10 years with the airline when I first flew with him. I was working out of the New Zealand Broadcasting Corporation’s (NZBC) Auckland Newsroom, reporting for radio and television. It was early New Year, everyone was away for the great New Zealand summer holiday, known in the News trade as the “silly season” when there’s often a shortage of real “happening news”. I preferred working through this period, gradually ploughing through a long list of possible storylines left for “the workers” by the Chief Reporter before he took off to his batch at the beach. One of the suggested articles, for TV, was to visit Auckland’s Mayor, Dove-Myer Robinson, on holiday at a small settlement on the Hokianga Harbour, Horeke. Beside the notes about this suggestion was the further notation “get stock shots” meaning that while on location filming the item about the Mayor, pick up shots of the area, the harbour and anything else of interest that might be useful to, later, illustrate news items, lifting them from the “spoken” to “moving pictures”. Getting stock shots like this was commonplace, building up the film library. I decided the best stock shots would be from the air, found out the afternoon tide on the Hokianga Harbour was favourable for amphibious operations and that Robbie, the Mayor, would be available to us.  A call to TAT and the charter flight was booked for next day.

This air travel may sound extravagant, but the amphibious Widgeons were just magic for news operations, particularly when time was of the essence. For a start the Mechanics Bay base was “downtown waterfront”, just a few minutes’ drive from the newsroom in the city. The planes got you to and from distant locations quickly and it was easy en route to take ‘establishing shots’ or ‘stock shots’. Filming out of the plane’s windows gave unobstructed views because the wings were above the cabin. The Widgeons gave great access, able to land either on the sea or lake and taxiing up on to a beach – or landing at an airport, aerodrome or airstrip. And if the sea was calm the plane provided another shooting platform, the cameraman standing in the open doorway hatch (conveniently above the waterline, of course!) to get shots across the water if required.

Captain Ladd flew the 2 person crew (camera, sound) and me to Horeke. It was Fred’s first flight into this part of the world (not many people want, or need, to go to Horeke!), so we circled a few times above a mangrove-lined inlet to pick a landing spot (effectively a runway on the water) and to find a suitable taxi-ramp. Then we landed and once ashore met up with a very relaxed Mayor and began filming the item.

 Left Behind?

Fred excused himself and sometime later we had to suspend filming because of the noise of the Widgeon’s revving engines as it skimmed across the inlet and took off, out of sight. We hoped there had not been a misunderstanding that Fred somehow thought we were staying on and he was now returning to Auckland without us! But we did not have to wait long until the plane returned and then, within minutes, took off again. This was repeated several times more. I recalled that afternoon years before at Eastern Beach. I found that my thoughts were correct: Fred had found some more willing passengers for “flightseeing”, most of them experiencing their first ride in an aeroplane. It turned out he had taken children aloft for next to nothing, and then local farmers and landowners arrived at the beach wanting the novelty of seeing their properties from the air. He charged them a bit more, but nothing like the usual going rate! Our work done and ‘flightseeing’ curtailed, Fred shaped a course for Mechanics Bay. Robbie, the mayor on holiday, was seen on TV the next night and the library received stock footage of most of the beaches along the East Coast between Auckland and Whangarei, including the Oil Refinery site and Whangarei city. For some locals of Horeke “that day we had a ride in a plane” must have been a talking point for a long time, much more important than the revelation on TV that the small, remote settlement was hosting Auckland’s Mayor!

Know the Plane

The American-built Widgeon (officially the G44a Grumman Widgeon), named after a North American duck, was introduced in the early 1940s for the US military. TAT bought its first in 1954, a second in 1960 followed within 3 years by 2 more. They were configured to seat 5 passengers and the pilot all in the same cabin. The amphibious Widgeons always had the distinct advantage of being capable of landing and taking off, equally happily, on water or on land. Fred Ladd, as General Manager of TAT, had the aircraft re-engined to improve performance. The planes got along at about 257 kph (150 mph).

Captain Fred Ladd at Oneroa, Waiheke Island
Creative Photography Limited – Sir George Grey Special Collections, Auckland Libraries, 550-32

Know the Business

Captain Ladd or Captain Bruce Packer seemed to prefer skippering those flights chartered by NZBC to cover news stories – after all these two were no strangers to the needs of television. In the early 1960s they had been involved in some of the very earliest locally-produced TV documentaries in this country, at least 2 series, exploring the islands of the Hauraki Gulf written, produced and hosted by Shirley Maddock.  Air travel was used extensively during filming throughout the Gulf and inevitably TAT planes were seen in shot, often used to provide continuity between one location and another. This series, in hindsight, set the “look” and a high standard of documentary-making in New Zealand so soon after public television was introduced in 1960. Moreover, Fred Ladd and other pilots knew the Gulf very well – locations, suitable landing places, they were familiar with the remote personalities: families, farmers, foresters, rangers, fishermen and hermits and got to know about local events and a touch of history connected with many of the islands they serviced. No doubt the 2 pilots contributed to the fabric of the documentaries which were extremely well-received at the time because they showed local places and people on the new TV channel, otherwise saturated with overseas programmes.  Shirley Maddock’s legacy is now in the archives, providing an invaluable insight into the islands of Gulf more than 50 years ago.

The pilots’ experience also paid off for TV crews on news assignments because both Ladd and Packer knew our business. Once on location they could work out the best approach, ideal altitude, the position of the sun, its reflection off the sea, and the best course (chosen by wind direction and strength) for smooth flight while filming – all to enable just the shot that would work to help tell the story. They would position the plane accordingly, all the time liaising with the cameraman sitting alongside them, asking if that shot was what was wanted, whether “around again” was required for a repeat shoot, whether the plane was too close to, or too far away from, the subject being filmed or perhaps whether it was time (and safe) to land to get waterborne footage.  After take-off and before landing, the side window up front could be removed enabling the camera to be poked out whenever this type of shot was required. This gave a great view out, avoiding the scratches, crazing and salt crust ingrained in the perspex-like windows.

Know the Man

Frederick Patrick Ladd, born in Warkworth 27th October 1908, had several jobs, including helping in his father’s carrying business, so he started his career in the air quite late, at 31, taking gliding lessons because at first he could not afford tutorage in powered planes. The Second World War needed pilots but Fred was told he was too old. He persevered and after he got his wings in the Royal New Zealand Air Force in 1942 he was posted on active Pacific service to Tonga, Guadalcanal and New Ireland in Papua New Guinea. Fred had many wartime scrapes including being shot at, forced and crash landings on jungle strips during his 33 missions. But it was at RNZAF Ohakea that he had his nearest-thing in a crash landing – he said his survival from the burning plane which had its canopy jammed shut deepened his Christian outlook. Out of RNZAF uniform he joined the rapidly expanding National Airways Corporation and for 3 years flew passenger services in the South of the South Island flying Douglas Dakotas (the DC3) and de Havilland Dominees.

