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Tasman Empire Airways Limited (TEAL)

International travel was not always long queues, deep-vein thrombosis and rubber-flavoured food. In New Zealand, eighty years ago there was a glamorous and exotic alternative.                    

Tasman Empire Airways  was formed in 1940, in an era when passengers flying on commercial aircraft were revered and envied. Back in the 1940's and 50's air travel was eagerly anticipated by the few that were lucky enough to afford this luxury. To add to the occasion passengers dressed in their finery with women in their hats and furs, men in suits and neckties. On rare occasions, when children accompanied their parents, they wore their Sunday best. Compare this with today’s cattle class in flight experience of packed airplanes, howling children and people dressed like they're coming from the gym.

Take a nostalgic journey, back to a more regal time of commercial aviation in New Zealand.

Airline History

The Tasman Empire Airways Limited (TEAL) story began in 1939 when the New Zealand, United Kingdom and Australian Governments reached agreement on the constitution of forming a new airline company. The Union Steam Ship Company accepted initial responsibility for the three Short S.30 Empire class flying boats which Union Airways had ordered for the Tasman service, and in August 1939, the incorporation of TEAL was sufficiently advanced for ZK-AMA "Aotearoa" to fly to New Zealand.

On 26 April 1940, Tasman Empire Airways Limited) was registered in Wellington as a limited liability company. Original holdings were: New Zealand Government 20%, Union Airways 19%, BOAC 38% and Qantas 23%.

 

The inaugural Auckland-Sydney flight commenced on 30 April 1940 with  ZK-AMA "Aotearoa", commanded by Captain J W Burgess with 10 passengers. This service was scheduled weekly and covered the 1200 miles of Tasman Sea in 9 hours.  

 

The Auckland to Sydney route was so popular that by 1944, TEAL was operating three return flights a week across the Tasman.

Short Empire boat 'Awarua' ZK-AMC

Short Empire boat 'Awarua' ZK-AMC in the 1940's

On 17 July 1946 TEAL took delivery of the first of its Tasman-class flying-boats, ZKAMB "Tasman". Delivery flight commanded by BOAC Senior Captain D Travers from London to Sydney, and TEAL Senior Captain A V Jury from Sydney to Auckland. The Sandringham flying boats were converted military Sunderlands and shortened the Sydney-Auckland route to 8 hours.

During the 1946-47 summer season, TEAL increased its Trans Tasman service to seven return flights a week.

 

Tasman-class flying-boats were grounded on 23 February 1948 because of engine-cooling trouble form the Pratt & Whitney engines. They remained out of service until 17 June 1948, and were then subject to certain restrictions in passenger-carrying capacity. Meantime, schedules were maintained by DC4 landplanes chartered from TAA.

In 1949 TEAL bought Short Solent mk-4 45-seater flying boats as replacements for the Sandringhams which further shortened the Sydney-Auckland Tasman Sea route to a mere 5 and a half hours. The Solents were flown until 15 September 1960.

Short S.45 Solent boat ‘Ararangi' ZK-AMM showing the 1950s TEAL livery

In 1950 TEAL took over the overseas 'coral' services from New Zealand National Airways Corporation, who had flown weekly flying-boat services from Auckland to Fiji with twice-weekly extensions to Tonga, Western Samoa and the Cook Islands using Sandringham flying boats. The Norfolk route was finally transferred from NZNAC to TEAL in 1955.

This 'coral' route continued until 1960 when a new airport was finished in Tahiti allowing TEAL to fly Douglas DC-6 aircraft. The DC-6 landplanes were previously introduced in May of 1954 and came from the QANTAS takeover of BCPA who owned the DC-6 fleet. At this time Australia took over the United Kingdom's 20 percent interest in TEAL giving them an equal 50 percent.

In December of 1959 TEAL purchased three Lockheed L-188 Electra turboprops although the New Zealand TEAL owners did not want the aircraft. It was pushed on them by the Australians and because of this New Zealand purchased the Australians' 50 percent of TEAL and became fully New Zealand government owned in 1961.

One of TEAL's Electas in its new identity

TEAL's first L-188 Electra 'Aotearoa' ZK-TEA in its first Air NZ livery

The effect of Australia no longer having a stake in TEAL was an immediate competition on the Tasman route between QANTAS and TEAL although as both airlines used the Electra on the route they initially pooled the aircraft.

