Aviation's key role in Nelson history

Last updated 08:56 25/11/2013
Kate Davidson and Sasha Borissenko
CRUCIAL GATEWAY: Aviation history authors Graeme McConnell, left, and Richard Waugh at Nelson Airport with some of their earlier books.

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A definitive history of aviation in Nelson is hitting the shelves this month, coinciding with Nelson Airport's 75th anniversary. Naomi Arnold meets the keen plane buffs behind it and finds out some of the region's early aviation history.

It's high time Graeme McConnell cleaned out his den. In a small room off his garage, a desk is squeezed on all sides by file boxes, shoeboxes and folders filled with aviation memorabilia.

It's an incredible resource - a time capsule of flying in New Zealand.

One box is full of old luggage tags. Another has a collection of airsickness bags (unused). Another, swizzle sticks.

There are matchbooks, bits of crashed airplanes, and aviation-themed jigsaw puzzles. Vintage flight bags from Pan Am, NAC and British Airways, which would delight any young hipster, cover one wall. He also has a serious stash of Air New Zealand plastic and cardboard cups, some with packaged biscuits still in them.

"All that stuff is very hard to find, unless you're someone like me who has saved it all," he says. "I'm always on the lookout for bits and pieces."

He admits to the occasional funny look from flight attendants.

"They come down the plane with a plastic bag, everybody's throwing junk in it, and I say, ‘No, I'm taking this home'. They say, ‘Oh, OK'. Raise their eyebrows sometimes."

He seems slightly embarrassed by his collection. He doesn't mention it, but I notice that he is also wearing a Boeing polo shirt.

Now that his and Richard Waugh's latest aviation book has been published, his wife Pam has requested that he clear out the den in the new year. But for now, it's great evidence of Mr McConnell's devotion to his subject, and the sheer amount of work it has taken to produce Nelson's first and surely definitive history of aviation in the region.

The Story of Nelson Aviation will be launched on Friday at an invitation-only event at Nelson Airport. This will be followed by a community open day on Saturday, November 30 celebrating the 75th anniversary of the airport.

The pair have been collecting aviation records and photographs for decades, and the book has taken them four years of voluntary work, based on a lifetime's collecting.

It fills a gap. The only other volumes of Nelson aviation history that Mr McConnell is aware of are a slim book, Flying Home, produced by the Nelson City Council in 1985, and a Nelson Aero Club 50th jubilee commemorative magazine, published 30 years ago.

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From his Marybank home, Mr McConnell has a clear view of one of the flight paths into Nelson Airport. He's been mad keen on planes since he was a little boy.

He grew up on a farm near Clifton Terrace School, just a stone's throw away from where he now lives. That was when Atawhai was nothing but farmland from Wakapuaka to the Whangamoa.

"Every time you look out there, it's always changing," he says of the view. "The tide's going out or coming in, or there's a flock of godwits out there. It's a magic place."

His earliest memory of anything to do with aircraft is when he was about four years old and went to the airport with his father, who had bought and was dismantling one of the buildings erected at the airport during World War II. "I remember playing around there, sitting on the grass, and planes landing and taking off."

Mr McConnell says holding the completed book for the first time produces a funny mix of feelings. "Sort of relief. Accomplishment."

The research involved delving into the Papers Past archive online, and intercepting boxes of old material from locals that were probably headed for the tip.

He tells a yarn about a woman whose seatbelt broke when she was flying from Wellington to Nelson in rough turbulence. The plane hit an air pocket, and she hit the cabin ceiling so hard it nearly knocked her out.

When the plane landed, one of the baggage handlers asked what was wrong with the fuselage. The jolt had been so extreme that the woman's head had broken through the fuselage, and fabric was fluttering on the outside of the plane.

"It can be damn rough between here and Wellington," he says.

Writing the book has been a mammoth effort for Mr McConnell and Dr Waugh. They have worked together on many aviation projects in the past 20 years.

Dr Waugh, an aviation historian, grew up in the shadow of planes; his father Brian was a World War II pilot, and on the day of his son's birth he was flying the new direct Christchurch-Nelson air service.

The family lived in Nelson's Golf Rd under the airport's northern flight path, and young Richard would cycle to and from Nayland College, watching what was going on in the skies.

Dr Waugh says the pair have been helped by "dozens and dozens of people".

"While Graeme and I have been working on it deliberately for four years, there's been 35 years of collecting and research material before that.

"Being volunteers, it's something we're putting back into the Nelson community, and we hope it will be of value."

It's a "multifaceted" book that will be of interest to many people, he says.

Long ago, the authors stumbled across the date of November 2013 as the airport's 75 anniversary, and suggested to the Nelson and Tasman council-owned airport that it would be worthy of celebration.

"Fortunately, the directors of the company picked it up," Dr Waugh says.

"Aviation plays a role for Nelsonians like virtually no other region."

The new book is a hefty tome. It numbers 336 A4 pages and has more than 220,000 words, detailed appendices, a full index, and more than 500 photographs and illustrations, most of them in colour.

It covers every aspect of Nelson aviation from the 1890s to today. Many of the photographs have not been published before.

