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The History Of Trans-Tasman Flight

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Before the travel downturn, hundreds of flights a week crisis crossed the Tasman Sea between Australia and New Zealand. It is usually the most important international air corridor for both countries. These days, the hop across the Tasman is an easy three-hour flight. But the ability to make that easy flight is built on the work done by brave men and risk-taking businesses over the years.

The Qantas 707 operated the first jet service between Australia and New Zealand. Photo: Altair 78 via Wikimedia Commons

The history of trans Tasman flight is one of bravery, foolhardiness, some glamor, and strict commercial imperatives. Here are a few highlights.

Charles Kingsford Smith takes 14 hours to make the first crossing

The first successful flight across the Tasman occurred on September 10, 1928. Charles Kingsford Smith, Charles Ulm, navigator Harry Litchfield, and radio operator, Tom McWilliams flew a Fokker FVIIb-3m from Sydney to Wigram, just north of Christchurch on the south island.

Flying time was 14 hours. Ninety-two years later, airlines wizz between Sydney and Christchurch make the same flight in about three hours.

That Fokker was better known as the Southern Cross. That plane made the first-ever trans-Pacific flight to Australia from the mainland United States earlier in the year. In contrast, the flight across the Tasman might have seemed an easier task. But New Zealand is more than 2,000 kilometers off the Australian coastline. Crossing that was a far more formidable challenge than say, crossing the English Channel.

The Southern Cross in Brisbane in 1928. Photo: State Library of Queensland via Wikimedia Commons

Kingsford Smith and his mates were nearly beaten to the punch by a pair of New Zealanders earlier in 1928. George Hood and John Moncrieff set out from Sydney in January that year, heading for the lower north island. There were some early morning radio transmissions made, but the two men were never seen again.

Guy Menzies lied and sweet-talked his way to New Zealand

Three years later, an Australian flyer called Guy Menzies made the first solo flight between Australia and New Zealand. Flying times had improved. It took Menzies just under 12 hours to fly from Sydney to Hari Hari on New Zealand’s west coast. He flew across in an Avro Sports Avian, the same plane Charles Kingsford Smith later attempted to fly from England to Australia in.

Menzies sounds like an interesting person, although he probably wouldn’t stay employed for long at any contemporary airline. Because of the inherent risk, the authorities in 1928 were not big on letting people attempt to fly to New Zealand. Menzies got around this by telling authorities he wanted to fly to Perth, arguably almost as risky – if you crashed you’d die in the desert rather than the water. But it was an outright lie. He had no interest in flying to Perth.

And some things never change. A little flirty behavior can go a long way. The story has Menzies chatting up a girl called Ivy Clarke, who worked in the NZ Government Office in Sydney. He needed information; she had it.  Young Ms Clarke happily handed over maps of New Zealand to the 22-year-old Guy Menzies.

Guy Menzies crashed into a swamp in New Zealand after making the first-ever solo trans Tasman crossing. Photo: State Library of Queensland via Wikimedia Commons

A healthy disrespect for authority

In the early hours of January 7, 1931, Guy Menzies took to the skies over Sydney. Rather than heading west to Perth, he turned east, aiming for Blenheim on New Zealand’s west coast.

Menzies was lucky. He hit bad weather and got forced off course. Rather than landing in Blenheim, he crashed landed upside-down in the La Fontaine Swamp near Hari Hari on New Zealand’s west coast. Guy Menzies survived.

He doesn’t appear to have landed in much trouble, though. Perhaps his achievement outranked his thumbing his nose at authority. In any case, it seemed not to have made a difference. Guy Menzies went on to become a flying boat squadron leader in the Royal Air Force in WWII. He and his crew were shot down and killed over the Meditteranean in 1940.

Crazy brave men pave the way for TEAL and Qantas

Men like Charles Kingsford Smith and Guy Menzies paved the way for today’s flights.

The predecessor to the contemporary Air New Zealand, Tasman Empire Airways Limited (TEAL) began flying between Auckland and Sydney in 1940. The weekly return service was operated with  Short S30 flying boats. The frequency of services soon expanded. TEAL made 130 trans-Tasman flights that year, carrying 1461 passengers. By the end of WWII, the service had increased to three times a week. Flying time was about nine hours.

Jump forward 80 years, to the start of 2020, and Air New Zealand would operate that many flights to Sydney from Auckland on a single weekday morning. In 2020, the airline would carry as many passengers to Sydney in a day as they did across all of 1940.

An Air New Zealand DC-8 in Sydney. Photo: Wal Nelowkin via Wikimedia Commons

Qantas was established in New Zealand in 1940 because it was a party to the formation of TEAL. That’s an interesting historical footnote in its own right, given that there is no love lost these days between Qantas and Air New Zealand.

In October 1961, Qantas began operations in its own right across the Tasman jointly with TEAL, using an Electra international aircraft.

In 1965, Qantas sent a Boeing 707 V-Jet across to Christchurch. Ten thousand people turned out to watch it land. In the same year, Air New Zealand began DC8 jet aircraft services between Sydney and Auckland. Jet services across the Tasman had arrived.

At the time, a return ticket between Australia and New Zealand cost about US$125, or about $850 if adjusted for inflation. That’s at least three times as much as you’d pay for a return ticket in 2020 before the travel downturn saw flights halt.

Now defunct Freedom Air once offered low-cost options across the Tasman. Photo: Super Jumbo via Wikimedia Commons

Flying across the Tasman in the modern era

These days, in addition to Qantas and Air New Zealand plying the routes between Australia and New Zealand, Jetstar and Virgin Australia have joined the fray. There are a wide array of routes and departure points from both countries.

Some airlines have come and gone. Ansett had a brief foray into international flying before it flamed out in 2001. And does anyone remember Freedom Air?

In recent years, in addition to the local airlines crossing the Tasman, some interesting tag flights operated between Australia and New Zealand. Before the travel downturn, you could hop on a Singapore Airlines jet between Melbourne and Wellington, an Air China A350 between Brisbane and Auckland, an Emirates A380 between Sydney and Christchurch, and LATAM between Sydney and Auckland.

The skies over the Tasman are quiet this year. Only Air New Zealand is maintaining flights between Australia and New Zealand. The airline is running four services a week to Sydney and three services a week to Brisbane.

Hopefully, when the current problems run their course, the skies over the Tasman Sea will be busy with contrails again.

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