In 1965 TEAL entered the Jet-Age when it purchased three Douglas DC-8 jets for the prestige services. TEAL was renamed Air New Zealand later that year.

Coming full circle NZNAC, now called National Airways Corporation, was brought into Air New Zealand in 1978 giving ANZ a full domestic and overseas coverage. These two New Zealander airlines had worked hand in hand since the end of the war and finally joined to become New Zealand's national carrier.

The Coral Route

The most fond memories of TEAL's numerous services was the Coral Route. 2002 marked the 50th anniversary of this service - labelled the most romantic airline route in the world by those who flew it.

TEAL introduced the service in 1951; ferrying passengers from Auckland's harbour across to Fiji, Samoa, Tahiti and the Cook Islands in luxury Solent flying boats. The journey harked back to the 1930's with the twin deck flying boat carrying a relatively small number of passengers.

The route was first charted in wartime when Sunderland flying boats operated by the Royal New Zealand Air Force kept the far-flung island outposts of British Empire connected. After the war, thousands of experienced, superbly trained ex-military pilots gave civilian aviation a global shot in the arm. The Southern Hemisphere was no exception. Landing on, but not in, a South Pacific lagoon is anything but languorous. During the war, Kiwi pilots had mastered the art of aeronautical island-hopping. Any pilot who didn’t study his tide charts and know his currents, and exactly how much clearance he could count on over the heads of the coral reef, tended to get wet fast.

Short Solent IV flying boat 'Aoteoroa II' ZK-AML

Short Solent IV flying boat 'Aotearoa II' ZK-AML in 1949

At first, it was intended to be just a mail service. But the concept — a scheduled air service, flying boats linking islands scattered over thousands of miles on the South Seas; silver craft putting down oh-so-softly in tropical lagoons — was just too appealing. Before you could say "Gilligan’s Island," the Coral Route became one of the most glamorous, most luxurious air passenger routes in the world. Initially a monthly service, it was increased to fortnightly after just six months due to its popularity and additional Solent flying boats were later added to the fleet.

The route and typical flying times were: Auckland - (7.30hrs) - Fiji - (3.45hrs) - Samoa - (5.00hrs) - Cook Islands - (4.05hrs) - Tahiti.   Back then, Jet lag was impossible; when it got dark the pilot set down in a lagoon and the passengers were taken to a fine hotel.

Carrying about 45 passengers, the aircraft with luxurious two deck surroundings were more like high-class restaurants, complete with silver service, tables with linen tablecloths and powder rooms. An onboard chef cooked meals to order. 

They were the domain of the wealthy, including rich tourists from the United States and Europe and the occasional movie star.

Flying was seen to be very glamorous back in the 1950's. To add to the occasion passengers dressed in their finery with women in their hats and furs, men in suits and neckties. On rare occasions, when children accompanied their parents, they wore their Sunday best. Compare this with today’s cattle class in flight experience of packed airplanes, howling children and people dressed like they're coming from the gym (except they're usually too fat for that ever to be the case).

Short S.45 Solent 4 flying boat 'Aoteoroa II' ZK-AML.

In 1954 a young Queen Elizabeth II undertook an antipodean tour of the Empire accompanied by Prince Philip. They departed Fiji for New Zealand, on a Tasman Empire Air Lines Short Solent IV flying boat 'Aoteoroa II' ZK-AML.

In Auckland and Wellington, crowds would flock down to the waterfront to watch the flying boats arrive and depart. The roar of the four 2040 hp Bristol Hercules engines and the huge plume of sea spray created an exciting spectator panorama. The human fascination for flight was at an all time high in the 40's & 50's and travellers that could afford the luxury of air travel were to be envied and admired. The world seemed enormous, fragile, newly reborn after the war and flying was a wonder.

When in operation, the aircraft flew more than 4.8 million km over about 143,000 hours, skimming aquamarine runways in island lagoons.

The 30 pound ticket was six times the average weekly wage and there was only one class - first class.

Airtime could be noisy for the five-man crew — pilot, co-pilot, radioman, navigator & flight engineer — but passengers were ensconced in an insulated, upholstered cabin lounge that resembled a set from a Cary Grant movie.