In 1951 he went to Fiji as first Chief Pilot for the start-up Fiji Airways. His extrovert, outgoing character with a great sense of fun was very popular with passengers and company staff, but he resigned after 3 years when a Court of Inquiry held his actions responsible for an emergency landing.

Back in New Zealand, he joined TAT. More of this anon.

Fred the Joker

Fred’s stories and jokes about planes, aviation and the airline business are legend wherever he has served, and then some. Here’s one I was told. It was while Fred was flying with Fiji Airways and he was scheduled to pilot a small plane to a nearby island. He arranged with terminal staff to do “a little test in passenger psychology”. So when the announcement was made for the passengers to board the plane Fred with his civilian jacket hiding his white shirt and epaulettes, accompanied them and took a spare seat in the rear of the plane as if he was a passenger.

Captain Fred Ladd aviator and prankster

People sat waiting, nothing happened. Then after a time the clerk who had checked them in walked out to the plane to advise that the pilot was momentarily held up lodging a flight plan… he would, she assured, be with them soon. She departed and the wait continued. Then Fred piped up to say it was a pretty poor business, being left sitting in the cramped cabin, the plane out on the unsheltered apron in the searing afternoon tropical heat. After another wait Fred again spoke, looking up front at the various controls, dials and knobs. “These things are easy to fly, anyway, I’ve seen the pilots do it a hundred times, you test the flaps with the pedals, check the joy stick, start the motors using those green switches up there and, bingo, we could be underway! Anyone mind if I give it a go? Oh yes, I see there’s the radio – I’d have to tell the Control Tower we were taking off, and I know the way – straight up and over those hills and out to the island just 11 minutes’ flying off-shore. Let’s give this pilot a few more minutes, if he doesn’t come I’ll take us”.  Passengers, discomforted and anxious, began to wriggle in their seats. One said he would go look for the pilot, while others said that, in the circumstances, they would get off, happy to take a later flight. Fred thought he had wrung as much as he could out of the gag, pulled off his jacket, revealing his airline uniform. He told the passengers that it was all a bit of a test and that he was, indeed, the pilot. “And now, perhaps, could they get underway?” Interestingly, all the passengers remained in their seats and flew with the practical joker to their destination.

“Red McGregor”

In NZBC newsroom in Auckland we learned of a stricken yacht, “Red McGregor”, off the Northland coast near the Cavalli Islands. The boat was flooded after sea water rushed in through the toilet and crew members could not stem the flow.  They radioed “Mayday” fearing that they could not reach land, requiring assistance in the stiffening weather. Rescue craft were sent to find the wallowing yacht. Cameraman Lloyd Edwards and I were sent to cover the story aboard TAT’s Widgeon with Bruce Packer the pilot. Once overhead the “theoretical fix”, the position “Red McGregor” had given in her last radio message near Cavalli Islands, we effectively joined the search, by now in very gusty conditions with squalls. Not exactly the weather to remove a window for filming! It certainly became a very bumpy ride. And I found then, as I have on several occasions since, the more you scan and search among the turbulent white water waves below, the more you keep seeing shapes that look like the object sought. Eventually we found the “Red McGregor”, even though apparently half full of water she was still getting a good tossing around in the stormy Pacific cauldron. And above her, despite the buffeting we were experiencing, Lloyd reckoned he had shot enough film to show the boat’s predicament. Bruce radioed our exact position to Search and Rescue to assist those on their way to the yacht. We decided not wait to cover the rescue. Fuel was short and we faced a long flight home in worsening weather. Truth to tell, both Lloyd and I were a bit green around the gills! We just wanted out of there! This story has a dismal end. Once in calmer air nearer Auckland, Lloyd got out the “change bag”, a black zip-up bag in which he placed the camera and, by experienced “feel”, he opened the camera, extracted the full reel of exposed film and put it in an airtight can before retrieving it from the bag, sealing and labelling it. Halfway through this procedure which Lloyd had carried out hundreds of times, he said something was wrong, the “feel” in the bag was not right. Inside the camera the film had not wound through on to the take up reel. He felt all was lost. And so it proved to be on inspection in the darkroom back at the studios – instead of winding on to the take- up reel, the film had bunched up like a concertina inside the camera and nothing, not one shot, not a frame could be salvaged. An apologetic Lloyd was distraught. The expense of the flight and our little personal discomfort had all been for no result on-air. Radio news was the winner with my eye-witness story. And the library also gained: stock footage taken from the plane on an earlier reel was perfect.

Tuatara,  Anyone?

Incidentally, a year of two later, recalling we had taken aerial footage of the Hen and Chickens Islands between storm clouds that day, I got that very reel out of the film library to illustrate a story emerging from the Auckland Magistrate’s Court. Two young, rather naive, fishermen faced charges under Protected Species laws after they had landed on one of the Hen and Chickens Islands, removed 2 Tuatara Lizards, taken them to the mainland and into a Northland hotel. There they offered them for sale in the public bar. According to the Prosecution, much to the astonishment of everyone in the bar, the fishermen, between beers, revealed the contents of the sack they carried, 2 Tuatara, which were promptly put up on the bar between bar mats and stubbies with the statement that the lizards were for sale. “Make us an offer!” they said.

New Zealand Tuatara – how much is one worth?

One of the men openly asked bar patrons what a fair price might be, because he had no idea of the market-price. Not unsurprisingly, he found that no one else did, either. Tuatara did not often come up for sale! Meanwhile, his friend feared the sale had all gone wrong. It appeared the reptiles had died, suffocated in the sack. There they were on the bar mat, absolutely inanimate. The fisherman did not realise in his naivety that these lizards seldom move quickly, and anyway, far from their natural habitat in the dark of the bush or their burrows, they were probably stunned rigid by the public bar’s bright lights and noisy jukebox. Somehow the lizards were encouraged to move, the Court was told, and vigorous attempts continued to try to sell them as “live pet lizards” until the local constable arrived in the bar. He’d been summoned by a very concerned publican. Arrests followed, and now the pair faced jail on multiple charges involving landing on a protected island, disturbing protected species, theft and offering protected wildlife for sale. Just to make certain the Magistrate knew just how serious this was, a Tuatara expert, quoted by the Prosecution, emphasised how cruel it was to disturb wild life, particularly this very rare variety of Tuatara found exclusively in the North, threatened with extinction etc, etc.

I recollect the Magistrate saw it as stupid, youthful one-off opportunism rather than a racket or scam trading commercially in live Tuatara and he let them off with a fine. The case ended with a Court Order. The lizards, Exhibits A and B temporarily housed at Auckland Zoo, must be uplifted by Wildlife Officers and returned to their home! (Perhaps another charter flight for TAT!)

