Monday, January 15, 2007

Aeropelican - a classic New England airline case

Apology: My apologies to anybody whoreceived multiple feeds on this one. I ran into some editing problems.

Photo: Aeropelican Metro 23 19 passengers

In an earlier post I mentioned that Newcastle airline Aeropelican was to begin services between Inverell and Sydney, with connections also to Newcastle at the weekend.

Now I see from the Northern Daily Leader (Tamworth) that Aeropelican is thinking of establishing a service linking Tamworth, Armidale and Newcastle.

The Aeropelican story is a fascinating one that is in many ways typical of the story of civil aviation in New England, although this story is perhaps most remarkable in that Aeropelican came back.

In 1957 the late Keith Hilder operated a DH90 aircraft out of Broadmeadow aerodrome, an inner suburb of Newcastle, which was also the home of the Royal Newcastle Aero Club.

Following advice to the Club from the Australian Department of Civil Aviation that the Broadmeadow field was to close, a search began for alternative sites, with a final choice between Rutherford and Pelican.

The Club chose to go with Rutherford, but Keith decided to develop an alternative site at Pelican around 20k south of Newcastle that he hoped might be used as a base for Sydney-Newcastle air services in competition with the existing service using the RAAF base at Williamtown to the north of Newcastle.

The 27 acre site lay between the sea and Lake Macquarie, was swampy and covered with tea trees, cabbage palms and general scrub. In 1959 after a series of complicated moves Keith obtained a 25 year lease over the site and began development. The land was cleared, drains dug, and thousands of tons of chitter from the nearby mines brought in to provide fill. Soil was then added and grass planted, forming a grass strip.

While all this was in process, Keith applied for a Flying School and Air Charter Licence. After long delays, this was finally granted in July 1962. With flying training and charter operations underway, Keith turned his attention to obtaining a license to operate scheduled services between Sydney and Pelican. Again there were long delays, with a full license not being granted until June 1971.

Services began using an 8-passenger Cessna 402 aircraft. Then in April, 1976 Aeropelican introduced its first DHC-6 Twin Otter Series 100 aircraft to its fleet of Cessna 402's. However, Keith Hilder never really saw the DHC-6 in scheduled operation, as he was admitted to hospital 2 days after the arrival of the aircraft, dieing 3 June, 1976.

The Hilder family continued developing both the Flying Training School and the scheduled air service. The first DHC-6 Twin Otter aircraft proved ideally suited to the short sector high density flying demanded by the route, with a second Twin Otter purchased in 1977 and a third in 1978.

In 1980 the Hilder family decided to sell the entire Aeropelican operation to Cootamundra based Masling Airlines, then owned and operated by Jack Masling, another pioneer of regional aviation. Then in August 1981 Aeropelican was acquired by a company jointly owned by TNT and News Limited, ultimately becoming a wholly owned subsidiary of Ansett Australia.

To this point Aeropolican's history, growth followed by merger or sale, had conformed to the traditional pattern of New England's airlines. However, it was to avoid the final stage, disappearance.

Aeropelican operated in a specific market niche and Ansett maintained it as a separate identified operation. Following the collapse of Ansett, Aeropelican was placed into voluntary administration. It was then sold in April 2002 to International Air Parts Pty Ltd, allowing the company to resume its independence as a specialist niche operator between Newcastle and Sydney, although flights now go to Williamtown rather than the old pelican field.

This Newcastle-Sydney route, one that I have flown in fact landing at the Pelican strip, is one of the most visually beautiful in Australia.

Now Aeropelican is spreading its independent wings, hopefully avoiding the problems that others have experienced.

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