When I spotted that special plane during my first visit to New Zealand in 2006, I knew that I just had to take a flight on it. Thankfully, when I returned down under four years later, the 1953 built beauty was still going strong and I could finally realize my dream: A trip in a 55 year old plane, over 700 kilometers of rough open waters, to a small island in the middle of nowhere, that doesn't even have a mobile network. Sounds good? Here we go!

 

 

The Chathams are a small group of islands belonging to New Zealand, home to 650 people and some 60'000 sheep. They have their own timezone, 45 minutes ahead of the mainland - and if it wasn't for a dent in the international date line, they'd even be much further away time-wise.

Air Chathams was founded in 1982, and thanks to its strong connections with the local fishermen finally succeeded in pushing the big Air New Zealand out of the Chatham business. Fish is the biggest business on the island up to this date, and also the main good transported by Air Chathams. The small airline operates one Convair on routes to Auckland (via Napier), Wellington and Christchurch. Three more Convairs owned by the company operate either for their subsidiary Air Chathams Pacific in Samoa, or spend their lives hauling on-demand cargo on the NZ mainland. Still, the airline hasn't lost much of its small business feel: It started out as a one-man show based in the founder's garage, and even now its staff consists of only four pilots and two part-time flight attendants. One of those was also answering my reservation e-mails...:-)

 

That special feel continues all the way to the check-in: There's no dedicated desk for the airline, check-in is done at the customer service counter of Air New Zealand. Would've been nice to know that before...!

I made it in time though, and here she is waiting for me: ZK-CIB: She left the factory as nr. 96, a Convair-340, in 1953, destined for Philippine Airlines. What followed was an odyssey through Northern America and the Caribbean, serving an oil company and Republic Airways, and being converted to version -440 and -580 later. Once, CIB was almost completely destroyed by fire, but put together again under the new c/n 327A. On another day, it skidded off a snow-covered runway, causing one of the props to cut through the cabin walls and killing one passenger. But all of that wasn't enough to end the career of this iron lady: 1995 she was equipped with a 3 meter cargo door by Kelowna Flightcraft and shortly after found her way to the Chathams.

 

Gotta love those huge props!

 

The short one-hour hop from Auckland to Napier (both on the North Island) is very popular with enthusiasts for riding the only remaining scheduled Convair flights. So we ended up being three spotters from Switzerland, Germany and New Zealand bumping into eachother and fighting for the jumpseat. I was fine with a cabin seat though, since I was the only one to continue all the way to the Chathams and had enough time for cockpit visits later.

Off we go, full steam from Auckland's Rwy 05R and into the summer sky!

A last look back to New Zealand's biggest airport before we set out for the island adventure!

What I saw during the flight wasn't exactly conducive to my confidence about the 700 km run over the open sea: There was some oil leaking from the engine here, and some loose screws there. Oh wow, what am I doing here!

After little under an hour, we were in the downwind for Napier airport, visible on the right!

Tight visual approach - that's how I like it!

In Napier, there was a short break and the passengers were escorted to the terminal. Here the flight attendant could be observed filling her basket for inflight meals. Very ingenious!

Finally it was time for re-boarding!

Now my time had come - being the only remaining aviation enthusiast on board, the jumpseat was all mine!

Engine Start!

Checklist-o-meter, what a nice little invention!

Takeoff calculations for the two-hour ride to the Chathams are pretty complicated. Not only because the plane was filled to the brim with passengers and freight. But because the island's isolated location requires the pilots to carry fuel to cover two missed approaches and a return flight all the way to the mainland, amounting to a total flight time of 5 hours. Now imagine lifting all that off the short 1,3km (4'300ft) runway of Napier. That's one reason while the powerful Convairs still rule the Chatham flights and are so hard to replace...!

 

Lining up, we are ready. Firewalling the throttles and off we go!

We're already aiming for our destination, the Tuuta Airport on the Chathams (NZCI) shortly after our departure. The GPS reveals a flight time of 1h45min over the open seas.

Enough time for a look around the cockpit!

Getting farther away from the mainland, we have to switch to HF radio. Trying to reach Auckland takes a lot of patience, but finally we find a working frequency. And that's the point where the nostalgic feel was perfect: The two Allison engines humming behind me, the seemingly endless ocean below me, and the faint chatter of some far-away transpacific flights breaking the silence on the HF every now and then. What a unique experience!

Looking at the massive Center Pedestal

Even more details - don't ask me what it is exactly!

Cockpit overview on our cruising altitude of 24'000ft.

The magic reaches its climax as the barely audible voice of the Chathams base gets through to us, reports no clouds at Tuuta airport, and we head for home with full steam (look at the speed gauge)!