90 Mile Beach

Another holiday event I covered for TV one year was the annual fishing contest on Ninety Mile Beach, based at Ahipara. This was a same-day turnaround story so it was decided I should take a film crew and fly up and back with TAT. Bruce Packer was at the controls. Even with the speed of air travel we would not have enough time to be on hand for the final late afternoon weigh-in and prize-giving. I arranged to phone Contest Headquarters early evening to get the results before we went to air, thus completing the story. We did have time, however, to motor by 4 wheel drive Landrover along the beach a few kilometres to film some of the favourite methods of snapper fishing, including the longest rods I had ever seen whipping tackle, laden with enormous lead sinkers, far out into the sea and a variety of kon-tiki rafts, some with sails, designed to take the line with its hooks and bait out beyond the breakers. I interviewed one or two hopeful anglers (some didn’t want to reveal their secret tactics), several successful anglers (but, they doubted, sadly not the winning fish) and the jubilant organisers (who said this year the numbers competing made it by far the biggest snapper fishing contest anywhere in the world) and I recall doing a piece to camera as a “sign off”.

The fishing contest is just as popular as ever. Eventfinder

By the way, I was the only person on the beach wearing collar-and-tie: NZBC rules at the time took no account of the type of assignment, formal or informal. And, as I found, the rules certainly ignored the very warm Northland summer temperatures that day! (The NZBC requirement was soon changed. When you translated the official Public Service jargon, the new rule simply meant “dress according to the nature of the assignment”).

The early finish to essential filming meant we could leave Ahipara early afternoon, with plenty of time before we had to be back in Auckland to prepare the item for that night’s news programme. I asked pilot Bruce Packer about the flight time and discovered there was no rush even with a slight detour I had in mind.

Dropping  In – Martins Bay

I asked Bruce to plan a course down the East Coast to Martins Bay. Once overhead this popular beach we could see there was just slight surf and fortunately there weren’t too many people on the beach: it was sandy and a nice gentle grade up the shore near where I wanted to taxi. I asked Bruce if we could land and have a few minutes on the beach. He agreed and I explained that I would like to go ashore as close as possible to a seaside bach, a converted bus, which I pointed out. He prepared for a landing and we alighted on the water side-on to the slightly rolling waves and more or less surfed on to the beach, pulling up out of the water on to the sand in front of the old bus. “Just give me 15 minutes”. It was a surprise visit to radio colleague, Bruce Slane, whom I knew was holidaying with his family at their favourite waterfront beach-front spot aboard the bus-bach. They had seen the plane arrive but the last thing they imagined that it was someone dropping in to visit them!

How startled Bruce was when I emerged from the plane and appeared on the beach. I had my briefcase with me – it carried the day’s newspapers, Northern Advocate and NZ  Herald  which I had fetched for the Slanes.  The camera crew and Bruce Packer were summoned to share refreshments and after a short but very pleasant stopover with the Slanes, it was time to resume our flight to Mechanics Bay, Auckland.   By now quite a few people had gathered on the beach to view the Widgeon and probably to try to find the reason for its presence. Apparently in earlier summers a plane would appear on the beach, the pilot offering sight-seeing flights, so perhaps some of the beachgoers and locals hoped for a quick bird’s eye view of Martins Bay! But not that day. Bruce Slane and family had the novelty of accompanying their guests to the small plane parked on the sand outside his bus-bach and farewelling us as we boarded. With the crowd out of the way, the plane turned on the sand and headed into the sea. It was bit tricky getting back against the gentle rollers, but Bruce Packer had done it many times before and once through the breakers he turned the aircraft side on to the swells, gunned the engines and we were away. We climbed, circled Martins Bay, Pilot Bruce waggled the wings in salute to the Slanes and we headed for Auckland.

Bruce delighted in telling the story of the day “Ric Carlyon dropped in”. He later told me that rumour got round Martins Bay after the plane departed. It went something like this – “Mr Slane is a bigshot in the legal world and the passenger from the plane with the bulging briefcase flew into the Bay on behalf of the NZBC to get urgent legal advice from the expert!”

By coincidence, Bruce Packer took a camera crew and me to the same coast, but to the North at Mangawhai, when I was reporting an item about an expensive residential development along waterfront dunes by Broadlands, and the fears of erosion caused by digging foundations for the opulent beach houses. Obviously there was no welcome among the million-dollar mansions for the traditional Kiwi holiday bach… or a beach-bus!

 Chasing Daylight…   

My preference to take summer leave after everyone else had returned paid off one year when, 2 weeks before Christmas I was called in by the Chief Reporter, Bruce Crossan. “I see you are again holding the fort over Christmas and New Year. It’s been a busy year. I have booked a camera crew for the week before we all break up, arranged travel North – why don’t you base yourself at Paihia in the Bay of Islands and find a few stories up that way? Take your time, treat it as a break before the few weeks you’ll be on deck until mid-January. Get your Christmas shopping finished pronto and take off next week. TAT’s already booked: fly up and back”.

So one week out from Christmas Day I was off to Paihia, accompanied by a camera crew. We had already sussed a couple of likely story-lines, nothing pressing and handy to have on hand to help fill the bulletins during the so-called “silly season” when news-makers were holidaying, content was scarce and items, marginal at any other time of year, would be included in the programmes.  I can recall three items we gathered, one about Russell Volunteer Fire Brigade being extremely short of funds, thus unable to expand operations to adequately protect the growing settlement there and its important historic buildings. A local Councillor heard we were doing the story, asked to be included in the item and ended up promising to secure a grant to cover purchase of portable pumps, hose and other essential equipment. Happy ending! The other stories were about a makeover planned for the well-known, historic, Duke of Marlborough hotel and preparations at Waitangi for February 6th celebrations.

Christmas Eve and it was time to head home. The Widgeon, with Fred Ladd, picked us up at Paihia as arranged but we found that NZBC newsroom had already agreed to a “dog-leg” in the charter flight back to Auckland, a diversion to Urupukapuka Island in the Bay of Islands to pick up a passenger. No problems to us! It was an opportunity to get a brief glimpse of the island, Otehei Bay and the hotel there, once headquarters for the famous American adventurer, writer and angler, Zane Grey. Better, Fred advised us to “get off the plane because there’s usually a cup of tea freshly brewed by mine host at the hotel and scones… and the scones are legend!”

