Captain Euan Dickson completed the first air crossing of Cook Strait, flying a 110-hp La Rhone Avros from Christchurch to Upper Hutt, and carrying the first air mail between the North and South islands.
Dickson was flying for Henry Wigram’s Canterbury Aviation Company, and was accompanied by the Company’s deputy chairman, C. H. Hewlett, and chief mechanic, J. E. Moore. The Company wanted to survey the route from Christchurch to Wellington, identifying appropriate landing grounds and refuelling points, to prove mail and passenger services could be undertaken safely. In doing so it hoped to win government support for the establishment of commercial services and secure itself a regular income.
Dickson’s plane left Sockburn aerodrome, Christchurch, at 7 a.m. but immediately struck a strong nor’easter which depleted its fuel. He was forced to make an unscheduled landing in a paddock on the Kahautara River flats, a few km from Kaikoura, where the crew managed to secure ‘motor spirit’ and a ‘cup of tea’.
A scheduled stop in Blenheim attracted only a small crowd, as Dickson kept his movements secret. He’d learned that Auckland aviators the Walsh brothers had established a temporary aerodrome at Hutt Park racecourse, aiming to cross Cook Strait from north to south. Like Wigram’s company, the Walshes were looking for new sources of post-war income. The first Vivian Walsh and others knew of Dickson’s flight was when he flew over them en route to Trentham camp in Upper Hutt.
When the plane appeared over Wellington people had rushed into the city’s streets. Among them were parliamentarians who were just assembling for the day. By the time the group landed at Trentham at 2.10 p.m. Cabinet Minister Gordon Coates, who had ‘a very keen interest in aviation’, had sent Dickson a message of congratulations. After acknowledging this and other telegrams, the aviators lunched in the officers’ mess with the camp’s commanding officer, Captain Powles.
Their journey had taken nearly seven hours, although the total flying time was only about four hours 40 minutes. Dickson, who had served as a bomber pilot in the First World War, commented the trip was ‘more difficult’ than crossing the English Channel.
A couple of days later Dickson and Moore made the return journey – the first from north to south. They spent a few days in Blenheim, where this time a large crowd greeted them, and finally returned to Christchurch on 6 September. Dickson noted that the South Island had won a victory ‘which could not be taken away’.
A few months later, in January 1921, the government’s Air Board directed the Company to begin an airmail service from Christchurch to Ashburton and Timaru. But it failed to gain the custom it needed to make a profit and the Board closed it in April that year. The Company continued to struggle for income throughout the early 1920s. In 1923 the government purchased its land and assets as the base for its newly formed air force.
Image: Euan Dickson (left) in front of his Avro 504K aircraft after the historic flight, along with aviation administrator C. H. Hewlett (centre) and engineer J. E. Moore. (Te Ara)