Flying with the godwit, Rupert Glover

Wings of the Nation: A History of the New Zealand National Airways Corporation, 1947-78
Peter Aimer
The Bush Press, $49.95,
ISBN 0908608861

Wings of the Nation is subtitled A History of the New Zealand National Airways Corporation, 1947-78, but it is rather more than that. Certainly the book – which appears from its 30-odd pages of footnotes at the end to have been meticulously researched from primary sources – traces in detail the history of the single most important organisation to form the attitudes of New Zealanders towards aviation. But it also places the story of NAC in the wider context of social and political times that will be readily remembered, at least by many of its middle-aged readers. It brings to life a story that could equally well have been told dryly in terms of policy and economics. Instead, it recreates some of the excitement that many New Zealanders felt in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s as new aircraft appeared in New Zealand’s skies and as more and more people came to have easy and affordable access to them. As Peter Aimer says, “for the travelling public an airline is above all else the aircraft they board and fly in”.

There was an undeniable excitement for air-minded New Zealanders in watching as Fox Moths and Dominies gave way to DC3s, Electras, Lodestars and Herons. There was a sense of pride at the airline’s coming of age with the introduction of Viscounts, followed by Fokker Friendships (whose manufacturer’s name was never announced in boarding calls) and the hugely successful Boeing 737s.

This is not to say, however, that the book is a romantic trip into nostalgia. It is a serious and thorough history, which gives a fascinating insight into the political considerations leading to the airline’s formation by a Labour Government in 1945, when it was branded “a creature of socialism” by the National Opposition. Despite ideological differences between the two parties, and despite various forays into philosophies of privatisation by the National Party, the Corporation survived changes of government and became firmly established as the often monopolistic but fundamentally sound leader of the civil aviation industry in New Zealand.

That this occurred is, according to Dr Aimer, entirely due to the intervention of Peter Fraser’s post-war Labour Government. Without the backing of the State, the civil aviation industry would probably have developed from its 1930s origins into a series of disconnected entrepreneurial ventures which would have been slower to meet the needs of a market that was growing world-wide. They would also have lacked all the coordinated forward planning (sometimes, it is true, affected by political considerations) and national policy development that actually took place because of its existence. As the author says in his introduction, “as a state monopoly, NAC fulfilled its purpose of providing air services ‘to meet the needs of the people’, guiding air transport from a condition of post-war austerity to the relative luxury of the jet age.” From the outset, NAC was essentially a state-owned enterprise. As such, it combined fragmentation with continuity and had to grapple with problems that private enterprise would simply have by-passed. A government-run airline on this scale in a country as small as New Zealand was always going to be confronted with a number of problems, the solutions to which did not always seem to be mutually compatible. The need for “long-term planning, and heavy capital investment in aircraft, maintenance facilities, buildings, and highly trained and specialised staff” made an emphasis on profitability inescapable. But that sat uneasily with the duty to provide not only main trunk but also regional services, sometimes into airports which could only take older, smaller aircraft that NAC would have liked to retire. The regions also carried with them imperatives from Members of Parliament who wanted services maintained for their own political purposes.

Perhaps one of the principal reasons for NAC’s success in the face of such contradictions was the continuity of its personnel, which in turn meant continuity and consistency in policy and practice. Over its 31-year life span, before it was compulsorily merged with Air New Zealand, NAC had only four Chairmen of the Board of Directors and only three General Managers. Some of these men held their posts during much of the Corporation’s life. Similarly, many of its key personnel in the hands-on jobs spent most or all of their working lives flying, maintaining, repairing and administering the Corporation’s aircraft and services. Dr Aimer describes it as:

a geographically dispersed, and differentiated work force, a set of sub-cultures – pilots, engineers, hostesses, aircraft tradesmen, ground staff, Head Office staff, branch staff – within a larger organisation. Despite the fragmentation, there was an overarching corporate identity of extraordinary strength and durability. Working for NAC meant something.

 

NAC, however, was not the only state-owned airline in New Zealand. In 1940 the Labour Government had taken a twenty-percent shareholding in Tasman Empire Airways Limited (TEAL). From the outset, there was an inevitable overlap between the activities of the two airlines, including the presence of Sir Leonard Isitt as Chairman of both Boards. The separation between the international and domestic operations was therefore a matter of political origin rather than rational use of resources, and it was perhaps inevitable that a merger would eventually take place. Finally, in December 1977, the Muldoon Cabinet announced that the two airlines would merge on 1 April 1978.

Thus ended a remarkable enterprise created by New Zealanders for New Zealanders, the story of which is told in this excellent and readable history. The book will appeal to aviation enthusiasts, but it will also appeal to those who have a wider interest in post-war New Zealand history. For it draws together in a microcosm many of the threads of New Zealand’s development between 1945 and 1978 in a way that casts greater light on the whole country.

 

Rupert Glover is a Christchurch lawyer with an interest in flying.

 

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Posted in Biography, History, Non-fiction and Review
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