Otehei Bay on Urupukapuka Island

Once landed and having identified the passenger that was joining us, we found that there was, indeed, time for refreshments. No scones. Our hostess at the hotel had replaced them with seasonal Christmas mince pies. Her reputation as a cook was intact: they were scrumptious. There was time also for a brief walk around the gardens. The silence was deafening, interrupted by a variety of bird calls and the swish of the waves down on the beach. Just idyllic. The views were fantastic and there really was a sense of remoteness, peace and tranquillity. The afternoon slipped by. When we were leaving Otehei Bay it was getting late. In fact, too late. Before we took off Fred warned that it would be touch and go whether we would reach Auckland before civil twilight, an exact time calculated each day when, under TAT’s operating licence, it’s too dark to fly, and certainly too dangerous to land on Auckland Harbour. Putting down in the dark on the busy inner-harbour would be far too risky – fear of collision with small craft and ferries, etc. The sun went down as we flew south and it was apparent that, apart from getting into trouble for flying “after hours”, Fred might have to divert to Auckland International Airport and to the safety of its approach and landing lights. That move, though, would alert Civil Aviation authorities in the control tower that the TAT plane was flying illegally. Overhead Warkworth and I could see it really was dusk already. The sun had, technically, set and we were using as a homing beacon the bright white glow far in the distance, the lights illuminating the track at the night trots in Epsom, Auckland. Fred gave the Widgeon all speed it could muster to get as home as quickly as possible. We flew over the Rangitoto Channel, turned right above North Head and in the receding light (perhaps increasing darkness would be better) Fred could see there were no craft in our way, the wind was favourable to a straight-in approach so he decided to give it a go. We landed without incident, turned the plane towards the ramp at Mechanics Bay and exited the water just as quickly as we could. Our taxi was parked at the top of the ramp as usual, waiting for us, and as if to punctuate the situation, the driver turned on his headlights to help us see our way as we departed the plane and gathered our TV equipment and bags!

Farewells and Christmas greetings all ‘round before we left TAT’s terminal but I recall that the last words on the evening were Fred’s – “I hope those Civil Aviation wallahs have already gone on holidays and won’t hear about tonight’s night flight!”

In hindsight, setting aside the anxiety of the flight, it dawned on me the sharp contrast between our relaxed and quiet time in the North, very different to the Christmas Eve traffic, last minute shopping, and general mayhem of the city that we, literally, landed in. How far away, yet so near, was the paradise of Urupukapuka!


Refuelling at Otehei Bay, Urupukapuka
Alexander Turnbull Library

Other Flights: Slipper, Kawau and a Jumbo

There were other news events I covered travelling on TAT, mostly chartered flights. There was a trip to Slipper Island off the East Coast of Coromandel Peninsula to film a yacht high and dry on the rocks, an apparent loss. Added to another assignment in the North (and I can’t remember what it was), I got the pilot to overfly Kawau Island on the way home to get aerial pictures of the property owned by Auckland’s Fire Chief, Lloyd Wilson. I wanted the shots to go with a magazine item I was producing showing the unusual lifestyle and pressures on the man heading the busiest metropolitan brigade in the country which was about to dramatically expand. Wilsons had a batch and extensive garden on Kawau (the garden they must have shared with opossums and wallabies, I thought) which was Lloyd’s get-away-from-it-all sanctuary and very much part of my item.

TV News chartered a Widgeon for probably the NZBC’s shortest charter flight one afternoon in 1971. Qantas was flying in its brand-new Boeing 747 Jumbo Jet, the first time one of these big wide-bodied passenger jets had been seen in Auckland. Qantas gave a great “show off” display with some low level flights over the city, suburbs and hinterland. After all, they had beaten Air New Zealand in the Jumbo Jet race! But more people, many more than expected, were interested in the new plane and wanted a closer look. They all headed for the airport. What with official ceremonies to welcome the 747 to Mangere, the day’s normal airport activities plus all these added sightseers, the airport and its access roads were quickly overwhelmed.  All routes were clogged: people, unable to get anywhere near the terminal building to see the plane land, spotted the Jumbo making its final approach and stopped their cars just where they were, enabling them at least a glimpse of the plane. This added to the traffic chaos. Hundreds of passengers could not get to the airport in time for their scheduled departures. Some flights were delayed in consideration of the exceptional circumstances but plenty of passengers missed out on travel that afternoon and evening.

TV reporters who had covered the arrival and the brief official welcome now found they, too, were marooned, unable to get back to the city to prepare their filmed items in time for that night’s news bulletin. It was apparent the traffic situation would take some hours to clear, exacerbated by the fast-approaching evening commuter peak hour. Without some innovative idea it appeared the pictures would not make it in time.

It was suggested that the newsroom arrange to send a Widgeon to the International Airport, pick up our crews and the film and take them to Mechanics Bay where there would be a taxi waiting to whisk them to the Shortland Street studios. It all worked like clockwork. Within minutes the crews were back in the city, avoiding the traffic chaos and enabling deadlines to be met. One of the reporters could not help but make the contrast between the enormous, state of the art, plane she had been on, and filmed, earlier in the afternoon with the small one she was now travelling on. Her colleague was moved to observe “Ah, but remember, the 747 can’t land on Auckland Harbour, run up the ramp and drop us off right alongside our waiting taxi!”

 Mother Takes to the Air

My mother had never been up in an aeroplane when there was an opportunity to take her on an TAT Widgeon chartered by NZBC to go to Waiheke Island. I was covering the effects of an island-wide blackout caused by a boatie’s anchor “fishing up” and snapping the only power cable supplying Waiheke. Electricity was cut for several days until underwater repairs could be carried out. Inevitably there was widespread, and serious, disruption to life on the island.

There was spare seat on the charter flight so I offered it to my mother, enabling her to visit old friends of hers, the Jones who had made a great change, swapping life on a dairy farm at Ramarama for ownership of the Four Square general store on the beachfront at Little Oneroa. Mother was a bit hesitant about flying for the first time, especially in a small plane, but her confidence was buoyed by the stories I had often told about flying with TAT. Fred Ladd was our pilot and I told him about his diffident passenger. Before we left the terminal building he had a reassuring conversation with mother, obviously well-rehearsed lines for similar nervous passengers, but made very personal and confidence-building. There was also a touch of the trade-mark Fred Ladd humour!

Once in the plane I reminded mother what I had told her about the sometimes bumpy take-off, the noise of the engines and the wash of sea water and spray as we got airborne. Fred Ladd turned in his seat to reassure mother, repeating what he had mentioned, that the real task was to get the plane up, off the water and then the rest of the flight would be a breeze. And then above the roar of increasingly revving engines, Fred shouted out his famous phrase, just as he had done a thousand times before:

“A shower of spray and we’re away”

It is a noisy dispatch – the scream of the engines, the noise of the water slapping against the plane’s metal hull, the vibration throughout the craft, the thump of wave-tops on the bow and floats and of course the famous spray which surges, swirls and slurps, enveloping the plane, windows and all, until the Widgeon gets off the water.  During all this I noticed the firm grip mother had of her seat, white in her knuckles plainly showing. Once airborne the situation was eased a little, diverting attention by my pointing out well known landmarks below.

We landed on the smooth, sheltered waters off Little Oneroa, mother was met by the Jones for what I later heard was a great “catch up” session while the news crew disappeared in a taxi to tell the story of an island that had been 3 days without electricity. And just before we returned to Auckland I was able to get on film the effects of the blackout as experienced by shopkeepers: I interviewed the Jones. They had lost stock without refrigeration, had been forced to shorten their hours and had received abuse from customers after supplies of kerosene, candles and other essential standbys had run out within hours of the start of the blackout.