The Solent ambled along un-pressurised at about 220 knots - 400 kilometres per hour. Passengers were always treated to fabulous scenery as the maximum cruising height was only 3000 metres and the pilot often dipped well below this restriction to take full advantage of the view below.

TEAL Coral Route Baggage Label

TEAL Coral Route baggage label

Passengers, who were accommodated in elegant colonial hotels around the Pacific, were advised to carry their bathing suits as hand luggage so they could take a dip in a lagoon while the plane refuelled. Melanoma had not been invented yet, so nobody wore sunscreen.

Flying over the boundless blue Pacific in the 1950s still had a touch of daring, swashbuckling allure, especially when you were low enough to see the sharks. Pilots were demigods in Ray Bans. hostesses were angels in nifty uniforms.

The service would leave from Auckland in the morning and touchdown mid-afternoon at  Suva's Laucala Bay (now the University of the South Pacific) in Fiji.  A line-up of stately black Daimlers, Australian Holdens, and war-surplus Jeepneys with surrey tops, were on hand to ferry passengers to the Grand Pacific Hotel a refined and elegant British colonial building on the waterfront. Passengers enjoyed afternoon tea, a nap, pink gin, and dinner, followed by billiards, and perhaps by conversation with several Somerset Maugham ghosts lurking in the saloon bar.

Next day the passengers were flying northeast to Samoa, landing on the crystal lagoon off what is now Faleolo Airport. This time they were taken to the legendary Aggie Grey's Hotel - to be met by Aggie herself, a woman who made her millions selling hamburgers to American troops and providing the model for Broadway's "Bloody Mary".

Refreshed by another night of dancing and fine food, passengers were up early bound for Tahiti, the French colony that has lured sailors, artists and writers for centuries.

But along the way they alighted at the world's most magical transit point - Aitutaki in the Cook Islands.

Mk III Solent flying boat 'Aparima' ZK-AMQ

Mk III Solent flying boat 'Aparima' ZK-AMQ, taking off from Fiji.

The TEAL 'airport' for Cook Islands was located on Motu Akaiami in Aitutaki lagoon. Motu in the local language-meaning islet. Here the giant Solents landed and then set anchor a short distance off the motu. A clinker built lighter would then ferry passengers to the small wharf and from there they would walk to the 'Terminal' for a meal and refreshments while the plane was re-fuelled.

On occasion, and to the delight of all but the most anxious business traveller, weather further ahead on the Coral Route would demand that a flying boat spend the night on Motu Akaiami. A message would be relayed back to the main island of Aitutaki and a small flotilla of canoes and supply boats would set sail for the motu. On board would be the makings for an island feast, complete with young hula dancers to entertain the stranded passengers and crew while the food was prepared. 

Today, a small resort has been built on the exact spot where the original TEAL terminal stood. The Maroro Village is a link to the past when the well to do of the 1950's, including movie stars such as John Wayne, Carrie Grant and the like, stopped for a few hours or even overnight while the planes were serviced, or waiting for weather to clear. Aitutuki has been described as easily the most desirable destination in the South Seas.

In May 1954 DC-6 aircraft replaced the four Belfast-built Solents on the Auckland-Fiji leg but TEAL retained the Solent IV Aranui for service on the Coral Route until September 1960, which marked the end of the world's last scheduled international flying boat service.

Solent Mk IV 'Aranui' ZK-AMO

Short Solent Mk IV  'Aranui' ZK-AMO the last flying boat retained in service on the Coral Route.

More recently, Air New Zealand senior vice president sales and distribution Norm Thompson said the development of the Coral Route set the airline "on a path of international route expansion".

"The Coral Route not only created a fund of goodwill among South Pacific peoples by providing them with regular communication links, but above all it created a unique tourist experience no other airline could match, and this began building an international reputation for TEAL," Thompson said.

The only remaining Solent IV in the world is on display at the Museum of Transport and Technology aircraft hangar in Auckland where it has been restored by members of the original flight crew and enthusiasts from the Solent Preservation Society. Please click on the following link for further information:

Museum of Transport and Technology

You can still reach the exotic islands of The Coral Route through Air New Zealand. They offer a number of island getaways that capture the glamour and intrigue of yesteryear. Simply click on their banner located on our "links" page for further information.

