On air and water – a story of floatplanes in New Zealand

By Alina Suchanski

Whether you call them seaplanes, floatplanes, flying boats, or amphibians, they all have two things in common – they can fly and float. Being able to both take off and land on water means that they don’t require a runway and therefore can access remote areas, as long as there is a body of water big enough to land on. Alina Suchanski writes about her experience in a floatplane, and dives into their history.

After my Valentine’s present for my partner, George – tickets for a floatplane flight - we boarded the tiny aircraft on a perfect morning: a clear sky and no wind. Our pilot, Ivan Krippner, who owns the Wings and Water business with his wife Kylie (both pilots and flying instructors), manoeuvred the floatplane to the end of the lake and took off effortlessly towards the South Fiord.

By Alina Suchanski

Whether you call them seaplanes, floatplanes, flying boats, or amphibians, they all have two things in common – they can fly and float. Being able to both take off and land on water means that they don’t require a runway and therefore can access remote areas, as long as there is a body of water big enough to land on. Alina Suchanski writes about her experience in a floatplane, and dives into their history.

After my Valentine’s present for my partner, George – tickets for a floatplane flight – we boarded the tiny aircraft on a perfect morning: a clear sky and no wind. Our pilot, Ivan Krippner, who owns the Wings and Water business with his wife Kylie (both pilots and flying instructors), manoeuvred the floatplane to the end of the lake and took off effortlessly towards the South Fiord.

Lake Te Anau has three fiords, each much bigger than the famous Milford Sound. The lake forms a boundary between the Te Anau township and the Fiordland National Park.

We flew over the entrance to the South Fiord marked by several islets known as Dome Islands. Turning south we were blinded by the reflection of the sun in 13 tarns with a collective name of Hidden Lakes, because they cannot be seen from land or water – only from the air. Flying over the Kepler Track we continued south-west into the Iris Burn Valley and on to Lake Manapouri, arguably the most beautiful lake in New Zealand. Indeed, the views of the lake were spectacular with its many islands, golden beaches and mountains all around. We circled above the Manapouri village and followed the Waiau River back to Te Anau, passing picturesque farmland that stretches between the Fiordland National Park to the west and the Takitimu Mountains to the east.

The 15-minute flight ended too soon with a smooth landing on Lake Te Anau. In just a quarter of an hour we had covered the entire Kepler Track, which takes most people four days to hike.

Seaplanes have been around for over a century. They are divided into two categories: floatplanes and flying boats. Floatplanes are equipped with floats mounted under their fuselage. Many small land aircraft can be modified to become floatplanes. In a flying boat, the main source of buoyancy is the aircraft’s fuselage, which is shaped to act like the hull of a ship.

Floatplanes are commonly associated with North America. However, the first successful powered floatplane flight occurred in 1910 in Marseilles, France. Henri Fabre piloted an invention he called the Hydravion (French for floatplane).

American aviation pioneer and a founder of the US aircraft industry, Glenn Curtiss developed the Curtiss Model D, which was a land-plane equipped with a central float and sponsons for buoyancy. On 26 January 1911 he flew the first seaplane from the water in the United States.

Flying boats proved useful during World War I due to a lack of runways around the world. At the outbreak of the war, the Curtiss Model H series was widely produced for the British Royal Navy.

By the late 1930s, seaplanes were among the largest and fastest aircraft in the world. The ability to stop at coastal stations to refuel made flying boats a relatively safe and dependable means of long-distance transportation. Flying boats such as Pan American Airways’ Boeing 314 “Clipper” represented the peak of luxury in transatlantic flight (The history of seaplanes, n.d.).

During World War II, the Allies used seaplanes to access remote areas across the Pacific Ocean for reconnaissance, anti-submarine warfare, and search and rescue missions. One of the most well-known of these aircraft was a Catalina flying boat, or ‘Cat’ for short, sometimes affectionally referred to as ‘Dumbo’, the flying elephant, after the popular Walt Disney cartoon character.

The Royal New Zealand Air Force had 56 Catalinas between 1943 and 1953 which were stationed in Fiji and the Solomon Islands. In 1946 the Catalinas were used for repatriation of servicemen between New Zealand and Australia. After the war, seaplanes were decommissioned from military use, due to development of jet-powered aircraft and longer runways becoming available.

The New Plymouth-based New Zealand Catalina Preservation Society purchased the ZK-PBY Catalina twin-engine amphibious flying boat in 1994. It is the only aircraft of its kind in New Zealand, and one of only two flying commercially in the world. Lawrence Acket, the New Zealand Catalina Preservation Society Operations Manager, says that “the Catalina is currently at New Plymouth Airport, receiving TLC from our dedicated engineering team, maintaining it for when we become operational again in 2022.”

 

Tasman Empire Airways Ltd (TEAL – Air New Zealand’s predecessor) was established in 1940. Its first flight was with Short Empire flying boat ZK-AMA Aotearoa, carrying ten passengers from Auckland to Sydney. After WW2 TEAL changed its fleet to Short Sandringham and later to Short Solent flying boats. Here ‘Short’ refers to the name of the manufacturer, rather than the length of the flying boat.

The Solent has a special place in New Zealand’s aviation history. It was operated by TEAL at the beginning of international passenger air travel. Their first Solent ZK-AMM ‘Ararangi’ arrived in New Zealand on 29 September 1949 and was closely followed by ZK-AMN ‘Awatere‘, ZK-AMO ‘Aranui’,  and ZK-AML ‘Aotearoa II’.