TAT’s Grumman Widgeon, Fred Ladd pilot, departs Oneroa, Waiheke Island

It was a pleasure to introduce Mother to flying, and to have her along with us on that flight so she could visit the Jones’s. For her it was a talking point for a long time after the event, those fretful few moments during that first take-off apparently forgotten!

Pirates Ahoy!

In 1966 broadcasting in New Zealand had one of its biggest shake-ups when transmissions began in November from the pirate station, Radio Hauraki, broadcasting from the MV Tiri, an old coastal trading ship anchored off Great Barrier Island. The signal was weak and could not be pulled in by many transistor radios on the mainland, nevertheless listeners using valve sets as far away as Wellington reported hearing programmes broadcast by the pirates. Government authorities had been very much against private radio arriving in New Zealand and this attitude, even more so, included pirates intending to broadcast just outside territorial waters, beyond the 3 mile limit. Private radio, in whatever form, would upset the monopoly and control the NZBC (and therefore the Government) enjoyed.

Radio Hauraki had been pilloried over many months by various State authorities as, one by one, they used Post Office, Radio and Maritime laws and regulations to try to prevent them going to sea. At one stage police were used to try to prevent the Tiri sailing and it became public knowledge that the Navy had been instructed to stop and board the Tiri if she tried to put to sea without a certificate of seaworthiness. The pirates made it to out into the Hauraki Gulf but were taken to court after they allegedly ignored an order that had been issued under maritime law, forbidding the “unsafe” Tiri putting to sea. The judge found that the detention order had been made for political reasons (to protect state broadcasting) rather than for safety (of the vessel, her crew and all those at sea). Despite the court ruling in the pirates’ favour, further surveys were ordered by officials and each time inspectors found more and more items requiring attention. Radio Hauraki decided this was petty and vexatious: it was time to make a run for it, so at 10 o’clock on the night of 10th November 1966 the ship slipped out into the harbour and Gulf, unchallenged by authority. Tiri was on her way to change the face of radio in this country.

The pirates broadcast only intermittently from the moment they first went to air on November 21st 1966, mainly because of technical troubles. There were arguments about whether the ship was, in fact, more than 3 miles off the coast: there was some suggestion it was often moored in a sheltered bay on Great Barrier and at other times visiting boaties (or government officials) could not find where she was.

Radio Hauraki’s “Tiri” her high mast vulnerable to stormy weather

NZBC news chiefs quickly got tired of items about Hauraki: it was, after all, publicity for the opposition. So mention of the pirates was banned on NZBC airwaves unless it was serious, breaking news. The Government obviously wanted nothing to do with the pirates or their ship, the less public mention the better. Public servants on Great Barrier were warned not to assist those on the Tiri.

Radio Hauraki programmes appealed to younger listeners: in the type of pop music played, the laid back DeeJay style of continuous presentation and, of course, the fact that it was both private and pirate radio, broadcast in defiance of the establishment.

TAT, and Mt Cook Airlines when it took over the business in late ’67, was, naturally, a frequent conveyor of Radio Hauraki staff and supplies to and from Tiri from those earliest days. In fact, TAT pilots probably knew more about Tiri’s location than anyone else. The Widgeons had carried personnel, food, drink, technical equipment, ship’s parts, and programme material for the pirates. Company executives were flown to the ship in times of Hauraki’s adversity, and I suspect just occasionally the airline flew government officials over the Tiri, checking its position, observing its movements.

Hauraki built up its audience when it installed a new transmitting aerial, enabling ready reception in Auckland on transistor and car radios. An elementary news service was set up (copying NZBC items, mostly) and the station began attracting advertisers who were very happy to try Hauraki to access the station’s target audience, the younger set in the biggest market of all, Auckland.

Back on shore the NZBC made moves to try to counter the shift in audience, extending broadcast hours and promising a change in format on 1ZM to also target younger listeners. There was an argument about Hauraki having to pay royalties for the music it broadcast, and the station set up offices in downtown Auckland to manage the increasing business side of the venture. The pirate broadcaster settled into a routine and the NZBC realised private radio in New Zealand was reality.

 Shipwrecked Pirates

Late on Saturday night, January 28th 1968 I was out in my car listening to the antics on Radio Hauraki.  Not the done thing by an NZBC employee, but you have to keep an ear on the opposition!  Suddenly the penny dropped, these were no antics, the messages being broadcast by announcer Paul Lineham from Tiri were real. He said the ship was drifting off Great Barrier Island towards rocks near Whangaparapara Harbour. “Mayday, Mayday, Mayday, please alert coastguard and Auckland (marine) Radio, ZLD, of our plight!” Then followed a few jingles identifying Hauraki, short bursts of dialogue about abandoning ship, “This is an urgent Mayday call, the engine has failed and we are on the rocks… the siren is sounding throughout the ship (it could be heard in the background) and we are abandoning ship”.  Paul Lineham gave a final “goodnight”, there was jingle… then the airwaves went dead.

It was the strangest thing – a mayday message which is usually given by a radio operator through the crackle of the marine band, but here it was, the professional voice of a deejay calmly giving the alarm on the broadcast band in a very commercial style, complete with musical jingles, for everyone to hear. And hear it they did. Listeners by the hundreds phoned emergency services to tell them about the Tiri’s predicament.

I headed for the newsroom. This story, I thought, was going to be serious enough to break the embargo on mentioning Hauraki. Most NZBC stations had closed down for the night. So my task, after consultation with the Chief Reporter, was to get a cameraman and try to get to Great Barrier to film the stricken ship, and anything else that had eventuated since the crew of the Tiri ceased broadcasting and whether, as they announced, they had abandoned ship.  What had transpired?

 Reporting the Shipwreck

By now it was well after midnight but we managed to find a charter boat capable of the trip, the Rono, owned and crewed by the Subritskys, and usually deployed as a workboat around the Gulf.  Alun Bollinger was the cameraman (he has since become a famous cinematographer) and we departed Half Moon Bay in the wee small hours with the intention of arriving at the Barrier just on daybreak. Alun and I got little sleep, stretched out in the wheelhouse, as we chugged towards Pirate Territory.

All went well and just after dawn we found the Tiri near Whangaparapara, her bow up on the rocks, just afloat on an even keel, the 40 meter high transmitting mast, damaged and flopping around. It was obvious she had taken a pounding, dashed against the rocky coastal outcrop by the blustery Sou’Westerly winds during the night and was now badly holed, or worse.

Tiri 1 hard aground at Whangaparapara.
The author

It was an irony, but the navy ship HMNZS Inverell was moored just off the bay. Irony, I thought, because it was obvious that the Establishment, the Defence Force, had responded to the enemy, the radio pirates, when they made their unorthodox calls for help.