Yarns

Under Attack!

During the year to March 3l, 1942, TEAL undertook several special charter and reconnaissance flights to New Caledonia, Fiji, Tonga, Samoa and Hawaii to assist the war effort. During one of these missions, Short S.30 Empire Class Flying Boat Awarua was in flight somewhere north west of the Tokelau Islands. Although clearly identified as a civilian aircraft, a gung-ho United States fighter plane operating form a US aircraft carrier attacked the lumbering flying boat.

Fortunately for all on board the aim of the fighter plane pilot was just as bad as a spaghetti western cowboy of the time. Captain Jack Burgess of the Awarua said that only one bullet hole was found in the wing but the potential loss would have been a disaster for our tiny, two plane airline.

Close Call

In 1951, a Tasman Empire Airways Ltd Solent flying boat was taking off from Rose Bay in Sydney Harbour at night, in the direction of the Wintergarden Theatre.

 

Just as the aircraft lifted off the water, one engine failed. The captain climbed the aircraft sharply to avoid an imminent collision with the theatre, and made a quick turn left, just clearing the hills. He then straightened up for a downwind landing on the flare path. During the turn, a second engine failed and a third engine failed on touchdown. The fourth engine provided sufficient power to allow the aircraft to approach and secure to the mooring buoy.

 

When the engineer climbed out through the astrodome onto the wing, he found the wing covered with foam.

 

An official investigation found that detergent had been used to top up all engine oil tanks, and a 44 gallon drum containing detergent had been labelled as aircraft oil!

Stranded In Paradise

There was one infamous flight in 1955 when the plane was coming back from Tahiti bound for Auckland with an almost full passenger load. The atmosphere on board was tinged with excitement. The passengers, including glamorous French film star Martine Carol, had heard that the next stop, Aitutaki in the Cook Islands, had one of the most dazzling lagoons in the South Pacific.

As the Flying Boat landed on the lagoon sending foaming shafts in its wake, the passengers marvelled at the vivid turquoise of the water, the soft cream coral sand and the necklace of small islands where swishing palm trees were the only sign of life. The tropical air felt like silk. The two-hour stopover to swim in the lagoon while the aircraft refuelled rushed by too quickly.

After everyone was back on board, one of the Flying Boat engines failed on take-off. Passengers, luggage, blankets, food and drink were offloaded on the uninhabited island Akaiami and the Flying Boat took off on three engines to Tahiti to get the faulty engine repaired.

"That was the last we saw of the Flying Boat for eight days," recalls Dennis Marshall the young Flying Boat cabin steward.

"There was pigskin luggage stacked on the sand and passengers asking me to take them to the hotels. But this was 1955. There were no hotels in Aitutaki." He and the two hostesses got the passengers and luggage on to the rusty but trusty fuel barge for the 9km chug across the lagoon. In airforce sheds which had been built beside a crushed coral runway for the American Forces during World War II, they set up house, helped by showers, an old jeep, an Aitutakian who sent Morse-coded messages to Tahiti and liquor from the registered agent's locker when the Flying Boat's supply ran out.

The islanders topped up the Flying Boat's dwindling food supplies with an abundance of fresh fish, meat and fruit and vegetables while Marshall handed out IOUs. Ninety fish were caught on a single day and the tourists became fascinated with the skilled Aitutaki fishermen who speared fish from the reef as the waves crashed over. During a walk up Mt Pirake for views of the encircling lagoon, Marshall saw local children dancing. They were practising for the impending visit of the governor-general and agreed to entertain the Flying Boat passengers. The community-spirited islanders built a platform, bedecked the tourists with fragrant frangipani and bright hibiscus and enthralled them with the rhythm and vitality of their dance and drums.

The tourists felt their initial irritation wafting away with the balmy breeze. Memories of silver service meals cooked aboard the Flying Boat evaporated. Lovely young island women swayed past and Marshall worked harder to remain in command. When the Flying Boat returned several days later no one wanted to leave. Eyewitnesses to their departure say a marlin danced in the wake of the flying boat as it took off from the lagoon. It must have been a marvellous parting salute.

For years after the stranded passengers wrote to Marshall about how Aitutaki had turned out to be a dream holiday.

