MERCURY BAY AERO CLUB
In 1965, the Aero Club decided that it would be in its best long term interests to purchase its own land for an airstrip. The current site beside the new highway bypass became available for sale. The only problem was the club had almost no money.
Thanks to the assistance of one member who was a local Bank Manager, the Club was able to arrange a temporary loan to purchase the farm. The site was purchased and once the airstrip had been marked out, the surplus farm land was again subdivided as the Moewai Park subdivision and sold to repay the loan.
“We struck problems again though as the Coromandel County turned us down. We appealed to the Planning Tribunal on the basis that Whitianga needed to have access to cheaper housing. Fortunately the Tribunal accepted our reason and we got our permit”- (Joan Gaskell).
However the problems were far from over, because the land was discovered to have significant drainage problems. Much of it was marsh and covered with flax. As the club was at the limit of its financial resources there was no money left to undertake draining, filling and construction of the runway.
Everyone had to pitch in. Members who were farmers donated their tractors to undertake the earthworks. The task was completed with virtually no outside help.
More recently the Aero Club was asked to give up land to allow the formation of the new Highway bypass. It was a deal which suited both parties.
While the Aero Club gave up land along side the runway it received additional land at the Northern end which will allow the main runway to be extended from 1200metres to 1400metres. In the process improvements are be made to the runway drainage which will make it easier to use all year round.
As the residential Air park develops and sections are sold the Club will get an ongoing injection of cash and capital to improve further improve facilities.
Isolation has always been a problem for Whitianga. Back in the 1950’s it was especially so. Hemmed in by the Coromandel Ranges, access to the outside world was restricted by narrow winding and corrugated roads that were easily blocked by slips or washouts. The journey to Thames and on to Auckland or Hamilton was time consuming and uncomfortable.
In the early 1950’s Donald Andrews, a New Plymouth based aircraft engineer flew a Tiger Moth in to Whitianga. Andrews landed on Buffalo Beach, trundled the Tiger Moth across the road and parked it on a vacant section. He was immediately impressed by the isolation and beauty of the region and how an air service would be of benefit. He discussed with members of the local Aero Club, their plans for development. From this early beginning he formed the idea of starting an air service for the Coromandel.
Les Russell, Bruce Packer, Owen Whiting and Joan Gaskell were four of the local people involved in the early development of the Aero Club and air service. To promote interest, Russell, owner of the Central Garage, arranged with Auckland Aero Club to fly two aircraft, a Fox Moth and a Tiger Moth, to Whitianga for a weekend in 1947. The aircraft landed on Buffalo Beach and carried locals on joy rides, creating considerable interest. At night fall the aircraft were taxied down the road and parked in a paddock out of way above the tide. The Mercury Bay Aero Club was formed a year later in 1948. Russell was also signatory to the lease on Whitianga’s first aerodrome on land owned by Mr N.A.”Boy” Wells near Buffalo Beach, just to the North of the township. Bruce Packer, part owner of Whitianga’s other garage, had been a wartime flying instructor in Canada and Britain and became Mercury Bay Aero Club’s first Chief Flying Instructor after they purchased their first aircraft in 1956.
Local builder, Owen Whiting was to have a long term involvement in development of the Aero Club. Joan Gaskell, was a local farmer who was involved in many community organisations. A forthright speaker, she was a strong supporter of the air service and Aero Club over many years.
After returning to New Plymouth, Andrews talked to possible investors including commercial pilot John Stokes about forming an aviation company to establish a Coromandel air service. They purchased the existing Te Kuiti based Midland Air Services Limited which owned a Vega Gull aircraft. Unfortunately the aircraft required substantial maintenance before it be used so they ordered a new Cessna 180 as an alternative aircraft. The Cessna was assembled in New Plymouth and flown to Whitianga for the first time on Saturday 24 September 1955.
Saturday and Sunday 22 and 23 October 1955 were important dates for aviation in the Mercury Bay region. On Saturday the survey to Mangere took place. In ideal conditions, Stokes, who was to become the Whitianga based Chief Pilot for Midland Aviation, flew guests Joan Gaskell, Les Russell, and Fred Kelsey, Manager of Mercury Bay Co-operative Dairy Company over the route in Midland’s Cessna 180. The return flight took one hour and thirty five minutes, including half an hour at Mangere for morning tea. On Sunday, the official opening took place with an air pageant.
For Joan it was a last minute decision to go, which she almost turned down.
John Stokes phoned and said “We’re doing this flight to Auckland, do you want to come?” “Sorry, I can’t.” said Joan. “I’ve just stoked the copper to boil the washing water.” Stokes replied, “Chuck another couple of logs on. We’ll be back in half an hour.” Joan said if he hadn’t told the fib she never would have gone.
On October, 21 2003, Mercury Bay Aero Club celebrated the 48th anniversary of the first commercial flight from Whitianga and the event was re-enacted. This time Ardmore had to be the destination as Mangere is now a busy international airport. The Cessna 172 was piloted by Des Gyde. He was accompanied by Joan Gaskell, Allan Watson and Walter Russell.
Sources: “Taking Off”- Richard Waugh, Des Gyde, Alan Watson.