Our task was to get pictures of the Tiri and the crew’s activities, already underway, to try to salvage radio equipment from the flooded hold. Some gear had been removed and placed on the rocks above high water mark. Notably, the skull-and-crossbones flag was flying, defiant, from Tiri’s mast-head! So, what had happened in the night?

It turned out that the Tiri had spent Saturday searching for a man missing overboard from a launch off Great Barrier Island, the ship returned to its moorings but could not locate them in the darkness, Tiri’s motor developed a fault and without full power she drifted helplessly towards shore, got caught in rising winds, and crashed on to the rocky coastline. Held there by the tide and wind, she was further damaged by every wave that lifted and dropped the helpless ship. It had been holed and was flooded down below and the ship’s back may have been broken. Chaos below, the crew on deck had watched as valiant attempts were made by several boats, including local fisherman Bill Gibbs with his boat Marauder, to tow the Tiri off, but to no avail. For their safety everyone on board was put ashore: skipper Lloyd Griffiths believed the constant battering on the rocks might lead to a more serious situation which, in the darkness, could be disastrous with risk to life.

We now had the preliminary facts and got Rono to take us the short distance to Tryphena, and hopefully a telephone so I could file news stories. We went to the Gibbs family house which had a phone, phone number 7H Tryphena. Mrs Gibbs was happy to let me use it, but, she pointed out, the local telephone operator had the day off on Sundays so the exchange was closed all day. I asked if there was an opening fee or some other way to get a line back to the mainland: perhaps I might have to seek special treatment with the infrequently used “GP call”, standing for Government Priority, quoted when urgent matters took precedence over closed exchanges and overloaded lines. In the event Mrs Gibbs set up an arrangement between the manual exchange on the island and the central exchange in Wellesley Street, Auckland. NZBC was to pay a hefty fee which meant that Tryphena 7H would remain “plugged through” to the operator in Auckland for the remainder of the day unless the line was required for an emergency. I soon dictated several stories down the line back to the Auckland newsroom just in time for the last of the Sunday breakfast bulletins, followed by several voiced reports. I told the newsroom to make certain to alert NZBC chiefs in Wellington about what had happened – I thought they should know about Hauraki’s problems, but more importantly it told them, (rather than asking them!), that we were breaking the embargo and broadcasting material about the pirates.

During one of the calls I was told that colleague Craig Little and a camera crew was en route with equipment capable of recording interviews, etc. for TV. In our haste to get to the island, we decided to go with Alun who had only a mute, or silent camera: that is pictures without sound. Sure enough, Craig and crew arrived on a Widgeon, circled, got some aerial footage of the grounded Tiri, landed at Tryphena and began interviewing everyone connected with the overnight drama.

Tiri’s bow on Great Barrier Island’s pebbly coastline, Whangaparapara. The author

Bill Gibbs with his fast boat Marauder, which had earlier tried unsuccessfully to tow Tiri off the rocks, ferried Craig and crew around to the stricken vessel to get up to the minute pictures with sound, plus a Piece To Camera to set the scene. Alun’s film of the Tiri, taken just after sun-up, was handed over to Craig and they took off back to Auckland to prepare the item for that night’s news. That left Alun and I at Tryphena awaiting our return transport. Once it was assured that the plane would be back to pick us up, I farewelled the Rono which set sail for Half Moon Bay. I followed up with a few more radio reports, Alun had a well-earned sleep, the Gibbs plied us with food and then, late afternoon, we heard the drone of the Widgeon. Time to go home. I ended the arrangement with the telephonist: the line from Tryphena 7H to Auckland went dead and Alun and I made our weary way to the plane… and back to Mechanics Bay. It had been a long day!

More than 40 years later I was reminded of Tryphena and its manual exchange when I spotted the switchboard, complete with handset, magneto and plugs, an exhibit in the Waiheke Island Museum. This was the very equipment through which my news items had passed, way back in January ’68.

Post Script, another Tiri, another Storm

It was not the end of the airline’s connection with me and this event. The Gibbs had been so helpful and hospitable during our long day chasing the Hauraki story the NZBC decided to present the family with a “thank you” gift. So a month or so later I found myself alongside Bruce Packer in the Widgeon on the way to Tryphena to present the gift. Duty done to a very grateful Gibbs family, it was time to return, ironically joined by a couple of technicians from Hauraki on their way back to the mainland.  They realised possible tension as passengers in a plane chartered by NZBC. “Don’t worry”, they said with a wry smile, “we’ll pay our share of the flight!”

(The Tiri was found to be beyond repair. NZBC thought the pirates might go away, beaten, but they quickly found Kapuni, another aging coastal cargo ship, renamed her Tiri II, which was fitted out, commissioned and started broadcasting again within a month of Tiri’s loss)

It was Tiri II that I covered for radio and TV news when it was her turn to get into trouble in June, 1968.  Wrenched off her moorings near Great Barrier in the late afternoon, she was swept along, uncontrollable in the teeth of severe gale winds. Her frenzied ride through the storm continued into the evening and throughout the night, until just before dawn those aboard realised they had gone aground, perhaps on a sand bank, remaining upright almost on an even keel and apparently with little damage.

Attempts to refloat Tiri II, near Uretiti.  Radio Hauraki 40 Years On

In fact they were aground on the smooth sands of Uretiti Beach, just north of Waipu. The resting place was within meters of State Highway One so the assignment covering this event was to be made by road rather than by air.

Ironically I had followed, very closely, the storm which beset Tiri II. While, unbeknown to me, the ship was being propelled by winds estimated at 120 miles an hour (193 kpm) in steep, breaking seas during the previous afternoon, I had been across another victim of the severe weather, reporting, minute-by-minute the fate of the troubled Northern Steamship Company’s freighter, Maranui. At first she reported by marine radio that she was hove-to in the storm off Mercury Bay along the East Coast off the Coromandel Peninsula. This was closely followed by a Mayday message. The next word from the ship was that cargo had moved in the storm and that the ship’s stability was now affected. Within minutes there was a further radio message repeating the Mayday and advising that she was taking water and sinking. “Considering abandoning ship” was one of the last messages heard. A Swedish cargo ship, Mirrabooka, was in the vicinity and responded to the emergency calls, arriving on location in time to make very daring rescues in mountainous seas. Maranui went down and despite the valiant attempts to snatch survivors from life rafts in very stormy conditions, 9 members of the crew of 15 were lost.  Mirrabooka Avenue in Howick is a permanent reminder of those heroic actions.


Pirates Come Ashore, Tragedy Stalks  

Just to finish the Hauraki story. Back at Uretiti, Tiri II was salvaged and moved to Auckland, repairs were made to the radio equipment once more and she returned to the Barrier, and pirate duties. Broadcasting continued until June 1st, 1970 when Hauraki closed down transmission. The company had been granted a radio licence and was coming ashore, a legal private broadcaster.