It's not just focused on Nelson Airport but includes the aviation history of the entire region, including Waimea, Motueka, Golden Bay and Murchison.

There are reports, for example, of Takaka men Alec Barnard and James Hunter, who in about 1908 built a biplane out of kahikatea and heavy cotton fabric, and got it airborne by using a couple of horses to tow it. Unfortunately, Mr McConnell and Dr Waugh could not find a photograph of this amazing contraption.

"It's not just about aeroplanes, it's a social history of the aviation aspect of the Nelson region," Mr McConnell says. "I don't think Nelsonians realise how important [the airport] is to the economy of the region."

There are more than 50 special features relating to prominent Nelson personalities, businesses, aircraft, airlines and organisations. They include World War I pilots from Nelson, helicopter pioneer John Reid, Helicopters NZ Ltd, Air Nelson, Origin Pacific, air traffic controllers, and even Rex Lucas, who was the youngest pilot in New Zealand in the 1930s and later managing director of the then-Nelson Evening Mail.

There are plenty of aerial photographs of Nelson in the 1930s, and an entire chapter is dedicated to the Royal New Zealand Air Force's Base Nelson, which existed from 1941 to 1946, when the air force took over the airport and created a wartime operational base.

The history begins with the first type of aircraft to visit Nelson - a hot air balloon.

In the late 19th century, American Leila Adair, then in her 20s, toured the country with her contraption. The balloon ascended into the sky with the young daredevil perched on a trapeze hanging beneath it. She then jumped off the trapeze and floated to the ground by parachute, to what one imagines was thunderous applause.

Miss Adair caused quite a stir at Trafalgar Park on July 14, 1894, when her balloon rose before she could hop aboard, and her trick was ruined. Rain dashed hopes for a second and then a third attempt.

It wasn't until 1921 that another aircraft visited, and Nelsonians first saw and heard an airplane chugging over the horizon.

The region's first aerodrome was in Stoke, but when it outgrew the area, official eyes turned to Tahunanui's barren mix of mudflats, sandy hills, swamp and rough pasture.

In fact, we may have Sir Charles Kingsford Smith to thank for the current site.

The great Australian aviator visited Nelson in 1934 during the Southern Cross's last tour of New Zealand. The president of the Nelson Aero Club, James Jamieson, asked him whether he had seen any good sites for a permanent aerodrome. "Smithy" pointed to the mudflats.

Construction began in 1937, using modern American machinery. Even back then, politicians knew the importance of a good photo-op: one photograph in the book shows Minister of Public Works Bob Semple astride a Caterpillar D8 bulldozer, frowning as he receives instructions on how to turn the first sod.

It was the largest construction job in Nelson since the Cut in the Boulder Bank was made at the turn of the century, and Nelson Evening Mail reports spoke breathlessly of the tireless new machines.

"The huge tractors and scoops have been eating into the sand hills incessantly, taking the spoil and depositing it into the seaways. The machines do not stop during the lunch hour . . . another driver is always ready to go on, and the work proceeds - powerfully, relentlessly."

At the official opening in October 1938, Mr Semple returned and said rather lyrically that flying from Blenheim had been "like a dream, gliding through the air and flitting like a butterfly from flower to flower. Little Nelson nestling in the hills was a picture no artist could paint".

The first full day of scheduled flights was December 1, 1938.

The new aerodrome heralded the end of the region's isolation, a Nelson Evening Mail editorial said.

Since then, it has grown to become the fourth-busiest commercial airport in New Zealand, after Auckland, Wellington, and Christchurch.

When the Nelson-Wellington ferry service ended in 1953, it became even more important, and also cut travelling time between the two cities from six hours to 40 minutes.

More than 800,000 people now fly in and out of the airport every year, with another several hundred thousand meeting them or dropping them off, making it one of the busiest places in the region. Thousands of people have worked there over the years, in flying, engineering and associated support activities.

Nelson Airport chief executive Kaye McNabb says the book tells an important story of Nelson's economy.

She says the airport's direct economic benefit to the region is about $80 million a year, and the Nelson and Marlborough aviation industry is the sixth-biggest earner in the top of the south.

She also recounts the story of her 89-year-old mother-in-law, who picked up a proof copy of the book at Mrs McNabb's house and instantly recognised several people.

"Away she went. We spent a lovely couple of hours reminiscing, and she's had nothing to do with the airport. It's a really lovely memory jogger."

The book is a "fantastic piece of work", she says.

"I love it. It's solid information, it's an interesting read, and it's not something you have to read cover to cover. I think everybody that reads it will learn something. Many will take a lovely walk down memory lane."

WIN: The Nelson Mail has a softcover copy of The Story of Nelson Aviation to give away. To enter, email naomi.arnold@nelsonmail.co.nz with your name, address and daytime phone number, or write to Aviation Book Giveaway, PO Box 244, Nelson. Entries must be received by 5pm November 30.

  • Nelson Airport celebrates its 75th anniversary with the book launch this Friday, November 29, which is an invitation-only event. A community day will be held at the airport from 10am to 4pm on Saturday.  $10 per person, drinks extra. Books will be available at a special price of $85 for hardcover and $70 for softcover.

- Nelson


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