Finally, land in sight! In the middle of the ocean. How exciting!

Wow, quite a nice place actually!

The homebase is coming into view, Tuuta Airport featuring a single 1,3km runway.

The pilots take aim...

...and guide the heavy bird into a steep turn towards the runway.

After exactly 100 minutes we've reached the tiny apron. The terminal is straight ahead, on the right is Air Chatham's Cessna 206 for the connecting flight to neighbouring Pitt Island.

Another view of the terminal!

Well, after all, I'm not in the middle of nowhere, but at the start of it all: Thanks to their special timezone of UTC + 12:45, the Chathams are the first to welcome the new year (which helped them to some fame before the Millenium)

Unloading begins straight-away - most of it being empty fish boxes returned from the mainland. We'll see the full ones again on the outbound flight the next morning!

Finally, we let the old lady rest for the night, and I'm leaving her and the airport behind for the night

There's a single hotel on the island, as well as a small attached youth hostel, lying directly at a wonderful beach. The only other person staying there was a young fisherman who preferred to stay out fishing the whole night. I, on the other hand, opted for the easy option, got me a pack of fish and chips from the only restaurant on the island and enjoyed the evening at the beach!

Such a wonderful place, and no other human to be seen! Around me, nothing but endless ocean - 700km away to the west lies New Zealand, 7'000km to the east is South America. What a unique place this is!

 

After a good night's sleep, it's time to return to the mainland. The reason why the plane stays on the Chathams over the night and departs in the morning is once again the fish: That way, the catch of last night can be flown to the mainland first thing in the morning - even if the frequent spells of bad weather wouldn't allow for a plane to land, it can almost always depart and get the fish out.

Oh, speaking of cargo: Something must have gone wrong loading that one!

Another terminal overview - yep, the Convair's still here!

:D

Not too comfy inside, too. The woman behind the check-in desk is also our flight attendant, by the way. There are no boarding passes either - she just ticks off passengers' names from a list. Bet she knows most of her guests anyway!

The single plaque decorating the terminal is commemorating Old Blue, which is - typical for this special place - not a human, but a bird. The big title "saviour of her species" is spot on: 30 years ago, there were a mere 7 Black Robins left in their only habitat, the Chatham Islands - and only one female among them, Old Blue. With a lot of help by conservation specialists, it was possible to create a whole new population of Black Robins just from the eggs of Old Blue.

A look at the characteristic tail of the Convair, the artwork referring to the island's position in the Roaring Forties of the southern hemisphere.

Here's the catch of last night! Fish is still the main business of Air Chathams...

...and so there's little surprise it gets to ride in the cabin, too!

Taking off from Tuuta Airport - bye bye, Chathams!

Time for a Cabin Shot. The wall between the cargo and passenger compartments is easy to move, and so all configurations between full freighter (taking 6,5 tons) or full passenger (40 seats + 1 ton of cargo) can be achieved in very little time. Today, 6 rows of seats were set up.

Over the endless waters of the Pacific - and all my anxiety was in vain, the props kept humming steadily

And here we are back already, in the approach to well, not Wellington! Our destination was hidden under a thick layer of fog once again, and so, after our flight attendant briefly announced "off to Palmy then", we headed straight for Palmerston North.

Over the piano keys!

After parking in Palmy, the long wait began. It was certain that we would head on to Wellington though - we had loads of fish to deliver after all! While we were waiting for the fog to clear (and I was busy re-booking the connecting flight back to Auckland), I had the chance for some more photos of our beautiful plane.

The Triple Seven of propliners, and the huge blades would be the GE90 then!

After about an hour we got the message that the fog had cleared, and we could continue our trip to Wellington. Some additional 20 minutes in my beloved Convair, and even another visit to the flightdeck. Who says diversions are bad?

We're already in the descent to Wellington here, with two planes ahead of us (see VSI/TCAS)

Abeam downtown's CBD!

Wonderful view of Rwy 16!

Yep, definitely Wellington - the only place where the tower stands in the middle of a residential neighbourhood!

Since I had no checked bags, I attempted a sprint to my original Auckland flight, and made it in time! 20 minutes after touchdown I was in the air again, and rewarded with a superb overview of the capital's nice airport. Whew!

 

And so, this adventure comes to an end. I don't think I need to explain my fascination for this plane, this route, and this special destination any further. If you are in the region and don't mind the high fares, you should at least do the Auckland-Napier leg. While this can't be booked via Chathams' website, they let you do it via e-mail. But if you're eager for the jump, beware: There could be more than one enthusiast on board!

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