Celebrations which turned to tragedy: Rick Grant pictured right behind the woman. N Z Herald

Tiri II was on the return voyage to Auckland with a great welcome planned on the wharf followed by celebrations to mark the achievement of the new licence. But everything had to be called off when tragedy again hit the enterprise. Tiri II was still well out in the Gulf encountering choppy seas on the voyage home In the very early hours when announcer Rick Grant was washed overboard, lost.

At sun-up Mt Cook Airlines’ Widgeon was in the air again, probably for the last time on Radio Hauraki business, on a sad mission carrying company executives to join navy ships, Marauder, pleasure craft and other aircraft in their unsuccessful search for 28 year old Rick Grant, real name Lloyd Jones.

The new Hauraki, with reformed company, management and commercial arrangements, began transmissions late in September, 1970, from studios in the downtown Caltex House, ironically the same building that police and post office officials had, four years before, used to spy on the original Tiri every time the pirates threatened to put to sea. And it was also the same building in which the Broadcasting Authority conducted hearings, resulting in Hauraki being granted its licence.

 Plane Crash

But there was to be a far more serious and tragic event for both the airline (by now bought out by Mount Cook Airlines) and NZBC News on the morning of Christmas Eve, 1970. Before the day was out, both organisations would be united in shock, grief and pain.

Stephen With was duty reporter for the breakfast session news bulletins that morning when, soon after his shift started at 6 o’clock, he was alerted about a launch on fire, with people reported in the sea, off Browns Island in the Hauraki Gulf. He was dispatched to Mechanics Bay, together with a free-lance camera crew, Wayne Stevens and David Grant, on an amphibious charter flight, piloted by Roger Poole, to get coverage of the drama unfolding out in the Gulf.

They arrived over the incident about 8 o’clock and circled, probably filming the smoking launch, and then they landed to get waterborne shots. Eye witnesses were later to report that they saw the plane take off, turn and begin to make a low-level pass over the scene: they presumed to get more pictures. They then saw the plane dive, out of control, nose first and vertical, hitting the water with a tremendous splash. Fortunately the hydrofoil Manu-Wai was nearby on her regular passenger ferry service from Waiheke Island. She went alongside the submerged, sinking plane. Two deckhands stripped to the waist, dived into the sea and tried without success to access the hatch-door. They then managed to get a line attached to the Widgeon but had to let go when the weight of the sinking water-filled plane threatened to drag the Manu-Wai down with it. Manu-Wai stood by until police and other rescue craft arrived to deal with the launch on fire – it turned out to be the 10 meter Sea Mist which burned to the waterline and sank, the occupants escaping unharmed – and now, much more serious, the crashed plane which by then had also sunk to the seabed about 10 meters below. Manu-Wai’s crew reported no sign of life in the short time they could glimpse inside the plane’s cabin.

The site was marked by a buoy, divers and a salvage team were summoned, but it was apparent, unless there was an (unlikely) air pocket within the plane, all four occupants had died. Subritskys’ salvage team arrived aboard the old working scow, Jane Gifford. A diver went below: no sign of life and no news of the occupants. He attached wire ropes to the fuselage and the mangled remains of the plane were raised on to the Jane Gifford’s deck. Four fatalities were confirmed, and the scow set sail for an Auckland wharf where the Fire Service provided equipment and expertise to extricate the bodies from the tangled wreckage.


Emergency services with the salvaged plane, Auckland wharves. Photo: Stu Brandt – Auckland Fire Brigade Museum and Historical Society

Understandably, news of the accident was received very hard back in the NZBC Headquarters where Chief Reporter, Bruce Crossan, briefed a gathering in the newsroom. Silent prayers were offered and those staff members not essential to the day’s operations were excused duties. “But”, Bruce mentioned “ I know we all feel lousy at the moment, but for those who remain, I want to say that our radio listeners and TV viewers will expect the usual objective professionalism in the reporting of this story, even though it unfortunately propels the Corporation, and the Auckland newsroom, right into our own news bulletins”.

Executives from NZBC and Mt Cook Company met to exchange sympathies. It was a hell of a start to Christmas. I, like many of my colleagues, attended 4 funeral services between Christmas and New Year: 2 on Boxing Day. It was a difficult time, not only because it was Christmas, but many had to put off last minute Christmas Eve shopping and then defer holiday plans. In the 1960s the annual “Closed” notice went up throughout New Zealand over these weeks – so we were very grateful to florist Berin Spiro who said he would remain available and keep back suitable flowers to supply appropriate floral tributes, as required. Similarly, NZBC, who worked closely with the families regarding funeral arrangements, was thankful for the help afforded by funeral directors, and particularly by churches and clergy over their busy Christmas season.

There could be no friction, blaming or recrimination in this environment: airline staff attended the services for reporter, cameraman and soundman while NZBC staff members crowded the pilot’s funeral. Apart from family and friends mourning, it was also an incredibly sad time for two organisations, two teams – the airline and NZBC – who had worked together so closely over the years.

2 Quick Stories

In July 1968 warships from 4 navies were to call at Auckland following a combined exercise, Longex, in the Pacific, a convoy that would be the biggest since the American Great White Fleet visited in 1908. It was my task to coordinate TV coverage of the convoy’s arrival with cameras on vantage points at North Head, Mt Victoria and Parnell Rose Gardens on the waterfront. TAT would provide our aerial coverage. While confirming arrangements with port officials and Navy, I enquired whether there were sufficient harbour pilots to cater for all these ships arriving at once. “No, but we will put a pilot on the big oil tanker USS Caliente, she’ll lead and the others will follow in line astern”. Sounded sensible.

A cameramen aloft in a Widgeon shot the ships coming up the Rangitoto Channel and then, oh dear, he caught Caliente running up on to Bean Rock. Ironically, the only ship in the fleet with a Harbour Board pilot to guide her had come to grief, aground, hard and fast. Fortunately the tide was making and Caliente later floated off, undamaged. But it was a great story-line! And we had pictures of the ship’s impact on the Rock.

(I was re-acquainted with Caliente some years later while visiting Pearl Harbour. She was in port there, still servicing the Pacific Fleet and by then about 25 years old, a very well-decorated ship having served with distinction in World War Two, Korean and Vietnam Wars.)


USS Caliente, Fleet Oiler. Victim of Bean Rock

I had never heard of the Couldreys, nor Wenderholm, until 1965 when the Auckland Regional Authority invited NZBC news to show off a seaside property it had bought just north of Waiwera. After much negotiation with the owners, the pioneer farming family Couldreys, the ARA finalised arrangements securing the beachfront and surrounding farm as a public park. This was innovation and subsequently many people complained, saying local authorities had no moral right to spend considerable sums on recreation facilities. The ARA, keen to introduce their “showpiece” laid on all facilities to ensure its novel acquisition was shown off to advantage.

