History of seaplanes in Fiordland
Wings and Water floatplane & author of the article Alina Suchanski and George Garden , Lake Te Anau, Photo: Ivan Krippner
This is the first of a series of articles, which covers some of the previously untold stories related to Fiordland heritage. We hope it will help to preserve these memories for future generations to understand, honour and be proud of. This series is brought to you by Go2 New Zealand - a tour operator providing memorable tours around Southland, Fiordland and the rest of New Zealand.
Seaplanes, floatplanes, hydroplanes of Fiordland
Article by Alina Suchanski 7/3/2021
Whether you call them seaplanes, floatplanes, hydroplanes, aquaplanes or flying boats, they have two things in common – they can fly and float on water. Being able to both take off and land on water means that they don’t require a runway, therefore can access remote areas, as long as there is a body of water big enough for them to land on. Alina Suchanski writes about her experience in a floatplane and dives into their history.
Alina's floatplane experience
It was my Valentine’s present for my partner, George – tickets for a floatplane flight. We boarded the tiny aircraft on a perfect morning with a clear sky and no wind. Our pilot Ivan Krippner, who owns the Wings and Water business with his wife Kylie (also a pilot), told us that our 15-minute flight was the best value for money offering they had, as he manoeuvred the float plane 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. There is a track that leads to Lake Te Wai o Pani, but the remaining 12 of the Hidden Lakes are not easily accessible on foot. Flying over the Kepler Track and Jackson Peaks 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 covered the area of the entire Kepler Track, which takes most people 4 days to hike.
RNZAF PBY-5 Catalina XX-T in Wanaka, Photo: Martin Sliva
What are seaplanes and their history of development
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 the aircraft’s fuselage. Many small land aircraft may 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).
By 1911, American aviation pioneer Glenn Curtiss developed the Curtiss Model D, which was a land-plane equipped with a central float and sponsons for buoyancy.
Curtiss went on to design several versions of flying boats, which proved attractive 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” planes represented the peak of luxury transatlantic flight.
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. Sir Tim Wallace of Wanaka acquired a Catalina, which was often seen over Lake Wanaka in the 1990’s. After the war, seaplanes were decommissioned from military use, in part due to major investments in jet-powered aircraft and longer runways during the war.
Today’s modern seaplanes are primarily light amphibious aircraft equipped with floats that enable pilots to land in remote areas around the world. Rescue organizations, such as coast guards, frequently use modern seaplanes in search and rescue missions. (from https://hartzellprop.com/history-of-seaplanes/)
Wings and Water floatplane landing on Lake Te Anau, behind Mt Luxmore, Kepler Mountains, Photo: Martin Sliva
History of floatplanes and flying boats in Fiordland
Floatplanes and flying boats have been a part of the history of Fiordland 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 60’s.
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 which was 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 med-evacs.
In February 1965 RAS acquired the first Cessna 206 floatplane in New Zealand, a brand new ZK-CHQ. As well as many successful flights, Bill Black describes a sad day when he carried a heavy load of venison to Lake Gunn in the Cessna CHQ, but miscalculated the distance required for landing and ended up skidding into the trees at the end of the lake.
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 which, ZK-CFA ended up based in Te Anau, alongside another Cessna 180 floatplane ZK-BJY. (from “I did it my way” by Bill Black)
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 the NZ 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. (from http://3rdlevelnz.blogspot.com/2011/07/mount-cook-airlines-amphibian-service.html)
After the takeover Chris Willett continued to fly for Mt Cook Airlines for 15 years, however the Te Anau floatplane was making loss and the airline decided to close its operation.
Alan Remnant flying with his clients over Doubtful Sound
Photo: Martin Sliva
Waterwings Airways and foundation of Wings and Water
Mr Willett saw this as an opportunity. He was passionate about floatplanes, which by that time became 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.
In 1984 Waterwings Airways expanded into land-based aircraft with the addition of aptly registered Cessna 207 Skywagon ZK-DRY to the fleet. This enabled expansion into Queenstown and started operating on the lucrative Queenstown Milford Sound route under the name of Milford Sound Scenic Flights. A second Cessna 207 Skywagon ZK-WET was added to the fleet in 1985. The company continued increasing its fleet and at one point in time operated 14 aircraft. Owner, Chris Willett moved to Queenstown to concentrate on land-based operation. The day-to-day running of Te Anau floatplane operation was managed by a senior pilot who reported to Mr Willett.
Alan Remnant, a chef by trade, completed his basic flying training in Gore in 1985 and got a job ferrying tourists and equipment for Hollyford Tourist and Travel. He then started flying float planes in Te Anau for Waterwings. It was there his love for flying floatplanes flourished. At work his boss Chris Willett would talk about his flying experiences in New Zealand and overseas. A place he was particularly fond of was Fiji, where it’s always warm and weather conditions were a lot more stable than in Fiordland, perfect for flying floatplanes. His stories were so compelling that Alan decided to check it out for himself and soon he and his wife were packing their bags and heading to Fiji, where Mr Remnant flew for three years.
When he returned to Te Anau in 1992 he worked as a chef, but he maintained his pilot licence and did casual flying for his former employer. When the opportunity arose he purchased the business in 2001 and renamed it to 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, taking supplies to Deep Cove during the hydroelectric station building project. Later helicopters took over a lot of these jobs. Today it’s mostly the tourist side of the business,” he recounts.
Wings and Water floatplane on Mystery flight, Lake Manapouri
Photo: Martin Sliva
Wings and Water of Kylie and Ivan Krippner
In 2015 Mr Remnant sold the business to Kylie and Ivan Krippner. Kylie was a mountain guide, but when her knees started to give in, she decided to re-train as a pilot. When she got her commercial licence in 2009, Southern Alps Air offered her a job in Wanaka. She worked for them for two summers and later worked for Lyndis Pass-based Flyinn, doing guided flying tours for foreign pilots, who were not allowed to fly on their own licences.
Kylie was introduced to floatplanes when she visited a friend in Alaska.
“She was a pilot and when I visited her I got the bug. I went back four times!” she says.
Soon Kylie started her own floatplane training. Kylie met Ivan when they were working at the Wanaka Airport. Both were pilots, but while Kylie’s new passion was floatplanes, Ivan loved aerobatics.
“We were living in Wanaka and running a flying school. When in 2015 Wings and Water came up for sale we came to check it out and loved it,” Mrs Krippner relates.
"I was pregnant when we bought the business and Ivan was still working in Wanaka, so we employed a local pilot, Adam Butcher for our first season of operation," she said.
Today Wings and Water offer scenic flights of varied lengths of time and distance, from 15 and 20 minute circuits above lakes Te Anau and Manapouri, to Doubtful and Dusky Sound flights and 1 hour Mystery Flights. Other options include iconic Milford Sound scenic flights and Fly; Boat adventures combining a floatplane flight with jetboat ride. 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 Kylie Krippner Te Anau continues to offer floatplane flights to local and international tourists, and it’s the only place in the South Island of New Zealand to do so.
Covid-19 took a hard toll on the tourism operators in Fiordland.
“We are down to 40% of our normal revenue and our costs have increased, mainly compliance and insurance costs,” Mrs Krippner says. Outside of the big compliance bills the company just manages to keep afloat.
“I still believe I have the best job in the world!” she concludes.
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