Lockheed Electra L-188 crash 

On March 27 1965, Teal's Lockheed Electra L-188 ZK-TEC Akaroa, crashed during a training flight at Whenuapai. The airline had done the following manoeuvre many times before: the Electra flying at precisely 140kts, could be flown over the runway threshold, then throttled back to idle, it would drop almost vertically, and then land on the runway. As this would never be done on a passenger flight; the reason for the procedure remains a mystery.

Onboard were a captain, a check captain, a flight engineer, a navigator, and the airline's industrial personnel officer, and emergency procedures officer standing behind them. As Akaroa's speed dropped below 140 knots, the aeroplane landed very heavily, collapsing the undercarriage; and Akaroa shed wings, engines, tailplane, and tail as she skidded off the runway and across the grass towards the control tower. Somehow, the two standing officers stayed standing, the fire extinguishers were turned on, and everyone was evacuated out the cockpit windows, with one man burning his hand on the escape rope. TEAL salvaged what they could from the wreck, and the remains were quickly pushed into a gully behind the NAC hangars before the public saw it. The crash took place in the early hours of the morning. This training procedure was quickly deleted from TEAL's manuals. TEAL purchased a replacement Electra from Qantas after it changed its name to Air New Zealand the following March.

TEAL Air Hostesses

In the 1950s and 60s a job as an air hostess (later "flight attendant") was considered to be very glamorous. Their uniforms suited high fashions of the time, consisting of decorative hats and tailored suits. It was reasoned that if women were seen to be at ease in the air, this should help soothe the fears of anxious passengers about the safety of air travel.

The woman’s movement had yet to gain momentum and it was accepted without question that only young, single and beautiful women of a certain height and weight need apply. It was written in the personnel manual that a hostess was required to visit the bathroom, to check her appearance, every ten minutes. Air hostesses were expected to be at least 5 foot 2. A 20-year-old woman who was 5 feet 4 could weigh no more than 130 pounds. hostesses were allowed the luxury of gaining a few pounds as they approached the mandatory retirement age of 35.

“….I had to lift my skirt so he could look at my legs; walk back and forth; show him my hands, my nails, my hair and my teeth. You were being studied like a horse"
(A description of an interview in 1954 for a position as an air hostess).

No air hostess could wear more than one ring. Early retirement was enforced if the young woman had the audacity to become pregnant or get married. The uniform had to be crisp, lipstick the specified hue of red and hair cropped above the shoulders. Girdles were required to encourage good posture and besides; when you fly, the air pressure could make your belly swell and this would never do!

 

Former air hostess Jean Freer said she almost lost her job on the Coral Route during the 1950s, when the company accused her of "fraternising with the locals". An American film producer invited her to spend time at his Tahitian holiday home, where she dressed in a traditional Tahitian costume "for fun" with a girl who lived locally.

"A photo was taken of the two of us and it appeared in the Weekly News. I nearly got the sack."

The Logo

Symbolised flying fish logo of Tasman Empire Airways Ltd - 'New Zealand's International Airline'

Bill Haythornthwaite was a talented young commercial artist establishing himself in Auckland. Towards the end of 1946, he was working alone in his Queen Street office, when, around 6pm in walked Captain Oscar Garden, Tasman Empire Airways chief pilot and operations manager. Oscar Garden introduced himself as a manager for the newly formed company, TEAL. He requested that a new design be commissioned for a captain’s cap badge.

Bill’s brief was for a design “that had to look like it belonged to the B.O.A.C. family. They had the speed bird emblem and ours had to look like ‘a little brother’”, Bill remembered. Together with his assistant George Moore, “a damn good designer, we had days of ‘messing’ around, putting on paper a bird design which originally had both wings facing backwards, which was in keeping with the B.O.A.C. emblem.” This was not liked by the Board and the design was changed to bring one wing forward.

 

There was never an instruction to draw a Maroro. The symbolism of the "Maroro" was adapted to the already completed design by the Board much later. It was fitting that the logo evolved to represent the Maroro, a small sea dwelling flying-fish mentioned frequently in Maori mythology. During their sea voyages, the Maroro would fly across the bows of their vessels. Beginning its flight from up to thirty feet below the surface of the water the Maroro would emerge at high speed and fly gracefully through the air, shimmering in the tropical sunlight.

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