Wenderholm Park. Auckland Council.

I thought NZBC was being used, somewhat, being asked to put on a news item giving the ARA, in effect, an opportunity to justify the expense and deflect public criticism. It was my task to report the event, and I suggested aerial shots were essential for viewers to fully appreciate the property, and, anyway, I quite liked the idea of arriving on location in a Widgeon! It was agreed that NZBC and ARA would share the costs of the flight and share the resulting coverage. It was a brilliantly fine day: film shot from the air was just magic and, later, so was the coverage down on the beach in the beautiful new park, overall contributing to an exciting item showing a great new public playground, reflecting well on the both the Couldreys and the ARA for combining to close the deal. Even more so for the ARA. When I asked the Chairman (on camera) whether it was a high price to pay for a park and its development, he seized the moment, bravely announcing “Not at all, it’s just the first of a number of new parks we have in mind: we’ll purchase suitable properties as they come up for sale”.  There are now 26 Regional Reserves.


TAT disappeared, as a name, from the skies in December 1967 when Mt Cook Airlines took it over and put up its own brand and name. TAT had been flying since 1954, an airline founded to use Widgeons for charter flights anywhere in New Zealand. But it soon zeroed in on Auckland, greatly assisted by their publicity and advertising-conscious Chief Pilot, Fred Ladd, after he joined the airline in December, 1954.

TAT’s handful of Widgeons had become a familiar sight throughout Auckland, the Hauraki Gulf and at far-flung beaches, particularly along the East Coast.

Typical arrival: the Widgeon, and Captain Ladd, approaching the beach

In that time tens of thousands of passengers had been carried, countless crayfish flown from Great Barrier Island to Auckland for forwarding world-wide, and freight transported to off-shore islands, often boxes of fresh food (and drink!) welcomed by those living or staying in some of the more remote coastal and island hideaways. TAT was also a lifeline, flying the sick and the injured to Auckland for urgent medical help. Often the doctor was taken to the patient. A local Parnell physician, on call to TAT, made himself available for these urgent calls – the flying doctor! It was not unknown for the pilots to personally deliver medicines or drugs to those in urgent need. Fred Ladd’s favourite was to drop the current New Zealand Herald newspaper to people he knew wherever his flights took him. He usually found time to write one of his zany “poems” on the paper before he tossed it overboard. Needless to say TAT planes were used extensively by the news media to access various events. Government Departments also chartered Widgeons to make urgent business trips out in the Gulf, like the P and T technician going to an island to fix the phone line or radio telephone, restoring the only link with the outside world. Ministry of Agriculture staff members were fellow passengers on another flight, on their way to inspect livestock. Fire Service officers flew to Rotoroa Island to investigate a serious fire there in the Salvation Army’s rehabilitation hostel, and police sometimes travelled on TAT in search of “person or persons wanted in connection with ….” whatever case was current. On one flight I encountered beekeepers  en route to tend hives on Kawau (thankfully minus their bees!), then there were surveyors on their way to mark out land for sale on Little Barrier and, on several occasions, honeymooners getting away from it all, launching married life together in the wilds of an off-shore island!

Fred’s last flight in a TAT plane was on March 31st 1967 when, accompanied by wife Mabel, he made the now-famous illegal pass through the main span under the Auckland Harbour Bridge.

Fred Ladd farewells Auckland.

He was prosecuted but the judge, praising his long clean record and community works, discharged Fred without conviction. Ladd went to America, learned to fly helicopters, but could not get a licence to run a chopper business in Auckland, so he joined a “flightseeing” airline with a float plane in Rotorua, later creating his own “Wundaflite” charter business, also based in Rotorua.

Captain Fred Ladd flew “flightseeing“trips with Geyserland Airways in Rotorua
Ministry of Culture and Heritage NZ

This he continued until 1977, aged 69, when he grounded himself because of ill health by which time he had clocked up more than 21,000 flying hours. He tried to regain fitness and health by indulging in Masters Sports and he satisfied his never-ending appetite for the skies by taking up gliding, back where his addiction to aviation had begun! He died in Taupo, January 1989.

TAT, as mentioned, became Mount Cook Airlines in December 1967, managed by Bruce Packer. The shock of losing 4 lives and an aircraft lingered, what with long enquiries into the accident and protracted insurance matters, etc. The airline had to face the fact that while it had not had an injury accident for 15 years, its hitherto exemplary record had been indelibly marked.  A further accident in January 1971 added to the airline’s woes: a Widgeon was written off after it made a wheels-down landing on the water in Half Moon Bay. And there was another shock, felt world-wide, the sudden rise in fuel prices, so in 1975 Mt Cook opted out of the amphibious business which was taken over by some of its staff, together with investors, and renamed Sea Bee Air remaining at the Mechanics Bay base. This company expanded with operations in the Pacific Islands while locally it provided augmented services in the Gulf with two bigger amphibious Grummans, the model named Goose.

There was another fatal accident involving a Widgeon when, during taxiing manoeuvres on the beach at Paihia, a man inadvertently walked into the planes’ moving propeller.

The remaining Widgeons and the Geese maintained services for some 14 years when a changing New Zealand economy and the introduction of fast ferries in the Hauraki Gulf (which at long last had a better chance of maintaining regular timetabled services) meant Sea Bee Air’s operations became uneconomic.

The small amphibious Widgeons, first spotted in Auckland skies in 1954, disappeared for good in 1989.

This was also the end of an era, concluding the flying boat story, for now, on the Auckland waterfront. It had begun way back in June 1915. Leo and Vivian Walsh built home-made floatplanes in their makeshift workshop, assisted by their sisters who sewed the canvas. The brothers taught themselves to fly the planes, taking off and landing on the harbour near Mission Bay.

Vivian and Leo Walsh, pioneer aviators. MOTAT,

The flying boats became a familiar sight over Auckland’s inner harbour, taking off and landing near Mission Bay.

Walsh Brothers’ Boeing float plane that began an airmail service with Dargaville, 1919. MOTAT Collection

From very elementary facilities there they established the New Zealand Flying School which, after the outbreak of World War One, trained airmen as pilots for military service overseas.

The Walsh brothers, true pioneers of aviation, also acquired “land planes” which they flew from a small strip along the Mission Bay beachfront, not just training, sightseeing or short trips, but inaugurating airmail services in the province and flights to Wellington and back.

The Walsh’s Flying School was taken over by the military and later, around 1934, some of the Boeing planes were taken to Devonport for storage. There has been conjecture ever since that these aircraft, now priceless because they were probably the first planes ever built by Boeing, are concealed somewhere in a complex of wartime tunnels beneath North Head, awaiting discovery. Theories endure: the planes have yet to be found.


RCC July 2009 Nov 2017 July 2019



Papers Past, National Library of New Zealand