In 1951, TEAL launched New Zealand’s first package holiday: a flying boat service from Auckland to Papeete in Tahiti, known as the Coral Route. The last TEAL Solent flying boat service was undertaken on the Coral Route on 14 September 1960 by the ‘Aranui’. This was the last scheduled international flying boat service in the world.

Auckland’s Museum of Transport and Technology (MOTAT) has a Solent ZK-AMO (the only Short Solent Mark IV variant left in the world) in its collection, alongside another iconic aircraft from the bygone aviation era; the Short S25 Sunderland. Both can be seen at the Aviation Display Hall at MOTAT 2 (Tibbutt, 2019).

Today’s modern seaplanes are light amphibious aircraft equipped with floats that enable pilots to land in remote areas around the world. They are frequently used in search and rescue missions and for tourist scenic flights.

Floatplanes and flying boats have been a part of the Fiordland heritage for more than half a century.

Older generation pilots and residents of Te Anau remember a Short Sunderland, Grumman G73 Mallard, and a Catalina aircraft landing on Lake Te Anau in the early 60s.

Te Anau fleet of amphibian aircraft, 1960s: Grumman G-44 Widgeon ZK-AVM (in the foreground) and two Cessna 180 floatplanes ZK-BQJ and ZK-BJY
Photo courtesy: Ian Campbell

Ritchie Air Services (RAS) was the first commercial float plane operation in Te Anau. Started in 1960 in Gore by Ian Ritchie with a Cessna 180 ZK-BQJ and a Dominie ZK-ALB, the airline opened its Te Anau operation in 1962. RAS employed several pilots over the years – one of whom was local legend Bill Black. In his book I did it my way, Mr Black describes his many flights carrying tourists, hunters, and supplies to places all over Fiordland. The airline was also used for venison recovery and med-evacs.

In February 1965, RAS acquired the first Cessna 206 Super Skywagon floatplane in New Zealand, a brand new ZK-CHQ.

Later that year, RAS airline merged with Queenstown-based Southern Scenic Air Services, subsequently bought by Tourist Air Travel Ltd (TAT) which had a fleet of Grumman Widgeon amphibians. One of those, ZK-CFA ended up based in Te Anau, alongside another Cessna 180 floatplane ZK-BJY (Black, 2013).

One of the pilots at TAT was Chris Willett, who later played an important role in the presence of floatplanes in Te Anau.

When the Mount Cook and Southern Lakes Tourist Company Ltd acquired control of New Zealand Tourist Air Travel Ltd on the 1st of January 1968, it inherited two amphibious operations: the northern one based at Auckland’s Mechanics Bay which serviced the Hauraki Gulf and the Bay of Islands, and the southern one based at Invercargill which serviced Stewart Island, Fiordland, and the Southern Lakes. Between them, the amphibian fleet consisted of five Grumman G-44 Widgeons (Mount Cook Airlines Amphibian Service, 2011).

After the takeover, Chris Willett continued to fly for Mt Cook Airlines for 15 years, however, the Te Anau floatplane was making a loss and the airline decided to close its operation.

Mr Willett saw this as an opportunity. He was passionate about floatplanes, which by that time had become iconic on Lake Te Anau, and he didn’t want to see them go. In 1983, he bought the floatplane jetty and two aircraft – Cessna 206 MCG and MCH – and started Waterwings Airways (Te Anau) Ltd.

The company continued increasing its fleet and at one point operated 14 aircraft. Owner Chris Willett moved to Queenstown to concentrate on land-based operation. The day-to-day running of the Te Anau floatplane operation was managed by a senior pilot who reported to Mr Willett.

Alan Remnant was one of the pilots for Waterwings, who in 2001, purchased the business from his former employer and renamed it Wings and Water which he ran for 14 years. “I enjoyed flying around Fiordland. It’s an amazing place,” he said.

Over the years Mr Remnant has seen many changes in the floatplane industry. “In the early days we did a lot of deer recovery carrying both venison and live deer; crayfishing; taking trampers to the start of the Dusky track, and supplies to Deep Cove during the hydroelectric station building project. Later, helicopters took over a lot of these jobs. Nowadays it’s mostly the tourist side of the business,” he recounts.

In 2015, Mr Remnant sold the business to Kylie and Ivan Krippner. While Kylie is passionate about floatplanes, her husband loves aerobatics. At the time the business had only one aircraft – Cessna ZK-DRH.

Today, Wings and Water offer scenic flights of varied lengths of time and distance. Kylie and Ivan juggle parenthood duties with flying and in 2020, bought a second floatplane, ZK-DRI.

Thanks to enthusiasts such as Ian Ritchie, Chris Willett, Alan Remnant and the Krippners, Te Anau continues to offer floatplane flights to local and international tourists.

While the North Island has three amphibian aircraft companies: the Taupo Floatplane, Auckland Seaplanes, and Volcanic Air Helicopters and Floatplanes in Rotorua, Te Anau is the only place in the South Island of New Zealand where one can experience taking off and landing on water in a floatplane.

For a brief era spanning about 40 years of the early 20th century, flying boats were the most romantic way to travel to remote corners of the world. Half-boat, half-aeroplane, luxurious as ocean-liners and now virtually extinct, their legacy is kept alive by aviation heritage enthusiasts, who restore, maintain, and fly these magnificent relics of the past.

 

 

Sources: 1. The history of seaplanes, hartzellprop.com 2. I did it my way 3. Corsairville: The Lost Domain of the Flying Boat 4. The Golden Age of New Zealand Flying Boats 5. Last of the Great Flying Boats: The Short Solent, motat.nz

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